Forest without trees

Often overlooked in favour of the nearby Yorkshire Dales, the lesser known Forest of Bowland is ideal for a challenging ride.

Start of big descent towards Slaidburn

Start of big descent towards Slaidburn

Normally the best bikes rides are those with lots of things to see but occasionally I like to make the mileage the main focus. That was certainly the case on a cycle ride in the Forest of Bowland in Lancashire. In fact, the length and gradient of the route is such that multiple stop-offs would be difficult to fit into a single day anyway. After a busy summer holiday of visiting places with the kids it was great to get out on my own, let my mind wander and my legs pedal, and enjoy the views. Perfect therapy.

Shortly after setting off from Giggleswick the branches of trees either side of the road joined in the middle to form an arch through which I could see the peak of Ingleborough and a little further on a great 180-degree panorama opened up.

Looking back towards High Bentham

Looking back towards High Bentham

I was cycling along one of those particularly narrow yellow roads on Ordnance Survey maps. The route twisted and turned restlessly. My gears were in near continuous use but the hills were never so steep I had to get off and walk. There are no passing places – except for bicycles, of course, and I barely passed any cars anyway. It was as good as pedalling along a traffic-free cycleway.

I completed the first – and easiest – side of my triangular route at a crossroads south of High Bentham. With a turn of the handlebars I turned my back on the Yorkshire Dales and immediately passed the sign marking entry to the Forest of Bowland. The change in landscape was dramatic. Suddenly I was in the open and seemingly setting off into a wilderness. This is a definitely a route best tackled when you have plenty of time and the wind isn’t blowing. A row of sheep formed a border guard across the road on the brow of a hill next to the Lancashire sign and horses roamed as freely as they do in the New Forest. Bowland is also home to many threatened species of bird including merlin, golden plover, ringed ouzel and the hen harrier which is the symbol of this Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

Wain Hill near Slaidburn

Wain Hill near Slaidburn

The road south to Slaidburn is one of the loneliest in northern England. It dips in and out of view in a ‘now you see me, now you don’t’ sort of way, a grey ribbon snaking over tussocks of grass and heather moorland. Strangely, the Forest of Bowland has hardly any trees. The ‘forest’ actually relates to a tract of land set aside in medieval times by the king for hunting. It was a forest only in the sense that it was not to be cleared for cultivation.

The previous Bank Holiday weekend I’d been cycling among day tripping hoards along two disused railway lines in the Peak District. I’d had a great ride but was now glad to be back among more serious touring cyclists, all of them (apart from me) lythe and Lycra-clad. Lythe Hill, which formed the majority of the ascent, is fittingly named and I was relieved to reach the top. At over 400 metres above sea level, the summit is at an altitude I more normally associate with walks not bike rides. On the other side a bare v-shaped valley stretched out below. The road clings onto its eastern flank and provided a glorious freewheel for 2¼ miles down to a wooded picnic spot beside the Cross of Greet bridge over the River Hodder which, like me, had started its journey on the fell top.

War memorial, Slaidburn

War memorial, Slaidburn

The sting in the tail was that I still had another ascent (in my case push). Finally I reached a 12 per cent hill going in my preferred direction and Slaidburn came into view in the hollow below. The war memorial is particularly poignant. Stood on a column, a solder rests on the butt of his rifle with his head bowed. I postponed a full look around the village, though, preferring to head straight for the tea rooms for my very own late, late breakfast show of a mixed grill at a time when most customers were having cream teas. Many other cyclists – and motorcyclists who also favour this route – were taking similar advantage of the rare facilities as well as families playing games and picknicking on the village green opposite. Remarkably, it was the first significant village I’d passed through in 22½ miles and was to be the only one on the entire route.

Refuelled and water bottle topped up, I left Slaidburn for another stiff climb. In the far distance I could see the gritstone fells I’d conquered in the morning and felt that my calorie overload at lunchtime was fully justified. A little further on I passed the corner of a forest – but very much a modern one. Gisburn Forest is a plantation next to the equally new Stocks Reservoir operated by United Utilities, the biggest single landowner in the area today. The features provide variety in the landscape – and some great mountain bike trails too from what I’d read in a leaflet at the tea rooms.

The Green, Slaidburn

The Green, Slaidburn

My mind, though, was focused solely on the task in hand. I turned left in Tosside and within a few yards a view of Ingleborough beckoned me back towards North Yorkshire, heralding the beginning of the end of the expedition.

The hamlet of Wham was more notable on the map for its poptastic name than it was on the ground. No sign of Club Tropicana here. In fact, The Long and Winding Road was again the song most on my mind as I wended my way along a tiny lane with more sudden ups and downs than one of those buzz wire games you get at village fairs. Used more by livestock than vehicles, the lane is gated at two points and its surface was as brown with cowpats as it was black with Tarmac. I was grateful for a dry day and reached the car unspattered and unbowed.

Distance: 36 miles.

Time: 4 hours excluding stops.

Directions:

Signpost at Keasden

Signpost at Keasden

Leave Giggleswick station car park (free) via steps and push your bike along a short footpath then turn right under a rail bridge. At the first crossroads turn left signed to Eldroth then take the next left signed to Black Bank. Bear right immediately after the cattle grid then at the next junction turn left. Pass under a rail bridge then bear left following the signs to Bentham and Slaidburn.

At the first crossroads continue ahead then at the next crossroads beside a Honda dealer turn left signed to Slaidburn. Follow this road up and over the fells for 9¾ miles to Slaidburn. In the village at the war memorial turn left and descend to the river. Cross over the bridge and, staying on the B6478, continue over the first crossroads. Turn left (unsigned) at a second crossroads beside the community hall at Tosside.

After 2 miles pass a wooded gill then farm and follow the road as it bears left. Go over a river bridge then follow the road as it bears immediately right signed to Rathmell. Descend into a wood, bear left then turn left signed to Giggleswick via Wham. Keeping following this lane and, eventually, turn right at a t-junction back to Giggleswick.

Map: here

Eating:

Hark to Bounty Inn, Slaidburn

Hark to Bounty Inn, Slaidburn

The Hark to Bounty Inn, Slaidburn, BB7 3EP. Tel 01200 446246.
Riverbank Tea Rooms, The Green, Slaidburn. Highly recommended. Tel 01200 446398.
The Whelp Stone Café Bar and Bike Shop, Tosside, BD22 4SQ. Tel 01729 840668.
The Dog & Partridge, Tosside, next to the above and same tel no.
The Craven Arms, Brackenber Lane, Giggleswick, BD24 0EA (opposite the station). Tel 01729 825627.

Bike hire:

The Whelp Stone Café Bar and Bike Shop, Tosside (as above).
Cycle Adventure (free delivery and collection to Gisburn Forest). Tel 07518 373007.
Cycle Bowland, Station Yard, Settle, BD24 9RP. Tel 01729 824419.
Pedal Power, Waddington Rd, Clitheroe, BB7 2HJ. Tel 01200 422066.

Border guard at Loftshaw Moss

Border guard at Loftshaw Moss

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