Gravel Culture: A (gravelly) tourist in your own town.
Gravel Union On
6 October 2021
Back in the summer Emma was asked to play gravel riding tour guide for a day and it made her look at her local ‘patch’ with fresh eyes.
When Markus Stitz contacted me earlier in the year to ask if I might like to show him my local gravel trails for a new book he was writing, I jumped at the chance. There’s no better way of making you really look at all the best bits of where you live, than showing them all off to a visitor.
I consider myself very fortunate to live in Calderdale in the UK. This area is typified by rolling hills and steep-sided valleys, intertwined with timeworn roads built from gritstone setts, innumerable moorland tracks and ancient stone slabbed packhorse tracks, their centres worn down from the clip clop of hooves over the years. Sometimes though it’s easy to overlook what you actually have right in front of you.
I knew Markus was going to be bringing his drone, so I plotted a little tour with this in mind, picking out some of my favourite landmarks of the area that I thought might look good from the air. The most famous is arguably Stoodley Pike, the monument which dominates the skyline above Hebden Bridge and Todmorden, which was constructed to mark the end of the Crimean War.
Calderdale is packed with little treats. The more you explore the area, the more you find. One of my favourite local features, honesty boxes, are peppered about on many of the local farms. Early on in our ride (too early for snacks in fact), we stopped at Old Chamber Honesty Box. This one has grown significantly in scope and now sports an adjoining campsite and the owners offer cooked breakfasts at weekends.
As we wound our way onwards and upwards towards London Road, a bridleway skirting under Stoodley Pike, Markus exclaimed “It’s quite bumpy, your gravel!”. We bounced across uneven and sunken old stone tracks. I’m pretty well used to it, but Markus initially found it a bit of a shock! As we reached the top, we stopped for him to take more pictures. Long views opened up of steep sided, tree lined valleys snaking off towards Todmorden to the west and in the east, the great monolith of Wainhouse Tower was visible above the town of Halifax. The last remaining mill chimneys in the area spiked up between the trees.
Trying to cram as many of my favourite places as possible into one ride was quite a challenge. Soon we were back down from the hillside and onto the canal, passing the ruined Callis Mill, which is now a community garden managed by the local canal boat dwellers. We continued our ride onwards to the edge of Hebden Bridge before going straight back up “Jack Bridge”. This is a pretty tough climb which heads up through Colden Clough, passed the recent hydroelectric plant which harnesses the power of the water that historically brought the wealth to the valleys by powering the long-gone mills.
Back up “on the tops” and clear of the trees, we made our way over to May’s Shop. No visit to Calderdale is complete without it. Legend has it you can get everything from a head gasket for a 1960’s Landrover to the finest malt whisky and everything in-between. It’s open 364 days a year and serves the hilltop community with a delivery service too. Pushing open the door triggered a bell in the farmhouse and May herself came out to serve us. In all my years riding here I’ve never been greeted with anything but a welcoming smile. Local pies, warmed up specially, and mugs of tea were brought out to us as we enjoyed the sunshine in the cobbled yard as other cyclists and walkers passed by.
Time had been ticking along and I realised that if we’re to make it along to the local #RideDrinkPie social ride then we would need to cut our ride slightly short. I decided to take the “pie ride” group around the rest of the route I had planned with Markus as the evening ride. We chased back down to meet everyone on the marina in town, packing a few local beers into frame bags for later.
For the keen readers of Gravel Union, you might remember that I had the pleasure of interviewing Neil from Handbikepacking earlier in the summer. It turned out that Neil was moving down to Halifax (close to Calderdale) and so I invited him along to #RideDrinkPie to meet some more local riders. Our merry jumble of bikes made its way back up the valley side to where Markus and I had cut short our earlier route.
We re-joined the route, part of the Pennine Bridleway, and wound our way once more onto the moors. I’d chatted with Neil about what trails his hand bike would be able to cope with. It turned out that his current one was more of a gravel-based hand bike than the full-suspension MTB-biased one he had on order. The only hazard I was worried about were the drainage channels that I knew were found on one downhill and so I warned Neil in advance. I think every wheel I’ve ever destroyed has been killed by drainage channels…..
Like a scene from ET, our merry band crested the top of the hill and rode down to the halfway gate. Pausing to count each other in and out, a shout came from the back “CRASH!”. We paused, it’s not uncommon with off-road group rides for there to be an occasional minor incident. This time though Neil was stuck. Luckily, he was totally fine, but when we rode back up the 100m to check on him, we discover that the evil waterbars had killed his frame, the front was cracked. The depth and width of the drain caused the front of his bike to bottom out and it had taken a wallop just behind the fork.
Thankfully it was a really warm sunny evening, so we took a few minutes to figure out what to do. Luckily, we were on a track which had no locked gates, so we figured that if we could find a Landrover (or similar) we could get Neil and his hand bike recovered. You would have thought this would be a fairly easy task in the countryside, so we began ringing round our friends and contacts, trying to find a suitable vehicle, but without much luck. We decided instead to call the Mountain Rescue. Should you ever get stuck in a similar situation, it’s really important to be clear with what you say to the emergency services - I’m not sure they quite understood what I meant when I reported a “broken hand bike” (and what the implications of that was). Their reply was “We can’t come out to a broken bike”.
By the time I’d finished trying to explain that without some external assistance then Neil wouldn’t be able to get off the hillside, one of the group had ridden off to start knocking on the door of farms back up the track to see who could help with a Landrover. Cresting the hill in the golden light came our saviour in the shape of a white Landrover. I was still on the phone to the emergency services and was able to end the call without needing their assistance.
Neil’s poor hand bike, now a folding bike, was lifted into the back and the kind farmer drove Neil and his bike back to where we’d all parked earlier. I left Markus to finish the ride with the rest of the rabble and rode back in the Landrover to help unload at the other end. Luckily, later in the evening we were able to all meet-up in nearby Hebden Bridge for post-ride beers.
Neil’s bike was unfortunately a write off. He said that he had bought it second-hand and that it had had a pretty hard life before he bought it. Neil had subsequently hammered it round different bits of the UK, so he felt he had got his money’s worth out of it. When he contacted the manufacturer, they organised a replacement for him, which was on its way while he waited for the super fancy electric powered full-suspension handbike which was due to arrive with later in the year.
Looking back now, I think Markus got the full flavour of a Calderdale ride, there was every surface you could think of, broken bikes, new friends and the strong community welcome, all washed down with Vocation craft beer, brewed just up the hill.
He summed up our ride pretty eloquently – “It’s great round here!”
Photos courtesy of Markus Stitz