A special place
There are many places which could lay claim to the accolade of best cycling terrain in Northern England.
The classic climbs of the Lake District with the ferociously difficult slopes of Hardknott, Wrynose and Honister passes would have many supporters. The Yorkshire Dales and the North Pennines each carry their distinctive challenges and share a wild beauty.
Unless you lived in the North West, you might be unaware of the quiet and often overlooked landscape of the Forest of Bowland. Somehow it tends to be bypassed in the rush to travel North to the Lake District, or East to the Yorkshire Dales. If you have never been there you might expect great expanses of trees but in fact they are noteable by their comparative absence. ‘Forest’ in this context relates to hunting and shooting estates, and this gives something of a clue to the nature of the area. Instead of trees there are large areas of rolling hills and high peat moorland deeply cut in places by rivers. The roads rise and fall with the landscape and thus there is virtually no easy cycling to be had.
The main feeling is one of isolation and yet this is the nearest hill country to much of Northern Lancashire. This proximity has meant that the Bowland Fells have had a long tradition of attracting cyclists.
The Trough of Bowland has always been a favourite climb dating back to the heyday of club cycling in the 1930s.
In recent years many of the roads have featured in the ‘Tour of Britain’.
A hard day out
On this occasion we decided to approach from the East having arrived in Bentham via the moors above Old Hutton and Kirkby Lonsdale.
Some hills have concave slopes. They start gently and become steeper as they get higher. Most of the Forest of Bowland climbs are convex. In other words they get their retaliation in first with a swift uppercut to the solar plexus. Shortly after leaving Bentham the road climbs viciously between trees until it slackens off and emerges on to a broad area of open moorland with views forward to the impending slopes of Cross of Greet and backwards to the Three Peaks of Yorkshire. Near the top of this section is the ‘Great Stone of Fourstones’, a massive boulder left behind by retreating glaciers. It’s so big that steps were cut into its flanks to enable Victorian tourists to climb to the top.
At this stage it looks as if the climbing is straight forward to the top of the climb, but things are never that simple. The road swoops down and then steeply up again towards the watershed in a series of short but steep ramps. At last the gate and cattle grid at the top are reached. On a clear day the views from here are extensive and inspiring. Even today when it was a little overcast it was a wonderful place to be. From here there seem to be hills in all directions, a lot of wild grassland and many times more sheep than people.
The descent consists of a series of sweeping bends which just have to be descended quickly. There is one potential problem though. Did I mention sheep? They seem to delight in hiding at the side of the road and emerging just as you have commited to the corner.
Fortunately this time, both sheep and cyclists emerged unscathed from this regular game of chicken.
After the descent, the road rises and falls over a series of short but steep climbs until it emerges in Slaidburn . It always seems rude not to stop at the cafe. On a fine day there is no better feeling than sitting outside here with a mug of coffee and a toasted teacake, or in one particular person’s case, a sausage butty!
Even more climbing
Somehow there seem to be no flat roads in this area. Out of Slaidburn, the road climbs then drops and appears to be heading towards a dead-end, with steep hillsides barring further progress. At a right turn the way ahead becomes clear. A small river cuts deeply into the hills and the ‘Trough of Bowland’ road follows the stream towards a fold in the hills. At first the road rises high above the stream but soon the valley bottom rises and the road follows it until with a left turn, the v shaped top of the Trough is revealed . The road climbs steeply to a cattle grid and the climb is over.
For us the climb of the Trough was over but there was still work to do. The climb to Jubilee Tower is another regular fixture for the Tour of Britain. The first part of the climb conforms to the usual Bowland pattern. From a steady descent, the road turns a corner, drops steeply, then rises sharply through trees until it settles into a long steady climb across moorland to the distant silhouette of Jubilee Tower. On a clear day this is an unrivalled viewpoint for Morecambe Bay and the Lancashire coast, but today it was hazy and the distant views were indistinct. I always think that this stretch is a good test of form. If you are going well, it’s a rhythm climb and rather enjoyable. If you are tired or off form it seems interminable and the Tower never gets any nearer. Fortunately I was on a good day (or perhaps there was a tail wind). The tower is a solid plain structure and carries a tablet with the following inscription:
‘This Tower was erected by James Harrison of Hare Appletree in commemoration of the Jubilee of Her Majesty Queen Victoria Anno Domini 1887
The descent to the Quernmore crossroads always merits attention as there are some steep, sharp bends. It marks the end of the serious climbing and we were left with a ride up the Lune to Hornby , a brief climb over Capernwray Hill to Borwick and a steady ride home on familiar roads.
This was the first hard ride of the year with 82 miles and around 2000 metres of climbing under the belt by the time we struggled into Kendal. Any ride into the Bowland Fells always feels like an expedition. The sheer number of hills might just be a factor, but for me the main reason is the remote atmosphere and the feeling that this really is a land apart.