Paul Kirkwood tries an off-road route high up in Wensleydale.
The level of difficulty was three stars out of five with “a few short rough sections” and included a long stretch of bridleway. But then the route – among a pack of 20 in the Yorkshire Dales and north-east produced by the AA – was only 10 miles long so it couldn’t be that challenging for a father more used to on-road rides and his protégée eight-year-old son? Or could it? After lots of debate and map scrutinisation we decided to go for it.
The start was simple enough. We pushed our bikes over an iron bridge over the Ure and trackbed of the Wensleydale railway then pedalled up to Carperby past the Wheatsheaf Inn. Alf Wight (aka James Herriot) and Greta Garbo spent the night here – a year apart, I hasten to add. She stayed during a break from performances at Catterick Garrison and he honeymooned with wife Joan (known as Helen in the books and TV series), as plaques both inside and outside the pub testify. They spent the week tuberculin testing and when they set off for home all the pub’s staff had to push their car to get it going.
We were soon pushing ourselves up the steep hill that leads to Bolton Castle. A pause was most certainly in order to get out breaths back and check out the castle. We arrived just an hour before early closure for a wedding. The imminent festivities added extra interest to our tour, staff rushing past us with floral arrangements and putting the finishing touches to fancy place settings in the grand hall.
We had Lord Scropes bedchambers to ourselves, though. The Lord was chancellor to King Richard II and the man responsible for building the castle as a fortified manor house in the late 14th century. Among the other residents were Mary, Queen of Scots, and her entourage who stayed en route from Scotland to Gloucestershire. The gardens include a small maze (which thankfully got getting lost out our systems for later) and some birds of prey.
Conscious that the bulk of the route and all its off-road content lay ahead we pressed ahead through a gate and out onto the open moors high above Wensleydale. In some fields we could make out ridges called strip lychets which are a legacy of medieval ploughing practices. Initially we cycled along a smooth track, then a rougher track and finally – after a new bridge that has replaced the ford marked on the map – onto a grassy path. It’s called Oxclose Road but there’s nothing road-like about it. The going was pretty tough in parts and the route is suited only to mountain bikes. The number of gates further slowed our progress but we were compensated by fabulous views across the Ure valley and having the region completely to ourselves if you exclude the sheep that bolted in all directions as my son began his downward ascent above Carperby.
The fun continued as we explored the rounded hummocks formed of spoil from the 200-year-old lead mines, swooping up, down and around them as if we were BMX riders at Olympic Park but without the jumping.
A little further on we propped up our bikes beside a wooden footbridge to climb down to and explore a hidden waterfall below. Soon we followed its steep descent to the hamlet of Woodhall. From there we turned left back onto the B-road homeward straight having one final rest at the Ballowfields local nature reserve. As well as spoil heaps lead mining has left the legacy of a rare community of plants including thrift, scurvy grass and spring sandwort that can tolerate high levels of the lead in the soil and are more normally found on cliffs and saltmarshes.
The last of our four bridges was an immaculate model-like structure over Eller Beck beside the nature reserve. It was built only two years ago by members of the Otley and Yorkshire Dales branch of the Dry Stone Walling Association to replace a simple clapper bridge which was frequently covered by water.
As we crossed back over the Ure via the iron bridge to the car I felt like a participant returning from the wilds in I’m a Celebrity … Get me out of Here! No swanky hotel waiting for us, though, but a hot bath at home was just as pleasing a prospect. In the final reckoning we’d had a short but strenuous and satisfying expedition.
Distance: 10 miles.
Time: Allow at least two hours plus many rests.
Parking: Small car parking area on the north side of the A684 about a mile east of Aysgarth right beside footbridge.
Refreshments: The Wheatsheaf Inn, Carperby, and the tea rooms at Bolton Castle.
Tip: To make a day of it go for a short walk around the Aysgarth Falls afterwards.