Lost Lanes: Harrogate Cycling Circular
In his new book, Lost Lanes North, Jack Thurston examines the forgotten byways of Yorkshire and the surrounding area from a cyclist’s point of view, and shares 36 of his favourite rides. This one, a circular from Harrogate to the edge of the Dales, takes in magnificent architecture and beautiful landscapes – with a bit of local history thrown in…
START & FINISH: Harrogate
DISTANCE: 42 miles / 67km
TOTAL ASCENT: 663m
TERRAIN: Lanes and tarmac cycleway. Moderate.
Harrogate is one of the few British spa towns that still has a spa. People have come here to ‘take the waters’ since the early 17th century. When they opened in 1897, the town’s Turkish baths were considered spectacular, with Islamic-influenced design, colourful glazed tiles, Italian mosaic floors and the finest brass and mahogany fittings. Thanks to a meticulous restoration, the baths are every bit as plush a century later. Whether you’re an aficionado of steam and the ice-cold plunge, or simply curious about exactly what happens at a Turkish bath, this is the place to go. It’s also a perfect way to soothe tired muscles after a day out on the bike.
At the turn of the 20th century Harrogate was a playground of the European elite. This is a little hard to imagine as you head out of town along the railway line, through the Asda car park and in and out of various industrial estates. But such is the way of the National Cycle Network. Things soon get better as you turn onto the Beryl Burton Cycleway A. This part of the larger Nidderdale Greenway connects Harrogate with neighbouring Knaresborough and is named for Yorkshire’s most successful cyclist. Burton won more than 90 domestic championships and seven world titles, and dominated the sport like no rider before or since. Her British record for the 12-hour time trial surpassed the men’s record.
Knaresborough might just be the most spectacular town in Yorkshire. It’s set in a steep wooded gorge with a railway viaduct leaping across the River Nidd. Amazingly, the viaduct collapsed shortly before completion and had to be completely rebuilt. Its elaborate castellated style divides opinion among architectural critics. Pevsner loathed it, Priestley loved it. You decide who was right.
As good as the view is from the riverside, it’s even better from the castle – if you’re up to climbing the steps just behind the Riverside Café. From here it’s north through the town centre out into the wheat fields. Quiet lanes lead to Ripon, whose whopping cathedral took three hundred years to build. Like the viaduct at Knaresborough it suffered a collapse, following an earthquake in 1450.
Christianity goes back a long way here, this being the fourth church built on the site. The Saxon crypt, built in 672AD and said to be modelled on the tomb of Jesus Christ, predates the creation of England by 255 years. Now that’s old. Imposing, but in a different way, are Ripon’s courthouse, prison and workhouse. All three are run as museums (£) and even if you don’t stop they’re worth a look from the outside.
A few miles on is Studley Royal Park which encompasses a Georgian landscaped park and water gardens, a large Elizabethan country house and the ruined remains of Fountains Abbey B. Once the largest and wealthiest monastery in England, the ruins are now owned by the National Trust. When visiting by bike it’s easiest to use the west entrance, half a mile beyond the main visitor centre. If you’re not going in, there’s a good view of the abbey from the left side of the lane on the little rise after crossing the River Skell.
Six miles on is another architectural masterpiece, no less amazing for the fact that it has no architect but the wind and the rain, the rivers and tides of thousands of years. Brimham Rocks is an outcrop of hard millstone grit that survived the Ice Age and the glacier that carved out the Nidd Valley from other, softer rocks. Standing above the glacier, howling icy gales carved the rock into weird and wonderful shapes and left massive boulders balancing in improbable positions. Entrance is free if you’ve come by bike C.
Very much man-made, and clearly visible on the horizon to the south, are the giant spherical radomes of Menwith Hill. A top-secret facility run by the United States with British support, it is said to be the largest electronic surveillance station in the world and part of a global spy network with the power to eavesdrop on every phone call and email anywhere on the planet. It’s also alleged that US military drone attacks are coordinated from the base.
The final leg of the ride back to Harrogate follows the path of the glacier down the Nidd Valley, passing through the grounds of Ripley Castle, home of the Ingilby family since 1309 D. In the mid-19th century the estate village was remodelled in an ornate Gothic Revival style, inspired by villages in the Alsace. The stone lettering above the town hall reads “Hotel de Ville”.
From Ripley it’s the 4-mile, traffic-free Nidderdale Greenway all the way back to Harrogate. The cycleway uses the trackbed of an old railway. It passes through the Nidd Gorge, a slice of neglected and overlooked ‘edgeland’ that’s the setting for local author Rob Cowen’s 2015 book Common Ground, which has become a touchstone in new nature writing. The gorge has long been under threat from a planned new relief road, but local campaigners recently triumphed and the council dropped the proposal.
It’s the same unglamorous route back into Harrogate town centre but it won’t matter as by now your mind will have turned to a well-earned steam and sauna session at the Turkish baths.
Pubs & Pit Stops:
Riverside Café, Knaresborough (HG5 8DE, 01423 546759) Riverside café popular with local cyclists.
Good options in Ripon: Realitea (HG4 1DP, 01765 609887) is a unique café-bistro serving Indian tapas and homemade cakes; Chimes Café (HG4 1PA, 01765 606167) is close by the cathedral, and the Royal Oak (HG4 1PB, 01765 602284) is a stylish pub with rooms serving Timothy Taylor ales and above-average food.
Boar’s Head, Ripley HG3 3AY (01423 771888) Handsome, ivy-clad coaching inn. Rooms.
Turkish Baths, Harrogate HG1 2WH (01423 556746) Perfect post-ride relaxation.
Bettys Café Tea Rooms, Harrogate HG1 2QU (01423 814070) A Yorkshire institution since 1919. Grand architecture and traditional afternoon tea.
There are some good pubs and bars in Harrogate including Major Tom’s Social (HG1 2RB, 01423 566984) which serves bistro-type food, the Little Ale House (HG1 1DH, 07792 175380) for craft ales and pork pies; and the Harrogate Tap (HG1 1TE, 01423 501644) in the railway station.
Bike Shops: Chevin Cycles, Harrogate HG1 2BF (01423 568222) Big bike shop, e-bike hire available. Moonglu, Ripon HG4 2AN (01765 601106). Vern Overton Cycling, Darley HG3 2QN (07595 460465) Bike and e-bike hire in nearby Nidderdale.
‘Lost Lanes North: 36 Glorious bike rides in Yorkshire, Lake District, Northumberland, Pennines and northern England’ by Jack Thurston is published by Wild Things Publishing. Priced £16.99 from wildthingspublishing.com