Kirkstone Pass

Kirkstone Foot

Do you ever get the urge to spend a whole day by bike? For me it starts as a vague sensation but builds gradually into an itch that’s difficult to ignore. The older I get, the longer I’ve ridden, the more seriously I take it. It feels instinctive but I’m sure it’s not, it’s a habit I’ve developed – this occasional need for being all day on a bike. It’s not about training, almost the opposite – more like therapy; a form of meditation I suppose. The urge usually finds form in a specific ride idea through reading and chatting with others, and through a cycling imagination which – once the promise of a long ride takes hold – excels at the blend of map-based research and daydreaming required to make it happen.

So that’s how come I headed out early the other morning, for a day long ride.

Setting out

I took my favourite route to Sedbergh, my tyres sticking to the sap through the littlest of the overhung lanes, bursting with foliage and grass running up them. But one of the best things about longer rides is how they move you beyond your ordinary territory: villages, lanes, buildings, views become steadily less familiar until, finally – the confidence of a map in your pocket – you reach fresh ground.

This transition towards unfamiliarity begins thirty miles in. It’s years since I last followed the long, lonely, lovely lane– an old Roman Road – north from Sedbergh along the Lune; taking the Howgills’ western side, it stays high but cuts sharp down and up across each beck as it falls from the fells.

But finally all routes big and small are funnelled through the Lune’s gorge near Tebay and run parallel north until at Low Borrowbridge mine is forced underneath the M6 and West Coast mainline to their other sides. It’s strange, being so close yet feeling so removed from people inside the trains, trucks and cars; we’re differentially speeding in the same direction, parallel, but I feel out of time. And invisible – I’m so hidden on these tiny lanes they must be oblivious to me; cycling silently present but outside the mainstream.

The Lune’s highest reaches lie east of Tebay but I keep north. Back home I’d seen on the map a lane running between the north- and south-bound carriageways of the M6 for a couple of miles, along the 250 metre contour, and of course I want to ride it – a central reservation slow lane crammed full of moorland birds, sheep and a solitary cyclist. I’m sure it often feels wild and windswept, but today it’s wonderful.

Central reservation

The other side of the watershed, the lanes from Shap to Pooley Bridge are bliss; smooth, fast and largely traffic-free. Pooley Bridge is the northernmost point of Ullswater, and also of my ride, and back in the planning, it’s this next stretch which had particularly fired my imagination – to pedal Ullswater’s length before climbing out its valley over Kirkstone Pass.

Ullswater’s shoreside road is busy with cars, throwing into stark relief the car-free lanes I’ve enjoyed so far. But by now I’m so far into my own zone they don’t much bother me, even the few which get too close; on longer meditative rides like this, by distracting my focus cars actually help restore it, becoming a resource to deepen rather than destroy my cycling experience. Besides, the views down and across Ullswater to Cumbria’s finest fells are stunning.


I ride through the village of Glenridding to the lake’s southern end, then past Patterdale, Hartshop and Brothers Water to the inn at Kirkstonefoot where, as its name suggests, Kirkstone Pass properly begins. Suddenly most of the cars are gone. Ahead the road climbs south into the distance and I move inextricably, inevitably into that priceless zone where the world gets temporarily reduced to just you slowly moving upwards through turning pedals. (The longer we’re ‘forced’ to inhabit this zone the more ‘classic’ is the climb.)

Kirkstone Pass 1

It’s the highest pass in the Lakes, but Kirkstone is not too difficult a climb, and it’s a satisfying one. Going the other way the views down over Ullswater and its surrounding fells are incredible; this way it’s the straight line taken between the cosiness of lake, village and pasture up to the high fells which makes it special.

Kirkstone Pass 2

And then the apex, the glorious bit of road at the end of a long climb which precedes the magic moment when up turns finally to down. There are many things I’ll never experience, but to think in a life lived differently this could have been one …

When up turns to down

I crouch into the bike and hurtle down Troutbeck. The day’s hardest riding is done now, and from Staveley I’ll be homeward bound on familiar lanes, much like this morning’s largely devoid of cars, just made for bikes.

Close to home

Do long rides like this much matter? For me a day in the saddle is simultaneously a day off, a day free from care. There’s a tendency to see cycling as hard work, but it’s equally possible to see it as taking it easy. I suppose some people laze on beaches or go to spas for their rejuvenation. Me, so long as I can remember, I’ve rejuvenated by being on a bike. Also, the longer I live and ride in north-west England, the more I seem to invite it to inform and shape my biography. The more places I ride and reach by bike, I suppose, the more personally meaningful they become. So being all day on a bike extends and deepens my sense of home.

In a sustainable world I suppose I think both these things matter.

Tags: , , , , , ,

24 Responses to “Kirkstone Pass”

  1. Sue Knaup Says:

    Wonderful and refreshing, as if I just took that ride myself.

  2. Matthew Hardy Says:

    Hi Dave,
    I very much enjoy your descriptions of long rides and wondered if you could share route maps with us?
    Best wishes,

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Hi Matthew
      Thanks! As in life generally, so on the bike, I’m slightly (or ever so!) technologically incompetent (not to say a Luddite!), so am not familiar with on-line mapping techniques. But, do you know, is there a relatively simple way for me to do that, in a way which would be interesting/helpful to people who might read my blog? If there was, I’d certainly be very happy (‘keen’ is probably going too far!) to give it a go. (I imagine, hopefully like the photos, it could add to people’s understandings of the ride. (Though as an aside, it’s interesting as to what happens to ‘traditional’ forms of writing – and making a living from writing – here; in that blogs can now do so much more than what a book-based publisher is able to.))
      Any suggestions welcome, and I’ll owe future changes to your initial question!
      All the best

      • Ian Says:

        Do you use a GPS or GPS-enabled phone? If you do its pretty straightforward to save and publish a gpx file, if not then maybe more hassle than you need.

      • Dave Horton Says:

        Thanks for the suggestion Ian; alas I’m one of the few people who still doesn’t own or use a mobile (an old fuddy-duddy to my kids already at the age of 46!). I’ve just tried to follow Gareth’s lead and sketch my route via Google Map, but it all went horribly wrong as I attempted to cut and paste it to here. And to think my first degree was Geography! I’m sorry, Professor Patmore, I thought I’d do better than this ‘-)

      • Mark Says:

        Dave, You could try as you are familiar with maps, this is a good way of drawing your route. You can then share the link (at least I think you can) in your blog.

        I used to live in Lancaster (worked at the Uni like you) and went fell running in the lakes. Recently I rode from Keswick via Cockermouth, Crummock water, buttermere, over newlands pass and back to Keswick. Probably the best ride I’ve ever been on. Did toy with going over Kirkstone Pass the next day, but fell running memories of the hill dissuaded me.

        Keep up the blog, great reading.


  3. The Ranty Highwayman Says:

    Funny, I get the same buzz when I go into central London at the weekend!

    • Dave Horton Says:

      I think the focus required to ride in central London traffic can be so intense that a Zen approach might be the only way!

  4. auldreekiecyclist Says:

    Sounds like a great day!

  5. Gilly Says:

    The photos are fantastic! I haven’t been cycling long but already appreciate that nothing beats clearing your head and having a great cycle…..

  6. Gareth Rees Says:

    Matthew: it’s not difficult to figure out the route Dave took. By joining together the locations mentions in the text, you can see that his route must have been more or less this one.

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Thanks very much Gareth, that’s pretty good, and you’ve also prompted me to get a bit more proficient at such shenanigans myself – following your lead, I’ve tried to put a more precise route up, but I (hopelessly!) can’t quite figure out how you’ve done what you’ve done! Anyway, my route comes out at 108 miles, which is pretty close to what my bike’s computer said (110), and – if I can figure a way of displaying it – will show how almost always when there’s the option I favour smaller over bigger roads (though this does depend on the kind of riding I’m doing).

      I have half an idea to compile some ‘classic rides’ in this part of the world for anyone who’s interested, but am unlikely to get around to anything very formal or systematic anytime soon.

      • Gareth Rees Says:

        Here’s how I did it:

        1. Start at
        2. Click on the “Get Directions” button.
        3. Click on the bicycle button to get cycling directions (so that it won’t try to route you along motorways).
        3. Click on “Add Destination” a few times until there are enough boxes for the route.
        4. Type the name of a location along the route into each box, for example “Lancaster” or “Pooley Bridge”. Sometimes you need to add the county so that Google knows which town you mean, for example I needed “Sedburgh, Cumbria”.
        5. Click on “Get Directions”. Google’s route shows up as a line on the map with your waypoints as little circles.
        6. Edit the route by dragging bits of it around with the mouse until it’s right. For example, Google had chosen to route you south of Ullswater, which seemed wrong, so I moved the route north of the lake.
        7. Click on the “Link” button (the little chain to the right of “Get Directions”) to get a link you can share, or code you can use to embed the map in a blog post.

      • Dave Horton Says:

        Thanks very much for the lesson Gareth; you’re a good, patient teacher. I think I’ve got the hang of it now!

  7. janehopresearchlog Says:

    I so agree with the day ride thing. Even though my trails are much smaller and less physically demanding, I recognise the freedom of travelling for the day on the bike with no specific aim and knowing that I can just branch off hither and thither on a whim. I’m taking days out to get to Cardiff (by train) and exploring the Taff Trail from Jute Park in the centre of Cardiff and eventually through Merthyr Tydfil and up to the Brecons.

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Thanks Jane. Enjoy your rides – that’s a part of the world I’ve yet to really explore by bike (one day, one day!). Make sure to take advantage of the summer weather!
      All the best, Dave

  8. Adam Says:

    Here’s a link that’s useful for plotting routes – lets you save a url of them too. (Or you could just grab a screenshot).

    Enjoyed the post – great photos!

  9. Geoff Says:

    Dave, that was an excellent bike ride. The road along the West of the Howgills is great, and I cycled that a few years back with my son on a LEJOG trip. If only there was less traffic around Ullswater that road would be marvellous, and it was good to know you still enjoyed that bit.

    As a non mobile user, I am guessing you are not really a Luddite, but perhaps prefer a version of being human that does not require constant connection to a communications network. Enjoy the moment of calm when the rhythm, effort and scenery has taken you to a peaceful place where you simply exist.



  10. Jonathan Abra Says:


    There are so very many times that I read your updates and want to be you. Then I remember that you have a Brummie accent and the thought goes away. Even so, the fact that I feel like that is testament to the emotional impact of your writing. Psychogeography is such a last-century term but comes close to describing the thing that you write about so eloquently here and in your other posts. I like ‘Emotional Geography’ better but then that might be interpreted something like Josephine Hart’s Geography of the Soul:

    “There is an internal landscape, a geography of the soul; we search for its outlines all our lives. Those who are lucky enough to find it ease like water over a stone, onto its fluid contours, and are home.”

    And actually perhaps the two are not so very unconnected. Seems to me that your grasp of the geography of your own soul informs and is informed by your riding.

    Damn fine read, as ever!


    • Dave Horton Says:

      Thanks Jonathan. They’re kind words indeed (overlooking the Brummie accent bit ;-), and I’m glad my words strike the right chord with at least a few people.

      There is a broader project here for me, about contributing to the cultural and poltical re-working of bicycles and cycling in ways compatible with healthy, sane life on a finite twenty-first century planet; I want the bicycle to become more powerfully and complexly incorporated into visions of ‘the good life’; and so of course I’m touched and honoured by the connections you make to the literatures around pyschogeography and emotional geography (and what beautiful, striking, words from Josephine Hart – who I had not heard of; thank you).

      It’s funny, I’ve ‘been through’ (and out the other side of?!) various academic disciplines – geography, philosophy and sociology – but the work I probably find most inspiring sits slightly uncomfortably within any disciplinary boundaries, and might not be considered by many to be ‘academic’ at all: writers such as Gary Snyder, Scott Nearing and Wendell Berry (thinking about it, I suppose the strong social, environmental and political values of all three pervade everything they did/do – there is no ‘detached analytical gaze’, and their lives (as far as I know) were/are coherent wholes; so also role-models, too (if ones who I have no hope of ever emulating), as I pedal my path …

      I could talk forever, probably in slightly a pretentious way, about cultural references and resources which are available as we try to make the bicycle a home, or homes, across the world. So I look forward to a bike ride one day when we can talk about such things (and spin our own stories) to our hearts’ delight!

      Thanks, ever so much

  11. pascalbrackman Says:

    Great story Dave! Do you have this route as a track? I would love to publish it on our site ( if you don’t mind, so a lot of people can enjoy this trip too. .

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: