Pennine Bridleway Tour Ride Report, June 2022 - HIBC
Report by Dan Mace
The Pennine Bridleway (PB) is a National Trail that runs for 330km from the southern Peak District to a spot in the middle of nowhere (literally) near Kirby Stephen in Cumbria. In May 2022 Charlie, Craig, Chris, Pete and Dan tackled the southern section, from the start at Middleton Top and finishing in Settle in the Yorkshire Dales.
I’ve done quite a bit of cycle touring, but am new to gravel biking, and have never tackled a fully laden off-road tour. The average speeds of 25-30+km/h possible on a road bike in Cambridgeshire reduce to 12-15km/h off-road, with hills and camping gear in the mix.
Maybe we should have paid more attention to the trail leaflet: “How hard is it?” it cheerfully asks on the front page, and goes on to mention the “steep climbs, exhilarating descents and challenging terrain… Horse riders and walkers”, it says, “could expect to cover around 15 miles a day, cyclists as much as 30.” Our plan was for 40-45 miles each day.
Day 1 – Middleton Top to Hayfield
The PB starts gently, with 20km along the pleasant gravel track of the High Peak Trail, a railway long since disused.
This climbs steadily through limestone country, then ends abruptly. Here the PB develops character. The descent into Chee Dale was steep, and I hadn’t yet got the hang of “exhilarating descents”. I was gingerly inching my way down the narrow rocky path (fully laden bikes aren’t easy to control on steep, loose and rocky surfaces) when Chris breezed past me, exclaiming how he was glad we weren’t ascending this path. I wasn’t sure how glad I was feeling about the descent and focused on not riding into the walkers coming towards me. We crossed the river and began the equally steep ascent out of the dale – our first walk. Once over the top we began a rare downhill on tarmac, and it was at this point I noticed I’d lost a bag. I was a little surprised it wasn’t just a few metres back, descended back into Chee Dale, and began the slog up the other side, cursing Chris for his flippant comment about being glad we didn’t have to make that ascent. I was on the point of giving up (I didn’t really need non-cycling clothes, did I?) when I saw the bag, retrieved it and returned to the others.
At this point it began to rain. Wet limestone is greasy, and our wheels were slipping, so I was quite happy to walk down some steep tracks; we were all relieved when we crossed onto gritstone, a much less lethal surface. And so it went on – some steep descents and ascents with the weather improving before arriving at our campsite in Hayfield.
Day 2 – Hayfield to Hebden Bridge
This was always going to be a long day. The café in Hayfield does an excellent but slow breakfast, and by the time we’d eaten, fettled the bikes and bought supplies it was gone 11. But hey, only 75km to go today, can’t take that long. The day started with a rough climb up Lantern Pike with fine views over Kinder, and continued up and down hills with no tarmac to speak of. At least I was enjoying the descents now.
We reached our ‘lunchtime’ café at about 4pm and it was clear it was going to be a very late arrival in Hebden Bridge. After 55km we reached the Rochdale Canal and an easy decision: either 400m of climbing (i.e. walking) or follow the canal for the last 10 miles. The canal was lovely, as was Hebden Bridge. No camping this evening… the luxury of the Hebden Bridge Hostel and Italian food to eat.
Day 3 – Hebden Bridge to Bolton by Bowland
An easier day – 61km and about 1670m of ascent. I was really into my stride, thoroughly enjoying the rocky descents and accepting the occasional walk up.
The hills weren’t quite so steep and we made our ‘lunch’ café just after 1pm. Wycoller is a pretty village and pie and peas set us up well for the afternoon. The final ascent of the day was on a rough tarmac track (so no walking) and then we had a fast gravelly descent into Gisburn and a few km along the road to the campsite.
Day 4 – Bolton by Bowland to Settle
We opted for a shorter day and headed back to the pub in Gisburn for breakfast, and then across fields (very rough, not easy at all) to Long Preston.
This was the start of our last climb; it started on tarmac and then became a gravelly and rocky track gradually getting steeper and steeper. We all walked the final 10m to the top… at this stage it really didn’t matter.
One last descent, no fear at all now, and we were in Settle at the 3 Peaks Cycle Shop and café. A thoroughly enjoyable trip.
Hints and tips for those following us.
- If you’re riding off-road with loaded bikes on steep tracks, don’t be over-ambitious: 40 miles a day is plenty.
- There are very few cafes en-route – it’s worth knowing in advance where they are.
- We got our gate etiquette right from the get-go. The first person opens the gate, holds it for the others and then joins the back of the line. It’s a variant of a pace line. That way, everyone else sails through the gate without stopping.
- It is great fun. I didn’t think about how fast I was going, or what my heart was doing. I barely looked at my cycle computer, and I enjoyed the scenery. Apart from the railway at the start we didn’t ride in formation, but kept a few 10s of metres apart – close enough to be riding together but not having to concentrate on the rider in front. There are more than enough other things to occupy your mind!