Mark takes a trip back to the trails of his youth and remembers why he still loves riding the trails of Rivington Pike.
Words Mark Photography Amanda
This being the 20th anniversary issue of the mag, it would seem almost planned that this ride would be one that I rode on a seemingly regular basis 20 years ago. There’s a definite sense of history here, both in the actual landscape and the connection I have with it on a personal level.
It was a trail where I first learned how technical a downhill section could be and how much faster those far better riders than I could clear it. It’s the first place I remember referring to the phrase ‘babyhead rocks’. It hosted one of the first races that I attended as a freelance journalist and it is also the place I met my wife on our first date.
Much has changed here in the last 25 years of my personal relationship with these trails, but a huge amount of the history here goes back way further than that and remains the same today as it was 25 years ago. This is a trail as much for those who appreciate riding through a uniquely British post-industrial revolution landscape as much as they love a great day out on a bike with a bit of everything thrown in, from flat wide bridleways to fast, technical descents. It’s as perfect a place for complete beginners as it is for those looking to hone their downhill chops. This is the story of Rivington.
For me, travelling home from the south of the UK means crawling north up the M6. It’s a tedious road, as are most motorways. The exceptions being the expensive bit of toll motorway that skirts around Birmingham and the final three miles of the M6 before the obligatory stop at Tebay services. But the journey home up the M6 reaches a point of relief when I catch sight of Winter Hill and the huge transmitter at its summit. The huge 309m/1,015ft cloud-busting pole tells me I’m almost home and it also serves as a handy marker, like a giant map pin, for Leverhulme park and Rivington Pike.
Between the M6 and Winter Hill lies one of the region’s largest factory complexes. The famous Heinz factory with its massive red Heinz 57 logo. This actually gives us a clue to the provenance of the landscape that this ride sits in. There’s a great deal of post-industrial revolution history here, but it goes back even further than that. One of the tracks included on this ride is actually an ancient Roman road. The so-called pike sits on the site of an ancient beacon that was lit during the sighting of the Spanish Armada. There’s evidence that the sides of the hill on which it sits have been excavated and deliberately steepened. The pike itself is not a folly, like many of the other famous pikes dotted across the North. It actually used to be a hunting lodge and was built in 1733 on the site of the old beacon by John Andrews of Rivington Hall. The gardens through which many of the paths and the network of bridleways pass have been managed, landscaped and cultivated for several centuries. The reservoir is not a natural feature – very few reservoirs are. In short, the signs of industry are visible along every path, road and track of this route. I’d go so far to say that outside of urban routes in and around towns and cities, there are few trails in the UK that have been quite so processed as this one.
Is that detrimental to the riding? No. Certainly not in my opinion. History lovers who ride should ensure this classic ride is on their bucket lists. The fact the Leverhulme area has been made a people’s park with a right to roam protected by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act means the paths and bridleways are in high concentration within the park. The route we picked out here contains a bit of everything and it’s pretty extensive at 28km. Don’t let that put you off – whether you’re looking for something shorter or longer, there are a wealth of options and, to be honest, every time I’ve visited this area over the years we’ve neither had a specific plan in mind before we got there or repeated many rides more than a few times. The conversation goes along the lines of ‘agreeing to ride Rivi this week’. That’s as far as it goes. There’s rarely a plan of what to actually ride until we get there.
The bridleways are wide and rocky, the paths narrow, but there are plenty of both to choose from. It’s hard to get lost since you are mostly on the side of a hill – that means you go downhill to find your car and up to discover more fun. If you are on one of the trails running alongside Anglezark Reservoir then you are pretty much always in view of the pike to anchor your sense of geographic position.
It’s a bit ‘elephant in the room’ really, since there’s almost no point on this ride that you can’t see it. It’s a digital TV transmitter mast that’s over 1,000 feet tall. It’s one of the tallest man-made structures in the UK and on our visit the clouds were low enough that the top of the mast was poking through them. There are bridleways and paths that cross the open moorland to the tower, although they are pretty boggy most of the year.
Pop quiz! Winter Hill and top trials genius Danny MacAskill share a musical connection. If you know what it is then, just for fun, let us know on our website: singletrackworld.com/category/singletrack-magazine/classic-ride/
Mountain bikers have lived together alongside the multitude of walkers here for several decades and so far so good. The Rivington Pike Wikipedia page states: “The area is popular with hill walkers and for mountain biking.” In the very first paragraph. That recognition demands a high level of respect and despite the absence of any stringent rights of way signage and a general acceptance, within the limits of the off-piste riding that is clearly happening through the park, you really need to avoid some key areas.
There are terraced gardens on the steepest faces of the hill. These are centuries old and are maintained by a team of volunteers. Do NOT ride in them. I mean it. Stay away from those paths. If you don’t you’ll bugger it up for the rest of us. There are also fenced off and signed conservation areas. It shouldn’t need saying, but just in case. Don’t ride there either!
You can ride to the top, though, to the pike itself, which is reached by a spiralling track that wraps itself around the hill. At the top you will see a great deal. Out to the west you look across the West Lancashire flatlands out to the Irish Sea. On a clear day you can see Blackpool Tower and the mountains of both North Wales and the Lake District. But right there at the summit you will see the history of the area literally chiselled into the stonework over the last two centuries. Seriously, there’s ‘graffiti’ here with dates like 1857. If anyone tries to tell you that the youth of today don’t respect their environment like they used to in the ‘good old days’, then point them to this place and they will see that writing your name into things and declaring your love for ‘Donna’ is literally a tradition going back centuries. You have to admire those who left their marks here – they didn’t have paint cans or sharpies to tag the buildings. No, they trekked up the hill with hammers and chisels and must have spent hours on the job. Judging by the height some of these ancient tags can be found up the wall, they must have dragged ladders up with them too. Those ‘vandals’ deserve a lot of respect. And perhaps it should also serve as a learning moment to maybe give our current generation a break. See! History never stops teaching us stuff.
When you are done admiring the work of Victorian vandals there’s the rocky drop off the front of the pike to enjoy. It starts with big rocky steps and then transitions into a game of pick-a-rut before you get spat out at the gate to the main ex-Roman road. But that’s not the end of the technical fun – the best is yet to come.
The Ice Cream Run
You will meet walkers no matter when you go and probably a lot of them. If history and riding cautiously is not your thing, then best give it all a miss rather than upset the peace that currently exists between riders and walkers. That said, despite the plethora of history and bimbling tracks by the reservoir, there is adrenalin to be had.
The story of the park does include some mountain bike history too. The Ice Cream Run is an old washed-out road that starts from the really weird, tall pigeon house on the Roman road that runs north from the pike. Until 1948 this was a maintained road, but it washed out and has been left to its own devices ever since. It served as a downhill course for an early race series in the 1990s and I scored my first freelance journey chops there, writing a few paragraphs for MBUK.
It’s known as the Ice Cream Run because, to this day, it’s where you’ll find an ice cream van right at the bottom every weekend. It’s a steep, rock-strewn track the likes of which I’ve rarely come across anywhere else in the UK. It is actually a road and technically you could try to drive a car up it – but only if you are really stupid. There are stretches of smoother singletrack running down each side, carved out by walkers and riders who just see the central ancient road as an unnavigable track. The walkers tend to occupy the higher lines and if you do decide to ride these, you need to keep the speed down and watch out for those on foot. Mostly there is nowhere to go if you meet at speed. For the ambitious, though, you can have a lot of space, more speed and definitely more fun by tackling the wreck that is the old ruined road. There’s even a tiny patch of old tarmac from back in the 1940s when it was last maintained. It now sits proud of the eroded track level by a good few feet. Riding it without dabbing is a badge of honour; cleaning it at speed is a class performance to brag about. You could just come here for this section – many do and session it up and down. You could build the Ice Cream Run into a much shorter route that stays close to the pike, in fact you really shouldn’t take the route we have here as the last word on the best route here. That is very much down to you and what you feel like doing when you get there.
If I haven’t sold it to you yet, then let me also point out that Leverhulme Park is a green patch of land that sits conveniently in one of the most densely populated parts of the country. You can be looking for your parking spot in the numerous free car parks in less than 30 minutes from central Manchester. It literally overlooks Bolton and is 20 minutes along the M61 from the M6. From the summit you can see cars driving around in Chorley, and there’s Preston, Blackburn and Lancaster all within an hour’s drive. This makes it local to literally tens of millions of people and one of the most accessible destinations for mountain bikers in the UK. I learned to ride off-road here and 25 years on I still love to ride there for the variety of options and more recently its history.
When we rode there for this feature, lockdown had closed all the places to eat, but there is a chance that when you read this, that situation will be starting to ease. If that’s the case, then the Great House Barn is where you should be aiming to take a lunch break before you head out again to try some new trails. You can take the kids with you; you can walk in ruined castles by the reservoir before booking into a shore-side Go Ape tree adventure. You can even go to see a football match at the Bolton University stadium, home of kickballers Bolton Wanderers – although I have no idea why anyone would do that. I only mention it, because if I didn’t you’d only get to the pike and say ‘Hey! What’s that massive stadium over there…?’.
- Distance: 34.5km
- Elevation: 690m
- Time: 3–5 hours
- Map: OS Landranger 109
Leverhulme Park is within an hour’s drive of so many places in the North West of England that the choices for accommodation are literally too numerous to count.
Rivington Lodge is a new motorway service station on the M61. You can get a room there from £36. Bonus is the onsite Burger King, Starbucks and even a Greggs for the surprisingly good vegan sausage rolls.
Football may not be your thing, but the onsite hotel at the Bolton University Stadium is pretty good for £75.
But, seriously, you could match a day’s riding here with myriad city break options in the North West.
For spares and supplies the Green Machine in Horwich is just a few minutes’ drive from the entrance to the park.
Food and Drink.
If the ice cream van at the end of The Ice Cream Run is not enough for you, then Great House Barn is on-site for food and drink. But you are in the centre of the Northern metropolis and everything from fast food to fine dining is close by.
It’s pretty much motorway all the way. From the south head up the M6 and exit at junction 28 on to the M61. Exit at junction 6, but take the third exit and not what looks to be the more obvious first exit. At the roundabout turn right on to the A6 for a mile before turning right and crossing over the motorway towards Horwich. At the next junction the entrance to Leverhulme Park is in front of you.