Two of the Spen Valley’s fittest former residents come to mind on a bike ride along disused railway lines near Dewsbury.
Arthur Rogerson was racing cyclist and cycle dealer from Cleckheaton who, even at the age of 70, was regularly clocking up 200 miles a week. My daughter and I managed a meagre 10 miles near his hometown but can be sure that our route – while being familiar to Arthur – was one that he never followed. How come? We were pedalling along the Spen Valley Greenway and Ringway cycle tracks which, in Arthur’s heyday back in the mid-20th century, were railway lines.
The first of them – from Low Moor in Bradford to Mirfield – was built as a means of improving the transport of cloth and blankets produced in the area. It opened in 1848 to be followed in 1900 by another line down the Spen Valley connecting Leeds to Huddersfield. At the railway’s height there were two stations in Cleckheaton alone and five others in the vicinity. The last of them fell to Dr Beeching’s axe in 1963 and the final freight train ran through the valley two years later.
The track bed of the old railway was converted into part of the National Cycle Network in 2000. What this urban route inevitably lacks in scenery it more than makes up with in the form of artworks you pass along the way. Keeping the interest of young cyclists couldn’t be easier.
Columns of old wheel arches mark access points and discarded metal fittings have been transformed into monsters and seats. Other seats are set within metal hoops reflecting the wheels of bicycles and locomotives and a series of larger hoops you can cycle through comprise an artwork called ‘Rotate’. A theme to the ride is provided by the poem ‘Spring along the Greenway’ lines from which are displayed on the many bridges you pass under. Perhaps the best artwork, though, is the flock of 11 sheep. They may be made of rusting scrap steel with forged horns but their form is uncannily life like.
You can see the real thing at the Ponderosa Rural Therapeutic Centre & Rare Breeds Farm. It provides a great afternoon out and also assists local disabled and disadvantaged people with their personal development by involving them in looking after the animals. There are lots to see: wallabies, tapir, snakes, parrots, llamas, marmosets and iguanas among them. The staff are very friendly and give children the chance to handle some of the creatures. The 20-acre site includes a pond, picnic areas and outdoor play area and, from April, a new restaurant opens to cater for the 100,000 visitors per year.
If time allows at the end of your ride then you should also visit the Dewsbury Museum housed in a mansion within Crow Nest Park parts of which are thought to date back to the late 16th century. In the early 1800s the mansion was owned by John Hague who led one of the town’s leading textile firms and also established his own bank. The centrepiece of the museum is an excellent ‘Growing up in Dewsbury’ exhibition which tells the story of the childhood years of residents born in different decades. The very ordinariness of their tales and the insights they give into other lifestyles in other times makes them fascinating. An account of the death of a young Dewsbury man in the First World War and the way it was reported to his parents is particularly poignant. Upstairs is a recreation of a 1940s classroom and, next door, a ‘Toys will be Toys’ gallery.
My favourite display was dedicated to Eileen Fenton, a local school-teacher dubbed The Mighty Atom having become the first woman home in a cross channel swimming race in 1950. Newspaper cuttings recount her first swims in the indoor baths, training in the sea at Scarborough, being smeared in 7lbs of lanoline grease on the big day and her triumphant home-coming. You can also see the striking two-foot tall porcelain vase presented to her by the Mayor of Boulogne and the black swim suit she wore for the crossing.
It’s hard to decide whose feat was the more remarkable. Eileen’s or Arthur’s.
Parking: Crow Nest Park, off Temple Rd in Dewsbury.
Distance: 10 miles.
Time: 1½ hours excluding stops (if with young child).
Map: Free leaflet and map available from Sustrans.
Directions: Leave the Park the way you entered and turn right on Temple Rd. Take first left onto Burgh Mill Lane. Cross over road at bottom and continue ahead. Pass through two stone posts and turn right to join Spen Valley Greenway. After a monster’s head made from scrap metal leave track via path to right. Cross the cobbles and continue ahead past bus garage on Station Rd. Turn left onto Station Lane then immediately left onto Market St to clock tower in Heckmondwike. Turn left onto Westgate (A638) and then right onto Greenside (signed to Spen Valley Ringway). Just after MacDonalds fork left onto Cook Lane and left again to join Ringway. You soon emerge in a new estate. Turn right onto road and ahead to return to route of old railway line. Eventually, track bears left, leading into Eddercliffe Crescent. Cross A638 (using island) and turn right along cycle lane beside road. Turn left onto Primrose Lane, pass under bridge and access Spen Valley Greenway via track on left. Once up on Greenway turn left and proceed for about 200 yards to find the metal sheep artwork. Return same way and keep going. Leave track at the same point as before (Station Rd) but, this time, turn right onto Station Lane by pushing bike across at traffic lights. Pass under bridge then take second left onto Smithies Lane following signs to Ponderosa Visitor Centre. Leave Centre via concrete path between two iron posts in car park. Follow it down over a bridge and, at a t-junction, of tracks turn left and then right to rejoin Greenway. Retrace route back to start.