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14 April, 2006

Cycle ride: Windermere-Kirkstone Pass-Grasmere-Langdale-Windermere

I was rather surprised to realise that it's been over a year since my last trip to the Lake District.  Maybe it's because I'm reluctant to commit to a whole day in the National Park in winter, as I'd be trapped a long way from home (too far to cycle back, and I don't have a car, so I'm restricted by the rail timetable) if the weather broke, and I don't fancy the idea of sharing the space with hordes during spring, summer and autumn weekends.  Whatever; those are flawed reasons, and I ought to make the effort.

I didn't have a fixed plan for the day. I'd catch the train to Windermere and wanted to ride to the head of the Kirkstone Pass, as I'd seen the profile of the adjoining peaks from a distance recently, and I needed to be back in Windermere by 15:45 for the return train, but otherwise I was open to exploring opportunities.

The lead-in ride to Ambleside was okay, but is never exactly fun: the road isn't great (narrow, with heavy traffic even in mid-April), and the cycle lane provision is derisory – it'd literally be better if the Council hadn't bothered. I always just ignore it.
Annoyingly, I could have avoided that road altogether if I'd read the map correctly. Rather than turn off the lakeside road immediately outside Windermere and follow the A592 main road past Troutbeck to the pass, I went on into Ambleside then struggled to find a tiny lane out of the village. That's apt since, as a sign at the other end of that road stated, I'd accidentally found the old, extremely steep road to the pass, known locally as 'The Struggle'. It's a good thing I wasn't hurrying, as 410 m of ascent within 4 km, with four sections between 1-in-7 & 1-in-5 and one (the very end) steeper than 1-in-5, took a while. I managed it non-stop, though.

I considered continuing over the pass to Patterdale, Glenridding and Ullswater, but that'd mean either extending the ride tremendously, to Penrith railway station or back to Windermere via Keswick, or climbing straight back over the Kirkstone Pass. 'The Struggle' had somewhat driven out the appeal of that option, so after a break to admire the view, I returned to Ambleside – rather quickly; I presume this was when my bike computer logged today's peak speed, of 55.85 km/h (34.7 mph).

I hadn't visited Grasmere before, so that was an easy choice as my next destination, and as easy a ride along the valley floor. I had a quick look at the village and (fruitlessly, or even daffodil-lessly) hunted for daffodils around Wordsworths' Dove Cottage, but in hindsight didn't stay as long as I might have; for some reason I moved on quite soon, and I'll have to go back some time to take more photos. I think I'd decided that there'd be a good view of the village and lake from the pass north of Grasmere, so followed that road immediately. In a sense I was mistaken, as the light looking south from the head of the pass at Dunmail Raise was unsuitable for photography, but the view north towards Helvellyn and Thirlmere was an unanticipated bonus.

Again, continuing north offered limited options (the most obvious was to return to Windermere via Keswick and, er, the Kirkstone Pass), so I dropped back to Grasmere and linked to the route of last year's ride. On that occasion I'd climbed from Skelwith Bridge to High Close, mistakenly hoping for a view of Grasmere through denser-than-expected woodland. This time, I approached High Close from the other side, cycling around the western side of the lake and up the steep and just-as-densely-wooded lane. It's only as I write this, with the assistance of a better map than I'd carried, that I realise I'd missed an opportunity to leave the bike and walk ~500 m to the viewpoint I'd been hoping for – twice.

Reaching High Close by 13:45 gave my just enough time to repeat much of last year's entire ride – good thing I'm fitter now – though in the reverse direction and with fewer, more targeted photo stops. I descended to Elterwater then went straight on to Little Langdale, Blea Tarn and the head of yet another pass, looking into Great Langdale from Side Pike. That undulating route had been tougher than I'd expected, not least because I had limited energy reserves after the foregoing sections of today's ride, but the view of Bow Fell, the Langdale Pikes and the near-perfect valley of Mickleden is always worthwhile.

I had time to appreciate that sight (and insufficient energy to go straight on without pausing to take in the view), but I was slightly concerned that I was tiring and needed to be on a train in a little over an hour, so apart from a quick diversion to the Old Dungeon Ghyll hotel, I headed back along the familiar Great Langdale road to Skelwith Bridge, Ambleside and Windermere with just enough time to buy a slice of cake before catching the train.

Overall, I'd covered 72.4 km (45 miles) in ~4½ hours, at a pitiful average speed of 18 km/h (11 mph), but remember that included a couple of noteworthy ascents, and as always my objective was sight-seeing, not merely exercise itself.

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