LEECHES are usually thought of as disgusting, slimy, black bloodsuckers that were used in medieval days to extract blood from the human body.

A leech is a creature that has most peculiar properties and is still used by the medical profession today.

Using leeches in medicine started about 2,000BC. They were used in Greece and Italy as a painless cure for many infections and ailments.

In medieval times, when blood-letting was a popular cure for most conditions, the incision was done using a knife to release blood from the patient. But in those unsanitary days, the knife was often infected, which sometimes made the condition worse.

Blood-letting using leeches was nature’s safe way of achieving an infection-free cure. The leech requires a supply of blood to live, an obvious statement, but how does it find a donor? The leech lives in water and some leeches eat small creatures, but what they really like is human blood.

The leech became so popular that they soon became scarce and it was stated that at least 10 million leeches were used in London every year.

This made the leech a valuable commodity and to catch them men would step bare-legged into ponds and ditches and wait for leeches to attach to their legs.

The leeches were then removed, put in a jar of pond water and sold to physicians.

But the best way of obtaining leeches was to have leech farm.

This is what happened at Bedale the end of the 18th century; they built a Leech House on the bank of Bedale Beck and bred the leeches there.

The leeches, which were kept alive using water from the beck, were kept in good condition until required by the medical profession. You will find the castellated, brick leech house in its own garden near the bridge in Bridge Street (A684).

Leeches are unique creatures and are perfectly designed for their job of unobtrusively attaching to human flesh and stealing blood. Its body has 34 segments and it has a sucker at each end. The leech secretes an anaesthetic to the skin to avoid detection as it pierces through the flesh to reach its precious prize, it then injects an anti-clotting fluid to stop the blood congealing.

It is within this field that leeches can be used today to assist surgeons control congested blood from a wound during micro-surgery. They can also be used to assist in skin graft surgery by removing excess blood from under the skin.

When attaching a severed finger, the leech can be used, this time to encourage blood circulation and preventing clotting. When the leech has a full belly of blood, which takesabout 20 minutes, it automatically drops off, but the anti-coagulant still works on the wound allowing the patient to remain clot free.

That is the story of the Bedale leeches, but don’t miss out on the rest of Bedale as a market town and take the opportunity to visit one of the cafés or pubs for some refreshment, and, of course, take a walk to the top of the town to visit the magnificent church.

Your route

Look for the White Bear pub in the Market Place and take the road opposite, which is Sussex Street. It is the B6268 signed to Masham.

Cycle through the town, keeping to the main road to eventually leave it behind. Continue along the B6268 for about two-and-a-half miles, then turn left at the crossroads, signed to Snape and Well.

Shortly, at the T-junction, turn right, again signed to Snape and Well.

Enjoy this ride along a country lane and soon you arrive at Well village with its fine pub, the Millbank Arms.

Just past the Millbank Arms, turn right to cycle uphill along a narrow lane, continue along through a wood to eventually meet a T-junction.

Go right here onto the B6267 signed to Masham, then at the next T-junction, turn right signed to Masham and Leyburn onto the A6108.

Not far and you arrive at the bridge crossing the River Ure. If you would like to ride into Masham for a look round and take some refreshment at the pub or one of the many cafés there, then cross the bridge and bear left into the town.

Return to this point to continue along the route.

If you are not going into Masham, do not cross the bridge but very carefully turn right onto a minor road signed to High Burton, Thornton Watlass and Newton-le- Willows.

Quite a good undulating country road but with several slippery corners when wet. Keep on the main road at all times without deviation.

In about three miles, go left at the crossroads signed to Thirn and Thornton Steward to soon cycle along through the village of Thirn.

In a couple of miles, on this slippery, twisty road, turn right at the crossroads signed to Newton-le- Willows and Patrick Brompton.

At the T-junction, turn left at Cocked Hat Farm, then in a couple of hundred metres, go right onto a road leading to Newton-le-Willows.

Continue along through the village, passing under a railway bridge, then at the crossroads, go right signed to Bedale and Masham.

Continue along to pass under another railway bridge, then in 100 metres or so, turn left, where you might see a sign for Bedale in the hedge. Good views along here along a reasonable road.

In about a mile-and-a-half, turn right at the crossroads signed to Cowling and Burrill.

Soon you reach Cowling village which leads to Burrill village. Pass through both villages, then at the Tjunction, go left signed to Bedale.

Keep on the main road and in about two miles, you arrive at Bedale. At the T-junction turn left to return to The Bear and your transport.

The facts

Distance – 20miles/32km

Terrain – Easy, mainly flat country roads

Best map – OS Landranger 99

Start/grid ref – The White Bear pub, Bedale, GR267882

Parking – Bedale car parks as signed or short stay in Market Place

Refreshments – Cafés and pubs in Bedale, pubs along the way

Public toilets – Bedale, follow signs from Market Place