I had found a corner of Scotland just a few miles north of Leeds. In the valley below me a collie was harrying a flock of black St Kilda sheep while a Highland Cow lumbered slowly towards them, its ochre coat matching the colour of the copse behind. The scene was like a bucolic Christmas card – but without the snow.
It heralded the start of a short bike ride in and around the Harewood House estate. The presence of such non-indigenous sheep is not quite as strange as it may seem. At a time when new breeds were ousting them from their Hebridean homelands, St Kildas came into favour with the owners of large parklands in the south because of their distinctive, four-horned appearance. Had it not been for the existence of these parkland flocks the breed would not have survived into the mid-20th century. As recently as 1973 St Kildas were identified as being in danger of extinction.
The Harewood estate is an excellent place to explore by bike since there are plenty of paths, bridleways and tracks, all well signposted. You don’t need to have a mountain bike either. I had to get off and push up one steep stretch after Carr House but other than that it’s easy riding pretty much all the way.
Deep in the woods and rhododendrons, the ornate New Bridge gives you a hint of the architectural style of Harewood House. Which is just as well since the closest and only view of the House you get on this route is from about a mile away. The distance, however, doesn’t dull the grandeur and anyway the House and its bird garden is special enough to warrant a trip in its own right as I have discovered on several occasions.
Horses having been the only traffic on the first section of my route I was reluctant to make my way south down the busy Harrogate-Leeds road so chose instead a loop through the village of Wike. The facilities here extend no further than a long defunct green petrol pump outside the former wheelwright and a pair of stocks.
For a pub head to The Dexter in Alwoodley, the northernmost suburb of Leeds. This is Porsche and Mercedes country where electric gates are almost standard and the really posh people live in mock Tudor mansions. Chardonnay and Kyle would feel very at home here as would their footballing husbands on the adjacent golf course.
Back in the countryside I rested beside the largest expanse of water in West Yorkshire, Eccup Reservoir. With a name like that it could hardly be anywhere else. Constructed in 1897, the reservoir covers an area of 79 hectares and is a Site of Special Scientific Interest containing many stoats and chaffinches. Where I sat there was a little wooden jetty, small sandy beach and trees on the opposite shore that combined to make a scene as serene as the Lake District.
St Kildas were not the only rare breed I encountered. The valley next to the dam is a sanctuary for red kite, a bird of prey which became extinct as a breeding species 150 years ago but is now being re-introduced to the Harewood region in a joint initiative between English Nature and the RSPB. A crowd of twitchers stood on a wooden platform training their binoculars at the tree tops. Apparently, up to 25 birds can be seen in the air at pre-roost gatherings. Today there are just 300 pairs in total in the UK but back in the 16th century red kite abounded in cities in such numbers that they were considered vermin.
I re-entered the Harewood estate along an avenue of pines that cast a stripy shadow over the tarmac. Soon I was passing those sheep again. The hill which I swept down at the start would, indeed, have to be scaled but the additional effort was almost welcome after such a brief but enjoyable ride.
Distance: 13 miles.
Time: 1½ hours, excluding stops.
Parking: On Church Lane in Harewood which is roughly opposite The Harewood Arms.
Directions: Just after the Harewood Sports & Social Club (which is on Church Lane), enter Harewood estate down private road signed “Stank only”. At bottom of hill L to pass through farm buildings and gate signed Ebor Way and then over stream. Pass Carr House then steep uphill. R at t-junction of tracks then L at rhododendron bush and L down Leeds Country Way. Over New Bridge. On leaving Park straight over A61 to and through Wike. After Leeds Golf Centre R down Wike Ridge Lane. R down Wigton Lane in front of Dexter pub. R down Manor House Lane signed West Yorkshire Cycle Route. Cross back over A61 to Eccup Reservoir. L on bridleway, past Owlet Hall, then continue L on road to Eccup. In village fork R signed again for West Yorkshire Cycleway then onto Eccup Lane. Pass New Inn then fork L at telegraph pole. (It’s an easy turn to miss). Up steep hill then R at t-junction in front of wood. After bend to L turn R into Harewood signed “Private road to Harewood Yard”. Leave road to take track on R which becomes road back to Harewood.