Today started with the mist slowly being burnt off the hills of the White Peak by a surprisingly powerful sun for 8.30am. Starting back on the track bed of the Tissington Trail was a nice way of easing myself into the journey, as I wanted to conserve my strength and the railway gradients are wonderful. I get a bit pensive a few miles up the track at Parsley Hay as it was here that my maternal grandfather, a steam locomotive driver, was killed by slipping from the footplate. It was all before I was born, but it’s a serious place, nevertheless. The trail peters out a bit further on, as the
Dowlow Quarry still has track laid through to Buxton and so the rail bed becomes railway.
To conserve time, I decided to go onto the A515 which I could see was fairly quiet, rather than remaining on NCN68. For cycle touring, I have a complex relationship with the Sustrans Ntional Cycle Network. It’s a wonderful asset, making Britain a more cycle-friendly place, but on a tour it has its pros and cons. The pros are obvious: the routes are either car-free completely, or very quiet small roads. The cons are more diverse — first, the NCN route from A to B isn’t normally the most direct one; after all, this isn’t what they’re trying to do. But in some cases it favours traffic free to the point where it goes all over the houses (witness Route 4’s stretch from Compton Greenfield to the Severn Bridge). This is also the case for gradient in hilly areas, where the NCN may take the route over high ground, rather than round it. Again, this can be bad news with a heavily loaded bike. Lastly, NCN make no guarantees about the quality of the surface, and in many cases this can be akin to a mountain bike track and bad news for a road bike. I once remember being ‘committed’ to traversing a stretch of NCN in Carmarthenshire which went over about four miles of sharp rubble. (More on this issue later).
The A515 was fine at that time and I was in Buxton for coffee at 10am. I had then deliberately planned the route to take me down (well, up and down) memory lane, to ‘do’ Long Hill which runs from Buxton to Whaley Bridge, which has a wonderful 5 mile descent with wonderful views of the Goyt Valley. Of course, first of all you have to do the pull up to the summit, but Buxton’s altitude is significantly higher than Whaley, so I was really “cashing-in” yesterday’s rather tiring haul from The Trent to the southern Peak District. The run was exhilarating and is the kind of reason why I love cycle touring. Just before leaving the moorland, I heard the cry of a Lapwing in the distance. The snag with Long Hill is after that the most direct route I needed to take was the A6. I’ve cycled along that stretch many times, so I sacrificed tranquillity for a level route and a reasonably direct one. By 12.30pm, I was cycling the streets of South Manchester, where I once lived.
I was able to briefly meet up with my daughter (another cyclist) outside her university building, then lunch at the wonderful Eighth Day Cooperative – one of the best veggie cafés in Britain.
My route now led north and the traffic-volume verses topography dilemma raised itself again. The Pennines are scored by narrow valleys, down which run – typically – a trunk road with lorries, a railway line and a canal. In some parts there are no quiet lanes traversing the range in a north-south direction, and my route lay north-east of Manchester. The solution to the traffic problem is to take NCN66, which runs along the towpath of the Rochdale Canal between Manchester and Halifax. While it’s legal to cycle on any canal towpath in the UK, I would normally avoid doing this because the towpath surface usually requires a mountain bike because of litter, bumps and big cobbles at locks. But I reasoned that if the Rochdale’s towpath was the NCN66, there would be some enhancement to the surface. After all, normal towpaths don’t usually have NCN designation.
Well, if there was any enhancement, it was on a tight budget! It’s really a track, with all the usual detritus of canal towpaths. Just as well I had fitted those Schwalbe Marathon Pluses – no punctures, but I hate putting my 700c road wheels through that kind of punishment. And my route along the canal was about 20 miles, from Manchester City Centre, through Rochdale to the edge of Todmorden, just inside West Yorkshire. Poor wheels.
Canals are their own testimony to local history and social culture. The stretch from the centre of Manchester passed through a desolate inner-city ring, where everything was either derelict or demolished, but with little sign of reconstruction. The canal at this stretch seems to act as the North East Manchester fly tipping centre. It also seems poorly dredged too. I only saw three boats in that stretch. Then there come the more countrified bits, where local residents exploit their gardens which back onto the canal with home-made decking terraces enabling a waterside leisure experience. There were lots of geese, which hissed at me as I passed. Narrow clearance under bridges meant that I had to take care balancing, especially over cobbles, to avoid going over the canal side. The quality of the track surface was at its worst in North Manchester, at one point being just an unsurfaced footpath through meadow. From Rochdale onwards, it was more consistent and better. By 5pm I was at the canal’s summit north of Littleborough. By 5.30pm, I left the towpath and ascended a steep hill to the little, isolated village where my youth hostel lay.
In this part of Yorkshire, they go in for worrying place names, like Heckmondwike, Mytholmroyd and, in my case, Mankinholes. You’ll be glad to know that, since I arrived, I haven’t seen any blokes around wearing ill-advised underwear.