Mini Tour de Yorkshire
29th - 31st October 2019
 

Yorkshire famously embraced the 2014 Tour de France depart and ever since there has been a growing acknowledgement of the fervour for cycling in the region. In the open stages, over Butter Tubs Pass, we witnessed a unique expression of ‘Yorkshire hospitality’ and this cycling-love led to the establishment of the Tour de Yorkshire with a burgeoning amateur road cycling culture sprung up alongside.

To nod to the recent history alone would be to do overlook the fact that the north of England has seen cycling thriving over many years, from Manchester (Velodrome, British Cycling) to Preston (Ribble cycles) and York (the CTC York Rally, Est. 1945). Modern-day York has excellent cycling lanes and bike shops serving the university population. There is a real charm about cycling around its city walls, through its parks and along the river all on dedicated cycling lanes – an experience closer to cycling in the cities of Belgium or the Netherlands, arguably unparalleled in other British cities.

Like the Netherlands and Belgium, York is generally flat but becomes gently hilly further out of town. You have to go quite a long way out to get to the Moors or Dales and it is not until you’re on those rolling climbs, with thirty plus miles in your legs, that the extremities of your gears really dawn on you. Over a three-day tour, the challenge of elevation in the Dales is off-set by the exhilarating views and cosy towns. In addition to the iconic Butter Tubs Pass between Wensleydale and Swaledale, there are several sweeping moor top views and glorious descents down to villages which serve as ideal pilgrimages or resting spots along route. Many shops are still adorned with cycling paraphernalia from communities welcoming past races.

It was off the back of a school Geography trip to the North Yorks moors that I got a flavour for Yorkshire life and was reminded again that there is so much more to explore here. So, in October half term, I took my bike on a three-day tour with the aim of discovering the countryside, sampling the eateries and linking up historic sights previously glimpsed from the bus window. It didn’t take much research or planning in advance. It really only boiled down to linking all the green bits on Google maps and booking three nights of accommodation.

Over the three days, I travelled between three towns: York, Richmond and Ripon. Two of these were circular rides and for the other, I took the train between the finish and start points. This wasn’t bike touring with paniers and saddlebags. Since it was Autumn, I preferred to take the car and keep all the overnight provisions, warm clothing and bike repair kit in the boot. I managed to cycle with minimal weight and fortunately had no punctures, even though the road surfaces were sketchy at times and my back tyre now looks like something out of a museum.

As it was October, the daylight closed in from around 4:30pm, so I had to keep the distances realistic. I think 50-60 miles a day is achievable by most cyclists despite the hilly terrain, which leaves a little time for lunch stops, rests and photo opportunities too. To ease the flow of the ride, I recommend travelling with a GPS device and downloading your route each day. I consulted my phone with Google maps at other times, such as when I wanted to re-route or explore the area in closer detail. Often Garmin tends to make up names, like: “Alley” for a lane or, “Unpaved road” for a perfectly-surfaced road. Just occasionally, I want to know where I am and what it is actually called.

I cannot recommend these three distinct regions strongly enough for cycling. Taken together, this tour ticked all the boxes for beautiful scenery, iconic climbs, friendly people, excellent food, hospitality, historic cities, towns and villages, and a definite sense of cycling culture and history which helped to make a two-wheeled pilgrim feel welcome.

Day 1: York to Northallerton, through the Howardian Hills.
After a proper Yorkshire breakfast at the 23 St Mary’s Guest House in York (www.23stmarys.co.uk/) I started the day by driving to Northallerton, parking up and taking the train back to York. I was told it was necessary to reserve a cycle place on the TransPennine Express in advance, which I duly did over the phone, but in the event no one asked to see my ticket let alone questioned the bike contained in the only viable space in the carriage: the (empty) wheelchair space. It was only two stops so hopefully it didn’t offend.

Arriving at York station, I visited the adjoining bike shop, Cycle Heaven, who recommended their flagship store a mile along the river. This turned out to be an impressive operation in an industrial brick building with the store on two floors specialising in Cannondale, Brompton and they even had made-up Condor bicycles which was surprising to see outside London. I bought a cycling GPS computer as an upgrade to my old Garmin 500 and sat in the café fumbling over the set-up and finally set out on the journey irresponsibly late – it was going to get dark by the time I got to the highest and remotest point of the route above Osmotherley and I only wish I’d recharged my lights.
 

Despite my late start, on the way I found time to stop at Kirkham Abbey, Castle Howard, Helmsley (Lunch at Mannion & Co. an excellent café, bakery and deli (www.mannionandco.co.uk/index.html), and it turned out there was at least one advantage of leaving tardily: the golden hour coincided with arguably the most scenic part of the route: the moors.

Here, pheasants ran out of just about every thicket and sheep grazed in idyllic fields, small heather fires cast a purple-blue smoky haze over the lower valleys, making the whole experience of blissful isolation all the more atmospheric. Cycling over the moors offered the challenge of steep ascents out of gravelly, darkening fords with the eventual reward of some flatter moor tops with the inevitable long descent back to civilization over cattle grids, all with massive views albeit a few rather hairy moments with incoming 4x4 vehicles returning with their grouse.

Back home, I felt I needed to educate myself about countryside matters, so found this interesting article about ‘conservation’ and heather burning – an occasionally controversial topic, especially in light of the increasing environmental concerns over biodiversity: https://www.gwct.org.uk/advisory/briefings/driven-grouse-shooting/heather-burning/

Day 2: Richmond loop: Swaledale and Wendsleydale.

I stayed the night in a pleasant B&B in Richmond (Strawberry House) where I finally worked out the Garmin, since its various training data fields and confusing Connect App meant I didn’t manage to set it up properly for Day 1: this took me until 2am. In hindsight, I learnt that the Buttertubs pass is easier the other way around, so I had to convince myself to be really proud for doing it backwards; for conquering the 25% gradient that gets you up there much more urgently from Swaledale – put it this way, I wasn’t going to beat any KOMs. It’s a decent ride out from Richmond: the road gently follows the valley to Reeth, a relatively buzzing, outdoors-loving town, which serves as a gateway to the Dales and sits at the confluence of Arkle Beck and Swale. You climb out of the town, past the families of hikers and follow the narrower Swale valley, then leave the River Swale at Muker and begin the lonely 285m ascent.

It’s worth stopping at the Buttertubs limestone formations near the top to see where farmers used to store their butter to keep it cool on the way to market. Be careful as it’s not particularly safe to get too close to the 60ft drop wearing cycling shoes. Nevertheless, it’s a grand view down into the Swale valley.

After an exciting descent to a sun-lit Wensleydale, I stopped at Hawes for lunch. The café stop (The Folly) was quaint, but strangely didn’t stock any Wensleydale cheese. I had to be content with a cheddar and pickle sandwich which I childishly dipped in broccoli soup – it was difficult to contain myself from a Wallace and Gromit style rant along the line of, ‘you don’t travel all the way here to have cheddar’ but it helped that they were a very friendly, locally-favoured establishment who served a hearty brew and also had an efficient Wi-Fi signal. All which was enough to get me home.

On the return journey, the Aysgarth Falls were scenic but, like the gift shops by the bridge, were a little underwhelming – this may have simply reflected my mood, being at the bottom of the valley. From there, it was a generally a broad and chunky set of climbs from Wensley to Leyburn and up to the Catterick Infantry Training hills above Richmond. At this high vantage point, I followed a fairly busy trunk road which had frequent signs concerning tanks emerging from the woods which entertained me, but the absence of actual tanks, in the end, disappointed. Was it tanks that I’ve been looking for? No. I ground the pedals dutifully towards home and the view opened up downwards into the valley. Once again, a glorious run into the finish at the end of a sore day helped to remind that you can go quite fast on a bike.

Geography fact of the day:
Wensleydale
is one of the few valleys in the Yorkshire Dales which takes its name from a village (Wensley), rather than the river (the Ure) which flows along it (although the valley has in past times also been known as ‘Uredale’, or even by the Norse name of ‘Yoredale’.

Day 3: Ripon loop: Nidderdale AONB

This was the original plan - to see town and country - but it didn’t materialise on a day when I had tired legs and had reached a peak experience by midday with the beautiful views down into Lofthouse. Additionally, rather than the advertised start at Ripon, I began the day in North Stainley because the accommodation (Old Coach House https://www.oldcoachhouse.info/) was cosy and inviting – the hosts were exuberantly friendly too.

After the third cooked breakfast in three days, I headed straight into Nidderdale AONB, studiously skirting around Masham with its Black Sheep Ale and allure of yet another visit to a café which a friendly lady in Grewelthorpe recommended. When I set out, I presupposed that to see Harrogate would be over-indulgent if just knackering to cycle back from. Although Harrogate has plenty of cycling kudos – with the 2014 Tour de France passing through twice – I would likely waste time in cafés and shops when I needed to get back to see Ripon in the daylight. So, I gladly re-routed and chopped 10 miles off, creating an easy sportive route (shown in orange/red on the map). I have no shame in saying that this was probably the most pleasant day of the trip.


 

The stretch between Healey and Lofthouse included the main climb of the day, Pott Bank, which takes you above Leighton reservoir and up over Pott Moor. The gradient down into Lofthouse was brutal for the pair of cyclists coming up the other side, and for whom I decided to stop out of courtesy. Luckily, they were just taking a breather and it was also near a point where there was a wonderful panoramic view of the whole valley which I felt very fortunate to have sun-lit before me: a myriad of stone-walls over green dales and distant reservoirs along which my route would take.

The proceeding run along Gouthwaite Reservoir was not unlike riding in the Lake District and the flat valley floor all the way to the lunch stop at Pateley bridge gave respite. It transpired that Pateley Bridge high street is popular in editions of the Tour de Yorkshire where the riders race down knowingly towards a gruelling climb, Greenhow Hill. Half way up the high street, I was pleased to stop at the sweet heART tea rooms (https://sweethearthouse.co.uk/ - emphasis on the ‘art’ noted). They served a mean raspberry and almond cake and practically insisted on Yorkshire Tea. Here, I sat in the window seat with a framed O.S. map – arguably art - on the wall. As I studied the contours, my mind was made up: I would take the flattest and most direct route home. I say ‘flattest’, but this would start with a hefty climb up the evocatively titled ‘Blazefield bank’. In a blaze, I took off for home.

Once up the top again, this time on broad lowland hills rather than moor, there was a delightful transition down to Ripon via Sawley, Fountains Abbey and Studley Park, a deer park which offered a fantastic finale to the trip. As you turn into the park, you realise that the long drive lined with oak trees gives a superb vista of Ripon Cathedral – my destination. Speeding among the autumnally ancient yet manicured scene, I overtook day-trippers who had slowed to admire a crossing stag, I could help but play a game of chicken with a slowly approaching 4x4 through an arch, and proceeded to fly down to the city of Ripon through ceremonial gates and over the final cattle grid.

The cathedral provided an impressive backdrop to the end of the trip and, after a quick photoshoot, I would have just 4.4 miles to get back to the car in North Stainley. There was no other way to approach this than as a time trial – which on flattish roads in commuter traffic, the ‘second wind’ spirited me home.

Altogether, this was a real adventure and I would love to return – possibly to sit in a café in Harrogate or just to get out and support the Tour. I heartily recommend the region and these routes to all cyclists with a love of hills and a good brew (tea).

Chris Peugniez

 


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