Rolling hills and nature's cycle lanes
We freewheel through Lancashire and Yorkshire’s hidden highway.
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Heading North: Cycling on Salter Fell Track, one of the many routes through Bowland
Zipping along skinny country roads, past craggy moorland and sweeping fields as puffs of clouds drift in bright blue skies, it's hard to place this hidden corner of England. It's wilder than the Cotswolds and quieter than the Lakes, and hidden is how those who know about it would like to keep it.
The Forest of Bowland is one of England's most beautiful country escapes, for ramblers, foodies, cyclists and city-slickers seeking a slower, simpler pace of life.
The Forest awarded has recently been granted status as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, covering 312 square miles of rural Lancashire and North Yorkshire.
Contrary to its name, Bowland is not a 'forest', but is named that because it was once a royal hunting estate, famous for its wide open grouse moors.
The weather in north west England might be unpredictable, but the area guarantees delicious local produce and food markets, spectacular views and rugged local walking dotted with tiny, picturesque farms and villages, plus thrilling new mountain biking tracks.
The area is a convenient day or overnight trip from Manchester or an easy four-hour drive from London. The roads through the wild hills and fells of the Forest are a motorist's paradise, each corner lurches you towards yet another stunning view, purple fields of heather, blanket bog and glimpses of rare birds.
Enjoyable as the roads are, you're far more likely to come across a rambler than a car. For those in search of a gentle family hike, beware, this terrain is some of the roughest and remotest in the North West.
Preparation is key for walking around here, the weather can change quickly and so can the environment from hill and fell to moorland, woods, rivers and pastures.
Thirsty walkers have more than 60 country pubs to choose from, dotted around the valleys, and many serve food and welcome muddy boots. It's also a chance to sample some of the real ales brewed in Bashall Eaves, including the Hen Harrier, the Sawley Tempted, Bowland Gold and Pheasant Plucker.
If real ale is a passion, stop off for a cold one at the Bowland Brewery, which is located at the exact geographical centre of the Forest, just east of the large market town of Clitheroe.
The brewery makes barrels of ales using Maris Otter malted barley and full-flower hops. You can stock up on ale to take home or enjoy one in the Brewary's café.
If relaxation means two wheels rather than two legs, there's miles of dirt tracks and winding woods to be explored by mountain bike. The best of the brand new purpose built mountain biking tracks are in Gisburn Forest, near Clitheroe.
The marked, hand-built trails include an easy eight-kilometre route for families and a 22 kilometre track for adrenaline junkies, including tricky downhill and boardwalk sections.
Tougher still is the climb up Pendle Hill, which includes some 20 per cent inclines. But the sheer drops and the rugged beauty of the view from the top of Bowland's second highest peak is worth burning calves and blistered toes.
If you don't fancy biking it, Pendle Hill is worth a visit in its own right, as the site where in 1652, George Fox had a religious vision, leading him to found the Quaker movement.
The hill is also the site of England's most famous witch trials, where ten men and women were executed for witchcraft in the seventeenth century. On a frosty day on the top of Pendle Hill, sitting on a jagged rock and listening to birds caw, it doesn't take much imagination to believe hags are brewing potions in a cauldron close by.
Those less keen on rural rambling can find sanctuary in the area's picturesque villages and market towns. The picturesque town of Clitheroe is a foodie's paradise from shopping, with a regular farmers market selling fresh cakes, locally grown fruit and vegetables and Lancashire cheese.
It also boasts one of the country's most famous wine merchants, D Byrne and Co on King Street, which was opened in 1879.
Even being a mere five foot three, I found that I had to duck to make my way round the tens of tiny rooms stocked floor to ceiling with rare wines.
When the children are tired of hiking, biking and shopping, a real treat is the Wild Boar Park, about two miles from the picturesque village of Chipping.
Nestled in a snug valley, the farm offers chick stroking and lamb feeding. There's pigs to pet, llamas to stroke and meerkats which are subject to a daily barrage of children screaming the slogan of that price comparison website.
But the wild boars are the stars of the show, and the tours of the pig pens with the straight-talking Lancashire guides are exciting for kids and adults. Just keep a safe distance from their tusks.
Food in Bowland can mean treif, and plenty of it. In cafes, markets and
restaurants, you're offered locally cured sausages, ham and bacon at almost every turn, and given a look of bewilderment when you politely decline.
But one of the local specialities can be enjoyed with an almost-clean conscience: Lancashire cheese.
Leagram's Organic Dairy is the unlikeliest highlight of any trip to Bowland, but is unmissable.
Book a demonstration and you'll be greeted by Bob Kitching, the larger-than-life owner in his cartoon waistcoat, who will take you through the cheesemaking process in an act that's part demonstration and part stand-up comedy.
While at he same time regaling you with sexy stories about the local Women's Institute, Bob will show you how to make his creamy Cheddar, buttery Double Gloucester and signature Lancashire soft cheese - along with his more 'unique' creations such as the volcano-shaped cheese he calls 'Bob's Knobs'. Groups can book cheesemaking sessions and make their own flavoured cheeses, with recent experiments including cheeses with Marmite, strawberries or garlic.
From Manchester take the M61 north, it takes around one hour. From London, take the M6 towards Preston and leave at Junction 31a. The drive is approximately four hours. Preston is the nearest railway station. Trains from London leave from Euston. virgintrains.co.uk.Information about where to stay and all the walking, biking and shopping in Bowland can be found on www.forestofbowland.com.
Luxury hotel The Gibbon Bridge, Chipping offers a three night summer break in a suite inclusive of dinner, bed and breakfast for £399, based on two people sharing. The offer excludes Saturday nights and is available until the end of August. 01995 61456.
The Wild Boar Park costs £4.50 per person and £15 for a family ticket. 01995 61554.
For Cheese Experience Days at Leagram Organic Dairy contact Bob and Faye Kitching: 01995 61532.