The Mary Towneley Loop

The memorial to Lady Mary Towneley

“Right! The birds have done so we are going to have to. And... we'll have to do it faster!” Thus spake Andy after our wives got back from a one day circuit of the said route.

So three months after their round, we arranged to do it one mid October day. There’s one problem with October: daylight, or the lack of it. In fact that is only one potential problem, amongst the others are cooler, possibly cold temperatures and an increased chance of poor weather.

Still our stall was set out and come the day, Steve turned up at the appointed time (0710) to pick me up. We did have to stop at his mum’s to feed her cat though before we could get underway. Steve’s shortcuts to avoid Keighley and a farmer who might be moving his milk cows between field and parlour meant that we were a quarter of an hour late meeting up with Andy and Mike at Hebden Bridge, our starting point. The day is fine and clear though there is a strong, and cool, easterly breeze blowing.

Section 1: Hebden Bridge to The Long Causeway

Thus at a quarter past eight in the morning we headed off. A short section of downhill, then it’s a right turn and the first of the day’s major climbs. The route we are taking is not the official route but lies to the east and avoids a mile or so on the main road at either end of the day. Either way we have the height to gain to get onto the tops. At first the climb is steep but on tarmac, then we leave the road behind and take to a cobbled lane. This climbs steadily for nearly two miles through red, orange and yellow leaved trees to emerge at the edge of the first moor.

More road then it is onto the moor proper. Andy arranges to take a picture but his camera batteries fade. It is to be the first of our mechanical woes. The track is roughly paved and is awkward to keep a rhythm going. Eventually we reach the crest of the hill and the first downhill of the day leads via slanting drainage slots and loose stoney sections down to Gorple reservoir.

An easy section now, first on cinders across the dam, then the dual concrete lines of the Water board track lead to the Widdop road. More height gain along this leads to the dam of Widdop reservoir. We cross the dam and get into the lee of the hillside and wood on the south side of the reservoir. Ahead lies the first of the technical climbs: Gorple Gate.

This was at one time loose and stoney and to clean it was quite an achievement. However these days it has been mended so that it is more a test of stamina than technique though there is still some of that required. A discussion ensues as to what order we are going to tackle it so as not to get in each others’ way. I want to go first so that I can get shots of the others as they near the summit. I head off and leave the others to sort it out amongst themselves.

The climb begins steadily at first, then after a slight bend begins to rear up and becomes slightly looser requiring more effort than I wish to expend this early on. Fortunately it soon eases and swings round to the right before once again beginning to steepen. I look up and see a switchback ahead: it’s loose! Aiming for the outside of the bend I get round it without too much trouble but the angle doesn’t ease off. A damp section follows, I have time to look down to my left to see the others struggling as much as I am.

The final pull up to the top of Gorple Gate

The final pull up to the top of Gorple Gate.

Eventually I round a corner and enter a gully. Just one more steep section and I can see that it eases off. Once past the final rise I get off the bike to take some photos of the others. Andy is next, then Steve, finally Mike, “saving my energy for later on”. We come to a halt at the top of the long descent to Hurstwood reservoir. Time for some food. The wind is strong here so we huddle behind rocks to escape its effect. This means though that we are also out of the morning sun.

Refreshed we head off down the descent. This is long and easy angled, Steve races off, myself then Mike and Andy follow more cautiously. The surface is mostly good with just the occasional loose stoney section that cannot be avoided. The only disconcerting things are the humps at various points designed to prevent heavy rain from washing the surface away. Hitting them at speed causes take-off!

We regroup at the reservoir and contour round its edge via a pleasant track. Then we turn back eastwards to Cant Clough reservoir. We are now heading into the wind and it is slow progress: into the granny ring on the flat! Once past the reservoir a superb, easy piece of singletrack leads past a ford to some old mine workings. Going past these a blind sheep skitters about, unsure of what the noise of my drive chain could be. Eventually I get past it and a short climb leads up to The Long Causeway.

Section 2: The Long Causeway to Waterfoot

Steve arriving at the memorial

Steve arriving at the memorial.

Once across the road (The Long Causeway) a series of wide tracks leads down, around and through various gates into the hamlet of Holme Chapel. A quick breather until a gap in the traffic allows us to cross the road and we are then faced with the second of the big climbs, up to Deerplay Moor. This is a lot steeper than Gorple Gate and none of us manage it all the way, Steve and I get to the start of the grass section then blow up! So it’s push time though I try to ride some of the easier angled stuff but eventually give up. The top of the grass bank is marked by the memorial to Mary Townley who inspired and campaigned for this bridleway.

The climbing is easier now, good farm tracks, and getting to the main road at the top of the hill is relatively straight forward until we once again turn into the wind and our pace slows to a crawl on the flat.

We cross the road and meet a solitary young cyclist heading in the opposite direction. On this section the route runs alongside the road for nearly a mile until it crosses to the west and takes a line through fields. At the road crossing we pass a woman on a young horse which is very nervous, so we dismount to get past. This section is marked by a regular series of gates so we get into a system of one of us racing ahead to open the gate for the others then playing catch up once they have shut it.

Mike had talked about stopping for food again so having found a sheltered sunny spot we took a break. Under some electricity pylons! It was 11 o’clock. We were nearly finishing when the woman on the horse caught us up so rather than her passing us and then having to pass her again we did a Norman Tebbitt and got on our bikes.

Mike looks on while Andy and Steve sort out Andy’s bike

Mike looks on while Andy and Steve sort out Andy’s bike.

More gates, Andy got the first and I was at the second when a shout came from the back. I called on to Mike and Steve. Andy came walking down the track. “My rear mech is bust” he shouts. When we gather he explains that on letting the gate swing shut it had caught his derailleur and snapped the drop-out. Steve suggests that we wrap the mech around the seatpost and shorten the chain so that Andy will effectively be riding a single speed bike until we can get to a bike shop, if there are any around.

The repairs take around half an hour to sort out and mean that we have to go quite slowly. Fortunately most of the track is downhill so Andy can freewheel most of it. Going through another gate Steve, who is the most technically capable of us on a bike, falls over! “I can’t get my foot out of the clip” he explains. Further examination reveals that one of the bolts holding the cleat to the foot of his shoe has come out, thus allowing his foot to turn without it popping out of the pedal.

The next village is Lumb, and as we leave it, both Steve and Andy get a puncture. Time is taken fixing these and just as we are setting off again, Steve announces that he has another puncture on his other tyre! In fact he has two! Andy and I decide to go on ahead and see if there is a bike shop in Rawtenstall. A hundred metres down the track, his chain snaps so we have to repair that.

A worker on a building site gives us directions to the only bike shop in the area. Fortunately it is all downhill, even so Andy has to pedal occasionally. We were only able to get the chain to stay on the granny ring so Andy pedals furiously for about 10 seconds then coasts for 20 seconds or so then pedals again. The effect is hilarious and I have trouble staying on the bike.

We find the shop and eventually we get sorted out with a bodge job as they do not have a drop-out for his model of bike. It works though. In the meantime Mike has found a pie shop and rings us up to inform us of the fact! They are going to carry on slowly giving us time to catch them up. The last 3 miles has taken 2 hours, nearly as long as the previous 15!

Section 3: Waterfoot to Watergrove

Andy and I head back up the valley to get back on the loop and try and catch Mike and Steve up as quickly as possible. Climbing up the side road we miss the turning for the bridleway as the scallies have nicked the signs! Eventually we realise our mistake and spy the other two on top of the first rise. The bridleway begins as a steep concrete farm track leading to a gate. After this it gets steeper so we elect to walk. As we get to the top of the rise where we had seen Mike and Steve on the skyline, we see them again only a hundred metres ahead: fixing a puncture! This time it is Mike that has suffered.

A brief rest and we head onward and upward, this is the last of the big climbs we will do. Two motorcyclists head down past us, disturbing the peace. Again the path steepens, I look up to see the track with a slope that is nearly 1 in 1 and prepare to carry when I then notice the bridleway sign leading off to the right. Phew! It is still hard work though and I am glad to get to the gate at the top of the hill and have a breather holding it open for the others.

This time it is Mike’s turn to fix his bike, well a puncture

This time it is Mike’s turn to fix his bike, well a puncture.

I get in behind Mike when there is a pop and his rear wheel punctures again! So another puncture stop. I am now the only one who hasn’t suffered so far. There’s still time though.

The track has now levelled off and we contour round the head of the side valley to the Top of Leach. What follows is a 4Km downhill blast. The track is cobbled, though occasional sections have been washed out and are quite rocky but it is best just to blast through them using momentum to keep you in a straight line. Steve being youngest and therefore maddest is away ahead, followed by Andy. I begin to catch Andy up and shortly after passing him I drop off a rock step into an area of loose stones. The bike begins to slide from under me, I correct and the bike throws the other way. I am barely in control but manage not to hit the brakes and have visions of eating dirt (or at least bricks). Somehow I manage to get the bike back into line and I continue eyes watering from the wind blasting in my face. The barrier at the bottom of the hill is soon reached. When Andy arrives he is amazed that I managed to keep upright.

Regrouped we continue down narrow roads and lanes to emerge at Whitworth. This is where our spouses got lost as the local youths had removed the signs hereabouts. So we ended up cycling through a council estate trying not to catch anyone’s eye. As we pulled up onto the main road I unclipped from my pedals and thought: “something’s wrong”. Looking down and checking, the cleat mounting on my left shoe was now virtually detached from the sole of the shoe. I would have to do the rest of the ride without a clip on that side.

Finding the way out of Whitworth was a little tricky as well, but eventually we emerged onto the moor. At this point we met a group of cyclists who appeared to also be doing the MTL. Passing them as they had a break, we climbed upwards to discover ourselves riding through the local golf course. We were now heading straight into the wind and the going was difficult despite the track almost being good enough for a road car.

Andy crossing a beck shortly after we went wrong at Whitgrove reservoir

Andy crossing a beck shortly after we went wrong at Whitgrove reservoir.

Somewhere along the line we missed the sign that indicated a right turn and after crossing a ford that was a little deeper than it looked, we stopped for another food-stop. A little while later we realised our mistake and crossed back over the ford to find the junction. The line took a poorly marked (on the ground) track down to the main beck feeding Watergrove reservoir. A stiff climb, into the wind again, on the other side, followed by another cobbled road descent saw us into the visitor centre.

Section 4: Watergrove to Hebden Bridge

Another stiff climb on rough stoned track follows. It is especially hard since the wind is funnelling around the low knolls. Another gate and we are in some shelter from a hill. A long and rapid downhill section on the same surface adds to the jarring.

At a junction we have to turn into the wind again. A short while later we pass a group of youths out walking: “You’re last” one of them says to me. How obvious. “The wit of yobs eh?” says Andy when I catch him up. The track continues undulating and twisting round small knolls until a gate gives access to a road leading downhill.

Eventually the downhill has to stop as we come to a junction. Turning left, the ascent begins again. Thankfully it is short-lived as we wind our way through some dubious modern architecture. Relaxing too soon, another gate gives access to yet another climb, at least this is on the road. The tarmac leads up then along the top edge of a disused quarry. We come across three of the group we had seen just outside Whitworth: mending a puncture! Obviously our bad luck had rubbed off. Further on the fourth member was waiting at a gate which he kindly held open whilst we passed through, telling him why his mates were lagging.

The route then left the main track and hit a steep descent. A very steep descent! At first it was on a track constructed from gritstone blocks but soon it became a soily slope. Steve managed it in one but the rest of us had to stop at one point as it passed through a gate. Getting going again on steep ground is just as difficult heading downhill as up! Eventually the angle eased and we emerged onto the main road. A couple of hundred metres along this then over to the other side of the valley.

Any thoughts we had of an easy section were soon dashed as the climb came into view. Again it was surfaced with gritstone blocks which must be really awkward for a horse wearing steel horseshoes. Steve had to cycle this section as his shoe would not come out of the pedal. Quite how he did it is beyond me as it was tiring enough at the end of what we had done to walk up it.

The last technical descent on a path made up of gritstone blocks.

The last technical descent on a path made up of gritstone blocks.

The track then undulated around the hillside. Almost completely paved with gritstone blocks, it was the missing or subsided blocks that were trickiest. Soon the last house was reached and a long steady climb over a still blocky path lead to the point from where the finish was in sight. First however was a short descent on the same blocky surface that demanded continual concentration.

Heading towards Stoodley Pike.

Heading towards Stoodley Pike.

The angle eased as we headed towards Stoodley Pike, concentration was still required to avoid dropping into slots though, and soon we joined the road leading to Mankinholes. This dipped then took a cruelly sharp climb before levelling out again. (OK it wasn7#8217;t that steep: it just felt like it).

The final track beckoned as we contoured around under Stoodley Pike itself. However the strong, and chilling, headwind together with the gradual ascent meant that our speed was painfully slow. Finally we reached the farm at Swillington and it is all downhill from here back to the cars.

Nearly there, just one steady climb to do then it’s all downhill.


We were out for 9 1/2 hours altogether, though only 6 1/2 of that was actually on the move. We spent about an hour eating and taking rests. The remainder was spent making repairs.