Part One: Penrith and round the back of Blencathra
The two younger children went to Spain for half term with their father, which meant I had two weekends when I was able to do long bike rides. It was just as well: having entered the Cumbrian Cracker sportive last year and then chickened out of actually turning up and doing it, this year I have entered again and persuaded (at least) two friends to do it with me. It’s 60 miles, and as we all know, the Lake District is not flat.
I’ve previously enthused about a bike ride which loops around the back of Blencathra and then comes back along the mixed-use former railway line from Keswick and the gated road back to Mungrisdale (https://runningin3time.blog/2021/03/28/return-to-the-lake-district/). Looking at another selection of routes I had – this time from Penrith, many of which I have previously written up – it looked as if there was a 50-mile route which linked the ‘back of Blencathra’ loop to a shorter (and probably flatter) loop from around about Rheged or Stainton.
Penny and I met in Stainton, parked up, both feeling a bit nervous about doing 50 miles. Would we be able to? How would we feel at the end? On the other hand I was also looking forward to revisiting the previous route and potentially stopping at the Old Sawmill Tea Room at Dodds Wood or the cafe at Threlkeld. We met quite early, just to make sure that we had plenty of time to complete the ride before it got dark. Fortunately the weather was dry – it’s been very changeable the past few weeks and the weather forecast always seems, correctly or incorrectly, to predict showers.
We cycled out along some quiet lanes, my commenting on how if/when I move to Penrith these will become part of my normal cycling routes. As we pedalled through Skelton and admired some pigs I wondered why the village name rang bells – it’s because there’s a Michelin-starred pub there, the Dog and Gun; we passed close to Greystoke Forest, where we had run earlier in the year but which will be closed to walkers and runners again at the end of this month until next April; and then down the hill to cross the river at Haltcliff Bridge before joining the other route and continuing on into Hesket Newmarket (what a great name for a place!).
We had memories of hills out of Hesket Newmarket, and in fact the first one turned out not to be as bad as we’d remembered. However as we dropped down the other side we could see a longer hill ahead: and a tractor halfway up it, hedge cutting! We made it up the hill and past the tractor, breathing sighs of relief that we hadn’t got punctures whilst on the way up (and so far from home – though obviously we carry puncture kits, spare inner tubes, etc.).
Before long we were out on Caldbeck Fell with the wind against us: to be honest it was probably the hardest and most miserable part of the ride, and whilst I love the openness of the countryside and quite often choose to drive home from (e.g.) Keswick that way, today being exposed to the wind was no fun. It seemed an awful lot further to the turn-off towards Over Water than I’d remembered. With relief we turned in an easterly direction and started to drop downhill and out of the wind a bit. As we dropped down the sun was out on part of the hills around us, but by the time we’d thought perhaps we’d stop for a photo, the clouds had come hidden the sunlight again. We tend not to stop so much when cycling anyway: it’s too much of a palaver for me to get my small backpack undone, get the phone out, and get packed up again and lose the momentum of cycling, but it does mean I’ve missed some potentially decent photos. I thought, not for the first time, that I’d quite like a headcam.
We went the correct way, to the east of Over Water, today – for some reason we’d gone to the west and then ended up going down a very steep hill into Bassenthwaite, previously. This took us along a beautiful tree-lined road next to the river – you can see from my face how much I was enjoying cycling along there. It was then a case of cycling through the village, devoid of people on this chilly grey day, along some more lanes and past where the new water pipeline has been installed, then up on to the A591 to get to the Old Sawmill Tearoom – where we sat inside, near the log burner, for our soup and hot drinks, as we were feeling chilly. This is a great place for a break as there are clean toilets and good food, plus bike racks to tie your bikes to if you have a lock.
It’s not far from there to Keswick, and I won’t repeat my enthusiasm for the multi-use track and the gated road: they were just as enjoyable today as they were the last time I did them, and I’m sure I’ll be doing them again.
At Mungrisdale we took a road neither of us had ever been on before, which gradually led uphill towards Berrier. The views were stunning over towards the Lake District. There was then a descent to Greystoke: I know there’s a very popular cycle cafe here, but I’ve never been in it: today it was too close to the end of our ride (note to self to look up another route which takes in Greystoke as the halfway point). We were both flagging a bit by now but the weather remained dry – I seem to remember the sun had even begun to come out – and we passed through Newbiggin and back to Stainton without incident. I nipped to Cranstons in Penrith for cake (unfortunately Cafe Oswald had just closed) and Penny managed to get to Specsavers in time to get something fixed on her glasses, before joining me for cake in the car and a high five for making it.
Part two: Border Reivers
Feeling confident now about doing 50 miles, and with the children still away, I suggested two more rides to Penny: one shorter and hillier one around Alston and Nenthead, and the other the so-called Border Reivers cycle trail, which was a leaflet I’d picked up several years ago, and which from Brampton would result in about a 50-mile cycle. We opted for that one. Notably we only saw one sign for the route whilst we were cycling it: I think it’s got mainly forgotten.
It’s a great pity as this wild and enormously historic countryside, some of which forms part of the Debatable Lands, provides a haunting cycle ride. There are very few cars and not many houses; and fewer cafes than further into the centre of Cumbria. You’re right up near the Scottish border, north of ‘The’ Wall (Hadrian’s Wall) and you know that plenty of blood has been shed up here.
I’ve cycled many of these roads previously, and did most of the Border Reivers route myself a few years ago, in the opposite direction to the one we took today; some of it also forms part of the Cross Border Sportive routes. Lanercost, Askerton and Bewcastle are all familiar to anyone who reads this blog: the route booklet has anecdotes about the various reiving families, a phase of history which is little known outside this area and which would take too much room to recount here. Needless to say there is still a slight sense of danger in being so far removed from ‘civilisation’, and I have ambitions to cycle even further north and take in the windswept fell between Langholm and Newcastleton, and to cycle past Hermitage Castle.
Appropriately enough for the surroundings, it was raining. It rained all day, with little let-up, so even by the time we got to Bewcastle we were soaking. However it’s too tempting to take a photo not to stop by the sign which states ‘Rome 1141’, so we paused, took wet gloves off and tried to get photos without too much water on the lenses before setting off again. One day I think I might try to cycle from Bewcastle to Rome…….
I have to admit my memory of the route, although accurate in terms of which direction we needed to go in, was optimistically misinformed about how far it was between each memorable point. I guess that’s always the way though: you keep visual pictures in your mind of key features and your brain doesn’t bother with the bits of lane which look just like the previous mile or so of lane. Before long we had turned down from Penton, through KirkAndrews Moat (I wonder why it was called Moat?), which in my opinion is one of the least attractive-looking places around here, and then down past some abnormally green fields near Netherby. Having been to a talk about ‘The Importance of Soil’ on Thursday night, and with Penny’s knowledge of ecology, we were discussing how artificial the grass looked, and also how compacted the ground was, meaning that water wasn’t percolating through but just sitting on the top. It’s not the first time we’ve seen lurid green grass.
By the time we got to Longtown we were keen to stop for something to eat and drink. As the rain came down ever more hard, we slogged our way out of Longtown on the A6071 rather than taking a scenic detour through Arthuret and Sandysike, and went into the cafe in Whitesykes garden centre and dripped all over their chairs (I sat on two paper napkins to try to alleviate some of it). This is another great place to stop, with home made soup, generously filled toasties, and good coffee. It’s family-run, which just adds a bit more of a personal touch to it than being part of a big chain: I hadn’t been in for ages but the manageress still remembered me and asked after my parents.
From there we passed through Kirklinton and Smithfield before having a gentle but fairly long climb up to Hethersgill, where we went straight across until we crossed over Walton Moss before coming out in Walton itself and then cycling down to Lanercost. Again, there’s a tea room I haven’t been to in Walton, and a tea room which is good at Lanercost: but today we just wanted to get back and get dry. I remembered the last time I’d cycled up the hill at Lanercost and overtaken a cyclist who’d come from Newcastle along the Hadrian’s Wall bike trail: I hadn’t done as far as him today, but it was another long ride and I got home feeling happier again about doing 60 miles in a couple of weeks’ time.
I was drenched through, but my first thought was that I wanted to go out cycling again on Sunday. As it turned out I didn’t, but I carefully cleaned the mud and grit off my bike, including cleaning and re-oiling the chain. I hope my bike and I will have many more miles together, wherever I end up living. Meanwhile my two younger children were back from Spain and I went off down to Penrith to have dinner with them: hooray!
Now, about that Rome trip…