Monday, 6 June 2016

Cycling the Lakes and Dales Loop

Distance: 196 Miles (we did 207.5 miles)
Ascent: 16,968ft (5,172m)
Time: 5 Days
Mode: Bike packed, camping on official sites along the way

The official 196-mile Lakes and Dales Cycle Loop circumnavigates the Lake District passing through some of the lesser-known parts of Cumbria and the Yorkshire Dales.  With nearly 17,000ft of ascent it is a pretty hilly route, which passes over several spectacular areas of high ground along the way.  Those ascents and subsequent descents however are an integral part of the routes character and make for some wonderful, if on occasions rather challenging riding. 

There are many ways of tackling the route.  You could employ our self guided method of having no fixed plan, carrying everything on the bike and camping along the way, take the lighter self guided option of using B&B, hostel, or hotel accommodation, or indeed use the services of a company who arrange accommodation and luggage transfers, along with maps and route notes (see links). 

There are advantages and disadvantages in each method of course and lugging all of your kit on the bike is certainly not for everyone.  In fact it is hard work and you may like me wonder at your sanity while struggling to keep the front wheel on the ground as you grind your way up the steep hairpins onto Birker Fell.  This method also takes a fair amount of planning and unfortunately as we experienced, several campsites are away from the route and involve extra mileage at the end of each day to get to them.

Getting to the start
The route can be joined at any point and can be done in either direction. Penrith with its good train links and accommodation options makes an ideal start point, as do Appleby and Grange-over-Sands.  Unfortunately if like us you live in a rural area on the east side of the Pennines in north east England it is impossibly complex and expensive to even consider trying to find a way using public transport.  For us a car was really the only option, but that left us with the problem of leaving it somewhere for 5 or 6 days and not coming to the attention of the police, or indeed anyone else.  We mulled over various options and in doing so wondered if any of the companies who offer cycling holidays would allow us to pay for parking on their premises.  The first company I contacted was Inspiring Cycling (see links) and while they could not offer such a service, Jason did helpfully suggest a bike friendly guesthouse in Penrith that might.  A quick email to the Norcroft Guesthouse and John and Kim came up trumps offering a weeks parking with the fee going to a charity they support.

Day 1: Penrith to Sedbergh (50 miles)
Originally we had planned to head clockwise around the route, but as the Appleby fair was to start on our final day we opted to head the opposite way and avoid getting caught up in it.

Leaving Penrith was fairly straight forward, however the positioning of the signs, all of which lacked arrows hinted at the route finding problems to come.  While on the subject of route finding and navigation we did try to download the GPX files from the official Lakes and Dales Loop website, but our Satmap 12 could not cope with the number of waypoints and simply locked up.  After several attempts I gave up and instead cut up our road atlas, marked the route on it with highlighter and used the GPS without waypoints as back up.  This worked fairly well although as you will read the lack of direction arrows and poor positioning of the L&D Loop signs caused us no end of frustration.

Once out of Penrith we headed along easy quiet roads before joining the busy A686 for a short distance to reach Langwathby.  After that it was further easy cycling through typical Eden valley villages to Dufton.  Here we had a pleasant half hours rest in the sun alongside other cyclists out on day rides at the little cafe. 

A welcome break in Dufton

Sausage buns and a couple of cups of tea fuelled us through Appleby and onwards to Great Asby.  Badly placed signs meant we headed the wrong way, wasting over half an hour and a lot of energy heading up a steep road towards the B6260.  Once I realised our mistake it was either head back down or continue further on to reach the B road.  We opted for the latter and dropped down into Orton feeling annoyed at going wrong so early in the route. After that we vowed to double check the map where the L&D Loop signs were placed in rather ambiguous locations.    

Orton is supposed to have a campsite nearby at Raisbeck, but after checking online, the number of negative reviews made this a less than ideal option and as we still felt ok we decided to push on for Sedbergh.  From Orton yet more faffing with a badly marked route meant checking with the map at every junction and this slowed us down considerably.  Eventually we crossed above the M6 and began tackling the undulating road along the lower slopes of the Howgills.  With every little stream that crossed the road involving a steep up and down we were starting to feel pretty tired and took a break midway along to enjoy the late afternoon sunshine and recharge the energy levels. 

On reaching Sedbergh, we were unsure where the nearest campsites were and after chatting to a local, followed his directions until we spotted a tent and caravan sign pointing towards the Pinfold campsite.  It was downhill all the way and thinking the day was over we cheerfully approached reception only to be told they did not take tents.  The bloke was clearly not a cyclist and we were given directions to sites several miles away, one of which was in Dent.  We had already cycled 48 miles and it as it was after 6.00pm by now, the thought of yet more miles was not pleasant prospect.  A quick check of the map and our campsite list showed a campsite that took tents a few miles off our route.  With the only other option to wild camp we simply had to get on with it.
After all those miles the ascent of Holme Fell was a bit of a leg screamer and it was a relief to reach the campsite in the valley below.  The owners were lovely friendly people and the site was in a lovely setting, unfortunately the campsite facilities really were pretty dire, which was a shame.  That said by that stage in the day we really didn't care and were glad to have a shower, grab some food and get some sleep.

Day 2: Sedbergh to Grange-Over-Sands (43 miles)

Holme Farm Campsite, beautiful situation, wonderful owners, but the facilities really need updating.

We woke to cloudless blue skies and even the re-ascent of Holme Fell to get back on route could not dampen our spirits.  Passing into Dentdale we made our way gently along hedge and tree lined roads towards the pretty village of Gowthrop.  Here many of the hay meadows on this stretch were yellow with buttercups and in the pastures lambs played in little creche like groups chasing each other along the hedge backs.  

After the initial steep bit into the village we had a short stop for some food and drink before tackling the steep hill that led up to the pass.  At the top we spent a few minutes recovering and savouring the views down into Barbondale.  For every up there is a down and we soon found ourselves being swept down the road towards the village of Barbon.  


Just before the village a left turn took us along more undulations to Kirby Lonsdale.  Again the signage left a lot to be desired and a coned off path threw us off course and onto the junction with A65.  Being a bank holiday Sunday it was heaving with motor bikes and cars so we about turned and took the coned off path which led sharply down to a traveller encampment just before Devils Bridge.  The area was absolutely packed with bikers and holiday makers, so we headed up into Kirby Lonsdale in search of a cafe.  Sadly there was nowhere at all to safely leave out bikes outside any of the cafes, and on the one we did try we were told we could not leave our bikes there either.  Being so bike unfriendly we headed to the Spar and while I stayed with our bikes and kit Moira bought some sandwiches and drinks to eat in the little square next door.  

Square in Kirkby Lonsdale

On leaving a lack of meaningful L&D Loop signage again meant another frustrating time trying to find the correct way out of town.  Once we had escaped it was back to lovely riding along quiet lanes until we crossed over the Lancaster canal.  It was such a pleasant place we had another short break to savour the view and top up the energy levels.  

Lancaster Canal

June is a lovely time to do this route

Moving on we crossed over the M6 and made our way along a network of quiet car wide narrow lanes just to the north of the Kent Estuary near Levens.  


After Levens the route headed southwest, again using a mixture of quiet roads and lanes, and with a short section of dedicated cycle path to avoid the busy A59 it was all rather pleasant in the swarm sunshine.  This easy cycling soon brought us to Meathrop and a few short climbs later we dropped down to meet with the rather busy main road leading through Grange-over-Sands.   Taking the Cartmel road we stopped off at the first campsite we came to a few hundred metres up the hill.  The reception was shut and the place was rammed with massive tents, but on ringing the owners they said find a spot and pitch up.  Easy to say but hard to do and we could only find a steep slope to pitch on.  So steep in fact I woke several times to find myself all squashed up at the bottom of the tent.

Day 3: Grange-Over-Sands to Eskdale Green (40 miles).
Arriving at the reception as instructed just after 9.00am to pay, there was nobody about.  We hung around and tried ringing the number so we could at least find out how much it was and leave the money somewhere, but all we got was an answering machine.   We had a long day ahead and did not want to wait around for who knows how long, so told the person living in a static caravan who helpfully came out to say they might be around the site somewhere we would contact them and pay later (Edit - many days later and after several emails from me trying to arrange payment they tried to charge us £17.00 for a tiny mountain tent, no electric, car etc.) Fortunately there is an excellent campsite a few miles further up the road so think I will vote with my feet next time. 

Yet again it was a steep hill to start the day, but with the sun shining and the day still cool it was no hardship and we soon found ourselves at Cartmel.  The place was an absolute hive of activity with closed roads and people arriving for the Cartmel races and the Cartmel Music Weekender featuring the likes of Jools Holland and Simply Red.  We had planned to have a look around the village but not wanting to end up being affected by the road closures we grabbed a sausage bun and a drink from the shop on the corner and headed on our way.   Unfortunately it wasn't long before we fell foul of the temporary L&D Loop signs again and wasted time at every junction trying to ensure we were still on the correct route.  Surely whoever put these signs up must have been aware that placing a L&D Loop sign without a direction arrow on the central post of a four way junction is absolutely meaningless.  Typically we would then arrive at the next junction only to find it did not have a sign and we were left wondering if we had gone wrong.  Eventually we made it to Newby Bridge and by accident of yet more ambiguous signage ended up spending a pleasant half hour next to Lake Windermere. 


More by luck than good judgement we somehow ended up back on route, but that said it was a real struggle keeping it that way and we ended up exploring a couple of roads and hills twice. We knew we had two major climbs ahead namely Ulpha Moor and Birker Fell and at one stage were seriously thinking of ignoring the official route and making our own way. In the end we somehow managed to find our way to Broughton-in-Furness via the correct route.  

Here we met two cyclists we had chatted with earlier in the afternoon.  Being on unladen road bikes their prediction that they would be finishing their tea just as we arrived was spot on and we spent a few more minutes chatting about routes, food, teashops and the climbs we faced ahead... a typical cyclists conversations really.   This conversation again highlighted the friendliness of just about everyone we met on this ride

Standing chatting was not going to get us anywhere and we soon headed off towards the start of the climbing.  What can we say about the climbs here other than it felt pretty tough on some sections, yet this was more than made up for by the rugged lakeland setting.  This was especially true as we dropped down off Ulpha moor towards Duddon Bridge. 

Duddon Bridge
Once over the bridge we were straight into more climbing up onto the high ground above Eskdale.  With expansive views towards the highest mountains of the Lake District it was a spectacular place to be cycling. 

Moira says she had not eaten so much in the last couple of days that she had she put weight on, it was the breeze inflating her jacket... honest
My excuse I would like to say was also the breeze, but we all know the truth... 

On the descent into Eskdale it was fortunate I was fully loaded and going slowly when an idiot in a white BMW swerved onto my side of the road and drove straight at me.  I was almost stopped and within a split second of leaping off my bike when he looked up from whatever he was doing and swerved back onto his side of the road.  As a regular cyclist I am well used to moronic driving and cycle with that in mind, but even so it was a close enough call to leave me shaken; sadly it was not the last encounter with such idiotic driving on this trip.

Moving on it was not too long before we made our way to Eskdale Green and a friendly welcome at the campsite. 

Day 4: Eskdale Green to Cockermouth (37 miles)
Despite having just eaten breakfast we had barely gone a couple of miles before we felt hungry, so we stopped off at the first shop we came to for a second helping.  That's the great thing about cycling, eating loads and no weight gain.  Heading on the riding was a lot more gentle than the hills of yesterday and comprised of a mixture of quiet lanes and few short but steep little hills.  Gosforth arrived quite quickly and after a brief distraction where we entered a cafe advertised as open all day, only to be told they don't open until eleven, we soon found ourselves on the A595.  This we knew was a very busy road that could not be avoided and we were dreading it.  Fortunately the drivers were considerate and in the few miles we were on it we regularly pulled over to allow the build up of traffic to clear.  At Calder Bridge we turned right and headed back into the Lake District.  The road now climbed for some considerable distance over towards Ennerdale and with the wind against us it was pretty tiring.

Eventually we crested the moor and enjoyed a lovely downhill with a newly opened cafe awaiting us just as we entered Ennerdale Bridge.  This gave us the fuel for the next uphill section to Loweswater.  For some reason I was starting to get a bit tired by now, but with the mountains rearing up ahead and the sun warming our muscles we really enjoyed this section.

Mellbreak Near Loweswater

On reaching Cockermouth we had a bit of a faff finding a campsite and eventually rolled into the Wyndham Hall Caravan Park around 5.30pm.  The reception had shut at 5.00pm, which seemed a bit daft as this is about the time most people start arriving. Unable to find anyone or even get an answer on the phone we set up our tent anyway.  When the bar opened we popped in to pay and see if they did food (they didn't) and spent part of the evening in the bar, listening to music and fuelling up with a couple of beers.  Well it would have been rude not to.

Day 5:  Cockermouth to Penrith (37 miles)
Instead of sunshine we woke to cloud and a cold northerly wind, which discouraged lazing around too much over a breakfast and by 08.30am we were packed and ready to go.  Yesterday the energy levels had been a bit low but today we were both feeling a bit Bradley Wiggins and left Cockermouth going like a good un.  After a few miles I heard Moira say she had a tick, but rather than stop I just slowed down a bit.  The tick tick of road chippings had been a bit of an annoying issue when they got trapped in our tread as the heat melted the tarmac.  A shout from behind left me in no doubt I was expected to stop NOW.  With a sigh I pulled up only to discover it was not a ticking noise, but an actual blood sucking tick dug into her arm.  Once removed and with skin crawling at the thought of others hitching a lift we headed up towards a cloud covered Skiddaw.

Cloudy today but the view no less spectacular across Bassenthwaite Lake
A while later as we passed the lower slopes of Binsey, and in a moments inattention to the way the signs were placed we were led astray yet again.  This time we found ourselves heading uphill into the village of Uldale.  Fortunately this mistake led us to an excellent little tearoom with a number of road bikes propped up outside.  Here we took the opportunity to down yet more tea along with a massive bacon bun.  Having cycled in this area before we knew it quite well, so rather than head back down hill we stuck to the high ground and were soon back on track again.

As the views opened out over the Caldbeck Fells we enjoyed a long mostly downhill ride to Hesket Newmarket.  Here we turned right towards Mungrisedale and accompanied by the wonderful coconut smell of flowering gorse we really enjoyed the long flowing road under Carrock Fell.  

Not too far from the end now

Carrock Fell

Just before we entered the village a left turn took us in a loop over to Greystoke where we stopped at the little post office cafe for...... yes you guessed it yet more food.  On leaving Greystoke we spotted the cyclists cafe (must visit it next time) and with the cycling still on the gentle side we soon found ourselves dropping down into Penrith.  On the last few hundred metres a couple of passing cyclists welcomed us with a "just finishing"?  "Well done".  A nice gesture and typical of the camaraderie we had experienced from many people on the ride.

So would we recommend doing the route, well in those 207 miles of wonderful cycling over 5 days there had quite literally been many ups and downs, but with mostly warm sunny weather along with the spectacular cycling and views, we truly could not have asked for more.  As for the issues with signs, don't let that put you off, once the permanent ones with arrows are up it will be even better.  In fact I think this will probably become a bit of a classic route and I would happily do it again.  In fact it would make a good video project, so who knows.

Useful Links

Text images David Forster


  1. Hi David, a really helpful account which prompted a few questions and a few thoughts.
    What time of year did you ride?
    How fit are you (realistically, I'm hoping you are average fit!). Harder than the C2C?
    I know you wanted to avoid the horse fair, but the official advice is to ride anti clockwise from Penrith. Sensible?
    It sounds as though there is work to be done by the relevant tourist board(s) to persuade cafes and village stores that cyclists are worth pushing out a little hospitality for. On the C2C everybody was friendly and welcoming.
    No mention of pubs - are you Methodists?
    Thanks again for a great blog with excellent photos. Isn't it strange that hills never look so steep in photos?
    Best wishes, Nick

    1. Hi Nick, thanks for the questions.

      We did the ride during the last few days of May and into June.

      Fitness wise I am probably of average fitness in the cardiovascular sense and tend to do single day bike rides of between 15 - and 35 miles a couple of times a week where possible. That said I am constantly dogged by back problems after having accident in my mid 30s, which meant I had to have spinal surgery, so when it comes to any exercise I am limited by that instead. My wife Moira incidentally was only doing a 20 - 25 mile ride once a week prior to setting off and did fine.

      As far as route direction goes. I think the official advice is sound and would happily do the ride in that direction.

      In the main the cafes and village stores were plentiful and friendly with the only exception being Kirby Lonsdale on the bank holiday, in that it was so busy we could not find a cafe where we could leave our bikes in view and a place in Gosforth that had a sign open all day, but on arriving were told by the staff it was not open until 11.00am.

      Campsites were a bit of a pain in that they are not always quite where you need them. For example Sedbergh did not have one on the route that took tents so we ended up with extra mileage at the end of the day and next morning. Seemed a big thing at the time as we were pretty tired, out of water and did not want to end up with a wild camp hiding under a bush somewhere along the Dent road.

      Ha, ha you made us laugh with the Methodists comment. Most evenings we could not be bothered to walk to the pubs and instead bought a couple of cans each to have with our meal on the campsite. Interestingly when we did end up in a pub (on a campsite) at Cockermouth, it only sold beer and not food which seemed a bit daft.

      Aye those hills never look steep, must tilt the camera more in future :-)

      Hope that helps