Two-wheeling with nature in the Dearne Valley

By | Category: Travel destinations

Old Moor RSPB reserve, Dearne Valley

Sightseeing in the saddle is the best way to engage with birds and wildlife, says Sarah Woods

It was a seductive proposition; a chance to explore the wild, open meadows and bird-rich waters of Dearne Valley where fertile grasslands are ablaze with butterflies and orchids. Old growth woodlands pepper these curvaceous moorlands once scarred by coal mining and heavy industry. The catch was I’d be on a bike, but that just intrigued me further. And so it came to be that I arrived at the picturesque mouth of the 350-mile national Trans Pennine Trail (TPT) cycle route with my cycle clips at the ready.


Riddled with deep coal seams, the South Yorkshire’s Dearne Valley region has undergone significant regeneration since it was blighted by spoil heaps of the 1980s. Today the terrain comprises a mishmash mix of rolling farmland, mossy woodlands and former colliery workings – neatly divided by the reed-trimmed River Dearne, old canals and disused railway lines. Oh, and the M1 motorway. Yet for me there is no roar of traffic. No tooting horns. No spewing diesel fumes. Just me, my bike and the feral joys of nature.

My journey begins at Old Moor, a cycle-friendly nature reserve that links the Trans Pennine Trail with four other nature reserves: Wombwell Ings, Gypsy Marsh, Edderthorpe Flash and Bolton Ings – so cyclists with plenty of oomph take note. Me, I’ve chosen a rugged 21 mile trail from the Old Moor’s options (the others are 5-mile and 13-mile) – a far cry from the whole shebang but it will still mean a full day in the saddle. The glorious sunshine I have pre-ordered arrives on cue. It’s hot; in fact it’s positively steamy – a benefit of being shielded from rain-bearing clouds by the Pennines mountain ranges. The valley is perfect for cycling as it has gentle gradients and slowly unfolding scenery with good quality trails. Old Moor, right in the heart of the Dearne Valley, offers skies, fields and open waters teeming with wildlife and birds throughout the year, from newly hatched ducklings, geese and sand martins to great crested grebes, brown hares, warblers and over 8,000 golden plovers. Birds, I soon realise seem less afraid of me in the saddle than when I dismounted and approach on foot. Dragonflies dance over wildlife pools; dozens of common blue butterflies flit around; and water voles scurry along the banks. In autumn, peregrines soar high above the hedgerows of ripening fruit, berry-rich trees and falling leaves. With panniers secured and sprockets, valves and spokes double-checked I swerve a rabbit with a wobble. Old Moor wildlife here I come!

My syncopated pounding on the pedals produces a comforting rhythmic pulse as one leafy stretch leads to another. I’m soon mesmerised by a heady scenic blur as the miles – and hours – slip effortlessly by. In summer, the Old Moor reserve is awash with colour; a boon for cyclists like me who need constant visual stimulation to dull the ache of tired limbs. First I am treated to yellow-green pasture littered with sweet-smelling wildflowers and leaf-shrouded hides. I spot mute swans with trail of fluffy cygnets around the lakes and numerous common terns around the reed beds and feel wholly in-tune with Mother Nature. Now, rather than fretting about my mile-rate, I abandon myself to the landscape. A magnificent marsh orchid heralds my arrival at a particularly secluded, peaceful meadow expanse. I am elated and barely notice a slow-burn in my calves brought on by a rigorous gradual incline.

Free from the hubbub of noise pollution, I imbibe the luxury of silence from the ridge and, a little tipsy on tranquillity, revel in the only audible sound; my own breath – a strangely spiritual experience. The moment is lost a little when, on spotting a distant Roe deer, I drop my jaw and ingest a mouthful of flies. Yet as I add a little-ringed plover, a redshank, a kingfisher, several tree bumblebees, a yellow wagtail, an oystercatcher and a sedge warbler to a list of my day’s sightings – my bike, nature and I feel in perfect synchronicity.

Geltsdale RSPB reserve

The RSPB encourages cycling on reserves where bikes, nature and other visitors can happily co-exist, from freewheeling in the wilds in Scotland and pottering through the lush scenery of Mid Wales to pedaling along the Suffolk coast and riding through Bedfordshire heath and woodlands. For details see:


Old Moor Reserve – where is it?
• Lat/lng: 53.51478,-1.36507
• Postcode: S73 0YF
• Grid reference: SE422022
• Nearest town: Barnsley, South Yorkshire
• County: South Yorkshire
• Country: England
• Tel: 01226 751593
• E-mail:

Images © RSPB

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