Back tracking

Rediscover an old railway line and unusual places close by on this gentle two-part route in west Yorkshire.

New fish pass at Boston Spa

New fish pass at Boston Spa

‘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.

Start of the Harland Way, Wetherby

Start of the Harland Way, Wetherby

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.

Spofforth Castle

Spofforth Castle

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.

Thorpe Arch bridge

Thorpe Arch bridge

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.

Newton Kyme

Newton Kyme

Fact file

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.

Harland Way signpost

Harland Way signpost

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.

Maphere

Eating:

Scotts Arms, Sicklinghall

Scotts Arms, Sicklinghall

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.

On the bridleway between Spofforth and Sicklinghall

On the bridleway between Spofforth and Sicklinghall

Hidden history in Gascoigne country

A corner of countryside just to the east of Leeds is packed with history.

Triumphal Arch, Parlington

Triumphal Arch, Parlington

It’s strange to think that people once needed to live beside main roads rather than get as far away from them as possible. A case in point is Aberford which used to lie right on the Great North Road until it was bypassed by a new stretch of the A1 in 1965.

The traffic may have long gone but lots of clues remain of the village’s thoroughfaring past. Milestones book-end the main street and a Roman road forms the southern approach. The village seems to belong to an era when travelling involved more of a journey. In these parts you half expect a charabanc to overtake you followed, perhaps, by a soft top car with a wicker hamper in the boot and a lady passenger wearing a hat held on by a ribbon. The arches set within buildings along the road were once entrances to stables for horses pulling the post from London to Edinburgh. The village once had nine inns but now just two.

Going under the M1

Going under the M1

Travel at a more leisurely pace and on two wheels is today the ideal way to explore the area’s rich heritage. First ports of call are Barwick-on-Elmet and Thorner, two attractive commuter villages. A railway used to connect them to Wetherby and Leeds until it closed in 1964. If you pause at the bridge in Scholes and look to the left, you will see the old station which is now a pub suitably called The Buffers. An old fashioned wooden canopy overhangs the former platform.

A bridleway brings you to Shippen House Farm. Troughs and humps in a field to the right look like the scars of trench warfare. In fact, that simile isn’t too far from the truth for the farm once lay at the heart of the Barnbow shell factory established to provide munitions for the Great War. It employed 17,000 people, the vast majority of them women. They worked long, hard hours and it was noisy, dangerous work. Some of the chemicals turned their hands and feet yellow. A total of 37 women and three men lost their lives in three explosions at the factory but news of the accidents was not made public for six years as the government did not want to run the risk of denting morale.

Shippen House Farm

Shippen House Farm

Earlier, on setting off from Aberford, the eagle-eyed will have noticed a coat of arms above the door on a lodge depicting a pike and a coronet. It belongs to the Gascoignes, a family that dominated this region as the Rowntrees dominated York while showing similar philanthropy. The village hall in Aberford was built in memory of a Gascoigne and two pubs en route are named after the family, namely the Gascoigne Arms in Barwick and The Gascoigne in Garforth. Land for the shell factory was commandeered from the family’s estate and the blackened church on the horizon from Shippen House was re-built by sisters Mary Isabella and Elizabeth Gascoigne (more of whom later).

The route next takes you through the estate of the former family seat, Parlington Hall. First you come across an old gamekeepers cottage secluded deep in the woods. Under snow, with a brace of pheasants hanging from the door and plumes of smoke coming from the chimneys, it would be a Christmas card but, in contrast, has an eerie atmosphere. You feel as if someone’s watching you as you cycle by.

Emerging from Dark Arch

Emerging from Dark Arch

The mood becomes spookier still as you approach a tunnel known as the Dark Arch. It was built to hide traffic on Parlington Lane from the residents of the Hall. The gloom within appears impenetrable although skylights let in occasional shafts of daylight. Just as you’re wondering whether or not it was wise to cycle through the track bears left revealing the light at the end of the tunnel. Phew! Shortly afterwards you go under the Light Arch, an all together more benign structure, which used to bear carriages bound for the Hall.

Pilgrim Priest statue at Lotherton Hall

Pilgrim Priest statue at Lotherton Hall

Plans to replace the Hall with something grander came to nought but a triumphal arch to show approval of American Independence was built from stone intended for the new house. The arch caused the non-visit of the future King George IV who, on hearing of its purpose, refused to join the Gascoignes for lunch. The Hall was abandoned following the death of Colonel Trench Gascoigne in 1905. His only son and heir, had no desire to take up residence since nearby Lotherton Hall, where he was living, was superior. Parlington Hall was largely demolished, leaving only the West Wing still in tact. (The triumphal arch survives too. You can spot it through the trees on your left after the Light Arch and visit via a permissive path accessed via Cattle Lane in Aberford).

The main source of the Gascoigne’s wealth was their coal pits in Garforth. In the late 19th century the so-called Fly Line used to transport coal by steam train to Aberford for onward delivery by road. It was by all accounts a rickety, unreliable service. To overcome the gradient horses used to provide extra power before jumping on board a dandy cart to enjoy the downhill ride. When snow covered the tracks third class passengers had to get out and push! The line coincides with the cycle route from the gamekeepers cottage to Aberford.

Aberford almshouses

Aberford almshouses

Another Gascoigne landmark survives immaculately in tact. It is the row of Gothic almshouses in Aberford, built by Mary Isabella and Elizabeth in 1843-45 as a memorial to their father, Richard, and two brothers. Despite the almshouses’ size only eight people ever lived there at any one time, all retired tenants of the estate.

The Light Arch

The Light Arch

No tour of Gascoigne country would be complete without a visit to Lotherton Hall, home to Richard and his successors, and open to the public along with its grounds and bird garden. If you’re tired you can drive there from where you parked but you can easily cycle to it too in a loop around Wolds-like terrain. On the way back pop in at Saxton church which has a stained glass window commemorating Mary Isabella and Elizabeth.

Complete the ride by visiting the tiny Church of St Mary near Saxton. Spotted through trees and standing in the middle of a field, it has the allure of a sailing boat anchored alone in the bay. A sign on the door heightens the intrigue by inviting you to poke your finger through a hole to lift the latch. Despite being 700 years old and having long been deconsecrated the interior is kept in very good condition. The pulpit is most unusual having three different tiers each with its own school desk-like table. A suitably understated end to a day of hidden history.

The approach to Aberford from the Light Arch

The approach to Aberford from the Light Arch

Fact file

Distance: 22.5 miles.

Time: 2-3 hours.

Directions:

Lotherton Hall Gardens

Lotherton Hall Gardens

Leave Aberford centre via Cattle Lane (signed ‘Barwick 2’). Turn right after church in Barwick (signed ‘Potterton 1’). At t-junction turn right towards dead-end. Turn left along A64 (on cycle track) then soon right up a broad, unsurfaced track signed as the West Yorkshire cycle route. Turn left at road to pass to and through Thorner. At A64 turn left then soon right signed ‘Scholes 1’. Pass through village. At small green with tree in middle turn right signed ‘Leeds’, cross over road in front and straight down bridleway (Leeds Country Way). At metal barrier turn left to pass Shippen House Farm. Turn right in front of derelict outbuilding and pass through fieldgate to follow bridleway under M1 and over railway line (via gate). Push bike down hedged footpath then turn left at end towards Garforth. Take first left signed ‘Barwick 1¼ ’. Just after Laverack Cottage turn right down 2½-mile track to Aberford. Turn right in village, past almshouses then left at crossroads to Lotherton Hall. After visiting Hall turn right signed ‘Sherburn in Elmet 3½’ then first left (unsigned) to Saxton. In village bear left on Main St to pass church then turn left down Dam Lane. At t-junction with B1217 turn left (Church of St Mary is opposite Crooked Billet pub). Turn right to Aberford.

Note: To visit the Triumphal Arch follow the signed permissive Tarmac path that begins at Beech View off Cattle Lane in Aberford at the start of the ride. Return the same way to resume the circuit.

Map: here

Pubs:

The Black Swan, Barwick-in-Elmet, LS15 4JP. Tel 0113 281 3065
Orlando’s at The Buffers (restaurant and pub), Scholes, LS15 4AL. Tel 0113 273 2455
The Mexborough Arms, Thorner, LS14 3DX. Tel 0113 289 2316.
The Crooked Billet Inn, Saxton, LS24 9QN. Tel 01937 557389.
The Greyhound Inn, Saxton, LS24 9PY. Tel 01937 557202

End of ride rest in Aberford

End of ride rest in Aberford

Going for a quick Spen

Two of the Spen Valley’s fittest former residents come to mind on a bike ride along disused railway lines near Dewsbury.

The 'Rotate' artwork by Trudi Entwistleon the Spen Valley Greenway

The ‘Rotate’ artwork by Trudi Entwistleon the Spen Valley Greenway

Arthur Rogerson was racing cyclist and cycle dealer from Cleckheaton who, even at the age of 70, was regularly clocking up 200 miles a week. My daughter and I managed a meagre 10 miles near his hometown but can be sure that our route – while being familiar to Arthur – was one that he never followed. How come? We were pedalling along the Spen Valley Greenway and Ringway cycle tracks which, in Arthur’s heyday back in the mid-20th century, were railway lines.

The first of them – from Low Moor in Bradford to Mirfield – was built as a means of improving the transport of cloth and blankets produced in the area. It opened in 1848 to be followed in 1900 by another line down the Spen Valley connecting Leeds to Huddersfield. At the railway’s height there were two stations in Cleckheaton alone and five others in the vicinity. The last of them fell to Dr Beeching’s axe in 1963 and the final freight train ran through the valley two years later.

Sheep on the greenway

Sheep on the greenway

The track bed of the old railway was converted into part of the National Cycle Network in 2000. What this urban route inevitably lacks in scenery it more than makes up with in the form of artworks you pass along the way. Keeping the interest of young cyclists couldn’t be easier.

Columns of old wheel arches mark access points and discarded metal fittings have been transformed into monsters and seats. Other seats are set within metal hoops reflecting the wheels of bicycles and locomotives and a series of larger hoops you can cycle through comprise an artwork called ‘Rotate’. A theme to the ride is provided by the poem ‘Spring along the Greenway’ lines from which are displayed on the many bridges you pass under. Perhaps the best artwork, though, is the flock of 11 sheep. They may be made of rusting scrap steel with forged horns but their form is uncannily life like.

Fishing at the Ponderosa Centre

Fishing at the Ponderosa Centre

You can see the real thing at the Ponderosa Rural Therapeutic Centre & Rare Breeds Farm. It provides a great afternoon out and also assists local disabled and disadvantaged people with their personal development by involving them in looking after the animals. There are lots to see: wallabies, tapir, snakes, parrots, llamas, marmosets and iguanas among them. The staff are very friendly and give children the chance to handle some of the creatures. The 20-acre site includes a pond, picnic areas and outdoor play area and, from April, a new restaurant opens to cater for the 100,000 visitors per year.

Iguana at Ponderosa Centre

Iguana at Ponderosa Centre

If time allows at the end of your ride then you should also visit the Dewsbury Museum housed in a mansion within Crow Nest Park parts of which are thought to date back to the late 16th century. In the early 1800s the mansion was owned by John Hague who led one of the town’s leading textile firms and also established his own bank. The centrepiece of the museum is an excellent ‘Growing up in Dewsbury’ exhibition which tells the story of the childhood years of residents born in different decades. The very ordinariness of their tales and the insights they give into other lifestyles in other times makes them fascinating. An account of the death of a young Dewsbury man in the First World War and the way it was reported to his parents is particularly poignant. Upstairs is a recreation of a 1940s classroom and, next door, a ‘Toys will be Toys’ gallery.

Cafe in Crow Nest Park

Cafe in Crow Nest Park

My favourite display was dedicated to Eileen Fenton, a local school-teacher dubbed The Mighty Atom having become the first woman home in a cross channel swimming race in 1950. Newspaper cuttings recount her first swims in the indoor baths, training in the sea at Scarborough, being smeared in 7lbs of lanoline grease on the big day and her triumphant home-coming. You can also see the striking two-foot tall porcelain vase presented to her by the Mayor of Boulogne and the black swim suit she wore for the crossing.

It’s hard to decide whose feat was the more remarkable. Eileen’s or Arthur’s.

Fact file

Parking: Crow Nest Park, off Temple Rd in Dewsbury.

Distance: 10 miles.

Time: 1½ hours excluding stops (if with young child).

Map: Free leaflet and map available from Sustrans.

Wallabies at Ponderosa Centre

Wallabies at Ponderosa Centre

Directions: Leave the Park the way you entered and turn right on Temple Rd. Take first left onto Burgh Mill Lane. Cross over road at bottom and continue ahead. Pass through two stone posts and turn right to join Spen Valley Greenway. After a monster’s head made from scrap metal leave track via path to right. Cross the cobbles and continue ahead past bus garage on Station Rd. Turn left onto Station Lane then immediately left onto Market St to clock tower in Heckmondwike. Turn left onto Westgate (A638) and then right onto Greenside (signed to Spen Valley Ringway). Just after MacDonalds fork left onto Cook Lane and left again to join Ringway. You soon emerge in a new estate. Turn right onto road and ahead to return to route of old railway line. Eventually, track bears left, leading into Eddercliffe Crescent. Cross A638 (using island) and turn right along cycle lane beside road. Turn left onto Primrose Lane, pass under bridge and access Spen Valley Greenway via track on left. Once up on Greenway turn left and proceed for about 200 yards to find the metal sheep artwork. Return same way and keep going. Leave track at the same point as before (Station Rd) but, this time, turn right onto Station Lane by pushing bike across at traffic lights. Pass under bridge then take second left onto Smithies Lane following signs to Ponderosa Visitor Centre. Leave Centre via concrete path between two iron posts in car park. Follow it down over a bridge and, at a t-junction, of tracks turn left and then right to rejoin Greenway. Retrace route back to start.

Evening canal flit

Cycling in central Leeds at the end of a week in the office may not be your idea of fun but it should be if you’re heading out of the city on the Aire Valley towpath.

Bingley Five Rise Locks

Bingley Five Rise Locks

That’s what I did – and I have scarcely enjoyed an urban bike ride more. The 15½ mile route westwards to Bingley is packed with history, scenery and variety. What’s more it’s perfectly flat, well surfaced, traffic-free and requires no navigation which, if you’re anything like me, is a big plus. You basically hop on the bike at Granary Wharf close to Leeds railway station and keep pedalling.

A milestone at the start indicates 123 miles to Liverpool. The scale of this grand old industrial highway could not be more understated for the Leeds to Liverpool Canal is actually the longest man-made canal in Britain. It was the main trade and communication link with the outside world for Yorkshire, Lancashire, Greater Manchester and Merseyside making the Irish and North Seas connect with the national network of inland waterways.

Apperley Bridge

Apperley Bridge

Predictably, the route is punctuated with bridges, some on turntables. They are numbered as if part of a cherished collection which, today, they are. In total, the canal boasts 295 listed structures. You also never cycle far before a lock appears, sometimes as many as four times in quick succession. My favourites were at Dobson Locks which are overlooked by a neat little row of cottages. You pass over the water just twice – at Dowley Gap Locks and along an aqueduct.

Victoria Hall, Saltaire

Canalside properties are in all states of repair – new, old, converted and unoccupied. One of the first en route is the former Kirkstall Brewery which today is rather appropriately accommodation for students at the university. Shortly afterwards the blackened ruins of Kirkstall Abbey appear on the other side of the railway line.

On my ride canoodling couples then gave way to texting fishermen, the low hum of an electricity sub-station to the right of the towpath contrasting with the flapping of wings on water on the other. After Rodley fields become more commonplace than buildings. It’s hard to believe that so many cattle graze within a conurbation. An ideal spot to rest – which is at the nine-mile point – is the coffee shop within the marina at Apperley Bridge. This was formerly the site of an old boatyard where the boat used by Chay Blythe and John Ridgway to row across the Atlantic in 1966 was built.

Mural beside Oddy Lock, Leeds

Mural beside Oddy Lock, Leeds

Shortly afterwards I wanted to explore Saltaire, the model industrial village built by Titus Salt for the workers at his wool mill in the 1850’s. I popped up from the towpath as unsure of my bearings as a dazed meerkat. The tall chimney I had spotted from the canalside was, it transpired, out one of several in the vicinity and didn’t belong to Salts Mill as I’d thought. In fact, I was in Shipley and, after a quick tour of the one-way system, returned gratefully to the path.

After a mile or so the canal formed the bottom of a sort of gorge with towering mills on either side forming the walls. A-ha, this must be Salts Mills and, indeed, it was. In its hey-day the mill employed 2,500 workers. Today it houses a substantial collection of David Hockney paintings, a diner and some unusual shops and boutiques. The rest of the village is well worth exploration along with the Roberts Park, the finishing touch to the new community which opened in 1871. Close to a wonderfully quaint cricket pavilion stands a statue of Salt who, curiously, is standing facing away from his creation.

Salts Mill

Salts Mill

After my history lesson, I proceeded all the way to Bingley (where the cyclable section of the towpath ends) but it was barely worth it. Woods gave way to derelict industrial premises and the bypass swept down to join me. Dusk was falling as I stood at the station awaiting the train back to Leeds. I felt rather out of place among all the young girls with their high heels and little handbags. My night out was ending but theirs was about to begin.

Fact file

Sign near Armley Mills

Sign near Armley Mills

Distance: 15½ miles – but 2 miles less if you stop at Saltaire.

Time: 1½ hours excluding stops.

Trains: There are about four trains per hour between Bingley and Leeds (stopping at Saltaire and Shipley too). The fare is £2.20 for a single and the journey takes 20 mins.

Tips:

1. For a shorter, more rural ride start at Calverley Junction where there is a car park right beside the towpath.
2. Just after bridge no. 10 near Aireside Road in Shipley the path narrows considerably and gets bumpy. You’re better off cycling alongside the road that runs parallel for a few hundred yards.
3. For refreshment in Saltaire try the Boathouse Inn, idyllically situated on the banks of the Aire and signed from the path that leads up from the canal into the village.
4. Make sure you have a bell on your bike. You will need it!
5. To cycle along the towpath you need a permit from British Waterways. They are available, free of charge, from local British Waterways offices and can be downloaded from waterscape.com/cycling which also has many routes for canalside cycle rides.
6. The Aire Valley towpath is part of Route 66 on the Sustrans National Cycle Network. See sustrans.org.uk for detailed mapping.

Granary Wharf, Leeds

Granary Wharf, Leeds

A ride in the park

Harewood House

Harewood House

I had found a corner of Scotland just a few miles north of Leeds. In the valley below me a collie was harrying a flock of black St Kilda sheep while a Highland Cow lumbered slowly towards them, its ochre coat matching the colour of the copse behind. The scene was like a bucolic Christmas card – but without the snow.

It heralded the start of a short bike ride in and around the Harewood House estate. The presence of such non-indigenous sheep is not quite as strange as it may seem. At a time when new breeds were ousting them from their Hebridean homelands, St Kildas came into favour with the owners of large parklands in the south because of their distinctive, four-horned appearance. Had it not been for the existence of these parkland flocks the breed would not have survived into the mid-20th century. As recently as 1973 St Kildas were identified as being in danger of extinction.

The Harewood estate is an excellent place to explore by bike since there are plenty of paths, bridleways and tracks, all well signposted. You don’t need to have a mountain bike either. I had to get off and push up one steep stretch after Carr House but other than that it’s easy riding pretty much all the way.

New Bridge, Harewood

New Bridge, Harewood

Deep in the woods and rhododendrons, the ornate New Bridge gives you a hint of the architectural style of Harewood House. Which is just as well since the closest and only view of the House you get on this route is from about a mile away. The distance, however, doesn’t dull the grandeur and anyway the House and its bird garden is special enough to warrant a trip in its own right as I have discovered on several occasions.

Horses having been the only traffic on the first section of my route I was reluctant to make my way south down the busy Harrogate-Leeds road so chose instead a loop through the village of Wike. The facilities here extend no further than a long defunct green petrol pump outside the former wheelwright and a pair of stocks.

Eccup reservoir

Eccup reservoir

For a pub head to The Dexter in Alwoodley, the northernmost suburb of Leeds. This is Porsche and Mercedes country where electric gates are almost standard and the really posh people live in mock Tudor mansions. Chardonnay and Kyle would feel very at home here as would their footballing husbands on the adjacent golf course.

Back in the countryside I rested beside the largest expanse of water in West Yorkshire, Eccup Reservoir. With a name like that it could hardly be anywhere else. Constructed in 1897, the reservoir covers an area of 79 hectares and is a Site of Special Scientific Interest containing many stoats and chaffinches. Where I sat there was a little wooden jetty, small sandy beach and trees on the opposite shore that combined to make a scene as serene as the Lake District.

Harewood estate

Harewood estate

St Kildas were not the only rare breed I encountered. The valley next to the dam is a sanctuary for red kite, a bird of prey which became extinct as a breeding species 150 years ago but is now being re-introduced to the Harewood region in a joint initiative between English Nature and the RSPB. A crowd of twitchers stood on a wooden platform training their binoculars at the tree tops. Apparently, up to 25 birds can be seen in the air at pre-roost gatherings. Today there are just 300 pairs in total in the UK but back in the 16th century red kite abounded in cities in such numbers that they were considered vermin.

I re-entered the Harewood estate along an avenue of pines that cast a stripy shadow over the tarmac. Soon I was passing those sheep again. The hill which I swept down at the start would, indeed, have to be scaled but the additional effort was almost welcome after such a brief but enjoyable ride.

Deer at Harewood estate

Deer at Harewood estate

Distance: 13 miles.

Time: 1½ hours, excluding stops.

Parking: On Church Lane in Harewood which is roughly opposite The Harewood Arms.

Directions: Just after the Harewood Sports & Social Club (which is on Church Lane), enter Harewood estate down private road signed “Stank only”. At bottom of hill L to pass through farm buildings and gate signed Ebor Way and then over stream. Pass Carr House then steep uphill. R at t-junction of tracks then L at rhododendron bush and L down Leeds Country Way. Over New Bridge. On leaving Park straight over A61 to and through Wike. After Leeds Golf Centre R down Wike Ridge Lane. R down Wigton Lane in front of Dexter pub. R down Manor House Lane signed West Yorkshire Cycle Route. Cross back over A61 to Eccup Reservoir. L on bridleway, past Owlet Hall, then continue L on road to Eccup. In village fork R signed again for West Yorkshire Cycleway then onto Eccup Lane. Pass New Inn then fork L at telegraph pole. (It’s an easy turn to miss). Up steep hill then R at t-junction in front of wood. After bend to L turn R into Harewood signed “Private road to Harewood Yard”. Leave road to take track on R which becomes road back to Harewood.

Entering Harewood estate near Weardley

Entering Harewood estate near Weardley