I do like to go back to the UK whenever I can. Partly because I still have family and friends to see but also because there is some great riding there too. Yes, you have to learn to ride on the left (a little tricky, granted), but old right of ways that date back to peasants, ox carts and the need for roads to wiggle over dale and around bogs means that the UK has a great selection of gorgeous motorcycle roads.
My most recent escapade to the motherland was last April. It’s the best time to go across the Atlantic, as spring has well and truly sprung, and most of Canada is still a turgid, deathly brown with a distinct nip in the air.
In fact April of 2011 was a doozy. Sweating in London’s High Park in a t-shirt and shorts is unusual at this time of year, but it was most welcome to fly out of Halifax just before the last winter storm hit and be enjoying a brew in a London pub beer garden while trying to keep cool the very next day.
This trip was a well-planned dual-holiday: one week spent in London with the trouble and strife (sans screaming oiks – thanks grandma), and then after the wifey left, it was on to Yorkshire for a week to see friends and family and pick up a Multistrada that Ducati UK had been so gracious to lend me for my two-wheeled fix.
Click to view route in a larger map
Much to my surprise, the week in London was excellent but that’s of no interest for a motorcycle story; it’s in the north where all the good motorcycle action is to be had.
Granted the south has its spots, but it’s also packed with people, and getting far from the madding crowds is an exercise in frustration (though trying to keep up with a London dispatch rider in rush hour should be an experience every motorcyclist should have at least once).
A quick look at Google Maps revealed a route heading through the Yorkshire Dales National Park toward Scotland, but with a sharp turn to the west just before Hadrian’s Wall.
That would take me through the English Lake District (though more ponds than lakes by Canadian standards), for a 400-plus kilometres of twists, hills and glorious scenery on a Multistrada.
This should be fun.
COLD START, COOL RIDE
An early start to the day also meant a chilly start, though it was acceptable when riding in the dales; only hopping from one to the next meant going over the tops which saw the temperature drop to freezing. Brrrr.
I hopped from one dale to t’other, and followed the banks of the Wharfe, Ure, Swale and Arkle along one-car-wide ribbons of bumpy asphalt, shared with little traffic and the occasional sheep.
The Yorkshire Dales were officially over by the time I reached Barnard Castle, but this by no means signalled the end of the hills and rolling countryside. In fact Barnard Castle was the start of a glorious stretch of road that slid up the edges and ultimately over the head of Teesdale to the charming town of Alston.
It was also deceptively fast when there was low traffic, but like most roads around here, a fringe of grass and a bloom of wildflowers at the asphalt edges are backed by slumbering — but solid and un-weilding — stonewalls.
While they make for a pretty frame to the picture of sweeping asphalt before the rider, there’s an inevitable toll of dead and destroyed riders who entered turns with too much enthusiasm or made a hasty pass without quite being able to see what was coming the other way.
Roadside posters asking whether all this is indeed “to die for” urge bikers to take it slow, and the occasional roadside shrine lays testament to those who didn’t. Still, if you ride with caution then this is a joyous road for the rider who appreciates the odd squirt of adrenaline in their veins.
But before all this, it was time to stop in one of Barnard Castle’s tearooms for a nice warm cuppa and a decadent fresh scone soundly complimented by a large dollop of whipped cream. Yum.
The road up Teesdale kicks you out at the town of Alston. It’s a picture-perfect Pennine working town, replete with narrow lanes, cobblestones and the junction of five main roads. Here I usually head for Scotland to the north, but this time I was to head west for the Lakes via the hereto un-ridden A686.
And what a road it proved to be. Once off the moor tops the A686 luged down a series of convulsions that were just wide enough to allow you to carry some real speed.
INTO THE LAND O’ LAKES
The fun finally stopped at the town of Penrith, which sits on the edge of the Lakes District National Park proper. I was led in courtesy of the A592, and although it was a rather scenic road that trailed the northern edge of Ullswater Lake, it was also a reminder of how much of a tourist Mecca this area just is.
The Brits still love to torture their small cars with bulbous caravans tied behind them, and the narrow twisty roads can be a slow and laborious ride if you’re unlucky enough to be trapped behind such a doddering beast.
Past Ullswater the road turned south into the heart of the Lakes and the touristy-but-pleasant town of Ambleside. I got stuck in the one-way system that forced me around and around the town as I desperately tried to find the small but delicious side road that would take me east over some of the most entertaining passes that the area can muster.
After the third unintentional lap I fought my manly disposition and stopped to ask a local for directions, after which I finally broke free of the gravitational pull of Ambelside. The road started to clear of traffic, and as if sent by the gods, I found myself riding directly towards a grand old pub — straight on into the parking lot or a last minute sharp right to keep on going. I went straight.
It was much warmer now and I sat outside under a cloudless blue ceiling with the smell of the countryside all around: a perfect spring day. Life has taught me that these days are rare and I’ve learnt to take the time to imprint them in my senses.
But the road ahead beckoned and I left the pub to meander up Great Langdale. And great it was, especially the climb at the top where the valley suddenly stopped in a large craggy bowl, forcing the road up and over its edge along a ribbon of road wrinkled by braking cars and the pull of gravity.
And now I arrived at the pièce de résistance: the Wrynose-Hardknott passes. A large warning sign begs users to take extreme caution due to the narrowness of the route, severe bends and steep gradients.
I soon found myself stopped in a pull out, (used to let oncoming cars pass) on a very steep bit of Hardknott. But as I waited for the car to go by I noticed that it was also a beautiful spot, with a tumbling brook just off to the side and a view of the whole valley I was just about to leave. So I parked the Multistrada and hoped that no one needed the pull out that I now occupied.
The grass was soft and springy like a natural mattress, and the sound of the water in the brook was a soundtrack better than can come from any speaker. The blue sky above was hypnotic as I watched a hawk hang motionless above like a kite. The air wafted over me in gentle gusts of spring and I caught the faint scent of sheep.
I awoke to the sound of a car engine taking the load as it grunted and grumbled along the pass, the driver straining to see around each corner in case he meet another car grunting its way up. But there was only a parked motorcycle and its rider stretched out beside it.
It was a marvellous way to waste an hour, but the day’s ride was rather optimistic without the planned stop and I still had a chunk of distance before getting home.
Past Hardknott pass, the road lacked the drama of the passes but it was by no means plain. It also offered a view of the Irish Sea and a little blob of land otherwise known as the Isle of Man, host to the renowned TT races.
Just shy of the sea I merged onto the faster artery of the A595, which despite being more travelled, allowed me to open up the Multistrada and pretend I was in the TT for a few miles, before it eventually collected too much traffic and my fantasies were once again put in check.
After a good 10 hours of little to no traffic earlier in the day, chugging along trapped in a slow steel caravan was tedious, but it was getting late and I could not afford to go exploring down one of the many inviting side roads. So I took the most direct but still entertaining A65. It was interesting how a road that was still scenic, curvaceous, and by all rights should have been fun, became a bit of a grind when the previous 10 hours of riding had been just so good.
Still by the time a softer seat was attained, and my brother’s veggie chili and a pint of Timothy Taylor’s Landlord were consumed I was happy to be done. Four hundred kilometres of glorious riding in almost 12 hours of glorious sunshine. All in all, a grand day out and my English biking fix filled.
I’ve put together a page of recommendations if you do want to go to the UK but would like to know a little more about what that entails. Check out CMG’s UK Survival Guide here.