Great Dun Fell Grimpeur

This is a ride report from June 2015, when I was trying to find a sensible (but not too sensible) 300 km loop around the Dales and back to Darlo. Needless to say, this particular route is unlikely to see the light of day again, but look out for a fully-fledged event taking in some of the same roads, less the stupid bits.

It’s always tricky planning a route to audax standards. I wanted to ride a hilly 300 km ride, 300 km being about the limit of what I can tolerate riding on my tod, and I knew roughly where I wanted to go, so how hard could it be?

After fighting with the increasingly-unusable Google maps (everything’s a fucking white line) for a bit, I managed to conjure a route which was over 300 km, and included the bits I wanted to ride.

I knew it’d be overdistance on the road, but that’s the game, and if I just wanted a nice bike ride, I could have done that. Personally, I need the extra little push to get out of the door at 5.30 in the morning.

I was on the road at 6.30 (yes, I know). No traffic, a bit chilly, an easy start cos it’s all flat around Darlo, a hint of a tailwind and some moderate climbing up into the Dales. I took the long cut along the main road between Richmond and Leyburn, had a quick stop at Campbells the Everything Shop in Leyburn for some munchies, and came out with a packet of… Munchies, which I managed to eat before they all melted in my back pocket.

The hills become a little more serious after Leyburn, a sharp pull up Gale Bank between Wensleydale and Coverdale, before a lovely ride along a mostly-deserted Coverdale and the sharper pull to Great Hunter’s Stone.


It’s the easy way up compared to Park Rash, though. Wait, let’s not play fast-and-loose with the word “easy” – “less tough” is probably a fair description. To think that the mail coaches used to use this road to Richmond from London. I took the descent carefully, and went in search of breakfast in Kettlewell.


The cafe didn’t open until ten, which was a bit useless at 9.30, but the shop at the bottom of the descent does hot food. I had an instant coffee with a bacon and sausage sandwich, sitting down on the bench outside. Not the slap-up meal and sit-down I’d been hoping for, but nevermind.

Did I mention the sun was out? What a gorgeous day in the Dales. Everything glowed, and I still had that gentle tailwind along Littondale.


I’d had several, erm, aspirational targets for this ride, centring around average speeds and finishing times, but the average speed certainly went out of the window on the climb over to Malham which I last rode in Alan’s company, and I remembered his comment about planning to come back and ride it on a tandem, i.e. a Honda Goldwing – later on in the ride, I was overtaken by a Goldwing, which raised a smile. At least the gate at the bottom was open, and I didn’t lose all of my momentum through the farmyard. You can’t go fast on that descent anyway, it’s steep, twisty, rough, gravelly, and the abode of suicidal sheep.

The kamikaze tendencies of wildlife and livestock was certainly one of the hallmarks of the day – earlier, on the descent between the tank road and Bellerby, a rabbit shot out from the undergrowth, skidded past my front wheel, then performed an inexplicable u-turn. I brained it with my front wheel, crushed its legs with my rear wheel, and whatever was left was finished off by the car behind. Poor little bunny. Naturally enough, I was wary after that, which was lucky for the crow which burst from the undergrowth on the descent to Kettlewell and flapped madly for thrust in front of me while I grabbed a double handful of brakes.

Back to route planning for a moment (these things matter!) – I knew I’d made a few rookie errors with the spurs of my route, as they created one-way, in-and-back-out extra miles which made up the miles, but generally added gratuitous climbing. Especially Malham. I rolled around the Tarn road, which is a little farther than the Cove road, but at least saved me from the psychological burden of descending a road I’d then have to climb back up.

However, the big advantage of going into Malham was to break up a tough section, and to top up my bottles. It was actually getting warm, I was running low on water, and there weren’t many places to stop on my route between Kettlewell and Horton-in-Ribblesdale. Like Kettlewell, I rolled around looking for a cafe, and like Kettlewell, it was right in front of me. As usual in Malham, the answer is the Lister Arms, decent coffee (and the best selection of beer in the village, though I decided against it at that time of the morning), a hefty scone, and they even added ice to my water bottle.

The gratuitous climbing didn’t really matter, as the views of the cove and back along the valley were astonishing. It wasn’t too long before I was back at the crossroads, and rolling past Pen-y-ghent. I had somehow forgotten about the sharp down-and-up before the long run across the tops, but I managed to keep up my momentum down to the swift drop into Stainforth.

That was the worst of the climbing out of the way for a while, it was just steady riding over to Ribblehead, where I hadn’t planned to stop, but I couldn’t resist the photo op of a Ribble at Ribblehead:


Don’t ever buy a bike or so much as an innertube from Ribble, by the way – the single worst ever customer service experience I’ve had was when a crack developed in the above frame. They may have been right in arguing that it wasn’t a warranty issue, but they were deliberately obstructive and unhelpful, and I won’t ever shop there again. I’ll have the frame repaired by a local and lovely company, and spend some time removing the Ribble decals before I ride it again.

Back to the ride – again, I was out of water, and topped up at the tea van near the viaduct, where I got chatting with a couple of roadies out from Colne. I think that was where my overall-time-ambition vanished, as I was explaining these sort of rides as intense cycle-touring, and relaxed a bit while sitting on the grass. I may have also said that I expected my moving average speed to be 16-17 mph, ahahahahaha.

I did set a good pace on the climb to Newby Head despite pushing a bit north, where I could feel the north-easterly biting, and on the fabulous descent of Dentdale, but I had to stop again for water to see me over to Tebay. I had an ice cream as well – an ice cream Mars Bar, in fact. I hadn’t seen those since the eighties, it was lovely.

Still with the tailwind, I pushed a bit more on the little clicks over to Sedbergh, because you can. I had an argument with my GPS in Sedbergh (despite it being a route I’d plotted myself), but followed it, and added a few more kms along the A684 before I joined Howgill Lane, via a stiff climb to a t-junction.

Ah well. It is a fantastic road. A lot of these dales are literally fantastic, as Tolkien supposedly took inspiration for his landscapes in the Lord of the Rings from walking around the Dales. I was slightly concerned about time, but had to pause when arrested by this view:


The road is a proper rollercoaster, though, narrow, gravelly, twisting and corkscrewing in and out of the valleys as the road crosses the becks pouring into the Lune Gorge. And there were more pauses looking around the Howgills and the Lune Gorge.

It had been a long day, and I wasn’t even halfway when I arrived at Tebay Services, a little spaced out. It’s not your average motorway service station. The wonderful smell of food certainly perked me up, and the plateful of macaroni cheese with chips preceded by victoria sponge and lashings of coffee hit the spot.

Orton and Crosby Ravensworth Fell felt like a slow grind, but once I was at the top, the view to the north opened up, the shards of limestone paving jutting out of the fellside, the gaping maw of High Cup, the Cross Fell massif and the radar station at the top of Great Dun Fell which was my next target.


I hadn’t given it a thought until I was on the road, but Appleby Fair was last weekend, and I thought that the roads may have been choked with slow-moving caravans, and the town would have been mayhem, but the town was quiet, the event paraphernalia was all being taken down as I rode through, and I’d obviously chosen routes that were too hilly for the caravans.  The lanes over to Knock and Dufton are choppy, heading up from the Eden Valley into the edges of the fells.

It always feels rather like no-man’s land round there, it’s bypassed by the A66 and hemmed in by military no-go areas. Shouldn’t complain, though, as we’ve the military to thank for the road up to the radar station. I have been here before, and it seems that hardly anyone comes, as there are no signs to point you the right way, and no one uses the road apart from farmers, the military, cyclists and runners. Which makes Cumbria County Council’s decision to surface-dress the public part of it even more bewildering. Cheers, CCC!

This was a test of fortitude – it’s a one-way road, and pretty much pointless. I turned back after halfway last year when I couldn’t really be bothered to ride to the top. It’s a constantly tough gradient – I had imagined it being something like Hartside, a gentle gradient which you can spin up, but no. It’s a slow grind (especially with that north-easterly which was picking up as I gained altitude), and the radar station never seems to get any closer.

It took me over an hour to reach the summit. This was broken up with photo stops, the gate in the middle which is an absolute pain to open, and a farmer herding his sheep the other way. When he passed, he said “you’re a sensible lad”, as I’d hacked over the verge to force the sheep to the other side and along down the road. Apparently cyclists “usually just stand off in the road”, which sounds like the centrepiece of an as-yet-unmade Cumberland Sausage Western. Just needs a Morricone soundtrack.

I thought this was just common sense, but maybe sheep-herding should go alongside other lesser-known-but-useful randonneuring skills such as being able to sleep upright, or knowing how to ditch an unwanted companion.


Up and up. I shouldn’t sound surprised, it’s the highest road of any sort in England, and at 848 metres there’s not actually a lot of land of any sort higher than that. The radar station thankfully vanished behind the bulk of Great Dun Fell, and when next I saw it, I was nearly at the top, where the road swung around and I had a bit of help from the wind for the last bit.


What a view at the top. Cow Green, Teesdale and South Tynedale down one side, the broad Eden Valley, the Lakeland Fells and Howgills to the other, and the still-higher Cross Fell blocking any view to the north. I did look longingly at Cow Green, which is about 50 km from home, but as there are no roads down that side, I had another 120 km to ride.


I couldn’t hang about too long, but I broke out my flapjack and had a sit-down out of the wind before the descent, which seemed to take about a millionth of the time I’d spent climbing. Apart from that awkward gate.


The last spur of my route was Langwathby. I could have taken the direct road to Melmerby, but it was hardly worth it at this stage of the ride. I found a handy pub and munched some crisps, knowing that it was a relatively easy run-in. Only Hartside and Yad Moss to deal with. Only, I thought.

Hartside really is a different beast to Great Dun Fell, it’s a gradient which I could just spin up. Other times, I’ve cranked up it in the big ring, but not this day. The setting sun was reflecting off the sea at the Solway Firth, and only a few motorcyclists and a pack of yahoos out from Penrith hand-brake-turning around the hairpins broke the tranquility.

I downed a coffee and some garage food in Alston, which was aglow in the last of the evening sun. As I climbed up Yad Moss, I was racing the sunset, but it just about beat me.


I put on all of my clothes at the top of the pass. I had hoped to finish in daylight, and hadn’t packed anything more than mitts – it was chilly on the long descents. At least I had lights, and there was enough twilight to see by. There were a few sheep still flitting across the road, and I had quite a shock when I saw a hand-painted sign saying “MURDER” next to a dead lamb. There’s one angry farmer somewhere near Harwood.

Job done, I was just dawdling home. Then my light cut out.

This is a “feature” of the Hope Vision One. If you have it on a high setting, and there isn’t enough juice in the batteries, it just switches itself off. I quickly switched it back on as there was a car coming the opposite way, and thankfully it still worked on the lowest setting.

Knowing I’d have to nurse it home, I switched it off for the climb up Folly Bank, which felt like an apt name at that moment.

Moor Lane from Folly Top to Staindrop is such a rewarding road, you can freewheel along at 50 kph, or pedal a few times and fly along at 60 kph, and usually it’s a road that you never want to end. There were times last night when I thought it never would. I was never quite sure whether to go slowly enough that I could come to a halt if the light cut out, or to keep a good pace and make the most of it while it lasted. I tended towards the latter, but without any heroics, and I kept close to the centre line.

My light lasted most of the way home, only cutting out for the last time at Thornton Hall, about four miles from home. All I could do was follow the centre line, which mostly worked, except when I thought I was starting to see double, but I switched the light back on to fill in some detail, and realised that the old lines hadn’t been erased properly.

Phew! There weren’t any cars until I made it back to the streetlights, and home for a quarter to one. That was a tough old day out on the bike, and immensely satisfying. My legs were completely shot the next day.




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