Coinciding with the start of the school summer holidays, Paul Kirkwood recommends two contrasting off-road family bike rides either side of the Lancashire/North Yorkshire border.
The problem with short bike rides is that they’re barely worth getting all geared up for. Loading the bikes, kit assembly and sandwich-making takes about as long as the cycling. The answer? Do two routes near to one other the same day. That’s how my son and I covered off a couple of rides that had caught my eye just to the south of the Yorkshire Dales.
The first takes us to the mountain bike trails within Gisburn Forest, 3,000 acres of broadleaf trees and conifers owned by the Forestry Commission, a fir cone’s throw from the Forest of Bowland. Being a sunny bank holiday Monday, lots of other people have the same idea. It’s a job just parking but, once out on the track we soon find some space of our own. We’ve chosen the six-mile waymarked blue track that loops in an hour-glass shape to the north of the plantation.
Through the trees we spot St Thomas’s Chapel and then the ride’s biggest landmark, Stocks Reservoir. Opened in 1932, it covers an area equivalent to 500 football pitches and contains 2½ billion gallons of water which is pumped to Fylde in Lancashire. Up to 30 species of wildfowl make it home in winter. Two of them have been spotted by twitchers who have parked up on the causeway running across a corner of the lake. We don’t linger long, though, and dive back into the trees. Our trail is named Bottoms Beck and, being so short, it’s not long before we’re cycling along side it. Here the route actually follows the course of a former railway. A short incline takes us up and into the open at a farm called Herbert Hall and, for the first time, we can see the wood from the trees.
The best bit of the ride follows: a gentle sweep down a broad track to Stephen Park, another farm. The book describing this ride advises that “maps are useless” and to “follow the trail”. Given this and my appalling sense of direction, we dutifully follow a sign off the broad track and into a particularly dense part of the forest in the direction of both the blue and harder red trails. Initially, the route takes us across an undulating boardwalk with small drops either side. The track that follows is sharply cambered and formed of large stones, many of them loose. It snakes it’s way from side to side with banks (called berms in mountain biking lingo) enabling the experienced bikers to build up some momentum. We are not among them and push. It’s a relief to finally emerge and realise that what felt like the back of beyond is just yards from the car park. Almost disappointingly unremote, in fact.
After sandwiches we load up the bikes and drive for 20 minutes to Gargrave. The navigation here is equally simple. We follow the sign from our car park to the Leeds to Liverpool canal and then cycle west along it in the direction of route 68 of the National Cycle Network. Once a thriving market town, Gargrave became a bustling transport centre after the Leeds & Liverpool canal was built in the 19th century. Lead from the Dales mines was loaded onto barges at one of five Gargrave wharfs and the barges returned with coal, corn, glass and other merchandise.
For a rural village, Gargrave is remarkably well connected. Minutes after setting off we see five bridges all together which demonstrates the point. There are two for the railway, two for the canal and the canal aqueduct where we pause. The canal goes over the river, the road goes over the canal and the railway goes over the road. We watch a narrowboat negotiating one of the four locks at Bank Newton. A boater waiting for the lock to fill up describes locks to my son as “water steps” and how he is “sharing the water” with the next vessel behind him. He’s aiming to be in Wigan tomorrow night. At least one traveller is progressing slower than us.
Twice the canal path curls tightly up to the road. It was designed like this so that horses could transfer from a towpath on one side of the canal to the other without having to be detached from the narrowboat. Very ingenious – but it’s a very steep push for cyclists today. After the second curl we leave the waterside and pick up a stoney road that takes us through a farm and eventually to East Marton. The Pennine Way intersects the canal here and we’re also deep in the heart of horseriding country. The farm operates offers pony trekking and there’s another large stables in the village reached by a bridge over the canal. It’s a lovely spot with a couple of very old looking farmhouses with small, mullioned windows and immaculate gardens.
We leave out bikes briefly and walk up to the double-arch bridge which I’d had aroused my curiosity on the map. Bizarrely, one arch is placed on top of the other, double-decker style. It’s as if the bridge was built by someone who had had two many beers at the adjacent Cross Keys pub. The actual reason for the extra deck was to give the A59 less of a dip as it crosses the canal. I must have driven along the road scores of times but never, until now, realised what lay under the carriageway at this point. The bridge is a real hidden gem.
Further mooching around reveals a tea room which is believed to have been a monk’s byre. Soon sat outside among the jodhpur wearers and with a tray of tea and cake in front of us, our linear ride has another unexpected destination and further a sense of purpose. From there we retrace our tracks to Gargrave. It’s been an enjoyable and traffic-free day of contrasts. Sometimes two into one does go but the canal ride gets the higher marks out of 10 during our debrief on the drive home.
Parking: Free Forestry Commission car park at Cocklet Hill, near Tosside.
Distance: 6 miles.
Time: 1-1½ hours depending on whether or not you have children with you.
Map: Cycle trails map here.
Directions: Simply follow the well waymarked blue trail.
Refreshments: None at the trail. Try the Dog & Partridge, Tosside. 01729 840668. Alternatively, there’s a café and pub in Slaidburn, two miles away.
Bike hire: The Whelp Stone Café Bar and Bike Shop, Tosside. At the back of the pub above. Same tel no.
Parking: Free car park on North St.
Distance: 6½ miles.
Time: 1 hour.
Directions: From the car park head up West Street and then turn left to cycle beside the canal. After a mile the towpath curls up to the left to join the road. Turn left and over the bridge and then, after a few yards, rejoin the towpath. After four locks at Bank Newton, follow the towpath as it curls up to the right. Cross the bridge to the other side of the canal. Don’t rejoin it this time, however, but continue ahead on an unadopted road to and through Newton Grange Farm. After passing through a wood the track becomes a road which takes you to the stables and tea room at East Marton. Return to Gargrave the same way. NB: There is a towpath between Bank Newton and East Marton but it is signed as “unsuitable for cycling”.
Abbot’s Harbour restaurant and café, East Marton. Open daily from 10am to 4pm or 5pm at weekends. Closed Thu.
The Cross Keys pub, East Marton (on the A59).
Dalesman Café, High St, Gargrave.
The Old Swan Inn and Masons Arms, Gargrave.