I was too young to remember anything about the first occasions I saw the Cow and Calf, and undoubtedly far more interested in splashing around in the pools at the Ilkley Lido, from which you get one of the best views up to the jumbled outcrop of Yorkshire gritstone that overlooks what has long been one of the county’s poshest towns.
I well remember, though, my first cycling encounter with the hill that begins as Hangingstone Road in the heart of the town and rises, and very steeply approaching the top, past the Cow and Calf rocks to the eponymously named pub on the crest.
It was the 1993 Leeds Classic, and I had the good luck to be given a seat in press car driven by Britain’s then most successful Tour de France rider, Barry Hoban. ‘Le Cow et Calf’ Hoban insisted on calling it, for the benefit of the two foreign journos sharing the car, although I wish he’d gone the whole way by dubbing it ‘Le Vache et Veau’ and underlining the bizarreness of the climb’s title.
That comes from the rocks – an outcrop that is the cow and a huge boulder that it’s calf – which sits on the edge of Ilkley Moor, a part of Rombald’s Moor, which stands between Wharfedale and Airedale. Legend has it that Rombald was a giant who lived on the moor with his wife, Robyna.
Out for a pre-Sunday lunch walk, Rombald lost track of the time and returned home late, so Robyna greeted him by hurling the burnt Yorkshire puddings she’d made. In escaping from the barrage of Yorkshires, Rombald tripped on the rocks and dislodged the boulder. That, at least, is the story I read to my children in our house that backed onto Hangingstone Road.
While living there, I rarely rode up to the Cow and Calf, although my favourite fell run and mountain bike ride both followed the paths that meander just above the road.
Starting out that way was too hard and riding past home after a ride out and back to the Dales was too difficult. There was always the danger, too, of hitting a wandering sheep of which there are plenty on that piece of moorland, often lurking in the bracken at the roadside until startled by a passing rider into doing something foolish.
My favourite memory of the road is from the opening edition of the Tour de Yorkshire, when the final stage went over the Cow and Calf as it made for the finish in Leeds. Watching the likes of Bradley Wiggins and Thomas Voeckler riding past my back door was special, but even better was seeing the many hundreds of sportive riders out that morning and thousands of fans out to cheer them on.
Rising to just 250 metres, the Cow and Calf is not much of a climb in racing terms, but for Yorkshire cyclists it’s legendary, gigantic even.