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Jonathan and Lesley Williams take a few days off and do some cycling in Northumberland – into the wind.
The prospect of a bike ride that involved cycling along the Northumberland coast passing iconic sights such as Warkworth castle, Bamburgh castle and Lindisfarne, followed by a ride through the beautiful southern uplands to Edinburgh was irresistible. It’s considered to be one of the national cycle network’s easier long distance routes, especially if you have the prevailing wind behind you.
We didn’t have the wind behind us! The faithful southwesterly winds that bring most of the ‘weather’ to the British Isles had swung around a few days before we set off (conveniently just after we had booked our accommodation and train tickets), so we were locked into the first two days cycling north into a very strong north easterly wind.
The waymarked ‘Coast and Castles’ National Cycle route begins at Newcastle railway station, and for the first twelve miles shares the route with the C2C cycle route, as far as Tynemouth. From there we headed into the wind up the coast, passing through Whitley Bay and the somewhat unexciting sounding Seaton Sluice until we reached Blythe. A fine cafe in a large well-tended park, set with seating both inside and out, provided a tasty hot lunch, reviving us ready for the afternoon. It had been a tough morning battling against relentless wind.
Blythe is a surprisingly pleasant port, and marks the point at which you finally escape the urban and commercial development of the coast. It would make a great point to start the route if you were short of time, or wanted to avoid cycling on or near the busier roads and built up areas near Newcastle.
The cycling up until this point had been on a combination of dedicated cycle track, shared pavements, and occasionally short sections of road, but north of Cresswell we encountered our first sections of rougher terrain, with some stretches of gravel and grass, none of which was particularly problematic, as we were on tricross bikes with 32 mm tyres. The entire route is mostly suitable for all types of bike, although road bikes with ‘skinny’ tyres may find it better to avoid some short sections, which is easily done.
With the coastline stretching way into the distance, the clarity of the view was only partially obscured by the spray coming off the relentless waves as they pounded the shore. Eventually the fishing port of Amble came into view, the route taking us straight into the harbour area, before leading us up and out of the town on a dedicated track to Warkworth, and our first castle on the route. Dating back to 1234 this is a classic and fairly well preserved ‘motte and bailey’ castle, overlooking the attractive small town.
From Warkworth there is a really great purpose built cycle track directly to Alnmouth, a great way to finish our first day, and a huge improvement on the previous longer route via a labyrinth of country lanes, although it does mean that if that if you are visiting Alnwick (the largest occupied castle in England after Windsor) you have to leave the cycle track. Safely ensconced in our B&B for the night, we enjoyed a great meal and short wander around Alnmouth, just one of many picturesque villages that we would pass through along the coast. We had covered 50 miles, mainly cycling hard against the wind. The forecast for the morning was for slightly less wind, and with that happy thought we turned in for the night.
The heritage coast between Alnmouth and Berwick on Tweed is one of Northumberland’s great treasures, as huge sandy beaches are laced with lofty cliffs, tiny fishing villages and imposing castles, testament to the strategic importance of this isolated far northern region of England, where fierce border wars raged between the 14th and 16th centuries, and where there was a constant threat of raiders from across the North Sea. In series, we passed the ruined and atmospheric Dunstanburgh Castle, the mighty Bamburgh Castle and Lindisfarne, the latter also one of the most important sites from early Christianity, marking the end of two long distance paths in Northumberland that celebrate the life of St Oswald and St Cuthbert.
The ramparts and fortifications at Berwick on Tweed are well worthwhile visiting, mainly dating back to Elizabethan times, they were extended and improved during the 17th and 18th centuries. In the late afternoon we cycled up the Tweed valley to Horncliffe, crossing between England and Scotland, then back into England via the historic Union Chain Bridge.
Leaving Horncliffe in the early morning, the route initially passed through rolling arable farmland, first to Kelso, with its busy historic town centre, cobbled market square and castle, then onwards through increasingly hilly countryside to Melrose. Melrose is a delightful Borders town, the ruined Abbey famed for being the site of where Robert the Bruce’s heart is buried. We sat outside enjoying lunch in the sunshine while chatting to a group of cyclists who were also following the route.
The ride during the afternoon up through the Tweed valley was a delight, nothing too hilly, beautiful scenery, quiet roads and some added interest as we watched canoeists practicing their slalom techniques from an ancient narrow bridge near Caddonfoot. The route after the bridge continues for a short while heading west upstream, then strikes inland a little on a gravelly track, which was okay for our bikes, but a road bike would be unsuitable for this section – there is an alternative road variant. More gorgeous views followed, and we remained on very quiet roads all the way to Innerleithen.
Our final day started with a wonderful ride steadily up on the B709 through the shapely hills that create such a magnet for mountain bikers and cyclists alike. The air was still, the sun was out, it was a Sunday morning, and the only sounds to be heard were the bleating of sheep and the call of Curlews… and me puffing away as I turned the pedals! A fantastic descent on the north side of the Uplands took us briefly through Dalkeith, then on towards Edinburgh via a series of roads, cycle paths and discussed railway track bed. Passing by the foot of Arthur’s Seat, we plunged into a tunnel, popping out more or less in the centre of Edinburgh.
It had been a fine ride – a little more challenging during the first two windy days than we would have liked, but then that’s half the fun, and there wouldn’t have been so much to write about!