In the far west of the Lake District, two valleys stand out for their wildness and natural grandeur; the mountain glen of Wasdale beneath England’s highest peaks and lonely Ennerdale; just over the mountains to the North. In the case of Wasdale, a single narrow road leads alongside the shores of Wastwater to the tiny hamlet of Wasdale Head but at Ennerdale, the road only reaches to the lower end of Ennerdale Water from where a rough track continues to the remote head of the dale.
The valley was once cloaked by extensive coniferous plantations and these still remain to a small extent though much of the district is being returned to the Wild and Ennerdale today has a feel that is as much of the Scottish Highlands as it is of the Lakes. From the roadhead at Bowness Knott it is 6 miles or 10km to Black Sail Youth Hostel below Haystacks and Great Gable at the end of the track and one chilly day in March I set out on my bike to ride there.
The route from Bowness Knott begins along an easy track running beside Ennerdale Water by some beautiful little bays sheltered by trees. Until Ennerdale Youth Hostel is passed (the larger one at Gillerthwaite as opposed to Black Sail), there are few hills to speak of though beyond the gate the forest road begins its ascent towards the mountains that rise tantalisingly through the forest ahead. The start point is about 350 feet asl and the finish close to 1000 ft so a few uphills are inevitable.
It was Spring down here in the shelter of the valley but winter still clung to the mountains that rose ahead. The views down valley were no less impressive; a wild beauty seemingly untouched by man and shaped only by nature. It was in fact exploited for forestry but that has left a different mark to the sheep farming that shaped the more familiar Lakeland landscapes.
Presently, after a steep and rough section of track, the valley ahead opened out to reveal Great Gable and Kirk Fell at its headwall while nearer – beneath the peak of Haystacks – was Black Sail Youth Hostel.
After a gate, the last section of path is rougher still though not steep and today I even had to negotiate a shallow snow drift which I managed without falling off. At Black Sail there is shelter and tea and coffee making facilities (please leave a donation) though if you want to stay here you need to book with the YHA.
This is a great short ride to a wonderful location and like the Elan Valley route in Wales should not be beyond the ability of the average cyclist on a mountain bike or hybrid. Road tyres would struggle here I think! Return the same way or turn left at the gate below the hostel to follow the track on the other side o the River Liza – it rejoins the main one lower down.
Any attempts to cycle out over the end of the valley (Black Sail Pass, Beck Head or Windy Gap) should be left to the serious MTB enthusiast – all ways are mountain paths great for walking but I’ve never done them on a bike… nor will I be doing so any time soon.
Pete Buckley June 2013