Ride Guide: Ullswater, A Mini-Epic!
Words: Phil Ingham | Images: Luke Webber
MTB Ride-Guide, November 2009
View Route: Map My Ride Link
In this ride, we get away from it all in the Lake District
Sometimes I yearn to get away from it all, yearn to take myself somewhere where the weather and terrain test me and where I can escape the safe capsule of everyday life. Mountain biking has always done this for me - just a couple of hours in the saddle can have a refreshing, revitalizing effect that lasts for days.
In this case, with a late November day set aside for a little adventure, the possibilities were endless. But, with a rotten weather forecast and weeks of rain already in the ground, it needed to be somewhere which offered all-weather trails. A gilded summer day some 15 years ago came to mind: a long haul over the northern end of the legendary Lakeland ridge of High Street, had ended with an exhausted run back along the bridleway which hugs the eastern shore of Ullswater.
It had been technical and grueling at the end of a long day, but, being predominantly rocky, it was just the centerpiece our ride needed. I'd just have to find a shorter route back than over High Street. A quick scan of the map revealed a tempting valley called Boredale, producing a circular route of perhaps 10 or 12 miles.
And so, after a spectacular drive over the Kirkstone Pass, the ride began from a small carpark off the A592, just north of Brothers Water, a tiny lake near the head of Patterdale. A brief warm-up ride along the road took us past the Patterdale Youth Hostel, before a sharp right, over a bridge and onto the narrow lane to the hamlet of Rooking.
Mountains, great trails, moody lakes and a rainbow - what more do you want?
All around, the high hills of the Lakes soared into fast-moving skies: clouds dashed by dragging skirts of rain and, higher up, snow, behind them. The sun broke through from time to time, highlighting a dusting of snow on the higher peaks and stringing double rainbows down the valley.
We were soon onto a rock-based bridleway which skirts along the Eastern shore of the huge expanse of water which is Ullswater. For all the sun and cloud, the lake remained a flat battleship grey, with ribbons of foam fracturing its surface. The aim was to make for Sandwick, half way along the lake, before heading south and returning through the tiny valley of Boredale.
As we worked our way along the bridleway, memories of that hot day years ago came flooding back. Conditions were very different this time - the temperature was hovering around zero and the sound of running water was a constant white noise in our ears, broken only occasionally by the grunt of a passing raven - last time the lake had slumbered passively as the sun beat back at me from the trail.
Yet, the essential trail remained much the same. Rock is indifferent to the weather and the trail rode just as well as it had in summer. We're blessed with some superb all-weather trails in this country and the Lake District has many miles of naturally armored bridleway which offer the all-year-round rider endless opportunities.
This magnificent bridleway changes all the time. One minute you are on sandy singletrack, the next gravel rustles beneath your tyres, the next you are picking your way gingerly over huge slabs of polished stone, with traction coming and going like the sunlight. Occasionally the going was simply too rough or abrupt and a brief dismount resulted, but always it was challenging and varied.
The trails tested us and repeatedly tempted us to stop and play
It needs to be said that the Ullswater bridleway is not suitable for beginners or riders whose bravado outstrips their skill. But, for an experienced rider, aware of his or her limitations, it's a fine linear playground which will test every skill. We found ourselves stopping regularly to re-try tempting but tricky sections which had stopped us first time.
But as time wore on, we knew that we had to keep moving. With the skies still heavy with cloud and rain, it would be getting dark by mid-afternoon. We pressed on, admiring the lake and landscape alike. Sandwick was reached and brief lunch-break taken as we looked out over the water at the gentler, farmland landscape which embraces the northern end of the lake.
Our path now lay away from the water and back into the steep-sided hills. A couple of deserted miles along smooth tarmac roads took us into the heart of the tiny dead-end valley of Boredale. Symmetrical sides curve down from ridges on both sides of the valley. The valley goes nowhere, yet there is a bridleway which clings to its western side and climbs steadily to the skyline, far above the valley's end.
A farm stands at the head of the road and beyond that the bridleway begins. Gone are the rocks of the first half of the ride. Instead, this is a wide, grass covered lane which gradually steepens. It's easy to trace the route ahead as it soars to the horizon - you're left with a perspective not dissimilar to that enjoyed by a spider stuck at the end of a bath.
We climb towards the end of Boredale along a grassy bridleway
Although sodden, the trail wasn't muddy and the springy turf surface was as resilient and all-weather as the rock had been. But progress was slow as we crawled up the sapping climb. Eventually, we were forced to dismount and the final couple of hundred years was a scramble over rocks as the path cut a gulley through to the skyline.
Suddenly we were out on the top, breathing hard, shoulders aching from carrying the bikes, but exhilarated by the prospect of a swooping downhill almost to the carpark - and by the biting wind which whipped handfuls of hail into our sweaty faces.
A quick check of the map is advisable here. The dip in the ridge high above the eastern flanks of Patterdale that we had reached is called Boredale Hause. There's a ruined building - Chapel in the hause - which provides a good landmark. Pass to the left of it and look for the path which descends almost due south and you are on the right track.
Boredale ends in a scramble to the skyline over rocks and scree
The descent back into Patterdale is rocky in places and requires care. Competent descenders will revel in its steepness and in good sight lines which allow you to pick up speed very easily. All too soon you're approaching the valley floor and the flat final section of bridleway into the tiny village of Hartsop, which is just yards from the carpark.
We finished wet, muddy, windblown and satisfied after a fine ride which only took two hours of actual riding time, but which we'd lingered over for some four hours.
This ride can be extended almost infinitely. High Street beckons the fit and the well equipped, but equally you can bypass Boredale and come back over the parallel valley of Martindale.
View Route: Map My Ride Link
As ever, plan your route carefully and take the precautions you would for any foray into high hills and mountains. This may only be a short ride, but much of it is in genuinely wild country well away from civilization and on bridleways which require skill and care to master. But, if you fancy a get away from it all ride which you can do all year round without being in the saddle all day, you can't beat these trails and this lovely corner of the Lakes.