I did a Coast to Coast (C2C) cycle ride in September from Whitehaven (Cumbria) to Tynemouth (near Newcastle) on the North Sea. Amazing that was, and I'll tell you about it sometime. But, during a 'day off' I cycled over a pass. I had done it once before, when I was young and fit, thirty years ago - in a car. Sensibly I've waited till I'm much less fit before tackling it on a bike - which seems a bit daft.
(Click on the photos to enlarge them)
Honister Pass is a section of highway destined to strike dread into those with inadequate equipment (legs). But, as I’m here, I’m determined to give it a go. This is an unscheduled diversion from the main event, but for various reasons it became very much part of my great trundle. The first reason was the weather. It is just one of those days - sunny, virtually cloudless and still.
As is my wont I leave early, just after six, on a small back road out of Braithwaite. It becomes clear immediately that this will not be the fastest ride in history because I’ll be stopping every few yards to take in the scenery and take photographs.
A mile out I’m in rolling farmland surrounded by slopes and peaks in differing hues of magical colours as the sun creeps up over the horizon. Because I’m surrounded by big hills, some of the lower slopes will be in the shade for a good while, but when the sun strikes the ferns and grassland, the colours are all shades of dark orange through to light auburn. It really is breathtaking. In the first half hour I see one vehicle, and that is a farm tractor. No other people. What there are instead is hundreds and hundreds of pheasant, mostly female. They are all over the fields and running down the road in front of me.
It feels like every turn of the wheel there’s a better view and another photo opportunity. As I climb the trees thin out until I’m left with the bracken, heather and moorland grass. There are also little streams that tumble down the slopes, their course defined by dark green reeds. Cows lower down in the walled / fenced fields have given way to sheep, unfettered, who dot the fells. There don’t look to be many, but as I pass I see quite a number tucked away, hidden among the bracken.
My single track road winds upwards and in the distance I can see a white dot on the skyline in a ‘V’ where the road snakes over the crest. The white dot turns out to be a campervan spending the night with a terrific view. The final few hundred metres are really very steep so I’m on maximum bike boost with lots of pedal power. Naturally, the view when I get to the top and turn round is breathtaking.
What surprises me is the number of vehicles that have spent the night up here. At least I presume they have because nothing has passed me. Unless they came up the other side, but that seems unlikely. There must be ten or a dozen, a mixture of cars and campervans. Some folk have camped out on the moors I think, but it’s hardly as if it’s congested, there’s plenty of space around here! Two couples are just setting off on a trek to conquer a peak. The other thing that amazes me is the very scale of the landscape. I’ve climbed quite a way but the mountains soar above me. Hillsides, a number of miles away in reality, look close enough to touch. I take a photo of a rather nice-looking black sheep and it rewards me with having a poo!
So, I’ve conquered the pass and down I go. This side is even more precipitous and the bracken-covered fells closer to the road. It’s quite claustrophobic in a way and I’m glad my hydraulic brakes have been checked out. I’m also glad I’ve done the ride in this direction because this is one long, steep hill and climbing up would have been a challenge. The sun is cresting the hill I’ve just climbed so the top half of the fells before me are rich auburn while the lower slopes are deep red/brown. It’s a magical sight.
I get down to Buttermere at the bottom. There’s a sign to Cockermouth and Lorton (where I had lunch yesterday) to the right, while to he left, Keswick. Via Honister Pass. Now I think I’ve had a dumb moment because I could have sworn I just done Honister Pass. I’m looking a bit perplexed but a chap wearing some very smart walking boots, ruck-sack and a pair of poles, tells me, no, that is Newlands Pass you’ve been over, Honister is that way!
So, I’ve climbed about 800 feet from Keswick to the top of Newlands Pass. Most of that was gradual, just the last bit was testy. Now I’ve got another 800 feet from Buttermere to the top of Honister.
There’s barely a breath of wind and Buttermere itself is like a mirror despite there being the odd early-bird paddle boarder in the distance. Just every now and then a zephyr ruffles the surface but it soon flattens again. It’s the kind of scene you want to wrap up and carry round with you.
Like Newlands, the majority of Honister Pass from Buttermere is gently uphill. It’s just the last bit where it’s steep. There are numerous campervans and cars ticked in lay-bys or solid ground just off the road. It’s still only about 8.30 AM so most people are just getting themselves moving. I wave and exchange greetings. People are happy, they realize they are in a special place.
Two lads are just emerging from a VW van. Not a camper as such, just an ordinary panel van without windows. I’ve puled over to take a photos of my surroundings and the road ahead. It’s peculiar who you come across, but if you don’t bother to say hello in the first place you miss out on some right gems. Like this one. The lads are rock-climbers. A pastime that fills me with dread. I really am no good with heights - we even bought a bungalow. I admire anyone who can scale a rock wall, but watching climbers makes me feel queasy. One of them has an interesting job. He is right-hand man / assistant to a high wire walker! I kid you not. He builds the high scaffold-type towers between which the wire is strung. Frankly, I’m not sure whether he’s taking the mickey to start with but he tells me to look it up an my phone. The high-wire artist himself is called Chris Bull. he though that name a bit tame so added ‘zini’ to it. Chris Bullzini! Now that’s now a proper entertainers name. Go on, look it up! He’s described thus: ‘A world class high-wire walker, Chris Bullzini leads an intrepid troupe of aerial artists and musicians.’
It’s amazing who you come across.
So up I go. The last portion is very steep, some of it 1 in 4 and I reach Honister Hause (the Cumbrian word for saddle) at about 9.00 AM. There are quite a few people about and one clueless bird in a 4 X 4 would have flattened my rear wheel if I hadn’t taken emergency avoidance measures.
I brought my Mum on holiday to the Lakes nearly forty years ago. There were just the two of us and I remember buying a slate table from the shop attached to the slate mine here. It’s designed as a chess board, about 2 ft square, and weighs a tonne. It’s a treasured memory of the limited time I spent with my Mum. She died not long after. I still have the table 35 years later. Back then it was basically just the two of us among the mountains. The mountains remain, but the impatient, world has invaded and I’m glad we came when I did.
I'll take the single-track road that winds away down into the distance. The view with the mountains in the background is stunning. The ride itself is spectacular, all the way down to Borrowdale, almost four miles away. Then along the valley floor to Keswick and back to the campsite. The valley road is really busy as I head towards Derwentwater. That’s at 9.30 in the morning and riding a bike is rather precarious. I’m glad to get back for breakfast.
I’ve done 22 miles. It’s taken over three hours, but there’s no way I could rush an experience like that.