West Riding

Explore the industrial past of Wakefield and the ‘village of the mansions’ on this varied, partly off-road ride.

Heath House, Heath

Heath House, Heath

Less than two miles from a former industrial city, a stone’s throw from a sewage works and bound by a triangle of railway lines (albeit one disused), the village of Heath might appear not to have a lot going for it. In fact, it is one of the greatest hidden secrets of Yorkshire. I’ve lived in and explored the county by bike since 1994 but only came across the place two years ago when I read about a walk there. I’ve since been back twice on foot and now also on the bike for this intriguing ride.

I began with a scoot around the village. It is unusual in many respects. The green is vast – more of a field really – and there is no church as a focul point or, indeed, a church of any description in the village at all. Instead the eye is drawn towards the numerous 18th century mansions sited around the edge of the green rather than hidden away down long drives as is customary. Why? The original residents, merchants and businessmen, wanted their wealth to be apparent. Heath became a sort of latter day equivalent of a millionnaire’s row.

The King's Arms, Heath

The King’s Arms, Heath

I past horses grazing on the common among the gorse bushes, over a main road and then off-road again under a railway viaduct (the first bridge of many). My route threaded between two areas of water which could’ve been the remnants of recent flooding but turn out to be the disused and overgrown Barnsley Canal and a stream. The landscape opened up and I came to some benches which, on a warmer day would be the ideal spot for a picnic. A Canada goose, more than familiar with pausing cyclists and walkers, approached me with a nod of its head as if to say: “Come on, then. Let’s see your pockets.”

I was in Walton Colliery Nature Park which provides a very different impression to Heath of the region’s place in history. Dating back to 1890, the colliery once employed over 1,500 men and produced 2,200 tonnes of coal every day. It closed in 1979. All traces of industry have long since been wiped from the map. Spoil heaps were covered with top soil excavated to create water features during the park’s creation in the mid-1990s. A little further on, in New Sharlston, I passed a row of miners’ cottages for another former pit just to the east of the village and commemorated by a red pit wheel at the roadside.

Walton Colliery Nature Park

Walton Colliery Nature Park

Only a mile – and, inevitably, another railway crossing – later I suddenly dived back into country house territory. These days most visitors visit to the hamlet of Goosehill for its boarding cattery but a century ago they would have come this way for Newland Hall. A pair of pillars either side of today’s bridleway and an old lodge give a hint of the sort of place this would have been. The grand 54-bedroom hall was built in 1740 and demolished due to its poor condition in 1920. All that remains are the ruins of the stable block and a post-war house. You can cycle past lagoons right up to the ruins if you like since the tracks are public rights of way. Off limits, however, is a mysterious giant slab of concrete, a remnant of a brickworks built next to a colliery that belonged to the last owners of the Hall.

The surface had been pretty good to this point but, once Newland was behind me, it deteriorated and became a bridleway better suited to riders on horseback than wheels. It was hard work pushing my bike through the mud but, thankfully, the road was near. On a dry day and on a mountain bike I expect you’d be able to cycle all the way and that would also be possible if you fancied balancing on a path of boulders with dips in their middle from centuries of boots. To my right I could see a mish-mash of towers: two chimneys, a church with steeple in Normanton and an electricity pylon, a combination which somehow reflects the split personality of this region.

Aire & Calder Navigation

Aire & Calder Navigation

At Stanley Ferry I dropped down to the canal – or the Aire and Calder Navigation to be more precise. I was again reminded of how my route would be even better in the summer by the tables outside the pub. Still, I was not tempted, knowing that I had a café treat awaiting me back in Heath. I love cycling along canals and past merrily painted narrow boats; I just wished this stretch continued for longer. The day’s final water course of the day was the River Calder spanned by an eye-catching blue steel pipe bridge with timber decking and my final bridge passed below the railway. That made three unders and five overs in all. The route finally skirted the Ashfields, a former lagoon into which pulverised fuel ash was piped from Wakefield power station. In the 1950s the power station was a blot on the landscape viewed from Heath Old Hall. Both have since been demolished but, as I was reminded on a final circuit of the green, the mansion is not perhaps missed as much here as it would’ve been in other villages.

Back at the start I burst into the immaculate Heath tea rooms and into another world. Cocooned from the cold, gusty wind all was calm and serene. A heart-shape of electric candles glowed over a mirror and and modern art hung over another wall. Four couples looked up silently from their Sunday papers and I recoiled to remove some layers and my muddy shoes as discreetly as possible. The café iPod played Pennies from Heaven. Heaven, indeed.

The blue bridge over the River Calder

The blue bridge over the River Calder

Fact file

Distance: 11½ miles.

Time: 2 hours.

Directions:

Walton Colliery Nature Park

Walton Colliery Nature Park

Park in a free car park on the right just as you enter Heath. Turn left out of the car park to pick up signs for National Cycle Network Route 67 signed to Walton South. Cross over the A638, over a rail bridge then turn left and off road, still following Route 67 signs, under a large viaduct and into the Walton Colliery Nature Park. The cycle route leads to and runs alongside the railway line. Just before the road turn left, over a bridge and onto a concessionary path. After about 200 yards as the path bears left branch off right to the road. Turn left on the road, under a viaduct, and into Crofton.

Take first left up Brand Hill Drive then left at the end. At t-junction with A638 turn right and then left at a crossroads beside the Cock & Crown pub and past the war memorial. At the t-junction with the A645 in Sharlston Common turn right then soon left up Crossley St to Warmfield. In the village turn right then immediately left up Warmfield Lane. Turn right down Goosehill Lane. At the end of the lane past between two pillars, over the railway, over an anti-motorcycle box and pick up the signs for the Transpennine Trail. Faced with a choice of three tracks take the one on the right (still signed for the Trail) and over another anti-motorcycle box. Cross over a Tarmac road beside a large concrete area and descend towards the lagoons following the bridleway sign for Birkwood Rd. Bear right at the lagoons and keep following the bridleway due north to the road, emerging opposite a farm near Normanton.

Turn left signed to Stanley Ferry. Just before the canal fork down to your left to pass through an open gravelled area, over a bridge and onto the towpath along the eastern side of the canal. After a lock cross the River Calder by the blue pipe bridge and pass under a railway bridge. Bear left at a signed for the Ashfield circular walk. At a second sign for the walk turn left down a steep slope and up a short incline and through a green width restriction. Turn sharp right to reach Kirkthorpe Lane. At the lane turn right to return to Heath.

Old pit wheel, Sharlston

Old pit wheel, Sharlston

Map: here

Eating:Heath Tea Rooms_4_1

The Kings Arms, Heath.
Heath Tea Rooms, Heath.
The Cock & Crown, Crofton.
The Stanley Ferry, Aire & Calder Navigation.

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Tour de Pontefract

On 31st August 96 cyclists will pedal from Bradford to Harrogate to Sheffield in less than five hours in the Tour of Britain race. Paul Kirkwood road tested part of the route at a more leisurely pace.

Steeton House Gatehouse

Steeton House Gatehouse

The press release made me question the wisdom of my idea to sample the Yorkshire section of Tour of Britain course. “The day’s racing looks set to be the toughest stage of the race with riders facing the prospect of barely one stretch of flat road all day”. Ooh, err. Not quite what I had in mind. A check of the route map, however, revealed a stretch from South Milford that neither had hills nor was on main roads. So, with legs most definitely unshaven, wearing an old football shirt and shorts and with not a single out-rider in sight, I set off.

The start of the route was certainly flat enough. Flat as a pancake, in fact. The view encompassed agriculture and industry. In between Eggborough and Ferrybridge power stations to my left and right respectively were fields of potatoes nearly ready for harvest.

Birkin church

Birkin church

The Hungry Fox pub came into view in front of me as I crossed the bridge over the River Aire. Now there’s a name to tease the Tour cyclists. The Spread Eagle in Darrington will add to the torment. There they will come across a feed station; it will be water only for the racers, no doubt, but a glass of beer with lunch for spectators.

All round the route there were signs warning of road closures on race day. The one in Darrington was attached to a bus stop – as if to suggest a less energetic way of proceeding. The cyclists will cover the 13 miles of route that I had tried in about half-an-hour and still have the prospect of the “gruelling hills” of the Peak District to come as part of their marathon day. It was time for me to say goodbye to my virtual companions and head off on my own route to complete a circular ride back to the start.

My first stop was Pontefract. All Saints Church sits peculiarly within ruins of a previous church that was demolished after the Civil War and gives a hint of the history next door at Pontefract Castle. Built in the 11th century, it was the principal royal castle in the north of England and is most noted for being the place where Richard II met his death. He was slain, if you believe Shakespeare. Other kings to hold court at Pontefract included Henry VII, Henry VIII, James I and Charles I.

All Saints Church, Pontefract (landscape)_1_1

All Saints Church, Pontefract

As a result of its demolition immediately after the Civil War not much remains of the castle with the notable exception of the fascinating medieval cellar beneath the bailey. The castle’s custodian, Maxine Hepworth, gave me a tour. She removed two padlocks and swung open the horizontal iron doors and then we descended the stone steps into the cool darkness.

Pontefract Castle cellar

Pontefract Castle cellar

Dating back to Norman times, the cellar is 28 metres long, eight metres at its widest point and nine metres below current ground level. Not all of its uses are known but it was definitely a prison for Parliamentarians during the Civil War. You can see where they etched their names into the sandstone walls, most commonly beside the steps as that was one of the few areas of the cellar that saw some daylight. There are 49 signatures and initials in all including an ominous gallows sketch. Maxine pointed out two small recesses in the wall where, she explained, chains had been attached. “Oh, were they to hold the captives?” I asked eagerly. “No,” she said, “just to secure bottles of wine from pilfering servants when the cellar was a wine store.” The cellar was probably also used to keep gunpowder and, in the 18th century, was a liquorice store at the time when the plant was grown within the bailey.

Carving in cellar of Pontefract Castle

Carving in cellar of Pontefract Castle

So large, perfectly flat and green, the bailey would make a great bowling green which, in fact, it did in Victorian times. The Victorians also used the area for a tennis court and converted the castle grounds into a folly gardens with little rustic bridges. The trees growing within the perimeter are a legacy of this incarnation. More recently, in 1943, the castle served as a mortuary for those killed when a Lancaster bomber crashed into cottages in Darrington.

I’d never been to Pontefract town centre before but it was also well worth a visit. Transistor radios in market stalls crackled with commentary from matches on the opening day of football season as I admired the stunning Victorian market hall, town hall and buttercross, a shelter erected in 1734 for people selling dairy produce. My only disappointment was that I couldn’t find any Pontefract cakes.

Swan at Fairburn Ings Nature Reserve

Swan at Fairburn Ings Nature Reserve

On the sharp descent into Castleford I triggered the 30mph speed warning signs. I had achieved Tour of Britain pace if only momentarily. My next stop was to the north of the town – at the RSPB’s Fairburn Ings Nature Reserve. Its areas of open water were formed as a result of subsidence of coal workings and a third of the site was developed from 26 million cubic metres of colliery spoil. Initially, though, the reserve attracted me as a shelter from the rain. From the visitor centre a 500-metre boardwalk takes you through the trees and bushes and across the wetlands and a fen meadow to a hides and a pond dipping platform. Kevin the Kingfisher features on information boards that guide children. At a busy feeding station I watched coat tit, blue tit, great tit and willow tit and heard a greater spotted woodpecker. If you have the time there are longer trails elsewhere in the reserve.

Until recently Fairburn was a village of two halves, separated by the A1. Since its re-routing to the east all is strangely calm. A wound has become a scar. I have no desire to become a King of the Mountains but it was almost a relief to encounter relief on the last leg of my journey away from the village. At the start I had passed straw rolled into reels but hereabouts the views are of bales, stacked five deep, like towers in those stacking games but not as precarious.

Back in South Milford, I visited Steeton Hall Gatehouse. Today it leads to a private house but originally it lead to a medieval castle, the vast amount of which has now disappeared. Part of the building was later used as a pigeon loft. Understated places like this – not to mention Pontefract Castle – make you realise how incredibly old England is.

All that history and all those birds. The Tour of Britain boys won’t know what they’re missing.

Pontefract market

Pontefract market

Fact file

Distance:  29 miles/3 hours excluding stops.

Parking: On street in South Milford.

Tour of Britain sign near Birkin

Tour of Britain sign near Birkin

Directions: Leave South Milford travelling eastwards. Cross over roundabout signed to Monk Fryston. Turn L in village towards Crown Inn then R signed to Beal. At t-junction in front of Hillam Gdns turn L then first R. Pass through Birkin still following signs to Beal. After bridge in village bear L down Marsh Lane which becomes Broad Lane. Turn R at t-junction and bear L to leave village signed Kellingley. Turn R onto A645 then immediately L signed Cridling Stubbs. Turn R at t-junction signed Knottingley. Straight over crossroads signed Darrington. Turn L at roundabout then R at t-junction to pass under A1. Pass through village then at temporary traffic lights turn R up Marlpit Lane to enter Pontefract. Go over a crossroads and at t-junction with A645 turn R then immediately L in front of semi-ruined church. Turn first R down Mill Dam Lane then L at mini-roundabout and under two bridges to enter Castleford. At t-junction at top of hill turn L then first R and immediately L again up Red Hill Drive. Turn L at t-junction with Queens Park Drive. turn R up A656, continue ahead over next roundabout and bridge. After 1½ miles turn R signed Fairburn Ings. In Fairburn turn L in front of Wildgoose Gallery. At end of road cross over the disused old A1, follow a short footpath and continue ahead down Rawfield Lane. Go across the A63 signed Lumby and pass through hamlet. Turn R at t-junction to return to South Milford. To find Steeton Gatehouse take first L in village then L again for 300m.

Refreshments: A nice spot for a mid-morning rest is Beal Locks. The Darrington (in Darrington) is a large, modern family pub ideal for lunch.

Map: Ordnance Survey Landranger 105: York.

Beal Locks

Beal Locks