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A classic route over the moors. Dispite seeming a shortish distance, the going is very hilly and this is absolutely not a route to be underestimated.
Mostly all weather stone surfaces, with some very brief road sections. The surface can be pretty hard riding at times.
Hazards and warnings
The riding is very technical in places, and the rider must be fit, and able to cope with rough offroad terrain with a suitable bike. It's also remote and you'll need to be equipped for high moorland conditions.
Clockwise or anti clockwise?
Being a loop you can ride either way around. If you head anticlockwise, the steeper north faces of the hills, and the way the loop is located mean the ascents tend to be shorter and steeper, and the descents tend to be longer. Which means you'll probably end up walking a fair few hills, but you'll enjoy some long fast descents. If you go around clockwise, you'll be able to ride up nearly all the hills, but your descents will be frantic brief affairs. Which every way, it's not goign to be easy. I decided to go anticlockwise, but a few riders I meet on the way thought it would be easier the otherway around. Of course, you meet more poeple coming the other way, who will naturally prefer the way they are doing it, so this might not be a representative sample.
One day or two?
I did it in one day. It was a long and very trying day, making use of the longest day and decent weather. I'd claim to be reasonable fit, and have a good bike, well suited to this sort of ride. But, I think I'd have been able to enjoy it more over two days. Even over two days, you'll need to be fit, and well able to cope with riding over rough remote offroad terrain, with a bike up to the task as well.
If you ride it all in one day, you haven't got the time to deviate far off the Mary Towneley Loop in search of food and drink, so your options for resupply are limited, so you'll need to carry most of what you need. By the time you add suitable spare clothing, you'll find your day pack bulging alarmingly.
Where to start and stop?
There are few towns of any size immediately on the route, but as the loop is contained in a triangle formed between Burnley, Rochdale and Hebden bridge, with easy access to the M62 from both Rochdale and Hebden bridge, and railway stations at the three princple towns, so it's just a matter of picking whichever point is easiest to get to. I choose a point just off the northern part of the Mary Towneley near Hebden Bridge as this was easy to get to from the M 62 east, and conincidently, the lowest point of the loop.
What's it like?
The northern part of the loop between Callis Bridge and Holme Chapel, which contains the majority of the high ground, is remote moorlands interspersed with reservoirs. The western part between Holme Chapel and Whitworth also consists of moorlands including the highest point of the route, Top of Leach, seperated by steep sided deep valleys. The valleys are densely populated, but the Mary Towneley Loop avoids urban areas with the exception of Rawtenstall. The southern section between Whitworth and Summit is lowest, but manages to stay above the towns as it snakes around the lower moors above Rochdale. The eastern section from Summit to Callis Bridge follows a prominent valley which connects Todmorden with Rochdale, even if the actual bridleway clings to the valley side high above the flat bits. There's no 'easy' section really, but I think the remote nature of the northern part makes this the most challenging.
The surfaces you ride on vary enormously, from brief sections of quiet roads, wide well surfaced gravel tracks to rocky singletrack. Generally some effort has been made to make an all weather surface, although there are still some muddy bits. All weather doesn't mean smooth, as often this means bare rock, stones, and stone flags are used to surface the path. Remember the loop is also intended for horse use (it was after all an equistrian who founded the bridleway), which means the surface is designed to for horse's hooves as well as bike tyres. It also means you'll meet a lot of horses on the way, as well as other mountain bikers and lots of walkers.
One other thing to bear in mind are gates. Unlike Sustrans cycle paths, the Mary Towneley Loop often runs across open countryside, and there can be a lot of gates to deal with. Most are fairly easy to open, but dealing with 3 gates in 200 yards really slows your pace down. Obviously the usual rules about making sure gates are properly closed apply.
A full suspension bike will certainly help you on the many rocky descents. In summer, a fast rolling tyre suitable for gravel and rocks would be ideal, and even in winter you'd get away with a general purpose offroad tyre. In any event, you'll need to be carrying suitable clothing for crossing remote high moorlands, and tools to deal with mechnical problems, as you are a long way from the nearest bike shop, and an injury or a serious bike problem on the moors could be dangerous in winter. Despite being the king of punctures, I managed the ride puncture free and mechnical difficulty free.
if it all goes pear shaped, and you find you just don't have the moxy to get all the way around, and need to cut the ride short, there are a few options to help you: There are a series of A roads cutting across the loop, although these tend to include a few summits along the way, so although they will save you some distance, there still plenty of climbing. You can also make use of the canal side path along the Rochdale Canal, which offers a much flatter way between Hebden Bridge and Rochdale. Finally, there is always the option of the train, which can help you cut out some miles to get back to the start, as Burnley, Hebden Bridge and Rochdale all have stations.
I'd been wanting to do the Mary Towneley Loop for ages. It has an almost legendary status as a ride. Finally, on the longest day of the year (hint: I needed all that daylight), I found myself getting the bike ready by a small village just outside Hebden Bridge at 11:00 AM. An early start would have been a good idea, but wisdom is easy in hindsight.
After failing to find the start of the trail, and still feeling a bit tired, I started up the hill. I'd opted to go anti-clockwise around the loop. Going that way got in some vicous hills when my legs were still fresh, and I decided I rather have very steep climbs and longer descents. And what a vicous hill the first one was. After some brief teasing though the woods, the path turned into a narrow and step rock studded horror that had me walking the bike. Even walking up the path was hard. After that the gradient eased and there were several miles of rolling single track, interupted me by getting shouted at by a over-possesive landowner who failed to sympathise that I had missed the badly weathered sign directing me off their precious driveway. I don't mind being told I had gone the wrong way, but there's no reason to be so rude. I resisted the temptation to throw back some choice language and carried on. I was starting to learn the Mary Towneley loop is rarely flat, and the chance to just pottle along were limited, although after decending and climbing back up the other side of the valley to Edge Lane there was one of the brief easy bits.
At the top of Heptonstall Moor, ahead lay a big view of moors stretching towards Gorple Reservoirs, with a nice fast grassy and rocky stretching ahead. The gate in the middle checked my speed, and gave an excuse for a brief rest, before carrying on to the dam. After the crossing the dam, the path took me around the hill to a brief stretch of road, before crossing Widdop dam, and a short but hard climb up to Black Moor. The landscape around that area was true high moorland, with big views towards Pendle Hill and even the southern hills of the Yorkshire Dales on one side, and over the hills studded with wind farms and down into the industrial plains of Lancashire on the other. At this point I saw somebody riding a hydrid with no suspension and narrow tyres coming up the hill. Either they are a far better rider than me, or they must have bitten off more than they can chew as the Mary Towneley demands a lot of your bike. The descent to the Hurstwood reservoir was stoney in places, but great fun to ride, as I dared myself to go ever faster. A few misjudged attempts at jumping water bars, and some loose gravel made me rein in the speed. At Cant Clough reservoir I caught up with a group of 3 riders. For a while I rode along with them, and then foolishly drew ahead. With a long day still ahead of me, keeping a steady pace would have been better. The gentle climb up to the road was pretty with flowering rhodendrons on either side. After crossing the road, a nice descent took me down to Holme Chapel and a well deserved lunch at the Ram Inn. By the time I was finished with lunch at 2:30, I realised I was going to be making use of all that daylight, as I was only 1/3 of the way around.
The hill after Holm Chapel started off easily enough, but soon developed into a steep grassy hill that forced me to walk. I stopped for a while by the memorial to Mary Towneley and drank a toast from my camelbak to celebrate her creation. After the trail hit the summit, there was a u shaped diversion to cross the A 671 at a better place for horses. If you were pushed for time, you could cut that bit out. After crossing the B 6238 the trail started to head downhill. The pleasure at heading downhill was somewhat muted by a series of gates which pretty much killed any attempt at getting a good pace going. Most of the gates are fairly decent ones, but some are trickier to open which further slowed things down. I crossed the road at Lumb, before climbing back over to the otherside of the valley.
Unlike Sustrans trails, even in inhabited areas the Mary Towneley Loop seems to avoid going near housing, which in densey populated valleys means it meanaders up and down the steep valley sides. At Edgeside the trail joined a residential road for the next mile (the longest on road section), but I was quite glad of the easier riding for once. I managed to miss the fact the path runs through the park, and stayed on the road to the bottom of the hill. In the fairly rare urban sections way finding is a bit trickier, as inevitably the bored locals will turn signs around to confuse you. The one positive of the urban section was a shop right on the trail which I stocked up on water and energy drinks. Sadly, I didn't buy more snacks, which I paid for later. By this point I was about halfway around, with the summit of the ride ahead, and it was already 4:30 in the afternoon. It was looking like I was going to be back at the car at dusk if I was lucky.
After crossing the A 681, it was back to climbing again. At first the climb was on the road to Cowpe (I missed the turn at one point, but didn't lose any distance), before reverting to a concrete driveway up to a farm, and then a very steep farm track, that had me walking the bike, as by legs were feeling shattered by then. Fortunately I was back on the bike and climbing hard when some other riders came down the hill, so my pride was preserved. As the trail approached the wide flat summit of what is called Cowpe Moss on the OS map and Top of Leach on the Mary Towneley Loop map, the gradient eased and there was a mill or so of fairly flat riding along what must have been some sort of tramway for the quarries that occupied the hill top. The views to the north over the Rossendale Valley were spectacular, but the hill itself was a weird place of shattered piles of rocks, with giant wind turbines looming overhead. A short steady climb along some heavily rutted stone block followed to reach the highest point of the ride at 465 m (250 metres of climb in the last hill!). After that a long, steady descent beckoned. The temptation to really go for it was moderated by the odd waterbar which if it caught me unawares would have resulted in a high speed crash, and the odd bit of avoidance around rubbish fly tipped by idiots. Having made it down the big long hill, I then had to pick my way around some minor roads, and a spectacularly rocky farm tracks before I arrived at the rare sight of a flat path. The bridleway follows the railway for a 100 yards before crossing over a bridge and doubling back on itself near Broadley. Sadly there was no sign, and asking some passing dog walkers were not able to help, nor did the map, as even the 25k scale just didn't have enough detail to pick out the right path. Fortunatly I guessed right, and soon saw the reassuring sight of a blue marker post before I arrived at the A 6066.
After the A 6066 it was back on a steeply climbing road before picking up a path which looped around Rushy Hill. I'm not 100% sure I got the right path as the marker posted were missing. Just before the golf course I dug out the emergency energy gel for a bit of a boost. The boost didn't do me much good, as just after the gold course, I hit a small rock and went flying over the bars. I cut my legs and arms, and was winded and in some pain (24 hours later writing this it still hurts). Normally I'd brush off a fall like that, but with tired legs and a long way to go to the end I was worried by the injury. I foolishly removed the first aid kit from my bag prior to setting out, and so blobs of blood joined the mud caking my legs. Thankfully a helmet and gloves limited the scope of the injuries to just my arms and legs. Just by the site of the fall, there was a complex junction of several tracks and what looked like an old mining railway, and I managed to set off down a track parallel to the actual Mary Towneley Loop (better sign posting there would help), but when I came to a gate I was able to realise my mistake and cut across the moorland to the proper track.
The track to Watergrove reservoir (the Mary Towneley Loop passes lots of reservoirs) offered some lovely flowing trail, and some great little bits of flowing singletrack, although I was too tired to really appreciate the riding by then. The track around the reservoir offered the rare opportunity to ride a flattish trail everso briefly before a stoney steep climb took me back onto the moors proper again. Once at the summit there was a lovely fast track over moorlands with big views across Rochdale to the M62 viaduct and the Cheshire plain which was shrouded in low cloud. Soon I was coming down the steep track into Calderbrook, foolishly thinking there'd be an easy section following the valley with the road, canal and railway and hope of hope a nice shop full of snacks. How wrong I was. There was a brief climb on a road, before the bridleway took me ironically above Summit.
At the road junction the Pennine Bridleway (which the Mary Towneley Loop is part of) joined from the south, and the sign which had been partially destroyed offered a confusing misdirection back down the hill to Summit. On careful examination of the map and the sign I realised I needed the 'MT Loop East' direction, not the Pennine Bridleway sign (which I had previously been following without reading the small print). This meant climbing again on a gravel track which took a crazy route along the top of some old quarries rather than the flat route along the road I had been hoping for. I stopped near the top of the quarry and tore into the emergency supply of chocolate I had brought. Although chocolate gave me a brief sugar rush, but not the long term energy boost I needed, it was better than nothing and the sugar high was enough to get me back on the bike. Water was running low at this point (I had to carry most of the water I needed), and I was very tired, with at least one big hill to go. Suddenly the trail dived down a crazy steep set of zig zags before crossing the road and the canal at Bottomley.
And then the climbing began again. The climb was on stones cemented into place and scratched by horses shoes. I didn't even bother trying to ride it. After a brief downhill, it was back to climbing a slightly less steep path I didn't even try to ride. Once some height had been gained there was some pleasant singletrack riding along the steep side of the valley before briefly joining a minor road, and then a long but fairly gentle climb back onto the Moors proper. The views in the low sun of the valley were lovely. Late evening in summer is a lovely time of the day. Unless you are tired and just want to be back at the car as I was. At the top of the climb I ate all but the last few squares of chocolate, which I was saving for later. As I turned the corner, I could see the hill topped with the distinctive Stoodley Pike Memorial, which I remembered seeing at the start of the ride, which raised my spirts. After descending some lovely stoney singletrack I arrived at the road to Mankinholes. Normally I hate going downhill on the road, as it wastes all that painful climbing on something as mundane as tarmac, when you could be offroad, but I was glad of an easy mile of gently downhill road. The bridleway veers off the road at the bottom of the hill, before ascending steeply to the
The section below the impressive hill on which the monument stands was easy enough athough muddy in places. As I turned the corner the trail steepened again, and by the time I arrived at the top by the Erringden Moor I had gained 220 of attidude. Fortunatly, for me this was the last summit. Soon I was heading down across fields towards the wood, as the dusk gathered. After blazing past some late walkers, I crossed the stream in the wood, and after a brief push up a rocky track, I gained a nice gravel track which took me at some speed through the woods and down into the valley. Before long, I was crossing the canal, and back at the car. By the time the bike was packed into the car it was 9:00 PM, and noticably dark in the deep valley. I had been riding since since 11:00 AM, which even allowing for rest, photo and lunch stops meant I had been peddling for 7 hours. My average speed was about 7 MPH, which sounds pretty rubbish, but not bad considering it was offroad over a very long and hilly ride. Clearly, if I was going to do this again in all but the longest day of the year, an early start would have been good.
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