The Lakeland Passes

I’ve been going to the Lake District for many years now and until recently this was mainly to climb the fells. Working my way slowly through the Wainwrights (the 214 peaks that Alfred Wainwright so lovingly wrote about and catalogued) is what I’ve been up to. What Wainwright would have thought about cyclists I can only guess, I suspect he would have taken a dim view of the mixture of lycra and carbon swishing down the lanes of his beloved Lake District. If he were a cyclist I’m sure he would have ridden a Hetchins, a Coventry Eagle or similar, fixed wheel of course and complete with leather saddle bag.

Once a cyclist always a cyclist though and over the years I’ve often wondered what it must be like to ride over the high passes. So last year for the first time I compromised my fell walking with some cycling. Staying at Pooley Bridge I was well placed to tackle Kirkstone Pass as well as Hartside on the Penrith to Alston road just outside the National Park. For those who aren’t so familiar with the Lakes Kirkstone is one six major passes, these being: Honister, Newlands, Whinlater, Wrynose, Hardknott and Kirkstone itself. There are lots of other tough climbs in the area; the Struggle, which leaves Ambleside to also to meet at the Kirkstone Pass and the long haul from Ullswater over Matterdale End to join the A66 to name but two. The six big passes have always fascinated me though, could I ride them without getting off or collapsing in a slavering mess?

I could simply have made my life easier, no come to think of it harder, by entering the Fred Whitton Challenge which takes in all six in a 112 mile sportive ride. I wanted to ride them on my own terms though i.e. more easily, over a greater length of time and when the weather is clement. I have applied this principle to the Wainwrights too and it has served me well so far, allowing me to savour them and absorb them to my memory rather than merely endure them and tick them of my list. Another way to get well on the way to completing them is to attempt the Bob Graham Round, a 72 mile 42 peak fell run that you must do in under 24 hours to become a member of the club. I do a bit of fell running as well as walking but I thought better of that!

I wrote about doing Kirkstone in my October diary and as I did it I was already thinking of the next. I went back in March to the traditional Lakes mixed bag of weather – hail, snow, driving rain and high winds – but fortunately in between this two good days for cycling. This time I was staying at Bassenthwaite so I was well placed for Whinlater (the easiest) Newlands and Honister. So I left Bassenthwaite on a cool but sunny morning and headed towards Braithwaite. Whinlater Pass starts in the village and rises quite steeply (around 15% or so) for a short distance then flattens off a bit, at this point I started to feel quite comfortable, then I saw the sign which told me that the visitors’ centre is 2.5 miles away and the road reared up again quite steeply for about half a mile so down through the gears I went. Thankfully the gradient eased after this and the rest of the climb was comfortable, well quite comfortable but I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t pleased to reach the top. The descent from the visitors’ centre to Lorton was glorious and from here I followed the signs for Buttermere where the next challenge awaited me.

The road from Lorton to Buttermere was wonderfully quiet and the scenery was beautiful but my anxiety about tackling Newlands started to get the better of me and I didn’t fully appreciate it. I’d put myself under pressure by wearing my Wheelers Top so I didn’t want to disgrace the club by getting off and pushing. The climb of Newlands starts in the village of Buttermere itself and kicks up steeply for the first section before levelling off and even going downhill for a short section. From here though the picture is grim as for the next mile or so it’s steep and unrelenting with gradients never less than around 15% with the top rising to 25% just to finish you off, soon I was in bottom gear and out of the saddle. A nagging headwind almost brought me to a halt as a quick glance at my computer showed the speed dropping to 6 then 5 mph – the shame! The descent through the Newlands Valley back to Braithwaite was one of the finest cycling experiences that I have ever had, watch out for the sharp hairpin though, which at 25% can easily catch you out as it comes when you think the descent is more or less over.

Two days later I was out on the bike again and hungry for more pain, or I’d forgotten about the last ride, I can’t remember which. A strong 20 mph wind had forced me to rethink my route. Originally I wanted to tackle Honister from the Borrowdale side where the steepest section is at the bottom before it eases, whereas from the Buttermere side it gradually increases in gradient. My own preference is for climbs that start steep rather than finish steep. Tacking Honister this way though would mean riding straight into a 20 mph wind. So here I was making my way up the Newlands Valley to tackle the Newlands pass from the other side, the easier side, before going on to do Honister. Easier it may be but into a wind and with a short 25% top section that seemed steeper it proved harder than I thought. I had the descent to recover and then following a sharp left at the bottom I made my way to the foot of Honister. The climb itself starts at Gatesgarth Farm at the foot of Fleetwith Pike. The road barely rises to start with and follows the valley floor, I felt like a dot riding up the steep sided valley with Dale Head looming above me on the left and the towering Honister Crags seemingly overhanging on the right. Gradually the road steepens and becomes twistier until you can see exactly what you are faced with. The building at the top of the pass that provides the hub for the Honister Slate Mines and the cafe seems an age away as my legs begin to feel it and my breathing quickens. A river was running down the road as a result of the overnight rain and the melt water from snow earlier in the week.

Then all of a sudden it really starts and soon I am at the first really difficult section, it seems steeper than the 20% stated on the signs but I know that this is always the case, I click down into bottom gear. A brief, very brief, respite from the pain as the road eases to about 15% then the final push to the top, it’s 25% all the way and it seems too far, I’ll never make it, but strangely it’s easier than it should be and soon I crest the top and take in the view down Borrowdale. The descent is not enjoyable, it’s wet, gravely and too steep to feel confident letting the brakes off, but there again I’m not the greatest of descenders, and it’s a relief to finally reach the bottom. Now it’s just 20 miles back to the cottage, most of it down the stunning Borrowdale valley.

So that’s four down and two to go, but the two remaining are the hardest. Even driving over Hardknott is an experience as it’s incredibly steep at 33% and the surface is now really rough and Wrynose is not much easier. Still they will have to be done one day, maybe on my mountain bike!

If anyone is thinking of trying out the passes think about gearing. If you’re a strong rider you might, might, get away with a 39 or 42 inner ring and for most riders this would probably be fine for Whinlater and maybe Kirkstone. For the others I would advise a compact or even a triple and having driven over Wrynose/Hardknot many times I would go equipped with all the gears you can get your hands on. I rode with a compact chainset and a 25 largest rear sprocket and I’m not ashamed to say that I needed it on the top of Newlands and Honister. I will probably look at putting a cassette with a 29 on it for Hardknott if, no when, I do it.

For all you fans of statistics here you are:

Pass Height above sea level (metres) Length Steepest section Nearest town(s)/village(s)
Kirkstone 453 5k (Windermere side) 20% (short section only) Windermere/Patterdale Ambleside if going up the Struggle
Honister 356 3k 25% Buttermere/Seatoller
Newlands 333 2k 25% Buttermere
Whinlater 370 4.5k (Braithwaite side) 25% (short section only) Braithwaite/Lorton
Wrynose 390 3k 25% Cockley Beck
Hardknott 393 2k 33% Brotherilkeld/Cockley Beck

If you decide to have a go good luck!

Paul Christon – April 2009

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Posted on April 18, 2009, in Article. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on The Lakeland Passes.

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