11 January 2019

Calder 2: Dewsbury to Castleford

Day 2 of the River Calder ride featured three aspects of Yorkshire: world-renowned sculpture, a traditional Leeds welcome, and riverside rubbish. (Back to ← Day 1)

I stayed in a cheap and cheerful pub room in Dewsbury. It’s said to be one of England's most divided communities, and not only by Brexit: just over the river in an area called Savile Town, 95% are Muslims of Indian or Pakistani background. There were only white faces in the town centre last night though, skulking outside the takeaways or trying fruitlessly to get me to play them at pool.

The beer was £1.90 a pint, but accordingly mediocre: you’d be more likely to find an imam in there than a CAMRA member. The statue in front of the town hall (pic) seems an appropriately despairing comment on things. Perhaps the sculptor had drunk there too. Or was a Remainer.

Anyway, fortified by the pub’s very hearty Full English breakfast, I set off, pleased that my immune system, fortified by regular cycling, would be able to fight off any mild infections cultivated in the kitchen. The Calder Valley Cycleway runs right alongside the river (pic). It’s a gritty sort of landscape: derelict industry, piles of rubbish, and pale, defeated-looking middle-aged white men in beanie hats, such as cycle bloggers whose bacon was underdone and overeaten.

The cycleway continues with quite a climb out of Dewsbury on a newly refurbed path, looking down on the Calder Valley, and took me through the pleasantly pedestrianised market square of Ossett before tracking a railway line and rejoining the riverside just before Wakefield (pic), one of Yorkshire’s seven cities. (The others are Leeds, Bradford, York, Sheffield, Hull, and the one everyone forgets, Ripon.)

West Yorkshire can be gritty and monumental, so it’s appropriate that it provided two of the 20th century’s great sculptors: Barbara Hepworth, from Wakefield, and Henry Moore, from Castleford. Both are celebrated in The Hepworth, Wakefield’s fabulous art gallery, which sits right over the Calder – the view through the windows complements the artworks nicely (pic).

In addition to works by Moore and Hepworth (whose super 1960s screenprints were a bit of a revelation to me) the gallery was exhibiting its Sculpture Prize entries, one of which used water power from the Calder to drive air through a series of pipes to play music. Very nice, though it sounded like a panda trying to mate with a harmonium.

Pandemonium, in other words.1

The path from Wakefield follows the canal at some times and the river at others, and sometimes both (pic): at Stanley the two cross via a historic early aqueduct and a modern replacement (pic). The old one is on the left: state-of-the-art in its time, it’s now hopelessly heavy, outdated and even unsafe, needing replacement by a new modern one. Funnily enough, the same applies to my bike.

From here it’s railtrail alongside the final stretch of the Calder, going through this splendid gateway welcoming you to Leeds (pic)...

...though a little further on, an anonymous artist has put up this alternative welcome message (pic).

Perhaps this is the 21st-century face of Yorkshire sculpture.

The last mile of the Calder has a newly surfaced bike path going along its southern side (pic), presumably paid for by the developers who are slinging up the housing estate just up from here. My journey was nearing its end.

Finally, after the tarmac ran out, a muddy path took me to the mouth of the Calder (pic). Its junction with the Aire, on the edge of Castleford, is marked by a wooden bench - evidently a good place for a Yorkshire-style picnic, as demonstrated by the vast pile of empty beercans. (Most were Tyskie, but then Yorkshire is probably one of the most populous provinces of Poland. Na zdrowie! Do dna!)

I’ve really enjoyed this leisurely two-day trip. (It’s perfectly possible to do it in one, though you might need more daylight than a North of England January offers.) The Calder has an absorbing mix of Pennine scenery, ruggedly sophisticated mill towns reinventing themselves, powerful art, and down-to-earth, workaday West Yorkshire friendliness.

Plus, of course, cycleways all along it that are among the best in England. A hotchpotch of the barely adequate and the downright awful, in other words. Trying to find good infrastructure! Getting warmer? No, getting Calder!

1 Vincent, P. (2014) But First the News: The Two Ronnies. Pilot Productions

Miles today: 25
Total miles: 58

Back to ← Day 1

10 January 2019

Halifax: Calder mobile

Halifax (pic), home to almost half Calderdale’s 190,000 folk, is not short of associations. Cat’s-eyes; Quality Street; the eponymous bank; the Eureka family attraction; victim of gratuitously infernal slander along with Hull.

For telly viewers it’s the setting of comedy-drama Last Tango in Halifax, while for cyclists it’s the venue of Shibden Wall, a famously tough climb up ferocious West Yorkshire cobbles. I thought about doing that ascent again when I visited this time. That is to say, I thought about doing it last time, too.

I’d come here in the middle of my River Calder ride. Halifax isn’t actually on the Calder – it’s on the Hebble – but then neither is there a Quality Street here: the confection, one of many products of the Mackintosh sweetie empire that grew here, was named after a play by JM Barrie.

I had an appointment to meet up with Andrew Sykes, author of the 'Reggie' cycling travelogues – but first I had a wander round the centre. The library is in an old church, and the splendid rose window (pic) greets you up the stairs as you search in vain for a copy of Bluff Your Way in Cycling. The staff painted an enthusiastic portrait of their town: friendly, lively, rejuvenated. Maybe some of that might rub off on me.

Halifax has a fine selection of Victorian buildings, many of which are being renovated: the market (pic) for instance is having its 1980s modifications stripped out and returned to its original features. Mid-20th century economic doldrums meant that Halifax was not ‘redeveloped’ as brutal concrete blocks, Andrew told me – a benefit, as I know from my time in Bath, which lost more Georgian terraces to the council than it did to the Luftwaffe. It’s meant that those old factory buildings and handsome streetscapes are still there, unrazed, and able to be rescued. The area between the library, station and (blackened and gloomy) Minster is next, apparently.

The most obvious example of Halifax’s citybreak-friendly reboot is the Piece Hall (pic), recently spruced up and now one of the most awesome large public squares in England. It’s a similar size and feel to Salamanca, Andrew and I agreed, though perhaps without the pavement cafes, tapas bars, bell tower, T-shirt weather, and availability of house wine for under a fiver. The Hall’s galleries are home to dozens of boutiques and shoppes. If you’re after artisan jewellery, bespoke gin or fine art this is the place, though on a chilly January weekday afternoon it was very quiet, each unit having a sole occupant at the till who looked up hopefully from their mobile phone as I walked past.

The busiest attraction in the Hall was an Autism Experience van, which offered to give you an insight into what it’s like to be on the spectrum by subjecting you to flashing lights, loud noises and sensory overstimulation. It surprised me how many people were queueing to undergo such an unpleasant experience, but then people queue to get into York’s lagery central pubs of a Saturday evening too.

Piece Hall looked lovely in the evening, I must say (pic). Andrew and I adjourned for a coffee in the Square Chapel next door, and talked cycle-touring most enjoyably. There was a local company function there, with free drinks. Tempting as it was, I didn’t try to pose as an employee. The lycra tights, muddy shorts and tatty mitts might have given me away as an impostor.

Since the 1600s Halifax has been a place to pray for deliverance from, along with Hull (another place benefiting from regeneration) and Hell (which would not qualify for redevelopment funding, being outside the EU). Percy Shaw, the inventor of those cat’s-eyes, might have been the face of Halifax last century – he lived in a house with no carpets or furnishings, just crates of beer and crisps for his pals, and televisions permanently on and tuned to all channels then available. In the eyes of contemporary newspapers this made him an ‘eccentric’. In the eyes of my dad this made him a role model.

But Halifax is changing agreeably. It’s investing a lot of money, and however well it’s working out economically, it certainly makes the place delightful to visit. And yes, there are Wetherspoons here, one of which is called The Percy Shaw. My dad would have approved.

Calder 1: Cornholme to Dewsbury

River Calder

Source   Ratten Clough, Cornholme
Mouth   River Aire, Castleford
Length   45 miles
Towns   Todmorden, Hebden Bridge, Dewsbury, Wakefield, Castleford
Route   See on Mapmyride

The second of my Rivers Rides was a two-day, 58-mile trip from the Lancs border to the Aire following the River Calder. Day 1 featured a Lancashire/Yorkshire identity crisis, the Pennines’ hippie capital, and different approaches to dog muck. (On to Day 2 →)

This is the source (pic) of the River Calder, at least as marked on 19th-century OS maps: Ratten Clough, which funnels all that Pennine drizzle ultimately to the North Sea. I did the trip on my Trekking Bike, a modified hardtail MTB (a Scott MX1 Voltage, which may come as a bit of a shock). Having done many stretches of the route before, I knew what sort of rocky, unreliable, treacherous surfaces I’d be facing – Sustrans National Cycle Routes, in other words.

Confusingly, there’s more than one River Calder. As well as Yorkshire’s – the longest – there’s one in Cumbria, two in Scotland, and two in Lancashire. One of the Lancashire River Calders has its source just a few hundred metres from the location above. That’s right: Yorkshire’s River Calder actually rises a kilometre or so inside Lancashire.

It’s a situation as murky as the weather I had for the start of the trip on this foggy, clammy winter morning: while riding up to the source, on the back road over the top of Todmorden Moor, I’d had zero visibility at times.

Indeed, I’d had to cross the historic border (pic) to get here. Lancashire had welcomed careful drivers; Yorkshire hadn’t, but the greeting slogan on the sign for Calderdale described it as ‘Ruggedly Sophisticated’.

As confirmation, the first pub over the line had a placard proudly announcing the availability of Yorkshire Tea.

The rusty-looking Calder gets moving through the town of Cornholme (pic), as did I, freewheeling down the A646 towards Todmorden, and also feeling a bit rusty. This is a dramatic stretch of countryside, hemmed in by lumps of Pennine whose tops are shrouded in mist.

A feature of these towns is these short, cobbled side streets (pic), ending abruptly at the foot of a hill.

One of the Christmas street lights that were still adorning Cornholme’s main street featured Santa Claus riding a bike. Given the cobbles, it had better be a gravel/ adventure bike.

Thanks to the downhill I’d hardly pedalled when I got to Todmorden, historically a town of split red-rose/ white-rose personality: the Calder used to be the Lancs–Yorks border. Now the split is between the post-industrial decay (pic) and burgeoning hip’n’trendy: the mills and factories that used the Calder’s water power in centuries past have largely gone, but on previous trips I've enjoyed chic bistros and stylish cafes that floated my boat, anyway. There's an active free-food movement that grows veg and herbs in help-yourself public beds, and there's a Wetherspoon, where I warmed myself up with some coffee in help-yourself refills.

From Todmorden, the Calder is joined by a canal and railway, threading around allotments along the valley floor; the two watercourses run for long distances right next to each other (pic). Several people were out on the towpath on mountain bikes, sharpening their close-manoeuvre skills by dodging the copious dog turds (not pictured). Perhaps that’s what the sign meant by ‘rugged sophistication’.

At Luddington Foot things were a bit classier: rather than leave extruded canine faex on the towpath, dog-walkers bagged it and hung it on trees or stood it on walls. Sounds like a winner in the next Turner Prize.

Still full of the brown fluid Wetherspoons call coffee, I had no need to stop off at the canalside cycle-cafe in sophisticatedly rugged Hebden Bridge, which I’ve blogged about before. The train out this morning, from Leeds to Manchester Victoria, had been mysteriously empty until we’d got here. Then it had filled up, with all those young professionals who live here in converted mill apartments and work in Salford Quays making TV dramas set in Calderdale. Or perhaps they were just off in search of a bank: recent closures mean that, astonishingly, there are none along the Calder between Todmorden and Brighouse.

The Calder used to be a sewage outlet for the many industries that clustered up the slopes: open cast mines, chemical factories, dye works. (They say the river used to run different colours on different days, depending on factory timetables.)

Thanks to their decline, the river’s a lot cleaner than it used to be, and offers some good day fishing now (pic). Not night fishing, as the fish don’t glow in the dark an more.

I cycled past Brighouse’s answer to the Taj Mahal (pic). The town’s most iconic building, a spectacularly ugly former flour mill, was driving everyone up the wall, so it has been imaginatively repurposed as a climbing centre that also does Escape Rooms, Pilates, and Nerf. And if you don’t know what that is, you'll have to look it up yourself, because I’ve done plenty already, and a nerf is a nerf.

Two honorary members of the Calder Valley club are Halifax (actually on the Hebble) and Huddersfield (actually on the Colne). From Brighouse I took the train the Halifax that evening to meet up with fellow cycling author Andrew Sykes; I've blogged about that in a separate post.

Back in Brighouse later that night, I cycled along dreary roads to my bolthole for the evening in Dewsbury (missing none of the Calder: there’s no riverside routes in that stretch). There I had a pint in the quietest Wetherspoon I’ve ever seen – with three staff and three customers including me at one point, we each had our own personal bar attendant.

I fancied a spot of light reading with my beer but had no book with me, thanks to travelling saddlebag-light. Luckily, the bar staff were comprehensively tattooed.

Miles today: 33

On to Day 2 →