Slap bang in the middle of a huge expanse of towns and villages on the southern edge of Leeds lies a 10-square-mile area of open countryside dotted with woods, streams and ancient stone buildings and laced with attractive footpaths and bridleways which offer a welcome escape from the urban sprawl.
This vital green lung in the heart of West Yorkshire will come as something of a surprise to those of you accustomed to the heady delights of the Dales and North York Moors, but it is well worth a visit, particularly if you turn up on a fine summer’s day (as we did!).
Ardsley Reservoir sits snug midway between West Ardsley and East Ardsley, both ancient communities recorded in the Domesday Book. The area is famed for the annual Lee Gap Fair - or Lee Fair - which was granted a charter in the reign of King Stephen in 1139 and claims to be the oldest chartered fair in the country.
The fair, held every August, was originally staged at adjoining Woodkirk - it was known as Woodkirk Fair - before moving to West Ardsley and taking the name of a local landowner, Dr Thomas Lee, who kept the fair going when it lost its original site due to changes in land ownership following the Dissolution of the monasteries in 1538.
In the Middle Ages, all manner of goods were traded at the fair, particularly cloth and horses, and it attracted dealers from as far afield as Spain, Italy, France, Germany and the Low Countries. After the Dissolution, Romany families - barred from entry into this country until the early 16th century - began to attend the fair to trade horses. To this day, nearly 500 years later, the fair remains a favourite among the travelling community.
APPROACH and PARKING: From the huge roundabout at Tingley – the old Tingley crossroads – take the A650 for Wakefield for about half a mile to traffic lights and turn right into Smithy Lane and then sweep right along Constable Road. Constable Road eventually becomes Westerton Road – follow it to Tingley Store and Post Office on your left and, here, turn right along Haigh Moor Road. After 600 yards, turn left into reservoir car park.
ARDSLEY RESERVOIR and HOWLEY HALL
6 ½ miles: Allow 3 – 4 hours. Map: O/S Explorer 289 Leeds.
Exit car park into Haigh Moor Road and turn left and follow the pavement for half a mile to end of road at a T-junction and take the tarred track opposite. At bottom of this track, turn left for 15 paces and then turn right, over stile, on a narrow path between trees and fence and then cross a footbridge over the Hey Beck.
Turn left along edge of wood to gain wood corner (old plank bridge on your left) and, here, turn RIGHT across the field aiming for the corner of Dogloitch Wood and a water tower. On gaining corner of Dogloitch Wood, press on with wood on your right, go past end of wood to a posh fingerpost and turn right up LEFT side of fence.
Go over brow of field to where the field edge turns left to a “Private” sign and, here in the field corner, go straight ahead into the vegetation to find a hidden path which opens up through the tall bracken.
On entering field, turn right along field edge. At bottom of field – thick marker pole in hedge to your front right – turn left along vehicle tracks past (on our visit) a manure heap. At field end, when vehicle tracks turn right, go straight on towards houses. Go straight through properties on a dirt track to enter road (A653) at Chidswell on edge of Dewsbury.
Cross the road, turn left for 20 paces and then turn right at fingerpost, past gable end of house, to enter the field ahead to left of a wooden shed (twin garages on your left). Go straight up middle of field and then continue with fence on your right to gain 4-sided fingerpost and take the path straight ahead for Lydgate School.
Press on along a partly-overgrown path with Hanging Heaton Church to your left. The path improves. At field end, go past a redundant stile and a Leeds Country Way arrow and keep on along right edge of field, past arrow on telegraph pole, with the Emley Moor TV mast to your left.
Soon, at a thick circular marker post with arrow going straight on and with a fingerpost ahead pointing leftwards, turn RIGHT along a dirt track into a street and turn left to arrive in the B6124 which links West Ardsley with Batley. Take Manor Farm Drive opposite. This is Lower Soothill.
1 After a couple of hundred yards, bear left with the street to a fingerpost (Solway Road nameplate) and turn right. An enclosed path leads into a field. Ignore stile on your left. Go down the field along right side of fence.
Halfway down the field, ignore a stile on your left – press on to a stile ahead (yellow tape), cross it and continue along a narrow path with wire fence on your left. This leads into Soothill Wood – go straight down through the wood on a strong path to strike a cross path and turn right for 50 yards to spot a stone drainage channel on your left, built for a long-defunct quarry railway.
Within a few yards – don’t miss it! - turn left across the stone channel at a point where a stone step has been put in place. There is now an immediate fork in the clay tracks – take the left branch (straight ahead), soon passing under power cables. Continue through trees to strike a strong cross track - pylon to your left – and go straight ahead up the diagonal path, over a cross path, and on to the next cross path with the scant ruins of Howley Hall ahead peeking through the bushes. If you wish to visit ruins, divert now and return to this point.
It is hard to believe, looking at the meagre remains of today, the size and extent of Howley Hall in its pomp. It was built in the 1580s by Sir John Savile, a Yorkshire MP, leading courtier to James I and a member of the most powerful dynasty in the Dewsbury area. I have in my possession a black-and-white print of the Elizabethan hall in its heyday – it shows an imposing, four-square crenellated building with towers at each corner. The hall had a courtyard 60 yards square, a huge gatehouse, extensive gardens, orchards and a bowling green.
Howley Hall had a short life. It was occupied up to the death of Sir James Savile in 1671, but then fell into rapid decline. At the beginning of the 18th century, its stonework was sold off and, in 1730, the house was demolished.
But why build such a substantial property in this remote and unusual location? Experts say the site was hand-picked above a natural escarpment to give the Saviles commanding views over Dewsbury, Batley and Birstall. It also made a powerful statement about the wealth and stature of its occupants.
If not diverting to the ruins, turn right along the higher path and follow it to strike a broad cross track and turn right to enter a huge meadow and follow vehicle tracks straight ahead over meadow with power lines across to your right. Now stay alert! Near the end of this meadow of long grass – with vegetation and bushes ahead - there is a fork in the grass track. Do not miss it! Look half left to spot a metal sign.
Take the LEFT branch to gain the metal sign and a redundant metal kissing gate. Pass to its side and follow the good path to four plastic containers. Plough on, eventually arriving in a tarred turning area – bear right to a barrier and Leeds Country Way arrow.
2 Turn left along the quarry road for a short distance to the end of the tall fence on your right and then turn right at fingerpost past a warning sign for quarry blasting. Follow the narrow path for half a mile to its end to arrive at a stack of portable buildings at a tall metal fence with razor wire.
Bear left along the fence, through trees and onward over a clearing with houses to your right. Press on to what appears to be a covered brick shelter on your left and with the tower of Woodkirk church to your front right. The path becomes tarred and turns right to emerge in the A653 with Woodkirk church hidden in the trees opposite.
Cross the road with care a quarter right to the church nameboard and a fingerpost and go down the flagstones, past the church, to exit churchyard down steps. Go slightly left down the grass to a mini foot-golf green (hole 4) with a new wooden fence and kissing gate behind. Go through, cross a bridge to an immediate fork and take the left branch (straight on), up steps, through the vegetation and up left side of field to exit into a street through a barrier.
Follow the street to its end, cross over road (Baghill Road) and take Westerton Road opposite. Go past Tingley Methodist Church to arrive at the British Oak pub and turn right through pub car park, down left side of pub, cross over a street and go down Upper Green Close opposite.
Take the tarred path straight ahead at bottom of cul-de-sac and then follow a good path down through the vegetation to arrive at a fork and take the left branch, starting over a couple of planks. On joining another path coming in from your right, press on by side of wooden fence (arrow). This stout path is followed all the way to emerge in a street of new houses.
Go straight ahead to arrive in Haigh Moor Road and turn left along pavement to the finish.