Two-in-one seaside special

There’s more to the Fylde coast than Blackpool. Lytham St Annes, just round the corner, has genteel charms of its own all linked via the National Cycle Network.

Windmill and lifeboat station

Windmill and lifeboat station

Seagulls gather around the hole in the ice on the village pond like latter-day locals around the parish pump. It’s midwinter – the last day of the Christmas holiday, to be precise – and I’m bound for the seaside on a post-gorging purge. My route starts a little inland at picturesque Wrea Green. And what a vast green. It includes one football pitch and could take another at a pinch.

Loins ungirded on such a raw day, I set off down country lanes and pass a flock of migrating geese in v-formation and a group of club cyclists both heading in the opposite direction. I wonder if they know something that I don’t. The only break in the slate grey sky is a letterbox of streaked orange hovering above my destination, Lytham St Annes.

Green Drive

Green Drive

On the outskirts of the town I cycle along the traffic-free and wooded Green Drive – although its all brown today. I then pick up the signs for Route 62 of the National Cycle Network which take me through a modern housing estate along what is effectively the back lane of the town. Today must be National Car Cleaning Day. I’ve already past two golf courses before I come to the course they all look up to – home to the famous Royal Lytham St Annes Golf Club. The clubhouse is relatively small and unassuming with a separate ‘ladies entrance’. Some of the new neighbouring houses mimic the clubhouse but equally the clubhouse looks vaguely residential to start with. Buried in suburbia, it’s hard to imagine that Tiger Woods and co will be massing here in July next year for the Open, a tournament the course last staged 10 years ago.

Continuing north I pass the Ansdell Institute and Public Hall, a grand Edwardian edifice built from light and dark orange brick. The first sign of the coast is the sand – not on the beach but scattered around the streets and pavements, a residue from gritting which followed the snowfall before Christmas. Even when I reach the road along the seafront I am denied beach views by dunes but push the bike up one of two of them for a peek. The tide is out and the sand seems to go on forever. The first open view of the shore comes at the pier which reminds me of the golf clubhouse. I decide to pass on the ice cream and don’t go down the pier as the entrance is through an amusement arcade and even I can’t push my bike through one of them without feeling somewhat conspicuous.

St Annes pier

St Annes pier

A little further along the miniature golf course, complete with bunkers, looks great fun. You don’t have to be rich or famous to say you’ve played golf at Lytham St Annes. The carvery appeals as well but, with too few hours of daylight to endulge in a long feed, I press on to a cheap and cheerful beach café. “Would you like your coffee milky?” I’m asked while trying to make myself heard over the hubbub of conversation and clatter and hiss of operations behind the counter. Ah, this is my sort of place, I think to myself before tucking into a fry-up next to a giant Father Christmas.

I leave the road to follow a cycle path circuiting Fairhaven Lake. The clock on the mock Tudor boathouse is stuck at two minutes past four and the whole town is lodged firmly in the 1920s when the lake was created. If you like bowling or boating this is the place to be – on a warmer day. Some 250,000 migrating wildfowl also come here every winter – including those geese I spotted earlier, I suspect. They feed up on the organisms living in the mud before continuing their epic journeys. The visitor centre tells how Arctic tern clocks can clock up 25,000 miles per breeding season and the black-tailed godwit winters here before heading back to Iceland to breed. Suddenly the exertion I’d put in to reach this point and my wimpiness about the cold are put firmly into context.

Granny's Bay

Granny’s Bay

Lytham St Annes is actually two towns: St Annes-on-Sea and, conjoined to the east, Lytham. Straddling both of them is Granny’s Bay which sounds suitably old fashioned. As you pass from one to the other so the shore changes from sand to mud and the mood goes upmarket. Lytham is where the Victorian mill owners used to holiday and its broad, long green reminiscent of the Strays in equally posh Harrogate, sets the tone for the district. The focal points of the green are the pristinely restored windmill and old lifeboat station.

As I continue the sun puts in a brief, shy appearance. Only just breaking through the mottled clouds and reflecting in the mudflats, the rays create a pattern like a light shining through a frosted pane of glass. It’s hard to see the joins between the sky, the Ribble Estuary and the Irish Sea.

Ribble Estuary

Ribble Estuary

After a short section of the main road I head back inland. After the bustle of the seafront it’s nice to be alone again and getting up some decent momentum on peaceful lanes back to Wrea Green. A sign on the pump declares that Wrea Green won the best kept village competition – in 1959 and three times in the 1960s. Clearly the locals consider this an achievement to be proud of. On a final nip around the green I pass a lady planting bulbs in old beer barrels outside a thatched building that was the old bank and for a moment kid myself that spring is just around the corner. Telling another story the lights on the Christmas tree outside the church opposite sparkle a little brighter in the gathering pre-dusk gloom.

Going to the coast out of season has been like calling briefly on a friend that you know you’ll see lots more of later. In the end, even in winter, I did like to be beside the seaside.

Wrea Green

Wrea Green

Distance: 18 miles.

Time: 2 hours.

Directions:

Leave Wrea Green signed to ‘Lytham 4’ on the B5259. Pass over the level crossing at Moss Side. After 3½ miles, as you enter Lytham and just before a roundabout turn right down Green Drive. From this point start following the blue signs towards St Annes on National Cycle Network Route 62. At the end of the drive turn immediately left down Park View Rd. Just after a school and opposite the junction of Wykeham Rd turn right to follow a short cycle track past a playground and BMX track and over a footbridge to emerge on Balham Rd. Turn left then right down South Park and, at the end, left onto Forest Drive. At a t-junction with the Blackpool Rd turn right briefly (Route 62 unsigned here) then first left after the church. Keep following the signs (which reappear at this point) past the golf club and over two crossroads staying on St Patricks Rd. At the end turn left onto St Leonards Rd, go over the railway then turn first right down Caryl Rd. At the end turn left down Highbury Rd. At the junction with the A584 turn left then, just after the North Beach car park, turn right down Todmorden Rd. Keep following the promenade past the pier and miniature golf course. After the Lawrence House sports ground turn right into St Pauls car park. Proceed to the end towards a brazier then pick up a traffic-free cycle path around the lake. Stay on the path to pass the windmill. Eventually, you reach the A584 again. Turn right and proceed for about a mile then turn left down Lodge Lane initially following signs for Route 62 to Kirkham. At a t-junction in Kellamurgh turn left to follow the Lancashire cycle way sign back to Wrea Green.

Map: here

Beach Terrace Cafe

Beach Terrace Cafe

Pubs and grub:

The Hole in One pub, Forest Drive, Lytham, FY8 4QF. Tel 01253 730598.
Beach Terrace Café, South Promenade, Lytham St Annes, FY8 1NW. Open every day of the year. Tel 01253 711167
Salters Wharf Toby carvery, South Promenade, Lytham St Annes, FY8 1LS. Tel 01253 713365.
Fairhaven Lakeside Café, Inner Promenade, Lytham St Annes, FY8 1BD. Tel 01253 734527.
The Birley Arms, Kellamurgh, PR4 1TN. Tel 01772 679 988. The Grapes (Chef & Brewer), Wrea Green, PR4 2PH. Tel 01772 682927.

Bike hire: Apple Bikes, St Annes. Tel 01253 725349.

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Day of ups and downs

Take to the hills for a ride that’s guaranteed to build up your appetite for the excellent cafés and pubs along the way.

Bronte Way

Bronte Way

Bridleways, moorland tracks, canal towpaths, country lanes and a particularly long ford … not many routes take in such a rich and sometimes challenging variety of terrains as this tour of the Pendle district.

The first two miles set the tone for the expedition. My cycle computer is in no danger of overheating as I begin pedalling up to Coldwell. If you can complete this ascent without dismounting you’re a lot fitter than I am – and probably have a better bike to boot. I’m relieved to spot a mobile phone mast indicating that, surely, I’m near the top and then the gothic Walton’s Spire. Erected by a Revd Walton in 1835, it stands forbiddingly and crucifix-like on the summit.

Bronte Way

Bronte Way

After skirting the Lower Coldwell reservoir I leave the road for the start of a scenic and peaceful 4½-mile trek across rugged moorland via the Brontë Way. The ridge of Boulsworth Hill rises above to the right but the views from this relatively low elevation are impressive. To start with the track is a little uneven but easily passable by a touring bike like mine. A short section of surfaced road comes as a welcome and surprise break before the most uneven and toughest stretch of the bridleway. The choice is to wobble your way along the boulders set into the grass (which show the line of the path) or to walk in the ruts alongside them. I choose the latter – and accept that there are times when only a mountain bike will do.

A big wooden bridge over Turnhole Clough heralds the beginning of the end of this section of the route and I soon start the descent to Wycoller. Negotiating bumps is much easier when you’re going down a gentle slope. I stand up out of the saddle and easily maintain some momentum, my flexed legs acting as shock absorbers. The track gets easier as I enter the trees and cycle alongside a clough.

Bridge over Turnhole Clough

Bridge over Turnhole Clough

For a man unused to off-road and hills, reaching Wycoller is like coming into the harbour after crossing the high seas. Thankfully, the café I wasn’t sure about does, indeed, exist. I am immediately inside listening to the cheesy strains of ‘If you were the Only Boy in the World’ and tucking into a “farrier’s lunch”. I leave as the CD reaches ‘In the Mood’ – and, refreshed, I am. Before remounting for part two of the ride I enjoy a wander around the ancient bridges (preserved because of the village’s remoteness) and ruins of the 16th century Wycoller Hall. Charlotte Brontë lived nearby and is thought to have frequently visited the village. The hall – which fell into disrepair about a century ago – is believed by some to be Ferndean Manor in her novel Jane Eyre. Its unrestored condition (apart from a huge fireplace) makes it all the more evocative and ideal for looking around if you’re pushing a bike! The riverbank is a perfect picnic spot – and don’t miss the fine collection of old milk bottles in the historic Aisled Barn visitor centre.

I complete the descent to the bottom of the Colne Water valley and then begin gradually winding my way up its northern flanks. A sign warns of a road ‘unsuitable for motors’. I’ll say: water immerses the carriageway for a good 100 yards. If you’re here after a wet spell then pack an inflatable dinghy in your pannier.

Wycoller Hall

Wycoller Hall

I dive down into Foulridge and then start the serious business of the ascent of White Moor. During many pauses for breath I look back over my shoulder at Whitemoor reservoir which I’ve just passed and three others nearby, all of which were built to feed the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. To the left my eye is drawn to the folly of Stansfield Tower sitting on the top what’s believed to be an ancient tumulus. The tower was built by a local grocer who wanted to be able to show his friends the construction of Blackpool Tower but sadly Pendle Hill got in the way. Against steely skies, the tower looks suitably spooky given that Pendle is best known for witchcraft.

The route down to Barnoldswick lies down another bridleway. The surface is rutted and it makes for a somewhat bouncy ride. Just as I’m again regretting not having a mountain bike I reach the town. I’m running a little short of time so don’t have time to explore it fully but feel obliged to quickly investigate the purpose of the giant chimney that has been beckoning me across the moors. Standing 135ft tall, it belongs to a steam-powered weaving shed operational until 1920 and forms part of the Stream and Steam heritage trail. Shortly before Salterforth I drop down to the canal. The waterway has a sharp bend here and, to avoid boats being tugged into the side, tow line rollers were installed on the bank, some of which you can still see close to the bridge.

Bridge on Leeds and Liverpool Canal

Bridge on Leeds and Liverpool Canal

Whatever the appeal (or not) of hills, the perfectly flat and smooth towpath provides a welcome contrast to what’s gone before. For me this route saves the best until last. On the far canal bank I spot a Tardis which is about as surreal as the figures of Laurel and Hardy fishing which I’d seen earlier beside a garden pond at the top of White Moor. A sign in the canal bank marking the border between Yorkshire and Lancashire is a reminder of how significant highways like this once were. In days past Foulridge Wharf partly fulfilled the role of service station I suppose and I take advantage of a warehouse that’s now a café. Beside the wharf is the entrance to the mile-long Foulridge tunnel. Five years in construction, it has no towpath so horse-drawn barges used to be legged through by boatmen lying on the bow deck walking along the tunnel walls.

Bikes on barge

Bikes on barge

My own legs tiring and weary of way-finding, I tuck away my map for the last time and put blind faith into the National Cycle Network signs. They lead me reliably via all sorts of interesting twists and turns around the canal tunnel, back to the towpath, past picturesque Barrowford Lock, under the motorway and finally through the back streets of Colne to the start.

I’d wanted an epic ride and, boy, I certainly got one. My overall average speed figure would’ve outstripped a barge – but only just.

Alternative easy rider

The canal towpath between Barnoldswick and Barrowford Reservoir (west of Colne) lends itself very well to an easy family bike ride with a stop at Café Cargo (see below). The return trip is 11 miles and follows the signed, mainly off-road Route 68 of the National Cycle Network. Park in Barnoldswick at Victory Park off West Close Rd. Join the towpath where the canal passes under the Skipton Rd then continue south to Foulridge Wharf. From this point follow the directions, as below, as far as the reservoir.

Foulridge Wharf

Foulridge Wharf

Fact file

Distance: 27 miles.

Time: A full day.

Directions:

Start at either Colne railway station or the car park of the adjacent leisure centre. Cross the main road (A56) and proceed up Bridge St signed to Coldwell Activity Centre. At a crossroads at the top of the hill continue ahead and down to pass the centre and go around the first reservoir.

Turn left to leave the road and join the Pennine Bridleway. Just after a farmhouse the track is surfaced for a few hundred yards. Where this road bears sharp left to Trawden (signed) continue ahead on the bridleway. Keep following the signs for Wycoller which take you over a bridge and finally, via a left turn and Smithy Clough, to Wycoller.

Barge on canal

Barge on canal

Leave the village by the only road. Turn right at a t-junction in front of a football pitch then right again soon after signed for National Cycle Network Route 91. At the end of the descent in Laneshawbridge turn left over an old stone bridge and briefly uphill to meet the A6068. Cross over and continue almost ahead to the left of the Emmott Arms signed Lancashire Cycleway.

At the top of the hill bear left towards and past The Alma Inn. Turn left (off the Skipton Old Rd) just before a ‘Caution – concealed entrance’ sign. Almost immediately and as the road bears left continue ahead at the sign: ‘Ford ½ mile. Road unsuitable for motors’.

Take the first left into Foulridge, reaching the main road at The Hare and Hounds pub. Turn right then second left in front of the war memorial down Lowther Lane. At the bottom turn left onto Barnoldswick Rd to leave Foulridge. Where the road bears sharp right continue ahead signed ‘Blacko 2’ keeping the reservoir embankment to your right. About 300 yards after the Whitemoor Riding Centre turn right signed to a dead end.

About 100 yards after Peel House Farm turn right through a gate onto a signed public bridleway. At the end turn left then immediately right up Hodge Lane signed ‘Private Road. Public bridleway only’. This brings you out onto the B6383. Turn right and, after 300 yards at a bridge, descend steps to the canal towpath (also National Cycle Network Route 68).

Bronte Way

Bronte Way

Immediately after Foulridge Wharf follow the road (Warehouse Lane) uphill, turn right the crossroads then left down Reedymore Lane to again pick up signs for Route 68 to Colne. Just after the Lake Burwain sailing club keep following the route as it forks right and off-road. At the end of the track turn right at the road then immediately left (don’t cross the bridge) to continue in the same direction. Rejoin the canal towpath, pass under the motorway then turn left to leave the canal and keep following signs for Route 68 back to the start.

Map: here. Download booklet then use map on p11. For more detail of the end of the route see http://www.bit.ly/eKgzn9. (The route skirts Barrowford Reservoir then goes east along the purple route to Colne leisure centre).


Eating
:

Wycoller Craft Centre and Tea Rooms

Wycoller Craft Centre and Tea Rooms

An excellent choice including:

Coldwell Activity Centre Tea Room, beside Coldwell Reservoirs. 01282 601819. Open Wed-Sun 9am-3pm. Includes children’s play area and tables outside.

Wycoller Craft Centre & Tearooms, Wycoller. 01282 868395. Cosy traditional tea room with courtyard for eating outside. Open every day except Mon (excluding Bank Holidays) 11am-approx 5.30pm and Fridays 12 noon-5.30pm.

The Alma Inn, Laneshawbridge. 01252 857030 and thealmainn.com. Smart, recently refurbished early 18th century coaching inn with tables outside.

The Anchor, Salterforth. 01282 813186. Grade II-listed inn with beer garden, children’s play area – and stalactites and stalagmites in the cellar!

Café Cargo, Foulridge Wharf. 01282 865069 and cafecargo.com. Open every day 8am-11pm. Chic but friendly café (during the day) and bistro (evenings). Converted last year from a disused early 19th century warehouse on the wharf. Fanastic canalside location.

The Anchor Inn, Salterforth

The Anchor Inn, Salterforth

Golden miles

The sea is never more than a few yards away on this easy coastal route suitable for all the family.

North Pier, Blackpool

North Pier, Blackpool

Some holidaymakers bounce up and down on an over-sized seesaw while others sit on giant pebbles that look like they’ve been washed up onto the prom from the beach. Dune grass, 30 metres high (and actually made of carbon fibre), sways in the breeze and I’m pushing my bike over a carpet of comedy catchphrases etched into granite that extends over 1,800 square metres. This isn’t a vision induced by a night out in Blackpool but the scene that presents itself at the start of a bike ride from the town.

Blackpool has just got even wackier (if that’s possible), all as part of a major redevelopment of the promenade so now is a great time to visit. A key feature of the seafront remains, though: the National Cycle Network path that takes you along the Fylde coast off road all the way to Fleetwood – and that’s where I’m heading.

Setting off from the tower

Setting off from the tower

Finding the start of the route could barely be simpler. I join the path at the Blackpool Tower and simply head north. Moments after heading off down a slope the sounds of Fun Fun Fun coming from the fair are replaced by the gentle lapping of water on the wavewall and, in the distance, I can make out the Furness coast. Around the first corner I pass an artifical cliff. It’s hard to tell whether it’s the remains of some sort of Wild West attraction or part of the sea defences. Set incongruously within it is a Greek-style colonnade and café. A few cyclists have paused for a cuppa – and there are lots all along the route, some out for an evening blast, others on their way home from work and others just pootling. This is a very well used route.

Cabin lift

Cabin lift

Coastal curiosities abound. Next up is the Grade II-listed cabin lift built in 1930 to transport visitors between the upper promenade tram stop and lower promenade walkway and former boating pool. These days the lift is closed and the pool is a go-kart track enclosed by tyres. Then there’s the Norbreck Castle Hotel. The perimeter, visible from the path, is all towers and castellations giving a hint of the (mock, of course) architectural style of the building itself. For a moment I think I see the rigging of a ship but it’s just electricity wires. After a while Blackpool has that effect on you. You take nothing at face value.

Promenade improvements at Rossall Beach in Cleveleys are complete and very neat they look too. Masts that provide lighting line the path and the steps down to the beach are as handy for sitting on as they are efficient at repelling stormy seas and high tides. I read that a grand table top sale and home baking stall has been postponed due to poor weather. Pity they hadn’t planned it for this evening as the weather is glorious, the sinking sun casting a glow over the coastal features.

Cleveleys

Cleveleys

From this point they are more natural than man-made and Blackpool’s buzz seems further away than it is. The main activity hereabouts is fishing – that’s if you exclude the turning of the turbines of the windfarm way out to sea. The surface deteriorates slightly from Tarmac to concrete slabs and my wheels run over the joints between them with a rhythm of a train along the rails.

It’s hard to know exactly where I am as most cues are out of sight. Meerkat-like in my curiosity, I stand up on tip-toe and spot a golf course but I only confirm my bearings when I reach the sign for the old Fleetwood coastwatch tower at Rossall Point. The structure is due to be replaced by a state-of-the-art leaning tower so navigation should soon be better for ships – and bikes! Shortly afterwards, I step up onto a dune for a good view of a boating lake with ornate Venetian-style bridge.

Fleetwood’s twin on-shore lighthouses herald journey’s end – or, at least, the extent of my coastal excursion for today. With more time I’d like to have caught the ferry to Knott End-on-Sea as there appears on the map to be some good quiet lanes for further cycling on the other side of the Wyre estuary. But the day is nearly done and, as I swig from my bottle on the steps below the beach lighthouse, my thoughts are turning to the return leg. Inland I can see the taller Pharos lighthouse, the idea being that seamen lined up the two lighthouses to ensure safe passage up the estuary.

Beach lighthouse, Fleetwood

Beach lighthouse, Fleetwood

Created as a new town in the 1830s, Fleetwood comes across as a hard-working and slightly dour brother compared to Champagne Charlie down the coast – more flat cap than kiss-me-quick hat – but then, I suppose, what place wouldn’t? I’m certainly not pawing my panniers for the camera and make quick progress through the town to loop back towards the coastal cycle path which I rejoin at Rossall. From there I blast back to the start non-stop at high speed. Somehow cycling is always faster at twilight. The ice cream lickers have all but disappeared as I finally reach the tower and now only an occasional cyclist freewheels down to join the path compared to the steady stream of late afternoon. The sun has set and the other brights lights are just about to take over.

Bike hire scheme

One of Blackpool's cycle hire HUBs

One of Blackpool’s cycle hire HUBs

Fancy a ride to blow away the cobwebs the morning after a stag or hen party but don’t want to bring the bike with you? Then try Blackpool’s novel cycle hire system which runs along the same lines as the Boris bikes scheme in central London. Bikes are available to hire from automated stations called HUBs at dozens of locations around the town 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They use the latest in smart cards and mobile technology to provide you with a simple and secure way to rent and return bikes. The cost is £1 per hour with a minimum charge of £6 (for six hours) for new subscribers. For bookings call 01253 320094 and for more info visit http://www.bit.ly/rbB13q.

Fact file

Fleetwood coastwatch station

Fleetwood coastwatch station

Distance: 19 miles.

Time: 2 hours.

Directions:

Start on the promenade in front of the tower. Join the signed National Cycle Network route 62 and head north beside the road for 400 yards and then, just after the North Pier, down a slope and away from the road. Keep the sea to your left and you can’t go wrong. The trail ends when it leads up to the Esplanade in Fleetwood. Turn left and follow the coastal road (which becomes Queen St and Dock St) past the lighthouse, ferry terminal and museum. Around the corner as you approach a large Asda go ahead at the first roundabout and ahead again at second roundabout immediately outside the store. Pick up a cycleway starting to your left and keep in the same direction towards Freeport. Turn right at the next roundabout (or use the cycle crossing) down Denham Way then left into Copse Rd to pass the Fishermen’s Friend factory. Just after the turn to Kilbane St cross the road towards the right and pass through a gap into Larkholme Lane. At the end at the junction with the A587 turn left onto a cycle path. At the traffic lights turn right down West Way which takes you back to the coastal cycle path. Turn left to return to Blackpool.

Map: Most of the route follows NCN Route 62 from Blackpool Tower.

Eating:

Lots of choice of pubs, cafes, takeaways and restaurants in Blackpool, Cleveleys and Fleetwood with a few along the route itself (mainly at the Blackpool end such as the Hole in the Wall café, 01253 593791, beside the colonnade).

Time for a break

Time for a break

Rough with the smooth

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.

Canal at Bank Newton

Canal at Bank Newton

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.

Gisburn Forest

Gisburn Forest

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.

Road across corner of Stocks reservoir, Gisburn Forest

Road across corner of Stocks reservoir, Gisburn Forest

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.

Williamson Bridge, East Marton

Williamson Bridge, East Marton

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.

Double arch bridge, East Marton

Double arch bridge, East Marton

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.

Lock at Bank Newton

Lock at Bank Newton

Fact file

Gisburn Forest

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.

Gisburn Forest

Gisburn Forest

Gargrave

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”.

Refreshments:
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.

Abbot's Harbour cafe, East Marton

Abbot’s Harbour cafe, East Marton

Forest without trees

Often overlooked in favour of the nearby Yorkshire Dales, the lesser known Forest of Bowland is ideal for a challenging ride.

Start of big descent towards Slaidburn

Start of big descent towards Slaidburn

Normally the best bikes rides are those with lots of things to see but occasionally I like to make the mileage the main focus. That was certainly the case on a cycle ride in the Forest of Bowland in Lancashire. In fact, the length and gradient of the route is such that multiple stop-offs would be difficult to fit into a single day anyway. After a busy summer holiday of visiting places with the kids it was great to get out on my own, let my mind wander and my legs pedal, and enjoy the views. Perfect therapy.

Shortly after setting off from Giggleswick the branches of trees either side of the road joined in the middle to form an arch through which I could see the peak of Ingleborough and a little further on a great 180-degree panorama opened up.

Looking back towards High Bentham

Looking back towards High Bentham

I was cycling along one of those particularly narrow yellow roads on Ordnance Survey maps. The route twisted and turned restlessly. My gears were in near continuous use but the hills were never so steep I had to get off and walk. There are no passing places – except for bicycles, of course, and I barely passed any cars anyway. It was as good as pedalling along a traffic-free cycleway.

I completed the first – and easiest – side of my triangular route at a crossroads south of High Bentham. With a turn of the handlebars I turned my back on the Yorkshire Dales and immediately passed the sign marking entry to the Forest of Bowland. The change in landscape was dramatic. Suddenly I was in the open and seemingly setting off into a wilderness. This is a definitely a route best tackled when you have plenty of time and the wind isn’t blowing. A row of sheep formed a border guard across the road on the brow of a hill next to the Lancashire sign and horses roamed as freely as they do in the New Forest. Bowland is also home to many threatened species of bird including merlin, golden plover, ringed ouzel and the hen harrier which is the symbol of this Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

Wain Hill near Slaidburn

Wain Hill near Slaidburn

The road south to Slaidburn is one of the loneliest in northern England. It dips in and out of view in a ‘now you see me, now you don’t’ sort of way, a grey ribbon snaking over tussocks of grass and heather moorland. Strangely, the Forest of Bowland has hardly any trees. The ‘forest’ actually relates to a tract of land set aside in medieval times by the king for hunting. It was a forest only in the sense that it was not to be cleared for cultivation.

The previous Bank Holiday weekend I’d been cycling among day tripping hoards along two disused railway lines in the Peak District. I’d had a great ride but was now glad to be back among more serious touring cyclists, all of them (apart from me) lythe and Lycra-clad. Lythe Hill, which formed the majority of the ascent, is fittingly named and I was relieved to reach the top. At over 400 metres above sea level, the summit is at an altitude I more normally associate with walks not bike rides. On the other side a bare v-shaped valley stretched out below. The road clings onto its eastern flank and provided a glorious freewheel for 2¼ miles down to a wooded picnic spot beside the Cross of Greet bridge over the River Hodder which, like me, had started its journey on the fell top.

War memorial, Slaidburn

War memorial, Slaidburn

The sting in the tail was that I still had another ascent (in my case push). Finally I reached a 12 per cent hill going in my preferred direction and Slaidburn came into view in the hollow below. The war memorial is particularly poignant. Stood on a column, a solder rests on the butt of his rifle with his head bowed. I postponed a full look around the village, though, preferring to head straight for the tea rooms for my very own late, late breakfast show of a mixed grill at a time when most customers were having cream teas. Many other cyclists – and motorcyclists who also favour this route – were taking similar advantage of the rare facilities as well as families playing games and picknicking on the village green opposite. Remarkably, it was the first significant village I’d passed through in 22½ miles and was to be the only one on the entire route.

Refuelled and water bottle topped up, I left Slaidburn for another stiff climb. In the far distance I could see the gritstone fells I’d conquered in the morning and felt that my calorie overload at lunchtime was fully justified. A little further on I passed the corner of a forest – but very much a modern one. Gisburn Forest is a plantation next to the equally new Stocks Reservoir operated by United Utilities, the biggest single landowner in the area today. The features provide variety in the landscape – and some great mountain bike trails too from what I’d read in a leaflet at the tea rooms.

The Green, Slaidburn

The Green, Slaidburn

My mind, though, was focused solely on the task in hand. I turned left in Tosside and within a few yards a view of Ingleborough beckoned me back towards North Yorkshire, heralding the beginning of the end of the expedition.

The hamlet of Wham was more notable on the map for its poptastic name than it was on the ground. No sign of Club Tropicana here. In fact, The Long and Winding Road was again the song most on my mind as I wended my way along a tiny lane with more sudden ups and downs than one of those buzz wire games you get at village fairs. Used more by livestock than vehicles, the lane is gated at two points and its surface was as brown with cowpats as it was black with Tarmac. I was grateful for a dry day and reached the car unspattered and unbowed.

Distance: 36 miles.

Time: 4 hours excluding stops.

Directions:

Signpost at Keasden

Signpost at Keasden

Leave Giggleswick station car park (free) via steps and push your bike along a short footpath then turn right under a rail bridge. At the first crossroads turn left signed to Eldroth then take the next left signed to Black Bank. Bear right immediately after the cattle grid then at the next junction turn left. Pass under a rail bridge then bear left following the signs to Bentham and Slaidburn.

At the first crossroads continue ahead then at the next crossroads beside a Honda dealer turn left signed to Slaidburn. Follow this road up and over the fells for 9¾ miles to Slaidburn. In the village at the war memorial turn left and descend to the river. Cross over the bridge and, staying on the B6478, continue over the first crossroads. Turn left (unsigned) at a second crossroads beside the community hall at Tosside.

After 2 miles pass a wooded gill then farm and follow the road as it bears left. Go over a river bridge then follow the road as it bears immediately right signed to Rathmell. Descend into a wood, bear left then turn left signed to Giggleswick via Wham. Keeping following this lane and, eventually, turn right at a t-junction back to Giggleswick.

Map: here

Eating:

Hark to Bounty Inn, Slaidburn

Hark to Bounty Inn, Slaidburn

The Hark to Bounty Inn, Slaidburn, BB7 3EP. Tel 01200 446246.
Riverbank Tea Rooms, The Green, Slaidburn. Highly recommended. Tel 01200 446398.
The Whelp Stone Café Bar and Bike Shop, Tosside, BD22 4SQ. Tel 01729 840668.
The Dog & Partridge, Tosside, next to the above and same tel no.
The Craven Arms, Brackenber Lane, Giggleswick, BD24 0EA (opposite the station). Tel 01729 825627.

Bike hire:

The Whelp Stone Café Bar and Bike Shop, Tosside (as above).
Cycle Adventure (free delivery and collection to Gisburn Forest). Tel 07518 373007.
Cycle Bowland, Station Yard, Settle, BD24 9RP. Tel 01729 824419.
Pedal Power, Waddington Rd, Clitheroe, BB7 2HJ. Tel 01200 422066.

Border guard at Loftshaw Moss

Border guard at Loftshaw Moss