Trailing around

New mountain bike trails opened this summer at Sutton Bank in the North York Moors.

Approaching High Barn

Approaching High Barn

My son, Bertie, 11, and I tried them out, combining two of the loops to make up a 10-mile circuit. We began with a quick zip around the Cliff Trail which has the easiest, green grading. Once or twice Bertie had to get off to push briefly but in general the track was, indeed, simple to negotiate and suitable for pretty much all ages. The three-mile route takes you through a still forest of fir trees, winding and gently undulating throughout. We could see where the forest floor had recently been removed to make way for the new gravel surface.

Emerging from the trees we found ourselves literally just a couple of hundred yards or so away from the visitor centre at the start. We turned away from it to pick up the 5½-mile blue Fort Trail, the main course after our aperitif. At Dialstone Farm we branched off onto a bridleway and then back onto the quiet road which you could always use as a more direct and smoother route from the centre.

The forest section at the start of the trail

The forest section at the start of the trail

Once the trail reaches the escarpment it really comes into its own with endless views views over the plain towards Boltby and Thirlby and beyond. As we rested on a sultry afternoon all we could hear was the clicking of crickets. Taking time to enjoy the vistas we continued as far as High Barn then began a dramatic descent of the escarpment. We passed the remains of an old quarry then stood up from our saddles and used our knees as extra suspension as we edged down through the bracken. A high bank protrudes into the middle of the scene like a watch tower.

At the section of the ride described on the map as the “Stairway to Heaven” the trail became something of a trial and we largely pushed our way back up the incline. A couple of far more professional-looking riders did the same, though, which made us feel better. “How was the red route?” I asked one of them. “Mega!” he simply replied, a broad smile across his face and mud spattered on his shorts. The red route takes you an additional – and demanding – 17½ miles around Boltby Forest and, for us, was best left to another day and probably another cyclist.

South Woods

South Woods

Back on the top of the escarpment we followed the route of the Cleveland Way back towards Gormire Lake and the visitor centre. Our mini-expedition concluded with a narrow, windy track through the trees which was great fun and reminded us of our initial green route. Before we set off home Bertie did endless loops of the new skill circuit which is targeted at much younger riders and novices but was being enjoyed by all ages.

Our verdict? The two trails we tried provide a great introduction to Sutton Bank especially for visitors with insufficient time to explore the region on foot and who have some experience of mountain biking. The Fort Trail has magnificent views but is a little uneven in places and the ascent from the bottom of the escarpment is challenging.

Making the grade

Bike hire is available

Bike hire is available

Adrian Carter, of Pace Cycles, which has assisted in the development of the cycle trails, says: “Sutton Bank offers the rare opportunity to adventure in the countryside on natural trails which are man-managed.

“The trails are all graded according to ability, and the surfaces prepared where necessary, so they’re suitable for everyone from the complete beginner to the most experienced mountain biker. With six road-cycling routes and many quiet country lanes we can offer something for both the road and off-road rider which we believe is unique for a trail centre in this country.”

Sutton Bank Bikes, which is based at the Sutton Bank National Park Centre, together with staff from the park have spent over two years developing more than 28 miles of dedicated trails around the centre, including three off-road trails, a skills park for younger children, six road routes, and a cycling shop including bike hire.

suttonbankbikes.co.uk

The skills loop at the Sutton Bank centre

The skills loop at the Sutton Bank centre

The other side of the tracks

I test-rode the Moor to Sea cycle route in the North York Moors just before it opened in 2004. I returned in June 2011 to try part of an extension to the route. 

View from Ingleby Incline Top

View from Ingleby Incline Top

It’s hard to know who deserves more credit: the engineers builders who built the original railway line or the national park wardens who have maintained it as a path. Either way, the route of the old Rosedale Railway that once carried iron ore is brilliant to cycle along. Sustrans would be proud of a cycle route as smooth and flat as this even if they’d built it from scratch.

On my Ordnance Survey map published in 1999 the ‘dismantled railway’ is indicated as a footpath. It’s since been upgraded to a bridleway and now, coinciding with the 150th anniversary of the railway’s opening, this cycling secret is completely out in the open as the North York Moors national park authority is promoting the route as an extension to its official Moor to Sea cycle route.

Descending towards Daleside Road

Descending towards Daleside Road

The full extension runs from Easby to the visitors centre in the mountain biking mecca of Dalby Forest and takes in 34-miles of serious undulation, all of it along existing public rights of way. I fancied a shorter circular route that gave me a flavour of the old railway along High Blakey Moor and the contrast of a return along the bottom of the Farndale valley. As I was to find out, my route was not without its challenges.

Everything began easily enough. I dropped down just a few metres from the car park and began pedalling on the broad cinder track that follows the route of the railway, through cuttings and on the top of an embankment. My gaze was almost always to the left, the sun spotlighting different details of the valley as it blinked in and out of the shifting clouds. Spectacular views stretched into and across Farndale as far as the 314m-high Bilsdale TV transmitter (which serves North Yorkshire and Co Durham) sticking out of the heather like a needle.

Approaching Bloworth Crossing

Approaching Bloworth Crossing

Bloworth Crossing marks the site of the level crossing for the railway at its junction with a former moorland road. The original routes have long gone, of course, but there was still some traffic in the form of resting cyclists. After that came Bransdale Moor – a site of Special Scientific Interest and home to grouse, merlin, curlew and adders – and then, at the top of Ingleby Incline the route suddenly came to a halt. Well, at least, it did for me. This was the point on the old railway where wagons were lowered and raised up the slope on a cable as it was so steep, 1 in 5 in places. The weight of the ore-laden wagons at the top was sufficient to pull up empty wagons from below. Sleepers buried deep within and stacked beside the track give a clue as to the site’s past. All that remains of the drum house which straddled the track at the top are piles of masonry and bricks bearing the manufacturer’s name, Hartley & Co of Castleford, with iron rods sticking out of them. The ruins are as forlorn as the carcass of a beached whale.

Ingleby Incline Top

Ingleby Incline Top

Rail workers and their families once lived here in four cottages nicknamed Little Siberia. The weather was anything but Siberian on the day of my visit, though, further enhancing the panorama. Moving from the moor tops to the edge of the Cleveland escarpment was like walking into a different room. A vast plain, as flat as a pancake, extended in front of me stretching north to the cooling towers of Middlesbrough and beyond. The bank’s left flank was cloaked in conifers and, on the far right of the picture, I could make out the distinctive dog-tooth, volcanic profile of Roseberry Topping.

I returned to Bloworth Crossing and then began my descent into Farndale. The signed bridleway leads directly across knee-high heather which made navigation somewhat challenging. Fortunately, though, I only had half-a-mile or so off-piste, the conditions were dry and it was downhill, precipitously in places.

Bridge over River Dove in Upper Farndale

Bridge over River Dove in Upper Farndale

I soon got my bearings courtesy of gully leading to a bridge which, I knew, must ultimately lead back to settlement and then spotted some reassuring mountain bike tracks. Still, it was a relief to reach a farm at the head of the valley and, moreover, the Tarmac road. The place has a wonderfully remote, end of the line-type feel. What a fabulous place to grow up – although it would be a long trip to school every day. As I looked over a field of overgrown grasses, willow herb, chickens and spring lambs all I could hear was gentle bleeting and the wind in the trees.

Further evidence of civilisation came in the form of High Farndale Methodist chapel. Remarkably and unlike most other remote churches, the chapel hasn’t been converted into a home. Notices announces occasional services – for the fishermen of Staithes and the annual shepherd’s festival plus, top of the bill, the chapel’s bicentary weekend. It seems odd that such a lonely church should exist so close to the village of Church Houses which, despite its name, doesn’t have a place of worship.

The village does, however, have a classy-looking pub with beer garden in the form of the Feversham Arms. I resisted the temptation, preferring to defer my reward to the top of the Alpine ascent out of the valley which lay ahead. If you can pedal all the way up – an ascent of 200 metres and a 1-in-5 gradient – then you are extraordinarily fit. I pushed and still needed a rest at a strategically placed bench half way up. I threw my head back, closed my eyes and let the breeze that had accompanied me all day cool my brow better than any air conditioning.

Young Ralph Cross

Young Ralph Cross

The grit boxes at regular intervals were a reminder of the hard winters that the North York Moors can experience. Last December the 16th century Lion Inn, perched on the summit ridge, was buried in a seven-metre snowdrift resulting in an eight-day lock-in for four staff, one dog and one unlucky (or perhaps lucky, depending how you loook at it) visiting couple.

My journey wasn’t quite over. I had some time left so explored two extra miles of the Moor to Sea extension which took me along the road to the Fat Betty cross and the Young Ralph Cross, the symbol of the North York Moors. Beside and on top of each were little heaps of offerings in the form of sweets, fruit or biscuits saved from hotel or B&B bedrooms. Some sort of wayfarers’ superstition, I guess.

As I finally pedalled back to the car I peered into the next valley – around which the Rosedale railway also snakes. I could make out the stone kilns on the far side looking like pigeon-holes and the remains of mine workings. More to see? Certainly – and possibly to cycle too (see panel) but not today. I was tired and the lure of a lager at the Lion was proving too much.

Bricks from drum house at Ingleby Incline Top

Bricks from drum house at Ingleby Incline Top

A brief history of the Rosedale Railway

The Rosedale Railways was opened in 1861 to transport ore from ironstone mines in Rosedale to the North Eastern Railway at Battersby Junction and on to Co Durham and Teesside for processing. Eventually 19 miles long, it was the second highest railway route in England. The rush to exploit the natural resources has been likened to Yorkshire’s Klondike with  the population of the area increasing five-fold in the first 15 years after ironstone mining began. The railway closed and the line was taken up in 1929 due to rising costs and the falling value of iron. For more information download the excellent heritage trail leaflet from www.bit.ly/n3IKHQ and for a feature from the Yorkshire Post about the ongoing preservation of the railway see http://www.bit.ly/nQoFLF.

Riding the rest of the railway

As you’ll see if you visit, the Rosedale Railway also extends along both sides of the Rosedale valley which runs parallel to Farndale although no public right of way is marked. Karl Gerhardsen, head of recreation and access of the North York Moors national park authority explains:

“It is possible to cycle along these sections of the railway and we have a concessionary access agreement with the landowners. But it’s very challenging in parts due to subsidence and excessive water coming down onto the old track-bed leaving in one stretch an area of 1m-deep bog over the former line.  Last November we did manage to get a contractor’s machine in to restore some of the moorland drains above the line so the ground is already drying out.  We anticipate a few years yet before we can go back in to clear the old line but funding constraints may prevent us from making much more progress.”

Route from Bloworth Crossing towards descent to Farndale

Route from Bloworth Crossing towards descent to Farndale

Fact file

Distance: 14 miles for the loop plus four miles there and back to the crosses.

Parking: Small free car park just south of the Lion Inn, Blakey, on the Hutton-le-Hole to Castleton road at the junction with a minor road to Church Houses.

Map: here

Directions: Cross the road, descend a few yards towards Church Houses then turn right to pick up the old railway route. Continue ahead and through a gate at Bloworth Crossing. At the top of Ingleby Incline don’t descend but pass through a green metal gate. Follow a grassy track as it bears right and right again. At a more substantial stoned track turn right and return to Bloworth Crossing. Here continue ahead and cross a stream. Look out for a blue waymarker on the left after about 100 yards. Push and lift your bike across the heather (there is no discernable path) in the direction of the arrow passing between grouse buts. After half a mile just as the gradient increases head towards a gate within a wall which is a few yards from a gully. Keep the stream on your left as you cross a grassy area. Pass to the left of a pair of old stone gateposts and follow a yellow waymarker as the bridleway bears left to cross the stream via a large wooden bridge. Continue in a 1 o’clock direction towards a yellow waymarker about 80 yards away. Pass between two gateposts and, later, a wooden gate. Just before a large barn bear right and descend to the stream as waymarked. Bear right around a field corner, proceed through the trees and cross an old stone bridge. Bear right and up then turn sharp right through a gate along a grassy track (‘Daleside Road’) which is walled on the right. At Elm House Farm the track becomes a Tarmac road which takes you to Church Houses. In the village turn left then immediately left again (and sharply up) to return to the car. To visit the two crosses turn left at the t-junction and follow the road for two miles. Take care: cars travel fast. Fat Betty is marked as ‘White Cross’ on the map and is a right turn off the road just before Young Ralph Cross.

Note: The route is challenging, requires a mountain bike and is not suitable for children.

Feversham Arms, Church Houses

Feversham Arms, Church Houses

Refreshments
The Feversham Arms Inn, Church Houses. 01751 433206.
The Lion Inn, Blakey. 01751 417320.
The Daffy Café, High Mill, Church Houses. 01751 430363. Open 9am-5pm Fri-Sun in Feb and May-Sept plus bank holiday Mondays in March and April.

Making tracks

Paul Kirkwood swaps his touring bike for a mountain bike to test ride some new trails in the North York Moors.

Bridge and berm in Dixon's Hollow

Bridge and berm in Dixon’s Hollow

I set off from home for this bike ride without a bicycle or map but with lots of bananas. On the day the Tour de France came to Britain I was bound for Dalby Forest to explore trails that opened in April. I spotted another banana muncher in the car park and, once kitted out with a mountain bike and helmet, I looked the part. That illusion was quickly shattered as I started the first ascent up the red route. It was very rough and steep. I was pushing the bike up the bumpy bits as well as down them. Suddenly the idea of completing the full 23-mile ‘challenging’ red circuit looked optimistic let alone within the prescribed four hours. Signs marked ‘Escape Route’ were reassuring.

On the Clenfield Rigg section of the route I was right up in the tree tops – as high as the climbers I’d spotted earlier on the Go Ape! high wire adventure course. A sign for a black trail said ‘If in doubt, stay out’; I didn’t need a second bidding. The origin of some names on the map was a mystery. Whatever it meant ‘Jerry Noddle’ wouldn’t be a doddle, ‘Oblivion’ sounded like a stretch best left for another day and quite why a trail was named ‘E13 London Borough of Islington’ was completely beyond me. ‘The Tunnel’ – which I did cycle down – was self-explanatory. The branches of the trees met above a gloomy trail, the stillness making it all the spookier.

Red Trail

Red Trail

Deep among the pines the only sound I could hear was the occasional swish-swish of tyres approaching from behind. I got out of the way and let the riders pass. I did overtake once, though, and after successfully juddering down three steps. “Oh, don’t mind me. I’m just here for the view,” said the other cyclist. But that’s perhaps the drawback with serious mountain biking in my view: you’re so busy staring at the ground below to make sure you don’t come a cropper that you dare not lift your head to look at the surroundings.

The Dixon’s Hollow freeride cycle skills park was the perfect place for a rest and sandwiches. It was created from a three-acre disused quarry and 350 tons of old stone and building material that form its features. I watched the experts swooping and swinging their way up and down ramps, round banked turns – or ‘berms’, to use the lingo – and over and under bridges.

Action in Dixon's Hollow

Action in Dixon’s Hollow

All the talk at the Hollow was of Glentress, another Forestry Commission mountain biking centre in the Scottish Borders that’s popularity was an inspiration for the Dalby Forest’s purpose-built trails. Extending over 34 miles and costing £405,000, they now form England’s biggest mountain biking network and may be used by bikers preparing for the 2012 Olympics. The routes – which are have been designed in the shape of a clover leaf – allow riders to tackle the network in four sections. A fifth section will be added if further funding is secured. The trails have a natural feel since, wherever possible, they to follow the contours of the dale and rigg terrain.

Sculpture in playground beside visitors' centre

Sculpture in playground beside visitors’ centre

After the rigours of the morning I was quite happy to drop down to the green trails for a while. At last: easy riding. The trees inevitably limited views but, as I was to find out, provide ample shelter from a shower. After a while, though, I got bored of waiting for the downpour to stop and set off down the blue trail. My glasses as goggles and as gleefully gung-ho as a child, I hurtled down the hill wishing my arms came with more in-built suspension as the handlebars vibrated violently in my fists.

Turning a corner suddenly everything was still. I was in the bosom of the valley and soon back at the car park with all the other muddy bottoms. It hadn’t been my usual sort of leisurely bike ride along country lanes but had been a tremendous adventure.

Dalby Forest Visitors Centre

Dalby Forest Visitors Centre

With time to spare I had went for a wander. Behind the bike hire centre is a new courtyard with café, workshops, offices and a community room. The new £2.6m eco-friendly visitors’ centre is another notable addition to the village. Clad in wood, the centre looks and feels like the new building at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park near Wakefield and, in keeping with it, includes an interesting display of cycling-related paintings by local artists Helen Shore and Aydon Aspin, art teacher and design studio manager respectively. There’s a shop there too and a restaurant with fine views over the adventure playground and beyond to the trees.

So which grade of ride should you chose? Blacks are strictly for experts only. If you have a sense of adventure, good fitness and some experience of mountain biking then go for the red routes. They take you into corners of the forest that you would never normally see and present a real challenge. At the other end of the scale, green routes are as well surfaced and easy to traverse as canal towpaths and perfect for families. Choosing something in between gives you a taste of both types of terrain plus a small sense of achievement but without having to get off and push too often. For me, I’ve decided, blue is the colour.

Red Trail

Red Trail

Fact file

Into the woods

Into the woods

Parking: Car park at Low Dalby. It’s free – but there is a toll to enter the Forest.

Distance: 13 miles – for my route.

Bike hire: Bike Hire, Low Dalby. www.dalbybikebarn.co.uk.

Map: Buy a map showing all the trails from above.

Directions: You can compile your own route from the trail map. It’s easy to combine trails of different grades and find ways of extending or curtailing your route as you go along. The trails are well signed too. I followed the red route clockwise from Low Dalby then switched to the green route from Dixon’s Hollow to Givendale Head Farm and finally the blue route to the south-west and back alongside Dalby Beck.

Refreshments: Café at Dalby Courtyard and Treetops Restaurant at visitors’ centre, both in Low Dalby.

Bike hire centre (now run by Dalby Bike Barn), Low Dalby

Bike hire centre (now run by Dalby Bike Barn), Low Dalby