England’s most mountainous county contains a forest trail centre called Whinlatter that is all about seeing beyond the wood and the trees.
Whinlatter Forest: the trail guide
- BLUE – Quercus Trail 7.5km, 0.5-1 hour
- RED – Altura Trail North Loop 9.5km, 0.5-2 hours
- RED – Altura Trail South Loop 10km, 0.5-2 hours
Sleeping and eating
With the tourist honeypot of Keswick town less than five miles away there’s a huge choice of hotels, B&Bs, campsites, takeaways and restaurants nearby. If you’re after a bit more peace and quiet, Cockermouth to the west offers a lot of the same amenities but without the crowds. lakedistrict.gov.uk/visiting/wheretostay
Fixing your bike
On-site bike shop Cyclewise has all the spares you might need as well as a workshop. It also hires out Cubes and Mondrakers, starting from £18 for three hours.
What to ride
There’s not much truly rough stuff at Whinlatter so a hardtail will be fine, but a short-travel full-suspension bike will allow you to get the most out of the trails.
The trails are hardpack enough that a fast-rolling rear tyre is a definite benefit — just watch out for the local slate that can slice through thin sidewalls.
Best of the rest
You’re spoilt for choice if you want to break out of the trail centre. The Borrowdale Bash and Back O’ Skiddaw loop are both local favourites with a whole load of other possible routes near by. Your best bet is to ask at a bike shop. They’ll be able to point you in the right direction and advise on a route that best suits your ability and the conditions.
Whinlatter Forest, Lake District trail centre guide
Words & pics: Sim Mainey | Article originally appeared in mbr June 2015
There’s something about forests that appeals to mountain bikers’ psyches. We seem to gravitate towards them, compelled to scour maps to find them, explore them, build in them, ride in them and spend more time than is probably healthy or normal just stood around in them. Deciduous, evergreen, old or new, steep or flat, it doesn’t seem to matter — the combination of pliable earth, obstacles to wiggle around, a bit of shelter from the elements and relative seclusion make for an irresistible playground.
To a mountain biker, a forest without trails seems like a wasted opportunity (or a blank canvas, if you have a spade). They are so integral to most people’s riding experience that I’d bet the half-eaten energy bar at the bottom of my pack that more people have ridden their mountain bike in a forest than they have on an actual mountain. The French have it right with the name ‘velo tout terrain’ (all-terrain bike), but the word ‘mountain’ is loaded with the kind of connotations we want to associate with: ascent, wilderness, exploration, adventure, achievement. Inspiring and aspirational stuff that marks us out as the sort who like a challenge.
Riding through Whinlatter forest, I’m reminded that aspiration has always been key to riding a bike off-road.
Situated on the northern edge of the Lake District National Park, a stone’s throw from Keswick, Whinlatter nestles among some impressive peaks. The hulking Skiddaw massif sits opposite, the jutting ridgeline of Grisedale Pike is to the flank, and the picture-postcard views of the Borrowdale Fells are all within sight.
With acres of trees clinging to the side of a mountain, this seems an obvious place to ride a bike. I used to ride here with my friend Malcolm back when having peace hangers on your cantilever brakes was cool. There were no trails for bikes back then, or at least no official ones; fire-road climbs led to fire-road descents, or to cheeky footpaths that were full of walkers and pretty dull. There may have been more fun unofficial trails but we never found them. In summers I imagined I was riding in Marin county dust, in winter Pacific Northwest mud; the power of magazines on a young mind. No amount of imagination, however, could get over the fact that the riding at Whinlatter was, frankly, crap. So Malcolm and I, like most other riders, tended to avoid it and cherry pick from the huge number of other trails in the North Lakes area.
The more things change…
When they announced that they were going to build a trail centre at Whinlatter, I was excited. It seemed unlikely that they would build the North Shore-style trails I had dreamed of riding, but at least they were doing something about the wasted opportunity of an empty forest. Having ridden the likes of Coed y Brenin, I felt that some similar all-weather trails closer to home would add welcome variety to the trail mix. But, with such great riding already on our doorstep, was a trail centre in the Lakes really necessary? Would it lead to the ghettoisation of mountain bikers? Would trail conflict increase when militant ramblers learnt we had somewhere that was ‘ours’ to play in? Would it draw yet more riders to the already congested Lakes? And — ultimately — why not just crack out an OS map and go explore?
At first it looked like there wouldn’t be any answer to these questions. Initial planning permission was rejected in 2007. Locals in Braithwaite, the small village at the bottom of the pass, complained that the narrow road through their village would become gridlocked with cars heading up to the centre. It took a second attempt for the plans to be pushed through and for work to begin, and even after the trails opened, you’d see locals sat outside their houses counting the number of cars with bikes on the back, ready to lodge another complaint about the traffic.
When the Altura Trail eventually opened in 2008, a great deal was made about the fact that it was in England’s only mountain forest. The strapline for the trail was: “Putting the mountain back into biking…”. And it’s true — here you can claim to have ridden your mountain bike on an actual mountain as well as in a forest. The red- graded Altura trail is split into two distinct loops, the 10km North Loop and the 9.5km South Loop. At the grand opening only the North Loop was ready to ride, with construction on the South Loop on the opposite side of the valley continuing until later that year.
Eventually there followed the low-level Quercus blue trail, and Whinlatter became a trail centre with something for everyone.
For my return to Whinlatter I’m riding with Malcolm’s son, Sam, who works at Cyclewise, the bike shop and coaching school based out of the visitor centre. A new generation of rider and a new generation of bikes — my 1996 Kona Koa hardtail has been replaced by a Specialized Stumpjumper Carbon 29er, and Sam is on a Yeti SB5 C rather than his Dad’s Fat Chance Ti.
With every generation, expectations shift. What we want from our bikes and trails changes — but there is one thing we are always looking for: fun.
Following Sam’s wheel as we head off into the forest I’m struck by a few things. Firstly, he’s a lot faster than I ever was, or am. Secondly, how lucky are we to have these networks of trails in forests up and down the country? There’s now a whole generation of riders who have grown up with access to purpose-built trails. There are trail-centre naysayers but I’m not one of them — they are a perfect place to be introduced to riding a bike off-road, a great sharpener for your existing skills and a way of getting guaranteed fun on your bike without having to plan too much.
Nature and nurture
That said, the best trail centres encourage riders to look outside the immediate boundaries and try natural trails too, and this is something Whinlatter does wonderfully. As well as the obligatory jumps, drops and berms, it has its Hallelujah moments too. It makes the most of its elevation and surroundings; the ubiquitous pines fall away in places to reveal magnificent panoramas of the surrounding fells, views that force you to apply the brakes, stop and just stare. With dramatic backdrops and adrenaline pumping it’d take a pretty closed-minded rider to look across the layer upon layer of mountain scenery and not think ‘I wonder if there’s any riding over there’.
But if the riding is so good outside the forest, do the Lakes actually need a trail centre at all? If you’ve ever spent any time here you’ll know that the weather is wickedly fickle. The old adage of ‘if you don’t like the weather just wait five minutes…’, is true to a point — although if you like the weather on the wet side, chances are you’re in luck most of the time. While there are literally a mountain of trails nearby, sometimes Mother Nature will put a dampener on your plans, and it’s good to know there’s an all-weather option nearby. But it’d be unfair to see the trails here as purely back-up for when your ‘real’ mountain expedition is a no-go; they are fun to ride in their own right and offer views and altitude that few other UK centres can offer.
Sam and I charge round the red route — or rather Sam charges as I try to keep up, stopping for photos, taking in the views and talking crap. The usual things you do on a ride. The kind of things I did with his dad. The joy of rolling on two wheels and being outside is always fresh; it never fades, and while technology and fashion may change over time, the fundamentals of why we ride don’t. Sat looking out towards Derwent Water, Sam points at a far off fell, “Ever ridden the trail off the side of there? ” I shake my head. “It’s a good one, we’ll do it next time you’re up. Hey, have you tried the Cyclewise panini in the cafe? It’s not on the menu but it’s amazing. Fancy it?”
Aspiration summed up beautifully by a far off hill and the lure of a melted cheese sandwich.
While Whinlatter may not be Marin or Bellingham (much to my teenage self’s disappointment) it is something special in its own right. This kind of singletrack — the climbs as well as the ascents — is something that riders in other countries aspire to experience. Whinlatter isn’t just about enjoying riding in the relatively familiar setting of the forest — it’s about breaking free of its gravity, getting out of the woods and into the mountains.