Cycling in Cumbria

I have, basically, cycled around the whole of Cumbria now – over a period of time (several years, to be honest). However of course whichever road you take there are always alternatives, and there is still plenty of this enormous and varied county to explore.

I’m one of those people who collects leaflets and pages from magazines. I had a collection of ‘interesting-places-to-visit-at-some-point’ (I like to think of it as my tourist information point) which I gave to a woman and her husband having met them in the woods nearby while I was out running one day. I should perhaps add that I wasn’t carrying the leaflets with me – she mentioned that she volunteered in a local charity shop, so I dropped them off there.

That left leaflets and magazine pages about runs and cycle rides. These are mostly left in a neat(ish) pile along with the relevant maps, partly as I’m going to turn them into a book one day (!) and partly as I want to try out some of those alternative routes which I haven’t yet done. They’re not all in Cumbria: I really want to explore more of southern Scotland, which lies just to the north of the Solway Firth (and which has sandy beaches rather than muddy marshland) and also Northumberland – which is, of course, another huge county.

Alston is allegedly the highest town in England, and sits close to the Northumberland/ Cumbrian border. It’s about 18 or 19 miles from Brampton, where I live, along a wiggly but interesting road (you even pass the remains of a Roman fort). As the ride I’d decided to do was about 20 miles and hilly, I thought I’d drive to Alston and park in the middle – especially as by the time I’d decided which route I wanted to do it was getting into mid-afternoon. Alston has a reputation for being a bit weird and the home to lots of hippy-types who moved there in the 1960s and never moved away again. I’m not a hippy type, but I do like Alston, but other than a steam railway it suffers from a lack of public transport (I’m sure there’s a bus service, but like so many rural places I would think that you’re basically reliant on having a car and being able to drive).

The start of the bike ride took me downhill out of Alston and then out along a minor road going in a southerly direction towards Garigill (or Garrigill). I was cycling more or less alongside the river South Tyne, which starts up in the Fells to the south of Alston, and passed or crossed several burns or becks which also come down off the fellside into the south Tyne – including one called Dry Burn, which was as its name describes.

The road drops downhill into Garigill and the river valley, and the routemap showed that I should now turn to the south towards Ashgill to go around Flinty Fell. However I decided not to but to follow the Coast to Coast cycle waymarks. This took me up a very steep hill out of Garigill to climb up to a crossroads with the B6277. The lovely weather (sunny, with a bit of a breeze) had brought the boy racers out and three small sporty cars zoomed past before I could get across the road.

It then continues to climb up Nunnery Hill between Middle Fell and Flinty Fell, albeit more gently. The wide open landscape is absolutely stunning and I stopped to get a panoramic photo and to soak up the views. No long after that a male cyclist overtook me, commenting that the hill seemed to go on for ever. I kept him in my sights for a bit (but not long – he was going a lot faster then I), until I stopped again, this time to look at my map.

There then followed an incredibly steep downhill into Nenthead. I was extremely glad to be on my Cannondale Synapse, which has disc brakes and where my feet are not clipped into my pedals!

You’re in real ex-mining country by now: I didn’t pass any mines but nearby Nenthead mines are open to the public a few times a year, and Killhope Mine (County Durham) is not far away.

Today I cycled back along the A689 to drop back down into Alston. A man was singing and playing the guitar outside the pub with a small audience of people enjoying a drink in the late afternoon sun. It was tempting to join them, but I don’t have the confidence to walk up to a group of people out of the blue and introduce myself, so instead I headed home after soaking up the atmosphere for a bit and taking some photos.

The following weekend I decided I’d go out on a slightly flatter ride, and opted to do the one I’d done over the Solway plain but in the opposite direction. It was sunny again, but what I hadn’t factored in was the wind, which was coming from the south/south-west. For most of the ride I was heading straight into the wind, so despite the lack of incline, it was still more effort than it might have been! Never mind – it was worth seeing the Lake District fells from a different angle, and when I arrived at my parking place the tide was in, making the Solway look blue and attractive as it glistened in the sunlight.

I find it hard to believe sometimes that I once thought living in London was the be-all and end-all and that I couldn’t bear to live anywhere else. The countryside is definitely not boring (and I have more friends than ever, I think), and whether you live in a village, town or city it seems that if you want to try out new cycle routes and new runs you often have to drive to get there, unfortunately. At least there are plenty of routes I can do from home as well: ones I rarely write about in this blog as I do them so often, but in between blogpost adventures I am out running around the Tarn, and Gelt Woods, and up on the Ridge. I’ll end with some photos from a springtime but slightly damp run in and around Gelt Woods yesterday.

Not swimming Snowdon

As the weather got chillier and greyer, swimming Snowdon was beginning to lose its appeal. Whilst I’ve walked up a little bit of a hill in a wetsuit before (between Styhead Tarn and Sprinkling Tarn – see post of 23rd May), I didn’t really fancy walking all the way up Snowdon and down the other side in a wetsuit. I’d been hoping that September/early October weather and water temperature would be warm; but it didn’t look very likely. Then, unfortunately, Penny’s bad back flared up, making sitting in a car almost impossible for her, and injured Tim fell out of bed so she felt she couldn’t leave him for the entire weekend anyway.

With Coniston 14km trail race coming up next weekend (only 2 left to go after that, to complete the series) and a 60 mile bike ride at the end of November, it was quite good to have the opportunity to relax and get some long runs/bike rides in. Plans for the weekend fluctuated and it wasn’t until Saturday morning, after coffee and a read in bed, that I decided that I’d go for a bike ride. It took eating breakfast to decide which bike ride to do: would I go up to Alston and Nenthead (hilly but interesting) or should I opt for a route out of the Ordnance Survey Cycle Tours – Cumbria and the Lakes book? In the end, feeling a bit lazy, I chose to do a route from the latter which was going to overlap day 2 of the cycling around Cumbria ‘project’. It looked flat; it would take me along that magical coast line which seems so different from the rest of Cumbria; and it was 30 miles.

I stopped at Burgh by Sands and used a revolting portaloo in the car park before realising that I didn’t need to start the ride there, but a few miles further along, nearer to Port Carlisle. It meant I didn’t cycle across the long straight road which crosses the marshes, with flood warning signs at frequent intervals and humps which roads to higher ground lead off. Instead I stopped in a parking bay at a corner where the road drops down towards the Solway, and started cycling, passing through Port Carlisle – a strange linear place with a handful of attractive Victorian (?) houses but not much more. Apparently it was originally named Fisher’s Cross but was renamed when the canal was built which linked Carlisle to the Solway.

Going through Bowness on Solway I noticed flags with suns on and signs about art open days. People were ambling up the main road – I had to make ‘ding ding’ noises so they noticed me – and then I saw two people I knew. I smiled and called out: but then felt guilty for not stopping to say hello properly and to have a chat. The Garrison bistro looks promising: I must go back there sometime.

I remembered from cycling this way before that we’d had to stop to open gates at the nature reserve: now there are brand new cattlegrids which mean you don’t have to stop. From now on the radio masts at Cardurnock/Anthorn made a clear landmark for nearly all the rest of the ride, the bends in the coast and the road making it appear sometimes closer than it would have been if I’d needed to cycle there.

There were also what looked like brick look out posts; two at least now being used to store hay bales, which struck me as eminently sensible. They presumably date from the 2nd world war: there were air fields and military bases all round the area. If anyone is interested in finding out more, it looks as if the Solway Firth Partnership promotes various trails: https://www.solwaymilitarytrail.co.uk/trails/

The amazing thing around this entire area is that although there are plenty of ugly modern buildings, and old buildings left to go to rack and ruin, there are also some beautiful ones. As you cycle into Anthorn you pass some attractive old buildings, before going past a particularly ugly more modern housing estate. As you turn off the road to go down to Kirkbride, a particularly dilapidated signpost rather sadly gives out your options: but Kirkbride is lovely and the signpost is presumably just waiting to be budgeted for in the right financial year. Around Kirkbride Penny and I had previously been overtaken by a group of fast (young, male) road cyclists; today I kept coming across groups in blue going in the other direction, and I wondered if there was some sort of event on.

At this point I was about halfway through my ride, and it struck me how liberating cycling is. I always love being out on my bike and feel as if I could cycle for ever: but then as I get back towards the end I look forward to finishing and to getting home. I sometimes have the same feeling whilst running, though as running is generally harder work the end can be more of a relief: though the great thing about feeling quite fit is that you get to the end and wonder if you could have gone further.

What this signpost highlights is how the roads around here can only be a mile or two away from sending you back to where you started from: it’s actually quite a small area geographically, but there are plenty of roads linking the villages to each other. So much so that I had to check the map quite often, and then the time I didn’t check the map I ended up missing out Wigton: no bad thing as it frequently smells and, being on one of the A59-somethings, it wasn’t really a great loss. Having said that, the John Peel theatre is great and I believe there are also several good restaurants in the town, plus it also has a station: https://wigtontheatre.org/. I found I was spending quite a lot of the ride checking out nice houses and wondering if I could live in any of them: but one of my criteria for wherever I move to is that I should be near a station.

Having turned left instead of right at Lessonhall I crossed what seemed like quite a main road (it wasn’t – but it was straight) and past a farm where a wedding was taking place: the sun seemed to be about to come out just as they were taking photos. Having read that the route was flat, I was then surprised to find that I plunged down a small hill, and then another: I had obviously cycled up a very gradual gradient without realising it, which made sense as I was no longer on land that looked marshy and as if it might flood. Not, that is, until I passed Wampool where there were some slightly alarming signs about the road being liable to flooding, ‘turn here’. I cycled along wondering if I might have to turn back at any point, but fortunately the ground is still quite dry at the moment and the worst I had to cycle through was dried cowpats. The river Wampool and the river Waver, both of which I’d cycled alongside, empty out into the Solway Firth and the land is criss-crossed by drains and marshes.

Signs pointed back towards Bowness on Solway and an ice cream van I’d seen earlier in the afternoon passed me at the junction: but I turned towards Glasson, seeing Bowness on a distant rise. Past Glasson as I turned back onto the coast road to get back to the car, I noticed the tide had come in and panicked briefly that I would find my car under water. Fortunately high tide at the moment didn’t mean ‘ridiculously high tide’ and I got back with enough grass to walk across to take a photo of the River Eden outflow/the Solway. As I got back in my car from taking photos, some more cyclists in blue passed me and I realised it was the last of the groups I’d seen before.

Driving back to Carlisle I went past some more groups in blue, and then having been to Sainsburys passed them again. They had ‘AAK’ (I think it was) on their shirts and something about being in aid of the blind; so I assume it’s a company doing a charity ride. I wish I’d stopped to ask them: I wonder if they’re doing the entire Hadrian’s Wall cycle route. I hope they enjoy it and raise plenty of funds. I had done 52km.

Movement Meditation (thank you Hannah)

Since my head cold and the 18km trail race, I must admit to having been feeling a bit sluggish. Somehow I just didn’t have my usual energy levels. I wasn’t sure whether it was the aftermath of the cold and the race combined or just a phase in the ups and downs of life. As the next race is at the beginning of June, however, and is a half marathon, I was conscious of not having much time to increase the distance I was running, and the couple of short runs I got in during the working week felt hard.

On Friday 14th May, Hannah – whom I know from work – and I had arranged to meet up, and possibly go for a swim in Broomlee Lough. We were both excited – she’s been more or less shielding for most of the pandemic, but had also joined the Ladies of the Lakes Whatsapp group and bought herself a wetsuit – and I was just looking forward to meeting up with a friend and also potentially swimming in Broomlee Lough again.

With the weather we’d had I wasn’t sure how warm it would be, but thought that perhaps as it’s relatively shallow it wouldn’t have got too much colder since the group of us had last swum there. The weather that morning was a little dull and we were messaging each other about whether to take wetsuits or not – I decided I would take mine in the car, and the nearer I got to Housesteads the more I felt that it would be worth going swimming anyway, even if it wasn’t for long.

When we arrived we found out from the member of National Trust staff at the gate that in fact we need not have booked tickets. A public footpath leads straight across the site, so as long as you don’t want to visit the ruins of the fort then you’re allowed to cross the larger site. It makes for a shorter walk than from the layby on the road, although you do then have to cross the boggiest part of the field. I had wellies on but Hannah hadn’t managed to find hers, nor her walking boots – her (fortunately old) trainers were excessively muddy by the time we’d walked up and back.

There’s something very special about swimming in lakes and tarns anyway, and I feel it even more so up at Broomlee Lough, where the Romans swam. We discussed how they’d have felt swimming north of the wall ‘outside the Empire’ and decided that perhaps it was confirmation that it was more of a boundary marker and trading post than a constantly-fought-over frontier. And in fact, thinking that it stood for about 300 years or more, there must surely have been times when the frontier was quite stable and peaceful?

Hannah absolutely loved swimming in the lough, comparing it favourably even to Lake Garda: partly as it’s so much quieter and more remote. I got a few photos and a video of her but I’m not going to post them here as they’re not the most flattering of her. But the big joyful smile on her face was like the sun, and a photo can’t in any case accurately show how someone feels on top of the world and pleased with her achievement: it was as if she had won the Olympics. We spoke about ‘movement meditation’, or mindfulness, and how the physical, emotional and mental sides of us are interconnected.

The National Trust has changed the shop and ticket office at the entrance to the larger site into a cafe and we stopped there for ice cream on the way out, and to admire how tame the birds were. A chaffinch was hopping about, and then a bright yellow bird which looked almost tropical. Penny knew what it was when I showed her the photo – a siskin. Now I know why the cafe at Whinlatter is called Siskins.

Later that day Penny and I went for a cycle ride from Walton, round in a 25 mile loop. The sun by now had come out and whilst we’d hoped to be able to do the Border Reivers 40 mile route, Penny’s husband had said he’d be coming past to fetch her at about 5.30pm, so we had to do a shorter version. As it turned out we got back to my house about 5 or 10 minutes before Tim turned up, in time to have a quick cup of tea.

It had been a brilliant day: I’d been outside almost all day, met up with two fab. friends, and done two of my favourite things, swimming and cycling. That evening as I did my singing practice I contemplated that I was feeling more energetic than I had for a couple of weeks. As I ran on Sunday, although it was a fairly long run (17km), I felt ‘normal’ again: and my cold seemed to have gone. I’d got my Mojo back.

Thank you my friends.

Wetter and wetter…

Our spell of weather which was growing warmer and sunnier unfortunately came to an end. Having not had many April showers, as May popped its head over the horizon the rain came too.

Penny and I arranged to go for a bike ride on the bank holiday Monday at the beginning of May. We agreed we’d finish the ride we’d cut short previously, aiming to do a 20 mile loop from Langwathby up through Melmerby and back through Kirkoswald (one of my favourite Cumbrian villages) and Lazonby. This loop also meant that in terms of cycling around the edge of Cumbria, I would have completed the circuit up the Eden valley from Kirby Stephen northwards; and in fact in terms of the overall route the only section(s) now missing are from Grange over Sands to Kirby Stephen.

However the weather was not kind to us. We met on a grey chilly day at Langwathby station and cycled north towards Little Salkeld, although we turned to the east before we got into the village: on a nice day and further on into a ride it would be a good place to stop as there are the standing stones of Long Meg and her daughters to see, a working flour mill, and Lacey’s caves down by the river.

We cycled east to Ousby where we picked up the route we’d turned off from before, going almost due north to Melmerby and then Gamblesby. So many of the villages are attractive in the Eden valley, but this was not a day for stopping, so we just admired them as we pedalled through, chatting as we went – Penny’s father in law had recently died and Penny and Tim had been to the funeral on the Friday, so there was a lot to talk about. Fortunately it was relatively easy cycling, without any major hills, so it was quite easy to chat.

At a five-way junction near Busk we turned to the west again, along a lovely undulating road which then plummeted down into Kirkoswald (or KO as many local people call it). We came out at the bottom of the hill which leads down through the village. When driving through the village from the other direction I’d often wondered where the road we came down led; now I knew; looking at the map apparently we’d come past the remains of the castle as well (next time I’ll have to remember not to enjoy the speed so much, and try to take some notice).

It was then a straightforward ride on the ‘main’ B road back through Lazonby and down to Langwathby – but the wind was against us, the rain was coming straight at us, and the 4 miles south felt further and a bit of a drag. We got back to the cars drenched and chilled.

On the way home I stopped at the motorway services to use the toilets – I literally had to peel my clothes off as they were stuck to me, they were so wet; and my car seat was also drenched with the rain water oozing out of my garments. Even with the car heater on full blast I was chilly – when I got home I got straight into a nice deep, warm, bath.

I then went down with a head cold on the Tuesday and Wednesday (I blame Edward and school), which was annoying as I’d been hoping to get some extra running mileage in with the first of the Lakeland trails races at the weekend: however I figured that a couple of days’ rest wouldn’t hurt, and might mean the cold disappeared that much more quickly. I had forgotten what having a cold was like: my brain was like cotton wool and the pile of tissues in the waste paper basket was growing higher and higher.

I’d love to be able to say that Saturday dawned bright and sunny, ready for the run – but it didn’t. I layered up, took spare clothes and shoes, and headed down the motorway to Staveley, near Windermere. I could feel the car slipping a bit on the grass of the field being used for parking, and hoped that I wasn’t going to get stuck – a few years ago I got stuck after the Ullswater trail race and it was a real effort to get the car out. At least there were plenty of parking attendants around, so presumably they’d be able to call a tractor if people started getting stuck.

Hanging around at the start line was quiet and a little strange compared with previous races. We were being started in groups of up to 6 each minute, and for some start times there were no runners. My 1.30 slot however was fully booked, with me and 5 men lining up ready for the off. We’d been asked to arrive only 15 minutes before the start, so hadn’t been waiting long but were already getting wet: though not as wet or cold as the poor marshalls, many of whom would have been standing around for hours.

The route was on bluebell-lined tarmac out of the village for quite a way before turning off to head over the fell. A stony track went downhill before some more hard surface, and even running through the yard of a factory of some sort. Most of the middle part of the race is a bit of a blur, partly as I had no idea how far I’d come or had to go. There was a longish section on top of another fell though, with a lot of mud and water across the path: in places huge muddy puddles covered a wide area and it was difficult to know whether just to run straight through or to go round the edges.

Finally we started crossing fields, at each stone wall having to clamber over a stone stile, before heading up the last hill for ‘the sting in the tail’. I must admit I quite enjoyed that last grassy wiggly hill – it wasn’t as bad as I had expected and I knew there was a downhill section coming up afterwards. The photographer was waiting there: I haven’t yet dared to look at my photo as I dread to think what my hair looked like, I was so wet.

On the enjoyable long downhill section I overtook a couple of people, which was gratifying, and then there was a run along the road to get back to the recreation ground and the finish. I managed a bit of extra effort to get over the line but not having run 18km for a while I also felt a little bit tired for the rest of the day.

At the finish there weren’t crowds milling around; the whole atmosphere was, like at the start, somewhat muted compared to previous years’ trail races. It was more like doing a triathlon than a normal running race – you’re far more spread out in a triathlon normally due to different swim waves/start times, and before too long the competitors are strung out along the course. One of the features of the Lakeland trails, and other trail races, has been the camaraderie: however the marshalls were all friendly and out on the course whenever people passed each other they’d say hello. It may have been a slightly lonelier experience than before, but it was extremely well-managed and Covid-safe: and at the end of the day great to be able to race again.

According to the stats I completed the course in 2 hours and 7 mins. They’ve put me in the FV50 category whereas I thought I was due to be in FV60 this year; but it doesn’t really matter. It looked as if the fastest female in my race was in the FV70 category, so it goes to show that age doesn’t necessarily affect your running ability!

Now to get in some extra miles so I’m ready for the half marathon in a few weeks’ time… but meanwhile I cooked lunch for some friends on the Sunday. The weather stayed dry – otherwise the lunch would have become a take-away – and we enjoyed a cold cucumber soup, followed by roast lamb with pomegranate, two salads, and then Ruins of a Russian Count’s Castle. I think this could become ‘a Thing’.

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…

Lockdown one year on

The first UK lockdown started on 23rd March 2020. Approximately a year later, we are just relaxing the rules a little bit from our third lockdown. Spring is burgeoning all around us and there’s a tangible sense of freedom. Even so, radio announcements warn us not to forget that Covid is still present – and of course it’s in fact on the increase now in the younger age groups, the ones who haven’t been vaccinated. I get my first vaccination tomorrow.

Having been interviewed about moving to the country from the city, because something like 300,000 people have moved out of London since the first lockdown (with a population of over 9.3m in greater London it’s not exactly a large proportion, though notable), I woke up this morning wondering about exercise. Last summer the Government pledged more money for bike routes, and people who have bikes which need serious repair (as opposed to just servicing) can get a £50 voucher towards their restoration. I wondered how many people started doing more exercise this time last year – but also how many people have kept it up.

I’m doing tons more exercise than I was last year, and prior to working from home one of my frustrations about a long commute to work was trying to fit in as much exercise as I’d like – also I found 4 hours on the train a day quite tiring for some reason (going for a run as soon as I got home would probably have done me the world of good, but I wasn’t that motivated at 7p.m. on a dark, cold and often wet winter’s night). When I was at work I was in the middle of a city with no trails nearby – if I wanted to run at lunchtime I had to run on the pavement (the office did have a shower, so I think in 2 years of being based there I maybe did 3 runs).

I have loved the fact that over the past year I’ve clocked up around 100km a month – quite a bit more some months – running most days of the week; and I have also increased my cycling mileage.

However for me this is something that has been an incredibly important part of my life since I was in my early 30s, so I have relished having the opportunity to get fitter again; and with my ‘6 at 60’ challenges this year I’ve now entered the entire Lakeland Trails series – 9 runs – and also just entered a triathlon. But what about those people who started to get fitter last spring and summer, perhaps feeling that rush of excitement from starting something new, including buying some colourful lycra? Are they still persevering with it? I have to admit at times recently my motivation has waned when there’s still hardly anyone to go running with – I feel a bit of a pariah when, even when we’re allowed to meet up with one other person to exercise, people still think up reasons not to meet up; and there are times when you’re out running and you say ‘hello’ to someone you pass and they look at you as if you’re carrying the plague (let’s face it, I don’t think I would be capable of running if I had Covid – I would guess even the symptomless one must surely affect carrying out demanding exercise like running (especially the hills around here…)).

So – are you one of those people who dusted down and oiled their bike; who dug their running shoes out of the back of the wardrobe? And what are you doing now? Have you gone from strength to strength or did it just get too difficult to remain motivated over the dark winter months? Please let me know!

Cycling round Appleby

I have an Ordnance Survey book with bike routes in Cumbria in, and looking through it I thought that perhaps one day when I was taking the kids down to Penrith I could then go a bit further and meet up with Penny for a bike ride.

We met at Dufton, where we’d previously met to run up High Cup Nick. It’s a lovely village in the Eden Valley and has a small car park and public toilets (always useful to know…). The cycling route took us along a small road in a southerly direction at the foot of the hills, and through the Warcop MOD training area. At this point an Army helicopter was circling overhead, and we met some Army officers who asked if we’d seen anyone… there was obviously some sort of exercise going on, and being followed quite closely by the helicopter was amusing if not a little unnerving.

We crossed the A66 without mishap (not a good road for cyclists) into Warcop village and then into Great Musgrave. Rather than turning to go to Brough – which would have meant then cycling down another busy road, the A685 – we cut straight down to Kirkby Stephen, where we turned inland to Soulby. I was quite excited at this point as I saw a signpost indicating Crosby Garrett – where the Crosby Garrett Roman helmet was discovered a few years ago, an amazing Roman artefact.

Undulating roads then took us back to Appleby, with a intriguing brown sign indicating Rutter Waterfall – somewhere to discover another time… We bowled downhill into Appleby, past the Castle (worth a visit when it’s open – once owned by Lady Anne Clifford) and down the main street, a lovely old street which slopes downhill itself. A butcher’s was still (just) open and we stopped for a quick coffee before cycling uphill back to Dufton.

The great thing about this ride was that it opened up a whole host of possibilities for other rides in that area, as it’s not far from Penny and Tim’s house, so they know the area quite well. Despite wet and cold weather, I suggested we cycled on Mothering Sunday, 14th March. I drove to Penny’s house and we cycled from there to the outskirts of Appleby, retracing some of our route from the weekend before, stopping at Coulby for a quick photo of the Andy Goldsworthy sculpture.

After Appleby we turned towards Great Asby with a quick diversion to Rutter Force, a gorgeous spot on a beck which joins the Eden, with an old mill and a house which was pretty but which I’m sure must flood. It was well worth the brief diversion and the hill back to our route.

Great Asby was a village with a stream through the middle, which seemed to be a theme for the day. We headed up hill and then up an even longer hill over Asby Winderwath Common, where the landscape was limestone rather than the sandstone common to the more north-eastern parts of Cumbria. The views from the cattle grid at Hollin Stump were well worth the climb, and it looked as if there could be ample opportunity for some good running routes. This was followed by a fantastic downhill before some more uphill in the direction of Orton.

We didn’t go as far as Orton, where some lovely homemade chocolates come from – I WILL visit Kennedys in Orton sometime – but instead turned in a northerly direction back towards Crosby Ravensworth and Maulds Meaburn. This was a gorgeous bit of road, again undulating and passing lovely houses and more streams. We finally arrived in Morland, where we would have stopped at the Mill Yard Cafe, which is one of the best in Cumbria, if it hadn’t been for the fact that by then we were both freezing cold.

Some small hills on the last few miles were actually welcome as they helped me warm up a bit before the end of the ride; my toes were like blocks of ice, my hands were painful (and red, when I got them out of my gloves) and my bottom was wet. However this was a fantastic route and I look forward to doing it again one day when the weather is warmer, drier and less windy!

I drove home with the heating on full blast in the car, ran a bath and soaked in the warm water with a piece of chocolate cake.

On my bike

Apart from a day when I ran along Hadrian’s Wall without a waterproof coat on, and got back home after about 15km drenched through to the skin and feeling miserable, the weather hasn’t been too bad lately (and the rain does at least mean the pond I’ve created has filled up). Cycling also feels like the easier option if I’m feeling a bit tired, and having given blood earlier in the week I still felt a bit lethargic. As Saturday dawned the weather looked glorious, so I decided a long bike ride was in order.

I didn’t set out to go fast but just to enjoy myself, and in fact as I cycled along I thought that there are the ‘exploratory’ runs and bike rides (and even swims), when you maybe try out a new route and just want to make the most of the weather and your freedom; and then there are the ‘training’ runs, rides and swims when you’re trying to push yourself a bit harder and perhaps to get a good time. Having only done one short bike ride since October, Saturday was definitely an exploratory day.

I’d found some rides which were based around Alston, but one of them looped through Brampton, so rather I decided I’d do the Brampton-Haltwhistle loop and miss out Alston, thereby also making it a bit shorter. Even so it looked as if it would be about 30 miles, which felt like about the right distance for this point in the year. Despite the sun I wrapped up fairly warm in my down jacket – although it wasn’t long before I’d unzipped it in order to cool down a bit and had taken my gloves off.

I cycled out along the A689 through Milton and Hallbankgate and then was on to road which I’d driven many times but never cycled. I passed the old railway line which links up with Pennine Way, and remembered running from there with Kerry when we were training for Kielder Marathon – that was a difficult day with a poorly waymarked and very soggy route. I looked over towards the North Pennines, passing the sign telling me it was an area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and stopped to take a photo of the hills. Another cyclist passed me at that point and although I kept him in my sights for some time, he eventually was far away ahead of me.

You know how there are some places whose names appeal to you, and how there are roads that you drive past and think ‘I wonder what’s down there’? Lambley is one of those places for me. And today I finally cycled through it. It’s an incredibly pretty village, perched on the edge of the hill, and if it wasn’t for the fact that it’s miles from anywhere and has no shops or other facilities, it would be a gorgeous place to live. The road wound down to the South Tyne, where it crossed the river near a Mine Water Treatment plant. Seeing the South Tyne reminded me of when I ran from Alston along some of Isaac’s Tea Trail, including splashing through the Tyne. It struck me that in the summer this might be a good place to swim, though the river’s quite shallow so I’m not sure how far you’d be able to go.

Not far past the river – up a bit of a hill – I came to a car park and was able to join the Pennine Trail, an old railway line which presumably once went from mines at or near Lambley to Haltwhistle (I wonder if it also joined up with the line that goes to Alston – I imagine it probably did. Railway lines for the mines would have criss-crossed this landscape once). I was glad I was cycling my slightly sturdier roadbike and not my triathlon bike with its especially narrow tyres – in places the track was quite rough and at one point I had to walk for a couple of yards as the gravel was very deep and loose. But most of it was very cyclable, even if I did have to keep stopping to open gates or slowing up to avoid pedestrians – I started shouting ‘ding ding’ as I approached them in the end, which helped. As I passed him, one man very kindly shouted ‘ding ding’ to the next people in front of me. Needless to say with the glorious weather there were quite a few pedestrians about, especially as I approached Haltwhistle. I think the sun had made us all happy though.

At Featherstone you cycle past a pub (sadly closed at the moment, of course) and the old station platform, and then pass along a beautiful avenue of elegant silver birch trees. There is a Featherstone Castle, though whether this is a real castle and still exists or not I don’t know – perhaps something to explore another day. There are also some castle ruins near to the A69 according to the map – again I didn’t spot anything but I probably wasn’t looking in the right place.

From Haltwhistle there was a fairly long climb up to join the military road (the B6318) not far from Walltown Crags. As I came out on the top of the hill before dropping down into Greenhead I only had about another 8-10 miles to go, all through familiar territory – Gilsland, Birdoswald, Lanercost and back into Brampton, past the roman turrets, milecastles and fort that I have been to many times. As I looked over towards the west I stopped to take another photo, feeling quite emotional: this is my Home, this wide expanse of gorgeous countryside where countries and counties meet.

Swimming and cycling

It’s definitely autumn. Some days we’ve woken to a heavy frost, and the roofs have stayed white until well into the morning and the car has told me it’s only 2 degrees (celsius), though I don’t know how accurate it is. The trees are still green but browns and yellows are creeping in here and there, and leaves have started to float to the ground, showing their peers the way. We’ve even turned the heating on.

It was thus with some trepidation that I agreed to go swimming – no, I lie, I suggested that a group of us went swimming – in Grasmere. At least it seemed certain there would be no worries about social distancing – surely nobody else would be out swimming now, although the September non-school-holiday walkers would be out and about?

The weather earlier in the day was not particularly great, but as the afternoon progressed and by the time we all met at the White Moss car parks, it was a lovely sunny autumnal late afternoon. I was still convinced that I’d probably dip my toes in the water, decide it was too cold, and get straight out again. Two swimmers were already in the water when we got there, which gave me some comfort – and as it turned out I was the first out of our group into the water and it wasn’t quite as bad as I had feared. Chilly, but with a wetsuit, gloves and neoprene shoes, OK. I swam back and forth a few times before deciding I didn’t want to risk being a long way out and getting colder than I realised and not being able to get back – my biggest fear is of being out in the middle of a lake somewhere and just not having the energy, for one reason or another, to get back to shallow water.

The others stayed in longer than me – I got back in after taking the photos of them, but not for long – but it was lovely sitting there and admiring the surroundings. Grasmere is gorgeous – I really wished I had a GoPro to take a video at ducks-eye level. One day. And one summer day, when the water’s warmer, I will go back and swim to the island and back.

Two other swimmers had got in further up on the northern shore while we were in, but didn’t stay in for long. But as we got out a woman from North Lincolnshire got in, with only a wetsuit (no gloves or footwear). She did a strong front crawl out into the middle of the lake and up to the island, some way away. She looked like a good swimmer but it was a bit unnerving not to be able to see her initially as she came back: her husband seemed rather perturbed as well. Eventually we saw her, but she seemed to be doing a slow breaststroke. I’m sure she got back to shore all right, but I hope she wasn’t struggling with the cold.

On Sunday I felt like going out on my bike rather than running, and looked through various maps and so forth to find out a new route. I drove to Wetheral, walked over the river alongside the railway bridge (people jump off here – I find it quite unnerving and also desperately sad to look down into the rocky, crashing river below – you’d have to be so totally, deeply unhappy to want to throw yourself into that and risk horrendous injuries) and then cycled up towards Cumwhitton. The route took me down the eastern side of the river Eden, though you don’t actually get to see the river much – especially not at the moment when the trees are still in leaf and the undergrowth is verdant.

There were more uphills than I’d expected and also some quite steep downhills – I really noticed the difference between my ‘normal’ bike brakes on my triathlon bike (now about 18 years old) and the disc brakes on my newer road bike. I’d expected the hill down through Kirkoswald to be one of the scariest and in fact it wasn’t, but even so as I tried to get my foot out of the pedal to stop near the church, I failed – and fell off.

Kirkoswald is one of my favourite villages, certainly in the Eden valley. It has a pretty main village street, which rises up the hill from the river, past the church and former castle towards the vicarage, then rises further up a hill lined by old houses and three (!) pubs before dividing in two (with in fact a smaller third road also going back down the hill). One way goes towards Armathwaite (where I had just come from) and a right angled corner takes you on up towards Croglin and Newbiggin higher up on the fells, and ultimately to Brampton.

After stopping by means of falling off, I took a photo of the gatehouse to the former castle then got back on and pedalled on down to cross the river over the lovely packhorse bridge between Kirksowald and Lazonby. This again is a favourite spot – the river meanders between stony beaches and sheep graze in the fields: I always think ‘sheep may safely graze’.

From Lazonby I zigzagged over and under the railway – the romantic, scenic, Carlisle – Settle line, saved from closure not so many years ago (and a slow-ish but lovely way to get to Skipton and Leeds) and back to Armathwaite. From there back to Wetheral was undulating, with wide open views to the fells and to the Solway. When I got back I felt gently tired in a satisfied way: and very hungry.

I love cycling.

Grisedale Tarn; and Crummock Water re-visited

Whilst out running the other day it struck me that there are several different reasons – or motivations – for running. Some people do so just to keep fit; some people do so to get faster and go further. I started running in order to do triathlon; I then began to enjoy it, once I moved to Cumbria and there were plenty of trails (rather than roads); as I got more used to trail running it became an opportunity to enjoy the amazing scenery the county has to offer.

In terms of triathlon, running was always my weakest of the three disciplines. After having children there was less time to do triathlon, or even to do much in the way of keeping fit at all, which meant that running became the only of the three disciplines that I did even vaguely regularly. Even so I’d alternate between phases of feeling relatively OK running-wise and quite enjoying it, and phases of struggling.

Then came lockdown; and furlough; and working from home. For the past 5-6 months I have done as much exercise as I did before having the children. As a result I feel satisfyingly fitter now than I have for ages: and feeling stronger and fitter gives me the confidence to go out again, knowing that it will probably be enjoyable rather than just painful.

So my running is now for two reasons: runs on my own to try to improve my speed and my stamina/distance; and more sociable runs to enjoy the stunning scenery, ideally with friends. After running around the 16 lakes and realising we’d seen bits of the Lake District we’d never seen before, Penny and I decided we’d try to run as many new (to us) routes as possible.

The latest last week started at Glenridding. Arriving just after 4pm, the car park was beginning to become emptier and the people we passed were mostly coming down from the hills rather than heading up into them. We took the path to Lanty’s Tarn (there are two – we took the one which is slightly longer and not quite as steep and stony) and then ran on up the valley, to the north of the river. With the amount of rain we’ve had recently, the streams coming down the hillsides were loud with plentiful water: so different to June/July when after our prolonged period of warm, sunny weather, some streams had more or less dried up.

The Lakeland Trails series runs two races over a weekend in November: the Hevellyn or Glenridding trail race one day and the Ullswater trail race the following day. The race route for the former goes up this valley, turning to cross a footbridge before going back down into Glenridding. Today we carried on: we knew Grisedale Tarn was to the west in the hills, and could see the saddle where we thought the tarn would be.

We ran on past a hut belonging to the Outward Bound Trust, with a memorial plaque to some climbers; looking at the map I realise we were running around the slopes of Dollywagon Pike, a hill whose name I’ve always wondered about – apparently it could be from Old Norse for ‘lifted giant’ (or ‘lifted fiend’). The slope was now stony and in places slippery; it was tricky running at times but I felt sure the tarn was only just ahead. As so often with hills, there was an extra ‘up and down and up again’ before we actually got there, but finally – c.5km from Glenridding – I spotted the glint of water. A few more steps and there was Grisedale Tarn, looking absolutely gorgeous in the late afternoon sun.

Not for the first time we expressed how lucky we are to live here; and that we’d like to come back here to swim. There wasn’t time today and it was getting chilly, so after a Graze bar each and a drink of water we ran back down the hill, this time going down the other side of the beck. What I love about Grisedale Beck is that it has a bed of slate, which gives it a grey colour and makes it seem really clean.

As we ran down I thought about how different runs (and bike rides) have different characteristics. There were bike rides not so long ago when I was highly conscious of colour: predominantly yellow; later on in the year purple. Some runs are very much about feeling: running through woods on springy trails; some have the noise of skylarks, or – like on Talkin Fell – just the noises of nature as well as man (birds, cows, dogs, aeroplanes); today’s run was the noise of water. The beck fills the valley bottom but there are numerous streams falling in waterfalls down the hillsides; no sooner have you left one and run round a corner than you’re met by the noise of the next.

Plenty of famous writers and philosophers have written about the human relationship to water; despite its dangers we are fascinated by it and I think most of us have a compulsion to immerse ourselves in it – within reason. The swimming group I’m part of arranged to go to Crummock Water this weekend, as the weather forecast was meant to be good. We met at the lake at about 3.30pm, by which time most people were leaving, and ended up parking near Hause Point, with close access to a small stony beach and easy entry to the water. The water was cold but clean and inviting, and the slight chill in the air probably made the lakeside less crowded than it might otherwise have been.

It was a pity in a way that yesterday’s weather wasn’t as warm as today’s, which would have been perfect for swimming and picnics, but having done some decorating I decided that it was too good a day to waste: my bike was calling to me. I cycled more-or-less along the river Irthing through Lanercost, Low Row and Nether Denton to Gilsland, right on the Northumberland border. From there I turned back in a westerly direction, until just before West Hall I decided that I’d cycle past the ford (but not through it: the memory of falling in a ford in the Lake District in November lives on, and there’s quite a bit of water around at the moment). I felt that sense of freedom from being on my bike that I’ve expressed before, delighting in the wide open skies above me, the views of hills in the distance, and the layers and clusters of clouds: and I was home in time to have a chat with my sister before dinner.