Riding Up To Woodhead, or Did I Really Do That?

Another piece previously published in “Direct Current”. Wrote this in Málaga at Christmas 2004.

A warm, sunny day in September, the last flowering of another British summer. Stuck as I was in a sweltering office all I could do was look outside enviously. Then I had a crazy idea. A few months earlier, after leaving it to gather dust in a storeroom for years, I had put my bike back on the road. Also, earlier in the summer, I had passed near Woodhead for the first time in twelve years. I had always been fascinated by the railway that used to run there, though had never seen it in operation: a combination of stunning landscapes, unique locomotives and a controversial closure. It was one of the main routes between Manchester and Yorkshire and carried huge amounts of freight. For this reason it was electrified after the war, with a new three mile tunnel being built at Woodhead. Despite this investment, passenger services ended in 1970 and the line was closed completely in 1981.

And so my crazy idea was born. Wouldn’t it be nice, I thought, to go back up there on my bike? I could now ride all the way from Hadfield to Penistone, mostly traffic free as this section of line had been converted to a cycle path. I doubted I would ever do it, but it was a nice idea. And so, to that lovely warm spell in September. The more I looked outside, the more I wished I was outside, cycling down the canal or some quiet lane. Then that great weather oracle, Mr Fish, said the warm weather would be gone by the weekend. Yes, I thought, let’s go, now. So I booked a day off work and checked on the net for train times. Friday morning saw me at Stoke station, helmeted and raring to go (as far as I’m ever raring to do anything first thing in the morning!) I thought back fourteen years to the first time I had taken my bike up there. It was far easier when trains had a guards van. For today, I had been obliged to book spaces on the Virgin trains in advance, and for the other trains it was first come, first served, so there was the real possibility of being left behind.

All went well and I reached Hadfield just after ten am. There was some cloud, but it was sunny and warm. Instead of the broad swathe of trackbed, there were now two tracks, one for horses one for walkers and cyclists, and it was very overgrown. There was a headwind, but nothing too bad and I was able to hold about 9-10 mph up the rising gradient. A marked contrast to 1990 when I was riding along the “B” road from Hadfield: the wind then kept me below 5mph even downhill!

Although it’s only for a few miles, the ascent of Longdendale has to be one of the scenic highlights of England. The flight of reservoirs rising towards the hills, glittering in the sunlight and the moors themselves seemed aglow. There were frequent information boards by the path, mainly about local wildlife but with some snippets about the railway too. I wasn’t convinced some of these were entirely accurate: I thought Crowden station, for instance, had a single island platform, not two. Perhaps I’m being too pedantic…

After two-and-a-half miles, there was a level crossing at Torside. On my first visit, the road signs and some track were left, but now it was unrecognisable: some trees, a gate, the road, then another gate. Indeed, for virtually all the path, there is little to suggest this was ever a railway at all. Beyond here was new territory for me, as I had never walked the entire line on previous visits. And this was the best part. At Crowden, the line runs right along the reservoir. Despite the roar from the A628 on the other side of the valley, it was a peaceful spot, with the gently lapping water. I paused for a few minutes, pleased I was here, not quite believing it. Even as I felt the solid metal of my bike, it seemed unreal, a dream.

A few minutes later, I reached Woodhead, and the top of the valley. It had clouded over by now, but was still warm. I was pleased to see the station platforms still in situ. At last a tangible reminder of the railway. I leaned the bike on a fence and took a well-earned swig of lucozade, content to stand there and just listen to the rushing river Etherow nearby. It seems hard to believe such a little river could be the source of all the reservoirs down the valley. About a hundred yards away was the tunnel with its rather austere concrete portal and simple date above: “BR 1954”. I looked back down the valley, feeling rather pleased with myself.

The tunnel soon reminded me of its presence. Every now and again, a terrific blast of icy air erupted from it. This was so powerful even from a hundred yards away, that the temperature around me plummeted: I could see my breath, and shivered in its cold concrete flavoured breath. It would die as quickly, and the air would be warm again. I walked right up to the entrance and peered through the fence. It was freezing. The ballast had been removed though the steelwork was still secured to the roof. This was a forbidding place. I almost expected to see Moorlocks crouching in the shadows, waiting to pounce should I come any closer.

I was glad to escape its icy breath. The fence blocked my way forward so I had to haul my bike up the steep hill to the main road. This seemed to take ages, and I had to wait several minutes for a break in the traffic before I could get over. This was the hardest part of the day. The climb isn’t that steep, but it just goes on and on. I would ride some and push some, dodging an endless procession of trucks as they thundered past. It was grey now, the sun but a memory, but I didn’t mind. I was pleased just to be there. As on my first visit, the moment I crossed into Yorkshire, down came the mist. After the quiet of the path (I had hardly seen anyone since leaving Hadfield), the traffic was a shock. I was relieved to see the Dunford Bridge turning and get away from it. One last push up the hill, then a real pleasure: a long descent as I coasted at about 27mph for several minutes. This culminated in a mad whizz at 32mph on the steepest part just before the village, the cold air roaring past me. I had forgotten just how exhilarating this is, even though it made my eyes water! It was as well I knew where to brake as some idiot had stopped a truck on the bridge just round the last bend!

I parked by the pub and went in for a swift half. Another change: instead of the cosy place with its huge open fire that I remembered, it had been considerably “poshified”, with prices to match. I made it an even swifter half and went and sat near the station site to eat my lunch. I felt a little cheated.

Here too, little reminder of what was. The tunnel gate was open and there seemed a lot of work going on inside, with sounds of drilling. Thankfully no blasts from the icy depths disturbed me here and I enjoyed my lunch in peace. The only sounds an occasional bird, the rustle of unseen water and a jet fading high above. Yes, I thought, I am definitely here. Good isn’t it?

After the drama of Longdendale, the descent to Penistone was something of an anti-climax. At least it was all downhill! The path, however, was of far poorer quality. On the west side, the large grade of gravel used meant a firm, if sometimes bumpy, ride. Here, it was far muddier and even more overgrown. It was especially poor between Hazlehead and Bullhouse, less then a foot wide in places, and I forever had to dodge overhanging branches. Still, at least the demolished bridge that hindered me when I walked this way had been replaced.

There was one more reminder. At Thurlstone crossing, there was still a rail still embedded in the road. Was it genuine, I thought, had the unique class 76 locos really run along it? Then a rather surreal experience. Two chaps on bikes approached from Penistone and asked where they were.

“About three miles from Dunford Bridge,” I said. They looked at me blankly.

“Where’s that?” said one.

“Yorkshire!” said I. This didn’t seem to mean much to them either, and they rode off.

About half a mile from Penistone, the path changed to tarmac and it started to rain. All too soon, I reached the station and wheeled my bike along the platform. I had arrived, I had actually done it. I had even beaten the weather. I felt really pleased with myself, and after a dull trip home, slept very well that night.

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