Postcards from the Lake District: Ullswater

After a trying ride from Penrith, the way the road wound down to the shores of Ullswater was a real treat. The curves in the serpentine road as it threaded its way downhill kept giving glimpses of the body of water that lay below, leading me right to its edge.

Once at the valley bottom and alongside Ullswater, the rain had stopped and the road, though busier, was smooth – and flat. Pushing on from this point felt easy, almost dreamlike, as the views across the lake revealed mist-shrouded fells, lone trees, and vast woods. The usual view was across Ullswater’s narrow middle, but as the road followed its curves, I could occasionally see up most of its length to far, sunlit reaches in the distance.

Although my proximity to the lake’s edge meant I could easily see the clarity of the water, the low, gloomy clouds and dull, muted colours of the surrounding fells gave Ullswater a black, oily appearance.

Following the road to Glenridding from this point was easy. The road mostly hugged the water’s edge, making for a flat ride that only occasionally rose to tackle a rocky outcrop before leading down to the level of the water once again. The mid-afternoon traffic heading towards Glenridding, Patterdale and onwards was steady, but not busy.

There’s something wonderful about a route that follows water. Roads and paths that hug rivers, canals and lakes feel very natural and organic – like the route wasn’t decided by a man with a measuring stick. Instead these routes feel obvious, direct and ancient. We are drawn to water’s edges and, where bodies of water are long and narrow, rather than wide and round, it makes sense to follow those edges from one point to another. And where a long narrow lake is hemmed in on both sides by steep hills, crags and mountains, this narrow strip of land becomes a habitable sanctuary – a thin ribbon granting passage to those who seek it.

But it’s easy to let your mind wander as you push on and on, your bike feeling heavier and heavier at each rise. One of the best ways to snap out of such meditations is the appearance of the sign welcoming you to your destination. Glenridding greeted me with the sight of a handful of hotels, a small shop or two, and the requisite tourist information centre.

The rain had long since stopped, and my swift progress meant I was well on the way to drying off – which was a bonus, because although I’d reached the village, my final destination lay a few kilometres further on, up Glenridding Beck.

Postcards from the Lake District: The road from Penrith

The route I’d picked to get from Penrith railway station to Ullswater and Glenridding wasn’t Google’s first suggestion. I’m a little suspicious of the cycling option when using Google’s route-finding tools – I’m still not sure how much it takes into account the rider’s legs, arse and mood.

Having managed to get myself and my two-wheeled machine on a train from Milton Keynes to Penrith, my hands trembled slightly with the anticipation of the unknown that lay before me. I’d checked the map carefully, but no route can be truly ‘known’ until it is actually used.

The ride out of Penrith was as uninspiring and swift as any exit of a town can be when new delights await. I was very quickly off the main road though, and following quiet lanes between fields and farms. The earlier portion wasn’t too hilly, and I enjoyed the gentle undulations and remote feeling. I stopped occasionally to check my map, and on one of these stops, a stray raindrop reminded me of the forecast I’d seen, and I pulled on waterproof overtrousers and fastened my raincoat. It was fortuitous that I did so at that point, because a torrent of rain suddenly appeared and stuck with me for much of the rest of my ride. I was at that point rather pleased that I’d carefully wrapped the contents of my backpack and pannier bags in individual carrier bags.

Pushing on from my layby changing room, I stashed my map in a zipped coat pocket. My decision to go rogue from Google’s first suggestion meant I now had to briefly join a dual carriageway. The rain was falling quite hard now, and it took some gritted teeth to pull out across the two opposite lanes into the one I needed, and a shallow incline meant I just had to push on and on, occasionally being passed by vast juggernauts. I was very quickly about as wet as it would be possible for me to get, which helped as the vertical spray from speeding motorists added to the horizontal downpour.

It’s safe to say I was pretty thrilled when it came time to leave the carriageway, and the sight of a narrow lane winding down the valley to Sparket Mill, though damp, was a lovely one. It wasn’t until I was at the bottom that I allowed myself to contemplate the necessity of climbing back up the other side. I managed it, but soggy shoes and heavy pannier bags made it hard work.

The roads were quieter than I’d expected – the only vehicle I remember overtaking me on this stretch was, of all things, a UPS truck. The ride was therefore a solitary one, but not a lonely one.

Once over another small ridge, I was greeted to the view seen above. The rain was abating, and the lush green hills were cloaked in mysterious swirling cloud. Most of the roads were now reduced to gullies, but I also knew that my route from the above point to Ullswater was almost completely downhill.