Since riding the Way of the Roses with my good friend Tim a couple of years ago, I’ve wanted to return to God’s Own Country for some more two-wheeled purgatory. Our time in the Dales – albeit brief – on this wonderful route was characterised by vertiginous climbs, incongruously dry karst scenery, formidable slabs of cake and rather excellent beer.
Quite a bit has happened since then. And while the distractions of parenthood have been, at times, monopolising, the part of me that is constantly planning the next trip has not fallen silent.
That next trip would be the Yorkshire Dales Cycleway, and I booked three days away from the desk to pedal it.
Loading the bike into the car on a sunny Monday morning, I had to confront an unfamiliar emotion – leaving the family behind. My work sees me away from home most weeks, but this was different. I was going away for fun, and somehow it seemed wrong that Sophie and Joe were not coming with me. Actually, I should be completely honest here: I was sad that Sophie wasn’t joining me. As much as I love taking the Surly Burley for a spin, it can be a bit limiting. I hope Soph and I can grab some time on the bikes together soon.
The Yorkshire Dales Cycleway is a 130-mile route that takes in most of the major the dales in this lovely district. In the wake of the extension to the Dales Park in 2016, there is a longer route that visits Sedbergh and the grassy hummocks of the Howgills, adding 25 miles to the route. Given I had three days to spare, along with travel, I opted for the ‘standard route’. While 130 miles may not seem much, the route packs a punch boasting over 4,300 meters of climbing. For someone who hadn’t spent that much time on a bike on the last year or so, it represented a challenge.
With this in mind, I planned a three-day itinerary that provided a relatively easy first day, with the parcours becoming progressively more arduous. This meant starting in the village of Kettlewell in Upper Wharfedale.
Day One – And the going is easy
I parked in the large National Park car park in the village which has the advantage of offering longer stay tickets – the older I get, prosaic concerns such as car parking seem to matter more and more.
I was soon ready to roll and pushed off along a quite lane following the easterly bank of the River Wharfe. Within approximately 35 seconds, I was beaming. It felt so good to be on the bike again, revelling in the knowledge that I would be doing precisely the same thing again tomorrow and the day after.
The stern easterly being funnelled down the dale provided a few ‘bonus watts’ to each pedal stroke and no doubt lightened my mood. Aeolus may have been smiling on me now, but he wouldn’t tomorrow. I got a sampler of the headwind to come while pedalling along the B6265 to re-join the route after Bolton Abbey, in order to avoid retracing my wheel tracks. For the record, this is not recommended. While the headwind was unpleasant, this B road is dogged by heavy traffic and much of it seemingly piloted by impatient folk.
Picking up the route at Cracoe, I hoped one of its cafés would be open. Alas, no. I ended ducking under the beams in the Devonshire Arms for a lime and soda. The grumpy triumvirate at the bar meant I didn’t delay. This trio seemed game for a debate on cycle helmets and ‘road tax’ upon seeing me and while I was itching to deliver my soliloquy on these subjects, a little voice reminded me that I was on holiday and my blood pressure would thank me for the restraint.
I pushed on in search of chocolate-based calories. I was banking on the Town End farm shop and café being open. Why wouldn’t it be? First week of the Easter holiday for some and folk would now doubt be cramming into this establishment after it featured in TV’s Top of the Shop with chef and all-round Mr Nice Guy Tom Kerridge.
It was closed.
I only had myself to blame. A bit of research goes a long way.
All that remained was to push on to my overnight stop of Malham ahead of schedule and hope to find victuals. This came in the form of a rather limp and mean-looking cheese and pickle sandwich from the Old Barn Café washed down with plain old filter coffee (‘The machine’s broken!’)
Unmoved by this meagre offering, I went next door to the Buck where a pot of ‘Yerrkshuh’ tea and a slab of carrot cake were far more satisfactory.
Now late afternoon, and with time to kill before check in at the youth hostel, I went for a spin up one of Malham’s two climbs – hefty ramps that thread sinuous routes through the limestone pavement. Tim and I had plunged down one of these roads on the Way of the Roses causing Tim’s front disc to ‘melt’. I enjoyed the effort tackling it in the other direction, the low sun giving depth and texture to the scenery. I then walked the usually busy path to Malham Cove to find it empty, save for climber grappling with the limestone crags above. I sat listening to the river, now emerged once more after descending to a subterranean course a mile or so away at Water Sinks near Malham Tarn.
Day Two – Do you know what really grinds my gears?
I can’t help feeling a wistful when I sit down to breakfast in a youth hostel. While the quality of the fare may not be top notch, there is something agreeably hearty and honest about the food on offer that takes me back to trips as a teenager, walking the hills and cramming in the calories on a budget.
Stuffing pastries into my jersey pockets, a retrieved the bike, loaded my simple luggage and headed for the climb to Malham Cove behind the hostel. This is a reasonable challenge in anyone’s road book and the ascent got the blood pumping. Yesterday’s easterly had gained additional legs overnight which made the going much harder.
The gradient soon eased and I pedalled along a deserted single-track road with the tarn to my right. It was glorious riding, given an added piquancy with the knowledge that I would normally by sitting down to work at this time.
The road dropped into a lonely valley at Sannat Hall Farm that required some effort to ascend the far side. It then hit me that Tim and I had travelled this road in the other direction two years previously. Then I had managed to pedal up the steep climb that I had now tentatively descended – disc brakes squealing in protest. There would be much more of this to come.
I soon reached Settle where I had a task to fulfil. Stupidly, I had forgotten my phone charger and despite eking out the juice on my mobile since discovering my cloth headedness, I needed a solution. I’m no slave to the phone, but it’s now more important to keep in touch with home and, as an avid ViewRanger user, I do like to use my device for navigation and route tracking.
It was market day in the town and I hoped that would mean a watch battery/vaping/phone unlocking/screen protector/mobile case (delete as appropriate) stall. I found said stall but the chap didn’t have a C-type mini USB cable among his collection.
‘I really need a petrol station with a shop,’ I ventured. The helpful stallholder pointed me in the right direction and I was soon on my way again with a new universal power block and cable.
Heading in a roughly north westerly direction and following the southern boundary of the Park, the route takes a breather from the climbing for a while. This changes after Ingleton, though. Aware that harder yards were to come, I stopped at Bernie’s for, ahem, two cakes, coffee and tea. The stop also gave me an opportunity to charge the phone.
The route then climbs to Kingsdale and follows a north easterly course. Today, that meant I would be pedalling directly into the teeth of the wind that had been tapping me on the shoulder since Kettlewell. Described as a ‘moderate breeze’ in the forecast, it made the going arduous and reminded me of a particularly challenging day in Iceland a few years back.
Kingsdale provided a stunning backdrop to my labours, though. The country felt lonely here and I had the road to myself. In common with other sections of the Dales Cycleway, the route is gated which provided additional torment in the wind. I reached White Shaw Moss and plummeted into Deep Dale only to check my progress as the road took on an alarming gradient. Brakes and nerves tested, I arrived at the pretty village of Dent to find the recommended Meadowside café closing early as the owners were attending a funeral. I tried the Heritage Centre and was not disappointed. The grilled cheese and ham sandwich was a delight, washed down with yet more tea. Sometimes, all you want are the simple things done well.
I followed the route along beautiful Dent Dale, enjoying the peace offered by this altogether quieter valley. The imposing Dent viaduct soon loomed and the climbing started again to Newby Head Moss. Here, I had another flashback. Riding home from Scotland some years back I had travelled this way following an off road route to Horton in Ribblesdale. That had been a challenging but altogether amazing day, too.
From here, it was a simple descent to Hawes on the B6255… the road was full of heavy traffic and I was glad to reach the hostel.
Day Three – Put your back into it
After embarrassing myself again at breakfast, I ventured outside the sample the temperature. There had been a frost overnight and the frigid morning air had me digging into my bike bags to find extra layers and gloves. I headed along Wensleydale with two Buffs arranged ‘Ninja-style’ to keep my face covered.
At Askrigg, the route would climb again and my legs were just about warm when I reached the foot of this supposed 25% pull. The gradient is more like 18% according to the various hill-bagging cycle sites, but it’s a decent test nonetheless. More important than the stats, it’s a really lovely ride but be ready for another alarming descent into Swaledale at Crow Trees.
Here, the route heads east along the B6270 and, while quiet this Wednesday morning, I know from previous experience this road can be busy in peak season and for good reason as Swaledale is a lovely place to linger. Fortunately, the Dales Cycleway crosses the river and picks up a narrow lane the climbs the southerly slopes of the valley. Consulting the map, it is possible to plot an alternative route that would avoid the B-route altogether.
I’d pedalled 20 miles or so by the time I reached Grinton and the need for coffee and cake was palpable. I headed off route to Reeth only to stumble on the Dales Cycle Centre (what did I say about too little research being a dangerous thing!?) Happily it was open, the coffee was superb as was the plum flapjack and ‘all-the -chocolate’ brownie. Highly recommended!
I spent half an hour or so in the café warming my extremities yet mindful of the obstacles that lay ahead. I reluctantly left and immediately felt the strain of the climb to Grinton Moor which felt more gradual and akin to the climbs back home in the Peak. Tumbling down the other site to Castle Bolton I screeched to a halt as a Dales Cycle Way sign pointed left to a farm gate. Checking the map, this was indeed correct and I pedalled along a lovely farm track that would have met the criteria of the Grass up the Middle folk.
From here, the route takes in pretty villages and leaves the National park for a wee while. The sun now shone as I entered Coverdale for the final hurrah of the route. The climb out of this dale and into Wharfedale once more is a stunning, seemingly remote pedal with just sheep and the odd adventurous motorists for company. I stopped at the Hunters Stone – just shy of the summit – and found a hollow in the hillside out of the wind to eat the remainder of my trail mix and sunbathe.
It was one of those wonderfully restorative experiences that you sometimes encounter on the hill; the wind whistling around you and yet you’re shielded from its pernicious intent. You have an overwhelming sense of presence and detachment from the daily grind that is mercifully going on somewhere else.
Aware that my trip would soon be over, I pedalled slowly over the summit cattle grid and gingerly descended into Kettlewell. Here the route had one final sting in the tail. The switchbacks at Park Rash need great care on descent. This is a genuine 25% ramp and I treated it with great respect. With brakes simmering, I dropped into Kettlewell for a celebratory ice cream.