Cumbria and the Yorkshire Dales

August 5, 2019

This article originally appeared in the CTC Cambridge Blog.

I had been planning a cycling tour of the Yorkshire Dales for some time; this year I finally got my act together and made it happen. I booked a holiday cottage through Airbnb in the small village of Dent in Cumbria. Dent has a railway station, two pubs, a cafe, and a village store, so looked like it would make a good base. My long-time cycling friend John agreed to join me. He would travel up by train from Wales to Lancaster and cycle to Dent, with a couple of camping stop-overs along the way, while I would travel directly to Dent from Cambridge and meet him at the cottage.

Monday: Getting There

The first obstacle was booking a bicycle on the train. The recommended rail route from Cambridge was via Stevenage, where you change for the East Coast Mainline to Leeds, then from Leeds onto the scenic Settle/Carlisle line as far as Dent. A cycle reservation is required for the Stevenage to Leeds leg, but the LNER website does not allow you to book this online, so this required a trip to Cambridge station to buy tickets and make the cycle reservation. Cycle reservations are not possible on the other two legs: you just have to hope there is room for your bike on the train.

I didn’t see any platform staff at Stevenage so took a gamble and waited at the front of the train, hoping to find the cycle carriage there. When the staff finally appeared they shouted at me that I had to be at the back of the train, so I had to run down the platform as the train approached. This was an older train with a spacious guard’s van so it was easy to get the bike onboard once the platform staff had unlocked the door and told me off for not booking in with them 15 minutes before departure.

Getting a bike onto the Carlisle train was much easier: it’s just a case of finding the carriage with the bike symbols, where there is dedicated space for two cycles. The train was horribly overcrowded but a second cyclist managed to get on and store his bike next to mine. It was standing room only as far as Bingley, where almost everyone got off. Now that I could move, I was able to chat to the other cyclist, who was returning to Skipton after a week’s touring near Hull. When he left, I had a conversation with someone who usually rode a vintage scooter into work but heavy rain that morning saw him on the train. Finally a lady from Settle stuck up a conversation with me: she was also a keen cyclist, and recommended some good rides in the area.

Dent Station

Dent Station

I disembarked at Dent station where a sign proclaimed it the highest mainline station in England. (Incidentally, the station building itself has been operating as a boutique B&B and is currently up for sale.) The first half mile from the station was a steep descent, then it was a gentle four miles downhill to Dent itself. I hardly had to pedal, and enjoyed the beautiful scenery and evening sun as I freewheeled down Dentdale.

John had arrived at the cottage a little while before me, and was ready with a welcome cup of tea. The cottage was conveniently located right next door to the Sun Inn, where we would eat that evening.

Dene Cottage and the Sun Inn

Dene Cottage and the Sun Inn

Tuesday: Hawes, Askrigg and Aysgarth

The weather forecast for today was for sunshine in the morning with heavy thundery showers moving in by mid afternoon, so we made an early start and were on the road by 7am. We retraced my route of the previous evening as far as the station turn in Cowgill, then carried on up Dentdale for the climb to Newby Head Moss. It was a tough climb, with some 15% to 20% slopes near the viaduct, but just manageable in bottom gear.

Approaching Newby Head Moss

Approaching Newby Head Moss

The climb was rewarded with spectacular views and a lovely, fast descent through Widdale into Wensleydale and Hawes, where we stopped for a full English breakfast.

Next came Askrigg, one of the villages where “All Creatures Great and Small” was filmed. I stopped for the obligatory photograph outside Skeldale House, where James and Siegfried had their veterinary practice in the series.

Skeldale House in Askrigg

Skeldale House in Askrigg

After a climb out of Askrigg, we followed the contours to Caperby then dropped down to Aysgarth, with a brief detour on foot to visit the falls. We returned to Hawes along the other side of the valley, doing our best to avoid the A-road. This meant a bit more climbing, but a lot less traffic. We took the minor road through Thornton Rust and Cubeck, a tiny bit of A-road into Bainbridge, then a stiff climb to Bainbridge High Pasture, where we did a stretch of off-road (an old Roman road) to cut off the corner before descending to Burtersett. We stopped for refreshments at the Wensleydale creamery. I had planned to buy some cheese here but was put off by the long queue.

We did quite a big food shop at the Spar in Hawes before setting off back to Dent. We crossed to the other side of the valley again, this time turning left for Hardraw rather than right for Askrigg. We were looking for a picnic spot, and had spotted a minor road just after Appersett that would take us back to the B-road through Widdale. We stopped here for lunch, climbing up to a viaduct on a disused railway line crossing Widdale Ghyll.

The predicted rain came as we wound our way up the B-road to Newby Head, with rumbles of thunder in the distance getting louder as the storm approached. It seemed to pass over very slowly, with most of the climb in torrential rain, thunder, and lightning. The road back down to Dentdale was running like a river, and I arrived in Dent soaked through to the skin. I don’t think my jacket can be called waterproof anymore. I hung it on the back of a chair to dry and water pooled underneath; fortunately the cottage was equipped with a mop.

Tonight we ate in the cottage: red pepper and courgette frittata. Then an early night after an exhausting day in the saddle.

Wednesday: Kirkby Lonsdale and Ingleton

We had a later start today. Now that we had been shopping, we could have breakfast before setting off, and it was gone 9am by the time we hit the road. It was a cloudy start to the day with more rain forecast. Our route out of Dent was via Gawthrop and Barbondale. We ignored a “Road Closed” sign, hoping it would be passable by bicycle; we did meet a maintenance crew at the top of the climb, but had no problem getting through. It was lovely to have the road to ourselves.

Out and about in the Dales

Out and about in the Dales

We stopped for coffee in Kirkby Lonsdale and spent some time exploring the town and a viewpoint overlooking the river Lune. We retraced our steps out of town then turned south for Ireby and Burton in Lonsdale, again doing our best to avoid the A-road. The road to Ingleton was very scenic, with a few ups and downs, but more traffic than we expected; perhaps we were just spoilt by our traffic-free morning. It had started to rain by the time we arrived in Ingleton, so we abandoned our plan for a picnic and had a hot lunch at the Wheatsheaf pub instead.

Getting out of Ingleton involved a steep descent to cross the river, then a stiff climb that had me walking part of the way. We took a minor road as far as Chapel-le-Dale where we joined the B6255 and climbed up past the Ribblehead Viaduct.

Ribblehead Viaduct

Ribblehead Viaduct

The road continued to climb up to Newby Head Moss, which was now becoming a familar sight. Then it was downhill all the way home, taking care to avoid the debris that had been washed down in yesterday’s storm. We had heard on the local news that there were no trains out of Dent today, as the storm had also caused a landslip blocking the railway.

Back at the cottage, we ate the sandwiches we had planned for lunch, then had another early night.

Thursday: Garsdale Head and Sedbergh

Today we planned a shorter ride to let our legs recover, but although it was shorter there turned out to be almost as much climbing as yesterday. We rode up Dentdale to Cowgill but this time took the turn for Dent station. It wasn’t long before I was off the bike and pushing it up the hill. The gradient lessened a bit and I was able to get back on the bike as we approached the station.

On the climb past Dent Station

On the climb past Dent Station

The climb continued after the station, and I stopped to catch my breath and chat to another cyclist on her way down the hill. She told me this was a well-known challenge climb, known as the “Coal Road Climb”, but she reassured me that I was near the top and had an enjoyable descent to come. She warned us about a poor road surface on the steep descent to Garsdale Head station, and recommended taking the A-road into Sedbergh, which she promised was good cycling without too much traffic.

She was right: the steep descent to Garsdale Head was fun, and the scenery spectacular. The A684 through Garsdale to Sedbergh was also a lovely ride. I spotted a sign for a coffee shop with a heritage museum in an old woollen mill shortly before Sedbergh, so we stopped here for coffee and cake. We spent a bit of time exploring Sedbergh before settling on the Black Bull for lunch, where I had a delicious warm lamb sandwich and John had a Drover’s Platter, only slightly let down by the distinctly non-local cheese.

It was a fairly easy ride from Sedbergh back to Dent. Tonight we were cooking a simple pasta dish for ourselves, a variation on puttanesca.

Friday: Ingleton and Settle

There was still one road out of Dent we had not explored: the climb up Deepdale. This turned out to be one of the most scenic, and although it had me walking again, it was rewarded with a lovely descent down Kingsdale into Ingleton. This road is part of NCN 68, also known as the Pennine Cycleway, which goes from Berwick upon Tweed to Derby.

Between Deepdale and Kingsdale

Between Deepdale and Kingsdale

We didn’t stop in Ingleton today, but carried on to Clapham before stopping for coffee. There were two cafes in this small village, so we chose the one with a picture of a bicycle on its peeling sign. The lady who served us was quite a character: she would take our order when was good and ready, and not before. The place smelled of damp and looked like it could do with a lick of paint, my pot of tea was disappointing, but the experience was redeemed by an excellent bacon sandwich.

There was a choice of routes from Clapham to Settle: we could have continued to follow NCN 68 through Austwick, but opted for the more southerly NCN 69 which ran along the border of the Yorkshire Dales national park and took us briefly into the Forest of Bowland.

We made a brief detour in Giggleswick as John had spotted an odd-shaped chapel from the other side of the valley. This turned out to be the chapel at Giggleswick School.

Giggleswick School chapel

Giggleswick School chapel

Inside the chapel

Inside the chapel

We rode into Settle and after a brief look around, found a quiet green where we stopped to eat our lunch (a pasta salad with tuna and sweetcorn, using up left-over pasta from last night). After lunch we returned to the town centre and had coffee in a bicycle shop cum cafe.

From Settle, we picked up NCN 68 again, heading north as far as Helwith Bridge, where our only option was the B6480 to Horton in Ribblesdale. We had been considering taking the train home from here, but we’d have had to wait more than an hour and our legs were still feeling okay so we pressed on, climbing up to the Ribblehead Viaduct and rejoining Wednesday’s route to Newby Head Moss and down to Cowgill. For a bit of a change, we crossed the river in Cowgill and rode into Dent down the other side of the valley. There are a few more twists and turns (and climbs) on this side of the river, but it’s the more scenic of the two roads and still downhill overall.

Tonight we cooked our best meal in the cottage: a one-pot chicken dish with carrots and peas from John’s garden, spinach and new potatoes.

Saturday: Thwaite and Kirkby Stephen

This was to be the last full day of cycling of our holiday, and we thought we were starting to run out of roads to explore. We considered taking the train to Kirkby Stephen and doing a loop from there, but I didn’t fancy the climb to Dent station, so we decided instead to ride out to Kirkby Stephen and come back by train.

We set off back up Dentdale to Cowgill and the climb to Newby Head Moss (sound familiar?).

Arten Gill Viaduct, on the climb out of Cowgill

Arten Gill Viaduct, on the climb out of Cowgill

After the climb we had the very enjoyable descent of Widdale, taking the minor road under the viaduct where we had stopped for lunch on Tuesday. This took us to Apperset, then on to Hardraw. We had passed a tea room in Hardraw on Tuesday and planned on having coffee there today. John had been ahead of me on the climb to Newby Head, so I was surprised not to find him at the tea shop when I got there. I checked my phone and saw a text from him telling me that I was now ahead of him, as he’d stopped to take a photograph of the viaduct on the climb. I hadn’t been there more than 5 minutes when he pulled up.

Hardraw has the highest single-drop waterfall in England - Hardraw Force. Access is from the back of the Green Dragon pub, but there’s a fee for entry so we gave this a miss, hoping to catch sight of the falls on our climb. We explored a hopeful-looking path in the direction of the waterfall, but access was walled off with locked gates.

I realised rather late in the day that we were about to climb the famous Butter Tubs pass from Hardraw to Thwaite. The climb in this direction is less steep than the descent the other side, and I was able to cycle the whole way (albeit slowly). This pass has overtaken the Deepdale climb for most scenic of the holiday, with spectacular views and a precipitous drop from the roadside. The descent to Thwaite was also great fun, with some 25% sections that I’m sure would have had me walking if we were coming the other way.

After a bit of debate over whether or not to take a detour via the Tan Hill Inn, we decided against it and took the B6270 from Thwaite through Keld to Kirkby Stephen. There was hardly any traffic on this B-road and it was a lovely ride into Kirkby Stephen. We enjoyed fish and chips at the Black Bull (which I chose for its traditional looks), and a couple of pints of Black Sheep. It was a stiff climb up an A-road from the town centre to the railway station, where we had no trouble getting our bikes on the train back to Dent. Then, of course, we had the nice descent of Dentdale and back to the cottage for our final night.

Being our last night, we were treating ourselves to a second pub meal of the day, and ate in the George and Dragon in Dent. This is a grade II listed building and full of character; it’s the brewery tap for Dent Brewery, and I think I sampled all their beers over the course of our stay. The pub also sports the CTC winged wheel.

Winged wheel at the George and Dragon in Dent

Winged wheel at the George and Dragon in Dent

Traveling on a Shoestring

John is very much a make-do and mend type of guy. The rear panniers he’s using on this trip are the pair I used on my first ever cycle tour. When I was 17, I cycled with a school friend from Alnwick through the Scottish borders and up to Ardnamurchan point, then across to Mull and back via Oban and Edinburgh. It must be 20 years since I upgraded and gave these panniers to John. Here’s his bike:

John’s folding bike

John’s folding bike

I asked him the purpose of the milk carton: it’s to stop the u-bolts from tearing his frame bag. What are the u-bolts doing there? Well, he’s made his own folding bike, held together with a bit of metal tubing and 3 u-bolts. I asked him if it’s stable. “Yes,” he said, “it’s the bit at the top of the seat tube that I’m more worried about. That’s just held together with a shoelace.”

Sunday: Coming Home

John had booked a train from Settle to Sheffield (via Leeds) so he set off at 7am for the ride to Settle. Meanwhile I did the washing-up from breakfast, packed, and had a lazy couple of hours before setting off for my shorter ride to Dent station (where I walked up the hill again). John joined me on the train at Settle, and we finally parted company in Leeds.

My train back from Leeds was one of the new Azuma trains. These carry up to 4 bicycles in dedicated lockers at the end of one of the carriages. It turns out you need the platform staff to unlock these for you, so once again I got into trouble for not finding them sooner. You have to hang your bike vertically from its wheel and there is barely space in each locker for the two bikes intended. I helped an older couple store their bikes in one of the lockers and discovered that you have to hang one from the front wheel and one from the rear wheel to get two in. Although I’m calling them “lockers”, it seems they are only locked to stop you from getting your bike onboard, they are not locked again for security during the journey.

Apart from a missed connection in Stevenage, the journey home went smoothly.

John and I both enjoyed our week very much. Apart from the first two days, the weather was excellent and I even managed to get sunburnt. The cycling in the Dales is hard work but rewarded with spectacular views and some lovely descents. The thing that surprised me most was that the towns and villages we visited were much smaller than I expected and shopping options quite limited. Dent was a good base for exploring the western end of the Dales and Cumbria - you could even get into the Lake District from here. I’d love to visit the Yorkshire Dales again, but perhaps from a more easterly base next time.

Photographs by Ray Miller and John Cooper.