Cycling Coast to Coast

ChaosChaos between boat and bike

I had finished kayaking in the nick of time, gales had arrived overnight to pound the eastern coastline with 10ft swells. Had I been just a day longer I would have had little choice but to stay ashore and wait it out.  Instead I could leisurely pack in the sunshine, the wind was no longer a care in the world.

For the first time in four months the wind didn’t matter, it was a guilt free ‘day off.’ I had one priority, to organise the rainbow pile of gear strewn from the car onto a gravel driveway and somehow pack it into four small pannier bags. I also had to figure out how to attach the panniers onto the bike, something I had never done before let alone ride it.

Joe’s position of novice in the group had been promoted to expert. He had cycled from his hometown of Bath to Paris in the past and was the experienced biker between us. His advice on packing and weighting the bike were appreciated after I failed on a third attempt. It was the first time in years I had to invent a new packing system, I was loving it for it felt new and exciting. There was a tremendous buzz in the air, an eager urge to get going on the next adventure.

My shiny clean bike was transformed from lightweight mountain mode/street cruiser to laden touring machine. The orange frame of my Surly Troll was barely visible beneath the gear. An unusual combination of cycling and hiking gear seemed excessive, I had certainly packed too much food but wanted to use up the last of the kayak rations, everything else on board was essential. There was just one thing left to do, give my new ride a name. I settled on Sally as it sounded a bit like Surly (the make of the bike) and I could sing Clapton’s ‘Lay Down Sally’ as I rode (a tune which had been stuck in my head all morning.

IMG_1203Loaded to go.

Packed by lunch time Joe, Paul and I drove back to the seaside to spend the remainder of the afternoon exploring wave battered harbours. After spending an hour sitting in the sunshine on Coldingham beach and watch surfers enjoy the swell we retired to the house for the evening to look over maps. It had always been a plan to deliberately avoid choosing a route from coast to coast until actually doing it, this was my token spontaneous adventure in an otherwise fairly structured route. Just 12 hours to go Joe and I took our first glance at a map, with some helpful contributions from Paul we had pieced together a route just in time for dinner.

We settled to head south into England, we would cross into the Cheviot ranges and find our way to Northumberland and meet a good family friend. We would then follow Hadrian’s wall toward Gretna. Plan sorted, tea on we were ready to go.

IMG_1525The swap

It didn’t matter that we started in drizzle, the novelty of a morning without peeling on cold wet neoprene had yet to wear off. Setting off south Joe and I left Paul to head north. Joe rode steadily, I wobbled and focused hard on not falling off. I felt very uneasy on the heavy bike, Sally no longer felt like the nippy ride I used to pedal on to university and back but instead a sluggish rickety truck. I was jealous that Joe had far less kit, he didn’t need the walking gear.

I was at least thankful I had chosen not to use SPD bike shoes, I am confident that if I had I would have fallen off before reaching the end of the first street.

We had set off from the same pier I had landed the kayak and wound up from Berwick on a muddy farm road. Following the steep cliff embankments overlooking the sea we peered over to thunderous surf hammering the shore below. This was great! Spirits rose as we paddled side by side onto the quiet luxury of a single track tar road. Slowly I was getting used to the bike, I was able to look around and enjoy peering into farmyards to our inland side.

Turning east to leave the coast I lost sight of the ocean for the first time in months. I immediately realised I would miss it but at least in a few days I would re-unite in the west.

We had planned a long day to reach the edge of the Cheviots and aimed to use an old Roman road marked on our map. We soon discovered that since the map had been printed (in 1986) that fields, tracks and even a few roads had surprisingly changed. We arrived at our second dead end in a field with a choice. A: Turn Back or B: Ride on and see where the field goes. We chose the latter.

We turned into a recently harvested field to push 200m along the verge before we realised there was no way out between the tall hedgerows. Unperturbed we turned into the next field with greater success. Riding along the grassy edge of a muddy field Joe and I found ourselves cycling through the middle of a harvested barley crop. Riding through an open field was tremendously amusing and had a somewhat liberating sense of freedom. It was like being at sea once more, except this time I was in a sea of dusty yellow not blue. This was exactly what I dreamed touring biking would be; spontaneous, fun and exciting.

Picking sprigs of barley from our spokes we re-located ourselves on the old map and gathered blackberries from a roadside hedge rows.  Winding into a nearby town we were back on course. At least our ‘scenic detour’ across the fields meant the shiny bike and panniers were now respectably battered and muddy. Much better.

Rolling into Lowick I discovered a new guilty pleasure. In a kayak landing for lunch normally meant a cold shiver and soggy oatcakes, by bike a warm cafe and £1 meat pasties were a luxurious alternative. Joe and I sipped coffee and nibbled pastry products more times over the course of our first days ride I would in a normal fortnight of paddling, It was gluttonous heaven.

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It was barely lunch time and we had already travelled further than I would on average by kayak, I was surprised at the ease and efficiency covering distance by bike but was still feeling the transition. It was no surprise that as I climbed uphill along a narrow country road to Wooler that my legs were starting to burn. Four months sitting idol had offered little training for cycling, if only I could have peddled with my arms.

The smell of sea salt had been replaced with that of farmyards and hayfields. It was the smell of the country I have always associated with peace and tranquility, it was an echo of childhood holidays in wales which I often used as ‘my happy place’ when I needed to cheer up.  Tall hedgerows sheltered the narrow roads from the little wind drifted over rolling golden fields, the rain had stopped and the sun had started to light our way.

Playing games of “how far can you cycle with your eyes closed” and competitive freewheeling Joe and I kept ourselves amused along the way to Wooler. Hard cycling was regularly interspersed with random foraging for blackberries turning our fingers slowly purple with juice.

As we approached town Joe begun to have problems with the right cleat in his shoe. It had lost one of the two attachment screws which meant each time we stopped his cleat would loosen. Every 5 stops or so we would be forced to stop as Joe’s cleat came off in the pedal and needed re-attached.

Leaving the quiet country roads we headed onto the busy A697 road toward Powburn. The rain poured as we pedalled as fast as we could in single file between towns. Trucks roared past frighteningly close wobbling our bikes with a blast of exhaust fumes and cold muddy spray. This was the first time biking felt dangerous and a little less desirable. Every few kilometres a muddy stop on the roadside to re-attach Joe’s show felt risky in the hard shoulder.

We left the road with a sigh of relief and covered in mud. I felt exhausted. The quiet town of Whittingham marked our way back into narrow roads and countryside, with a swift blast of spray through the spokes we rode fast to find somewhere  to camp. We were nearly at the edge of the Cheviot range at last.

IMG_1593Last down hill for the day 

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Sneaking from the roadside Joe and I set our camp under cover of tall birch trees lining the roadside. A river trickled nearby for water and although just meters away we were out of sight from the road. We both knew our rights to roam were less in England than Scotland so made extra effort to hide.

The luxury of simply riding to a nice spot, dropping panniers and throwing up the tent was a refreshing change from the normal dragging of heavy kayak up the beach. I had been biking for one day and was already starting to fall in love with this new discipline. As darkness fell we lit a small fire between our tents, Joe serenaded the evening bird chorus with his penny whistle. Joe is one of very few people I know who can not only play the penny whistle but make it sound awesome, with songs as great as Bohemian rhapsody in his repertoire (As epic on the penny whistle as any other instrument) his playing completed the peaceful mood. Rousing a rendition of “Bonnie banks O loch Lomond” to the crackle of flames in the woodsmoke we relaxed with tea and pasta in the evening light, it had been a long day but a flying start.

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The morning ride started in earnest, a steep uphill rewarded with long stretches of down toward Nertherton. I had unfortunately picked up Joe’s remnant cold and was suffering with a sore throat and lethargy, never the less we made fast progress on dry roads. Our downhill ended with a tremendous steep hill where Joe and I reached close to 50km/h before soaring into Alwinton for an early oatcake and cheese stop. Discovering a small apple orchard we sat in the shade with a mug of tea and munched borrowed apples from the lush grass. For the first time in a long time I applied suncream.

We were now upon the edge of the Cheviot range. It was the end of the down and the first real hills we would face, small in comparison to what awaited in Scotland but for legs unaccustomed to biking they were more than enough. Leaving lush green fields filled with very content looking sheep we begun to skirt the Cheviot bombing range. The second largest live firing range in the country the road we followed was pot holed with the stress of constant army trucks which occasionally rumbled past. Red flags flew to our left, a sign that despite the glorious weather tempting an explore we really had stay on the road.

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The single track road wound uphill meandering like a river through the soft grassy valleys. The hills here were lush and filled with the burnt yellows of sun scorched grass. It was a paradise for the weekend rambler but we saw few, perhaps the red flags had put people off. Joe was having more and more problems with his shoe clips, I was thankful for the chance to catch my wheezing breath as we fixed the problem in the sunshine. There was no rush what so ever.

Reaching the end of the road at the end of a long and punishingly steep hill a sudden grinding crunch stopped Joe in his tracks. We had made it a full 15 meters into our off road section before minor disaster struck.

Day 2 and we had our first technical failure, Joe’s chain had snapped. Extracting what chronically insufficient repair kit we owned Joe retrieved a chain link tool. Neither of us had any idea how to use it but decided to give it a go, it was a better option than plan B; to cable tie the chain together to limp out. Getting the broken link off was very easy, Joe quickly unscrewed the pin with the tool. Getting the chain back together proved considerably more fiddle. Half an hour of oily and tricky experimenting eventually lead to us somehow re-setting the chain one link shorter with the pin-removal tool. It might be simple bike mechanics but to Joe and I it felt like a tremendous success at the time, we were back on the way and this time it was off road.

We made it another 10m before hopping off to attempt to push the bike. Needless to say it was far more effort, the work was harder and this was the start of a real bike adventure. Deep grass and little sign of a track aside from the occasional rusting iron post lead the way. We grunted the bikes over the steep embankments of an old roman fort to lay siege to a swathe of bracken before a bumpy free ride back downhill to the moors. Ahead on the horizon 1km away the promise of an illusive forestry track to lead us out kept our pace motivated.

Teamwork was required to rock and push our bikes one by one through deep muddy channels cut into the peat by narrow streams, the tussock grass terrain proving a tough match for our heavy load. Meter by metre we shuttled the bikes uphill until at last a narrow grassy track appeared. It was muddy, uneven and bouncy but with a little determination and a lot of sweating we could pedal it. At the top of the track a small wooden sign reading “The Pennine way” confirmed we were on route just as a loud crack of artillery fire echoed from the range across the hill.

IMG_1719Nearly over the rise 

Both feeling triumphant at our success we rode toward the forest boundary, I felt as if nothing was to stop us now. But I was wrong.Just 500m from the forest edge a sudden agonising pain erupted in my stomach, a deep ache which quickly lead to dropping the bike to bend double on the grass. Joe looked concerned, out of nowhere I felt as if I might pass out. Vomiting into the grass I lay on my back in the damp heath clutching my stomach, it felt like something was going to burst.

The pain eased just enough that Joe and I could struggle the bikes to the gate at the brow of the hill. A bouncy and very uncomfortable freewheel through felled tree trunks lead us to the track. Barely able to focus I concentrated hard on simply staying on the saddle, something was wrong and I was increasingly light headed. As long as we could freewheel we would make it safe to camp and I could lay down until whatever it was had passed.

Thankfully the bouncy rattling on the road seemed to unblock or remove whatever had caused a problem, within just 10 minutes of freewheeling after an hour of pain I felt completely fine. We concluded it must have been a temporary glitch and hoped it wouldn’t return. As a caution Joe still followed behind just in case something went wrong and I crashed.

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We had passed into the edge of Kielder forest, a tremendous woodland plantation with wonderful bike tracks waiting for the days ahead. Large and intimidating signs read “Absolutely No Camping” at every given chance. At the very edge of ‘the toll road’ an old forestry pass which was open to the public, Joe and I pushed our bikes into thick scrub and down a bank to find shelter. We waited for a gap between forestry trucks before hiding, we were paranoid that we might get caught and told to move on, should we be found we would simply move a few hundred meters and try again.

Just meters from the road we were entirely invisible. Beside a small burn in the shelter of thick pine woodland it was a fine camp. Yet again the fast luxury of spreading straight from pannier bag to sleeping mat was a welcome change. A cup of tea and pasta supper soon made any illness forgotten. There were even toilets nearby.

IMG_1747Perfect stealth camp

20km on a well maintained forestry trails were a wonderful start to the day. Joe and I wound quickly across the pass with only the occasional rest to re-set Joe’s clip or admire the view. Our descent from the 434m high pass at Blakehope Nick was a tremendous reward to a long sweaty uphill.

Stopping for morning tea and scones with a guilty pleasure Joe and I relaxed in decadence in Kielder Castle. We faced the option of travelling north or south along Kielder water reservoir. After a relaxed pause over the map we settled on the northern end which promised more forest trail and less road.

The track was utterly superb, better even than the well groomed forest trail we had ridden in the morning. Thin compact gravel, gentle ascents and long hairpin turns on the downhill made two happy bikers. I had started to feel used to the weighted bike and relished leaning the heavy load into each turn to help corner as fast as I could on the bends. As we rode strange arty sculptures appeared here and there in the woods or by the calm waters edge.

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Crossing the dam we looked out to calm overcast skies and mirror smooth water. All the was left was a long downhill aside the North Tyne River to reach our daily target. I hoped to stay with an old family friend Simon who lived near Bellingham while Joe would continue to ride alone toward Hexham and head south. We made an effort to relish pedalling in company for the last time as we wound down narrow single tracks lined with gnarled oat trees.

Parting ways with a hug Joe rode off to the east leaving me to grind up the final steep hill of the day. To my delight I was passed by Simon at the very bottom of the hill. Offering to load the bags into the car I leapt at the chance to ride fast and light for the last push of the day. As Simon sped off to put the kettle on I wobbled up the hill, to my surprise without the bags I found riding very unsteady all of a sudden.

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An evening in a warm house with countless cups of tea and wonderful company was a wonderful change from the tent. I felt sorry that Joe had to miss out on the fun and even more so after a short phone call to let us know he had missed his train. Thankfully he found shelter at a local backpackers. Simon was a friend of my father in Antarctica and has an endless repertoire adventurous tales, he is also a professional photographer and had long since been an inspiration to my own camera antics.

Breakfast of home made honey (spun lovingly by Simon’s daughters Bronwin and Awena   was the perfect boost to tackle the other half of the hill to head west. Buzzing on coffee and better rested than I had been since first riding the bike I set off to Bellingham to purchase new gear cables for the bike. A kink in a cable had rendered just three gears left working. Thankfully the fix was easy, cheap and fast.

For the second time a chance encounter with Simon and the girls saw a welcome offer to drive the bags to the top of the hill. Fast and light I pedalled hard to meet them on the summit 15 minutes later. They waited in a lay-by in the glorious sunshine to wave me off as I set downhill on the far side. I couldn’t thank them enough.

Listening to Pink Floyd on the radio I wound up and down gently undulating single track roads. The weather was glorious and behind tall hedgerows lush fields spread out like a low ocean swell across the landscape. I watched small birds flitter through the bushes to my side and was even privileged to be tailed by a curious fox for a short stretch. I was in a fantastic mood, although I had greatly enjoyed the company of Joe and Paul along the way I had missed being able to travel at my pace again at last.

Leaving the tarmac I ventured onto a series of small forest trails which slowly rose over a low hill. As I climbed onto the pass ahead the track slowly became less and less used. Smooth wide gravel slowly gave way to narrow overgrown track, a thin strip of grass grew in the middle of the road between tall brush at either side. Potholes and fords made biking interesting, I enjoyed weaving along the track and splashing through the rivers as I went. I hoped with luck I could push hard and reach the coast by evening.

A final steep push lead out of the forest and back onto winding single track road. Leaving the forest to freewheel into open pasture I weaved between sheep on the road. In the distance I looked out excitedly hoping to see the sea, no sign yet. However as I reached the bottom of the hill I arrived at another landmark; Hadrian’s Wall.

In my excitement to clamber from the road onto the wall for a better look I slipped to land in a star. An eruption of laughter burst from a nearby Duke Of Edinburgh troop who were enjoying lunch in the sun under a nearby hill. Fuelled with a snickers bar and some cheese I left my perch on the ancient divide to head south for the sea. A short ride later I joined a busy A-Road west.

The Roman influence was clearly shown in the roads which ran arrow straight as the crow flies from A to B. It made for fast travel leaving the miles behind in my tracks. For the first time I could see the ocean in the distance. Back onto winding farm roads once more I found myself drifting into reflection, the thought of arriving back where I started was bizarre, ‘had I really gone all the way round?’ it certainly didn’t feel like it. The journey behind seemed so much less than the journey ahead, it had been my life for the last four months but now seemed irrelevant in the face of the new task. My mind wheeled wildly from ecstasy to wanting to cry for no reason, I didn’t quite know how to react to making it back to the beginning.

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I slowed my pace, bought a scone and gently pedalled the final few kilometres to Metal Bridge. The hills behind slowly fading into an evening haze gave way to open grain fields. The skeleton remains of dead oak trees cast long shadows across the warm yellow barely which swished in a warm sea breeze. I could smell the ocean again, it had been just a few days but I had missed it. The road ahead blazed gold in the evening sun, the glare blinding my way with a beautiful glimmer.

Passing my first road sign reading ‘METAL BRIDGE’ I felt a buzz of excitement. I had at last made it full circle. Arriving just as the sun set to cast pink into the sky I stumbled inside the Metal Bridge Inn for a quick celebration dinner before riding on to find camp across the river. Treated to a steak dinner and several pints by the owner I didn’t think of leaving until well after dark. I sat in a comfortable chair sipping a cool beer, outside the busy road ran over a familiar concrete bridge. It was the same bridge which our months ago I had set off, scared and un-prepared. I was startled at how my perspective on paddling and even the size of Scotland had changed. Scotland seemed a lot smaller now.

Summoning up the last energy from my stiff legs to leave. ‘You can sleep in our conference room if you like’ the barmaid offered with a smile. There was something special to sleep at the finish, I gladly accepted to stretch out my thermarest on the floor in a quiet back room. In the morning I would ride north at last, slowly I was on the way home.

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