A Love Affair with the Dales
Ahead of this weekend's Dales Divide ultra race we asked our friend Beth Jackson, Chairwoman of Kendal CC and 2021 #GBDURO rider, for her write up and photo diary of a recent weekend bike packing the Yorkshire Dales.
Born and bred in the Midlands, I emigrated to Cumbria 12 years ago and have spent much of that time exploring the roads, lakes and mountains of the Lake District. However I have to confess to having had a passionate (GRVL) love affair with the Yorkshire Dales for the past 4 months.
I’m signed up to take part in GBDURO21, a huge portion of the route is off road and the Dales has been the perfect place to build up endurance and technical ability. With it being *almost* a stone's throw away from home in Kendal, I used lockdown as my excuse to ride from the front door, often doing a good 30/40 miles before getting to the fun GRVL stuff. Don’t get me wrong the Lakes has some fantastic off road riding, but nothing compares to what I’ve ridden so far in the Dales. Endless choice, views for miles and a feeling of being truly on your own.
My good friend Sylvie recently bought a gravel bike. So we hatched a plan for a mini adventure on the first weekend that overnight stays were allowed in England. Rather selfishly I insisted on going back to the Dales. Sylvie’s fairly new to off-road riding, so naturally I threw her in at the deep end with a 100 mile loop over two days, 13k ft ascent and mostly off-road.
Starting in Clapham (not the one in That London), we headed North out of the village on a gravel track which forms part of the Pennine Bridleway. It passes through a series of tunnels that were built to allow access underneath the Ingleborough Hall Estate. (You can just about make it through without any lights.)
A brief but steep climb follows, then a sharp left takes you onto Long Lane. This track meanders up to the top of Long Scar, with spectacular views towards Ingleborough on the left, a mixture of wide, rocky and grassy slopes gets you to the top. From the top we headed down into the Ribblesdale Valley, continuing our path along the Pennine Bridleway, which forms most of the first day's route.
Crossing the River Ribble, we started our next ascent up to the Roman Road that connects Cam Fell and Bainbridge. It was here we quickly realised our first packing error, no sun cream and far too many thermals! 17 degrees in April wasn’t what we expected but we weren’t going to complain.
The track up to Cam Fell is one of my favourites and we took a few minutes at Ling Gill Bridge to have a paddle. Approaching the top of the climb it can be easy to miss the view of Ribblehead Viaduct to the left if you're concentrating on the track in-front of you, take a minute at the top to soak it all in.
Cam High Road - the Roman Road that traverses Wether fell is pencil straight, super wide, covered in loose, rocky marbles and one of the best off road descents in the North West.
I’ve ridden it before on my full suss MTB and lost a set of brake pads. It perhaps pushes the limits of a gravel bike but take it slow and steady it’s still as much fun and the most direct route straight down into the village of Bainbridge for lunch at the Cornmill Tea Rooms.
What goes down must sadly go back up again (well it does on my routes). To get up and over into Swaledale, we took the road over Askrigg Common, a couple of 25% sections and a few expletives got us to the top. The descent was spectacularly smooth, sitting in the shadow of Oxnop Scar from there we dropped down to the main road through Swaledale.
I wanted to get us to the top of Tan Hill. Off road the easiest access point is via the valley North of Muker on the Pennine Bridleway. A bike-packer's paradise, the deep sided valley, with green pastures and ‘civilised’ gravel (as Sylvie had come to call the easier stuff), made me feel like we were in the French Alps (the weather might have had something to do with it as well).
The track soon starts to climb as you approach Swinner Gill, evidence of the area’s lead mining industry is dotted all over the place, and I’m guessing the reason why so many of these gravel access tracks exist.
From East Stonesdale we continued on the bridleway up to Tan Hill, but it was pretty hard going, hike a bike for a good km, then a bog fest as the track opens up onto Black Moor. We eventually abandoned the bridleway (which seemed to vanish before us) and joined the road for the last push to the top (I’ve amended the route to avoid this).
Tan Hill Inn (the highest pub in England) was interesting, it’s usually busy but I’ve never seen it quite like that before. Camper vans and tents lined the roadside, and there was a queue 30 deep to get a drink, not much social distancing going on either. I’d promised Sylvie a pint of at the top, but it was already 6pm and we needed to push on to get to Reeth before last orders at the pub. We left Tan Hill and layered up as the temperature was dropping pretty rapidly, it’s 11 miles to Reeth and mostly downhill. We refilled ourselves at the Black Bull Inn and tried to warm back up with a Hot Chocolate.
We planned to stay in Grinton overnight, which is an excellent base for any cycling weekend. It’s home to the Dales Bike Centre (which has an amazing caf) and there’s a large YHA overlooking the valley with glamping pods, and camping facilities.
Unfortunately, both were still closed so we did a cheeky wild camp up on Grinton Moor.
We woke to watch the sunrise on Sunday morning, surrounded by grouse, who were very inquisitive and not bothered one bit by our presence.
It was a cold, uncomfortable night, it dropped below freezing and we were both keen to get going to try and warm up. I hesitated about the next section around the three moors: Harkerside, Whitaside and East Bolton. On the map it looked a bit pointless, as we were basically doing an out and back from where we started and it’s so tempting when you're tired to miss a ‘pointless’ bit out, but I’m glad we didn’t!
10 miles of ‘civilised’ undulating gravel with incredible views back down the Swaledale Valley. Re-joining the road, a fast descent took us down to Castle Bolton home to the medieval Bolton Castle which dominates this small village. We were relieved to find a hose pipe outside the castle and filled up our water bottles as we forgot to fill up at the pub the night before - whoops.
Next stop Aysgarth Falls - and the coffee shop with the same name that sits at the top of another cheeky 25% climb, second breakfast scoffed. I knew there was a spectacularly stabby climb ahead to get us up and over onto Carlton Moor.
A farmer and trailer were blocking the entrance so we stopped to de-layer and mentally prepare ourselves for what we quickly realised would be a hike-a-bike. The farmer stopped for a chat as he passed, asked where we were going and proceeded to laugh as we pointed up the track, “good luck with that he shouted, go too slow and the cows will get you”..... charming! It was pretty much a walk to the top,
I kept reassuring Sylvie that often the hardest ascents often open out onto a brilliant descent, and we weren’t disappointed dropping down into Carlton with big smiles on our faces.
A steady but long ascent to the top of Cam Head was planned, but I was nervous as to how steep the off-road descent into Kettlewell was going to be with how dry the terrain was and knowing there was little run off at the bottom. So we decided to descend on the road via the infamous ‘Park Rash’, to avoid getting gravel rash.
We refuelled in Kettlewell with coffee, ice cream and wensleydale sandwiches, you can’t come to the Dales without trying the local delicacy that is Wensleydale cheese (as made famous by Wallace and Gromit!), the cranberry variety is a particular weakness of mine.
We took the main road out of Kettlewell passing under Kilnsey Crag, a popular climbing spot and turned off to join the eastern side of Mastiles Lane. This is a track that’s been on my gravel list for a while and was the inspiration for this route and it didn’t disappoint.
Climbing up and out of Kilnsey on a private road, the view opens up and you can see the challenge ahead. The photo doesn’t quite show how steep it is. I managed to ride up 95% of the climb, dabbing just metres before the top - unfinished business. From there it’s a fast descent, a mixture of gravel and grassy fields to the top of Malham Tarn.
A popular tourist spot during the day, we managed to get it all to ourselves in the late afternoon, sadly swimming in the tarn has been banned so we pushed on to get back to Clapham before it got late.
The sun was starting to drop in the sky and we got a beautiful view of Pen-Y-Ghent as we dropped down into Helwith Bridge, a small hamlet where the infamous 3 Peaks CX race starts and finishes.
The quickest way back into Clapham is to pick up the Pennine Bridleway again just north of Austwick, take in that spectacular view we started with one more time, before the quick descent back through the tunnels to the start.
Total Distance: 164km (and only 75km of asphalt!)
Total Elevation: ^3,180m
If you fancy taking on Beth's route you can see it and download the GPX from Komoot here: https://www.komoot.com/tour/357814421