South of Penrith

After Penny and I had run up High Cup Nick last autumn, I drove back up the rural roads towards Penrith, thinking that I’d like to cycle up that way some time; that possibly those roads could be part of my ’round Cumbria’s edges’ route.

As Penny’s leg is still bothering her, rather than suggesting going running I instead suggested cycling. On Friday I dropped Bella at David’s and drove on to Penny’s house a few miles south of Penrith, bike in the boot. We didn’t have time to do one of the loops from my Ordnance Survey book so this wasn’t going to be my chance to cycle up the Eden valley: yet.

We left Penny’s village and cycled south, the M6, A6 and West Coast mainline railway all parallel to us, like stripes travelling south. Shap is one of those places which I’ve heard about since I was a child, due to Shap Summit being the highest place on that line. When my entire family travelled by train to Edinburgh when I was 7, to celebrate my uncle’s wedding, the height of the railway line was impressed upon me and in fact we even had a ‘double header’ – two engines pulling our train.

However Shap itself is something of a disappointment. When you drive through it it seems just to be a rather dull example of ribbon development, stretching along the A6 towards the quarry at one end of the village not far from a motorway junction. However today we cycled into Shap from the east and I noticed that there are some lovely houses as you come down the hill into the village.

Just south of Shap we turned westwards on ‘the concrete road’ (some people describe this as a military road, but it’s not – it was built for the construction of Haweswater dam back in the 1930s). When Penny and I had run from Shap Abbey up to Burnbanks we’d come back along most of this road; today we cycled it from end to end, and I have to say it was great. There were hardly any cars and the scenery is great, with open rolling fellside either side of a gently curving open road.

At Burnbanks we turned to go down the eastern side of Haweswater, almost to the end of the reservoir, talking about when we’d run round the lake and what a pity it is that there isn’t a footpath around the entire perimeter. The road, as I realised when we turned to go back towards Burnbanks again, is pleasantly deceptive – it undulates gently such that you hardly notice.

When we got back to Burnbanks we turned up the Lowther valley, through Bampton to Helton and then into Askham. I knew there was a hill up through Lowther Castle parkland, but in fact this also proved not to be too hard. What did strike me was how pretentious Lowther Castle is: even as a ruin. Of course it was built for Lord Lonsdale or whatever his title was at the time to say ‘look at me and how much money I’ve got’, and its gothic style (it was built in the early 1800s) emphasises this. Apparently it was only called a ‘castle’ after this: the earlier, smaller, building was called Lowther Hall.

When we got back to Penny’s house and my car we had done 30 miles, and it was time for me to fetch Edward from David’s; but knowing that I might need to bring Edward back down on Sunday, I suggested we could maybe cycle again then if Penny wasn’t having to do things with her husband (over Easter they built a very impressive and professional-looking path in their back garden).

The opportunity arose to do a loop in the Eden valley which included the road I’d driven up that day after High Cup Nick. Although it was cold – we could see snow on some of the fells – it was sunny, and we optimistically met at Langwathby, to the east of Penrith. The road south towards Culgaith was great – there were lovely views of the Lakeland Fells and the Pennines and even as far south as Ingleborough and the Howgills. We passed Acorn Bank (National Trust) and carried on to Newbiggin (pretty) and Kirkby Thore (not pretty, but with an interesting concrete works nearby) before turning into Long Marton and then towards Dufton.

We debated whether to go into Dufton – we’d thought of starting the ride there, but it’s a lot further from Penrith – but instead headed straight back up the valley towards Knock: Penny’s maiden name was Knock so she stopped to take a photo to send to her brother. By now we were heading into a chilly northerly wind which we hadn’t noticed, as it was behind us, on the way out – and there were rather worrying rain clouds ahead of us, which we knew were likely to be coming in our direction.

There are some lovely villages up this valley: one of my favourites is Milburn, where houses gaze over the large rectangular village green and the road just quietly cuts through one of the short sides. By now we were beginning to feel quite a bit colder, the dark grey rain clouds were coming ever closer, and we were wondering whether to cut the ride short for a variety of other reasons as well. We were hoping to get to Melmerby to the Vilage Bakery, which I had checked was open for take away, but the prospect of too much longer on our bikes was losing its appeal. At the next village a sign said ‘Langwathby 3 miles’ and I suggested we just turn down that way. I was glad we did as about a mile before Langwathby, when we were on an exposed bit of hilltop road, the heavens opened and it started to hail. By the time we got back to the cars it was hailing quite heavily. We’d cycled 25 miles, so whilst we’d cut the planned route a bit short we’d still done a decent bike ride – and we can do the ‘top’ part of the loop another time: in fact it’s on a ‘bike rides around Penrith’ leaflet and ties in nicely with the ride I did from home down to Kirkoswald and Lazonby and back. Everywhere is linked somehow in the end…

We popped up in the cars to the bakery, where Penny bought a flapjack for her husband. As we left they began to close: so again we’d been just in time. As I drove back up the motorway towards Carlisle the sun came out again, and I was reminded of when a friend did the coast to coast and told me afterwards that he’d had every single type of weather just crossing Cumbria. At least today I was wearing several layers of clothing, having got too cold on the past couple of bike rides. Spring will surely get warmer soon…

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