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Down to the river we’d ride . . Trails and tracks

18 Oct

Bike Ride to Alston (23)Sunday, and it’s a great day to be alive. I skip breakfast and drive a few miles to Haltwhistle. Disappointingly, the name has nothing to do with railways and everything to being a hill at the conflux of two rivers. Equally, Fourstones has nothing to do with Jagger and crew, although I guess originally there were five of them…

Anyway, the plan for the day is to cycle down to Alston for late breakfast on the Pennine Trail and then cycle back on the South Tyneside Trail by the river.

Bike Ride to Alston (5)And it’s spectacular. Most of the route is on converted railway tracks – little tree lined avenues of trees transformed into their Autumn colours. I pass the occasional hiker and dog walker, but the trail is pretty much deserted.

The outbound trail rises and falls – there are steep climbs to tax my muscles while the morning cold continues to gnaw at my fingertips. One moment I am looking down at the Tyne below me – the next I am riding alongside it.

Bike Ride to Alston (7)The trail becomes less direct as I near my destination though – weaving around the hillside as if hesitating to make a final commitment to the descent into Alston. Eventually I drop into the village and climb the steep high street.

Late breakfast is not going to happen in Alston though –  despite being a popular spot for bikers, there is little open to feed them – most of them end up outside the Spar.

But a little shop furnishes me with coffee and a scone, and I am content. And I’ve made it – just – into Cumbria.  I briefly flirt with following the river to its source, about ten miles further upstream, but decide against it.

Lambey Viaduct (2)The way back starts out easier – gravel track runs alongside the South Tyneside Railway line, a 2’ gauge recreational line. It’s popular with local walkers, but they seem surprised when a cyclist waits for them to pass. There are a few kinks in the route, most notably at Slaggyford where it diverts briefly from the line, but eventually the gravel stops and the steps begin, as I drop down to the river itself. I cross on a little footbridge and watch children and dogs playing in the puddles around the main viaduct over the river. It does not occur to me until much later that I need to be on top of that viaduct. Eventually I find a route back up to the top – slipping and sliding over mud banks, smooth pebbles and broken tree trunks, I pray that one particular tree, the ground eroded around its roots, stays in place long enough for me to pass.

Back on the path, it’s a straight shot back to Halfwhistle, and back to the car. Another brilliant day, another 50 km or so cycled, and a lot of beautiful scenery seen.

Sycamore Gap (3)I have a couple of hours of daylight left, which I put to good use zipping up the B6318, a beautifully straight road that leads me through more beautiful hills, and past the iconic Sycamore Gap on Hadrian’s Wall, a valley formed by glacial action and now occupied by a single, rather spectacular sycamore. I didn’t expect to get this shot, so, although better photographers than I have got better images with better light, I am content with this snap from the road, the tree branches silhouetted proudly against the evening sky..

Steel Rigg (2)And I divert off to another view of the Wall, at Steel Rigg, Here the cliffs become themselves part of the defences against the Scots.

So back to the hostel. In celebration I will drink a couple of pints of Sycamore Gap IPA at the local brewery tonight. Tomorrow I start to make my way home. It’s been a fabulous few days here in Northumberland, and I am already planning how to return. No dark skies tonight though – the rain has returned, and I suspect it will accompany me south tomorrow…



Starlight, Starbright.. or, it isn’t over ‘til it’s over.

17 Oct

Robson Green's Tales from Northumberland TV show set to ...One of the reasons for coming out to Northumberland is that I love the night sky. It fills me with possibility, with wonder, with awe just to gaze up into the sky and imagine what it’s like. Those stars captured as they were years ago: we see Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to Earth (apart from our own sun) as it was four years ago. For some of the stars visible to the naked eye, that light has been travelling for decades. Polaris, the North Star, is 400 years ago – while Hubble has seen into the Eagle Nebula, which we see as it was 7000 years ago. These incredible distances fill my being with a sense of wonder and awe – I can’t even begin to imagine what that is in real terms, only to gasp at the mindboggling enormity of it all. And as Douglas Adams put it:

Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.

So Northumberland is one of the UK’s dark skies locations – away from big towns and light sources, the sky is really dark. And of course, when I visit, it’s full of cloud.

As I wander back from the pub, I look up, and while clouds do lazily trace their way across the sky, it’s reasonably clear, and I am just filled with gratitude as to how beautiful it is. I lean back and just drink in the wonder and beauty of it all, the scale, the vastness, the utter gorgeousness of the stars set twinkling against the blackness of infinite space. Unbelievably beautiful. And then, just when my heart is breaking from the sheer beauty of it all, a meteor lazily traces its way across the sky, bigger, brighter, slower and more beautiful than any I have ever seen in my life. Today has been a good day, a day of deepening understanding and increasing wisdom.. and this is just what I need to drop me into glorious Wordlessness.

And I am happy. I will have to come back for clear skies and wonder, but for today, this will do.


(Pictures definitely not mine – chosen to illustrate the post)

Relax. Don’t do it. Or, a peaceful day of crosswords and contentment

17 Oct

Halfcastle and the Tyne (2)No stretch today. An easy day where I’ll drive down to town, get a paper, and then chill.

Things to read, things to consider, and a trip into Halfcastle reveals a nice little cycle trail for tomorrow, and a cute litttle railway signal box.. and a fisherman… and the rest of the day is taken up with sorting, organising and otherwise getting things in order. And doing the crossword.


Halfcastle and the Tyne (1)Halfcastle station

I want to ride my bicycle . . . wheels across Northumberland

17 Oct

This blog post was brought to you by the numbers 68 and 72 and by the letters N & B.

Northumberland Cycle - Hadrian's Wall (3)I’ve decided to stay on in Once Brewed for a couple of extra nights – which means that I will be able to get a big loop cycle ride in. Conveniently, there’s a couple of cycle routes that run around the local area, so it’s on to the bike and off. The first part of the route is up. Very up. We’re a long way from the nice flat cycling of The Fens here. But it’s all achingly beautiful – on a bike you cover more miles than you do on foot, but you’re never disconnected from the scenery, and it’s all too easy to stop for a better view. Occasionally (or possibly frequently) a wrong turn is taken, but it never takes long to get back on the map.

Northumberland Cycle (3)So, up we go, past proud Hadrian’s Wall and into the hills and dales of Northumberland. The hard slog of ‘up’ is replaced by the joy and delight of ‘down’ as I whizz down the first of several long descents, grinning wildly and shouting ‘Cowabunga’…

I stop for a rare geocache pickup as  wheel by – I manage not to slide into the ditch, but plunge spectacularly into the icy waters of an unnoticed bog. My feet are now both wet and freezing cold.

Northumberland Cycle (4)More ‘up’ and I am facing the point where Route 68 ceases to be a road..But where we’re going we don’t need roads…. Instead the trail becomes a loosely gravelled path through pine forests and over the top of Watch Hill and Hay Hill.

The loggers are out, neat piles of timber stacked ready for the trucks that will take them away to the factories and lumberyards.

Northumberland Cycle (12)Then the track is over and we’re back on the tarmac again and onto the National Bikeway. Past more cottages and through pretty villages, I decide to do a slightly longer loop down by the river – knowing full well that the price of descending to the river will be to climb again.

Northumberland Cycle (7)There are more beautiful autumn colours to be found – every shade of leaf seems to be out today.

Northumberland Cycle - Tyneside (2)Into the tiny hamlet of Warden and down to the Tyne where I stop for lunch and pause to take in the river. It’s wide but fast flowing here, as it bubbles over its shallow bed.

The climb back up is a chance to talk to the sheep – until the slope finally defeats me and I decide to walk a little – looking down on another tranquil yet beautiful little farming community.

And finally back to Once Brewed – a hot shower and a hot meal await, although the pub is full and I have to drive into the nearest town to treat myself to fish and chips.

I think I will take tomorrow a little easier!


All the leaves are brown . . one day, three national parks

15 Oct

Falling Foss Waterfall (3)Time to move on. I pack everything back into the car and set off on the next leg of my journey – but I’ve been told that I should visit Falling Foss waterfall before I leave, so I do. It’s a fabulously tranquil spot – the waterfall is lovely but the surrounding woods by the side of a burbling and lively river are also a joy. The trees are starting to turn a wide range of browns and reds now, and the waterfall seems to be in full flow. The rain hits, and I decide to get on my way.

To Northumberland (31)Still following the bikers’ routes, I head off  across towards the centreline of the country. There are plenty of direct routes to get where I am going, but this is not a day for taking them, This is a day for savouring those swooping, soaring roads that take you a bit off the beaten track but still allow you to make progress. Some of them are straightline roads through open country. Some of them twist and turn as they hug the sides of hills, or weave their way through tiny villages. All of them are beautiful.

To Northumberland (21)I shun Darlington and Middlesborough for a line that drops me right into the middle of the Yorkshire Dales, stopping off at Aysgarth for another waterfall. My route takes me up through the centre of the Dales and into the North Pennines. It’s all too gorgeous to describe.

To Northumberland (11)I see sheep huddled in the lee of a wall high on the Pennines. There’s a sign that exhorts me to ‘SLOW! Free range children’. While painted tyres ask me to be careful – ‘sheep in road’ my eye is drawn to the 6’ snowpoles that will in a few short months be the only indication of where the road ends and the long slow rolling drop to the bottom of the slope begins. Up on the hills a row of conifers parades like a proud mohawk standing against the run of the mill hilltops.

To Northumberland (40)It’s another gloomy day, where rain showers stab across the hiss. But a slice of sunlight drifts lazily across the hill, promising new colours. If grey was the order of the day just a short while back, today’s colour is brown. The heather explodes with every shade known to man, while the leaves are starting to turn and bring their own vibrancy and colour to the scene.

To Northumberland (33)At some point I start to run low on fuel, and it’s at this moment that the satnav and I have a falling out – or a misunderstanding – convinced I have gone too far north across the Pennines at Muggleswick (still loving the names), I retrace my route ten miles over some of the most gorgeous countryside in the world back to Stanhope. I don’t want to go fast, I just want to drink in every moment. When I get back to where I was convinced I had gone wrong, it becomes clear that my determination to avoid the beaten track has failed me, so I turn myself north again. I’ve seen this road three times, but I think I could travel it every day and never get bored.

I refuel (phew) and make my way to my hostel in a little place nestling in the gap between the North Pennines and Northumberland Parks called ‘Once Brewed’. No, really, it ‘s called that. Curiously, if you approach from the east, the village sign says ‘Once Brewed’. Approach from the west, and the sign reads ‘Twice Brewed’.

There is a pub there called, appropriately ‘Twice Brewed’. I shall test it later.


Whitby – Falling Foss – Helmsley – Thirsk – Leyburn – Aysgarth – Hawes – KIrkby Stephen – Eggleston – Stanhope – Haydon Bridge – Once Brewed

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