Lake District Day 1: Coniston water & Britain's steepest road

I've been meaning to get to the Lake District for a long time now, it's an area in Northern England near Scotland known for it's rocky moss-covered mountains (known as Fells) rising up between lakes which dot the rugged slate covered rocky landscape.  It's famous for England's tallest mountain as well as the serene beauty of the lakes.

I departed London Euston on the 06:05 Virgin train to Glasgow, I wasn't too sure where to put my bike but discovered that they are normally stored in a special compartment on the A carriage on the Pendolino series of trains.  However I later found that four other cyclists boarded with their bikes and that I was meant to reserve a spot for mine when buying my ticket.  As the other cyclists had reserved theirs, I was the odd one out.  The ticket inspector realised that I didn't have a reservation for my bike and insisted that I get off the train at the next stop! However I pleaded with him as all our bikes fit into the compartment without any trouble, it was mostly the driver who was having a bad day and protested.  Thankfully he had a change of heart and allowed me to carry on... phew!  The next time I had a chance I made a reservation for my bike on the return journey as I didn't want to have to deal with this again.

Upon arriving at my accommodation, I quickly changed and headed out on the road.  I had planned a few different rides and decided to ride a route which went down to Coniston water, around the back and over Hardknott and Wrynose passes.  Both these passes were notorious for being the steepest roads in Britain, at 20-30% gradient these will have been the steepest climbs I have ever ridden.

I started off my journey by heading down towards Coniston water, which is the third largest lake in the area, it's a long and narrow lake which is called a ribbon lake.  There was a quiet road which ran down along the eastern side of the lake which I decided to go down which had some amazing autumnal scenery.

When I got down to the end of Coniston water I headed north west towards Torver and then back around the back of the fells near the small town of Ulpha.  The landscape was criss-crossed by the slate fences along laneways dividing lush, green fields habited by plenty of sheep.  I rode up and along these little laneways and down the other side which proved to be quite a technical challenge, the roads surface was quite rough to say the very least.

The descent down towards the river Duddon was interesting... Normally I try not to drag brakes as it causes too much heat buildup and increases the chance of fade.  However due to the gradient as well as the wet, leaf-strewn bumpy & narrow road I had little choice but hold onto the brakes for most of the time.  The problem was that if I released the brakes I would gain a lot of speed very quickly and hard braking before corners would most likely have caused me to skid off the road!  At the bottom of the descent you could hear the raindrops hitting the front disc rotor and instantly sizzling from the heat...

I eventually reached a valley and then came upon Birker Fell, which was just a sign of things to come, the gradient up this was 25% for about 1km...

However at the top there was this barren ochre coloured mossy landscape, blanketed by a fog with which came the occasional drops of rain and mist.  It was quite unusual compared to other parts as it was almost like a slightly undulating barren plateau, with very few landmarks or buildings.  It almost seemed like an alien landscape in a way.

Now onto what you may have been waiting for... Hardknott pass.  After a long, straight flat road through the town of Eskdale I was greeted by this sign.  I had tried to prepare myself by meticulously planning this, I also lowered the gearing on my bike significantly in preparation for this.  However the reality of this pass was a lot more foreboding...

The first part of the climb starts in a carpark and is about 30% gradient, I found it difficult to even get started and my legs started to cramp up where they never had before.  I found myself weaving diagonally across the road trying to reduce the gradient.  There was an intermittent stream of cars ascending and descending the pass which I also had to dodge and give way to.  This was not going to be an easy climb.

Light was fading fast, and my legs were crying out for salvation... I admit I had to stop a few times to catch my breath.  Perhaps the 1 or 2 hours of sleep as well as the remnants of a cold didn't help, definitely this would have been better done at the beginning of the ride rather than at the end with tired legs.

Eventually, I made it to the summit, light was fading really quickly and suddenly the heavens opened up.  I wasn't able to take any more photos due to this.  Again the descent was treacherous to say the least, even with my disk brakes the sheer steepness of the gradient and the narrow, rough and slippery road meant that there was a real danger of skidding and going over the side, crashing into an oncoming car or hitting a large pothole at high speed.  I was constantly battling down this descent, holding on the brakes for dear life, all this when it was dark and raining with very little visibility through my rain-mottled glasses.   Thankfully I reached the bottom in one piece...

Then there was still Wrynose pass to conquer, this wasn't as long or as steep as the Hardknott ascent however at this point it was raining, I was cold and wet and it was dark.  I only had my headlight to guide me through the pitch black in a white LED tunnel, with steep verges on either side of the road falling in to black nothingness I was starting to wonder what the hell I was doing here and why I wasn't snuggled up in bed...  Finally I made it to the top and descended down into Little Langdale and rode home; wet, tired and demoralised.  This turned out to be one of the toughest rides I've done in a while.  After what seemed like an eternity, the sight of my B&B and the thought of a hot shower brought a feeling of great relief like if I had walked the desert for a week and found an oasis.  I had originally intended to do this climb twice, at this point that wasn't going to happen.  But deep down I knew that I would want to do it again some day.

Continued in Part 2...


  1. Lovely pictures and account. Eskdale is my favourite bit of the Lakes. And autumn & winter are the best times to visit - far less tourists about!

    1. Thanks! Yes I was only there for three days and I am already thinking about coming back. Love the pics on your blog as well.