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Mountain biking: Looking for decent descents around Swaledale?
One of the key factors to a good days mountain biking is to finish with mud on your cycling jacket and a big grin on your face, or in other words, a good bit of downhill. And where better to find flowing steep downhill sections than Swaledale in the Yorkshire Dales? When I say Swaledale I am really referring to the hills to the north and south of the River Swale that give access to Arkengarthdale, Apedale and Wensleydale and to the west Tan Hill and West Stones Dale.
Of course a trip to the Dales will often raise the discussions of trail centres or cross country and where will you get the best ride? The argument usually goes; at a trail centre you generally have steady climbs and the downhill section is usually longer and more sinuous as you traverse into berms and over table tops at a deliberate steady rate, whereas cross country riding your descent is often the most direct way. In other words with cross country cycling you can have a ball ache of a climb for a relatively quick and unpredictable descent.
Because Swaledale is a fairly narrow dale it’s abundant with climbs where even the hardiest of us will have to get off and push the bike. Apart from the unforgiving climbs there are also the hundreds of gates to negotiate and we mustn’t forget the lakes of black peaty bogs. Whist there have been days when I felt I’d spent more time carrying the bike than riding it, I keep on going back for more. Why? On the bright side there are many magnificent views, the length and profile of the cycle ride can be fairly easily varied and when you get the route right they’re really fantastic cycling trails. Oh, and don’t forget, one thing that the Dales have the cycle trail centres don’t, is pubs. Not that I would ever encourage you to drink and ride, but what better way to finish than to sip a lukewarm pint of Black Sheep ale?
When I ride in the Dales I always take a GPS, this firstly keeps me on the right trail, and secondly it logs the actual route I take including the elevation profile and speed of travel. So, when I upload the data onto the laptop I can see where and why I achieved the grin factor. To me a good downhill section means cycling on something that isn’t tarmac. It has to either be a fairly technical descent or faster moving on grass, single track or dirt / stone track (grouse road), something where you’d encounter a few surprises and can feel the bike suspension pounding and recoiling. The adrenaline level has to surpass the point of fear of being hurt. According to my trusty GPS, this is usually reaching speeds over 30 km/h on grassy or dirt track or on technical section anything above 12 km/h. So bearing that in mind this is roughly the criteria for the sections that I will recommend. The video clips are footage that I found on Youtube and in most cases are just short section of the trails, but it gives a visual idea of what to expect. Oh, just on more thing, because the head camera is travelling at the same angle of the bike the descents never look as steep as they actually are!
Fremington Edge to Sorthwaite Hall
Descend from 460mtrs to 255mtrs (205 metres) over 1.9km.
On a mountain bike you would approach Fremington Edge from the hamlet of Hurst. Climbing up onto the grouse road after a couple of bends you will see a path to the left that leads to a wall and a gate. Take the path to the gate and go through it. The first couple of hundred yards can be quite boogy but you will soon come to sturdier ground and the real downhill will begin. You should have a good view of Arkengathdale but if you are going to admire the view it’s best to stop the bike first. There is a tricky little drop just before a right hairpin turn that takes you to a steep loose rocky section. Just apply the brakes and roll into the drops, it is all ride able. Next you will come to a gate and a steep section grassy section, take more caution if it’s wet with a little S bend to help slow you down just before the wall narrows as you reach the bottom gate.
Video by Beamish Odd Sox Mountain Biking Club
Great Pinseat to Surrender Bridge via Hard Level Gill
Descend from 583m to 352m (231 metres) over 4.8km
The mine spoils that dominate Great Pinseat are more reminiscent of an alien landscape than the Yorkshire Dales. From the peak you take a rough grouse road with loose stones and rocks just to make things a little more interesting. Starts off as a steepish rocky descent that will really test your MTB suspension, to a gate, once through the gate it’s more gradual descent as the road follows Barney Beck to Surrender Bridge. Best to check you still have the fillings in your teeth.
Great Pinseat to road via Barras Edge
Descend from 583m to 393m (190 metres) over 3.08km.
It’s basically grouse road that takes you from mine spoils of Great Pinseat down to the spine road between Low Row to Langthwaite. It’s a gradual descent with no nasty surprises but your MTB can pick up some serious speed. You may need to lift your bum off the saddle for relief from the constant vibration. This is also nice road to climb up to Great Pinseat
Fore Gill Gate to Healaugh
Descend from 424m to 260m (194 metres) over 2.5km
From Fore Gill Gate take the single track path that veers to the right there is a slight climb, then a descent, nothing too technical but it can get a little awkward in places. You will come to a wall on your left a couple of hundred yards past the end of the wall there is a path veers right. Take the right path you will cross a grouse road and follow the grassy bridle path there should now be a wall to /continue downhill hugging the wall to your right. Cycle through two sets of gates and bare left down the Theirnswood Hall Road, at the bottom of the road turn left to Healaugh.
Slade Head to Gunnerside via Barf End Gate
Descend from 550m to 242m (208 metres) over 2.8km
The descent starts on the grouse road just above Slade Head, after about half a mile down the grouse road on the left there is a grassy track with tyre grooves used for farm vehicles. Take this track to a ford then continue to Barf End Gate. Go through the gate and bare left across the field until you come to another wall and a gate. Do not go through the gate, look to the left and behind you will see a track down a grassy embankment. Follow the track downhill to Gunnerside. The terrain varies from grass to rocky single track. Look out for walkers!
Please Note: The video takes a slightly different bike route to the one I recommend, it comes to Barf End via Gunnerside Gill which is a more undulating route.
Tan Hill to East Stonesdale, near Keld
Descend from 541 to 300mtrs (241 metres) over 5.6 km
OK, this one is really two downhill sections with undulating in parts in the middle but it is damn good ride particularly after a spell of dryer weather. Start at the Tan Hill Pub and cycle up the Pennine Bridle way to Tan Hill, the bridleway forks right and continues onto a track and the start of the descent. This is bleak peaty moorland and can be quite soft particularly after a spell of rain. For the first mile and a quarter you will encounter some pretty turbulent single track, as you reach the end of this section you will see a Lad Gill, just before it there is a small drop off that can take you by surprise.
Once over the beck you cross a piece of soft grassy moorland to the wall and gate next to a farm building. Cross Mould Gill and go through the gates and follow the track through a narrow walled section that opens up, you will see the track ahead bare to the left into Firth Lodge, at this point you need to keep looking right for the wooden bridleway sign. Bare right onto the path and you will come to How Gill and yet another gate. After the gate there is a gentle climb along the side of the dale with some tricky path to negotiate, stop and take in the views now as the next section you will have your eyes on your line of travel as the path takes you down to, you guessed it, another gate, the gate at Shot Lathe to be precise. Through the gate as a walled section that is reminiscent of a stone walled bob sleigh run that takes you to the next set of gates at East Stonesdale, then it’s down the steep stoney road to the River Swale at Keld.
Hooker Mill Scar Gate to B6270
Descend from 479m to 311m (168metres) over 1.6km
To reach Hooker Mill Scar, you would need to take the bridle path from Muker, the downhill section is basically a dirt track with a couple of gates that converts to a suspension punishing steeper stony track. The descent finishes at the ford just before the B6270.
Apedale Head to Dents Houses along Apedale Rd.
Descend 522m to 386m (136 metres) over 3.2km
I assume that Apedale Road must have been constructed to be the main artery to service the many mines in the area, these mines are now disused but the dirt road still survives, mainly to service the grouse shooters. The descent starts from Apedale Head and finishes before the crossroads at Dent Houses. Whist it is mainly fast flowing dirt track there is a steep rocky section that requires a little extra concentration to stay on the bike. Oh, and at the end of the rocky section there is a small drainage ditch that can take you by surprise. The nice thing about Apedale is it’s a fun descent that will lead you to another, at the Dent Houses turning left takes you to Greets Hill or right takes to Wensleydale and Castle Bolton.
Black Hill to Bolton Castle
Descend from 420m to 236m (184 metres) over 1.95 km
The logical way to get to Black Hill is from the crossroads at Dent Houses, there is a short climb on the Grouse Road to a wall and a gate. Go through the gate and you will find a fenced path, stay on the path and you will soon start to travel downhill. It’s a clearly defined path with a right then a left bend then brings you onto a less defined open field, pick your line as there are a few, watch out for the rabbit burrows and enjoy the ride. Try not to stray too far from the wall on your right as you need to be at the gate at end of the path. Once through the gate the path changes from open grass to a stone walled passage where the surface is much like riding a dry river bed. At the end you would normally take a right to Castle Bolton.