Explore the industrial past of Wakefield and the ‘village of the mansions’ on this varied, partly off-road ride.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Distance: 11½ miles.
Time: 2 hours.
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.
The Kings Arms, Heath.
Heath Tea Rooms, Heath.
The Cock & Crown, Crofton.
The Stanley Ferry, Aire & Calder Navigation.