Touring the Fred Whitton
Updated: Nov 29, 2020
‘The Lake District would be so nice if it weren’t for the bloody hills,’ says my companion as we struggle across Cold Fell.
‘The Lake District wouldn’t be the Lake District if it weren’t for the bloody hills,’ I reply.
This is day two of cycling the famous Fred Whitton route: a 112-mile circuit that takes in each of the Lake District’s major passes and many of the minor ones. It’s mostly ridden as a sportive, a one-day challenge with feed stations and timing chips, the kind of ride that takes serious kit, serious stamina, and serious training. But we’re not quite that serious, riding the route in two halves, with a recovery hotel in the middle and plenty of tea stops along the way. My touring bike weighs probably double that of the serious riders, especially with panniers.
We began on a glorious morning in Troutbeck Bridge, a typical Lake District village with centuries-old slate buildings flanking the narrow, winding lane. The climbing starts straight away: first up, Kirkstone Pass. The A road winds across the moors, more narrow and remote than you might think. A handful of cars pass, then a group of cyclists making barely better progress than us. I almost keep pace, my touring gears far more kind to this gradient than the lighter road bike, and as I pull level with two of them they remark on my panniers. Turns out they’re riding LEJOG. ‘They thought it would be good to send us this way!’ says one as he struggles to keep his front wheel straight. It’s iconic, of course – but on day six of a ten-day, gruelling ride, is perhaps a bit cruel.
Soon we draw level with the top of The Struggle, aptly-named for a road that climbs the steep hillside from Ambleside. It looks every bit as hard as the name suggests. On the other side of the Kirkstone Inn the road tips over the pass and begins the sudden descent. It’s steep and winding, and the brakes are firmly on until the road flattens out a bit, at which point it’s possible to relax and enjoy the ride. Descending is not my thing, and I’m definitely more nervous than exhilarated. But the view back up the valley to the pass is fabulous, and it’s a long, glorious wheel down to the banks of Ullswater.
The next pass is not until well past lunch, by which time we are flagging. I was full of beans up Kirkstone, and the beans lasted as we skirted the picturesque Ullswater with its mountainous banks, and tackled the rises and falls of the wild moorland west of Penrith. But I lost the beans on the long, hilly slog along the A66, with little shelter from the beating sun and breakfast fading fast from memory.
Now we struggle along the undulating road alongside Derwent Water, our Keswick lunch (we were so ravenous we had two meals each) sitting heavy in our stomachs. It’s nerves, too: Honister pass is extremely steep.
The road from Seatoller leads up to the pass with a dizzying gradient. A brook chatters its way down the hillside adjacent to the road, the water spilling with ease from heights up which we now struggle. Every so often I try my gear lever, just to *check* I’m in the lowest gear. I am. Push, push, push, stop. Re-gain breath. Push, push, push, twenty or so pedal rotations before the next stop. It’s almost too steep to get going again.
It’s a long climb and once we are on the exposed part the drizzle sets in. It has been hot and close all day, so a touch of rain is a relief, though it will make the road slippery for the descent, which is not ideal. Soon the barren peak appears, adorned with upright slate slabs that mark the mine that operates up here. The road is scattered with slate chips and grey dust, and the spoils cloak the mountainside. My ears pop. Then the road peaks, and instantly tips back down again. Jacket is replaced and the precipitous descent begins, away from the sharp slopes and back down to lake level.
Buttermere is gorgeous, but it’s not long before we’re heading once more for the clouds on Newlands pass. It’s a more gentle climb, with the exception of the very end, and once the 25% section is out of the way it’s a long, glorious freewheel along a road cut into the hillside, surrounded by farmland and fern-filled hedges.
This section of the ride is thick with memories, from my ten-day writing and riding holiday in the Lake District back in 2012, when I’d decided I would start to turn the blog of my three month ride around Britain’s coast into a book. I had travelled up to Windermere on the train and spent four nights at Hawkshead YHA, riding to as many lakes as I could, sitting in coffee houses with my laptop, and thinking nothing of crossing Kirkstone pass and back in an afternoon. I’d come over Newlands pass in the opposite direction on my way to Buttermere YHA, the combination of mountain bike, wellington boots and the sharp upturn of the road at the last second unseating me from my ride. That trip taught me a thing or two about writing (not least that you can’t write an entire book in ten days).
The sun returns for the final pass of the day, and so, happily, do the beans. Whinlatter pass is far kinder than the others, and with the rainshowers now over we descend towards a steadily pinkening sky for hotel and dinner.
Food is always a major consideration on a trip like this and I don’t think I ate enough yesterday. This morning has been another real slog – no major climbs, but enough ups and downs to be completely exhausting. We sit down for cake at 10.30 but I’m in danger of not getting up again, so I order some soup to see me through. It's exactly the ticket.
We’re skirting the edge of the Lake District and views out to sea dominate the afternoon. And the nuclear plant at Sellafield, which is not so pretty, but it does rather draw the eye. Across the Solway firth are the mountains of Scotland, smudging the horizon like billowing smoke.
A swift lunch stop and it’s onwards to the point of no return – the quickest way back to Ambleside is over the Hardnott and Wrynose passes, and here is the sign to say we’ve reached the last junction at which we can change our minds. There has been sporadic rain since lunch, but given that it said it would pour all day, every second it stays dry is a bonus.
Freshly fuelled with Kendal Mintcake we arrive at the bottom of the pass. The road is breathtakingly steep when viewed from the bottom; there are a few vehicles making the pass, and the angle they descend or climb at makes us feel dizzy. Well, there’s nothing for it. Deep breath. Here we go.
The climb is every bit as hard as it’s made out to be, with stopping required every few metres. I prefer to sit when climbing but there’s no option here, it has to be standing, and even then, I grind to a halt frequently. Starting again is nigh-on impossible. Every so often I look back to see the steadily-lengthening ribbon behind, and up to see the slowly decreasing number of switchbacks remaining. As we rise higher, the view behind extends back to the ocean. It takes 45 minutes to creak our way to the top.
There is a cairn on the apex and we add our stones. The clouds are low but it’s dry. Those riders who do this on the clock are in a completely different class to us – we laughed at ourselves all the way up the mountain – but it's the same feeling of relief and accomplishment now we’re at the top.
It’s always the way with the challenges we set ourselves: the anticipation and nerves build for months before you get here, the questioning of ‘can I actually do this’ lasting until you place two feet firmly at the top of the pass. I had fretted for weeks about the weather, my fitness, the panniers. Then I got here and did it. I’ve often written that all you need to get the top of a hill is a low gear and a healthy dose of determination. Each time I attempt a ride like this I need to remind myself of my own advice.
Wrynose follows in quick succession, the dip between the two passes holding us in this kind of nowhere land, a high elevation road that winds steadily across moorland and alongside a chuckling brook. There’s a certain magic in the air, as though the very mountains are sharing their secret, and the longer we stay here the more we feel like the only people on earth. The road once again tips upwards, but this time there’s no trepidation, no fear, only euphoria powering us forwards to the final peak.
Soon we'll sweep down the curve of the road, off the heathland and back to the tree cover, gradually descending to reach the waterside once more. We'll stuff ourselves silly with chips and beans and snacks and a three course slap-up meal in the local hotel. But for now, I stand at the finger post that crowns the pass, gazing out across miles of peaks. It's a special place, the Lake District, with mountains and lakes that rival any in the world.
There are easier ways to experience the passes, but none that gives such an involved and unique experience. "It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best," wrote Earnest Hemingway, "since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them." I entirely agree.