I take a deep breath in an attempt to calm my rapidly rising heart rate, trying not to look down or think about anything other than the process I need to go through to make it around the edge of the rock face. A task easier said than done, suspended form a sheer cliff face hundreds of feet above the valley floor, held by little more than a rope and two small carabiners.
I must admit, this isn’t the usual predicament a visitor to the Lake District would expect to find themselves in, but then, this has been anything but your usual trip to what is, without doubt, one of the UK’s most alluring regions.
At the time of our visit to the Lakes, the already beautiful scenery had been heightened by the gentle touch of autumn’s hand. Great swathes of golden brown and burnt orange contrasted with the fading greens of summer, looking very much like an oil painting.
My original plan had been to come and spend a day exploring the area on two wheels, weaving my way up and over the many peaks using a mix of gravel tracks and bridleways to get away from the more popular road routes.
However, given that the lakes are such a large draw for lovers of the outdoors, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to extend my trip and find out what makes this area so popular with those seeking adventure. My son Harrison was back at school, so this would be a trip without the family – although I wouldn’t be heading off alone.
Having met and ridden with Nick Howard, Bailey of Bristol Managing Director, during my recent John O’ Groat’s to Land’s End trip, it was apparent that he was just as eager to do seemingly crazy things as me, which made him the ideal person to invite along for company!
He didn’t take much convincing and we were soon packing the motorhome with our bikes, wetsuits, walking boots and waterproofs – the Lakes in late September is no place to go without the right kit. But we began our journey north under glorious sunshine, hoping it would last.
Our base for the trip would be Burns Farm Caravan & Campsite, a picture perfect site set in quintessential Lakeland scenery, at the heart of the Northern Lakes.
I’ve stayed at a number of sites post lockdown and I can safely say this was one of the best, both in terms of their protocols to ensure the safety of those staying, and for the sense of good spirit among fellow campers and motorcaravanners, all of whom were only too happy to chat – from a safe distance – and share the great enjoyment of being outdoors. Which brings us back to the present…
Heading for the sunrise
The gentle buzz of the alarm on my watch wakes me at 5am. The temptation is to ignore it and go back to sleep, but knowing that we have two days of good weather, at best, I pull back the curtains and peer out of the ‘van window.
The sky’s still dark and there’s a smattering of stars burning brightly, but I know it will soon be dawn and with it, the first slivers of light. If we are to make it to our planned destination for sunrise, we need to get a move on! Bleary-eyed and in urgent need of a reviving cup of hot coffee, I drag myself out of bed and turn on the gas stove to boil the kettle.
Up to the mountains
The first pedal strokes are always the hardest at this time of day, but once we are moving and the caffeine has kicked in, it becomes easier – that is, until we start climbing a steep gravel track that leads straight up the mountain filling the sky in front of us. The final few hundred metres force us off our bikes, to climb a series of wooden steps leading up and over the peak. Neither of us expected such a majestic view, with the sun slowly rising behind the wall of rock that flanks the far side of Thirlmere reservoir, its silvery waters stretching off into the distance. We stand in silence, lost in the moment.
Early morning walk
It’s worth mentioning here that Raven Crag, which is where we found ourselves stopping to admire the stunning surroundings, can just as easily be reached without cycling up the mountain, and would make for a very pleasant early morning walk.
For us, it’s the perfect start to our Sunday, reminding both Nick and me that on days like this, there are few places we’d rather be in the world than right here are home in the UK. Just as well, given the lack of travel options at present!
Down from the mountain, we swap our bikes for wetsuits and head to Bassenthwaite Lake. Nick, a superb swimmer, disappears from sight before I have even fully made my way in, taking a moment to adjust to the coolness of the water and admire what is another stunning vista.
The water isn’t actually as cold as I had been expecting, but nevertheless, it sends a shiver down my spine as the first trickles seep in under my wetsuit. I have never really been much of a swimmer, given that I find the idea of going up and down in a pool rather tedious, but there’s something immensely satisfying about swimming in open water, feeling at one with nature.
But as much as I love adventure, there’s also a part of me that finds immense joy in taking a slow, lazy drive through the world around me. So, with the entire region bathed in the most glorious light, we spent the best part of three hours later that day driving up and over as many of the passes as the motorhome could handle, a fitting end to what had been a brilliant day.
Biking and hiking
The following day brings another early start, so that we can take on the original 90km ride I had planned the whole trip around.
Once more, we are rewarded with a spectacular sunrise, the golden orb emerging from behind the craggy peaks that fill our view after a slow climb up through the woods.
The view down the valley with waves of white cloud sliding down to fill it, is mesmerising. But I’m brought back to the present moment when I realise that my feet are wet. I look down to see a thick brown sludge covering them, a clear sign of things to come with sections of riding and hiking through the peaty moorland.
Despite the terrain being hard going, it’s very difficult to feel anything but sheer joy at being surrounded by some of the best scenery the UK has to offer and so we forge ahead, seemingly oblivious to our hardships.
The day is long and challenging, and there’s a collective sense of relief at finally making it back to the motorhome 12 hours after setting off.
Even by my standards, this was an adventure that pushed the limits somewhat, but equally, one that – once we are showered and sat down to hearty plates of pie, peas, potatoes and gravy – can be reflected on with a sense of satisfaction at having made it through together.
The weather forecasts were correct, after two days of brilliant sunshine, we are woken on the third day by the patter of rain on the motorhome roof, forcing us to rethink our plans to spend the day hiking up Helvellyn.
Even in dry conditions, this is a challenging hike, let alone with thick cloud and persistent rain to contend with. We consider our options over tea and cake, and decide that we will brave the elements and head out on a short walk up to the relatively low peak of Latrigg.
While this is a fairly straightforward route, it does offer impressive views from the summit, looking back down to Keswick and across to Derwentwater and Bassenthwaite Lake, both of which look gloomy under sombre skies.
Our final day sees us head back to Honister Pass, having already cycled and driven over one of the region’s three most iconic passes (Hardknott and Wrynose being the others) in the past few days.
As well as some incredibly steep roads, it’s here that you will find the Honister Slate Mine, which offers visitors excellent tours, giving an insight into the history of the mine, as well as something a little more adrenaline-fuelled, in the shape of the Via Ferrata.
The Via Ferrata (‘iron road’) is a series of giant metal pins and steel cables, forming a path up and around the side of sheer cliff faces, where climbers can test their physical skills and abilities, and their mental resolve.
As I hang from the side of the cliff, with rain cascading down and the valley floor hundreds of feel below me, I am reminded of Baz Luhrmann’s song ‘Everybody’s Free’. No, not the advice to wear sunscreen: the bit about doing something every day that scares you.
I’m certainly doing that – every time I have to unclip a carabiner to move along he next section of the cliff face, my heart beats harder, leaving me questioning my sanity fo agreeing to do this in the first place. Needless to say, I am thankful to have terra firma under my feet again!
WHEN TO GO
The best weather in the Lakes tends to be in summer and autumn. But even in winter, with clear skies, the region is truly magical.
WHERE WE STAYED
- Burns Farm Caravan & Campsite
- Kesiwck, Cumbria, CA12 4RR
- Tel 01768 779 112
- Web burns-farm.co.uk
- Open all year
- Touring pitches 30
- Charges (Pitch+2+hook-up) £30
Bailey Autograph 74-4 (2020)
FIND OUT MORE
The Lake District National Park website is a great resource, with plenty of useful information to help you plan your trip.
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Despite the terrain being hard going, it's very difficult to feel anything but sheer joy at being surrounded by some of the best scenery the UK has to offer