The Mary Towneley Loop is a not-quite-fifty mile circuit of bridleways and back-roads in the South Pennines, in between Hebden Bridge, Rochdale, Ramsbottom, and Burnley. It is named after one Lady Towneley, who was apparently a fantastically rich horse-pestering fox-murderer, rather than anything interesting to do with bicycles, but who did inadvertently put together a challenging route for a bike ride whilst trying to find something to do with her sports-cow in between using it to hunt down and kill Lancastrian wildlife.
The loop has been on my to-do list for years, awaiting a day when I could muster enough enthusiasm for massive hills and double-track, and rope a couple of likely mugs into helping me open and close what is reputedly the finest collection of farm gates in the north. There are lots of gates on the MTL – someone told us there were about fifty or so, and in the interests of scientific investigation we decided to verify this by keeping a count of gates opened and/or closed on our way round. There were three of us keeping track so I’m pretty confident that we got the number for the day right, but we ignored gates clearly fixed open deliberately, or gateways with missing gates, and multiple-opening gates were only counted as one, so gate-counts from other sources may be different. We began our clockwise circuit from Bottomley in Calderdale, because it’s near to where one of us lives, although it turned out to be a good place to start for other reasons too. Clockwise is generally accepted as the best way to do the loop, as it keeps the hills relatively steady and shallow, and allows for more fun on the corresponding descents. Looking at various elevation profiles beforehand seemed to bear this theory out, although I would be interested to go back and re-ride the thing counter-clockwise one day to see how it compares – I think it would still make an interesting day out in the ‘wrong’ direction.
Adding the very first gate of the day to our running tally within a few hundred yards of our start point, the route immediately introduced us to the other main distinctive feature of the loop: a ruddy massive hill. Whilst the landscape hereabouts does in fact have large swathes of flat, smooth terrain all over the place, unfortunately being as they are elevated expanses of featureless peat bog on top of the hills, the actual paths and tracks that traverse the scenery are forced to hug the edges of the valleys, snake along the bottoms, or, frequently, lurch crazily up and down the steep sides like a demented slow-motion roller-coaster. The MTL follows a wide selection of the most-demented, most roller-coastery ones, presumably in order to give one’s equine steed a good solid workout whilst one sits on top of it admiring the pylons and whatnot, thereby providing those of us unfortunate enough to have to rely on our own metabolism for propulsion with a good chunky challenge to get our teeth into. As the first few miles of our day were undulating but not unduly so, and provided a decent warm up without breaking anyone, I would recommend Calderdale as a good starting point for anyone contemplating riding the loop.Another benefit of a Calderdale start is that there aren’t that many gates between Bottomley and Waterfoot, and you can make pretty good progress here provided you don’t get lost in Healey Dell, like we did (someone has nicked the signs, so bear right and don’t go down the old railway line, that’s the wrong way). Above Healey Dell we encountered Rooley Moor Road, the longest slog of the day, an arrow straight road-width track interspersed with long stretches of cobbles allegedly placed by locals during the “cotton famine” caused by the American Civil War. Mill workers, unable to find employment in factories starved of raw material, were paid to lay setts on this remote moorland, converting a small footpath to a full blown road to nowhere. Apparently paying people for completing a pointless task was more acceptable to the Victorian mind than just giving people money so they didn’t starve or freeze to death. With this bizarre monument to make-work employment dispatched we rolled down the entertaining, rocky descent into Rossendale, before negotiating a maze of back-streets out of Waterfoot and out towards Burnley.Lulled into a false sense of security by the relative lack of gates, we were soon to be disabused of our misconceptions; the MTL asserts its true nature in full force as it crosses the Forest of Rossendale. There are curiously few trees in the Forest of Rossendale – apparently they were all cut down and made into gates. Our tally leapt here from single digits well up into the thirties in a matter of a few miles. It also started to rain, and Rik noticed a slow-puncture on his back wheel. After donning waterproofs and a swift tube change, we relayed along the tracks from gate to gate, meandering towards Holme Chapel and then on to Hurstwood, where we took a brief detour to play on a fun bit of built bike trail instead of rolling down some boring double-track (I’m assured we didn’t miss any gates, though). We met a couple of walkers enjoying a cuppa on gate forty-something as the sun came out again. They gamely volunteered that they’d tried riding bicycles in the area once but found things a bit too steep and rocky – did we try to ride our bikes over everything? They boggled again when we told them that the steep, rocky bits were the best bits.The climb up from Hurstwood to Gorple is the second biggest of the day, and even with a fair tailwind helping us along we were starting to feel the miles in our legs. The views did much to compensate for the effort, and the descent to Widdop rewarded with a surprisingly rocky series of hairpins down to the reservoir. After a few stretches of quiet tarmac the route reverted to type, throwing three more sharp hills at us (and some gates) before we dropped back down into Calderdale once again. The ascent out through Callis Wood is quiet and steady and we ground slowly back up from the valley floor on to the final section of high ground for the day. Scattering a herd of sheep, we rolled onto London Road beneath the shadow of Stoodley Pike, with the last climb in sight ahead of us. A concerted grind up and over the shoulder of the hill led us to the fun drop back into Bottomley, and through the last few gates of the route.Our Mary Towneley Loop statistics for the day were as follows.
Distance: 76.28 km (a couple of kms were added on the ride in and out).
Time: 9:04:48 (but we stopped quite a lot to chat and eat and faff with gates, moving time was 6:41:30).
Elevation gain: 2,213 m (but it felt like more).
Total gates: 88 (and here we are at the final gate, quite glad to be done opening and closing the damn things).I think we can conclusively state that there are rather more than fifty gates on the MTL, and the current tally of 88 as of late-April 2017 is as close to a definitive figure as you’re likely to get, because I’m not going back out there to double check, and I’m not sure anyone else is daft enough to bother counting.