Stats: Only 8.6 miles but don’t underestimate because, well, look at that climb profile – 2,345 feet of ascent
Tha’s in West Coombria na’ tha’ kna’s. Cum wi’ packed lunch. Although, after your ride, you could pootle into Bootle.
The residents of North Lancashire are used to the swell of Black Combe looming over the sands of Morecambe Bay. On hazier days, it is the only Cumbrian Hill on offer, the only sign that there’s an Atlantis out beyond the smirr. On a clear day, it looks close enough to touch – a cruel deception as it takes the motorist a circuitous hour and a half to get to its base from, say, Heysham.
But that motorist will be well-rewarded for his or her pains, for this oddball outlier is a fine hill. There’s more than a passing resemblance to the Howgills – you can see it in the smooth, feminine outline. You can see it in the rich swathes of bracken and heather swaddling the lower slopes. You’ll see it in the contours, clustering together like cables in a conduit. A geologist will tell you that both are made of Ordovician rocks made over 400 million years ago.
You’ll need to pack your lungs – much of the climbing will have you simultaneously screaming for a lower gear and wrestling the front wheel back down. But the route is easy to follow and is all rideable apart from a section at 200m that would challenge the toughest climber. The descent is a riot – soft, peaty turf that looks ready to forgive the odd, unplanned trip over the bars. Not that that’s likely as there are few tyre-traps in evidence
If progressing by car, the best start point is probably the junction of the A595 and A5093, just outside Silecroft. There’s a handy layby right by the junction. Alternatively, you could get yourself way out west by train, getting off at Silecroft station.
1. Head up the hill (A595) towards Barrow for ¼mile, then take lane on left, tarmacked but with luxuriant mounds of grass in the middle. This gradually becomes rougher and a sign invites you to take the bridleway up the fellside to your right. Steel yourself. You are now barely 60m above sea level and the summit is ten times that. The track climbs on a wide swathe of grass between rich seas of bracken. The gradient lets up – a bit – when you get to 300m and you can cast an eye over your shoulder at the beaten-pewter sea. This gives it a very different feel from other Cumbrian rides – very remote and maritime.
2. Lungs and legs will enjoy the respite at the top, and a chance to look north at the unusual angle of the Eskdale Horseshoe – seeing old friends in a new light.
3. As you head north, there’s a sudden change in soil type, being dramatically marshier than the climb. On a hot day, this has a welcome cooling effect on scalding calves, but may be a cause for considering a whale-tail when the day is cold. Pay close attention to the diverging tracks – the bridleway heads north a little then veers northwest down a grassy ridge with the deep declivity of William Gill on your left. Again, the terrain is very like the Howgills but the coastal position gives it a completely different feel.
4. Plummet down to a big zigzag (ignore the direct route as its liable to carve in damp conditions) and gain a slanting track by a fence-line (lower down this becomes a drystone wall). The track is rather deep with bents grasses, so the choice of line is a little vague. You just need to have faith that there aren’t any big boulders or hidden drops lurking in there, looking for a front wheel to snatch.
5. The track improves and morphs into a delightful switchback along the flank of the fell, keeping to the intake boundary and splashing through a couple of streams. In high summer, the colours on the fellside above are beautiful, with yellow gorse and lime-green grass yielding to intermingled bands of bracken and heather as richly coloured as a cock-pheasant’s back. All too soon, you converge with the A595 and a somewhat prosaic spin back to Silecroft. Yes, it was a long journey to get here, but it was worth it, wasn’t it?