Up hill, down dale: five beautiful cycle trails in the north of England

Way of the wolds

From the city of York to the highest village in East Yorkshire’s big sky country

Start and finish York
Distance 57 miles
Total ascent 553 metres
Terrain Mostly lanes and asphalt cycleway, one short off-road track
Bike shop/hire Cycle Heaven, York
Full route details and map

The rolling hills – wolds – of East Yorkshire are the only chalk landscapes in northern England. Mile upon mile of smooth, green whaleback hills and dry river valleys are dotted with village greens and duck ponds. There are plenty of quiet lanes and byways, which makes it perfect for cycling.

Starting at Monk Bar, one of York’s four medieval gates, the ride follows the most efficient way out of the city – along Stockton Lane and a one-mile section of good, unsurfaced bridleway to avoid busy roads. From the unusual Georgian gothic watermill at Howsham on the banks of the Derwent, the route strikes decisively wold-ward through Leavening and climbs the scarp slope of Leavening Brow. From this high point comes a lovely descent down Water Dale, the only dry valley in the wolds, with a road running its full length. Wildflowers thrive on the thin alkaline soil and the soundtrack is a chorus of bleating sheep. At the bottom is Thixendale with its one-room pub (the Cross Keys, closed for now but usually £40pp B&B) and even smaller village store.

The Yorkshire Wolds see far fewer visitors than the Lakes, Dales or North York Moors, but nobody has done more to raise their profile than David Hockney. In the early 2000s, Hockney returned to East Yorkshire from Los Angeles and made his home in Bridlington. For the next few years he drew, painted, photographed and filmed the lanes, fields, trees and hedgerows of the wolds and brought a secret corner of the English countryside to a global audience. The various wolds locations he painted are shown at yocc.co.uk. Fans will want to visit the location of his Three Trees Near Thixendale: the trees are two miles east of the village in William Dale, on the road that leads north to the abandoned medieval village of Wharram Percy. It is well worth the detour, but choices have to be made, and my route turns south into Thixendale, towards Huggate.

The farming system of the wolds is topsy-turvy, with sheep and cattle grazing the valley floors while the uplands are ploughed for arable crops. Just like on the downs of southern England, get up high to experience the wolds at their wildest and most energising.

Huggate is the highest village in the wolds, so all roads from here are downhill. The descent from Huggate to Pocklington is another great cycling road, along a dry river valley past the picture-postcard village of Millington. Pocklington is a small, handsome market town, and marks the transition from the wolds to the flat Vale of York.

From Pocklington the route picks a way through big arable fields – look out for drifts of poppies – taking in a very lost lane past the remains of North Selby mine. Developed in the 1980s and 90s, Selby was the last hurrah of the British coal industry, with five mines sunk over 20 square miles and linked underground. From just south of Naburn the final miles back to York are largely traffic-free, along York’s Solar System cycleway (formerly a section of the East Coast main line), past the racecourse and into the city along the River Ouse.

A Calder caper

A short route in the Upper Calder Valley taking in the Pennine watershed and the stark landscape of Blackstone Edge

Start and finish Hebden Bridge
Distance 24 miles
Total ascent 471 metres
Terrain Towpath, roads, lanes and a short section of good gravel track
Bike shop (no bike hire) Blazing Saddles, Hebden Bridge
Full route details and map

Somehow, and nobody knows exactly how, Hebden Bridge went from listless mill town in the late 1960s to become the arty, free-thinking, LGBTQ-friendly, tech-savvy, hipster capital of the South Pennines. The ride begins here and heads west on the Rochdale Canal towards Todmorden.

There’s a cheerful local rivalry between these two groovy little former mill towns. “Tod” has a strong claim to be the most green-fingered town in the UK. Its Incredible Edible urban gardening project has seen little plots of land all around the town turned over to growing fruit, vegetables, herbs and bee-friendly flowers. All the produce is free for all to pick and enjoy. This model of urban gardening has been emulated in dozens of other towns and cities up and down the country. All around town “KINDNESS” is spelled out in bold white letters.

The canal was opened in 1804 as the main highway between Yorkshire and Lancashire. The Pennine watershed is marked by a cast-iron bench and a poem by the poet Andrew McMillan. At Littleborough, the route leaves the canal and heads uphill on what is undoubtedly an ancient way across the Pennines. Cutting tools made from flint, a stone not found in West Yorkshire, have been discovered here and dated to 10,000 years ago. Daniel Defoe came this way on his tours of the north: he nearly came to grief in an August snowstorm and described Blackstone Edge as “the Andes of England”.

At the top of Blackstone Edge is a brief detour on a track along the top of the escarpment beside the reservoir. The glass and steel towers of Manchester shimmer down below, and on a clear day the mountains of north Wales are visible. The bare hills, the pylons leading off into the distance, the cold, dark reservoirs with their windblown wavelets, wind-hewn rocks and abandoned quarry workings make it a perfect – and popular – location for a moody album cover or fashion shoot.

Visible from the track is a slab of weather-sculpted millstone grit the size of a house. On it is carved a poem by Simon Armitage entitled Rain – an appropriate choice of subject for these parts. The route turns right at the second of a series of reservoirs, but carry straight on for 2½ miles on an increasingly uneven track to eventually reach Gaddings Dam. It has as small patch of golden sand that made national newspaper headlines as England’s highest beach, accompanied by the inevitable photos of bikini-clad sun worshippers soaking up the rays. It’s worth the extra five-mile detour, time and energy permitting.

The reservoirs were built to supply water to operate the locks and feed the Rochdale canal below, and gravity is also on hand to take you back to the Calder Valley. The Blackstone Edge road (B6138) is said to be the longest continuous descent in England: five miles long, with a drop of almost 300 metres. Though the longest descent in England has an obvious appeal to the freewheeling cyclist, more rewarding in terms of views and quiet lanes is the route via Sykes Gate, Holly Hall Lane and Long Causeway, and the one I prefer. Both bring you into the Calder valley at Mytholmroyd, from where cycle route NCR 68 follows the river back to Hebden Bridge.

Heaven and hills: the dales

Big views and tough climbs among the magnificent limestone rock formations of the Yorkshire Dales

Start and finish Settle
Distance 39 miles
Total ascent 968 metres
Terrain Mostly lanes and one short section of rough stuff 
Bike shop/hire 3 Peaks Cycles, Settle
Full route details and map

The Rough-Stuff Fellowship is the oldest off-road cycling club in the world. It was founded in 1955, long before northern Californians in plaid shirts took their clunkers on the dirt tracks of Marin County and invented mountain biking. Rough-Stuff members sought out the green lanes, drovers’ roads and mountain tracks of the British Isles and further afield. This ride takes in a short section of Mastiles Lane, a classic route that, long before it was discovered by cyclists on steel bikes with canvas saddlebags, woollen socks and brass Primus stoves, was used by the Romans and later became an important medieval trade route across the dales.

Heading east out of Settle, the route goes straight uphill, as is often the way in the dales. There’s a good excuse to take a break in the form of Scaleber Force, a waterfall in dense woodland a short walk from the road. Further up the hill are big views south across Ribblesdale into Lancashire. The dark, glowering form of Pendle Hill is visible in the distance.

Dramatic limestone is the defining feature of the next section, through Malham and passing some of the most remarkable geology of the dales. The two highlights are Janet’s Foss, a small but enchanting waterfall and swimmable plunge pool about a mile beyond Malham (the footpath is clearly signed), and Gordale Scar, a little further on. Geologists are unsure how Gordale Scar – a huge wall of limestone, like the crumbling ruins of a giant’s fortress – was formed, though some believe it’s the collapsed remains of a cave system from an earlier ice age.

The road continues uphill, getting ever steeper until the landscape opens up into the broad moorland tops. Here you’ll feel quite alone as you venture on to the unsurfaced track and join Mastiles Lane. If you are prepared for some more rough stuff, follow the track east to Kilnsey and trim a few miles from the route. But an easier ride, and equally scenic, is the asphalt lane to the south-west, towards Threshfield and on into Grassington. Here, in the valley of the River Wharfe, you’ll swap the wild solitude of Mastiles Lane for the a pretty dales village that’s often thronged with day trippers. The Grassington Folk Museum (free) is worth a visit and there are some good swimming spots on the river, both upstream and downstream of the village. 

From Grassington, the route continues north, beneath the overhanging limestone cliffs of Kilnsey Crag and forking left into Littondale, a U-shaped glacial valley – and the road is a gem to ride. Just off it is Arncliffe, an archetypal Dales village used to film the first seasons of Emmerdale Farm in the early 1970s. 

At the head of the valley the road takes a sharp turn before climbing through stone-walled fields on to the open moor. At the top there’s a grand view of Pen-y-ghent, the smallest but most mountain-like of Yorkshire’s Three Peaks (the other two are Ingleborough and Whernside). All three are isolated remnants of an entire layer of millstone grit that once lay on top of the older carboniferous limestone.

Once back in the valley, there’s a few miles of quiet lane from Stainforth into Settle. It passes one final five-star swimming spot at Stainforth Force, perfect for an end-of-ride dip.

Poetry in motion

An intimate journey into the heart of the Lake District, taking in some of its best-loved lakes and tarns

Start and finish Ambleside
Distance 33 miles
Total ascent 890 metres
Terrain Mostly lanes, a few sections of good gravel track 
Bike shop/hire Ghyllside Cycles, Ambleside
Full route details and map

For the steady stream of Romantic poets and their admirers who made the journey to Dove Cottage, the damp, cramped home where William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy spent eight years of “plain living, but high thinking”, the road from Ambleside to Grasmere was the finishing straight of a journey that would have taken several days. The likes of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Thomas De Quincey would have walked it, but today’s A591 is so busy that it’s fit for neither walking nor cycling. 

Fortunately there is a good alternative route: in the form of a quiet lane/off-road track on the far side of Rydal Water, where the rugged forms of Nab Scar and Heron Pike are reflected in the lake’s still waters. After this gentle warm-up, the hard riding begins with a lung-busting climb up Red Bank and over to Great Langdale. There’s plenty of time to savour the view of the Langdale Pikes – the closest England gets to a truly mountainous vista – on the stiff climb out of the valley. At the top, in a hanging valley between Great and Little Langdale, is Blea Tarn. The scene is much as it was in Wordsworth’s day, and the tarn is swimmable, if bracing.

From Little Langdale, a bridleway leads through the woods towards Coniston. It’s worth stopping just after the ford to take a look at Cathedral Cave, a spectacular chamber inside an old slate quarry. Leave bikes at the bottom of the path but take a light in case you want to venture deeper.

After rejoining the road in High Tilberthwaite, look out for Touchstone Fold, a slate sheep pen made by the artist Andy Goldsworthy. This is one of 46 sheepfold installations he and his team have built in Cumbria.

Coniston sits at the head of Coniston Water; with the sun in the south, it is a five-mile sheet of shimmering silver. Two names stand out in the history of Coniston: John Ruskin and Donald Campbell. Ruskin loved the beauty of the Lakes and spent the last three decades of his life at Brantwood, a waterside house two miles south of the village. Campbell was more into speed than scenery. He set world speed records on the water here, and died in a crash while attempting to top 300mph in 1967. His body and his jet-powered Bluebird K7 lay on the lakebed until divers recovered them in 2001. Both men are buried in Coniston churchyard. The small museum in the village contains lots of Ruskin ephemera and salvaged pieces of Campbell’s Bluebird. There are more good swimming spots just beyond the village at the head of the lake.

Next, the route follows the back way to Tarn Hows, a Lakeland beauty spotmade popular largely by Beatrix Potter. From Knipe Fold there’s an option of a short cut back to Ambleside, or heading south via Hawkshead. This village is home to the Beatrix Potter Gallery and, at the far end of Esthwaite Water, Hill Top, the house where she lived (both now owned by the National Trust).

It’s a steep descent to Windermere and the traffic-free lakeshore track, which passes the gothic revival castle at Wray. For the final miles back to Ambleside there’s a traffic-free gravel path beside the B5286, which, like many roads in the Lakes, can get busy at weekends and in the summer.

The Old North, Northumberland

Start Alnmouth
Finish Berwick-upon-Tweed (return by train)
Distance 57 miles
Total ascent 550 metres
Terrain Lanes and a few off-road sections which can be muddy when wet. Moderate
Bike shop/hire The Bike Shop, Alnwick
Full route details and map

A linear route taking in the ancient castles, huge beaches and tiny harbours of the Northumberland coast

Alnmouth to Berwick-upon-Tweed is the wildest and most scenic section of the Northumberland coast, and easily rideable in a day with a train return. A long weekend allows for detours, a proper look around the ruined castles, a dip in the sea or even a boat trip to the Farne Islands.

Alnmouth grew up as a port with a fishing fleet, shipyards and a trade exporting grain and other produce. Shifting sands and the coming of the railwayschanged that, though the trains also brought holidaymakers and the village grew into a small seaside resort, which retains its well-heeled charm.

Head north on the coast road towards the old smugglers’ haven at Boulmer. Beyond Boulmer is a lovely two-mile section on good gravel tracks via a pair of tiny sandy coves. Road cyclists with skinny tyres may prefer the road via Longhoughton and the wooded parkland of Howick Hall, the country seat of the Earls Grey.

Ten miles into the ride is Craster, with its perfect little harbour, smokehouse famous for kippers (with cafe and takeaway counter) and Jolly Fisherman pub. On the headland north of Craster, the ruin of Dunstanburgh Castle stands guard over the dunes of Embleton Bay. From the village of Embleton the route heads inland for a few miles on quiet farm lanes, with wildflowers colouring the verges, and then skirts the edge of Seahouses, from where there are boat trips to the Farne Islands to see seals and porpoises, plus puffins, guillemots and many other sea birds.

Unlike the ruins of Dunstanburgh, the castle at Bamburgh is very much intact. Its stout form, built atop a natural outcrop of volcanic rock, commands the channel between the mainland and the Farne Islands. Few places in Britain are quite so steeped in history. The present castle is of Norman design but before that it was the seat of the Anglo-Saxon kings of Northumbria. They had seized it in 547AD from the Gododdin, the Celtic people of the Yr Hen Ogledd (the Old North) who knew the fort as Din Guarie. During the Wars of the Roses, the castle was a Lancastrian stronghold, and when Yorkist forces besieged it in 1464 it was the first time an English castle succumbed to gunpowder artillery.

North of Bamburgh there’s a nice rough-stuff option along the coast road via Blackrocks Point lighthouse, and from the sandy expanse of Budle Bay the route heads inland until it reaches the causeway to Lindisfarne. The causeway is under water for several hours around high tide – it’s well worth venturing across if the tides are favourable but be sure to check the times.

The island was the base for the Celtic monks who converted northern England to Christianity and who produced the dazzling Lindisfarne Gospels, which are now in the British Library. The island is mostly car-free anda pleasure to explore, from the castle, ruined abbey and harbour to a perfect swimming beach at Cove’s Haven on the north coast.

Beyond Lindisfarne it’s mostly salt marshes and dunes over a range of surfaces, from tarmac to hard-packed gravel, before a final section along the cliffs that can be hard going when it’s wet. Berwick-upon-Tweed has its very own border-town vibe, and there are some good pubs in which to while away the time before the train back to Alnmouth.

Lost Lanes Northern England: 36 Glorious Bike Rides in Yorkshire, Lake District, Northumberland, Pennines and Northern England by Jack Thurston is published by Wild Things, £16.99, wildthingspublishing.com

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