Cycling in the Lake District

Cycling routes around Windermere, map drawn by author.
Cycling routes around Windermere, map drawn by author.

Since it was not safe to leave the country this year, but we still wanted to make the most of the August bank holiday weekend, we decided to venture just one county away: to Cumbria.

We have been very careful all year: only going shopping when necessary (one person at a time), always wearing a mask and carrying hand sanitiser, not seeing friends except online, only chatting to people from across the road, and so forth. We have not gone outside our city boundaries apart from two bicycle rides and generally stayed inside our house except for a daily walk around the park. Although of course I cannot complain, I do have to say it has been boring. I feel a great social responsibility to keep the spread of COVID-19 to a minimum.

However, this adventure did require taking a train for about 1.5 hours for the first time since February. What is worse, we had to switch in Preston (which was under strict lock-down at the time). Note, in the UK you have to book your bicycle onto some trains in advance. This is not a joke: I have been refused onto a train because I did not have a booking before, and we were also almost refused our return journey when I did not have the booking confirmation right in my hands when we needed to board.

On the way over, the train station was quiet and we had no issues getting our bikes onto the train. We had reserved seats, but there were a lot of spots available at a safe distance from other passengers. On the next train, from Preston, we were not so lucky. We tried to hide out in the back with the transport police, standing there with our bikes. There were too many people on that train, and they were not distancing. But then what can you do, when you are on it, and it is moving? It is easy beforehand to think you can remove yourself from the situation – but there’s no way out! And in Britain, it is so, so hard to critique other people directly. I did not want to risk a fight with anyone, and them coming over, and shouting in my face. So we stayed back as far as possible and faced away from everyone else. What do you think – am I extreme in this, or not extreme enough? Would you have turned around and gone home at the next stop?

Anyway, we did make it to Windermere in the end. We stayed on the top floor of a little B&B, by ourselves. It was difficult to book a room, since the rest of the UK was also attempting to spend the weekend in the Lake District, but we managed; and at a decent enough price too. We could afford a UK break (which I normally find too expensive), because it is not like we spent money on anything else all summer… Happily, staying in the UK and only taking trains / cycling also made this trip particularly eco-friendly. There is a lot to say about 2020, but I have been doing brilliantly on my ambition to fly less.

Orrest Head Viewpoint in Windermere
Orrest Head Viewpoint in Windermere

Day 1: Around Lake Windermere.

We cycled down to Bowness and very much kept on going upon seeing the crowds there. It was crazy. No distancing, no masks. It made me feel massively uncomfortable to witness that. Instead, we went on to the bicycle/car ferry, which was much quieter than the foot ferry. This is not open all year round or all day round so make sure you have a backup plan if it is closed or you cannot get on! Everyone had to wear a mask and stand apart. We had to wait maybe twenty minutes, but when it is sunny that is ok. Did I mention we got ridiculously lucky with the weather? Whenever does the UK have consistent nice weather on a bank holiday weekend?! Perhaps our reward for staying home for 5 months.

We cycled up to Wray Castle, described by our B&B hostess as ‘not worth it’. That was probably somewhat of an exaggeration, but not completely untrue. It is not currently possible to enter the castle (not sure if that is pandemic related or not) and circling around the exterior takes about 5 minutes. Sadly, the cafe was also closed (just randomly; it looked like it had been open recently). There was a sign outside that said ‘children can really use their imagination here’. National trust trying to make the best of something pretty underwhelming haha. We spent some time trying to guess the age of the building and settled on 19th century, which I have since discovered was about right. It is a Victorian neo-gothic style build; not terrible, but not the most beautiful either in my opinion. Apparently (I looked around the internet a bit) it had had a few interesting functions over time, including youth hostel, offices of the Freshwater Biological Association, and training college for Merchant Navy radio officers. Not a bad place to work/learn!

We continued cycling a bit away from the lake taking some bumpy country paths and eventually ended up in Ambleside for a very late lunch. We picked a place based on how quiet it looked (not how you would normally choose somewhere to eat!). We actually ended up in a very nice family-owned place, called Stiles. Prices were very good, food was delicious (and plenty), and staff was friendly. I would recommend!

From Ambleside back to Windermere is pretty much a big main road so that only took us twenty minutes. The road had loads of traffic on it, and we cycled on the pavement whenever there were no pedestrians present because it really did not feel safe. While walking our bikes uphill a bit, we came across a girl who said a car had just hit her arm (as in, it was driving too close to the pavement)! We determined not to cycle that road again (which may have been a mistake also, as you will read in the description of day 2).

We stopped by Booths to pick up a little pick-nick to have outdoors (the B&B hostess seemed very keen on No Crumbs Indoors, but also, we wanted to watch the sunset – which was stunning!). Just before that though, we climbed up to Orrest Head Viewpoint. Now, this was definitely way too much exercise after a day of travelling and cycling, but it was worth it. The view was fantastic, and although two families had also come up there with the same idea it was very easy to stay away from people on the whole walk. If it had not absolutely destroyed our legs, we would have gone up there at the end of every day (and in fact we encountered a local dog walker who said that he did exactly that).

The 'road' to Ambleside
The ‘road’ to Ambleside

Day 2: Onward to Grasmere

We decided to head over to the next set of lakes (because we were in the Lake District after all) and began to make our way down to Rydal Water. However, remember the big road after Ambleside? We thought we would try an alternative route, a bit of a detour through the countryside. Oh and a detour it was. We cycled up to Troutbeck quite happily, and then encountered a hill. However, there was a little national cycle route sign, so we got off our bicycles and walked up it. Then the road ended. It was just some dirt and rocks, through the fields, over alternating mild and steep hills. Beautiful, but definitely a walking route, not a cycling route. We passed by a farm and headed into the forest, thinking… ok, maybe this is where the road returns. No. Now the road was really only rocks, with a little bit of mud in-between here and there. We had to carry our bicycles for most of that. It probably took us around 2 or 2.5 hours to do this entire route from Windermere to Ambleside – whereas on the main road it took around 20 minutes. Eek.

Outside Ambleside we stopped for a very well-deserved ice-cream, paired with a homemade blueberry muffin from the B&B – which is really a perfect outdoor lunch to have away from people, isn’t it. From here on it was a little bit less crazy hilly, although we still walked a fair bit. We passed around Derwent Water and Grasmere Lake and through some more bits of forest, to arrive in lovely Grasmere. We picked up a few snacks at the local co-op, to have in the park. Grasmere was a little busy, as you would expect on a sunny bank holiday Saturday, but in the park it was easy enough to avoid people.

This is where things went downhill a bit. Not literally, definitely not. We made our way up a crazy hill – as in, other cyclists, mountain bike cyclists, were walking, and a few cars that passed by only barely made it – to say hi to the sheep in Elterwater. We mostly walked uphill out of Elterwater, realised our progress was way too slow, and decided to take a short-cut back to the ferry. Of course we got lost, what else did you expect. We had to do our second carrying-the-bikes-over-rocks hike, on what was officially a national cycle route but in reality definitely not. In the process, we somehow completely missed Tarn Hows (which would have been our third Lake of the day, albeit a little one). We did pass by the Iron Keld though, so that was a discovery. (Still not totally sure what it is though!) Anyway, eventually, after walking down what seemed like a small waterfall, we did encounter a tarmacked road – and made our way back to the Bowness ferry (going past Beatrix Potter’s house!).

Back in Windermere we picked up a pizza from a local restaurant, for our second park meal of the day. Some local kids were playing football and together with our bottle of Portuguese red we pretended we were at a sport’s event until the sun went down. (We have been in lockdown for a long time ok.)

Ice-cream break on the way to Grasmere
Ice-cream break on the way to Grasmere

Day 3: Hiking around Keswick

So day 2 may have involved slightly too much physical strain. Plus, we had cycled to all lakes in cycling distance. Therefore, we decided to venture onto a bus a bit further afield. Of course, with it being a Sunday as well as a pandemic busses were not exactly frequent, but we managed to get tickets to Keswick and appropriately distanced ourselves a double set of seats away from everyone else. Sadly, at the first stop, a load of other people got on who did not. Awkward British confrontational moment number x of the trip. I had built up some courage at this stage, and did point out to the couple in front of us that they should probably take some of the other available seats instead. Crisis averted. (Almost. They got on the same bus back later that evening.)

In Keswick the first thing we did was walk up to the stone circle of course. Castlerigg Stone Circle dates to the Neolithic, 3rd-4th millennium BCE. This was not a burial site (as some stone circles were), but as there have not been any extensive excavations it is also not totally clear what was going on there. (Rituals/ceremony, of course.) The stones were ploughed over for a while, before they were re-discovered! It has an ‘entrance’ and ‘exit’ stone as well as one a bit off to the side (‘outlier’) for unknown reasons (possibly astronomical significance), and some standing stones on the inside. Originally they think there were 42 stones but now there’s ‘only’ 38. While not as grand as Stonehenge, this is a really great and much more accessible alternative if you are into your stone circles.

Castlerigg Stone Circle
Castlerigg Stone Circle

I decided to do some sketching there (finally a change of scenery!) and B went on the hunt for some ice-cream. Afterward, we walked down a lovely country road, through a stretch of forest, and down to Derwentwater, our Lake District Lake for the day. We had some bread sitting on a quiet stretch of beach and then proceeded to walk our way around the entire lake. This was a really lovely walk as the scenery changed often – lake, beach, marsh, forest, reeds, streams, paths. It was a long walk though (if you have been cycling/hiking for two days). I think it maybe only took us around 2 hours but it felt longer haha. Then we still needed to get back from the lake to Keswick as well, and we sort of had to drag ourselves down there. We passed through more lovely forest and fields including sheep, and also llamas!

We were aiming for the second to last bus of the day and arrived well in time of course, so we even managed to briefly venture into Keswick town centre to grab a takeaway iced coffee (bit of a challenge – Sunday 4pm in the UK: everything was closed). It looks like a lovely place; it would be nice to spend a bit more time there one day when we can be in crowds of people again.

Walking in the Cumbrian countryside
Walking in the Cumbrian countryside
First look at Derwentwater
First look at Derwentwater
Beautiful views in the Lake District
Beautiful views in the Lake District

Day 4: East to Staveley

Having gone roughly South, West and North, we thought we might have a look around the hills to the East of Windermere before taking the train back to Cheshire that afternoon. The Dutch lady from the B&B did raise her eyebrows, as it is not exactly known as the most flat area in the region.

We cycled through some bits of forest and field, encountering deer and more llamas! Especially the fields were nice; because it was possible to see very far, and there were not very many cars, we could go down very fast to go back up very fast which was really enjoyable. (I do not like going down at high speed when I cannot see around a corner!) We paused in Staveley for another iced coffee. It looks like the sort of village that would have lovely tea rooms if there wasn’t a pandemic. Happily, it has a train station – always a good thing to note.

In Staveley we also encountered a very lost Turkish truck driver. He was trying to go down a country road the truck definitely did not fit on, clearly questioning his life choices and wondering up how he ever ended up in the Cumbrian countryside in the first place. He did not speak English, but some German and Turkish. So I went into ridiculous I have not travelled all year mode and gave him precise directions in Turkish. I was so proud of myself for knowing the numbers and words and cycled away extremely satisfied. Only about 4km later did I realise why he had still looked confused: he probably did not expect Turkish on a small Cumbrian country road and was still trying to work out whether I really knew what I was saying. So in hindsight I am not sure I helped at all there. And I could have used bloody German as well couldn’t I; just got very carried away…

Cycling East of Windermere
Cycling East of Windermere
Llamas!
Llamas!

Anyway eventually we completed our circle and started to approach Windermere again. This presented us with our final encounter of a road that was marked as an official cycling road but actually it was a walking path. We were guided, by signs as well as Google maps, straight through an actual field, including sheep, and up to a rail crossing. The bikes did not fit through the crossing fence, so we either had to turn back (through the fields, with increasingly annoyed looking sheep) or lift the bicycles over the fence. We opted for the latter, which was the wrong choice. Our bikes has picked up a lot of mud and, well, you know what sheep do in a field. The fence was surrounded by nettles. This was just all round not a good idea. Fortunately, Windermere was on the other side and we were able to sneak into a small cafe (eat out to help out) and clean ourselves up. We had a really lovely last lunch and then stumbled back onto the train.

Can I recommend pandemic travel? The distance was good (not far, great location); and the cycling and hiking were excellent (absolutely no issues keeping physical distance, didn’t see any people the majority of the trip). However, we still had to go on public transport, where we could not be completely in control of the situation; and we had to acquire food somehow. So, it is possible to argue that was more exposure than responsible. I think going camping – bringing your own food, either in your own car or cycling only – would be an even more pandemic-proof alternative to what we did here. We considered cycling down to the Peak District to do just this for our next trip, but the weather got worse, and virus rates rose again, so we stayed put the rest of the year.

Author: Zen

Archaeologist & adventurer. Interested in vegetarian street-food, avoiding tourists and road-trips into the unknown. Originally from Holland - then Durham, Cambridge, Würzburg, Istanbul, Erbil - now London. Always learning a new language.

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