Weathering the storm
Battling the elements and local politics, Lancashire’s unique Lee Quarry and Cragg Quarry trail centres survive but they need your help.
Lee Quarry and Cragg Quarry: the trail guide
- Lee Quarry Red 6km, 25min
- Lee Quarry Black 7km, 30min
- Cragg Quarry loop +13km
Sleeping and eating
Todmorden and Hebden Bridge are close, meaning lots of accommodation options to suit all budgets. For food, there’s the Sand Witch cafe over the road does a rather splendid line in all-day breakfasts and is open 7am-5pm Monday-Saturday and 8am-3pm on Sundays.
Fixing your bike
What bike to ride
Some suspension is probably welcome over the slab sections. There are pump tracks and trials sections too, so whatever your riding style or bike there’ll be something for you, but for taking in the whole facility, an all-round trail bike with chunky tyres and a bit of extra pressure for the rocks is ideal. Given the unforgiving nature of the ground, some degree of protective clothing isn’t a bad idea.
Best of the rest
The original vision to incorporate Lee and Cragg Quarry into a network of interlinked venues has since been watered down but there remains a huge amount of natural riding in the area, showcased by the 47-mile Mary Towneley Loop section of the Pennine Bridleway project. Designed for walkers, horse riders and mountain bikers, it shows off the rugged South Pennine terrain and offers a fearsome challenge for the mile munchers. nationaltrail.co.uk/pennine-bridleway/leaflets
Pick of the trails
If you’re after a proper ride, start on the red trail around the perimeter of Lee Quarry, divert over to Cragg, and then rejoin the finish of the Lee loop.
Lee Quarry and Cragg Quarry, Lancashire trail centre guide
Article originally appeared in MBR April 2016 | Words: Dan Trent | Photos: Sim Mainey
The physical remains of long-departed industry are everywhere and the bleak and windswept nature of the moors looming over them comes across as intimidating to those not familiar with the region’s hidden charms.
But they are there, Lee Quarry among them. A unique twist on the established trail centre format, Lee and its linked neighbour Cragg Quarry, make full use of both the natural terrain and the legacy of the region’s industrial past. And they demonstrate in fine style the determination and grit of those who live, work and ride in the area.
Storms have gathered though, both political and meteorological. Storms potent enough to apparently threaten the very existence of what is one of the UK’s more interesting and distinctive man-made riding venues.
Late in 2015 came news that Lancashire County Council needed to make savings to the order of £262m on top of existing cuts in its funding. One of the departments under threat is the Countryside Service, which helped create Lee Quarry, and still manages it along with nearly 90 other parks, green spaces and recreation areas in the region. Barely had the news sunk in when Mother Nature landed her own blow — the winter storms that battered the region and flooded nearby valleys washing away an entire section of trail at Lee Quarry, leaving the main access track clinging precariously to the hillside. With damage like this, and no money to fix it, is the dream of creating one of the UK’s most diverse and interesting networks of natural and man-made trails over? And is there any point still coming? Absolutely there is.
The terrain at Lee Quarry is unique among trail centres and, by its nature, demanded significant investment of money and manpower to build. When you see how much rock was shifted and laid down to create the trails, and the intimidating physicality of the quarries that host them, you’ll quickly realise they’re going nowhere, no matter how hard they are battered by government cuts and extreme weather. Walkers, horse riders and two-wheelers — pedal and engine-powered — have commandeered these industrial relics to their own ends for years. And while the local council, now in charge of the land, recognises the huge value they provide in both serving local communities and attracting visitors to the area, the money has run out. After that initial leg-up, if we want Lee Quarry to survive in the current climate, it’s now up to us as users to keep it running. We’ll get back to that in a bit. First we need to turn some pedals.
It’s somehow fitting that one of the local bodies at the heart of the Lee Quarry story literally backs onto the site, and serves as the starting point for the ride. Rossendale Borough Council’s car park is an obvious base camp for weekend visitors. Plans to transform the industrial land behind into a shop, cafe and riding centre, is mired in disputes.
The sharp pull up the hill to the quarry entrance doesn’t offer much in the way of a warm-up. But that’s typical of the area, and by the time you reach the gate and pause to take in the scale of the recent landslip, the blood will be pumping hard.
Into the quarry itself, and loose rock and shale gives way to the red trail proper and the first of the sections created when the site was developed in 2008. Anyone familiar with Coed y Brenin will recognise the work of Dafydd Davis, the jumble of slabbed, stepped rocks creating a fierce, technical climb demanding a balance of power, control and determination to clear without a dab. At this point you’re still skirting the edges of the quarry, the tussocky moor to your left a classically windswept Pennine landscape. Cresting a rise you get your first picture of the quarry itself, and at this point you’ll probably want to pause, both for breath and a chance to appreciate its scale and complexity.
The huge chunks hacked out of the landscape have left menacing cliff faces surrounding multi-levelled amphitheatres, traces of old tramways and ruined mine buildings offering a sense of order among what must have been a pretty brutal operation in its heyday. The red trail that more or less circles the outer circumference of the quarry offers a taste of what’s on offer, the ‘official’ route the most distinct of the many tracks and paths that criss-cross the site.
Here the familiar, yet very different, trademark of another Welsh trailbuilding legend begins to appear. Rowan Sorrell’s flowing style was transferred to soil in the second wave of Lee’s development and snakes among the piles of discarded scree and rock. The scope of the terrain means berms meld into something closer to wall rides, the higher up them you dare to ride, and offer the scope to take the direct low line or carve a more dramatic path according to taste, bottle and momentum.
Having made the haul up from the valley floor, the actual height gains and losses are relatively small within the quarry itself. But the scenery is so dramatic you never feel short-changed, a lap of the red trail at least giving you a sense of your bearings and a view of some of the other delights within the centre of the old quarry. Pump tracks, trials sections, short and brutal lung-busting climbs and descents, that meld traditional flowy singletrack with lower speed and more technical rock sections, offer a constant flow of mental and physical stimulation.
Member of the Pennine Mountain Bike Association, Andy McNae, is a former mountaineer, and likens it to a climbing wall, rather than a regular trail centre. In his view there are a multitude of short and technical ‘problems’ to be tackled in quick succession, and, as in climbing, there is a very clear sense of exposure to help focus your attention — the black-graded diversion off the red in particular is less about speed than a technical challenge with very obvious consequences if you don’t hold your nerve. A brutal ‘qualifier’ at the start of this section is intended to weed out those who’ll struggle when the commitment levels rise. As Andy says, “The stuff that’s hard and nasty looks hard and nasty!”
It’s not all high-stakes, low-speed rock hopping though; a trio of short runs in the skills area — two red-graded and one black — offer a chance to build your confidence on berms and various levels of rock steps and can be readily sessioned in the climbing wall model Andy alludes to. For your first visit, a circumnavigation of the red trail, before a second lap taking in some of the skills areas and black sections, is more than enough to keep you entertained. But there’s more where this came from.
After a brutal little climb on the southern edge of the red trail you’ll see tyre tracks heading off across the moor. Follow these and you’ll soon join a well-metalled trail grinding up to the horizon, the tips of wind turbines over the ridge visible as you climb. At a T-junction you join a section of the Pennine Bridleway and the transfer section to Cragg Quarry. Cragg was the second to be developed locally and boasted enough additional distance to transform a playground into a proper ride.
Quarry in the crosshairs
The terrain is less precipitous than that found in Lee, and Sorrell’s trail twists sinuously through the spoil heaps, encouraging you to carry speed on short downhill bursts, just two or three berms long, into the next rise. The twists and turns are disorienting, and after a while a sense of Groundhog Day sets in, until suddenly you find yourself in a new and unfamiliar setting, be it wall riding between the ruins of an old winding house or following the bed of a long forgotten tramway. It’s quite unlike any other trail centre you’ll have ever visited, this intimate relationship with the industry that once dominated these hills offering a real sense of connection with the local history.
Having completed your lap of Cragg, the up and over back to Lee makes sense of the embedded rocks you’ll have weaved around on the climb out. On the return leg these become little launches, popping you into the air and enlivening the windswept blast back to the relative shelter of Lee’s galleries and clefts.
The final rock garden section clings to the quarry on your right, Bacup below you to your left and reminding you quite how closely town and country rub shoulders in these parts. At the end you can take a run of tabletops down or turn back on yourself, re-enter the quarry and go and play on the pump tracks and skills sections within. While it may lack the traditional trail centre model of steady climbs and prolonged descents, Lee rewards through its technical demands and the all-weather nature of its rocky surface.
But having appreciated the heavy lifting achieved by the council-funded first phase of Lee’s redevelopment what does the newly cash-strapped future hold? Chatting with McNae and fellow PMBA member and local guide and instructor Adrian Watts it’s clear the sites now need the support of those who use them to survive. Andy admits the nature of the terrain brings with it significant liability issues the more traditional band of shovel-wielding volunteers could never shoulder alone. Likewise maintenance and any future development demands more than mattocks and manpower — it needs people who can lobby councils and funding bodies for outside support. By presenting a coordinated voice for riders, groups like PMBA make the job of allies within local government — like Lancashire County Council’s Tony Lund — that much easier. A prime mover in getting the project off the ground in the first place, he knows better than most what’s needed.
Without council funding, is the site doomed though? Lund thinks not. Indeed, he sees an opportunity for riders to take control of the trails and use the foundations as building blocks for more. Riders need to be ready to put in what they take out though, be that through joining and supporting groups like PMBA, attending events like the Big Day Out and the Northern Grip MTB festival and generally making noise about why a unique attraction like Lee Quarry can be a huge asset to the area. Practical steps, Lund recommends, could include boring but necessary stuff like clearing up the bottles, tubes and gel sachets left behind by less considerate riders. “If everyone who visited took away five pieces of rubbish, you’d be left with a very different looking venue,” he says meaningfully, pointing out that if you were able to take something into the quarry you should be willing to take it home with you too.
If Lee and Cragg Quarries are to have a future, then it is up to us as riders to respect them, to shout about why they matter to us and to get involved with those groups forging partnerships with the authorities who own, and ultimately control, the land. When it comes to choosing whether to spend what little money remains on schools and nursing homes, or ‘luxuries’ like mountain bike trail centres, it’s clear where those funds will go. For venues like this to thrive, and indeed survive, it takes more effort than just spinning the cranks. That initial burst has shown the earth can literally be moved on our behalf. Now it’s up to us to keep the momentum going.