27 November 2018

Don 2: Sheffield to Goole

Day 2 of the River Don ride featured a lot of weirs, a lot of town centre, a lot of drab flatland, and glimpses of the Netherlands. (Back to ← Day 1)

I stayed in an EasyHotel last night: £20 for a clean, modern, ensuite room right in the centre of Sheffield. No windows – an advantage, as I couldn't hear partying students leaving Wetherspoons next door – and no telly unless I stumped up £5, which was another advantage. The room was minimally small, but just big enough to get my bike in, and almost big enough to get past the bike to the bed.

It was only a few yards to Lady's Bridge (pic), the centre of Old Sheffield, and the start of the Five Weirs walk and bike route which follows the Don.

The route gives a real feel for the industrial character of the city; good surfaces and decent signage mean fast progress (pic), which was handy when getting away from the various louche young men in hoodies hanging around at bridges, smoking and sizing up passers-by.

It's not always a pretty landscape alongside this bit of the Don (pic), but it's good to see that steel is still real. What would a self-respecting touring cyclist do with an aluminium or carbon frame?

The Don winds round Meadowhall's enormous shopping centre (pic), where the cycle path improves markedly. I resisted the temptation to browse the 280 stores. But it was chilly and I needed breakfast and a bottomless coffee, and there was a Wetherspoon's right there, so obviously I couldn't resist that.

From Meadowhall to Rotherham I took the towpath of the canal that roughly parallels the Don (pic). It took me past another Donside football stadium, named the New York Stadium (after the district), which looks the basis of an epic satnav fail for someone careless. What do you mean, Rotherham United? I wanted the New York Yankees...

Rotherham town centre didn't have much to detain me. Or so I thought until, on a back road through an industrial area, I passed JE James, which claims to be England's biggest bike shop (pic). Passed, stopped, turned back, went in.

The staff, I must say, were friendly, proactive and positive (hello Tez and the guys): bike shops have raised their customer-service game massively in the last few years. Next to their range of shiny new road bikes, my bike looked old, cheapskate, shabby and lumbering. Next to the staff, so did I.

From Rotherham the towpath alongside the Don was muddy and drab, so I took the simple option to Doncaster, along the drab but unmuddy main road, past Conisborough Castle and into Donny itself. Despite giving its name to the place, the Don is little in evidence: no waterside esplanades or chic developments, just the odd bridge and glimpses of shrubby banks.

I followed the main road out through the endless retail and industrial fringes to the village of Barnby Dun where the river reappeared for virtually the first time since Rotherham. It's all rather Dutch-looking round here (pic), with long straight drainage channels, barges, lifting bridges and flat, flat farmland. You could almost be in some nightmare parallel-universe version of Holland, in which all the cycle infrastructure was missing.

An entertainingly clanky bridge (pic) took me to the main road that goes all alongside the Don in its final stretch up towards Goole, first north, and then – turning abruptly right, as if suddenly realising it was going in the wrong direction – east.

The Don originally wiggled north-east from Barnby Dun to drain into the Trent, and formed the historic boundary between Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. However, in the 1600s, the great Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden drained huge areas of eastern England and managed to divert the Don to its present course, ending in Goole. Sadly he wasn't in charge of cycle infrastructure.

Finally – after a long push along the grassy strip between the Aire and Calder Navigation and the parallel Don, both of which empty in to the Ouse at Goole – I got to the mouth of the Don, and the end of my journey. After miles of nondescript channelling, the muddy, slimy river finishes in Goole docks (pic), the oddity of a port town that's fifty miles inland. The pub by the mouth is named the Vermuyden. No, I didn't have a pint there to celebrate.

The Don is probably the most workaday, least glamorous of the rivers I'll be riding along. But the upper reaches are pleasant and nicely railtrailed, Sheffield is a buzzing city, and overall it's certainly more convenient from York than Scotland's Don, which is a tad longer.

Or indeed Russia's Don, the thousand-mile waterway emptying into the Sea of Azov at Rostov, celebrated in the blockbusting Sholokhov novel Quiet Flows the Don. (And, surprisingly, the more modest English Don actually starts at a higher altitude.)

Goole was twinned, bewilderingly, with Gibraltar in the 1960s; perhaps it could look at twinning with Rostov?

Miles today: 45
Total miles: 77

Back to ← Day 1

26 November 2018

Don 1: Dunford Bridge to Sheffield

River Don

Source   Great Grains Clough, Dunford Bridge
Mouth   River Ouse, Goole
Length   70 miles
Towns   Penistone, Sheffield, Rotherham, Doncaster, Goole
Route   See on Mapmyride

The first of my Rivers Rides was a two-day, 70-mile scoot from the Pennines to the Ouse along the River Don. Day 1 featured reservoirs and railtrails, an island brewery, and a comical cycle installation. At least I think it was meant to be comic. (On to Day 2 →)

The Don starts here (pic), where Great Grains Clough dribbles off the Pennines into Winscar Reservoir, a few miles west of Penistone. Those hills up there are the historic border of Yorkshire, and this is as close as you can get with a bike to the river's source, on a track above the north side of the reservoir.

I'd decided to do this trip on my town bike, as the Don mostly makes its way through industrial towns. And, like the Don, my bike is grey-brown, unspectacular, functional, and covered in mud.

Buttery sun tried to sneak through the cold, damp November morning (pic). The infant Don, only a few hundred yards old, starts spectacularly here as Winscar Reservoir, but this is as wide and impressive as it ever gets in its 70-mile life.

I enjoy the geographical wonder of how a river knows a way through the surrounding hills to the sea, going downhill all the way. My river rides are all, in theory, a freewheel from source to mouth. Just like Windows 10 updates download imperceptibly in the background and install with no problems, in theory.

From the reservoir, several miles of good surface railtrail track the Don. It's part of the Trans Pennine Trail, which I cycled in 2011, but which like my CV is rather less than the sum of its parts. This sculpture (pic) decorates the trail just west of Penistone, but has no explanatory plaque. I suggest: See? Helmets do not protect against all types of accident.

I spent nearly an hour in Penistone – not because there's much to see, but because the queue in Greggs was so long.

The railtrail continued beyond, and featured this exciting tunnel (pic) at Thurgoland, a curving concrete-walled job with a spookily echoing acoustic.

Up to Thurgoland tunnel, the cycle route was great – good smooth tarmac – though you only get glimpses of the Don itself, down scenically below. After the tunnel it's unsealed, and today it was all rather muddy. So I came off that and took the A6102 that runs alongside the Don, and I could enjoy this stretch of the river in its full scenic majesty: factories being demolished, sewage plants being constructed, and lots of lavishly-puddled waste ground with JCBs, cement mixers, lorries, and blokes in hard hats holding plans and pointing at things, like politicians on a photo-opp.

Rising up from the Don at Oughtibridge is 'the Jawbone' (pic), one of the major climbs from the Tour de France's visit to Yorkshire in 2014, commemorated in this sign. No, of course I didn't ride up it. I had a two-ton town bike with full panniers. The TdF guys had 7kg carbon-frame bikes. My lunch alone weighed more than that.

The Don's tumbling waters provided power for mills and factories for hundreds of years pre-electricity. Unfortunately it also provided a handy waste pipe for them too, and it was little more than an open sewer.

In the last few decades though regulation has cleaned the river up remarkably, especially above Sheffield, and now it provides good fishing (pic).

South of Oughtibridge, at last, was a riverside cycle path with pleasant scenery (pic). That eventually turned into the A6, which wasn't quite as pleasant or scenic, though it did take me grandly past Hillsborough footy ground...

...and, conveniently, along back streets to the redevelopment area of Kelham Island, home of Kelham Island Brewery and adjacent pub the Fat Cat (pic).

It's a cracking little place, Victorian and unspoilt, with a friendly local atmosphere and excellent beer: yes, from next door, so it has very few food miles, or beer yards, or whatever. I had a splendid pint of Pale Rider (5.2%, hoppy and tangy without being abrasive, well-balanced and characterful, £3).

Which, after a chilly day cycling, brought some colour to this pale rider's cheeks.

Miles today: 32

On to Day 2 →

08 November 2018

Ilkley: On Ilkley Moor baht ’elmet

I'd never been to Ilkley. Or Otley. Or Ilkley Moor, with or without a hat. So today I did something about it, cycling up and over Yorkshire's most famous tract of upland: the windswept plateau which gave birth to its 'national anthem', On Ilkla Moor baht' at.

I took the morning commuter train from York to Leeds. It was jam-packed with smartly dressed people going to office jobs, and would have felt like a London rush hour, if it hadn't been for the Northern Railways rolling stock: fairly tatty, thirty years old, working but creaking old toilets, upholstery half-worn out, it was clearly much better than Southern Rail.

I headed west along the Leeds-Liverpool canal towpath, from just by the station, heading salmon-like against the downstream of commuter cyclists (pic).

From here, in principle, you can cycle all 125 miles to Liverpool city centre along the canal, a journey full of surprises. Such as how dull and unpleasant much of it is, how 30 miles on a flat but bumpy towpath is as tiring as 60 miles on a hilly but smooth road, and how accurately feral urban teenagers can throw stones at you.

But I wasn't heading that far. I was only heading the 15 or so mostly well-surfaced miles via Saltaire to Bingley, famous for its Five Rise Locks (pic). With a gradient of 20%, this is perhaps the steepest stretch of canal towpath in the world. (Though I've never cycled the Three Gorges Dam locks in China, as I'm dubious about the availability of real ale in Hubei province.)

This dramatic pentad of staircase locks is one of the Seven Wonders of the Waterways. It takes a boat about half an hour to descend the flight. It takes a bike about half a second.

But I turned north off the canal just after, up some thrilling back lanes (pic) heading from Airedale to Wharfedale over Ilkley Moor. There were sweeping, majestic views of the surrounding moors and valley towns, and of the unforecast rain clouds heading our way.

Evidently the council ran out of tarmac by the radio mast at the top of the moor. For about a mile the old road between Keighley and Ilkley is a moderately bumpy track, easy on my front-suspension trekking bike but unpleasant for a road bike. I now had company (pic): Roger, another cyclist from York who by coincidence was doing a similar day-ride loop to me. It turned out we had plenty in common to chat about, such as a fascination with Spurn Point, which is where I want my ashes spread, though not yet.

The general area here is called Rombald's Moor; Ilkley Moor is only the north-facing slopes, extending from about here (pic) down to Ilkley itself, along a welcome return of tarmac. But it's here, yes here, that – according to folklore – a day-tripping Halifax choir came in the mid-1800s and improvised a comic song called On Ilkla Moor baht 'at over the melody of a traditional hymn. It's become Yorkshire's signature tune, and if the historic county ever became a country in its own right, it would be the anthem played when its athletes queued up to receive their Olympic medals.

The words tell the tale of a young man courting his sweetheart up on the Moor, but – it is strongly implied – he dies from a cold contracted as a result of his being bare-headed. Baht 'at means 'without a hat': baht is a dialect word originating from Old English be-utan, 'without', a word which evolved into the Modern English word but, followed by characteristic West Yorkshire dialect article-dropping and omission of initial aspirates.

But there are serious shortcomings with the narrative. First, there is NO medical evidence to link lack of headgear with coryza, the common cold. It's a virus, whose transmission is not temperature-related. Having wet hair or being hatless is not a factor. Second, a cold is not fatal per se (though complications can prove deadly of course). On Ilkla Moor baht 'at therefore has NO scientific basis, and should NOT be used to guide your wardrobe choices for future hilltop trysts. The song as sung is, I'm afraid, classic victim-blaming.

Furthermore, the tune requisitioned by those mischievous Halifax songsters, Cranbrook, has been forever tainted. How can you now sing While shepherds watched to this, its traditional setting, for example, without the entire congregation falling about laughing? No wonder that Cranbrook has fallen completely out of favour for sacred use, except in some remote and primitive parts of the English-speaking religious sphere where they know little of the world outside, such as the US.

So. Anyway. We hurtled down to Ilkley, enjoying the nice proper road surface, which took us as if predestined to The Commute, a chic cycle-cafe humming with friendly local riders (pic). Ikley itself is a handsome town with many fine Victorian buildings, spiffy enough to have a branch of Bettys, down-to-earth enough to have a Wetherspoon, and a real cycling hub: the lanes round about seemed to sport as many people out for a spin on their road bike as there were motorists.

I would have snapped some of them, but it was now pouring down with that unpredicted rain. I did manage to get a shot back towards Ilkley Moor itself (pic). Cold and windy up there: as clothing bores are wont to say, though, no such thing as bad weather, only inadequate headgear.

En route back to Leeds I briefly visited Otley, which also has some fine Victorian buildings (pic) and a rather super local bike shop chain, Chevin Cycles, though with rather too few bikes that have mudguards and racks for me. From here it was a long tedious climb up and over the hills back down to Leeds, and the train home.

About 45 miles cycled in the day, on a variety of surfaces: a nice workout for my trekker. I raised the handlebars the other day with a bolt-on stem-riser widget I got for a tenner from eBay, and the more upright riding position makes it delightfully comfy for routes like this. I feel sorry for people that don't cycle, because they'll never know the sheer bliss of this sort of thing. Or the simple joy of a post-ride pint.

Then again, they won't get their ear bent by a bloke in the pub who spots your bike, comes over and drones on about their Dawes Galaxy for half an hour, which is what happened to me.

That's wheear we get us ooan back... Yorkshire karma, perhaps?