A Family Adventure Story
From The Family Adventure Project , inspiring families to live adventurously

This feature was written by Stuart Wickes for CTC Cycle Magazine, first published in December 2006/January 2007.
Stuart Wickes is a Director of The Family Adventure Project.


Stuart Wickes

Kirstie was already off her bike, huffing, puffing and hauling bike and trailer up the Whinlatter pass. As she inched past, baby Hannah smiled at us from her trailer causing her two brothers to wave back excitedly and making our tandem and trailer combo wobble.  I pulled tightly on the brakes to stop us slipping backwards, bracing my legs to steady the bike. "It's too steep and unsteady boys. We're going to have to walk."  The boys were off in an instant. 
"I'll go and help mum," said Matthew (5) leaping off the stoker's seat.
"I'll help you," said Cameron (3) jumping out of his trailer and pushing with all his might. I really couldn't have asked for a better team to tour with.

It was a mad idea really, a family tour of our own backyard; cycling, camping and hostelling around a 300 mile circuit of Cumbria. There was no choice about where to start or finish; we couldn't think of a viable way to transport a bike, a tandem, two trailers, eight panniers, a tent, two children and a baby with nappies, toys and baby food anywhere other than by actually cycling. And that was tricky enough.  So we went from and to our front door, on a tour that once upon a time might have taken us a long weekend, but we now reckoned would take two weeks.

Cumbria's a great location for cycle touring, if you avoid the busy roads and the busy season.  You can’t fail to be touched by the magic of the dales, lakes, forests and fells; there's an extensive network of national, regional and local cycle routes; it’s got picturesque towns and villages, lots of agricultural and industrial history, and plenty of museums and attractions to get a sense of the place and its' traditions. And that's before you visit the National Parks, World Heritage Site, SSSI's, Forest Parks and Nature Reserves.  It was exhausting just planning it and then we had to do to it. With the kids literally in tow, we decided to avoid the worst excesses of the Cumbrian hills on a tour of the southern part of the county, heading first for the Yorkshire Dales and the market towns of Kirkby Lonsdale, Sedbergh and Kirkby Stephen.

It took us three unseasonally wet days to reach the Eden Valley.  We must have looked like April Fools, a travelling circus dressed head to toe in waterproofs, but while the weather was a downer for Kirstie and I, the kids hardly seemed to notice. 
"I'm fine. It's nice and dry in my trailer," said Cameron as we headed up to Mallerstang and the source of the Eden.  Silvery headwaters rushed down from the Dales, relentless rain seeping down to the river through moss and rock and down to our skin through all our clothes. But no whining, not even from my brave and soggy stoker; instead, a game of 'I Spy' (something beginning with R), a verse or twenty of 'It's raining, it's pouring…' and regular enquiries about when we would be there, 'there' being the much anticipated Far End Farm tea room and the promise of  hot chocolate, sandwiches, cakes and cream tea.  The owner, Chris, welcomed us in, hung our clothes up to dry, brought out children, cats, dogs and toys to entertain our trio and warmed us with her hospitality. "If you can't rely on the Cumbrian weather," she said wisely,  " you can rely on a Cumbrian farmhouse welcome."

The wild weather variations of Cumbria in Spring

A tour of Cumbria is no wilderness trip; it may feel wild when the wind gets up, the rain comes down and the mist closes in, but you're rarely more than an hour's ride from a pub, coffee shop or guest house. And when the weather turns, whether or not you've got kids in tow, you're grateful for it. But even where there's no facilities, travelling as a family sometimes earns an invite from interested or admiring locals. We were lapping the village green in the medieval village of Milburn when a man ran out and flagged us down. 
"This looks fun," he said, eyeing up our gear. "Are you lost?"
"No, we're looking for a playground," I replied.
"Come with me. I know a place," he said, marching off and beckoning us to follow. "I translate brochures for a cycle trailer company you know…"
He made a good cup of tea too and while we chatted about family biking, our children ransacked his childrens' playroom.

Somewhere between Penrith and Keswick the pink sandstone of the Pennines gave way to grey Lakeland slate and stone, brightened by the arrival of spring sunshine. We headed west on part of the Sustrans C2C, stopping in the shadow of Blencathra for Cumbrian Pie and Ale at the famous Mill Inn before coasting down St Johns in The Vale for a family camping barn experiment. After days of soggy campsites and cold caravans, we were ready for a night with a proper roof over our heads, even if it meant paying a compulsory sole occupancy supplement.  We paid as much for the barn as a night in a Travelodge but got eight mattresses all to ourselves and didn't have to worry about disturbing anyone or sitting nicely for breakfast.  It took an hour to get the wood-burning stove going and while Kirstie and I sat waiting patiently for a pot of water to boil, the children zipped around the hay loft creating a bouncy castle out of mattresses, thermarests and sleeping bags. 

The Camping Barn at St John's in The Vale

 One of the most challenging things about carrying young children on tour is how they're all rested and primed for action when you're tired after riding. With accommodation, as with everything else, travelling with kids means adapting your old touring routines to accommodate their needs and interests.  In the good old days before children, Kirstie and I savoured the odd night freshening up in a cosy hotel, but now it's the kids that get excited about it while we fret about keeping them quiet and under control in the presence of other paying guests. Over the years we've developed our own formula for family touring which involves less miles, more fun, more camping and hostelling and lots of extra stops for coffee, biscuits and playgrounds. It's a recipe we trialled with one and refined with two but this was our first trip with a young baby. In some ways babies are easier than toddlers; as long as they're warm, dry and full of milk they mostly just sleep or stare at their fingers. Touring with them is easy; our biggest problem was remembering we had one amongst the clamour of two boisterous boys fighting over whose turn it was to ride up on the tandem.. We forgot her only once, one rainy night in Keswick, after an evening watching Ice Age The Melt at the local cinema. It felt like we were in the movie as we dashed from bikes to tent to sleeping bags to warm up.
"Where's Hannah?" asked Matthew, as he slugged around the tent to say his goodnights. Kirstie looked at me; I looked back at her. Seconds later I realised we both thought the other had brought her in. She was happy enough, outside, asleep in her tarpaulin covered trailer, wrapped in blankets and out of sight of passers-by.

Refreshment stop on the Whinlatter Pass

With a fully loaded tandem and trailer, gradients over about 1:10 require an Iron Man attitude, even with two boys pedalling or pushing. Route choice is everything and if you tour in Cumbria, there's no avoiding the hills. Having plotted a route around the steepest passes we couldn't avoid a long push up Whinlatter to reach the West Coast.  Half way up the pass, the sight of an ice-cream van brought a sudden surge of energy from the boys and some welcome relief from our exertions. We sat, sucked on lollies and looked out over Bassenthwaite as snow flakes drifted around us in the air.  Part magic, part nightmare, by the time we reached the top and the Whinlatter Forest Park, we were looking like snowmen. The boys' acceptance of the unseasonably cold weather surprised me; their attitude helped no doubt by extra hats, gloves, scarves and jumpers.  Keeping kids happy on the road means making sure they don’t get too cold, tired, hungry or bored and the Whinlatter Visitors Centre helped us do all four. We sheltered in a giant badger's sett, watched for the arrival of the first ospreys and hunted for deer in England's only mountain forest park. Then, after hot chocolate and cake in the cafe, we wiped the snow off the trailers and freewheeled down to the Western valleys.

Millions of people come to Cumbria each year to get away from it all, so it's not surprising that it can be hard to get away from them and their cars. Fortunately, many get no further than the accessible lakes and honeypot towns of the Eastern Lakes leaving the remoter Western valleys to locals and more committed tourists. These places have a quieter, wilder feel; ancient bedrock chiselled out by glacial ice, dressed by nature's wild hand and lately shaped by hill-farming, forestry, and agriculture. Cycling in and out of the valleys on quiet single track roads and disused railways gives an unusual opportunity to experience the strange juxtaposition of the rugged green beauty of the Lake District National Park and the industrial heritage of the once proud Cumbrian shipping and mining towns that skirt its' borders.

Sellafield and Ennerdale, just miles between them but worlds apart

Compared to the ugly proliferation of the Sellafield nuclear plant down on the coast, the Ennerdale valley looks and feels like a wild place, untouched by man. But all is not what it seems, at least according to Wild Ennerdale, a project that highlights how man has shaped the valley landscape. We biked up a car-free forest trail on the edge of Ennerdale Water and stayed at the hydro-powered Ennerdale Youth Hostel, a couple of converted foresters' cottages a few miles up the valley. We left the bikes at the hostel and explored the upper valley on foot. The boys went feral, enjoying the change from the bikes, fighting with sticks then throwing stones at each other and into the River Liza. And while they made their mark upon each other and the land, we wondered how the place would look without the harsh lines of man-made forest, the web of walls, gates and fences, and blanket of over-grazed vegetation.  In time, the major landowners hope to enhance the valley's wild character by removing man's signatures from the landscape and giving nature an upperhand in the valley's future development. I only hope it doesn't attract too many tourists to spoil it.

We finished the wild west leg of our journey on backroads over Ulpha Fell and down the Duddon Valley, then headed home across the South Lakeland peninsulars on sections of the new W2W (Walney to Wear) Sustrans route, following trails of golden daffodils through Ulverston, Cartmel and Grange Over Sands.  In two weeks on the road we rode fellside, lakeside and seaside, in National Parks and Forest Parks, past hill-farms, wind-farms and organic farms, watermills, papermills and cornmills to arrive home just in time for the Easter Bunny and the belated start of Spring.

The wilder side of Cumbria - Ulpha Fell

"Would you do it again?" asked a friend as we shared Easter holiday stories a few weeks later.  I thought for a moment about the whole business; the rain, the snow, the jack-knifing tandem, the grinding hills and painfully slow progress, the fighting and tears and forgotten baby. As a tour it certainly had its' challenges, but it was joyful too; a most unusual family achievement, full of fun and laughter, lakes, mountains, forest and fell, coffee and cake, picnics and playgrounds, pulling together and being together. 
"Like a shot," I replied, "but next time we'll go in Summer."

© 2007 Stuart Wickes.  First published in UK CTC Cycle Magazine December 2006/January 2007




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