Four Days Off-Road in the Lake District

I love the mountains of the Lake District, and I love MUni riding - it just seemed a natural idea to combine the two for a short holiday. Spurred on by some route descriptions and photos we (myself and Sarah) decided to follow the first few days of the `Off-Road Coast-to-Coast' designed for those with two wheels, which would take us through the roughest and toughest parts of the Lakes on one wheel.

We only had four days, due to a lack of holiday time, and had little desire to kill ourselves pushing across the country, so we amended the Wheelwright's route to make a uni-friendly(ish...) trip from Whitehaven on the west coast, to Windermere. This would link us into trains nicely, and with plans to stay in youth-hostels, we could keep our kit down so that bums wouldn't get too numb.

So on Monday, we set out from the coast with the wind behind us and full packs on our backs. As is the tradition, we had a few difficulties finding the start of the Whitehaven - Ennerdale cycle track. A helpful pensioner in her garden set us straight, and we headed off to the mountains. To be honest, the cycle track is very efficient, but very boring. It is metaled, smooth and cycling is very easy with gentle gradients as it is a conversion from one of Beeching's victims. We started to get comments almost immediately, but remarkably free of the "You're missing a wheel" variety; most people seeming quite shocked to see us. The only real incident was the first face-plant of the trip as Sarah slipped on a slug (which immediately spread itself all over the tarmac). The only thing damaged was ego (if you don't count the dead slug) and the rest of the path went by quickly.

The final section of the path turned into narrow hardpack and the mountains loomed - things were looking better. There was a short section of road riding (quite steep in places) as we headed into Ennerdale. Just before we hit the forestry track, we stopped for a short break and were pounced upon by a journalist on holiday. Typical - the unis seem to attract the hacks. He was quite a pleasant fellow though and before we knew it, the easy track through Ennerdale forest was slipping past our wheels and we arrived at the YHA. It is a wonderful place, without electricity, and we had a lovely restful evening with glorious sunshine lighting the central Lakeland mountains.

The second day was the one we expected to be hardest, and it lived up to these expectations. We started the day by continuing up the valley to Black Sail Hut. The forest track turned steeper all the way, getting more loose and rubbley, and we arrived at the base of Black Sail Pass with aching thighs, each having fallen quite a few times on a thoroughly enjoyable ride. We were faced by a 1800ft climb to the col, pushing the unis. Here we had a huge advantage over the two-wheelers who do this route as we could push where they would have had to carry. The first part of the descent into Wasdale required pushing as well, as the path was loose and steep. The young lads repairing the path were amazed as we saddled up and rode fitfully down towards the valley. The path down is apparently one of the best descents going for bikes, but we had great fun too. For most of the way, we rode for 30 metres or so before meeting loose rocks which threw us off the unis which were pushed for a bit until the surface improved slightly. As we got nearer the bottom however, the surface was better and better and we found ourselves riding, often on the edge of control, for longer and longer stretches before emerging at our lunch venue, the Wasdale Head Hotel. It had been a really fun and very challenging ride down.

The afternoon's ride took us down the road in Wasdale before starting the climb up to Burnmoor, in the shadow of Scafell. Black Sail had set the trend earlier in the day, and we pushed up the rocky hill before finding better terrain for riding on the top, and on the descent. There is a long grassy ride on the edge of Burnmoor Tarn that was sheer joy. Grassy, rolling and slightly boggy, we both loved this section. The final descent into Eskdale was rather more tricky. Large sections of it were filled with large loose rocks that we couldn't ride over and even one of the easiest sections had seen me take a face-plant to end up sat in a peaty puddle and had left me with a broken spoke on my MUni. The ice-creams at the post office in Boot come highly recommended though.

In all it had been a day that had seen at least as much pushing as riding, but the riding we did have was top notch and great fun. The Youth Hostel's showers, food and beds were much appreciated that night.

Our third day started quietly enough along Eskdale on the road, punctuated only by the sound of another of my spokes snapping, seemingly unprovoked. This proved to be a bit of a bummer. Two spokes down, no spares carried, an unusual size (260mm, 13 gauge) and still two days, with some tough downhills, left to travel. Another push up a rubbley old pack-horse trail found us in Forestry land again, and a great fire-road gave us a quick ride down into the Duddon valley. Here, the route took us over some rather impressive stepping-stones. The river however was swollen with the previous night's rain and we both had a precarious time crossing and ended up with very wet feet indeed.

The rest of the day was to be spent climbing over the Walna Scar road, another old pack trail, this time hugging the shoulders of Coniston Old Man. As was becoming the rather too frequent case, the way up was too steep and loose for anything other than pecking (see MUni FAQ) and anyone who wants to do this for 2000ft of ascent is welcome to it - we walked again. The ride down though is stunningly good. In sections, it is steep and rocky, swooping grass banks, rutted hardpack, rubble filled grooves, and all excellent fun. The only downside was a slight accident as a section of path collapsed under me, leaving me with some grazing on my calf and another (3 now) broken spoke.

For the whole trip, we had been wearing helmets. The rocks in the Lakes are rather more frequent and more pointy than in our usual haunt of the North York Moors. However, even with our frequent falling off, we didn't cause any dents in them and we ended the day riding down a back lane into Coniston which must have been around 1 in 3. Knee-trembling time! After some wonderful chips in the village, we rolled into the YHA just before the rain did. Coniston is far more of a honey-pot than our previous stops and the place was a bit too touristy for us.

The rain didn't stop all night and it was still pouring in the morning when we left on our last days riding. This made for miserable riding. It was wet enough to need waterproofs, and hot and humid enough to make them into portable saunas, exaggerated by our riding for a lot of the day. Most of our day's route took us through Grizedale forest. It is a well-known place for off-road biking, and ideal for MUniing. There are plenty of hardpack fire roads (on which to tackle the uphills) and some excellent technical downhills on bridlepaths. One we rode resembled a stream a little too much to help traction, but it was an excellent ride none the less. If we had not been too pissed off with the weather, we would have taken more time to explore the signed trails with their sculptures - in nice weather it would be a great day out on MUnis.

A final short road section led us to the ferry across Windermere (there are no obvious off-road routes around the lake) where we caught our train. We'd had a stunningly good time, only slightly marred by the final day's weather (but what did we expect going to the Lakes?) and were definitely in need of another hot bath! In retrospect, it is only fair to warn that most of the trip was quite serious - the hills are BIG and pushing up is the only real option if you aren't superman (and if you are he, can I watch?). The downhills too are not for the faint-hearted (or weak-thighed) and together this makes up for the lack of miles covered on the trip - if you want to go a long way quickly, stick to the (fairly) flat. Anyway, if we can do a trip like this, I'm sure others out there can do similar things (probably being sensible enough to remember the spare spokes though) - let us all know about your MUniing exploits!

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