Some time back I posted Dick Callum – Pioneer Mountain Biker? which referenced a passage in Pigeon Post about Dick’s wild ride downhill on a ‘dromedary’—alternatively “a girl’s bike two sizes too big for him”.
That was in 2014, before recent developments in off-road riding, especially the advent of the gravel bike. For the uninitiated, a gravel bike may superficially resemble a road bike but with space for fatter tyres and with adjustments to the setup to make it more forgiving on rougher trails. (For more see this link by my friend and colleague Chiz Dakin, or just Google ‘what is a gravel bike?’).
My partner and I acquired gravel bikes a few years ago and have had enormous fun exploring trails in the Lakes and elsewhere with them. They obviously aren’t as capable on really steep or rough trails as a genuine mountain bike (but I’d take my gravel bike over the average ‘supermarket special’ any day). Where they really shine is when you need use tarmac to link sections of trail, where a gravel bike really skims along compared to an MTB.
With years of mountain biking as well as riding various trails on cyclo-cross bikes and more recently gravel bikes, I felt I had something to contribute when I was approached by Out There Guides, an imprint of Northern Eye Books, who were branching out beyond their very successful walking books into cycling. After discussion with publisher Carl Rogers and series editor Tom Hutton, we decided to focus on what we later called “the often-overlooked gap between easy forest roads and hardcore mountain biking.”
While a modern gravel bike is ideal for these rides, they would also be possible on a range of other bikes. As I say in the book, “Any kind of mountain bike (MTB) will serve you well, though full-suspension bikes especially are heavier than gravel bikes. A good quality hybrid bike is also a possibility, but you might want to try it on one of the easier rides first.” I could also have mentioned cyclo-cross bikes and good solid old-school touring bikes, but space was tight.
Obviously there was a lot of exploring and route-checking to be done, but I already had a pretty good idea of where most of the rides were likely to be, and most of them were in or close to Ransome country. This isn’t bias on my part; geology and history have combined to create a richer network of trails in this southern quadrant of the National Park than elsewhere.
Most obviously, there’s a ride from Coniston around the Tilberthwaite area. With its extensive and fascinating old quarries, it’s rich in the atmosphere of Pigeon Post—but did Ransome have any of these trails specifically in mind when he wrote “the dromedary was jolting (Dick) almost to pieces as it slipped and jumped and jibbed and skidded and bucked over the loose stones in the old path down the wood”? Maybe, maybe not. I never felt like I was being ‘jolted almost to pieces’ on any of these trails, and I don’t think that’s all down to the superiority of modern bikes.
Another ride with a connection to AR’s life, though not obviously to the landscape of the books, takes you around the Cartmel valley. At one point it passes very close to Wall Nook, where AR stayed as a young man and from where he sometimes set out on epic walks to Coniston (and back) to call on the Collingwood family. However the real highlight of this ride is the trail along the flanks of Hampsfell before the end.
Deep in the heart of Ransome country, there’s also a ride along the west shore of Windermere and back via Hawkshead. In a much quieter corner a few miles to the west and south is the ride from Blawith over Subberthwaite Common. At one point this ride isn’t terribly far from Lowick Hall, where AR and Evgenia lived for a while, so he may have known the lanes, though by this stage in his life I’m sure he wouldn’t have been taking a dromedary over the tracks. There are steep climbs here, but on tarmac, while the off-road stuff is all pretty amenable, and takes you past some fascinating archaeological sites, both prehistoric and mediaeval.
I’d also like to mention the first volume in the ‘Great Bike Rides’ series, which has been out for some months already. This is ‘Family Cycle Rides in the Lake District’ by Alf Alderson, and does pretty much what it says on the tin. There’s partial overlap with a few of my rides but nothing to worry about. I had some editorial input into this one and provided quite a number of photos.
Either (or both!) of these books offer plenty of inspiration to explore the lake country by bike. It really is one of the best ways to see the district, and I don’t think Arthur Ransome would have had any quarrel with that.