National Cycle Network Route 68: Cycling to the Lake District

Greenfield to Oxenholme Station : 92 miles, up to ten hours (!)

National Cycle Network Route 68 runs fairly close to my home. I’ve had a Sustrans map of the route for a while now but I haven’t had the opportunity to explore… until the weekend that is.

Thorn Audax Mk3 at OxenholmeIt all started with a phone call to a work colleague. He’s a relative newbie to this cycling lark and our telephone talks about shop invariably shift to topics two-wheeled. One afternoon he asked whether it would be feasible to cycle to the Lake District in a day from my house. I said ‘yes’, but in my mind I deferred to those hardy club riders who ‘perambulate’ to the national parks of the north from Manchester without raising an eyebrow or, it seems, a sweat.

The questions stayed with me, though. Why couldn’t I cycle to Lakes? I hadn’t completed a really challenging ride since back problems rained on my planned Scottish tour. I was feeling much better, so perhaps it was time to give it a go.

Then I remembered Route 68. I could pick this up at Marsden and follow it pretty much all the way to Appleby-in-Westmorland and beyond. Better still, I could turn off and catch a train at Oxenholme and ,with some smart timing, be heading back in Manchester on a direct service.

Maps out, forecast and train times consulted, I would have a go on Saturday.

Characteristically, my departure was delayed. Some last minute tinkering with the Audax was required and I struggled to find enough food in the house, settling for Alpen bars and homemade biscuits. With water proofs and other essentials in the saddle bag, I trundled off and headed north. About five miles down the road that I realised that I’d forgotten my bike lock. Café stops would be limited.

Route 68 takes in some of the best of the South Pennines. Industrial centres are juxtaposed with expansive moors and pretty dales. It’s remote, too, and mercifully traffic free. Being an NCN route, though, and I was prepared for dubious off road sections and the odd stupid hill, the best of which I found on the way out of Hebden Bridge.

Talking of stupid hills, I dismounted and carefully climbed down one on the approach to Scammonden Water north of Marsden. It was worth the precarious descent, though, as a decent track ran along the western shore of the reservoir. A sharp left then right took me through a tunnel followed by a quick scramble to the road again. It was  a bit unorthodox, but safely shielded me from the tumult of the M62 thundering yards above.

After this jiggery-pokery, I enjoyed and quiet run to Sowerby Bridge and a I was glad that I’d checked my brakes in the monring as the descent just past Clough Head was, nearly, brown cycling shorts time.

At Sowerby I was presented with two routes. I did the wrong thing and stayed on Route 68. It would have been much better to stay in the valley, save my legs and get a kick on Route 66. Both lead to Hebden Bridge, but the former involved stacks more climbing to Mytholmroyd.

I then made my second error at Hebden. Stupidly, I walked up Heptonstall Lane rather than skirting the town and climbing Heptonstall Road. The clamber up to cobbles would have been OK had they been dry. Greasy stones and cleats don’t mix well and I’m grateful for the good Samaritan who helped with the bike as I held on the handrail to keep upright. Reaching the road, a tough climb continued to the village although this pretty settlement was worth the effort. Shame I didn’t have the time to linger.

After Heptonstall the route split again. The easterly route headed to Burnley. The westerly route led to Colne direct and appeared to take on the ‘teeth’ of the moors. Sure enough, the climbing started again and the legs protested. A headwind didn’t help matters either and it became clear pretty quickly that my energy stores were running low. When the rain started to fall, I forced myself to stop at Widdop Reservoir and refuelled. The difference was stark. I could feel my mood improve immediately and I had power again. A schoolboy error.

Another brake-squealing descent brought me to Colne and another climb north of the town through a pretty park.

At Foulridge I joined the Leeds and Liverpool Canal and enjoyed a few miles of flat, well-maintained towpath along this surprisingly attractive stretch. Barges lazily jugged through the murky waters and their pilots bade me cheery hellos as I overtook.

I made good time for the first time on the route and picked up the road at West Marton heading towards Gargrave and its cyclists’ cafe.

North of here, I passed some very desirable residencies and pushed onto Airton where I parked up at a bench in the pretty village green to refuel again and consider some logistics.

I was heading for a 5.30pm train from Oxenholme and time was getting tight. Another climb lay on the horizon in the six miles or so to Settle and, after that, the route looked slow to Ingleton. At Settle, I decided to turn onto the A65, not the most charming of roads but I remembered it having a fairly consistent channel for cyclists afforded by a nearside carriageway marker. It was a quick road, too, as I’d cycled it previously while on holiday in Kirby Lonsdale.

Hitting this main road, my pace increased  considerably. I covered the 18 miles to Kirby Lonsdale in less than an hour. The headwind that I’d battled with for most of the day was now my ally. Such was my pace, I was able to stop at the infamous bikers’ gathering point at the Devil’s Bridge and had a couple of bottles of water and a Snickers. I couldn’t resist an ice cream to celebrate my progress which proved to be a bad idea as my stomach cramped in protest.

On the road again I had just over an hour to find Oxenholme… time for more poor navigation. Rather than turning off the A65 and heading along the B6254 from Kirby (pretty much a direct route) I stayed on the A65 and on to the A590  and risked life and limb before turning off for Sedgwick. Here, I picked up NCN route 6 and followed my nose (and sightings of the mainline railway) to Oxenholme.

I delivered a subdued triumphant punch in the air as I rolled up to the station with half and hour to spare.

A route from Greenfield to the Lakes using a large chunk of the NCN Route 68

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5 thoughts on “National Cycle Network Route 68: Cycling to the Lake District

  1. Hi Matt,
    I’m not a cyclist but I thoroughly enjoyed this post. I live not too far from Hebden Bridge, and know most of the route you followed fairly well (I winced at your description of Hebden’s cobbled lane – I’ve nearly had to rope ‘me missus’ up to get her down there safely on more than one occasion!)
    An entertaining read.
    Paul.

  2. Thanks for the comments guys and I’m glad you enjoyed it. Paul, the cobbled lane is ridiculous and to the be fair to Sustrans they do advise you walk or take the alternative (still steep but feasible in the saddle rather than out) . I must have looked quite a sight slipping and sliding all over the cobbles in my riding cleats. The help from the chap on his way to work was most welcome!

  3. Really interested to read this story as I recently bought my first touring bike, am a Sustrans Ranger with the Southern End of Route 68 “in my patch” here in Mickleover, and have a dream of doing part of Route 68 (with tent strapped on the back) at some stage.

    Not up to your mileages yet, mind you, but one day………

  4. Hi Geoff, Many thanks for the comment and may I wish all the best with your plans. I am a huge fan of the NCN, particularly the less popular sections which plot a sometimes challenging but always interesting routes through quiet parts of the country. I’m looking forward to trying another one of these mammoth days in the Spring on another route, assuming the legs are up to it.

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