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Cycling Plus: combining cycling with other activities
"Follow your genius closely enough and it will not fail to show you a fresh prospect every hour." (Thoreau).
Why rush through beautiful countryside? Some of the loveliest places in Britain are so small and
compact, that they are worth lingering over and around. Away from the monotony of agri-business, and built up areas, your non-invasive form of transport can bring you in close contact with wildlife in its natural habitat. The rural landscape may also show the signs of long abandoned activities and ancient highways - giving insights into local history.
The first guide to widening your enjoyment of cycling in the UK is an Ordnance Survey Map, which will reveal many historical clues to follow: old buildings, industry, Roman Roads, drove roads and abandoned railways.
One of my favourite cross-country cycling areas is the Yorkshire Dales. We find there a Roman road from Ingleton to the fort at Bainbridge which marches over the tops at Flett Moss, then drops to join the Pennine Way for a while, and much of this route is cycleable. Monastic Settlements determined many routes in both the Yorkshire Dales and the Moors, where abbeys such as Rievaulx, Bylands, Jervaulx and Fountains owned large swathes of countryside, and established industries.
Many lead mines in the Dales were owned by monasteries, for which pack horse trails were developed, because horses could follow tracks across the uplands which would defeat wheeled vehicles. Horses were assembled in trains of 20 to 40 with the lead horse having bells on its bridle to keep the rest following. They carried "wackas" or panniers on each side and could be seen as late as 1870-80 in the Yorkshire Moors, carrying iron and coal.
Packhorse trails were also called "pannier trods", and were surfaced with flagstones where they traversed boggy moorland surfaces. One such is marked on the OS map as the bridle path running from Rosedale, across the Moors, to Fryup Dale. Look at this area on the map and you will see evidence of iron workings through the ages, culminating in the building of a railway which crossed the high moors, at an altitude of over 1,000 feet, for a distance of over 11 miles.
To study the historical changes of your area in greater detail, ask at the library to see the oldest map they have. By 1873, the Ordnance Survey had completely mapped England and Wales, but Scotland took another 15 years. Old place names can give clues to tracing ancient routes and vanished industries. For example, the Old Norse word "wath" (ford), can indicate where a pack horse trail crossed a stream in Yorkshire. Place names can provide information of archaeological interest, with reference to fortifications or burial places. Other names reflect the divisions that used to exist among the social hierarchy. Kington, Athelington, Earlston, Knighton and Carlton illustrate the impact of all ranks of society from those of noble birth to the peasantry. Other names such as Faulkland, Buckland, Fifehead, Galmpton and Manton, indicate various aspects of land tenure in Anglo-Saxon times. Checking place names may illuminate the landscape through which you cycle. The Oxford University Press publishes several excellent dictionaries of place-names.
Off-road routes can present you with some unexpected diversions. On the verge of a five-mile stretch of converted railway track, south of York, I have noticed about a dozen apple trees and a single pear tree. I surmise that these grew from cores shied from carriage windows long ago. I may discover some rare old varieties if I studied them closely! Last summer, a friend and I picked several pounds of greengages by the side of a similar track at Hornsea. In summer you can hunt for raspberries, wild strawberries and several edible mushrooms. In autumn you can hunt blackberries, sloes (for gin), mushrooms, elderberries, hips and haws. If you want to partake of this feast, remember to pack a suitable container to carry your prizes home. Buy a reference book, such as Food for Free by Richard Maby.
Tracks with mature trees and high hedgerows provide a complete contrast to the surrounding closely-managed farmland. The remaining ballast alongside converted railway tracks will quickly become colonised by plants that can survive such poor conditions in contrast to the richer vegetation of the verges. You'll see hares and rabbits pop across, and finches flit along the fences ahead of you.
Once I turned to see a barn owl flying parallel to me. Indeed cycling and bird watching go perfectly together. You can patrol tracks inaccessible to motor vehicles, your approach is relatively silent, and you can easily carry a pair of binoculars. Different parts of the country have their characteristic birds, and one particular bird can become emblematic of the area to the cycle tourist. The loud mournful cry of the curlew announces that you are climbing into the Yorkshire Dales and perfectly complements the bleak moor tops. On the Welsh Borders, the harsher shriek of the buzzard calls from the mixed patchwork of woodland and open ground which it prefers, where you can spot them soaring overhead in huge circles. On a more modest and local scale, bird-watching is an ideal pursuit for the shorter winter rides. The countryside might look dull and dormant, but birds are very active foraging for precious food, and smaller birds are better observed in hedgerows devoid of leaf cover. You may be arrested by the sight of colourful goldfinches working over seedheads. Larger birds like fieldfares, redwings and lapwings feed in flocks in the open fields.
Butterflies are another form of wildlife which flourish on the varied and open vegetation found beside some tracks. Britain has fifty-seven species of resident native butterflies with a further half dozen or so visitors from abroad. Very few are as common as they once were, and many species have disappeared from areas where they were once common. Destruction of hedges, the heavy deployment of agro-chemicals, and the ploughing up of ancient pastures have all combined to reduce the butterfly population, along with their food plants. The organisation Butterfly Conservation was set up to attempt to curb the decline. They produce a range of booklets, ranging from Butterfly identification to hints on photography, which would add further interest to your cycle trips.
Photography is an obvious hobby to combine with cycling. Bar bags and pannier trunk bags will readily accommodate photography equipment, with padding either supplied by the manufacturers, or carved from foam to cushion your valuable equipment against the shock. You can strap a tripod to the bike, using bungee straps or a compact clamp. I have made one from a spare plastic lamp bracket by fitting a bolt that has the same thread as a tripod screw. This can be clamped to the bike, thus forming a bipod, or to a fence, or to my D lock balanced against a rock. You can get excellent results from a compact 35mm camera, with a closing lens cover that will slip into your pocket.
Your bicycle can lead you to activities which are pure fun. A member of our local cycling campaign always carries a kite on coastal rides. It takes up very little space, and can absorb you for hours whilst you linger at your favourite beauty spot and everyone else lingers over lunch. Kites can be packed into a tube and strapped to the frame, whilst those without spars can be folded and packed away in your luggage.
If you are in a group you can pack a Frisbee, a rounders bat and ball, travel scrabble, or a pack of cards.
And finally, cycling can also be combined outdoor activities of an amorous kind…
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