A DAY ON THE LANCASHIRE CYCLEWAY
A figure of eight route, covering some 265 miles, with north meeting south in the Ribble Valley at Whalley, The Lancashire Cycleway gives the rider with just a day and a bit to spend on it, a challenge. Which bit to do?
The northern loop takes in the flat Fylde - potential quick nip into Blackpool for the sea-side cyclist - skirts Lancaster, up to Arnside via Silverdale, across to Hornby and south along the remote Cross o’ Greet road to Slaidburn., and over to Whalley. Even author of the Cicerone guidebook to the route, Jon Sparks, admits that this is the more rural and more scenic loop. Been there and done it - not that either is a really good reason for not returning - so it was the slightly less scenic and slightly more urban southern loop that won the day.
Arriving at Wigan North Western Station, another decision had to be made; follow the link to the Lancashire Cycleway on the road or canal option. Pier or Mint Balls, may be an odd choice, but both are iconic; Wigan Pier or Uncle Joe’s Mint Balls. Dithering done, a short ride into town, brought obvious signs of the latter. A quick ride back to the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, soon brought me to the latter. A little further on, another legend - the Billy Boston stand of the DW Arena, home of Wigan Warriors and Wigan Athletic.
George Orwell used Wigan as an example of tough industrial life in the nineteen-thirties and many have judged it accordingly ever since, but like many towns in the urban belt is close to the countryside. A quick glance at “The Road to Wigan Pier” and one may understand the popularity of sport and the pub in the town and the solace of walking and cycling in the countryside around.
Towpath surface varied from the setts around the pier, to better and then direly muddy - there had been a period of heavy rain in the preceding few days. Five miles of this brought me to Appley Bridge and the cycleway proper.
West Lancashire is much flatter than the east of the county, only bits of are not. A steady ascent up Ashurst’s Beacon and a short walk take sone to a truly magnificent viewpoint, from Winter Hill above bolton to Runcorn Bridge and away to the coast, all is laid out. Just choose a clear day. There are many; it is not grim up north.
A descent that seemed to go on far longer than was possible skirted Skelmersdale and headed off into the agricultural landscape towards Ormskirk. Signage was good, but every now and again a missing …. or missed sign …. was corrected by reference to the guidebook stuffed in my jersey pocket.
Rolling gently as the Cycleway moves effortlessly along avoiding towns and crossing busy roads on a network of minor roads, it lovely gentle cycling. Lots of cyclists were enjoying it - easily accessible to small groups of friends or some of the local clubs.
Eventually the land flattened out even more. Martin’s Mere Wetland Centre was passed, canals crossed and recrossed. I began to wonder when I’d see another hill. As a frequenter of the fens of eastern England, creeping like an ant over a chess-board of fields is not new. A landscape created by man, - just as much as any industrial town - too many flat miles amongst sodden fields becomes dull after a while even if the going is easy. Fortunately a tin-chapel (prefabricated non-conformist building for religious meetings) turned up. A minority interest, but the sort of thing that catches my eye.
The land becomes even flatter. One beautiful unbeaten track, standing feet above the black soil of the fen does bring the hills into view. Between the scrubby trees that cling onto the bank appear the next objectives, beyond the A6 and M6, beyond Croston, beyond Leyland.
A little further on, approaching Croston, a popular diversion was indicated by a long line of cyclists pulling out of a track on the right. A sign indicated Velo Cafe. A little further on, with a pleasant view over two lakes, was a cafe that, given the stocks of cake they still had and the number of cyclists that they must have already served, clearly understood what cyclists want. Surely the cakes could not be below standard? I sampled a selection and can confirm that they were both wholesome and energising.
Croston is one of the most photographed villages in Lancashire. the cycleway would miss the best bit, so follow Mr. sparks’ diversion. Although the outskirts of the village are plain, the centre is lovely. Running between high stone banks, the river turns under a packhorse bridge with the church tower as a backdrop. It became an even more photographed village. There are cafes and pubs in the village, too, making it well worth stopping to take a pic or two.
They once distant hills come soon enough, but gently, at Whittle-in-the-Woods. The route rolls on to cross the Leeds and Liverpool Canal as it climbs towards the Pennines. Were the surface always good - and in some places it is magnificent - the towpath would be an easy route up to Burnley, and beyond. Sadly, the surface is not always good.
The ups and downs continue, becoming ever more significant - notably with a real twister through Samlesbury Bottoms. It is good tom be off the mosses, is it not?
It is hard to believe that Blackburn is just over the hill, the Cycleway skirts the most urban area. The route is summed up by Samlesbury bottoms and Top of Ramsgreave. There is mush in between, but none of it is flat. Mellor’s memorial garden proved a good distraction from climbing.
Truth was, I was beginning to feel this. As an early season ride, it was taking its toll. However, little things, such as the appearance of York in Lancashire and, eventually the River Calder and abbey ruins at Whalley kept me going. Whalley is a good place to pick up supplies. It is the last place of any size on the route before the route reaches Barnoldswick - though Clitheroe is only a short diversion and is delightful, too. Fans of railway architecture will relish the viaduct, truly a thing of beauty. This afternoon the sinking sun lit its arches to make a chain of gold across the entrance to the Calder Valley.
Rather than climb over the Nick o’ Pendle, the Cycleway follows the lower flanks of the hill on the northern side, passing through pretty Pendleton with its old village schools and stream running down the high street. Continuing along a very quiet lane one is eventually deposited in Downham, very much a chocolate box village lying under the immense bulk of Pendle Hill.
This is witch country and with it came the curse of rain. A darkening sky spoke of evening’s fall, a real shame as the next few miles were along a quiet was amongst the hills. Though never climbing high, a series of steep-sided valleys with heart thumping climbs after twisting descents interspersed with gentler contouring of the slopes made for magnificent, if challenging riding. I am pleased to say that it was only the need to open the gates that hindered my speedy progress. Honest.
Light blazing in the gloom, I found myself winding down a long hill to meet the B road into Barnoldswick - incidentally, home of Hope Tech, whose smart arrays of lights, hubs and other bike bits grace many a cycle show. A busy little town, close to the canal, it is a good place to stock up and stay. My accommodation was down the hill in Kelbrook. I had intended to carry on through Earby - where there was once a YHA hostel - and over Bleara Moor (according to the guide, the toughest climb on the whole of the Lancashire Cycleway). With the rain pouring down, lights sparkling, time pressing on and a desire to have a good feed, Bleara Moor could wait.
Arriving at the Old Stone Trough, the gentleman in reception helped me stow my bike in their cellar and see it locked for the night. Not a side-ways glance at the rather bedraggled guest who was going to put his dirty waterproofs in their nice, clean room. Just a warm welcome and a see-you-in-the-bar-when-you-are-ready-to-eat. Perfect, really, and none too expensive.
Tucking into warm olive and tomato bruschetta, followed by a steak pie, I wondered if I should not have taken on Bleara Moor that evening. I looked out of the window and decided that if the weather were better and I got a quick breakfast at 08.00 I could “knock it off” before heading for a train home from the nearest station to wherever i ended up.
I did. Jon was right. A tough old boot of a climb, especially first thing in the morning. Steeps sections combine with gentler intervals. The compensation should be the views, but things were already clouding over and the gloomy weather forecast looked as if it were to be fulfilled.
Intending originally to get the train from Blackburn, I dropped down, away from the Cycleway, to Foulridge, for coffee by the canal and thence rode the smashing towpath (except for a well-signed and pretty route over Foulridge Tunnel) down to Colne and eventually to Burnley’s Manchester Road Station. There’s something special about the deep valleys around Todmorden, especially in dirty weather. I’d had a good, really interesting and, often, very beautiful day on the Lancashire Cycleway - and will be back to do the rest, but it was nice to be in the dry and warm for now.
Jon Sparks: The Lancashire Cycleway, published by Cicerone. Read our review.
Gpx files, to go with Jon’s guide, can be downloaded form the Cicerone website. http://www.cicerone.co.uk/product/detail.cfm/book/849/title/the-lancashire-cycleway#.WME03xicZEI
Steve stayed at the Old Stone Trough, Colne Road, Kelbrook. http://www.oldstonetrough.co.uk
General tourist information www.visitlancashire.com
Northern Rail services all have bicycle spaces - technically two per train in this area, though the guard may decide to let more on. There is an excellent rail network connecting the towns and villages of the valleys roundabout.