A corner of countryside just to the east of Leeds is packed with history.
It’s strange to think that people once needed to live beside main roads rather than get as far away from them as possible. A case in point is Aberford which used to lie right on the Great North Road until it was bypassed by a new stretch of the A1 in 1965.
The traffic may have long gone but lots of clues remain of the village’s thoroughfaring past. Milestones book-end the main street and a Roman road forms the southern approach. The village seems to belong to an era when travelling involved more of a journey. In these parts you half expect a charabanc to overtake you followed, perhaps, by a soft top car with a wicker hamper in the boot and a lady passenger wearing a hat held on by a ribbon. The arches set within buildings along the road were once entrances to stables for horses pulling the post from London to Edinburgh. The village once had nine inns but now just two.
Travel at a more leisurely pace and on two wheels is today the ideal way to explore the area’s rich heritage. First ports of call are Barwick-on-Elmet and Thorner, two attractive commuter villages. A railway used to connect them to Wetherby and Leeds until it closed in 1964. If you pause at the bridge in Scholes and look to the left, you will see the old station which is now a pub suitably called The Buffers. An old fashioned wooden canopy overhangs the former platform.
A bridleway brings you to Shippen House Farm. Troughs and humps in a field to the right look like the scars of trench warfare. In fact, that simile isn’t too far from the truth for the farm once lay at the heart of the Barnbow shell factory established to provide munitions for the Great War. It employed 17,000 people, the vast majority of them women. They worked long, hard hours and it was noisy, dangerous work. Some of the chemicals turned their hands and feet yellow. A total of 37 women and three men lost their lives in three explosions at the factory but news of the accidents was not made public for six years as the government did not want to run the risk of denting morale.
Earlier, on setting off from Aberford, the eagle-eyed will have noticed a coat of arms above the door on a lodge depicting a pike and a coronet. It belongs to the Gascoignes, a family that dominated this region as the Rowntrees dominated York while showing similar philanthropy. The village hall in Aberford was built in memory of a Gascoigne and two pubs en route are named after the family, namely the Gascoigne Arms in Barwick and The Gascoigne in Garforth. Land for the shell factory was commandeered from the family’s estate and the blackened church on the horizon from Shippen House was re-built by sisters Mary Isabella and Elizabeth Gascoigne (more of whom later).
The route next takes you through the estate of the former family seat, Parlington Hall. First you come across an old gamekeepers cottage secluded deep in the woods. Under snow, with a brace of pheasants hanging from the door and plumes of smoke coming from the chimneys, it would be a Christmas card but, in contrast, has an eerie atmosphere. You feel as if someone’s watching you as you cycle by.
The mood becomes spookier still as you approach a tunnel known as the Dark Arch. It was built to hide traffic on Parlington Lane from the residents of the Hall. The gloom within appears impenetrable although skylights let in occasional shafts of daylight. Just as you’re wondering whether or not it was wise to cycle through the track bears left revealing the light at the end of the tunnel. Phew! Shortly afterwards you go under the Light Arch, an all together more benign structure, which used to bear carriages bound for the Hall.
Plans to replace the Hall with something grander came to nought but a triumphal arch to show approval of American Independence was built from stone intended for the new house. The arch caused the non-visit of the future King George IV who, on hearing of its purpose, refused to join the Gascoignes for lunch. The Hall was abandoned following the death of Colonel Trench Gascoigne in 1905. His only son and heir, had no desire to take up residence since nearby Lotherton Hall, where he was living, was superior. Parlington Hall was largely demolished, leaving only the West Wing still in tact. (The triumphal arch survives too. You can spot it through the trees on your left after the Light Arch and visit via a permissive path accessed via Cattle Lane in Aberford).
The main source of the Gascoigne’s wealth was their coal pits in Garforth. In the late 19th century the so-called Fly Line used to transport coal by steam train to Aberford for onward delivery by road. It was by all accounts a rickety, unreliable service. To overcome the gradient horses used to provide extra power before jumping on board a dandy cart to enjoy the downhill ride. When snow covered the tracks third class passengers had to get out and push! The line coincides with the cycle route from the gamekeepers cottage to Aberford.
Another Gascoigne landmark survives immaculately in tact. It is the row of Gothic almshouses in Aberford, built by Mary Isabella and Elizabeth in 1843-45 as a memorial to their father, Richard, and two brothers. Despite the almshouses’ size only eight people ever lived there at any one time, all retired tenants of the estate.
No tour of Gascoigne country would be complete without a visit to Lotherton Hall, home to Richard and his successors, and open to the public along with its grounds and bird garden. If you’re tired you can drive there from where you parked but you can easily cycle to it too in a loop around Wolds-like terrain. On the way back pop in at Saxton church which has a stained glass window commemorating Mary Isabella and Elizabeth.
Complete the ride by visiting the tiny Church of St Mary near Saxton. Spotted through trees and standing in the middle of a field, it has the allure of a sailing boat anchored alone in the bay. A sign on the door heightens the intrigue by inviting you to poke your finger through a hole to lift the latch. Despite being 700 years old and having long been deconsecrated the interior is kept in very good condition. The pulpit is most unusual having three different tiers each with its own school desk-like table. A suitably understated end to a day of hidden history.
Distance: 22.5 miles.
Time: 2-3 hours.
Leave Aberford centre via Cattle Lane (signed ‘Barwick 2’). Turn right after church in Barwick (signed ‘Potterton 1’). At t-junction turn right towards dead-end. Turn left along A64 (on cycle track) then soon right up a broad, unsurfaced track signed as the West Yorkshire cycle route. Turn left at road to pass to and through Thorner. At A64 turn left then soon right signed ‘Scholes 1’. Pass through village. At small green with tree in middle turn right signed ‘Leeds’, cross over road in front and straight down bridleway (Leeds Country Way). At metal barrier turn left to pass Shippen House Farm. Turn right in front of derelict outbuilding and pass through fieldgate to follow bridleway under M1 and over railway line (via gate). Push bike down hedged footpath then turn left at end towards Garforth. Take first left signed ‘Barwick 1¼ ’. Just after Laverack Cottage turn right down 2½-mile track to Aberford. Turn right in village, past almshouses then left at crossroads to Lotherton Hall. After visiting Hall turn right signed ‘Sherburn in Elmet 3½’ then first left (unsigned) to Saxton. In village bear left on Main St to pass church then turn left down Dam Lane. At t-junction with B1217 turn left (Church of St Mary is opposite Crooked Billet pub). Turn right to Aberford.
Note: To visit the Triumphal Arch follow the signed permissive Tarmac path that begins at Beech View off Cattle Lane in Aberford at the start of the ride. Return the same way to resume the circuit.
The Black Swan, Barwick-in-Elmet, LS15 4JP. Tel 0113 281 3065
Orlando’s at The Buffers (restaurant and pub), Scholes, LS15 4AL. Tel 0113 273 2455
The Mexborough Arms, Thorner, LS14 3DX. Tel 0113 289 2316.
The Crooked Billet Inn, Saxton, LS24 9QN. Tel 01937 557389.
The Greyhound Inn, Saxton, LS24 9PY. Tel 01937 557202