'And so it went – dreamlike curving roads beside lakes, dripping tree-tunnels; the camaraderie that cycle touring so reliably engenders.'
Location: The Lake District
Words: Mike White, co-editor of Boneshaker Magazine
Photography: James Bowden
Memories dapple the valley as we near our destination, more and more place names resonating in my head: High Stile, Bow Fell, Great Gable, Buttermere. I'm thinking of my dad, turning 70 this year. He led me through these fells year after year when I was a boy, and was marched up them in his turn by his father, a scoutmaster born in the 1910s - the era of Millican Dalton himself - a simpler time, when kit lists were rich with canvas, leather and woollen blankets.
So the cool Cumbrian air brings with it a warm drift of nostalgia, a sense of quiet wonder spanning generation after generation. This time I'm in the Lake District with fellow Boneshaker editor, James Lucas, and our genial guide is Jeff Bowman, a no-nonsense man of the North, raised on the industrial coast in Barrow-in-Furness, with a dry sense of humour and excellent taste in beer. It was his eye for capturing the nexus of good design and the great outdoors that led him to Millican - seek out his books The Outsiders and The Great Wide Open to get a sense of his skill.
And now serendipity has brought him to us, or rather, us to him. Manhandling our bikes onto trains to click-clack the 250 miles north from Bristol to Penrith, and then on to Braithwaite, where Millican's HQ enjoys floor to ceiling views of fields and fells. We're here to ride with Jeff and photographer James Bowden, heading on day one from Braithwaite to Eskdale, taking in Whinlatter Pass and Loweswater, before camping near Boot and then curving back north to our start point, via Hardknott Pass, Grasmere and Thirlmere.
Each time the gradient pitches upwards, James Lucas tends to power off, his Smith Roll Pack swaying gracefully towards the horizon. Jeff and James B pause to capture the beauty all around us on film, which leaves me somewhere midfield, with time and silence in which to remind myself how lucky I am to be riding these ancient, winding lanes. There's much to savour: the endless shifting greens, the tumbling becks and hedgerows heavy with wildflowers. We pedal in respectful silence for mile after mile. The clouds come down to meet us, a cooling, drenching mist that hides the view and subdues the songbirds looping and dipping overhead. At our camp spot in Eskdale, we rig a tarp over a bench, hang our clothes in the drying room and spend a very long time luxuriating in the showers. Soon, the scent of sweet potato curry fills the air and there are dozens of beers to be worked through. We do our valiant best, before crawling gratefully into sleeping bags as an owl calls across the valley.
Day two starts with powerful camp coffee and an icy bath in the river. We pick our way back barefoot through the woods, pack up and ride on towards Hardknott. Reputedly the steepest road in England, it's a long, slow grind against gravity, with a series of short, sharp turns zig-zagging up into the clouds. Up to our left lie the remains of a Roman settlement lost in the drizzle. Strange to think that nearly 2,000 years ago, a detachment of the 6th Cohort of Dalmatians (all the way from what is now Croatia) lived up here. Their horses would have struggled up the same incline we're now battling. As my cold white fingers grip the wind-whipped handlebars, I understand why the garrison commander had a sauna installed. We're soaked but grinning into the rain and glowing with pride as we regroup at the top.
The descent on the other side is a treacherous series of hairpin bends running with gravel-tumbling water, but the view – golden dappling sunlight and cloud shadows dancing together across the valley side, waterfalls, low curls of mist – is so good we have to stop anyway just to take it all in. And so it went – dreamlike curving roads beside lakes, dripping tree-tunnels; the camaraderie that cycle touring so reliably engenders.
We were back at Millican's beautiful loft-workshop-office all too soon, hugging goodbye, pointing our bikes back towards the train south. Back at the Boneshaker bike cave a few days later, a parcel arrived from Jeff – some Millican kit to test out in 'real life': Smith Roll Packs like the ones we'd been riding with and a Miles Duffle Bag each. These sturdy, stylish bags have since been over the North York Moors, across the Cotswolds and the Brecon Beacons and on a foolhardy fell running/cycling expedition from Snowdon to Pen Y Fan. Apart from the odd rock scuff and grass stain, they still look new. There's a pleasing solidity and simplicity to their clean canvas lines, the dependable aluminium hardware and thoughtful internal pockets. And that quiet, pared-back aesthetic speaks directly of our time in the mountains with Millican, of things that will endure: the wilderness that was ours for a weekend, my dad's for decades, his dad's for decades before that.