Singletrack: Pendle pootle

Ride level Beginner cyclist
Distance 26 mi / 42 km
Type of bicycle Mountain bike
Traffic free
Circular route
Two people on e-bikes are cycling along a village lane with a stream running alongside them. They have just cycled off a stone bridge. There are stone houses in the background
The route takes in picturesque villages as well as off-road tracks
The Singletrack World team rides in the shadow of Lancashire’s Pendle Hill, site of many a 17th century witch trial. However, they didn’t find any witches, just mellow trails and tasty cafe treats

For us here at Singletrack World, anything in and around Calderdale feels like a cop-out. I guess that’s because it’s on our doorsteps and we’re so used to riding around here.

When forced to look close to home, it’s often hard to take a chance on something new when you think you know where all the ‘good stuff’ is. But looking in your local area and trying to plot an accessible route for a recumbent or a bike trailer can really get you thinking.

Finding a balance of legal routes that are both fun and accessible is limiting, but it can push you onto trails you would normally overlook in favour of the more technical options nearby. What we’ve done here is scout out a route close to home, with the intention of supplying it to local disabled cycling charity EMpowered People. There are some sections where you can take an alternative piece of singletrack and end up back on the route.

We’d Barley set off when…

I haven’t ridden a bike with Mark since issue 138 in July 2021 and, given that we’re heading out to his old stomping ground, he’s ideal company. Not only that, he has an electric vehicle to get us to the start of the ride. He’s brought his wife Vic – I recently rode with her on a Hope WMN ride and we share a keen interest in herons and fussy food menu options.

We spend the short drive from Todmorden to Barley checking the weather forecast on our phones, hoping to find something more positive than what we can see above us, or at least with more consistency than patchy dark clouds with sun breaking through. It’s hard to choose jackets and camera lenses for the latter.

Barley car park is a generous size given the compact nature of the small town with so many attractions for outdoor enthusiasts. It seems like an excellent use of space, and I’d encourage anyone visiting to choose this option over street parking on narrow lanes. There’s a café and a well-maintained public toilet, so we unload our bikes from Mark’s car, commit to our clothing choices and make use of the facilities before departure.

The heavens open as we reach the car park exit, so much so that the clouds run out of juice in no time and the sun returns.

Two people on e-bikes are cycling along a country lane with dry stone walls along both sides. Pendle Hill can be seen in the background
Mark and Vic enjoy views of Pendle Hill

Looking back, moving forward

The ride begins with a gentle warm-up on scenic country lanes, Pendle Hill proudly on the left looking rather moody and uninviting today.

Passing Lower Black Moss Reservoir, Vic spots a heron. my mood lifts from a doubtful worry about the route being interesting and the weather being unstable to a realisation that we’re in a beautiful part of the country on our bikes. We can’t possibly have a bad day.

To our right we pass the entrance to Aitken Wood and the Pendle Sculpture Trail, not permitted for bikes despite a smooth gravel path. If you were out on a family ride, though, there is a very solid metal gate to lock an adult bike to and enjoy a lap of the short sculpture loop.

A short pedal brings us to the picture-perfect village of Downham, known for being the setting for the 1961 classic, Whistle Down the Wind. Downham was selected as it appeared to be frozen in time, with no blemishing modernities. Mark fills me in on the history and I feel further confirmation that today will be a good day as I see how happy he is to be reminiscing about where he grew up.

We’re still on country lanes at this point, the kind with short berry bushes lining the edges of the surrounding sheep fields. It’s quiet enough to hear any cars coming, though we haven’t seen a single vehicle yet.

I’m quite distracted by the honesty plants, as I’ve been looking for some to put in my dried flower vase for ages, but Mark has floored it so I get back to work and catch up at the bottom of the hill.

Mark tells us about a time he and his cousins blasted down this lane as children, as fast as they dared to ride, and one of his older cousins stated very matter of factly that they must have been travelling more than 60mph. Even as one of the youngest in the group, Mark saw the unlikeliness in this statement.

A woman on an e-mountain bike is cycling down a cobbled staircase. She is wearing waterproof cycling kit and a helmet. She has a rucksack on her back.
The benefits of an e-bike: Vic grins as she makes the most of the turbo mode on a cobbled staircase

Losing traction

Shortly after passing through Rimington, we have our first off-road option: a very long section of the Pennine Bridleway with the option of sticking to country lanes and regrouping in at least two separate places.

We take the bridleway to see how suitable it would be for a recumbent bike or a parent towing a child trailer. It begins with a very smooth tarmac climb, low gradient and plenty of space to stop for a picnic, regroup or simply enjoy some tree shade on warmer days.

Eventually, we reach a junction with a continuation of the tarmac to the right, or a more off-road option continuing forward. We take the off road: a loose climb that’s holding onto plenty of rain water from the earlier shower, making it really hard to gain traction on the e-bike I have little experience on.

Mark advises what mode I should go for; Vic is in tongue-out concentration mode, and we enjoy a technical challenge getting to the top.    

The bridleway eventually opens out onto rutted moorland with Weets Hill on the left. We can ride to within 20 vertical metres of the summit, but there’s no legal cycle route to the very top, although the Pendle Way shares many characteristics with the Pennine Bridleway so you need to be careful with your map reading up here.

The bridleway becomes fun and flowy over White Moor. It’s ideal territory for introductory off-road riding, kids, hand cycles, bike trailers, new riders and so on.

For us, it’s an opportunity to hop around while enjoying the view with no worry of hitting a surprise rock garden or root bed. It’s a refreshing change to be on a ride with a low stress factor. Not being tested too much, just the freedom to enjoy the scenery and the company.

The entrance to a low tunnel over a canal. It's very overgrown with trees and bushes.
The Foulridge Tunnel is the longest canal tunnel in the country

The magical history tour

We take a turn down to the Leeds Liverpool towpath, a short roll down a ramp and we’re greeted with a barrier to slow down cyclists entering the path. Slow those with the ability to stand their bike up and navigate the bars through the small gap; however, it would halt anyone on a recumbent or towing a kid’s trailer.

There is another entrance to the canal further up the road, and if you took this first option it would be a pain to get yourself turned around and back up the ramp. I struggle with the weight of the e-bike I’ve borrowed for this ride but eventually wrestle it through.

We’re on the canal path now and it’s time for more local knowledge from Mark regarding The Anchor Inn, Salterforth. Back in the 1770s, construction work for the Leeds and Liverpool Canal was being undertaken behind the pub.

During the process the inn became damp so the new pub was built on top of the old one, using the entirety of the old one as cellars. Today, these cellars are known for their stalagmites and stalactites in the vaults.

I suggest we take this opportunity for a lunch break, but the sky is currently clear of clouds and we’re routinely checking the radar to keep tabs on a dense rain cloud that’s hunting us down. So we drop back onto the towpath and resume Heron Watch en route to Foulridge.

This section of the canal has four bridges to ride under, and we make it to bridge number one before the heavens open. I guess I didn’t refresh the weather radar when I checked it moments before, so we take cover and wait it out before darting to the next bridge to reassess our jackets and gloves.

Pushing on, when we see The Wharf at Foulridge café there’s no hesitation as we tuck our bikes away in view of the windows and squelch inside for lunch.

No path like a towpath

The sun has returned following our soup and coffee stop. We’re immediately back to tourist mode as we pass the Foulridge Tunnel entrance and get closer for a look inside.

At 1.5km in length, it is the longest canal tunnel in the country. In the days before boats had motors, passengers would have to lie on the roof of the barge and ‘walk’ along the roof of the tunnel to get through. Not one for the claustrophobic.

The towpath between Foulridge and Barrowford is nothing like the ones we’re used to in Todmorden. It’s wide and smooth with no surprise gradients along the way. We’re so used to Todmorden’s cobbled drains with ‘Cyclists Dismount’ warnings that despite us being entirely over-biked for this part of the route, it’s a really pleasant ride.

As soon as this thought passes over me, we get to a spiral cobbled staircase to pass under a bridge at the far corner of Barrowford Reservoir. As I scout out the alternative to check if it would be accessible (can confirm, it would), Mark and Vic ride rings around me doing laps of the cobbles. The joy of e-bikes is fiercely present right now, as I very much doubt they’d be giggling away, dropping into their seventh lap, if it weren’t for turbo mode.

A man is sitting at a table with a plate of food in front of him. He is wearing a long-sleeved jersey. There's also an empty teacup in front of him.
The Wharf at Foulridge café was a great spot for lunch

Send it, grandad

There are two main attractions in Barrowford: the pump track and Booths supermarket. For those of us living in Todmorden, Booths is like a day out at a farmers’ market. You save up, decide on a budget, then go and buy lots of fancy food and beers that you don’t really need but may never see again.

Unfortunately, we’re running out of time and have to choose between the two attractions. Before I can plead my case for Booths, Mark has cranked up to turbo and he’s time trialling around the Swinden Playing Fields Cycle Track.

We spend a great deal of our energy and our e-bike batteries racing around, before moving onto the Pendle Panthers BMX Pump Track. There’s quite a crowd of kids and teenagers at the start ramp, but Mark shows no fear and heads up to join them.

There are some smirks and sideways glances when they spot the e-bike, but he swiftly gains their admiration by clearing the jumps and dropping in for several more laps. Meanwhile, I’m collecting KitKat wrappers and Red Bull cans and putting them into the bin they’ve been littered around, and Vic is cheering Mark on.

We manage to peel him away from his new crew and all agree that it’s time to head back to Barley. We do not pass Booths; we do not spend one hundred pounds.

It’s a short pedal along more country lanes to get us back to where we began, though there’s a frustrating amount of greenspace with gravel walking paths and recreational routes that would be a far safer option if the law would allow.

Why bother?

This route was designed to be suitable for all riders, whether it be a family with young children, learner riders, recumbents, someone restricted to a gravel bike or a rider lacking confidence and so on. The route fills this brief perfectly and has the addition of some mountain bike singletrack along the way.

Even if you took out the need for the route to be accessible to all riders, it is still a great day out with beautiful scenery, many pubs and cafés, historical attractions and diversions to extend the loop or shorten it.

If you simply want to experience a new area that isn’t too remote for access, Pendle is a great place to go. It feels extremely rural yet isn’t far from major towns, train stations and motorways.

This route features in Singletrack magazine issue 151 as part of its Classic Rides series which Cycling UK supports. Cycling UK members can enjoy 50% off a print and digital Singletrack subscription.