Cumbrian Climbs | Hunting for Hills in the Bentley Continental GT
Leon Poultney, our resident motoring expert, trawls the Lake District looking for the perfect cycle route
With ‘The Road Less Travelled’, we aim to cover cars a little differently: putting them through their paces by seeing if they can handle a real adventure. This week, we’re sending the revamped Bentley Continental GT around the Lake District, as motoring journalist Leon Poultney goes in search of the perfect cycle.
As a cyclist that lives on the edge of the New Forest, I feel both blessed and cursed in equal measure. Blessed to have such beautiful surroundings on the doorstep, but cursed by the lack of proper hills. As pretty as they are, none of the roads are particularly undulant.
This thought swims around my head as I struggle for breath while pounding a 25 per cent gradient served up by the Lake District’s equally picturesque and punishing Honister Pass. I wish I’d practiced a bit before trying this.
“ The views across lake Windermere are some of the most staggering I’ve seen in a long time”
Cumbria, and the many peaks and valleys of the Lake District National Park, have long acted as the the battleground for numerous Tours of Britain and other big-name road cycling events, while masochistic two-wheeled fanatics have graced the region in search of a challenge since the invention of the bicycle.
But The Lakes are not only perfect for those wanting to let off some steam in Lycra, they also boast a network of roads that will plaster a grin on the face of even the most sceptical petrolheads.
What better way to celebrate some of Britain’s finest driving roads than with one of the most quintessentially British sports cars currently on sale: the Bentley Continental GT?
Refreshed for 2018, the £160,000 grand tourer is arguably now more shapely and beautiful than it ever has been, while the ride, the interior and on-board tech have been elevated to the next level.
Yes, it’s expensive, but we’d argue it is one of the finest motorway missiles currently on sale, and by far the most comfortable and exclusive method of dispatching an 800-mile round trip in search of a few hills to climb on two wheels.
Oil on leather
If you could turn the clocks back to a few hours before I had a mild heart attack on the side of a Cumbrian mountain, you’d have found me sweating profusely once again – this time about how to fit a modern road bike inside the Bentley.
Unless you want to fit a tow bar to the rear of this striking machine, or sucker some flimsy pads to the roof, there isn’t much out there in the way of a rack or cycle carrier that caters for a £160,000 continent-crosser. So I was forced to take the bicycle apart and load the individual pieces into the boot.
Surprisingly, a Giant Propel, camera gear and an overnight bag will happily sit in the luggage compartment of the big Bentley, while the cosseting interior still boasts enough space for four people.
But the luxury of a few chatty passengers was not one I would enjoy, so instead I slayed a long list of podcasts on the mind-numbingly boring hack from the south coast of the UK to the lush green peaks of the north east.
The M3, the M40, and the dreadful M6 all seem to merge into one long motorway blur of average speed checks, traffic jams and broken down lorries. But the Bentley – with its massaging seats, I should add – motors majestically.
Thankfully, and after some five hours behind the wheel, the M6 makes way for the A591 and immediately the vistas become more enticing. The views across lake Windermere are some of the most staggering I’ve seen in a long time.
A voice from the Bentley’s sat nav explains that my final destination is only a few yards ahead, and suddenly the striking flint and slate fascia of the Cedar Manor Hotel springs into view.
It’s a welcome sight and despite the late arrival, the owners of this Victorian establishment are on hand to ensure the Bentley is parked just in front of the perfectly pruned lawns. This would be the first of the many impromptu photo sessions requested by strangers.
I’d heard that cyclists tackling the Tour de France consume a ridiculous number of calories per stage. Based on this admittedly fuzzy logic, I wolf down a delicious late dinner of local lamb, root vegetables and lentils, followed by sticky toffee pudding and a couple of glasses of mouth-watering Malbec.
Rooms in Cedar Manor are spacious and comfortable, so sleep comes easy, and the breakfast plate is densely packed and satisfying. Chris Froome would probably do the same, wouldn’t he?
Suitably fortified, I jump in the Bentley and make a beeline for the A592 and the beautifully ribboning tarmac of the Kirkstone Pass.
The roads are narrow and technical, particularly when piloting the large frame and 6.0-litre W12 engine of the Bentley, but the views of Red Screes, Stony Cove Pike, Place Fell and the gently rippling surface of Ullswater make any white-knuckle moments worth it.
The drive is fantastic, with very little traffic getting in the way of good times, and the roads only get more breathtaking as we loop around Grasmoor and Grisedale Pike.
But horsepower must make way for pedal power and I soon arrive at the car park of the Honister Slate Mine, which hovers tantalisingly towards the end of a painful uphill struggle afforded by the Honister Pass.
I piece the bicycle back together as the gale force winds threaten to blow the spindly carbon frame down a nearby hillside. It’s cold and the biting breeze freezes fingers and makes it tricky to wrestle with the torque wrench.
The plan is to turn right out of the car park, which involves a few metres of 20 per cent gradient before warming up the legs with a breeze down towards Buttermere.
There is a 20-mile beautiful loop that runs to Stair, Manesty, Grange, and Rothswaite before meeting the Honister from its uglier, craggier and decidedly more lung-busting easterly side, but the weather is dreadful.
Gusting winds and painful 15 per cent gradient climbs around Stair and Manesty would make the ride long and unenjoyably treacherous, so I decide to flip the bike around at Buttermere and attack Honister from West to East.
It’s a deceptive cruise for the first few metres but soon cranks up to gut-busting inclines. The legs spin and the large breakfast threatens to make an re-appearance. I’m out of shape, full of eggs and the wind is making it difficult to catch a breath.
Things only get steeper as the gorgeous valley closes in on all sides, with enormous boulders lining the roadside and making the experience even more daunting.
Cresting the summit is bliss and I race past the slate mine car park and enjoy a snaking, speedy run down towards Seatoller and Borrowdale.
But the Bentley is parked back up the Pass, so the only thing to do is chug down some energy drink, let the heart rate settle and tackle the climb again for the beastly easterly side.
It’s even more difficult second time around, despite a blustery tail wind giving me an invisible hand up the 25 per cent gradient sections. But it’s a staggeringly scenic ride and just a couple of hours in the saddle feels rewarding enough.
After a brief stop for fuel – required for both rider and vehicle (the latter is a thirsty beast) – I dash back to base at the foot of Lake Windermere to catch the final hours of some beautiful light.
That’s the thing with the Lake District, it can be raging a storm at the peak of one of the many Heads and Pikes, but the sun can suddenly burst through the clouds and cover the lakes in beautifully soft light.
It’s this of course which inspired Wordsworth, Ruskin, Potter and numerous other local literary legends – just a short hike around the shores of Windermere is enough to get the creative synapses firing.
As the sun dips behind the craggy mountainsides, the evening is spent discovering what Windermere has to offer in terms of eateries, and although not overflowing with options, I do stumble across The Crafty Baa, which is arguably the quirkiest pub in the area.
There’s a superb craft beer and cider selection on offer, the homemade sandwiches and snack boards are gigantic and the atmosphere is super chilled. It’s a great way to load up on calories after a long day spent burning them.
With weary legs, I make my way back to the hotel in anticipation of an early start and another long but excellent drive behind the wheel of the potent Bentley.
Despite the changeable weather, Cumbria has cemented itself as a road cyclist’s dream, with the numerous thigh-shattering climbs and retina-singeing scenery just begging for a return visit.
And if you just so happen to be behind the wheel of a brilliant British sports car, the trip is even more fulfilling.
Do It Yourself:
Getting to the Lake District is best by car, so you have wheels to explore once settled, but expect to hit all manner of roadworks and delays whichever way you approach it.
Virgin Trains run from London Euston towards Glasgow and you can change at Oxenholme Lake District to Windermere directly, where all manner of accommodation options are on the table.
Double rooms at Cedar Manor start at £145 and rise to £475 for the exclusive coach House Suite, with a hearty breakfast thrown in for good measure. The area is extremely popular with tourists, particularly well-heeled individuals from China, so expect prices to err on the expensive side, but there are plenty of cheaper options nearby.
Cyclists, check out Lake District Bikes, who have a great array of flagship road bikes and premium equipment for hire, including lithe carbon steeds from Trek, which costs around £50 per day. They will also point you in the direction of some good rides or package up a bespoke tour or group ride for a fee.
Accommodation was provided by Cedar Manor Hotel & Restaurant, and the car was provided by Bentley Motors UK.
Leon Poultney is a freelance motoring journalist, based in the UK. Keep up with him on Twitter. Photography was taken by Leon Poultney and David Rutter.