I take a deep breath in an attempt to calm my rapidly rising heart rate, trying not to look down or think about anything other than the process I need to go through to make it around the edge of the rock face.
A task easier said than done, suspended from a sheer cliff face hundreds of feet above the valley floor, held by little more than a rope and two small carabiners.
I have to admit, this is not the usual predicament a visitor to the Lake District would expect to find themselves in, but then, this has been anything but your usual trip to what is, without doubt, one of the UK’s most alluring regions.
At the time of our visit to the Lakes, the area’s already beautiful scenery had been heightened by the gentle touch of autumn’s hand. Great swathes of golden brown and burnt orange contrasted with the fading greens of summer, leaving the landscape looking very much like an oil painting.
My original plan had been to spend a day exploring the area on two wheels, weaving my way up and over the many peaks using a mix of gravel tracks and bridleways to get away from the more popular road routes.
However, given that the Lakes are such a huge draw for lovers of the outdoors, this seemed like the perfect chance to extend my trip and find out what makes this area so popular with those seeking adventure.
My son Harrison was back at school, so this would be a trip without the family – although I wouldn’t be heading off alone. Having met and ridden with Nick Howard, Bailey of Bristol Managing Director, during a recent John O’Groats to Land’s End journey, it was apparent that he was just as eager to do seemingly crazy things as me, which made him the ideal person to invite along for company!
He didn’t take much convincing, and we were soon packing our bikes, wetsuits, walking boots and waterproofs – the Lakes in late September is no place to go without the right kit.
But the omens for the trip were good and we began our journey north under glorious sunshine, hoping it would last.
We had decided that our base for the trip would be Burns Farm Caravan & Campsite, a picture-perfect site set in quintessential Lakeland scenery, at the very heart of the Northern Lakes.
I’ve stayed at a number of campsites post (initial) lockdown, and I can safely say that this was one of the best, both in terms of their protocols to ensure the safety of those staying, and for the sense of good spirit among fellow campers and caravaners, all of home were only too happy to chat (from a safe distance) and share the enjoyment of being outdoors. Which brings us back to the present…
Heading for the sunrise
The gentle buzz of the alarm on my watch wakes me at 5am. The temptation is to ignore it and go back to sleep, but knowing that we have two days of weather, at best, I pull back the curtains and peer out of the van window.
The sky’s dark and there’s a smattering of stars burning brights, but I know it will soon be dawn and with it, the first slivers of light. If we are to make it to our planned destination for sunrise, we need to get a move on! Bleary-eyed and in urgent need of a reviving cup of coffee, I drag myself out of bed and turn on the gas stove.
Up to the mountains
The first pedal strokes are always the hardest at this time of day, but once we are moving and the caffeine has kicked in, it gets easier – that is, until we start climbing a steep gravel track that leads straight up the mountain filling the sky in front of us.
The final few hundred metres force us off our bikes, to climb a series of wooden steps leading up and over the peak.
Neither of us expected such a majestic view, with the sun slowly rising behind the wall of rock that flanks the far side of Thirlmere reservoir, its silvery waters stretching off into the distance. We stand in silence, lost in the moment.
It’s worth mentioning here that Raven Crag, where we found ourselves stopping to admire the stunning surroundings, can just as easily be reached without cycling up the mountain, and would make a very pleasant early morning walk.
It’s the perfect start to our Sunday, reminding us that on days like this, there are few places we’d rather be in the world than right here at home in the UK.
Down from the mountain, we swap bikes for wetsuits and head off to Bassenthwaite Lake. Nick, a superb swimmer, disappears from sight before I have even made my way in, taking a moment to adjust to the coolness of the water and admire what is another stunning vista.
The water isn’t actually as cold as I had been expecting, but nevertheless, it sends a shiver down my spine as the first trickles seep in under my wetsuit.
I have never been much of a swimmer – I find the idea of going up and down in a pool rather tedious – but there’s definitely something immensely satisfying about swimming in open water, feeling totally at one with nature.
However, as much as I love adventure, there’s a part of me that finds immense joy in taking a slow, lazy drive through the world around me. So, with the entire region bathed in the most glorious light, we spend the best part of three hours later that day driving up and over as many of the passes as we can. which makes a fitting end to what had been a brilliant day.
Biking and hiking
The following day is another early start, so that we can take on the original 90km ride I had planned the whole trip around.
Once more, we are rewarded with a truly spectacular sunrise, emerging from behind the craggy peaks that fill our view after a slow climb up through the woods.
The view down the valley, with waves of white cloud sliding down to fill it, is mesmerising. But I’m brought back to the moment when I realise my feet are wet.
I look down to see a thick brown sludge covering them, a clear sign of things to comes with sections of riding and hiking through the peaty moorland.
Despite the terrain being hard going, it’s very difficult to feel anything but sheer joy at being surrounded by some of the best scenery the UK has to offer, so we forge ahead, oblivious to our hardships.
The day is long and challenging, and there’s a collective sense of relief at finally making it back 12 hours later.
Even by my standards, this venture was a challenge that pushed the limits a little, but equally, one that – once we were showered and sat down to hearty plates of pie, peas, potatoes and gravy – can be reflected on with a sense of satisfaction at having made it through.
The weather forecasts were correct: after two days of brilliant sunshine, we wake on the third day to the sound of pattering rain on the van roof, forcing us inevitably to rethink our original plan, which had been to spend the day hiking up Helvellyn.
Even in dry conditions, this is a tough route, let alone in the midst of thick cloud and persistent rain.
We consider our options over tea and cake, and decide that we will brave the elements and head out on a short walk up to the relatively low peak of Latrigg.
While this is a fairly straightforward hike, it is well worth the effort – it offers some impressive views from the summit, looking back down to Keswick and across to Derwentwater and Bassenthwaite Lake, both of which, it must be said, are looking somewhat gloomy under the sombre skies.
Our final day sees us head back to Honister Pass, having already cycled and driven over one of the region’s three most iconic passes (Hardknott and Wrynose being the others) in the past few days.
As well as incredibly steep roads, it’s here that you will find the Honister Slate Mine, which offers visitors excellent tours, giving an insight into the history of the mine, as well as something more adrenaline-fuelled, in the shape of the Via Ferrata.
The Via Ferrata (‘iron road’) is a series of giant metal pins and steel cables, which form a path up and around the side of sheer cliff faces, where climbers can test their physical and mental abilities.
As I hang from the side of the cliff, with rain cascading down and the valley floor hundreds of feet below me, I am reminded of Bas Luhrmann’s song, ‘Everybody’s Free’. No, not the sunscreen: the bit about doing something every day that scares you.
I’m certainly doing that – each time I have to unclip a carabiner to move along to the next section of the cliff face, my heart beats harder, leaving me questioning my sanity for agreeing to do this in the first place. Needless to say, I am thankful to have terra frame under my feet again!
Packing up to begin the journey home, Nick and I reflect on the past four days. We came for adventure, and most certainly found it, but that’s not to say you can’t visit the Lakes and have an altogether different experience.
For us, that’s the magic of this special place – there is something for everyone here. And what matters most right now is that we are supporting local tourism and rediscovering beautiful Britain.
When to go
The best weather in the Lakes tends to be in summer and autumn. But even in winter, with clear skies, the region is truly magical.
Find out more
Where we stayed
Burns Farm Caravan & Campsite
- St Johns-in-the-Vale, Keswick, Cumbria, CA12 4RR
- 01768 779 112
- Open all year
- Touring pitches 30
- Charges (Pitch+2+hook-up) £30
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We came for adventure, but you can visit the Lakes and have a totally different experience