An exploration of the industrial past of a corner of South Yorkshire.
They kneel, hands forward and heads slighty bowed. The setting is so still and the figures so prominent yet small you feel as if you’ve interrupted a pair of foraging mice. Sculpted from stone and positioned under an arch in a glade, the figures commemorate the 47 children who died when a violent thunderstorm flooded the coal mine where they were working near Silkstone Common. The accident happened over 150 years ago and the memorial was built in 1988 but the sense of loss and tragedy remains. When I visited flowers had recently been laid beside each child as if in memory of the victim of a recent road accident than of an industrial disaster from another age. Following an enquiry into the deaths, children in Britain never worked underground again.
The spot was the most memorable point on a bike ride of surprises in an area promoted as Pennine Barnsley. The first of them was a herd of deer grazing at Round Green. As I stopped to take a picture, they stood up and glared towards me oblivious to the lorries whizzing by behind them on the M1.
The hills in this region provide the sort of fantastic views more associated with the north of the county rather than the south but the going ups are more than compensated for by the coming downs. The first up ends at Wentworth Castle now home to the Northern College for Residential Adult Education. Boosted by the impetus of an appearance on BBC TV’s Restoration programme in 2003, the grounds of the college are currently being restored to their former glory. At their heart lies Stainborough Castle, a folly. This is another place with a tranquil, undiscovered air about it. On its open days, you can find your way along a path between masses of rhododendrons and heather to reach the castle as if in an adventure in a children’s novel. It was built as ruins in the 1720s by the Earl of Stafford to suggest a medieval structure with battlements, keep and four towers named after himself and his three daughters. Among the other quirky features in the grounds is a monolith in honour of the woman who introduced smallpox vaccine to Britain.
A little further on is Wortley, an unsung village that’s every bit as quaint as many of its Dales cousins. Postman Pat would be at home here and even the working men’s club appears to be half-timbered. The rural idyll continues on a sweep down towards the River Don and Wortley Top Forge, an 18th century ironworks and industrial museum. Horses graze in peace, bushy trees providing sound proofing and shelter from the breeze.
Sounding like a theme park dedicated to cartoon character, Thurgoland is the next village on the route and provides a link to a great vantage point where the Emley Moor TV transmitter pierces the sky. A pair of electricity pylons stand beside it looking like milkmaids carrying yokes and just as humble compared to their distinguished neighbour.
At the bottom of a descent into Silkstone – and hidden in woods behind a petrol station – I came across a cricket match. Scores of people were watching the action and enjoying the sunshine. In fact, it appeared to be such a community occasion I felt like an imposter as I pushed my bike around the oval to find somewhere to sit down. The grand new pavilion would befit Geoff Boycott who started his career playing for nearby Barnsley CC. This is serious cricketing country.
A solitary coal wagon – staged beside the main road and within a cricket ball’s throw of the pavilion – was one of many built in 1809 by The Barnsley Canal Navigation Company to transport coal from the collieries in the valley 2½ miles away across to the terminus of the canal at Barnby Basin. The children later killed in the mining disaster are commemorated by a memorial beside the parish church in the village centre.
The last bit of the route is the best: a blast along the Trans Pennine Trail cycle route. It winds this way and that gently downhill along the track of a former railway line and initially along a path above it where the line passes through a closed tunnel. The ancient woodland of the area consists of a canopy of oak, ash and birch trees with bramble and bracken underneath and bluebells in spring. You should also look out for herb rocket and yellow archangel while ox-eve daises can be seen along the hedgerows and surrounding meadows.
Alternatively, put your map away, clasp your fingers lightly on your brakes and look forward to resting with the ducks back where you started in Worsborough Mill Country Park. Unusually, the 200-year-old reservoir at its core was not built to supply water to the local population but to store and feed water into a branch of the Dearne & Dove Canal, now disused. After such a scenic ride it’s easy to forget about the region’s industrial roots.
Distance: 21 miles.
Time: 2½ hours excluding stops.
Parking: Car park (small charge) at Worsborough Mill Country Park, south of Barnsley on the A61.
L out of car park then L down signed Trans Pennine Trail cycle route. At first junction with road leave Trail and continue L to pass under motorway then at t-junction R to pass entrance to Northern College. Take next L signed ‘Wortley 3’. In Wortley, L onto A629 then R down Finkle St, signed ‘Timberland Trail’. Over bridge then R signed ‘Thurgoland’. Cross over traffic lights and up Smithy Hill. Follow road round to left and then right down Thurgo Hall Lane signed ‘Silkstone Common 2’, your next destination. In village after Station Inn, L down Cone Lane to Silkstone. Cross over the A628 and continue down High St to reach church memorial. Retrace route to Station Inn. Cross B6449 and down Moorend Lane. (To find stone figures memorial pass under former railway bridge then look for stile on right). Join Trans Pennine Trail by ascending to top of bridge. Turn L onto Trail and follow east all the way back to the A61 then R back to car park.
Refreshments: Stafford Arms, Stainborough. Countess Tea Room and Wortley Arms Hotel, Wortley. The Bridge, The Green Dragon and The Horse and Jockey, Thurgoland. The Station Inn, Silkstone Common. The Ring o’ Bells and The Red Lion at Silkstone.