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Going over Rivington Pike from the easier side
Going over Rivington Pike from the easier side

Lancashire Cycleway South: The ideal mini-tour

Richard Barrett encourages some keen cyclists to try a cycle tour for the first time by explaining to them that you can cycle tour in the style you prefer - hostels, hotels, e-bikes, whatever works for you.

‘Get lost. I’m not going touring.’

Despite riding together twice and sometimes three times a week throughout the year, that was the typical response I received from fellow members of our local Cycling UK group whenever I broached the subject of going touring, especially if I suggested hostels as overnight accommodation. Admittedly, we’re mostly all in our sixth, seventh and eighth decades so many of them can remember when hostels meant shared dormitories and mandatory chores every morning. Other barriers such as ‘I haven’t got any panniers’, ‘I can’t put a rack on my carbon frame’, ‘My partner needs the car during the week’ or ‘I can’t spend a week away from home’ kept cropping up; the latter being quite common among those in the group involved in providing childcare for their grandchildren.

Overcoming resistance to touring

A small group of us, who know the joys of cycle touring, listened to the objections of the majority and came up with a winning formula that would appeal to our ‘newbie tourers’. First, we would ride from home or select a start point that would be easily accessible by rail, with both train operators in our region being fairly easy-going about taking bikes on trains. Second, we would go out only for a long weekend. Third, we would recruit someone with a big estate car, who would be happy to ferry bags between our overnight stopovers. And last, we would use budget hotel chains as they offer more comfort and some exceptional deals on rooms on Saturday and Sunday nights.

Slowly but surely, club members started signing up for the mini-tour, attracted as much by the camaraderie of a long weekend together as by the prospect of great riding in some wonderful countryside.

So that’s how a couple of dozen lycra-clad pensioners from the Wirral stepped out of their homes one bright May morning and crossed the Mersey to ride the southern loop of The Lancashire Cycleway over three days.

The benefits of touring from home

There are lots of benefits in starting a cycle tour as soon as you step out of your front door rather than having to travel to the start. You don’t eat into any of your precious holiday by travelling; you don’t waste time in traffic-jams, train stations or airport lounges; and you’re certainly not putting any meaningful amount of carbon emissions into the atmosphere as you would if you drove or flew to the start of your tour. Lock your front door and you’re into holiday mode before you reach the end of your road. Living in Chester, just half a mile away from Route 5 on the National Cycle Network, I was soon out of the commuter traffic and heading north to a café where I met up with folk from the west side of the Wirral. This small group rode eastwards across the peninsula, collecting others along the way to catch the last remaining ferry across the Mersey to Pier Head in Liverpool. Doing that made what could easily have been a mundane ride to join the route an integral and enjoyable part of the journey.

Meeting up with another rider who had come by train made us 12-strong but once away from the waterfront we broke into smaller groups to negotiate the short distance to the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, which we then followed for nearly 7 traffic-free miles to the outskirts of Maghull.

Package-tour touring

Our group leaders, Chris and John, went to great lengths to ensure that our ‘newbie tourers’ had very little to think about other than enjoying the ride. This involved providing copious instructions for when and where to drop off their luggage in the days prior to our departure, pre-arranging pub lunches where there were tables reserved for us and platters of sandwiches, and organising group dinners at restaurants adjacent to our overnight accommodation.

Older folk (like us) tend to be laggards when it comes to adopting technology, but in recent years many of our group have acquired GPS devices, which means we can easily split into smaller pods along the road and reunite at coffee and lunch stops.

It did mean we had to share GPX files as well as all the usual written instructions covering accommodation and the like and the cross-platform messaging freeware WhatsApp proved invaluable both for this and for communicating with others about punctures and other unforeseen events on the road.

The Lancashire Cycleway

Cicerone author Jon Sparks wrote his guide to The Lancashire Cycleway nearly 20 years ago, not long after the route was established and waymarked. I had to ride 45 miles before joining the 138-mile southern loop just west of Ormskirk, but it is far closer for the many millions of folk living in the North West and across the Pennines in West Yorkshire. But besides its easy accessibility, it’s a wonderful route that goes through some superb countryside that most of us only ever glimpse through a car window as we drive along the motorways that surround it.

It is also a very varied route, taking in the fertile coastal plain, which is mostly given over to growing vegetables, the upland areas nearer the Pennines where the better ground is used for sheep, while the poorer ground is left as uncultivated moorland. There is also an interesting mix of history, with numerous ancient villages with pretty stone cottages scattered across the rolling hillsides, while down in the valleys are the towns that thrived during the Victorian era when Lancashire had 2650 cotton mills that employed 440,000 people and produced half the world’s cotton cloth. Sure, you will see plenty of terraced houses and industrial heritage that are stereotypical Lancashire, but it’s mostly trapped in the bottom of step-sided valleys below the route that for the most part is decidedly rural.

It’s a great ride through some wonderful countryside. And now, after enjoying it so much, I feel guilty that it has taken me so long to explore a part of England I previously drove past on my way to supposedly more interesting destinations.

Day 1: Wirral to Chorley

At lunch we were joined a second group of friends from east of Liverpool, swelling our number to 17. After lunch we followed Lancashire Cycleway South as it meanders along the quieter lanes that bisect the fens of south-west Lancashire where there is scarcely an incline. It wasn’t always the case and until well into the 18th century the roads kept firmly to the higher ground above the wetlands, then called the Lancashire Mosslands. But the same engineers who were responsible for building the canals that sprung up during the Industrial Revolution in the nearby towns constructed great drainage schemes that created fertile agriculture land ideal for growing vegetables. But as our group turned eastwards just inland of Southport, we caught our first glimpse of the Pennines and things started to get lumpy. From then on, our route got decidedly harder and people began to question their ability to cope with the hills to come. Not everyone, though – our elder-statesman cruises up the hills on his e-bike and only ever grumbles when its speed governor restricts his ability to keep up with everyone on the flat.

By late afternoon, we had crossed the landmarks of the M6 and then the M61 and checked in to our hotel with our bikes securely locked up in the linen room.

Day 2: Chorley to Burnley

The second day saw us riding through pretty villages high on the slopes of the hills on the south side of the Ribble Valley. Early on we caught the occasional glimpse of Preston to our left and then further on Blackburn on our right, but up on high ground it was decidedly rural, with the countryside still cloaked with May blossom and the weather totally benign. We could not have wished for better. After stopping for coffee at a remarkably busy cake stop in Whalley, which was swarming with local roadies, we set off towards Pendle Hill. Initially, it was mentioned in hushed tones as folk were expecting some hard climbing. But the route follows the lanes along its lower slopes with nothing to strenuous or sustained, so we pootled along through the old weaving town of Barnoldswick to our second pre-arranged pub lunch at Earby.

Straight after lunch we climbed Earby Hill, which curves up to Blea Moor, with a middle section that goes on for more than a kilometre at a gradient of 11% or more. Pendle Hill was spoken of no more. We were rewarded with stupendous views down the Colne Valley. But the climbing was far from over. After an all too brief downhill on the Yorkshire border, there was another short ascent around the shoulder of Kelbrook Moor and after passing through Trawden, another one over Deerstone Moor. After passing through the pretty village of Worsthorne, we temporarily left the route and slowly rolled down in to Burnley, where the good weather had bought out the crowds in Townley Park, to once again follow the Leeds and Liverpool Canal to our overnight accommodation. By the end of the day, the prospect of another day involving some hard climbing led two riders to abandon the weekend and they took the train home the next morning. Before that, we temporarily mislaid another two, but it turned out they had dropped into the pub in Worsthorne to watch the second half of Liverpool FC’s final match of the season.

Day 3: Burnley to Ormskirk

After a budget breakfast in a branch of a well-known pub chain, where some locals were already on their second pint of the day, we headed back to the route climbing, first up Woodplumpton Road and then Crown Point Road to reach The Singing Ringing Tree. On a windy day this wind-powered sculpture sings, but today it was emitting little other than a low moan – as were we after such a long climb. After an enjoyable descent into Rossendale, we were faced with another climb over to Haslingden before more undulating riding across Turton and Anglezarke Moors to climb Rivington Pike, albeit from the easy side. After a final lunch stop in Rivington Village, by which time we were riding in small groups, then we rode away from the hills and back to the flatter country west of the M6 with our Liverpool pals swinging off south for home. One final pull up around Ashurst’s Beacon, which gives fine views south to Manchester and Liverpool, and then it was downhill around the quieter lanes around the perimeter of Skelmersdale to Town Green station near Ormskirk where some riders were met by partners with vehicles (essential if you’re riding a heavy e-bike), while the rest of us took the train home.

Tour local

The combination of wonderful weather, glorious countryside and the camaraderie of being together for three days seems to have led some of the group to change their views on cycle touring. I doubt if many will be acquiring a rack and panniers and planning a solo adventure. But I suspect it won’t be too long before someone suggests we could try Lôn Las Cymru or the Ring of Radnor next time – well, as long as someone does all the planning and organises the support for them. Both are easily accessible by rail and just the right length for a mini-tour. I highly recommend you get together with your riding mates and tackle something similar – not too far from home, not too long and not too arduous – but still totally enjoyable.