Tour de Pontefract

On 31st August 96 cyclists will pedal from Bradford to Harrogate to Sheffield in less than five hours in the Tour of Britain race. Paul Kirkwood road tested part of the route at a more leisurely pace.

Steeton House Gatehouse

Steeton House Gatehouse

The press release made me question the wisdom of my idea to sample the Yorkshire section of Tour of Britain course. “The day’s racing looks set to be the toughest stage of the race with riders facing the prospect of barely one stretch of flat road all day”. Ooh, err. Not quite what I had in mind. A check of the route map, however, revealed a stretch from South Milford that neither had hills nor was on main roads. So, with legs most definitely unshaven, wearing an old football shirt and shorts and with not a single out-rider in sight, I set off.

The start of the route was certainly flat enough. Flat as a pancake, in fact. The view encompassed agriculture and industry. In between Eggborough and Ferrybridge power stations to my left and right respectively were fields of potatoes nearly ready for harvest.

Birkin church

Birkin church

The Hungry Fox pub came into view in front of me as I crossed the bridge over the River Aire. Now there’s a name to tease the Tour cyclists. The Spread Eagle in Darrington will add to the torment. There they will come across a feed station; it will be water only for the racers, no doubt, but a glass of beer with lunch for spectators.

All round the route there were signs warning of road closures on race day. The one in Darrington was attached to a bus stop – as if to suggest a less energetic way of proceeding. The cyclists will cover the 13 miles of route that I had tried in about half-an-hour and still have the prospect of the “gruelling hills” of the Peak District to come as part of their marathon day. It was time for me to say goodbye to my virtual companions and head off on my own route to complete a circular ride back to the start.

My first stop was Pontefract. All Saints Church sits peculiarly within ruins of a previous church that was demolished after the Civil War and gives a hint of the history next door at Pontefract Castle. Built in the 11th century, it was the principal royal castle in the north of England and is most noted for being the place where Richard II met his death. He was slain, if you believe Shakespeare. Other kings to hold court at Pontefract included Henry VII, Henry VIII, James I and Charles I.

All Saints Church, Pontefract (landscape)_1_1

All Saints Church, Pontefract

As a result of its demolition immediately after the Civil War not much remains of the castle with the notable exception of the fascinating medieval cellar beneath the bailey. The castle’s custodian, Maxine Hepworth, gave me a tour. She removed two padlocks and swung open the horizontal iron doors and then we descended the stone steps into the cool darkness.

Pontefract Castle cellar

Pontefract Castle cellar

Dating back to Norman times, the cellar is 28 metres long, eight metres at its widest point and nine metres below current ground level. Not all of its uses are known but it was definitely a prison for Parliamentarians during the Civil War. You can see where they etched their names into the sandstone walls, most commonly beside the steps as that was one of the few areas of the cellar that saw some daylight. There are 49 signatures and initials in all including an ominous gallows sketch. Maxine pointed out two small recesses in the wall where, she explained, chains had been attached. “Oh, were they to hold the captives?” I asked eagerly. “No,” she said, “just to secure bottles of wine from pilfering servants when the cellar was a wine store.” The cellar was probably also used to keep gunpowder and, in the 18th century, was a liquorice store at the time when the plant was grown within the bailey.

Carving in cellar of Pontefract Castle

Carving in cellar of Pontefract Castle

So large, perfectly flat and green, the bailey would make a great bowling green which, in fact, it did in Victorian times. The Victorians also used the area for a tennis court and converted the castle grounds into a folly gardens with little rustic bridges. The trees growing within the perimeter are a legacy of this incarnation. More recently, in 1943, the castle served as a mortuary for those killed when a Lancaster bomber crashed into cottages in Darrington.

I’d never been to Pontefract town centre before but it was also well worth a visit. Transistor radios in market stalls crackled with commentary from matches on the opening day of football season as I admired the stunning Victorian market hall, town hall and buttercross, a shelter erected in 1734 for people selling dairy produce. My only disappointment was that I couldn’t find any Pontefract cakes.

Swan at Fairburn Ings Nature Reserve

Swan at Fairburn Ings Nature Reserve

On the sharp descent into Castleford I triggered the 30mph speed warning signs. I had achieved Tour of Britain pace if only momentarily. My next stop was to the north of the town – at the RSPB’s Fairburn Ings Nature Reserve. Its areas of open water were formed as a result of subsidence of coal workings and a third of the site was developed from 26 million cubic metres of colliery spoil. Initially, though, the reserve attracted me as a shelter from the rain. From the visitor centre a 500-metre boardwalk takes you through the trees and bushes and across the wetlands and a fen meadow to a hides and a pond dipping platform. Kevin the Kingfisher features on information boards that guide children. At a busy feeding station I watched coat tit, blue tit, great tit and willow tit and heard a greater spotted woodpecker. If you have the time there are longer trails elsewhere in the reserve.

Until recently Fairburn was a village of two halves, separated by the A1. Since its re-routing to the east all is strangely calm. A wound has become a scar. I have no desire to become a King of the Mountains but it was almost a relief to encounter relief on the last leg of my journey away from the village. At the start I had passed straw rolled into reels but hereabouts the views are of bales, stacked five deep, like towers in those stacking games but not as precarious.

Back in South Milford, I visited Steeton Hall Gatehouse. Today it leads to a private house but originally it lead to a medieval castle, the vast amount of which has now disappeared. Part of the building was later used as a pigeon loft. Understated places like this – not to mention Pontefract Castle – make you realise how incredibly old England is.

All that history and all those birds. The Tour of Britain boys won’t know what they’re missing.

Pontefract market

Pontefract market

Fact file

Distance:  29 miles/3 hours excluding stops.

Parking: On street in South Milford.

Tour of Britain sign near Birkin

Tour of Britain sign near Birkin

Directions: Leave South Milford travelling eastwards. Cross over roundabout signed to Monk Fryston. Turn L in village towards Crown Inn then R signed to Beal. At t-junction in front of Hillam Gdns turn L then first R. Pass through Birkin still following signs to Beal. After bridge in village bear L down Marsh Lane which becomes Broad Lane. Turn R at t-junction and bear L to leave village signed Kellingley. Turn R onto A645 then immediately L signed Cridling Stubbs. Turn R at t-junction signed Knottingley. Straight over crossroads signed Darrington. Turn L at roundabout then R at t-junction to pass under A1. Pass through village then at temporary traffic lights turn R up Marlpit Lane to enter Pontefract. Go over a crossroads and at t-junction with A645 turn R then immediately L in front of semi-ruined church. Turn first R down Mill Dam Lane then L at mini-roundabout and under two bridges to enter Castleford. At t-junction at top of hill turn L then first R and immediately L again up Red Hill Drive. Turn L at t-junction with Queens Park Drive. turn R up A656, continue ahead over next roundabout and bridge. After 1½ miles turn R signed Fairburn Ings. In Fairburn turn L in front of Wildgoose Gallery. At end of road cross over the disused old A1, follow a short footpath and continue ahead down Rawfield Lane. Go across the A63 signed Lumby and pass through hamlet. Turn R at t-junction to return to South Milford. To find Steeton Gatehouse take first L in village then L again for 300m.

Refreshments: A nice spot for a mid-morning rest is Beal Locks. The Darrington (in Darrington) is a large, modern family pub ideal for lunch.

Map: Ordnance Survey Landranger 105: York.

Beal Locks

Beal Locks

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