Lakes Secret Garden

We revisit this iconic Lakeland route but this time we mix classic Walna Scar Road with some detours from the back of an envelope…

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Words & photos: Sim Mainey

The Killer Loop is to MBR what Bridge Over Troubled Water is to Simon and Garfunkel, what a shark in formaldehyde is to Damien Hirst and what cheese is to Cheddar – it’s what we do, our raison d’être and one of the things that has come to define us. If you’re reading this chances are you are like us – you like big rides in interesting places, you like jaw-dropping views, challenging climbs and technical descents, you like finishing a ride with a sense of achievement. This is why we created the Killer Loop series in the first place and why we’re revisiting it now.

According to editor Danny the first Killer Loop was the South Lakes favourite Walna Scar Road. It’s a classic route with a mix of everything that makes riding in the Lakes great, all without resorting to any hike-a-bike – a rare feat in those parts. Indeed, that route is such a staple of Cumbrian mountain biking that chances are you’ve already ridden it, so as tempting as it might be to revisit it and as good as it is, it doesn’t really bear repeating. At the same time it’s always good to give a nod to the past and maybe take a slightly sideways look at the familiar, so when relaunching the Killer Loops Walna Scar and its surroundings were firmly in my sights. Then I remembered a photo I’d been sent from a friend via Facebook.

The photo was of a route scribbled on the back of an envelope. I say route it was a list of place names, some familiar some less so – Ulpha, Park Head, Grassguards, Wallabarrow, Walna Scar, Hang Right, Natty Bridge, Black Stones. Alongside it, and written predominantly in capital letters, was another list – one day, 100% legal, hardly ridden, new, fresh, any bike. At the top of the paper was the title ‘Lakes Secret Garden’. This was intriguing and, I thought optimistically, had all the makings of a Killer Loop worthy of the name. As my friend is of reasonably sound mind I thought he might be onto something so decided to investigate further. A bit of map work and interpretation (Hang Right being an instruction rather than a place on the map it turns out) and I’d got the framework for what looked like it might make for a proper day in the hills. I just needed a bit of company.

Late starts

A planned 10am start blurs into 11am thanks to the typical cluster-faff that comes with trying to coordinate multiple riders and their need to tweak, eat, chat and change. Eventually we manage to set off, Alex Raffety and I spin ahead while somewhere behind us Rafi is still fiddling with finding the correct seat height. “How long is the route?” Asks Alex, a reasonable question as all I’ve told them so far is to pack for a full day out. The truth is I don’t know. I also don’t know the altitude we’ll climb to, the total ascent, or, well, much really. This is mostly deliberate, I reassure Alex, while subconsciously patting the jacket pocket where my OS map is stashed.

The truth is I like not knowing and not having everything meticulously planned. I like the fact that I’ve been handed the bare-bones of a route and had to piece it together. I like that this will be an adventure for all of us. I’m pretty sure we’ll ride some good trails, I’m hoping there are some great views and I’m praying we don’t get too lost. For a route to qualify as a Killer Loop I feel there does need to be a slight element of risk and the greater the risk the greater the reward. I keep this firmly in mind while the South sheet of OL6 flaps in my face while Rafi double checks our position on his phone. The bridleway over the Dunnerdale Fells is little ridden, footprints litter the soft ground but tyre tracks are absent. The most prominent trail is the footpath but we’re making a real effort to avoid its obvious lure. We’re having to work for our ride mentally as well as physically.

Path of least resistance

Having successfully navigated our way across the Fell we’re onto the more easily navigable Park Head Road. From here we’re treated to a view straight into the heart of the Lakeland Fells and to an extended descent down to Seathwaite. Rocky, loose, prolonged and plenty quick it’s a perfect example of the type of bridleway you expect in this part of the Lakes. If your eyes aren’t watering and your wrists aren’t a little sore at the bottom you’ve been holding onto the brakes too much. After the slightly vague start to the ride I feel I’ve probably redeemed myself with Alex and Rafi – just in time to ruin it all with a road climb.

Time spent riding on the road is time wasted in my book. It’s a necessary evil though and best thought of as the most efficient means to an end and it still beats carrying our bikes to where we want to be. I just hope the trail back down is worth it.

The sound of fat knobbly tyres on Tarmac is one of the most soul destroying sounds I know. I try not to think of the energy being wasted dragging tacky rubber up the road and think about how great it’s going to be hammering down the trail we’re making our way up to.

Thankfully it is a great trail and despite getting a little bit wild we amazingly suffer only one puncture, and even then we manage to stop a complete deflation thanks to the wonders of tubeless sealant and a repair kit. We finish back where we started in Seathwaite, a loop within a loop, and the challenge of Walna Scar Road now lies ahead of us.

Where SRAM Eagles dare

The climb up Walna Scar Road is hard. It’s also, mostly, doable. You’ll have to be on form and you’ll have to be prepared to dig in and just keep going. It’s not so much a grind as a spin, you just need to keep going, keep turning the cranks and resist the temptation to stop. Click, click, click – the far reaches of the cassette are explored almost straight away and the largest 50t cog settled on. There’s no point suffering more than we need to. Side winds from up the valley buffet us making balance difficult and causing some unplanned line changes. Pig headed determination is what keeps us going to the gate in the drystone wall that marks our point to ‘Hang Right’. Walna Scar Road itself leads off to the left up towards Brown Pike and the descent down to Torver but today we’re going in the opposite direction. This is new to me, in fact I’d not really noticed a trail here previously, only idly wondered what there might be up in the disused mine workings on the flanks of White Pike.

Where buzzards nest

The answer is wind and buzzards. And a lot of slate, unsurprisingly. We hunker down in what must have been the outhouse of one of the old mining huts and tuck into Blue Ribbands watching as the birds of prey circle above occasionally being harried by cantankerous crows.

It’s easy to get carried away in the Lakes, to point yourself at a jagged mountain and to hike up it thinking only of the way back down. Routes that are mostly rideable all the way round and aren’t straight out-and-backs are a little harder to piece together which is why I’m enjoying this ride so much. Something mostly unknown that, certainly to me, represents what mountain biking is all about.

Maps and phones are consulted once more to get the right bearing and keep us off the footpath that splits from the bridleway out of the mine The clatter of tyres on slate changes to the squelch of sodden grassy fell as we start the return leg of our ride. Funnelled down the hill the trail starts to firm up and become clearly defined eventually becoming a tight piece of singletrack that follows the River Lickle. It seems almost too good to be true, a lesser-known Lake District gem and a fitting reward for our earlier uphill efforts.

Yorkshire over the water

This side of the southern fells have a unique feel to them. Compared to even just over the hill in Dunnerdale the landscape seems slightly mellower, almost Yorkshire Dales like with the rolling green fields filled with lambs. While the Lakes might be best known for its many shades of grey rock today the Lakes feels green, fresh and full of the promise of an imminent summer. The descent down to Stainton Ground zig-zags down old cart tracks and through the stone debris of old workings, again feeling more Yorkshire than Cumbrian.

Unfortunately it’s time for more road. And even worse it’s downhill. While climbing on the road is a pain it at least serves a purpose, descending on the road is just losing hard won height without any of the fun.

Freewheeling down the road I mulled over how lucky we’ve been. I’d taken a chance on a lead, sketched out by someone who, to the best of my knowledge, hadn’t actually ridden the routel. They’d dreamt it, we’d done it. There’d been a bit of road work, a touch of damp here and there but on the whole it was a damn fine loop. I was a bit concerned that having winged it so far this last bit of trail might be the undoing of it all – after all the last descent is the make-or-break for any ride, the part you remember most vividly. I was also a bit worried that if it was rubbish I’d have to rethink the whole of this Killer Loop, quickly.

Thankfully this is one of those trails that instantly brings a smile to your face. Fast as you like with a couple of gotcha points it barrels you down the hill on a tight line. You lose a lot of height very quickly but without feeling it’s all over too soon. A perfect ending.

Not so secret garden

I guess when this is published ‘Lakes Secret Garden’ won’t be a secret anymore. While I do feel a little bit bad about that I’m also pretty excited to share it and add it to the Killer Loop library. If you’re looking for an introduction to riding in the Lakes, if you like a good day out with plenty of variety and if you too like following routes you find written on pieces of paper then this route will leave a smile etched on your face.