Memoirs of a wartime cycle tour in the Lake District
Cicerone’s Natalie shares an extract from her grandfather Geoff Cain’s memoirs. Here, he recounts ‘an epic Lakeland journey’: a single-day solo cycle tour around the Lake District in 1940, which saw him clock up around 110 miles and over 7,500ft of ascent.
Air raids, black-outs, a puncture and a false start: remembering a wartime cycle tour through the Lake District
My grandad, Geoff Cain, was every bit the true adventurer. Growing up in Barrow-in-Furness, he claimed to have first discovered the delights of the Cumbrian fells when he absconded from a Sunday School picnic to mount an abortive attempt on Black Combe. From then, the passion for exploration would stay with him all his life. There was little he enjoyed more than to venture out into the countryside, either alone or with friends, and in his youth he walked, climbed, cycled and camped all over the UK. Later years took him further afield, to the Swiss and Austrian Alps, Spanish Almijara, Canadian Rockies, Wilpenna Pound and Mt William in Australia and – his personal highlight – a four-day mini-trek in Pokhara, Nepal, among the foothills of the Himalaya. Yet, in spite of his extensive travels, he always maintained that there was nowhere quite like his beloved Lakeland.
I am lucky that my grandfather decided to write his memoirs and eventually self-publish them as Lakeland Dreaming. His book is a real treasure to me: I love being able to re-visit his memories and share some of his amazing experiences.
Geoff Cain, then and more recently.
In the following extract, he describes an epic cycle tour through the Lake District during a rare holiday in the war years. His route took him from Barrow to Coniston and Langdale, then on into Borrowdale via Stake Pass, over Honister to Buttermere, Crummock and Loweswater, before returning along the west coast to Barrow.
Memoirs of a wartime cycle tour
In September 1940 I was working in the Electrical Drawing Office at Vickers, having just completed my apprenticeship.
When the War broke out twelve months before, all leave was cancelled and we started to work overtime. Most of us were in the Home Guard or were Air Raid Wardens or in the Fire Watching Service or other voluntary organisations. By September 1940 people were getting stale and output was falling, so the Engine Works and the Shipyard were closed down for one whole week.
It was a perfect week. The sun shone out of a cloudless sky; the nights were cool and full of stars.
I set off early on a lovely morning with a few sandwiches, a Primus stove (strapped to the frame), a billy can and some tea and a repair outfit. Maps were not available then and all I had to plan my journey was an old 1909 11th edition of Baddeley’s Guide to the English Lake District. It had a series of one inch to the mile Bartholomew maps inside the book covering specific areas, so you had to hop from map to map to find your route.
I planned to ride right up the middle of the District via Langdale, Borrowdale, Buttermere and Crummock and return by the West coast.
Buttermere in 1940
There was hardly any traffic in those days and cycling was a real pleasure
I cycled from Barrow to Ulverston, Coniston, Fell Foot in Little Langdale and Blea Tarn. Then on the descent to Wall End in Great Langdale, disaster struck.
The roads in that area and around Wrynose were used by the Army for training drivers of heavy duty transport, and as there were no roadmen to repair the ravages caused by the vehicles and also by the winter rains, the roads were in an appalling state.
It is a steep drop to Wall End and on the slippery stony surface it was impossible to avoid occasionally locking the wheels and skidding and part way down, my front tyre blew – not only the inner tube but there was a big hole in the outer tyre as well.
I was able to mend the tube and patch the tyre but further progress was out of the question. I wheeled the bike down the hill to the metalled road at the bottom and rode home very carefully via Elterwater and Coniston.
Coniston as Geoff Cain viewed it
The following day I collected all my pocket money together and went to Hadwin’s excellent cycle shop on Dalton Road. There I bought a pair of heavy duty tandem tyres. I fitted them in place of the Dunlop Sprites and next day I set off again and reached Wall End safely.
The next stage of my journey was on the footpath up Mickleden. It looked pretty flat on the map and I reckoned I could ride it. I did ride a bit but I constantly had to get off and push over streams and rocky patches.
From Mickleden the route I had chosen led over Stake Pass into Langstrath. I assumed I would have to push up to the top of the pass and then freewheel down the other side. In reality I had to carry up and, to my dismay, carry a lot of the way down.
Like Mickleden I was able to ride some of the path down Langstrath to Stonethwaite where thankfully, I joined the metalled road. It was hard going but I still remember the thrill of being among all those magnificent, and to me new, sun-kissed mountains and the excitement of wondering what lay around the corner, over the hill.
From Stonethwaite to Rosthwaite in Borrowdale, then left to Seatoller and the long slog up Honister Pass. From the top of the Pass the glorious swoop down into the beautiful valley of Buttermere and Crummock – the Secret Valley.
After Crummock I came to the lonely, lovely Loweswater shining in the late afternoon sun. I stopped there, ate my last sandwich and took stock.
The Langdale Pikes
Nothing but a shilling and an orange
It must have been about six o’clock and I began to realise how far I was from home. I had a shilling in my pocket and an orange in the pannier bag. I would have liked to have spent my shilling on something to eat but (a) there were no shops nor indeed any people (I hardly saw anyone all day) and (b) I had to save it until I could find a telephone and ring my grandmother to tell her I would be late home – she used to worry about me.
I had now run out of maps and I had only a vague idea of the coastal route. To make matters worse there were no signposts. Such was the fear of a German invasion at the time that all signposts had been removed and names such as bridge names had been obliterated.
I left Loweswater and some homing instinct led me through Lamplugh, Kirkland and Ennerdale Bridge and onto Cold Fell.
It was on the long climb up Cold Fell that the joy of the day began to wane. The sun had gone down and a cool breeze had sprung up which, as usual when you are cycling, was dead ahead. I was not sure where I was, I was hungry and on top of all that my gears slipped and I could not engage bottom gear.
I had to stand on the pedals to climb the steep road but at the top I could see, with great relief, Black Combe. It looked an awful long way away but I was on the right road for home.
Calder Bridge, Gosforth, Holmrook, Bootle – somewhere along there I managed to make my telephone call.
Cycling through an air raid - truly a wartime cycle tour
I still had my orange. I was reluctant to eat it. Once that was gone I would have nothing to sustain me, so I kept it as a sort of carrot. I said to myself, “I will eat it when I get to Whitbeck” and then, “I will eat it when I get to Whicham”.
It was quite dark as I rode through the Whicham Valley. Half way through I came to a milk kit on a stand at the side of the road. I stopped and I thought the farmer would not begrudge a small cup of milk for a weary traveller. So I dug my tin mug from the panniers and crept up to the milk kit. Getting the lid off made what seemed an alarming amount of noise. Imagine my dismay when I found the kit was empty!
Soon after this I heard the sound of a distant air raid siren and then the drone of bomber planes and the machine gun rattle of the fighter planes. As I rode into Foxfield an agitated Air Raid Warden jumped out in front of me and yelled at me to “Put that light out”.
My cycle lamp had a glass front about 2” diameter. You had to black out the top half of the glass and the bottom half of the reflector. The result, as an old friend of mine used to say, was “darkness made visible”.
However, I did as I was told and switched off my lamp and carried on. I well remember the road from Foxfield to Wreaks End. The hedges had not been cut for a long time and they nearly met overhead. There were no road markings – it was like riding through a tunnel.
There was a horse trough on this stretch of road and there I stopped for a drink of cool, clear water. Also since I was on the home run I ate my precious orange – it was so good.
On to Grizebeck and a large policeman, “Hoy, what do you mean riding without a light?” I explained what had happened and he said, “Don’t be daft son. Put your light on and get yourself home”.
The Wrynose Pass
Three soggy slices of bread
On the long drag up to Kirkby and Ireleth I started to dream about what I would have for my supper when I got home. I was a practical sort of lad and I knew it was no use dreaming of steak and chips in those days of strict rationing. So I thought about what would be in the house and decided on brown bread and syrup and a cup of cocoa.
And that is what I had when I got home to Greengate Street in the early hours of the morning. I cut three pieces of Hovis brown bread, a scrape of margarine with as much syrup as I dared and a cup of cocoa.
I had my own room upstairs at the back of the house and as everyone was in bed I carefully carried my supper to my room and set it on the bedside table. I jumped into bed… and in the morning on the bedside table were three soggy slices of bread and a crusty cup of cocoa! I must have lain on the bed and gone out like a light.
It had been a long, hard but wonderful day. The weather had been perfect, I had seen much that was new to me and it was the start of my appreciation of the magnificent country which lay awaiting my discovery.
Fancy doing a modern cycle tour in the Lake District?
Richard Barrett has written a more up to date guidebook to Cycling in the Lake District. This guide contains a 5-day cycle tour of the Lake District, with 2 options each day up to a total of 186 miles and almost 5000m of ascent, and 15 tough day rides from Keswick, Ambleside, Penrith and bases to the southwest and southeast of the National Park. With outlines of other tours and the Fred Whitton Challenge ride (112 miles over 7 iconic passes).
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