With the exciting prospect of watching the world’s greatest bike race here in the north of England this summer, Geoff and I felt compelled to pack up the ’van, hit the road and take a look at the route. Not only did we fancy checking out where best to watch the race in July, we were also inspired to revisit Yorkshire, a county we’ve adored since we first met as students in Leeds.
For 2014, the Tour de France's first three stages are in the UK. The Grand Départ is on Thursday 3 July 2014 at Leeds Arena. Stage one is on Saturday 5 July, a 190km/118-mile ride from Leeds to Harrogate, followed by a 201km/137-mile stretch between York and Sheffield the next day, then the 155km/96 miles between Cambridge and London on Monday 7 July.
Poring over the stage routes, we planned our own little cycling ‘Tour’ of Yorkshire. Mirroring the cyclists’ two-day journey, we’d depart from Leeds and finish in Sheffield, taking in both the spectacular Dales and Pennine Yorkshire.
With the recent success of British cyclists, including Tour de France winners Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome, the popularity of cycling in the UK has never been higher. And when ‘Welcome to Yorkshire’ boss Gary Verity hired a jet to fly the Tour de France organisers over Yorkshire, he knew what he was doing. Initially sceptical, the committee was soon wowed by all the best that Yorkshire had to offer, pronouncing “Yorkshire is sexy!” The deal to bring the Tour here was sealed a few months later.
With our own bikes packed, we set off on four wheels from Leeds in our Carthago motorhome to follow the first stage route. As we passed Harewood House, it was fun to imagine the upcoming race – the peloton a mass of jelly-bean colours surging lava-like past one of England’s great stately homes.
Stopping off in the pretty spa town of Ilkley for a walk to the Cow and Calf rocks, we bought delicious pies from posh butcher Lishman’s – they were perfect for lunch back at the ’van.
Then it was onwards to the historic market town of Skipton, gateway to the spectacular Yorkshire Dales and location of one of the many spectator hubs along the Tour de France Yorkshire route. We enjoyed a look at the medieval castle and the colourful canal before heading north into Wharfedale, a sweeping, green half-pipe of a dale embellished with stone walls and barns, while the fields were peppered with lone trees.
Lovely walks and tasty ales tempted in Grassington, host to a Dickensian festival in December, and this is Wharfedale’s main centre, but we were heading for the beautiful village of Kettlewell, which was the location for the film Calendar Girls, and is host to an annual scarecrow festival. We’d booked a pitch at the tiny, curiously named Causeway Bungalow Caravan Park, set amid glorious scenery and right on the Tour route. Just as handily, the site is only a stone’s throw from two historic village pubs and blessed with wonderful footpaths in all directions.
“There is a beauty in Kettlewell which is all its own,” wrote the Yorkshire-dialect poet, F W Moorman, nearly 100 years ago. We, too, were captivated by the gentle charms of this limestone village, set at a junction in the valley. Some of the best walking in the Dales was right on our ’van-step, so we donned boots and backpacks for a glorious walk to Arncliffe.
Back at our peaceful campsite in Yorkshire following the walk, we sat with a cuppa watching a lone cyclist whizz by, no doubt checking out the route in advance. After a rest, it was off to the Blue Bell Inn to sample real ale from Skipton’s Copper Dragon Brewery, a mission helped along by the option to have your pint in three thirds – three different beers on a taster tray.
Our next stop would be Hawes, home of Wensleydale cheese, where we planned a visit to the creamery. But first we had to ascend Kidstones Pass, a category 4 climb in cycling and the first of three the cyclists will tackle in Stage One. Our trusty A-class coped admirably, but we spared it the first of the Tour’s cycle sprints at Newbiggin, deciding we’d leave that to the likes of Britain’s great sprinter, Mark Cavendish! Instead we took a break at beautiful Aysgarth Falls. The café here offers easy parking and a nightstop, which we noted for future visits.
Buttertubs Pass was next, this time a category 3 climb. After pulling in for the views from the top, we wound our way down into stunning Swaledale. Called ‘a little country in itself’ by local author Ella Pontefract, it is a peaceful and unspoilt dale, particularly striking because of its characteristic hay barns and the profusion of wild flowers. We parked in Reeth for a wander around the charming village green and ate ice cream in the afternoon sun.
Cycling had been a spectator sport for us thus far, so it was high time we saddled up and made this driving/walking tour into a cycling holiday. The countryside near our next stop in Leyburn provided us with attractive bike rides, taking in the atmospheric racehorse town of Middleham. The following morning we lounged around with binoculars, training our eyes on the horses tearing up the moorland gallops.
By now, well on the homeward stretch of Stage One (which took us five days rather than the Tour competitors’ one!) it was time to head south towards the stage finish. Yorkshire is home to the biggest concentration of breweries in the UK and at the pretty town of Masham we couldn’t resist a visit to Black Sheep Brewery, one of two in the town and highly recommended.
Next up was the charming cathedral town of Ripon, where we wandered the streets around the cathedral. They were an interesting mix of Georgian buildings and medieval, half-timbered shops. Every evening at 9, the city’s official hornblower sounds the ‘Setting of the Watch’ to assure everyone that they are in safekeeping for the night – and we were indeed, tucked up in our Carthago on a pretty Certificated Site nearby.
An overnight stay here gave us the perfect opportunity to go cycling again, this time to the stunning World Heritage Site of Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal, before heading for Harrogate and the stage finish. Harrogate’s genteel elegance dates from the 18th century, when it became a spa for wealthy visitors. We made up a walking tour based on a leaflet from the tourist information office.
It was hard to resist the temptation of Betty’s Tea Rooms (near which is a tree with a Tour de France 2014 carving), but the floral beauty of Valley Gardens beckoned harder so we bought a picnic lunch. As we returned to our motorhome, we decided not to start Le Tour de France Yorkshire's second stage (between six and 10 days for us) in York, but to visit the city another weekend. After all, it’s a perfect break in itself.
Instead, we drove west, picking up the cyclists’ route for the morning of stage two outside Harrogate. We stopped in Addingham, the second of the so-called ‘sweet spots’ – i.e. communities lucky enough to see the Tour pass through on both days.
After turning south, we drove via Keighley, location of the second intermediate sprint and home to the delightful Keighley and Worth Valley Railway, one of the locations used in the film version of Edith Nesbit’s book, The Railway Children.
By that point we were entering Pennine Yorkshire, also known as ‘Brontë Country’. From our campsite near Haworth we cycled to the picture-perfect village on the edge of the moors and home to the Brontë sisters. Their parsonage is now a museum, and the cobbled streets, while touristy, are captivating. There is lots to see and many temptations for the wallet.
Until now, our taste of Yorkshire had been limited to savouries: delicious pies, Yorkshire puddings in Masham, and local cheese and produce. So we were pleased to find sweet local delicacies – curd tarts and parkin – perfect to enjoy with a cup of Yorkshire tea back at the ’van. Let's call it a taste of Le Tour de France Yorkshire.
Continuing up Oxenhope Moor, a category 3 climb, we parked at the top for a walk to the Brontë waterfalls and Top Withens, the remote ruins thought to have been the inspiration for the Earnshaws’ home, Wuthering Heights. Despite the sunny skies it wasn’t hard to imagine the moors as the bleak, wild and windy setting of the book.
The next stop for the Tour and us was Hebden Bridge in Calderdale. This fascinating place won our hearts. A medieval river-crossing and meeting point of packhorse routes, it was draped in the legacy of the former textile industry – old mills, vertiginous ‘double-decker’ housing and the Rochdale Canal, now restored to serve as a pretty walk into town.
Hebden Bridge is a creative, quirky town full of wholesome cafés and artisans’ shops. Cyclists can try the annual ‘Up the Buttress’ timed hill climb event – cycling a steep cobbled incline out of the marketplace.
Back at our site in Mytholmroyd, right on the Tour route, we learned of the area’s shady past. A band of criminals, named ‘coiners’, produced counterfeit currency from the clipped edges of gold coins. They escaped capture for years, murdering a government official who tried to investigate. Cycling stars Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome will likely have their minds on other things, though, during the climb up Cragg Vale, the UK’s longest continuous incline.
Two more category 3 climbs follow before the Tour de France Yorkshire route drops down towards Huddersfield. As we motored through Elland and Ripponden in our motorhome, we remarked on the many businesses adorning their premises with yellow bicycles in honour of the colour of the race leader who wears yellow. “Hats off to Elland” we agreed.
The colours changed as we approached Holmfirth, an old mill town and once home to Bamforths, the publisher of saucy seaside postcards. These days, the town is better known as the set for the TV series, Last of the Summer Wine, so used to media fame and is gearing up for this summer’s big event with a white-and-red polka dot theme. This is in honour of one of the most anticipated Tour de France Yorkshire stage highlights just beyond the town.
On sections, such as Holme Moss, the battle will be fought for the King of the Mountains jersey, last won by a Briton (Scotland’s Robert Millar) in 1984. Known in cycling circles as one of the toughest climbs in the whole of Great Britain, it was beyond our cycling capabilities, so we contented ourselves with watching a stream of local enthusiasts battle fierce winds to reach the summit.
After touching down in Derbyshire, we followed the route via pretty High Bradfield and three more ascents towards Sheffield and the stage finish. Our tour had reacquainted us with ‘God’s own country’, and inspired us to return soon. After all, there is the rest of Yorkshire: the wonderful North York Moors, the coast and cities.
As for that other ‘Tour’, our reconnaissance trip had left us with a few dilemmas about how to see both stages of the race. Because there are only three stages in Britain, huge crowds are anticipated and many roads will be closed from the night before. But whether we manage one stage or two, we’ll be there – and we can’t wait!
For full details about the Tour de France Yorkshire, visit the official website where you can also find out about road closures near the route. And if you want to follow the race and you're looking for somewhere to pitch your 'van, head to our sister website Caravan Sitefinder.