With the main road behind us it’s suddenly peaceful, and the only sound on the slight breeze is the piercing cry of curlews buzzing the heather moorland hillside that our steep, straight road is climbing up. Unfortunately we’re struggling to appreciate all this idyllic serenity through the sound of our rasping lungs and pounding hearts – the word ‘steep’ doesn’t really do it justice. It’s doing that typical no-nonsense northern thing of tackling the hill head on, leaving a thin strip of tarmac rising relentlessly in front.
My guide for the day is photographer, guide book writer and part-time window cleaner Tony Cooper, whose recently-operated-on knee likes the steep climbs even less than my lungs. At least we’ve had a chance to warm up on the quiet rolling road since the start in Hawes.
Wind the clock back half an hour and I’m happily chatting as we leave the busy little market town in the Wensleydale Valley, with its wide, bunting-draped, tea shop-lined high street. Unsuspectingly I follow Tony’s wheel over the River Ure, to spin along a gently contouring lane running along the northern side of the valley heading east.
Cruising past ancient-looking stone barns, through fields tinted golden with wild clover, I mention my legs seemed to feel good today – but Tony points out there’s a slight tailwind. “We’ll be riding into that on the way back,” he reminds me cheerfully. He’s right, there’s no such thing in cycling as bad and good days – just headwinds and tailwinds.
But long before the headwind we arrive in Askrigg. More bunting, more tea shops abound – quintessential Dales. Which is surely why it was chosen as the location for 1980s TV series All Creatures Great and Small. “That was the Drover’s Arms,” says Tony, pointing at the King’s Arms Hotel.
At this point Tony warns against stopping to try a pint of William Younger’s, with his ride’s first real test just around the corner. Literally. After winding gently up through the village we crest a brow and then almost immediately fork left up the aptly named Moor Road heading for the hills.
Time to climb
A few hundred metres off the high street we get a warning shot of what’s to come as I’m sent flailing down though the gears to scrabble round a steep S-bend. A short series of almost flat, snaking bends lulls me into a sense of false security and then ‘Kapow!’ Rounding a slow, blind left-hander the gradient kicks up to 20-odd per cent and stays there for the next mile. Grinding up the slope, false crests dash our hopes as we reach them, only to see the road stretching up to the next new horizon. This is Flow Edge, and it’s a tough testament to the amount of climbing in the Dales that it’s only really known to locals.
Near the 520-metre high top of the moor the pitch of the road calms down and we get to enjoy the view. Patches of still brown heather splatter the pale green, rolling moors in every direction under a bright, broad sky. Far behind us on the other side of Wensleydale, Tony points out the distant sparkle of Semer Water – Yorkshire’s second largest natural lake. This man is a moving guide book.
Soon, all we can see behind us is more rolling moorland and the best views are starting to appear in the north, across Swaledale, where we’re headed for an already anticipated cake stop. Equally mouthwatering is knowing that all that separates us from it is almost five miles of descending. First though there’s a cycling treat for all our hard work, as we get to swoop down into a steep little stream-cut valley, trying to hold as much speed through the bottom as possible to carry us up the other side. It’s like a fairground ride – without the ear-splitting music.
The next four miles live up to their payback promise with interest, with fast, open descending off the edge of the moorland on narrow but unwalled lanes. The long sightlines mean we can really go for it – our only concern the occasional sheep that has wandered onto the road.
No descent lasts forever, and soon the lane starts to twist and turn past farmyards and the walls and trees lining it start closing in. Add to this a line of loose stones washed into the middle by rain, and our carefree free-fall turns into a careful creep around the last few steep bends before we bottom out next to the River Swale.
From here to Grinton is a picturesque roller-coaster couple of miles roughly following the river east to Grinton, where we cross the bridge over the broad River Swale to the Dales Bike Centre in Fremington. Homemade cakes, excellent coffee, accommodation and a bike wash… we almost stay the night.
But we’re only 15 miles into our day, with the second highest climb of the ride just waiting for us back over the other side of the bridge where we came from. Too steep to sit and spin, we’re forced to settle into another out-of-the-saddle effort. It’s nowhere near as steep or long as Flow Edge, and Tony distracts me from my brief suffering with a tale of teenage cycling adventure to the Grinton Lodge youth hostel at the top of the climb. I do a double take when he reminds me that we’re riding part of the Tour de France route now. No matter how sunny, Grinton seems a long way from the Champs Élysées.
The memory of the pro peloton dancing up this ‘climb’ as if it wasn’t even there inspires us and we power past the youth hostel and over the top. Yet more beautiful, wild, open moorland greets us there, and we come to a scene that belongs on a biscuit tin: two girls leading their horses across a stone bridge with a backdrop of heather moorland.
But the climbing is not done yet, and we don’t top out until we’ve been going up for about three miles, right into the heart of the vast, flat Bellerby Moor. Like a huge patchwork quilt the moor stretches out in all directions with every shade of green and brown stitched together, punctuated by the occasional sharp-edged strip of blackened ground where the heather has been burnt to promote regrowth.
After more of a change of gradient than a summit, the road tips down, and Tony tells me the next five miles are downhill to Leyburn. Minutes later I’m topping 40mph down Whipperdale Bank, reminding myself to tuck in elbows and knees and close my mouth – a toothy grin can’t possibly be aerodynamic. My Garmin registers 47mph as we shoot past a huge firing range, and then I belatedly register the junction up ahead and sit bolt upright, hauling on the brakes to avoid ploughing through it.
No Wensley Ale
After the junction we’re quickly back up to speed, and it’s three more miles of descending later that we bowl into Leyburn grinning. “There are good pubs here too,” remembers Tony, of his younger hostelling days. But we’re still only halfway, so we push on, taking the main road towards Wensley. We don’t go all the way to the town that gave its name to the valley they named the cheese after... instead, we turn right opposite the Three Horseshoes Pub and start climbing again.
For nearly a mile the going is steep, and I wonder if Tony’s adding every climb in the Dales just to make me suffer – but then the gradient shallows, the views open up and I see why he’s chosen this road. We’re above Wensleydale again but this time heading west, the unmistakable flat top of Addlebrough hill on the other side of the dale dominating the southerly view.
All of a sudden the road pitches down through a short series of corners and through an arch under the Wensleydale Railway line, into Redmire. The village is now the western terminus of a railway line that used to connect the east coast main line with the Settle-Carlisle Railway in the west. Redmire is where Tony’s going to be based when the Tour comes through. “Good location for the first stage, good pub, good campsite,” he says, as we pass the pub, heading for yet another short, steep hill. Why the diversion up hill, when there’s a perfectly good road continuing down it heading west? “Time for a royal visit,” says Tony as mysteriously as a man with a bad knee can while riding up a hill.
Halfway up the valley side we turn left over a small bridge spanning Apedale Beck before levelling out for a mile, again admiring Addlebrough Hill across the valley. It’s only when we get to Castle Bolton – and then only after a short history lesson from Tony – that the penny drops on his royal visit clue. At the far end of the village is Bolton Castle itself, where Mary Queen of Scots was held for six months before being sent to Staffordshire ahead of her execution.
Not only do I feel culturally enriched, but after the castle there’s a fun, sweeping descent back down to the main road to enjoy too. The first reward is free, but the latter means a steady uphill wind to Carperby, whose Wheatsheaf Hotel hosted author James Herriot and his wife on their honeymoon. Bless.
Bridge over the River Ure
With only about 10 miles left we keep going, preferring to stop and admire the impressive Aysgarth Falls from its tall stone bridge, the river Ure cascading down a hundred metres or so of wide limestone steps above. This location’s less parochial claim to silver screen fame is that it’s where Kevin Costner’s very un-English sounding Robin Hood meets and beats Little John in a ‘hilarious’ water fight in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.
After a short, steep climb out of the other side of the ravine, we head west again on the main road out of Aysgarth for a mile. Always looking for the route less driven, Tony soon leads us off back onto a lane on the south side of Wensleydale. It strikes me that with its stone barns, views across Wensleydale, and gold tinted fields, it’s almost the mirror reflection of the lane we followed soon after the start coming down the other side of the valley.
One last sharp descent at Cubeck drops us down to the main road on the valley floor, where we knuckle down for the final headwind drag through Bainbridge to Hawes. The sting in the tail is the cobbled one-way system through Hawes that has us rising out of our saddles for a faux-sprint finish – partly for fun but in truth to save our sit bones a battering. Speaking of which – Tony’s already telling me about the place up the road that does ‘the best fish in chips in Yorkshire’. If his route planning is anything to go by I’d be a fool not to believe him.
Distance 43 miles (64km) Climbing 1153m (3782ft) Grade Some very tough, steep climbs Duration 2.5-3.5 hours Maps OS Landranger 98 Wensleydale & Upper Wharfedale, 99 Northallerton & Ripon Download the route here
Head east out of Hawes and take the left towards Hardraw onto Brunt Acres Road. Cross the River Ure then turn right onto Bellow Hill heading east. Road continues as Long Shaw to Askrigg.
Go through Askrigg and then go straight on, left, onto Moor Road. Road continues as Flow Edge, then Long Road, then High Lane. Beware twisty, steep descent to Low Lane and the River Swale. Road continues as Swale Hall Lane to Grinton.
In Grinton, follow road left over bridge on the B6270 to Dales Bike Centre. After cafe stop, come back over river and continue up Grinton Hill past Youth Hostel.
Follow road across Bellerby Moor – down Wipperman Bank. Over crossroads to Leyburn. Turn right onto A684, follow it towards Wensley. Turn right before Three Horseshoes and continue to Redmire.
Turn right across the village green in Redmire and up Hargill Lane past the Bolton Arms. Climb until left turn signed Castle Bolton. Follow East Lane to Castle Bolton. At castle follow road left down to Brunton Bank main road.
Follow road to Carperby, take left to Aysgarth Falls. Over bridge at the falls then up Chruch Bank and right on the A684. After one mile fork left, straight all the way to Cubeck. Rejoin A648 heading west (left).
Follow A648 across River Bain, though Bainbridge, across Gayle Beck and Hawes’s one-way system to the start.
Nearest Station The Wensleydale Railway runs from Northallerton on the East Coast Main Line and Redmire, and passes through Leyburn. It operates during the summer, weekends and public holidays. www.wensleydalerailway.com and www.nationalrail.co.uk for connecting trains.
Food and drink There are good pubs and cafes in Hawes, Leyburn and Reeth, as well as pubs all round the route. We stopped at the Dales Bike Centre in Fremington, Reeth, www.dalesbikecentre.co.uk
Tourist information www.yorkshiredales.org.uk