With travel a little limited right now, we decided to give you a look at some of the lesser-known riding on the Yorkshire/Lancashire border above our Todmorden base.
Words Hannah Photography Singletrack
They say that Valley miles are worth double: the watershed landscape of the Pennines around Todmorden, home of Singletrack Towers, is characterised by windswept moorland tops cleft with plunging valleys. Roads with an average incline of 25% are not unusual, and the historic trails that criss-cross the wilderness in between are no different. If you don’t like hills, park up or leave the train in Todmorden and take the canal to Hebden Bridge and back. That’s your lot for flat riding here. Everything else is going to take in a climb, or two, or three. This could well be the perfect outing for your e-bike – though go easy on the boost or you’ll find yourself pushing up the final climbs, or taking a canal shortcut home.
Route options are a great resource for the rider here. Add-ons for the strong or sunny days; shortcuts for the days when the legs or rain are heavy. Clothing options are good too – conditions can change rapidly and a mile to the valley bottom can feel a very long way if the weather deteriorates. You can ride pretty much any bike you like, but you’ll probably have more fun on something that climbs fairly easily rather than being geared towards technical descents. Where we’re going, you want a mountain bike, but you don’t need anything too big – other than that rear sprocket.
It’s time for Tod
Todmorden sits in its own time zone, where hipster pop-up shops and old school half-day closing combine to leave the town’s food supplies in regular wax and wane. Thanks to the ‘Incredible Edible’ community growing project, which started here before branching out across the country, there are plenty of edible planters around town should things get really desperate. But hopefully you’re here on a day when Ham Corner is open in the indoor market, or there are bacon rolls from the cabin outside, or the local bakery is offering bagels and a selection of vegan fillings. Whatever you go for, don’t set off hungry and you’d do well to pack something for later.
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If you’re feeling ready for a baptism of fire or are confident your last meal is going to stay put, you should head straight up Honey Hole (no giggling at the back) for the near-vertical ascent to the Pennine Bridleway. This is the option for the climbing fans, or those really keen for a good view. At the top, below Gaddings Dam, Britain’s highest beach, is a ‘no dab challenge’ of a trail, and some classic Pennine scenery with the locally distinctive ‘Pack Horse Trail’ slabs of gritstone. These ancient trails cross-cross the area, keeping passing packhorses or riders from sinking into the bogs – beware of putting a foot down off the edge of one. The slabs erode very slowly, and some sink into the bogs below them, leaving trails of smooth-edged rocks which offer plenty of grip, but can throw out a surprise wheel grabber if you’re unlucky.
If you really can’t face the opening climb, then you can dawdle along the canal to Walsden, but you’re only putting off the inevitable – Calderdale is full of climbs, so adjust your mindset and prepare to grind out the miles. Whether you’re cruising along from Todmorden in the north, or riding back up the canal from the south after that first descent, a(nother) real lung buster of a climb leaves Walsden and heads into the wilds. This tarmac climb never seems to get any easier, no matter how many times you ride it. There is some respite as you pick up the dirt track – though it’s still mostly climbing, it’ll seem flat after what you’ve just done.
What’s in a name?
Names here are unpromising, and speak of weather you should hope you’re not riding in. Foul Clough Road leads into two bridleway options: one leads left to Rough Hill and is not recommended – it’s usually a boggy push. The more pleasant choice is straight on, to Hades Hill. Perhaps the locals have a sense of humour.
A glance at a map will reveal quite the network of paths. As routes cross parish boundaries, or go from Yorkshire to Lancashire, so their designations sometimes change. Footpaths become bridleways, or vice-versa, creating some frustrating missing links in potential loops. Add to that years of mining, wind-farm building, rogue motocrossers and improvised farm tracks, and little on the map reflects what’s on the ground.
If you find yourself on Hades Hill and wishing you were in the underworld and out of full exposure to the weather, you could follow the wind turbine access path to pick up the descent on the other side of Rough Hill. It’s quite fun, and it will take a chunk off the ride – we’ve certainly fled this way in winter before now, having crested the hill only to spot black clouds looming. Racing against the weather, sideways hail peppering us making the descent all the trickier with one eye closed against the shots of ice. But let’s assume you’re feeling optimistic and the day is fine. We’re heading out to enticing singletrack and involving ruts which lure you onwards, outwards across the moor, where occasional views of Rochdale, Manchester and Littleborough do little to alter the feeling that you’re a very long way from anywhere.
And so it was when we had a glorious autumn ride out here, with a whole group of industry visitors. There was chat, there was catching up, there was unseasonable warmth in the sunshine, the bogs were mostly dry, the undergrowth was crisp and golden, and there was Young Tom Boom. He may be young, but he is growing up rapidly – some days we could swear he has grown another half inch just during his morning in the office. Such upwards growth requires fuel, and on this fateful, glorious day, our Boom had set off without realising how far we were going. He followed the group, valiantly pedalling, but visibly fading. As I proffered my last jelly baby, I feared I might lose an arm. We caught up with the waiting group, resting around a bog crossing that offered entertainment potential, and Boom gratefully hoovered up more nutritional offerings. Having quietly suffered for so long, however, these were falling into a bottomless pit. It wouldn’t be until his eventual return to the office, many miles of agony later, that Tom would find sufficient food to return to his usual cheerful self.
As you gaze over the wonder that isn’t Lobden Golf Club, you also get some great views of the Peak District on a nice day, and of Manchester’s skyline too. You’ll also realise that you appear to be at the bottom of a big hill. It’s up from here for a while. Look to the distant windmills to see if the breeze is in your favour (luckily you won’t be heading all the way back to them). Now might be a good time for that snack. It’s not like we haven’t warned you, so if you’ve got this far without food, you’ve probably forgotten something else important too, like a tube, or a pump. That would be a sad oversight. Following the Mary Towneley Loop now, the going is pretty good for a while – a mix of gravel and ancient cobbles. Pay attention and don’t be too distracted by the long distance views, or the ruined buildings of the village that was flooded in 1938 to make way for Watergrove Reservoir which now covers most of the settlement.
It’ll take you a while longer before you suddenly pop out into civilisation and onto a tarmac road between houses. This won’t last long though but, unless you’re really, really suffering, resist the urge to drop down to the canal and the Summit Inn – despite the beer garden – and stay high, climbing high above the railway tunnel and its huge chimneys – reputed to be one of the oldest in the world and built by George Stephenson – because here lies a short technical singletrack descent that is worth the extra effort. Hairpin turns with consequences are a sharp contrast to the moorland bridleways elsewhere on this route, and on tired legs can feel quite a challenge. I can’t recall ever getting to this point with fresh legs – it’s far enough away from anything that links up that it’s always a hard-earned descent.
Very early in my mountain biking life, I found myself taking on a solo lap of the 48-mile Mary Towneley Loop on the first day of a very hot heatwave. By the time I completed this descent, I was utterly spent. I had used every drop of water and I was desperate. I decided that the only option was to knock on the door of a house, and ask for a refill. How does a lone female decide which random door to knock on? Having passed a few farms that made me want to pedal faster, I was feeling a little cautious. I settled on a terraced house with an especially neat front garden. I was just about to give up on waiting for a response to my knock when what might have been the oldest man in the world answered the door. He happily took my bottle, and shuffled at snail’s pace through to an ancient back kitchen that bore no resemblance to the immaculate front garden. I still feel guilty for having disturbed him, the effort it took him to shuffle to the door and back was obvious – so obvious that there was no way I could do what I so desperately wanted to do: drain the bottle and ask for another refill.
Hitting the valley bottom canal, you’ll recognise your tracks from a few hours earlier. You could continue back up Mary Towneley Loop from here, but it’s a slog and a push this way. Better to head to Walsden again and turn up the short but steep road climb that will put you one final effort away from a freewheel back into town. Eventually you’ll reach what was the no dab challenge for the very keen at the start of the ride – descending under Gaddings Dam, there are no more route choices for you – only pubs. Pause here for a drink at the Shepherd’s Rest, with its traditional feel and extensive beer garden, or continue on down into Todmorden to the Golden Lion, a Todmorden institution which defies categorisation. Is it a traditional pub? A craft ale house? A Thai restaurant? A nightclub? Today, it’ll be whatever its owner, Gig, has decided – and that may be a mix of all of the above. After a day of route choices, it’s time to make one last decision: which beer first? Now sit back and go with the flow – how the rest of the evening goes may well be a matter of chance, or chaos, rather than rational choice. Enjoy it, you’ve earned it.
Todmorden is within easy train reach of Leeds and Manchester, and between the M62 and M65, making it an accessible destination for a lot of people. But, with its miles of trails and wild landscape, you won’t feel like you’re on an urban doorstep. You could easily ride for hours and only ever see a couple of other people, and much of this route will feel remote. It’s a proper taste of isolation without the high elevation of the mountains – though you’ll find these Pennine moors are plenty exposed to the elements. Though the climbs are steep, you should be able to pedal your way round – maybe with a stop or two to take in the view and catch your breath – rather than having to shoulder a bike and carry it.
Whether you’re more used to the colour-coded routes of a trail centre, or used to big days out in the back of beyond, the countryside here is well worth exploring. Trails vary from doubletrack to singletrack bogs and ruts, to the distinctive ancient packhorse trail slabs, giving rides a varied feel. Scenery varies too, from open moorland, to hill farms, to green valley fields and patches of woodland.
Even if you’ve been here before, the passage of time – sometimes not that much of it – can give a ride a very different feel to the time before. Whether it’s a rain storm that has washed out a trail, the ever-changing squelch levels under your tyres, or the broad skies above your head, the weather here brings huge changes to the experience of a ride in the area. Seasons bring changes in vegetation and wildlife, from the barren chills of November, to the ice frostings of February and the wheeling skylarks of summer. Flocks of goldfinches feasting on thistle seeds catch the eye more often than the less common, but boringly brown, twite, and grass uplands may not sound that exciting, but the landscape and wildlife here are quite unique. Wilderness turned to industrial heartland and back to wilderness again, leaving the footprints of bygone times if you know where to look.
As well as the landscape and plethora of trails, another reason to bother visiting is that Todmorden and the wider Calder Valley have had things pretty rough, with repeated flooding of local homes and businesses. Todmorden has quietly been acquiring a cool selection of independent eateries, bars, and local produce, somewhat in the shadow of the better known Hebden Bridge along the road. These businesses have endured through the floods and battled the physical, mental and financial stress of the subsequent clear-ups. Visiting the area and spending your money here goes a long way to supporting the community, especially in the absence of big corporates to siphon the cash away to a far-flung headquarters or tax haven.
And, needless to say, Todmorden is (and always has been) the home of this very magazine. There’s a reason we still choose to be here – and on a warm, summer’s day, there’s really nowhere better.
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The Todmorden Knowledge
- Distance: 30.8km
- Elevation: 917m
- Time: 2–4hrs
- Map: OS Landranger OL21
There’s not that much in Todmorden itself, but there’s plenty just down the valley in Hebden Bridge. Halifax and Todmorden are on the mainline between Manchester and Leeds, so there are options aplenty.
High above Tod, Two Hoots Cottage guesthouse is right on the edge of the countryside and seconds from the trails. It only has one twin room but boasts the best breakfasts in town.
The Queen Hotel, Todmorden is literally opposite the railway station’s front door and offers a number of rooms, decent breakfast, and an eclectic bar clientele of diehard locals, railway workers and business travellers.
There is a Youth Hostel in Mankinholes, which is up on the moors, halfway between Tod and Hebden Bridge.
Park outside Singletrack Towers in the Union Street public car park – OL14 5PX. Or get the train – there are direct links from Leeds and Manchester.
Todmorden Bike shops
Cycle Factory, right in Todmorden by the Shell Garage is a Premier Dealer and purveyor of bespoke mountain bike builds, as well as all the usual bike shop stuff.
Harry Ingham Cycles is unlikely to be open, and unlikely to have much you’d need to fix a modern mountain bike, but if you do happen to catch him open and you’re a bit of a nerd, it’s worth sticking your head in to see whether he’s got any retro treasures. You never quite know what you’ll find there.
Food and drink
Todmorden has a great indoor and outdoor market, open Wednesday to Saturday.
Ham Corner in the market hall will sell you a ham roll with more ham and mustard on it than you can handle. Also look out for their selection of pork pies. Or try Brian’s next door for equally giant filled rolls.
If the outdoor market is on, follow your nose – you may find dhosas, onion bhajis, or even a wild boar burger. Most days you’ll find the bacon butty shack next to the outdoor market is open for traditional greasy fried goodness.
Pre-ride, or if you’re back before 2.30pm, we love the Little Bird Café on Halifax Road for fish finger sandwiches.
‘The Pub’ is barely big enough for more than a handful, but its ever-changing array of real ales and gins makes it a good bet for a post-ride drink.
The Golden Lion can rightfully claim to be Tod’s cultural centre, but it’s a lottery as to whatever adventure you’ll find on a particular day. It’s always fun, but with events varying from UFO club meets and poetry nights to full-on raves, you’re guaranteed great Thai food and top notch beer. Bikes and riders are made very welcome.
This feature was produced with support from Komoot.