Roads over 400m are fairly plentiful in North England and in Wales, but after that, it starts to get fairly thin and airy in the UK. The highest ‘Col’ is in Scotland, Cairnwell Pass, Aviemore which rises to 670m (2,198ft) over 8.1kms. Scotland also has some much higher roads which aren’t Col’s or passes. The road up to the radar station at Lowther Hill at 725m (2,379ft) being the highest, but you have to come back the way you came up. Surprisingly though, this isn’t the highest paved climb in the UK. That accolade goes to a fairly unknown climb in Cumbria (although it’s gained a lot of airtime in the last 2 years) The ‘Big Friendly Giant’, situated in the Pennines, inland from the Lake District, is Great Dunn Fell (GDF). An access road to a radar station, like Lowther, which rises from the small village of Knock to an almost staggering altitude for the UK of 848 m (2,782ft) That’s 123m higher than anything else and it gets to that summit via a perfect strip of tarmac which averages 8% over the main 7.4km route and rises over 630m vertically from start to finish.
Strava classifies GDF as a category 2 climb. Although tackling its slopes via Long Marton achieves category 1 status 707m of verticle ascent over an extended 11.3km climb. Faintly ridiculous when you consider that’s nearly as much climbing as the total height of Lowther! Oh, and just for perspective, Box Hill has 128m of verticle on the most basic version of the Strava segment (I know there are longer Box Hill segments but really… it doesn’t add more than 20m).
Given that I grew up a mere 70km South of this local giant I have, for a long time, been pretty annoyed that I’ve never even considered riding up it. Well, not until the recent upsurge in its profile (That’s media profile not physical) And following a nudge from former club-mate, Simon Hewitson when we rode around the Slaidburn fells in August. That conversation really sparked my enthusiasm. When I returned from that trip I spent a few late nights Googling and researching before deciding on a little end of season plan.
This would pretty much be a smash and grab. Pick a weekend, drive up to Yorkshire and stay with the family to ride Saturday and Sunday then return after a hearty late Sunday lunch. I’d managed to blag a long time friend and fellow VCGH Club rider Mark Pritchard into joining me too. He loves the hills so the offer of some big climbs, free transport (almost) and free accommodation was enough to get him onboard.
It would also be an excellent opportunity to test out a demo bike from TSUBASA. The Crow is part of a venture with my business partner at R Squared Industries. The bike had already impressed the likes of Cycling Tips in a recent review. The Kogel / Schmolke incarnation, with zippy wireless SRAM Etap, weighs in at a paultry 5.6kgs, so should be the ideal company for GDF.
We arrived after a fairly tortuous 6 hr drive from the South East at 1:15am Saturday morning. We’d spent a good deal of the last 2 hours talking about the route and weather. Tackling GDF during the back end of a tropical storm, with just a few hours sleep was not the thing to do. So, we got up late and headed for a mid-morning breakfast at Ireby Green Farm Cafe to decide on the plan for the day.
“Apart from sheep, there always seemed to be the odd Crow following our progress.”
The wind was blowing hard from the west, with a mild drizzle sweeping in from the coast. The forecast didn’t show any improvement til Sunday so we had chosen a predominantly low-level sheltered route, with one good climb to get the legs going a bit. We set off in the rain for Kirby Lonsdale and then Northwards to the village of Barbon. We turned North East up Barbondale to Dent with the plan to loop around Calf Top Fell and come back via the main road to Kirby and home. With hilltops shrouded in thick wet weather cloud, we had the benefit of a lovely tailwind all the way up the valley to Dent. Apart from sheep, there always seemed to be the odd Crow following our progress. Normally I wouldn’t notice, but I can’t help thinking they are keeping tabs on their brethren custom carbon bike! Dropping down towards Sedbergh, we diverted East to Dent. Its a little off route but worth the visit as it has a particular charm, even in the wet, with a historic cobbled high street and microbrewery.
We’re up for breakfast at 7am and pretty much as forecast the air was light, bright and there was almost a hint of sunshine. We rode out thought Kirby Lonsdale in bright early morning sunshine, mist in the valleys and low relief cloud hugging the higher tops.
The thing that really blew me away was the utter lack of wind. Yorkshire, even on the best days normally has a breeze blowing from somewhere. In October, a day after a storm you’d expect something, but not even a hint.
Perfect conditions then! Hardly any cars, still air and little or no sound apart from our bikes on the road and the occasional distraction of Pheasants, disturbed and flying off noisily ahead of us. The crows were back again too. Sat on gates and fences, guarding the way and watching as we glided by.
The first real test came at Beck Foot just north of Sedbergh, we turned off the main road onto the B6257 which crosses under the M6 on the border of the Howgills and cuts through the hills to join the A685 to Tebay. It’s a little leg warmer of a climb with 140m vertical to 311m. This marked about half way to GDF. The drop from here into Tebay is a nice rest with wonderful views across the M6 with the sun still out and the Howgills glorious in the Autumn light. So far, progress had been quick.
Tebay can be a fairly desolate, wet windy place viewed from the M6. But on the minor roads and in mild sunny conditions, its got a hidden charm. Coasting down across the M6 on the road bridge, if you look left, down into the small mountain river, you’ll see wonderful hollowed out rock circles made by swirling water. There’s an almost continental mountain feel today, something I have never felt in Tebay! The strips of 4 to 5 story terrace houses which hug the roadside certainly look different from this vantage point.
As we cross the main round-a-bout and head out on the B6260 to Orton, we pass the access road to the M6. Its unique in that the slip road has a cattle grid to catch stray sheep from wondering onto the motorway in the winter. Now you don’t see stuff like that down in the south.
We sped out of Tebay, towards the little humpback bridge over the river Lune. There was this local chap, about to cross the road. He saw us coming, so stepped back and as he did, through a wonderful wide grin, in a thick Cumbrian accent, shouted “Come on you Bradleys” a reference to Mr Wiggins no doubt.
It certainly made us smile back, and wave our appreciation. That summed up pretty much every encounter we had on the two days in the North. The locals are much more accepting, even happy to see us. An effect of the Tour de Yorkshire maybe, or just a different attitude to the everyday? Who knows, but its refreshing.
Heading North through Orton we reach our final climb before GDF. Orton scar is a gradual climb to start with the final km rising sharply up 352m and then tracking across a plateau of moorland towards a lengthy descent into Appleby. From the far side of this moor, you can see the final climb or at least the range of the Pennines which rise up like a wall from the Eastern edge of the Eden Valley which seems strikingly flat.
We were through Appleby with hardly a pause. For me, Appleby holds special memories of my first big cycling experience aged 10 or 11 as a cub scout. We rode from there back to Ingleton, 51 miles away. I don’t recall much of that adventure apart from small sections of road, the Beck Foot climb and the adventure of being out in the wilds of the North on a bike.
Out of Appleby, we’re off to Long Marton, this was a route choice so that we complete the longest climbing segment of GDF. 11.3km rather than the traditional 7.4km of the main climb. There is a river crossing as we enter the village, with a sharp little climb up into the main street. This is the start of the climbing which continues now until we reach the summit. We’re at 121m above sea level (64.6km).
Through Long Marton, we follow the straight undulating 4kms of uphill as we run in towards Knock.
Knock, a small village you hardly notice sits just south of the main climb. The final right turn onto the road up to GDF is easily missed. I felt a nervousness, an excitement at reaching this point and what was to come. We slowed, we chatted in anticipation as we came to a junction and a brown sign for the ‘Knock Christian Centre’, plus one of those blue and white T signs with the red top, commonly used for dead ends or cul de sacs! The longest, highest, most desolate cul de sac in the UK me thinks! We’re at 213m (68.4km).
Off we go, off up to the clouds
The first 1.5km is a nice easy entrée, 4% and a steadily increasing gradient as we approach the foot of Knock Pike on the right of the road. The Pike is an imposing isolated mini-peak of 398m next to the road. It guards the entry to Knock Ore Gill, which is the valley the GDF road uses to access the interior and ultimately the summit of GDF. As the road bends around to the right it becomes wall like, with 20% steeps in places and an average 11% for the next 0.5km. The road backs round to the left skirting a coppice of trees and a long steady straight lays out in front of us. The gradient eases to a much easier 8% as we head towards the first of 3 gates across the road.
The gate is a chance to rest, fiddle with the bolt, take more time than is actually needed and ready ourselves for the next section. We’re at 435m (71.5).
As soon as you cross the cattle grid on the other side of the gate you ride into another solid wall of 11.5% road through a couple of gentle zig zags and on for the next km. Already its exposed and open moorland either side. The sheep had gathered in this area the night before we rode, probably sheltering from the storm the day before. So, we not only have to manage the increased gradient but also navigate around slippy piles of sheep poo.
The middle section of the climb skirts along the side of Knock Ore Gill. This valley leads you to the final summit plateaus of GDF. For the next km, we are treated to a flat road, only 5%, with a gradual increase to 7%. There is a wonderful view up the valley and the occasional glimpse of the Golf Ball radar station on the summit. We’re close, but the worst section is to come.
It’s now getting noticeably cooler, we’re exposed, with only the sound of the occasional bleating sheep and running water from the many small streams that drop down into the Gill. For a moment, up ahead I can see a large eagle floating on what wind there is, harried by a couple of our ever-present crows. Maybe it’s a vulture waiting for carrion! Whatever, everything we see simply goes to reinforce you’ve climbed pretty high. We’re at 558m (72.7km).
Mark had moved well ahead, although I’ve managed to peg him to about 500m. We’re soon into the solid 13% incline which takes us into the upper reaches of the climb. This section seems to be the biggest battle of the whole climb, a real slog to the narrowest part of the valley which is no wider than 30 m at the top end where the road falls over the lip and onto the summit plateau which sets us up for the last barrier across the road (A small low gate) We’re at 767m (75.0km).
We’re in the clouds, both physically & mentally as well as literally. The next half km is made up of a wonderful little section of snaking road which disappears into the grey mist. Thankfully the incline is relaxed, again though that’s relative as its actually 5% into a gradually steepening slope for the last few hundred metres. GDF slowly turns the screw as we reach the top with more than 9% average gradient for the last few hundred metres of road.
There is no gate on the entrance, just a cattle grid. So we decided to ride into the NATS Radar complex and take some pictures. We’re at 848m (76.1km).
There was a noticeable breeze now, no view, unfortunately, and it’s was very apparent that there’s a fair wind chill which was close to zero. It’s easy to forget how quickly you can get chilled. We set up a couple of quick shots of the Crow, no sign of my feathered followers up here now. And we linger long enough to decide the cloud might not clear and we should head back downhill.
“as long as you are watching for oncoming riders and the occasional, carefully placed, pile of sheep poo in the apex”
The near-perfect tarmac is wonderful going up, but even better coming back down as it delivers a healthy amount of confidence on corners, as long as you are watching for oncoming riders and the occasional carefully placed, pile of sheep poo in the apex. Those first 5 or 6 turns off the top bring us back out of the cloud and back to that top gate in less than a minute and a half (The gates are a great chance to rest when going up but an annoyance coming down). Within 10 minutes we’re at the final gate even with a couple of stops to admire the view, and take some snaps. Its all over too quickly.
Mark may have been quicker up the fell but I can descend better than most so spend a good few minutes waiting by the turn into the GDF and savouring what has been a wonderful adventure. As we have to be back in the South today we’ve organised for the team car to be ready and waiting at Appleby to extract us and back to the Ireby Green Farm Cafe and fill up with one of their amazing Sunday dinners.
We manage to get back to our base with a few hours to chill, clean up a little and get bags packed. Back on the road to London and the South East and the flatter warmer climate of the South.
R Squared FOUNDER