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Not the bicycle, the dale and the valley of the River Ribble ….. Kim Stone rode downstream from Ribblehead to Preston


Widdale and Ribble

Actually, setting out from Hawes so the steady climb up Widdale over to Newby Head to cross the watershed into Ribblesdale had provided a warm up by the time the weather worn citadel of the Settle to Carlisle railway line came into view. The Ribblehead viaduct famously defended in a campaign to keep the line open claims the land for humankind much as a wild-west frontier fort asserted that the cavalry were, to some extent, in control.

The Ribble does not gain its name until Ribblehead is reached, though the waters have gathered and the Gayle Beck does a pretty good imitation of a moorland river, as the road runs close to it on the way to Ribblehead from Newby Head. On no account should this section of road be left out of a ride down Ribblesdale. A long, descent from Newby Head on a good surface with a sparkling stream as a companion guiding one to wider and wider views of Pen-y-Ghent is not to be missed. It helped more than a little, perhaps, that the drizzle of Widdale had given way to the sun-rays of Ribblesdale.

There was a major walking event taking place on the Three Peaks route, so a temporary village of campervans and tents huddled at the roadside where the path leaves the road for the viaduct. The few people in the scene vanish in the vast landscape. And the road rolled past with glimpses of Ingleborough behind Park Fell and Simon Fell.

To follow the River Rubble a turn onto the B6479 takes one away from the scar-ridden hills that flank the River Doe on its way to Ingleton, and finds a gentler valley. Despite this, a quick look at the map shows an array of potholes and lines of limestone scars, though it is the familiar stepped peak of Pen-y-Gent that takes the view from the road until Horton-in-Ribblesdale is passed.


Horton and Settle

One day I will follow the Pennine Bridleway. This comes down from the hills at Horton.  This would make a fine route from or to Hawes, dependent on how long one has to take.  The Yorkshire Dale has many, many fine bridleways which can be followed on a bicycle using either the 1:50 000 or 1: 25000 OS maps. There’ll be a strong element of exploration and one should take especial care of this sensitive environment as well as of oneself. There’ll be times when you will be carrying the bike.

Horton has several places to refresh and a village shop at which to restock re-stock the saddlebag.  Often busy, it is the main settlement of upper Ribblesdale, thronged with walkers, cyclists, sight-seers many of whom seek accommodation in the various bed and breakfasts and at the campsite. If you are planning to stay, it is, in my experience, sensible to phone ahead. There is a railway station and you can take your bike on the train – if there is space, and that is not always the case.

The going around Horton is fairly easy, though proceeding in a southerly direct one is given a sharp reminder that this is a hilly area when a quick rear up and a tumbling descent stick their noses in just between Helwith Bridge and Stainforth. The views remain very good though the Ribble becomes less companionable on the approach of the Settle-Giggleswick “conurbation” as the road pulls away before running down into the pretty town centre of the main market town of Ribblesdale.

A cobbled market square surrounded by sturdy stone buildings that hark back to bygone years of markets and industry, whist catering for the modern day visitor and resident, the whole is backed on the east by the steep sided hills that bar the way to Malham to those who dislike a climb that is amongst the stiffest of the stiff. A group of cyclists studied maps by the market cross. Three pointed towards Malham, four at the way I had come from Horton. Democracy triumphed.

As a solo cyclist my decision on which café to refuel at could be taken without such convoluted processes. It was made simple by the fact that though there were many cafes only two were open at the still relatively early hour on a Sunday morning. One was crowded; the other had a smattering of motorcyclists. Opting for the latter provided a more than satisfactory breakfast which was to take me all the way to the end of the ride without replenishment.

Breakfast gave time to ponder. The only way to follow the course of the Ribble, even vaguely, after Settle is to use the A65 and the A682 to Gisburn. The former, in particular, can carry significant traffic on its often winding and narrow carriageways; unpleasant for the experienced, potentially nerve-wracking for the new-comer. To avoid these, the Ribble has to be abandoned at Wigglesworth for a pleasant ride through rolling farmland and a brief dalliance with the Skirden and Holden Becks until the Ribble is re-joined a little above Sawley.

Clitheroe on the Road

Opting for the pleasant ride, I was treated to the sight of a big club ride, fast, tourer, family, all inclusive, heading in the opposite direction towards Settle in separate groups along these lovely hedge-lined lanes that take the rider in the pastoral gentleness that divides the Dales from the Forest of Bowland. Next to the green, at Wigglesworth, the last views up the Dales made for a sad farewell.

Despite this yearning for the hills, the run down to Sawley is beautiful. The becks hold their character as streams born in Gisburn Forest, their wild freedom baulking at the pastures and hay meadows that gather around them as they pass farms and villages on their way to join the mature Ribble.

Wilderness and Rebellion?

Sawley was a wild spot once, though today its stone bridge looks as if it has been there forever, the houses line both banks of the river and cars are parked as the occupants head take tea or to sit or stroll by the river. In 1147 Cistercian monks came here; they sought the wild so as to escape engagement from the temptations of the world and reliance on others. By the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries the prosperity of Sawley Abbey, never great, had declined, though there is no reason to think that the monks were any less dedicated.  In fact four, including the abbot were executed following their involvement in the Pilgrimage of Grace, a revolt against Henry VIII’s attack on the monasteries and some other aspects of the Reformation, boosted by social and economic discontent.

The Sawley of today was full of blossom and quiet prosperity. The river, since Gisburn, has settled into the broadening Ribble Valley which has replaced the wilder Ribblesdale. Harold Briercliffe’s cycling guide to the north of England seems an acceptable source for this distinction, but it is a transformation that has become apparent, at some indistinct spot, somewhere along the way.

An undulating minor road runs on the north side of the river as far as Waddington. A pretty village at the foot of a long road climb to Waddington Moor, it is also the junction for Clitheroe and a ride over Pendle Hill. The Ribble at Clitheroe is excellent for paddling, whilst the town is a good place to stop for a night or two.

Beyond Waddington, keeping off the main road becomes a little convoluted, but remains straightforward with the odd diversion from the bee-line. A more direct line for Preston could have been maintained, but I wanted to visit Ribchester. Thus a short swing south to cross the River Calder at Whalley (an attractive small town and site of another Abbey) and a surprisingly attractive ride along a signed on-road cycle route past Brockhall Village. 

Brockhall Village is a modern development on the site of Brockhall Hospital, originally built before the Great War as an Inebriate Women’s Reformatory. The hospital became one of the largest institutions for people with learning disabilities, closing in 1992.

A surprisingly steep descent near Salesbury Hall was proving to be equally surprising as an ascent to two large groups of leisure riders heading in the opposite direction. Despite the sharp upward kick, they made steady progress and could all say “Hello!” 



Though the B6245 runs through Ribchester its riverside position and lovely stone houses give it the feel of a settlement on the end of a cul-de-sac. Buy at the shop, drink at the pub, picnic on the riverbank, the place invites idling and the slow river is accompanied by grassy banks and a pleasing riverside walk beneath the trees by the Church.

As in much of this area the village was once dominated by textile manufacture. This did not always make for prosperity and the numerous weavers in this area faced as harder times as their more urban counterparts. If you like browsing round country churches, then St. Wilfrid’s is for you, containing, as it does a number of features that, whilst replicated in so many others, cement common past in our present. Keen church-seekers, such as the editor, may well pedal the short distance to St. Saviour’s, Stydd. A hazy past with surprising twists and turns makes this an interesting site, as well as being one of Lancashire’s few churches dating from before the middle of the twelfth century.

Ribchester’s history, of course, dates back to the building of a fort by the Romans. Presumably there was a ford nearby by which a road crossed the Ribble. There is a museum and there are some remains, though the fact that the fort site seems to have remained the centre of the village means that much has been obscured by later occupation.


The final stretch that must be done

Beyond Ribchester the approach of Preston is felt, increasingly so after Longridge is skirted. The M6 junctions and the busiest roads can be avoided by a short diversion to pick up and follow NCR6 to the north of Grimsargh. For me, there had come that moment when the ride was over and it had to be admitted. Getting to Preston station was the priority and though the way was far from peaceful, it was more direct. In any case, the run down the Ribble had been accomplished and taking the shorter route gave me a few minutes to sit in the riverside park, close to the station. Part of Preston’s proud Victorian heritage, rather like the Ribblehead viaduct is for our railways, and just a day’s ride into a different world.




OS 1:50 000 sheets 98, 102,103.

Getting to Ribblehead

Well, if you don’t cycle, the alternatives are driving or the railway. Ribblehead has its own station with trains from Leeds and Carlisle. Alighting at Ribblehead, one can ride up to Newby Head, if so inclined. Alternatively, for that fine breed of cyclists who prefer to retrace steps as little as possible, alighting at Dent Station, dropping down to Dentdale and climbing back under the railway will avoid all but a short replication. Allow it to be said that by the end of the latter your legs will be well-warmed up.  Trains do not run directly from Clitheroe to Preston, a change at Blackburn being required, except on Sunday, when a single, seasonal, service in each direction links Preston directly to Ribblehed via Hellifield. Check times and cycle carriage.

Accommodation and Refreshments

There is no shortage either, but the area is very popular, so ring ahead or book in advance if you want to stay in a particular spot.




Ryton On Dunsmore

Coventry  CV8 3FH


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