For obvious reasons, 2020 was the year of the homegrown adventure. With even travel around our own countries being off the cards for so much of the year, if you were looking for opportunities to stay busy and rack up some miles they were likely to be found in your own backyard, and one of the slender positives amidst the crappiness of the pandemic was folks finding that they didn’t need to travel as far as they thought to have a wee adventure.
Having spent a very Cairngorm-heavy summer and being grateful for it, I rounded that off with two attempts (long story)at setting a Cairngorms Loop record, succeeding second time round, and after that was looking forward to a good break from structured training and some time spent enjoying some different trails. Somehow, amazingly, I’ve never gotten round to riding the Lakes 200, Alan Goldsmith’s ‘other’ contribution to long, fun mountain bike routes in the UK alongside the HT550. I grew up just over an hour away from Keswick in Northumberland, and have ridden bits and bobs of super-techy Lakes singletrack over the years, but both me and Annie have a knack for visiting the Lakes on those weekends when it never stops raining, and when I suggested finally checking out the route Annie was dubious.
If you don’t know it, the Lakes 200 is a 200km (surprisingly) loop that makes a sort of wiggly loop taking in as much rocky, chunky, sheepy singletrack as it can without crossing itself, racking up just over 6,000m of climbing, which makes it significantly hillier than both the Cairngorms Loop and HT550 for the distance. Rumour has it that Alan developed the route as a training loop for the Colorado trail race, and the stats back that up! It takes in classic sections like High Street, Walna Scar and the western passes of Black Sail, Gatescarth and Honister. All in all, it sounded like a good time so we packed as light as we could in the Revelate frame bags that had just arrived to make the most of the roomy front triangles on the Spearfishes, and headed down the M74 on a September evening.
After a late night game of ‘find the truck-free layby) and a crap night’s sleep beside the A6, we rolled into Keswick and headed for the secret parking spot that Annie had been told about by a friend (such things are in short supply in the Lakes, although you could get the train to Penrith, Staveley or Windermere. the weather was set fair for 3 days, and the air had that heavy, sticky heat of harvest time. Climbing steeply up from the A66 towards Latrigg had us dripping with sweat immediately, and my merino top would give me the lanolin whiff of hot sheep for the next few days.
A fair bit of the route is on trails that get thick with ramblers on any busy day in summer, and are best ridden early or late if you can. Latrigg definitely falls into that category, and we had it to ourselves as we headed east beneath Blencathra. That hill was the first ‘proper’ outdoor experience that I can remember, on an overnight camping adventure with my dad when I was 4, and still holds strong memories of the sensations that ultimately set me off on a trajectory of chasing those elusive highs over more traditional life goals (sorry mum and dad!)
The old 17th century coach road across towards Dockray and Ullswater racks up more climbing than you’d expect so early in the route, as do the wee backroads that get you to Pooley Bridge. After a quiet morning, Pooley was a fleshpot of waddling sightseers crammed close to the parking and the cafés, and best exited quickly. We were both feeling the effects of a busy few weeks, and for a change it was nice to be able to ease off, fuel up and slow the pace. More climbing and more singletrack takes you to Mardale and over Boredale Hause, although the descent into Patterdale is a brake-melting straight, steep track that doesn’t really reward the effort. The alternative footpath heading north-west is MUCH better, but of course this being England-shire is off limits to bikes. Use that information as you wish.
We pushed up the steep climb onto High Street to make the most of the fantastic evening, and pitched up in a shallow bowl looking north to Blencathra and our starting point that morning. As we ate dinner, a group of fell runners passed by on their way up High Street, and as the light faded we watched the pinpoints of their head torches trace the rim of the fell away to our west and descend back to the valley. One look at a map of the Lakes tell you that for a runner it must be paradise!
The morning took us south toward Troutbeck and another brake-melter of a descent, although this time on dew-slicked grass that adds some spice to your morning! The weather was still warm, and the air had that ripe grass and warm wool scent of English countryside in late summer. No heather and pine like at home, but an unmistakable smell that comes with mental images of long evenings outside and the faint promise of colder nights and falling leaves to come. Early autumn is one of my favourite times of year, full of endings and beginnings.
We both felt pretty pooped after day 1, so decided to pass on the extra loop to Kentmere, which was sa shame since I believe it has some great trail in it. Instead we headed for Ambleside, and on the way I discovered I had picked up a stomach bug from somewhere… Progress became a little slower as I stopped every half hour or so to run away into the woods with some toilet paper for the rest of the day. At least it explained the heavy legs! There are some lovely wee bits of trail on the approach to Ambleside and through the low, complicated hills around the mouth of Langdale. It takes a good squint at the map to work out where you are among the stone walls, abandoned quarries and oak woodland, so different to Scottish glens that usually have just the one track. After the pig of a climb that is Walna Scar, we trucked on through much quieter valleys until we camped on Eskdale Fell.
The western section of the route takes you through the most mountainous-feeling valleys of the Lakes: Eskdale, Wasdale and Dunnderdale, before climbing Honister and traversing Borrowdale on classic singletrack back to Keswick. The evocative names are unmistakable, and the valleys have a West Highland feel to them. the passes linking them give super technical riding that made us equally glad for full-suspension bikes and the lightest gear we could pack. the sun shone all day, giving it an alpine feel at times, although Black Sail really rides better going south, and Gatescarth is a real test on a loaded bike with seat bag as you drop toward Buttermere.
Overall, the route is a real tough cookie! My 120/100mm Spearfish was set up with 29×2.6 Teravail tyres that strike a really nice balance between rolling quick and giving comfort and control on chunky trails. We packed as light as we could and were glad for it, but after having so much fun on the Cairngorms Loop with minimalist single-day kit, I can;t help thinking that the Lakes 200 might actually be more fun with no overnight kit at all, either staying indoors or going for the single push… Chris Hope’s record time of 16h45m is utterly savage, but at least proves that a no-sleep ride shouldn’t be too bad! 2021 is already looking like local adventures are going to be a theme, so if/when restrictions allow I’ll definitely be back to ride the route again.
Basic gear list:
- Salsa Spearfish, 120mm fork, 100mm frame, set up with 29.2.6 Teravail Kennebec front, Honcho rear
- Revelate framebag, Pronghorn harness, Vole seat bag
- Hyperlite Mountain Gear Dirigo single-skin tent, Ruta Locura carbon poles
- Cumulus Quilt 150
- Therm-A-Rest Neo-air X-lite
- Generic little titanium canister stove w/100g gas cartridge
- 700ml titanium pot
- Cumulus down jacket and some fleecy 3/4 tights