Mark Sutcliffe discovers the Bay Cycleway, an epic new cycle route skirting the shifting sands of Morecambe Bay and linking the Furness Peninsulas, undiscovered gems of the Arnside and Silverdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and the cycling-friendly city of Lancaster.
Often overlooked and frequently forgotten, the Furness Peninsulas are the lower-lying coastal cousins of the soaring peaks and lofty ridges of the Lakeland Fells.
Out on a limb to the south of the honeypots of the central Lake District, this undiscovered country was once part of the great county palatine of the Red Rose – known as 'Lancashire over the water’.
In 1974, Furness was subsumed within the newly created county of Cumbria, which to many people is synonymous with the Lake District, but this out-of-the-way outpost has a character all its own, shaped by both the mountains and the sea.
The vast open skies, marshland and intricate tracework of estuaries, creeks and inlets are reminiscent of north Norfolk, but the mountainous backdrop is far more dramatic. To the north – just a short ride along the A5084 From Greenodd – lies the massif of the Old Man of Coniston. Out west is the vast rounded hump of Black Combe – an isolated outlier belonging to an entirely different geological sequence sharing DNA with the hills on the Isle of Man, which lurks in the haze some 25 miles off the coast.
The proud and independent communities dotted around the shifting sands of Morecambe Bay are all too aware of the perils that lie therein, but the 300km2 of sand that used to separate these close-knit coastal communities is increasingly regarded as a unifying presence that defines this region's unique identity.
Increasingly referred to simply as ‘The Bay’, whose resonance with the Greater San Francisco area isn't entirely accidental, the recognition is slowly dawning that this huge area of unspoilt coastline and mountains has the potential to become one of England's most spectacular outdoor playgrounds.
And linking the diverse habitats along the fringes of the Bay is a new cycleway that offers a challenging one-day ride or a more leisurely two-day tour. Opened in 2015, the route follows quiet roads, bridleways and traffic-free cycleways to link the old port of Glasson Dock at the mouth of the River Lune with the shipyards of Barrow-in-Furness.
At 81 miles, the entire route is right at the limits of what I thought I could comfortably achieve on a hybrid bike, but with the Cumbria coast railway line providing a convenient escape route, I figured I’d see how far I could get before bailing out and catching the train back to my starting point.
On a glorious late spring morning near the end of May, I rolled into the deserted car park beside the inner basin at Glasson Dock and unshipped my newly serviced Marin. I’d opted to reverse the recommended route and go south to north, calculating that the forecast wind direction would provide much-needed assistance over the final third of the route.
So with a gentle north easterly wind in my face keeping things cool in the brilliant early morning light, I headed north up the Lune Estuary towards Lancaster.
The first leg from Glasson to Morecambe is flat and well signposted, but the Bay Cycleway is far from flat and one of the drawbacks with travelling south–north is that the big hills appear just as the legs start to feel the strain.
After less than half an hour, I found myself among the commuters negotiating rush hour in the superbly cycle-friendly city of Lancaster. The route follows largely traffic-free cycleways along the Lune into the heart of the city and over the elegant Millennium Bridge before striking out west towards the coast at Morecambe.
Cycling along the extensively improved Morecambe prom is an exhilarating experience; the splendid views of the Lake District fells across the bay providing the icing on the cake. If anything drops off your bike in the first 10 miles or so, the guys at Bays Bikes on the Prom will be happy to help. If only I’d had the foresight to purchase a superior cycle pump, when I popped in for a new bottle cage…
Pausing for a breather to admire the amazing views over the Bay, it was impossible to resist a quick photocall with eponymous Eric before continuing northwards.
After a short climb at Hest Bank, a relaxed flat stretch follows the Lancaster Canal to Carnforth, before swinging out into the outstandingly beautiful Arnside and Silverdale peninsula – one of the Cumbria–Lancashire border’s best-kept secrets.
The undulating limestone woodlands of Warton, Silverdale and Arnside provide the first proper climbs of the day, but the exertion is worth it as the views over the Bay begin to open out. After the steady climb up from the coast at Jenny Brown’s point, I stop for coffee and cake at the wonderful Wolfhouse Gallery – perched up on the hill above the achingly pretty little village of Silverdale.
Less than half an hour later the gorgeous little resort of Arnside provides another pit stop. If you’re taking the leisurely two-day option, this is a great place to overnight. I resist the temptation to scoff a portion of fish and chips beneath the clock tower on the small but perfectly formed prom and make do with a meat and potato pie from the bakery across the road. Then, I follow the Kent estuary inland to cross the river at Levens before tacking southwest on flat, quiet lanes to Grange over Sands and Kent’s Bank.
The next section via Cartmel includes some steep climbs through the gloriously rolling foothills of the Furness Fells but the flat section on a rural cyclepath alongside the tidal reaches of the River Leven offers a charming respite before the stiff climbs that lie ahead.
The extended ascent out of Greenodd at the mouth of the Leven is pretty brutal, but the views out over the vast expanse of the Bay and north up to the Furness fells are ample reward when you top out, breathless on the gnarly little hills above Ulverston.
After coasting into this elegant old market town, my battered legs decided they’d had enough of hills for the day and plotted an alternative route that following the coastal A5087 for the final leg into Barrow – although in a strong south-westerly, the hillier inland option might be wiser.
The terrain flattened out and the coastal route seemed to offer a smooth run down the coast to Roa Island and onwards to Barrow. Despite stiff legs and sunburn, I began to believe I’d complete the ride.
Then, 10 miles from Barrow, on a swift descent into Aldingham, the rear wheel started making a clattering noise, accompanied by an ominous hissing. The tyre had picked up a fragment of barbed wire and the back wheel deflated sharpish.
I inserted a new inner tube, but the asthmatic little pump I’d brought with me couldn’t properly reinflate the tyre. I gingerly continued with a semi-flat rear but it was hopeless. Kind folks at the roadside Moat House café turned their barn and garage upside down in a vain search for a serviceable pump.
I continued walking disconsolately along the verge of the road. A serious cyclist sped past in the other direction before I could flag him down. Feeling even more deflated than the rear tyre, I contemplated conceding defeat and getting a taxi into Barrow.
Then, three minutes later, the same cyclist reappeared brandishing the fanciest machined aluminium pump I’d ever seen. Within seconds the tyre was back to full pressure and I was back in the saddle, sprinting for the station.
The puncture had cost me a good hour so there was no time for sight-seeing in Barrow. Checking the train times on my phone indicated a train would be leaving Barrow station in less than 10 minutes – I wasn’t going to make it!
But then I saw the old BR arrows sign on a road bridge and took a sharp left into the little used station at Roose on the southern edge of Barrow. I shot down the ramp and straight onto the platform where myself and four other cyclists just managed squeeze ourselves and our bikes into the single carriage train that rattled to a stop on the platform minutes later.
Collapsing into the last seat in the carriage beside my new-found cycling buddies, I basked in the warmth of the evening sun and the kindness of strangers.
While it may lack the prestige of the Coast to Coast or the lung-bursting climbs of the mountain passes of the Lake District, there is an epic quality to this circumnavigation of one of the most spectacular features of the English coastline.
The quiet lanes and traffic-free cyclepaths make it accessible to the average cyclist, yet the majesty and scenic splendour of Morecambe Bay stretches the relatively modest mileage involved and elevates this ride to the status of a modern classic for aspiring cycle tourists.
Seasoned cyclists and serious hill-hunters could easily throw in a more challenging loop up into the Lake District proper to increase the amount of ascent, but for us mere mortals, completing the Bay Cycleway feels like a real accomplishment and a worthy introduction to the wonderfully sustainable world of cycle touring.
What I learned
- Start from Barrow – get the big hills out of the way while the legs are still fresh
- Try to choose a day when there’s a definite tail wind (westerly)
- To do it in one day, use a road bike with tough tyres
- Better still do it in two days and stop regularly to enjoy the stunning scenery along the route
- Pack a proper pump!
Best option if you’ve only got a day
More seasoned cyclists will cope with the entire distance comfortably in a day, but for those who are less confident of their abilities in the saddle, here’s a cut-down version. Catch the train from Lancaster to Cark & Cartmel and cycle back over the Furness Peninsula, Arnside and Silverdale AONB and Morecambe to Lancaster. This ‘edited highlights’ edition avoids some of the bigger hills and makes a delightful day ride.