Cycling the Pennine Bridleway

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Day 1. Middleton Top to Hayfield

A new venture for us all, having been avid road bikers for many years we decided to swop the slick wheels and tiny frames of our super speedy road bikes for beasty counterparts with Harley Davidson width handle bars and huge tarmac sucking tyres. The first lesson was that road miles are ridiculously faster and easier than those off tarmac, the second that this benign looking sport requires a lion’s portion of courage along with a far amount of stupidity.

Big tyres are order of the day on the Pennine Bridleway

So – with both those things in mind it was with some trepidation that I embarked on a journey on my shiny new mountain bike along the Southern section of the Pennine Bridleway in the hope of incorporating the Mary Towneley loop in recognition of the amazing lady and family friend who fought hard for this section of the bridleway.

The route begins with an easy 15 mile section along the old railway lulling cyclists into believing that this mountain bike lark is actually easy peasy. The route is well signed and refreshments, loos and spare cycling bits and bobs available at Parsley Hay. North of this stop the railway line continues for a few more gentle miles and then the real fun begins. Having averaged ten miles an hour for almost two hours our speed plummeted to a measly 4/5 mph as we battled across country, up and down stoney and boulder ridden lanes … requiring quite a bit of dismounting and pushing from scardey cat herself. Peak Forest was billed to be our lunch stop but transpired to be a ghost town so we re-routed to Sparrowpit which was equally deserted so luncheon was an energy bar by the side of the road. The last 8 miles took us to the buzzing town of Hayfield (where Monday seems to be pub day and an alarming amount of people we met seemed to have been thoroughly enjoying the local hostelries). This section of the ride presented us with some challenging ups and downs, a couple of river crossings (my bike managed the bridge quite nicely thank you), and some huge slabs of rock which I wobbled tentatively over … having been scared out of my wits by a mountain bike aficionado who shot down one of the steep, stoney lanes at great speed and seemed to spend more time in the air than bumping over the rocks. Granny here decided to push.

Some slopes require old fashioned methods, like walking

Sunshine all the way today which certainly helped the miles …. tomorrow, a chap at the bar told me with great glee, is going to be a different story. He was delighted to impart the grim weather forecast. Don’t you just hate those smug doom mongerers?

Day 2 – Hayfield to Hollingworth Lake

A surprisingly easy and sunny start today …for the first mile ……and then a wake up call of a vertiginous climb up to Lantern Pike rewarding us with great views of Kinder Scout, a long with the realisation that today’s miles were going to be even harder to earn. From Lantern Pike we headed cross country towards Charlesworth. Up until now the route had been meticulously signed but once we hit the road the sign poster seemed to have given up. As a result we went slightly off route and worried that we may end up in central Manchester. However, after a short section of lorry filled roads to remind us why we had taken to the more scenic routes, we found ourselves skirting Arnfield Reservoir where we treated ourselves to coffee and ice cream. Two hours of hard cycling and only 11 miles done – unheard of in our previous road biking world. Proper mountain bikers would love the next section with steep descents and ascents amidst boulders, gravel and muddy puddles.

Even cyclists need to be re-fuelled!

We teetered down the hills and pushed up quite a few so, once again, the miles did not whizz by… in fact we were overtaken by two runners and I thought my companions might mug them and swop their running shoes for mountain bikes and leave me stranded. Not to be beaten (yet) we pottered on enjoying views over Rochdale (I think) until we arrived at Uppermill. By now the sky was an ominous black and the forecasted thunder seemed imminent. We decided to cut our losses and scoot down the road to Denshaw missing a rather technical looking section across Broadhead Noddle (top name!). From Denshaw we joined the PBW once again after an endless climb and finished the day with a 5 mile off road section of varying terrain – from lovely grassy sections to unridable gullies filled with gravel, boulders and water. The promised thunder started with two miles to go but thankfully we weren’t stuck or a bleak mood top. Safely ensconced in our bnb we are now contemplating the Mary Towneley loop and wondering whether the rain is going to be quite as ferocious as promised and how brave we will all feel in the morning.

Day 3. Hollingworth Lake to Todmorden

After a night in Hollingworth Lake we were ready to head, once more, for the hills. Rain threatened but we had two hours riding in the sunshine to Summit and then onto the Mary Towneley loop. This section was well marked and easier than expected with lots of cobbled sections in between grassy and sometimes boulder strewn paths. Some pushing from less than competent rider (me) was still required but it felt like more time was spent aboard than on foot. The route took us over Rossendale moor – a bleak area with coal slag heaps and wind turbines, but still possessing a beauty and solitude worth seeing. We dropped into the village of Whitworth and found a very glamorous road side sandwich spot – Porky’s Pitstop – with an amazing array of spam sandwiches, and some cheese and tuna for the less sophisticated amongst us.

Multiple breakfasts are mandatory when cycling!

The route (once we’d managed to find it again having circumnavigated Porkys twice) headed upwards, as ever, and over some quite challenging sections in the bouncing rain dodging rocks and cow poo before descending into Waterfoot for a well earned hot chocolate and toasted tea cake. Home for the night was almost in sight and the next hours ride is an easy, gentle climb to Deer and down to Holme Chapel with Burnley in the valley below. From Holme Chapel we headed to Todmorden for our night’s accommodation. The route isn’t great in terms of both easy to find food stops or places to stay at night. However, it doesn’t seem to be a well known route. In three days we’ve seen as many cyclists – and today had the entire route to ourselves.

Day 4 Todmorden to Summit

Completing the rest of the Mary Towneley Loop. After an unexpectedly excellent stay at The Staff of Life in Todmorden (sorry but the exterior really doesn’t do it justice), and powered by a superb breakfast, we retraced our route back to Holme Chapel where we rejoined the M T loop. Once again we were amazed by the complete lack of traffic on the route and saw a total of 2 horses plus riders and one mountain biker (who almost collided with me as he hurtled down the route and was duly subjected to many shrieks and a few expletives – but we both lived to tell the tale).

The route took us on a well made trail past four reservoirs and across remote, but beautiful, moorland. With Burnley to our left and Hebden Bridge to our right it was clear that we were in the once industrial heartland of the North and yet encountered virtually no other humans. The ride down to Widdop Reservoir tested both our brakes and nerves but it was well worth it, not only for the views but also for our reception committee – four children having the time of their lives splashing in one of the many deep puddles having run the 3 miles round the reservoir. That’s the way to spend your summer holidays!

Another day, another reservoir

From Widdop we dropped into Heptonstall via the road having been warned about the treacherous nature of the official route. Lunch in Heptonstall followed by more descent into Hebden Bridge and then a huge, huge climb out of the quirky little town which almost finished me off. The last section was a tad tricky and I opted for pushing but it could easily be avoided by following quiet roads adjacent to the route. We went down the canal into Summit to finish the ride – a relaxing, well earned way to finish a thoroughly enjoyable and interesting ride that I highly recommend.

Top tips – carry enough food and water for the day, use a bag carrier for your luggage and if you’re a beginner like me – remember the miles are hard earned but worth the effort!

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