Rediscover an old railway line and unusual places close by on this gentle two-part route in west Yorkshire.
‘Whatever the Wetherby, eat more fruit’ reads a greengrocers sign pictured in an archive photograph displayed at the Morrisons supermarket in Wetherby. I can never quite follow the logic of the slogan but the first part of it relates to this bike ride. Whatever the climatic conditions – or your energy levels or the ages of your fellow riders for that matter – this is the perfect route from the town. You can either do the full route or, if circumstances change, one half of it. Either way there are no big hills and a café in Wetherby is never far away (including one in Morrisons if you want to see that photo).
The picture looks like it dates back to the 1950s when Wetherby sat at the junction of two railway lines. One of them – from Harrogate to Church Fenton – had the dubious honour of being the first to close under the Beeching cuts in 1964. More cheerily, the route was also one of the first sections of the National Cycle Network having been turned into a cycle path in 1992. My children, Bertie and Polly, and I began by following the route in a westerly direction along a stretch called the Harland Way.
After an initial steep slope it provides pleasant, smooth cycling along an avenue of beech, hawthorn, ash and rowan. The route’s position within the Network is reflected by a bench supported by maps of Britain which provided a quick water bottle stop. Shortly afterwards the spire of the church in Spofforth came into view.
Spofforth Castle – more accurately a fortified medieval manor house – is the perfect pausing point for young cyclists and, being a ruin, is open practically all the time and free to enter. We descended steps as if entering a dungeon but they took us into the undercroft of the main hall. A towering wall leads up to the ground level windows and is as much fun to climb up as cliffs on the beach. As we were leaving a family of four was arriving, one child in the child seat and the other in a trailer, underlining what a family-friendly route this is.
We passed back through Spofforth and then headed off-road and up a bridleway, initially past a field of Christmas trees. In March the winter landscape was at its barest so it was a nice change to see some green foliage and be reminded that the burst of spring was just around the corner. Hollows to the right of the track are all that remains of an old quarry. A tree precariously perches on the edge of the cavity, its exposed roots entwined around its rocky footing like an octopus’s tentacles. The track was uneven and uphill in parts but relatively easy to negotiate. Nevertheless, we were glad to reach Sicklinghall. We sped downhill past a Wesleyan chapel, the Scotts Arms and the village pond that, on a warmer day, would’ve been ideal for sandwiches.
Back in Wetherby we cycled through a car park in the trees that was once the site of the town’s main station and then – as we began heading out of the town eastwards – past old railway bridge abutments on York Road close to the site of the original station. Today all that remains of it is the engine shed which today is a dance venue.
After dipping under the A1M we passed within a few feet of a corner of Wetherby race course and then paused for a zip up and down some humps adjacent to the cycle track which Bertie described rather grandly as “the stunt track”. The route passes through trees, over a road and into a cutting spanned by another two large arch bridges. As we approached the old sidings and station at Thorp Arch behind us was the curved roof of Thorpe Arch Grange, otherwise known as the Leeds United Football Academy while ahead was a building that’s even more private but accommodates the somewhat less privileged, Wealstun prison.
At this point we diverted to Thorp Arch Estate and Retail Park on an extension to the cycle path built by Sustrans four years ago. Very different to your typical out-of-town shopping centre, the retail park occupies part of the site of a former Royal Ordnance factory used for the manufacture of munitions in the second world war. At its peak the factory employed 10,000 workers in 500 buildings. We cycled past several nebulous concrete structures on the industrial estate before reaching the retail area which largely consists of furniture shops half-buried into bunker-like grassy mounds left-over from the estate’s previous incarnation. All most peculiar to the point of being a bit surreal especially if you visit when the shops are closed. To complete Thorp Arch’s most disparate collection of premises around the corner is the northern base of the British Library.
The village of Thorp Arch is much more traditional than its military brother. We shot down the hill to the bridge over the River Wharf towards Boston Spa then completed our descent to the riverbank for the best 200 yards of the ride. Deep in the trees we came across a fish pass constructed last year by the Environment Agency to help fish bypass the weir as they swim upstream to spawn. The hope is that the pass – which includes a fish counter – will boost the populations of salmon, sea trout, barbel, chub and dace. Leaving the river we pushed our bikes up Holgate, a steep-sided track which dates back at least to medieval times.
Boston Spa took off in the mid-18th century when John Shires discovered deposits of magnesian limestone (used in many of its buildings) and a sulphur spring which gave the town its spa name. The Royal Hotel – now the Costcutter supermarket and flats – was subsequently built to accommodate visitors. Our main architectural priority by this stage, though, was somewhere to eat and, having surveyed the good choice on the high street, we opted for the Apress café bar which looks like it was originally a bank.
On previous solo rides, I’ve extended this route to Clifford and Bramham to the south and also included an out-and-back diversion to the exquisite estate village of Newton Kyme. But on this occasion, with young legs tiring and skies darkening, we returned directly to Wetherby via a minor road and part of the cycle path, our very own express route in old railway country.
Distance: 18½ miles (9 miles for the Spofforth loop and 9½ miles to Boston Spa).
Time: Allow half a day.
Directions: Park down Deighton Close off the B6164 (which runs north from Wetherby town centre). Cross the B6164 and join the start of the Harland Way cycle path following signs to Spofforth. As you approach the village pass through a barrier and follow the track as it bears right. At a junction with a minor estate road turn left and slightly uphill to the busy A661. Turn right and keep ahead at The Castle Inn to reach Spofforth Castle (at the far end of a large field to your left).
Retrace your route past The Castle then turn right along Park Rd which, beyond the houses, becomes a stony public bridleway. Just before Foxheads Farm turn left down a track which leads over a footbridge and back up past an old quarry. Eventually, at a crossroads of tracks (with signs for Sicklinghall Park and Win Lane Farm), turn right and follow the path as it bears left to join a road. Turn left to and through Sicklinghall.
As you enter Wetherby pass over a railway bridge then, just after Station Gdns, turn left signed ‘Harland Way’. At the car park fork right to rejoin the railway path, pass beneath a rusty grey bridge then fork immediately right signed ‘Deighton Rd ½ mile’. You emerge on Barleyfields Rd. Cross over the road and continue in the same direction via a track just to your left, again signed to Deighton Rd. Pass through a barrier to return to the railway track and finally repeat the first 100 yards of the outgoing route back to where you began.
At B6164 turn right then left at Shell petrol station onto the A664. Take the second right down Hallfield Lane then, almost immediately, first left down Freemans Way. (Note: A National Cycle Network sign appears to have been turned to point in the wrong direction at this point). As the road bears sharp right leave it to join the cycle path ahead which takes you under the motorway. Follow the path taking care where it crosses the Wetherby-Walton road. At the old sidings next to the prison cross over the road and continue ahead on the cycle path extension until its terminus at Thorp Arch Estate. Follow the signs directing you up Avenue D to reach the café in the retail park. Retrace your route to the sidings. Turn left then first right down Dowkell Lane into Thorp Arch. Turn left beside the war memorial and descend to and over the bridge. Just after crossing it dismount and turn left down what’s signed as Riverside Path and Ebor Way to the river. Turn left at the bottom and pass under the bridge at which point it becomes a public bridleway and you can cycle again. Just before the fish pass turn left up a steep signed bridleway to the church.
Turn left down High St then left again to re-cross the bridge. Back in Thorp Arch turn left opposite the war memorial down Thorp Arch Park. At the end turn left and follow the road back to the Wetherby-Walton road. Cross over to rejoin the cycle path and repeat your route back to Wetherby.
The Castle Inn, Spofforth. 01937 590200.
The Scott Arms, Sicklinghall. 01937 582100.
The Aprèss Café Bar, High St, Boston Spa. 01937 842102.
The Deli Caffé, High St, Boston Spa. 01937 844111.
The Crown, High St, Boston Spa. 01937 842006
The Café and Bistro, Thorpe Arch Retail Park. 01937 845430.
The Pax Inn, Thorpe Arch. 01937 843183.
Lots of choice of pubs, cafés and takeaways in Wetherby.