A NEW long-distance cycle route, which is expected to bring more than 10,000 visitors a year through South Lakeland, is officially opened next Wednesday (June 1). Keen Furness cyclist and writer Jeff Chambers, who lives at Baycliff, near Ulverston, was invited to take part in a preview ride and has written this account of the three days he spent in the saddle...

THE W2W, or Walney to Wear, runs from the Irish Sea near Barrow-in-Furness to Sunderland on the east coast, a distance of more than 150 miles.

A series of country lanes and quiet roads have been linked by sections of cycle paths, forest trails and off-road tracks to form an integrated, sign-posted route across the country. The W2W has been developed by Sustrans, a national charity whose aim is to encourage people to walk, cycle and use public transport. The same body opened the now world-famous C2C cycle route from Whitehaven to Sunderland in 1993, which is used by around 15,000 cyclists every year.

Sustrans recently led a preview ride for invited writers along the W2W, to experience the scenery and hilly terrain at first hand. Officially described as tougher and more challenging than the C2C, the journey meanders fairly gently through Low Furness to Ulverston, and on past Greenodd until the first big climb to Bigland from Haverthwaite is reached.

An easy run to Cartmel will make the historic square a popular resting place, and some people will see Grange as a good destination for the first day's ride. Although our preview ride was completed in just three days, many cyclists will take a more leisurely four or five days, meaning overnight accommodation will be needed in a long corridor extending from Cartmel, through to Kendal and Kirkby Stephen. One of the most important factors for those doing the ride is to know that bikes can be safely secured overnight. It's also nice to get a warm welcome when arriving wet, muddy, tired and generally bedraggled!

The scenery on the W2W is more varied than the longer established Coast to Coast ride, perhaps nowhere more so than in the Kendal area. From the flat meadows near Meathop, a gradual climb first through Levens, and then on to Oxenholme eventually provides wide views back over Kendal, quickly replaced by the growing bulk of the Howgill Fells ahead.

The busy M6 and railway line are crossed, and a minor road followed through the Lune Gorge that even locals may not be aware of. Sections of the W2W can, of course, be sampled on short day outings, and this stretch below the steep slopes of the Howgills, high above the Lune, really is stunning. Having used both motorway and train many times, it really brought home how much of the natural beauty of this area is simply missed when speeding by at great speed.

Continuing north on to open fells, the route descends to Orton, which will surely become a well-used refreshment stop. The terrain changes to give more of a dales feel as the Eden Valley and Kirkby Stephen are approached, the last watering hole before the major ascent of the trip.

There is much to explore en-route on the W2W, although a three-day trip really doesn't provide enough time, and Sustrans officer David Gray thought that a four-day schedule might become the average.

Our second day was to run from an overnight stay in Oxenholme, to close to Barnard Castle, a long and hard 58 miles. After Kirkby Stephen, the Pennines draw ominously nearer, a seemingly endless chain of forbidding hills. The traffic on the A66 can be seen in the distance as the harsh pull on to the desolate Arkengarthdale Moor is made, passing the remains of the long defunct railway over Stainmore. Admiring glances from passing motorists go some way to making up for aching legs, but the best sight at the summit is the Tan Hill Inn at 1,732 feet, claiming to be the highest pub in England. A warm fire and friendly atmosphere could mean this might be as far as some cyclists get!

For those pressing on, a long, thrilling off-road descent follows, with views of Bowes Castle below, leading on to Barnard Castle, and the Land of the Prince Bishops.

The third day of our preview ride took in a lovely forest trail towards Hamsterley, but the rolling hills beyond took their toll on some of our party, with tears and tantrums in the green English countryside. Things get much easier beyond Bishop Auckland however, where long sections of cycle paths on disused railway lines follow, finally with easy gradients. Durham and its cathedral will form a high point for many, while in a few more miles the North Sea appears, with journey's end at the marina in Sunderland.

W2W looks set to be an acronym that will become increasingly familiar in the Kendal area over the coming years, as the ride gains popularity. So will the groups of hot and hungry cyclists, who will range from families on a leisurely adventure, to sweaty parties out to prove they're up to the challenge of a three day ride.

More W2W information can be found at www.cyclingw2w.info