Scraps of singletrack just as worthwhile as their natural counterparts
Why waste time dreaming of Alpine adventures when discovery lies on your doorstep? We uncover Halifax’s hidden hinterland.
Words and photos: Sim Mainey
Like most mountain bikers I spend most days staring out of my office window dreaming of riding. The view from my window isn’t bad but it’s not the mountains. It’s not wilderness. It’s post-industrial Yorkshire. The stone remains of mills and farms, empty fields that were once full of flocks, all serving the empire’s demand for wool stretch in either direction, occasionally broken up by small woods and housing estates. While I truly believe there is a certain beauty to this landscape I concede it’s one that’s appreciated through time and exposure to it rather than through pure aesthetic joy. I’m a mountain biker and it’s not surprising that when my mind wanders it finds its way to visions of riding in the mountains with their grandeur and drama, rather than picking my way through the view from my window.
I’ve said this before but I think we get hung up on the mountain part of mountain biking. I’m as guilty as anyone of this. It’s a fine aspiration, and aspirations are to be encouraged, but it can feel a bit of a burden – if you’re not on a mountain you’re doing it wrong. All Terrain Bike is a far better fit but lacks that idealism and does a better job of selling the reality than the dream – and in reality dreams sell.
Urban landscapes are more familiar than rural, more overpass and subway than hill and dale, but urban doesn’t just mean Tarmac and steel. Islands of woodland can be found in seas of concrete, refuges for wildlife, ne’er-do-wells and frustrated mountain bikers alike. Despite their location these scraps of singletrack can be just as worthwhile and just as testing as their more ‘natural’ counterparts and urban riding doesn’t have to just be cycle tracks and towpaths.
What is natural anyway? Few trails can claim to be truly natural, most have had man’s involvement in some way. These city centre trails might have been made by dog walkers rather than sheep farmers but that doesn’t mean they are any less fun. Indeed, the modern world has given us an abundance of great trails, if we go looking for them. Some are leftovers from a previous age and many are still in use, but maybe not by the people they were originally built for.
My nearest town is Halifax. Once a thriving hub of the Industrial Revolution it’s now like most towns, a heart of pedestrianised retail streets with corrugated pop-up warehouses on the outskirts. Mill buildings rub shoulders with high rise flats, cobbled back roads blend into smoothly surfaced car parks.
Being dependent on water to drive the mills and ferry goods in and out the town sits in the bottom of a valley. With industry claiming the bottoms and the top of the moors given over to farming, housing in this part of Yorkshire shifted to the steep valley sides. Even so large pockets of woodland surround the town, the fact that they are nearly all on a gradient makes them even more of a draw for riders. It’s this blend of town and country that makes for a surprisingly good day’s riding, one that can satisfy just as much as a day in the mountains can, just in a slightly different way.
Rather than pack up the car for a day on Welsh or Cumbrian mountains a group of us decide to go explore some of Halifax’s lesser known trails. We travel into town by train, taking us right into the middle of town, saving on looking for a place to park and allowing for a few après ride beers. A train station isn’t our usual trailhead but with a café, bike parking and a map of the area it’s actually not that different.
Our first port of call is a part of town made famous by photographer Bill Brandt who visited Halifax in the 1930s and helped reinforce the grim northern town stereotype. For good reason, it was both, and Brandt’s trademark photographic style showed them in stark monotone contrast. A bridge spans across what was a railway siding, the steel tracks have gone but a dirt track now exists, winding through the debris and detritus of land that has been abandoned by one part of society and claimed by another. The bridge offers two ways down – a steep cobbled ramp on one side and an even steeper set of steps on the other.
The staircase that shoots you straight down three stories may lack the allure of a Snowdonian rock section but the skills required to ride it are similar. The steps, slick with algae are awkward to roll into and once you’ve committed to them there’s no stopping – braking does little but modulate the amount of noise the tyres make against the steps. The middle section that provides a reprieve for those walking up the steps disrupts the flow of a bike going down, bucking the rear wheel so you enter the second flight at full tilt with all your weight over the front wheel. The brutal transition from steps to road requires a good grip on the bars, a well set up fork and correct body position – there are no soft landings here.
While the countryside has a certain venerance to it, or rather a high level of NIMBYs who’d rather you weren’t there, it’s hard for that attitude to translate to many parts of towns. Obviously you’re in for a royal rollicking should you try building a double in London’s St James’ Park but it’s hard for anyone to come down all high and mighty when you’re scraping a line in between fly tipped mattresses and cider cans in Halifax.
While the law may not be on our side as we ride disused footpaths and glass strewn pavements it’s hard to see anyone objecting. We’re not interested in riding the prime real estate areas, we’re hungry for the grisly offal parts of town. Some of the trails we ride have no legal status, they appear on no maps. Some are desire lines, routes from A to B uncatered for by town planners, some are made by a procession of unlikely walkers emptying their dogs. Few were created by riders even though to the best of our knowledge these are the people who use them most. Still, responsible riding is required and common sense should be deployed before bravado, plus you never know what is hiding under that pile of leaves…
A drop through a hole in the wall takes us from street to dirt. Winding its way through a ribbon of woods that expands and contracts to fill the space not filled with fields on one side and the dual carriageway below. Tell tale signs of trail building dot the trail, a double in disrepair and a berm that’s been blown out. The hum of traffic fades in and out reminding us that despite being alone in these woods we’re in close proximity to everyday life.
Urban fringe riding is probably more akin to riding a trail centre than a mountain. Both are 100% man made with weather resistant year round riding, although riding in town offers a greater choice and availability of cafés. The big difference is a trail centre was made with bikes in mind. Which is probably what makes urban riding a bit more of a challenge, both feature wise and navigationally. Linking sections together, minimising time on roads, hopping from section of trail to another. Finding these underused and unloved bits of trail is the exciting part. Exploration without the need for maps, compass or the likelihood of bothering Mountain Rescue.
Halifax hell run
A steep cobbled climb out of town takes us efficiently if not easily to the top of the hill, through an estate and down a farm track before funneling us through a non-contemporary handlebar width friendly path between drystone walls. From here we get a view down onto Halifax and a better feel for where we’ve ridden today and what we’ve not managed to get to. Linking up the wooded sections is straightforward enough, there are roads everywhere, but linking them up to make the most of all the ginnels, staircases, ramps and other street furniture is the key – to make every bit count, whether on dirt or on concrete.
A track partially hidden by rhododendron drops directly down the hill, a shortcut for those looking to get to the vantage point from the footpath below. It seems an obvious, and fun way to get back to the valley bottom so we peel off down. The dirty scratch turns into a full on scar, a sunken track with multiple lines that suddenly stops at a main road. Across the road the dirt track changes again, this time to greasy cobbles making for a test of nerve, brake lever control and faith in the power of sticky rubber. Hairpin bends and low barriers keep us on our toes and our back wheels sideways back to the station.
I’m not going to pretend that this is something new, people have been dicking around with bikes all of the place since the age of the hobby horse and of course street riding is a staple of BMX. Whether you’re a trail centre diehard or the type to head into the great unknown with an OS map then this kind of riding is, strangely, somewhere in between. An OS map will still help you pick out trails but equally just following your nose will add some excitement without fear of ever getting truly lost.
The view from my window is the same and I still daydream about adventures in big mountains but I also, in a guilty moment, think about some grotty litter-strewn steps in a forgotten bit of town and a trail that skirts a bypass. I doubt you’ll see either of these in any brochures,they don’t quite sell the dream like mountain trails do, but they’ve come to be some of my favourite bits of riding in the last year.