Altitude Gain: 892m
Time: 3-5 hrs
Altitude Gain: 1,262m
Time: 5-7 hrs
Famed amongst industrial archaeology types (like my father-in-law) as the beginning of the ludicrously betunnelled Settle to Carlisle railway, Settle is a market town to the far west of the Yorkshire Dales about 50 miles from Manchester and 40 from Leeds. It’s a pretty place, all quirky architecture and strange angles. Wandering round the centre, a plaque on one of the buildings around Market Square suggests that moustachio’d Victorian tunesmith Edward Elgar used to come here for his summer holidays; rather eccentrically he seems to have stayed in the NatWest Bank. Takes all sorts, I suppose.
However picturesque it might’ve been in the summers of the 1890s, though, the weather upon our visit is not looking good. Despite our esteemed editor’s assurance that “It’ll be lovely and sunny once you get out of Calderdale”, Chipps’ usually at-least-partially accurate weather reporting has completely deserted him, and thick fog has followed me from Todmorden like a bad milky hangover. This does not bode well for pictures of Settle’s famed ravishing scenery. Benji Haworth has kindly agreed to impart a little local trail knowledge, and he’s also going to take some photos. His difficulties are compounded by the fact that I’ll be in them, so I’m wearing my most stylish wet-weather attire safe in the knowledge that I’ll probably overheat.
Ben and I meet up in a cafe on Market Square, Ye Olde Naked Man Café. The building was originally an inn; some think the name originates in the trade sign of a local carpenter, others prefer the more macabre tale of an undertaker’s body on a slab. Whatever the origin, the cafe has a fine line in sandwiches, coffee and cakes.
Duly caffeinated, clothed, assembled and fettled, we set off to sample some of the slightly lesser known trails to the west of the town. This necessitates a road climb for 20 minutes or so up a minor road, which is enlivened by some pleasant views, the fog having temporarily lifted. Unfortunately, though, the climbing soon chucks us into the cloud layer, and white normality is resumed.
It’s not long, though, before we reach the hamlet of Wharfe. We head off past a farm to find ourselves on Bluebell Lane, a narrow walled track, enlivened by some extremely slippery limestone under tyre, and a couple of horse riders, who obligingly stop and let us pass with some pleasant banter.
Eventually the narrow channel opens out to doubletrack, and reveals an angry looking ford over Austwick Beck with a stone bridge to one side. Being rufty-tufty types, we both decide to ride the stream, which is a mistake, as the water is considerable deeper than it looks. We gain the other side with rather more squelchy feet than either of us would have liked. Wisely, we decide to forego a repeat performance for the camera.
Just round the corner, an extremely large slanted slab of limestone erupts from the track, and several attempts are made to ride it without plentiful comedy washouts. This is the main feature of riding around the Yorkshire Dales. The hard blue-grey Carboniferous limestone has produced the large underground caves and watercourses (‘gills’ and ‘pots’ on the map) and the limestone pavement that the region is famous for; it can also make for extremely slippery riding when it’s wet! There is little in the way of tight, twisty singletrack, but the challenges exist in deceptively long climbs and some extremely rocky sections where line choice is critical.
Eventually, the climb turns grassy; Ben likens it to riding on wet carpet, and he’s got a point. The soaked ground saps energy from my tyres as we plod on, the fog thickening, deadening all sounds until I’m riding in a cocoon.
I catch up with Ben, who’s stopped in front of a ‘no vehicles’ sign on top of the hill, with no road in sight. A quick peer at the map confirms that we’re at an intersection with a BOAT (byway open to all traffic), but it’s still an odd place to put a road sign, especially in the fog: for one thing, there is no evidence at all that motor vehicles have ever come this way – the ground is pristine. I’m assured that from here the views are spectacular – certainly, looking on the map, Ingleborough mountain should have been visible on our right with Pen-y-ghent behind us beyond a vast limestone plateau.
We decide to explore a little, and head further north. Our map reading skills have assured us that the next section should be gently undulating, so naturally we
are faced with a deceptive climb populated by walkers. The trail is squelchy again, with occasional muddy puddles, and we winch ourselves up it silently cursing our inability to read contour lines. After a few minutes of this, followed by more map consulting, we decide to retreat and follow the trail down towards Clapham (no, not that one). This is much more like it – gently downhill, with the odd limestone escarpement looming from the mist, the only task is avoiding the walkers once again and (having recently watched American Werewolf In London) making sure we stay on the path. All a Giggle(swick).
It’s not long before we reach Trow Gill and the track down to Thwaite Plantation. This starts off steep and pleasantly rocky, before becoming rather more ‘sanitised’. This is a double edged sword, however, as soon the smooth and extremely fast section crests a blind rise to hurtle Ben and I into another extremely rocky section at about 25mph. This is clearly far too fast, and I desperately try to float the bike over the boulders without pinch flatting or pitching myself abruptly over the bars. Fortunately Ben is skillful enough, and I lucky enough, to clean it, and the only side effect is my shrill adrenaline voice for a couple of minutes.
By this point the fog has lifted a little, so we embark on another road climb before the track again narrows, past the extraordinary Norber Erratic glacial boulder field, and we retrace our steps towards Wharfe for a swift photo session.
Crossing over the road to Austwick we again find ourselves riding more walled trails, this time an easy spin around Fiezer Hill until we emerge at Fiezer and a quick snack stop. A brief limestone uphill section is then followed by more grassy climbing, and an excellently undulating descent to Giggleswick Scar. Here, there is a short gorge descent that spits us out at Giggleswick Cave, and on to the road for a quick spin back into Settle.
After packing up and changing, we once more adjourn to the Naked Man for more food, and discussion of the routes we’re going to include. It’s always good to know that fine riding round here is always there for the taking, no matter what the weather is doing. Amazing views are the icing on the cake of a great ride, but it’s good to know the cake’s pretty tasty even without them.