Cycle up one wild Yorkshire dale and down another more benign one with an outstanding choice of pubs an cafés all along the route.
Reeth is a lovely place to start a bike ride. Almost too lovely, in fact. You don’t want to leave. A Swaledale pitstop par excellence, it centres around a huge sloping green overlooked by fells. But I was a man on a mission and, mindful of the rigours ahead, made a prompt start to my Dales adventure.
I arrived at Langthwaite just after an ambulance. The village is associated with medical calls of a veterinary nature as the little bridge over the Arkle beck was featured in the opening titles of the 1980s TV dramatisation of James Herriott’s All Creatures Great and Small novels. The sign for the Red Lion looks like an original from the era and the pub (also featured in the TV series) has a notice in the window to say that it sells newspapers on Sundays. The hostelry should really be sited a few hundred yards up the hill – in the wonderfully named hamlet of Booze. The tone was set for a remote adventure with some interesting drinking and eating spots along the way.
Workmen with a digger were carrying out repairs to the churchyard and, during the day, I came across several farmers zipping around on quad bikes and the postlady delivering letters over the bar of the Tan Hill Inn (more of which later). The bustle of Reeth pervades the dales it presides over but is nothing compared to the olden days. In the 18th and 19th centuries Arkengarthdale was the centre of the regional lead mining industry. Workings and spoil heaps still scar the hills. I passed a hexagonal powder house in the middle of a field where gunpowder was stored (clearly no terrorist threat in those days) and a triangular courtyard of cottages that was once the administrative centre including joiners’ workshops, a sawmill and smithy plus offices and lodgings for the miners.
With that it was out into Yorkshire at its wildest. In medieval times this area was a hunting forest roamed by deer, wild bear and wolves. The road went up and up and up. Over the first 11 miles to my lunch stop I averaged 6.3 mph, shameful even by my own slow standards. I blame it on the headwind. At times, crossing such an empty, inhospitable but dramatic landscape reminded me of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. The moors stretched out to the north like a swelling sea with as many hues of brown as there are blues in the ocean. The only signs of life were the slowly moving white square of lorries crossing the Pennines on the A66 like yachts on the horizon.
Around every corner I longed to see, however distant, the Tan Hill Inn. Once I even mistook a small hollow of snow of distant snow for my refuge. Eventually and suddenly it appeared just a couple of hundred yards in front of me. Formerly used by cattle drovers, miners and pedlars and now an essential stop on the Coast to Coast walking route, this is Britain’s highest inn and, having been on the large cog since Reeth, I could well believe it.
I was met by a gaggle of geese and flock of hens peering through the window into the lounge bar as if waiting for opening time. No such hesitation for me; I went straight in. I first came here in 20 years ago and, thankfully, it’s still just as characterful and quirky. It’s a truly unique hostelry that should be on the itinerary of every tour of God’s own county. A sign above the outside toilets said that they were closed due to “overuse by a yeti” and one over the bar read: “Danger. Keep out. Deep Mud”. During my lunch the barman used a string and pulley arrangement to lower a giant plastic spider onto a neighbouring table. How we laughed! Among the many press cuttings framed on the walls is an account of a visit to the pub by a group of naturists and the story of how visitors were holed up here for days during heavy snows in 2010. Three weeks after my visit an all ticket séance was scheduled.
I could’ve stayed there all afternoon (and I’m sure many do) but still had the majority of the route to complete. Thankfully from here it was much easier cycling starting with a glorious downhill plunge with the sort of switchbacks more usually found on a mountain bike trail. Dotted all around were field barns looking like Monopoly houses.
The youth hostel where I stayed in 1993 and James Herriott once overnighted with son Jimmy is now a posh-looking lodge hotel but little else had changed along Swaledale. You could fill a whole picture book about Yorkshire villages from this dale alone – and it will no doubt provide some of the definitive images of the Tour de France when it passes this way next year. The bridge in Thwaite is particularly picturesque and the Kearton tea room beckoned but today I pressed on for the main attraction around the corner: Muker. For such a small settlement it packs a lot in: a gallery, Swaledale Woollens (which includes Prince Charles among its customers), a grand old pub (The Farmers Arms) and tea rooms as well as a Grade II-listed church, Victorian literary institute and phone box! A bell tinkles as the door of the village store opens, the ultimate sign of bucolic bliss.
Snow had been very much in evidence in the ascent to the Tan Hill Inn and, in Gunnerside, a discarded Christmas tree lay just yards from snowdrops further telling the story of the season. U-shaped branches with buds about to burst looked like candelabras waiting to be lit. By this point the Swale is loopy, languid and, like me, no longer in a hurry to get anywhere. The morning’s exertion seemed a long time ago. Three hamlets collectively known as Low Row once had three pubs, two churches, two chapels, three shops, two schools and a workhouse of which only the churches and one pub remain. There’s no shortage of facilities in Reeth, though, as I was reminded on a wander around the green. Along just one side I pushed my bike past the Copper Kettle tea room, Garden House Pottery, Fat Sheep crafts and gifts, the Old Temperance bookshop, Cuckoo Hill View ice cream parlour and National Park Centre. Something for everyone including me. It was time, at last, to linger.
Distance: 28 miles.
Time: 4 hours.
Very simple. Depart the green in Reeth northwards via the road to the right of The Buck Inn. Keep going for 11 miles. After the Tan Hill Inn turn left signed to Keld. At a t-junction with the B6270 turn left signed for Keld and Reeth. Stay on that road through Thwaite, Muker and Gunnerside to Reeth.
The Red Lion, Langthwaite, DL11 6RE. 01748 884218.
The Charles Bathhurst Inn, Langthwaite, DL11 6EN. 01748 884567 and cbinn.co.uk.
The Tan Hill Inn, near Keld, DL11 6ED. 01833 628246 and tanhillinn.co.uk.
Kearton Coffee House and Restaurant plus country hotel, Thwaite, DL11 6DR. 01748 886277.
Muker tea shop, DL11 6QG. 01748 886409.
The Farmer’s Arms, Muker. DL11 6QG. 01748 886297 and farmersarmsmuker.co.uk.
The Ghyllfoot tea room and bistro, Gunnerside, DL11 6LA. 01748 886239 and ghyllfoot.co.uk.
The Punch Bowl, Low Row, DL11 6PF. 01748 886223 and pbinn.co.uk.
Good choice of hotels and tea rooms in Reeth.