The story of a four-day bikepacking adventure from the lowest point in England, Holme Fenn, to its highest point, Scafell Pike.
With my head down, I note the slowing pace at which the white lines beneath my tires are passing by. We’re edging towards the 62-mile mark (100 kilometers) for the day. Having just dropped off a loose gravel trail, I’ve also dropped off the back of our group. We’ve just crossed over the top of Malham Dale in North Yorkshire, the high point of our morning’s ride before descending into Ribblesdale. As we hit the road, I’m glad to be descending once again. Thankful for the effortless speed and the smooth asphalt beneath my tires, I feel the last remaining glycogen evaporate from my muscles.
High points take all the glory when it comes to cartography. Where was England’s lowest point? None of us had a clue. The crater of a former lake amongst the flat farmland of East Anglia, a few miles south of Peterborough, as it turns out. Therein lay the outline for our journey: taking the scenic route from the lowest to the highest point in England.
With noticeably shorter days, morning chill and the occasional falling leaf, sleeping unsheltered beneath the stars felt like a fitting way to welcome the change of seasons. Escaping the city was a prerequisite as gravel singletrack, mountain passes and wild bivvy spots were at the forefront of our plans.
With a mixture of mountain biking, gravel paths, cycle touring and classic road riding segments, we carefully plotted our route on komoot. Soon we had the basis for our four-day ride; From the marshy, low-lying Fenlands of eastern England – home to Holme Fen, the lowest point in the country – to Scafell Pike, England’s highest peak.
We were off to a shaky start. Arriving after a long journey on the motorway and a chain of canceled trains respectively, River and I eventually met in Peterborough. Final adjustments to our bikes and setups, and we stocked up on the first day’s worth of food. From here, just a few miles south would see us descend to four meters below sea level, in the center of the Holme Fen Nature Reserve.
A few hundred years ago, this reserve was the location of Whittlesea Mere, the largest lake in Southern England and home to endemic wildlife including the large copper butterfly. In 1851, the lake was drained to create farmland. Today, whilst its surroundings are a mixture of agricultural land and suburbs, the reserve remains a marshy wilderness where bumpy trails wind through the forest. Between the rolling clatter of passing freight trains, birdsong dominates the soundscape but the large copper butterfly never returned.
With a sustained headwind, we felt every breath as we rode out of the basin through the flat, exposed farmlands of East Anglia. We took turns in the lead to provide respite for each other against the headwind. Finally we crossed over the border into Lincolnshire.
Setting off in late afternoon, dusk descended fast. With the ground quickly dampening under the falling dew, we found ourselves on the shores of Rutland Water. Fed from the River Nene and River Welland, it’s the largest reservoir in England.
Riding Amongst Giants
Just to the west of Rutland Water, the pretty market town of Oakham provided morning coffee and sustenance in the shadow of its 12th-century castle. From here, the flat exposed roads of the Fenlands felt distant as we weaved our way through short, punchy climbs and descents, across rolling limestone hills, past idyllic villages and imposing Norman castles.
In the golden afternoon light, we arrived under the tall pines of Sherwood Forest where we met Rob from komoot, who’d join us for the next few days. About 56 miles (90 kilometers) in and our legs and minds felt weary. But a new release of endorphins from the dusty, winding singletrack and with a fresh injection of energy added to the group, our grins stretched wide as we tested the capabilities of our gravel bikes. Having ridden miles of nondescript roads and lanes, the contrasting scenery was refreshing and the new dynamic of an additional rider quickly granted a boost for our tired legs. Rob had timed his joining up with the ride to perfection.
As we progressed north, the skies darkened, and sure enough the threat of rain transformed into a torrential downpour as we crossed the border of Nottinghamshire into South Yorkshire, and, before long, the surreal Yorkshire Sculpture Park; an outdoor collection of giant artwork.
The Waterways of the North
As the last of the evening’s hazy golden light threatened to dip beneath the surrounding hills, we ascended from the upper reaches of the Chesterfield Canal, over the cornfields between combine harvesters. We felt a little too close to the bright lights of Sheffield to find an undisturbed wild camping spot. We checked what remained of our route that evening and Ulley reservoir was the obvious spot to aim for. We grabbed our supplies for the night, added the reservoir to our route on the mobile app, and got back on the road. Now armed with a small bottle of Glenfiddich’s finest and a full day of riding in our legs, we were confident we’d sleep well despite our proximity to Sheffield and Rotherham.
In the morning our trio pedaled through the traffic into Rotherham, jarred by the juxtaposition of the city center against our peaceful bivvy spot. We then edged our way past the industrial hubs of South Yorkshire before winding onto the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. The longest in Britain, the canal was built to connect the two cities in the mid-18th Century to enable the increasing trade between the growing cities of Yorkshire. The gradual, continuous ascent provided easy miles across the southern Pennines, and delivered us to the edge of the Yorkshire Dales.
God’s Own Country
As soon as we turned off the canal, we faced our first proper climb of the trip so far – although in theory we’d been gradually ascending since we set off from Holme Fen. Leaving behind the old mill buildings of the town of Silsden, we traded the gravel towpath for rolling lanes lined by lichen-covered dry stone walls as our views opened to the Yorkshire Dales National Park. From here, sheep excrement dominated the afternoon. By the end of a good day’s ride, brushing off the mix of dried mud, poo, and dust from our water bottles, we felt like extras from budget village hall rendition of an Indiana Jones film.
As the light killed the definition in the road ahead, we passed through the surrounding forests of Bolton Abbey and reached the banks of the River Wharfe, where we once again chose our bivvy spot. Navigating our way down the steep rocky tracks through the forest we passed our bikes down to each other as we descended to the riverside.
Sleeping outside in wild places, with the focus of a fire and warm food at the end of the day, offers a valid reason for cycle-touring. Here, we had enough shelter against the descending dew from a large-leafed oak tree. The partially collapsed dry stone wall and building foundations to our backs suggested a region of busy farmland in the past. We inflated our mattresses and laid out our sleeping bags for the night. Between the sporadic cloud and the darker skies of our rural surroundings, we spotted fleeting glimpses of what remained of the Epsilon Perseids meteor shower.
That next morning, I woke with the warm breath on my forehead as a dog made its way around our camp, sniffing around our respective bivvy setups; two of them, including my own, still occupied. We slowly rose, gathering our kit whilst pondering the ability of ultra-endurance athletes to do this day in, day out. After a while, we watched in perfect silence as two deer edged their way into the cold rush of the river attempting to cross. This was the escape we’d been after.
Whilst Section 30 of the Countryside Act (written in 1968) permits the riding of bicycles on public bridleways that same act also specifically states that it ‘shall not create any obligation to facilitate the use of the bridleway by cyclists’. Interpret that how you will; but the bridleways we followed past the limestone crags, caves, and stone-built ruins of the Yorkshire Dales National Park felt like the perfect match for the adventure-ready gravel bikes we were riding. Following miles of dry stone walls, the rolling hills of the Dales provided slow but engaging progress on loose gravel tracks and grassy bridleways.
Heading northwest, with the wall of the Lakeland fells rising on the horizon, we descended from the Dales with the ominous peaks of Cumbria lying dead ahead of us.
The Lakeland Fells
With muddy moorland trails behind us, the speed of winding and fast-descending tarmac took us in good time towards Kendal, where Rob would leave us.
We flew the final 0.6 miles (10 kilometers) to the Hawkshead YHA where we had beds booked for the night. The peaks surrounding Lake Windermere brought a premature sunset as we pressed deeper into Cumbria, with the high country of the Dales basking in gold behind us. We arrive just minutes before the kitchen closed for the night, and settled in. Holme Fen now felt a long way south as we considered the diagonal line we’d stamped across the map over a couple of locally brewed IPAs.
With aching knees and dehydrated bodies, we woke to our 5am alarm to repack our bike bags for a final chance of scenic off-road trails before we started the long journey back south. The only chance of a connecting train into London was at 2pm from Kendal, so we were keen to make the most of our final morning in the wild.
Competing with hikers on the region’s most popular peak (Scafell Pike) with loaded bikes on our backs seemed less appealing than some local exploration. We opted to ride a couple of much quieter nearby trails.
We pedaled out under a barely risen sun, low mist draped over the valley between lake and peak as the early chill wrapped around our knees and stung our knuckles. Across slippery slate bridleways with views over the surrounding fells, we descended towards the base of England’s highest mountain where we plan to take an icy plunge into the country’s deepest natural lake, Wast Water (243 feet or 74 meters at its deepest point).
On this trip, we’d zig-zagged across England, traversing a wide array of different landscapes in a short time. Lowland forests, the suburbs of big cities, the remnants of the industrial past, rolling rural farmland, the high country of North Yorkshire, and finally the epic drama of the Lake District.
At each connecting point of the rail journey home, we were asked by someone about where we’d been, what we’d been up to, and why. Whatever our reasons for doing it, the sting of our wind-burnt cheeks, chapped lips and fatigued bodies felt like a worthy exchange for the real adventure we’d had, and for the cold beers now in our hands.
Check out the route on komoot: https://www.komoot.com/user/base
Words by Chris Hunt, Photos by River Thompson