This is the report of a cycling trip in Northern England, in May 2006. We ride on sometimes terribly steep roads through barren landscapes (Lake District, Pennines) and along remarkable buildings (castles, monasteries, Hadrian’s Wall), hedges, drystone walls, sheep and Land Rovers. In two weeks’ time, Rudi and I travel some 830 kilometers.
Day 1: Newcastle > Dunstan (83 km)
We travel to England by taking the night boat from IJmuiden. In Newcastle we buy some stuff in the supermarket and head northwards. The weather is excellent: 15 °C and no rain. Today we follow the Coast & Castle route. It is not before long when we leave the big city and cycle along the coast and St Mary’s Lighthouse. There are still see a lot of buildings around here. Near Blyth we see a plant with four gigantic chimneys, and pass a slum and football pitch.
The more beautiful part of the route starts after Newbiggin. The coastal road is almost flat and every now and then unpaved. We even ride on the beach for a while. It takes a short but firm climb to reach Dunstan, where we order dinner in the local pub and pitch our tent at the simple camping site. It will be cold at night: 7 °C. Rudi is freezing in his synthetic sleeping bag.
Day 2: Dunstan > Wooler (68 km)
The first part of today’s journey is located at some distance from the coast. I am in an exceptional shape: cycling in the hills with luggage on my bike is a piece of cake for me. Quite often I am the first to reach the top. My legs are strong! After w while, in a distance high up a hill we see Bamburgh Castle. We shoot photos in the gray weather. Just after the castle there is this nice old church with an interesting graveyard (good for making pictures as well).
The weather deteriorates when we cycle in the direction of Holy Island. It is there where monks were terrorized by the Normans. They say its setting is panoramic. Unfortunately, we arrive far too late (2.50 pm) at the road leading to the island: due to the tide only one hour remains to visit the island and return. Since the continuous rain reduces visibility, we decide to skip this five star tourist attraction and move on.
We leave the Coast & Castle route and cycle between the many hedges to Lowick, Horton and finally Wooler. Wooler’s camping site is beautifully located against the background of a high, ball shaped hill. There are lots of ducks and sheep around here. We have dinner in the local pub. Rudi orders a gigantic 14-inch hot & spicy pizza, but it is way too hot to handle. So, with his tail between his legs, he orders another pizza, less spicy this time.
Day 3: Wooler > Bellingham (83 km)
The day starts cold with a watery sun and bleating of the numerous sheep. We wonder if “Wooler” is named after “wool”. We have our breakfast very late in front of one of the many churches of the nicely located town. When we depart, we have to start climbing right away. Today we cycle along the border of the Cheviot Hills, a panoramic area with large bald-headed hills.
Next we bump into the Pennine Cycleway, which we would like to try for a while when we head southward. After a few kilometers we find out that this route seems more suited to ATB’s. We have to pass fjords, by cycling right through them or taking the narrow footbridge. The worse the road gets, the more Rudi’s temper worsens. Particularly when we have to ascent a slippery forest track with a gradient of 17%. Pretty adventurous when I think back to it. But at that moment, having managed to ride just nine kilometers in a few hours we are far from happy. Therefore we are glad to arrive at a nice off-road track near Biddlestone.
It is not before 4.30 pm when we have lunch in a bus shelter. Next follows a long climb along the “Bacon”. An Englishman on a tandem kindly offers us a cup of tea, but unfortunately we have no time to stop. It has become very late. During the remaining and boring twenty kilometers the headwind gets stronger. To make things worse, due to my yesterday’s “exceptional shape” my right knee has started to ache, which is not very promising for the remainder of the holiday.
Day 4: Bellingham > Alston (81 km)
First we cycle through a friendly landscape, including along the River North Tyne. Next we go in southeast direction to Chollerford, from where we start following Hadrian’s Wall. I’ve been looking forward to this day, since there are not many opportunities to see Roman defense works in real. Unfortunately this part of the Northern England tour is quite disappointing. First of all because Hadrian’s Wall is hardly visible. Okay, maybe bits of it, and one can imagine how it must have been a long time ago. But to call it “impressive” would be a tremendous overstatement. Secondly, the road is very wide. Third, the western wind from blows in our faces for 25 kilometers (which has nothing to do with it, but is annoying just the same).
In Haltwhistle we buy some groceries. We are being laughed at by local kids, but when I put on an angry face they piss off. (How are they supposed to know I have a bad temper due to the headwind.). We are going south now. The first part is on a cycling path on the old railway track, and climbs easily. After a few kilometers on the A689 we take a narrow and sometimes very steep road on the east bank of the River South Tyne. The landscape is exceptionally beautiful here, especially in the evening sun.
Far too late we arrive in Alston and head for the camping. It must be somewhere, but we can’t find where. When we ask a local, he says that the camping is on the scrapheap. We check in at the mobile home at the left of the scrapheap. We pay Alston’s local hooker in advance and pitch our tent next to the other mobile homes. With regard to the toilet building: one can reach it through a huge pipe. The state of the sanitary is not great, but we know for sure this camping is unique – so why bother. Rudi is incredibly happy, and takes a lot of pictures.
Day 5: Alston > Keswick (71 km)
We move out of the crap dump as fast as possible en start ascending the Hartside Cross. With its summit on 580 m it is one of England’s highest pass roads. It is an easy climb: a moderate gradient and the wind in the back. On the top we eat in the warm restaurant. The descent is nice and long. From Busk we continue on a gravel road. De roads thereafter are very hilly and the landscape is diverse.
We pass a stone circle named “Long Meg and her Daughters”. In Penrith we eat again and move on. We cycle in the direction of Keswick where the high hills of the Lake District begin. Thunder is in the air – we can hear it in the distance. Just before today’s destination we pass the beautifully located Castlerigg Stone Circle. We have fun taking photos here. One boy has no respect for the ancient standing stones and uses one as a climbing wall.
Next we leave for the Keswick camping, which is nicely situated on the north bank of Derwent Water. We want to choose a place but that is not allowed. We have to wait for a silly assistant wearing sports outfit looking for a place for us while riding with his ATB over the camp site. He wants to know exactly how big our tent is to find the appropriate place. This is ridiculous since there is ample room. Despite feeling very uncomfortable we decide to stay for two nights. We have a meal in the pub, where a lady sings quite well and we find out that Kane (= Dutch rock band from The Hague) gave a concert last Tuesday.
Day 6: Keswick (day off)
We have a day-off. The last few days I pushed myself too hard and stressed my knees. So a little bit of rest might help. We take a walk from the village of Swinside, situated west of Derwent Water. On the summit of a hill we see intense green grass divided by lots dry stone walls. Rudi teaches me how to take photos. Back at the lake we notice that there are loads of aged people and Land Rovers around here, and we also encounter two aggressive-looking Mitsubishi Warriors.
Day 7: Keswick > Eskdale (68 km)
We have breakfast in front of the large Keswick supermarket. Today we cycle first westwards, and next we follow the boundaries of Lake District National Park to the south. First we take the Whinlatter Pass. This pass road is dull, namely a wide road through a forest, and contains a few quite steep parts. The descent is much better. We drink coffee in a farm pub near Loweswater.
We continue our trip and turn left after a few kilometers. We cycle for quite a long distance along the boundaries of the national park. The roads are narrow and diverse. On the left we have a splendid view of the Lake District, and on the right hand Sellafield’s nuclear plant dominates the landscape. Far, far away the Isle of Man rises out of the sea. We pass the road to Wast Water and Wasdale Head (In hindsight we should definitively have taken this road, because it must be beautiful.) We decide to go straight to Eskdale.
Via a nice little road we arrive at the camp site. After Keswick’s “golden water tap” camping, this is just how a camp site should be: primitive and in the middle of nature. It attracts another kind of people as well: lots of small tents and vans, and caravans are absent. We take a walk to the pub at the main road. It is cozy there, also less tattooed folks than in Keswick. By the way, we eat a lot in pubs this vacation. It is so tempting to not cook after a day’s cycling, and to have dinner on a chair next to the heating. Back at the camp site barbecues and camp fires are burning until late.
Day 8: Eskdale > Kendal (55 km)
Yesterday we reached the most western point of our holiday. Today we cycle right through the Lake District back in eastward direction. The first few kilometers of the day are almost flat. Rain is drizzling. We see a big sign stating that the Hardknott Pass ahead is dangerous – the gradient is up to 30%. I have read that it is one of England’s steepest pass roads. After a short bit through a forest we bump into a wall, at least that is how the pass road feels. After a few hundred meters of “just” 15-20% the road climbs up to 29%. On this part of the pass road several car engines simply turn off. This is beyond what we have ever cycled. It is extremely hard to stay on the pedals, and I have to stop after just a while. But Rudi holds on – he is such a strong guy!
We take a short break: I make pictures of sheep at the southern side of the pass road while Rudi climbs to the Roman fortress where he can use his wide angle objective. At an altitude of 393 meters the pass is strategically located. No wonder that the Romans have built a castle here (Mediobogdum). At first sight the rainy weather was a bit of a bummer, but it appears ideal for making pictures: the green becomes deep green, the light brown grass becomes orange brown, and the low clouds add a mystical touch. Wonderful! Back on the bicycles we move on to the summit of the Hardknott Pass. Suddenly we are being overtaken by racing cyclists: contestants of the Fred Whitton Challenge through the Lake District with a length of 190 kilometers.
The awful ascent is followed by a hardly less steep descent at 25%. Next we cycle a few kilometers to the steep Wrynose Pass. We photograph the passing racing cyclists, some of them almost hitting sheep crossing the road. After the descent to Waterhead we take a busy road to Windermere. At Troutbeck Bridge we decide to take a shortcut: this one kilometer at 17% hurts a lot after the climbs earlier this day. The last part to Kendal we ride over narrow roads through an almost abandoned area. At last we arrive at the rather boring camp site north of Kendal.
Day 9: Kendal > Muker (67 km)
We face a strong headwind all day long. From Kendal we go eastwards and cross the M6 to Sedbergh. On this first part of our trip we have to climb two very steep hills without any reason (why do they construct roads this way?). Today’s maximum gradient is “just” 20%, but even “fit Rudi” gets aching legs. Still he manages to be faster than me, which depresses me. From Sedbergh on the landscape becomes rougher: we’re back in the Pennines again. The Calf (677 m) dominates the landscape. Hardly anyone lives around here.
From the pass summit (300 m) we descend in a northeasterly direction and turn right onto a narrow road to Pendragon Castle. This 12th century castle is now a beautiful ivy-grown ruin, with old trees and merry sheep around it and bold hills at the background. A really nice spot! After a photo shoot we descent to Kirkby Stephen (200 m) followed by a climb to 500 m with full headwind. This up-and-down thing has been going on all day. But, I must admit: the sun is shining and there’s lots to see.
The descent to Keld and Thwaite is very special. Swaledale is one of the prettiest places I have ever been. We pitch our tent in Muker where some local folks made a camping out of a grass strip directly next to the road. It is very primitive. But we are lucky: the beer is excellent in the nearby pub.
Day 10: Muker > Pately Bridge (67 km)
This morning we have no time for a relaxed warming-up. At Twaite we have to climb steeply to the Buttertubs Pass (526 m). The Buttertubs are slate columns rising from deep in the ground. This time I arrive first at the top and continue right away along the Lovely Seat (675 m). Meanwhile all the climbs make my legs hurt. I cannot cycle 15% for more than a few hundred meters before halting to take care of my aching legs.
The main town in Wensleydale, Hawes, attracts many tourists. The average age must be at least 85 years. From Hawes, we have to get a few hundred meters higher before going down to the south. We cycle through the picturesque village of Kettlewell, where we buy something to drink in the local “Winkel van Sinkel” (i.e. the Dutch expression for a small 1950’s-style shop where they used to sell almost anything).
The last part of today’s route is a busy road neglecting all contour lines. No wonder that we are tired when we arrive in Pately Bridge. Actually, we are tired of the continuous up-and-down cycling between dales and hills. The campsite is boring but well-equipped. It takes more than five minutes before I dare to get under the very hot shower. With my skin almost burned, I dive into the tent.
Day 11: Pately Bridge > Brompton-On-Swale (59 km)
We have several steep hills for breakfast before we descent to Fountains Abbey. Long ago it was one of Europe’s largest monasteries. It was founded in 1132 and extended in the subsequent centuries. In 1539 Henry VIII thought it would be jolly good idea to destruct all monasteries in the kingdom, amongst which this one, and so the decay began. Yet much of the abbey is still standing. It is not hard to imagine how big the buildings once must have been. The cathedral, living spaces and water mill are all located next to a little stream which source is nearby. Unfortunately the sunlight is too sharp to be able to take good pictures. And we can’t wait for evening light conditions.
Today’s route via Winksley, Grewelthorpe, Masham, and Patrick Brompton is far from attractive. Near the barracks of Catterick Garrisson it is even busy. Although it is May it is already bloody hot; my ears and arm are getting burned by the sun. I buy a far too big bottle of sun cream smelling like coconut. Richmond is a nice town, with a market place on the spot where in 1071 Richmond Castle must have looked impressive. Now all what remains are some walls and the beautiful 12th century tower. The neat and dull campsite is located some five kilometers east of Richmond in Brompton-On-Swale. We manage to find a local pub in the shabby village. Outside hooligan-like guys play a local game in which they throw large metal rings.
Day 12: Brompton-On-Swale > Durham (73 km)
We get up late and depart after 11.30 am. We know that we have seen the better part of Northern England, so why bother cycling onwards? Next cycling holiday we sure have to improve our planning. Anyway, today we can go north to Durham either by going westwards or eastwards of the M1. The westward option looks rather hilly so we pick the easier eastward route. We find our way between Darlington, Teesside International Airport and Stockton-On-Tees. It is less dense populated that we’d expected, but to say it is beautiful… not really.
Near Sedgeby Racecourse we see a gipsy enclave active in the “horse business”. It reminds me of Brad Pitt’s funny presence as a quick-tempered horse trader in the 2000 movie Snatch. In Sedgeby I manage to fall off the bike while standing still – the result of forgetting to click my shoes off the pedals. Hmm… Next we move to Durham. The campsite, some six kilometers north of Durham, is situated on a 12th century monastery and nowadays a ruin. A sign states that tents are not allowed, but when we check the owner, he says this rule is only intended to scare off the local drinking youth.
Day 13: Durham (day off)
We have one day left before returning to IJmuiden by ferry. So we decide to explore Durham. When I was younger I had seen pictures of the beautiful cathedral, and I want to see it with my two own eyes. The old, compact city center is unique, with a fortress and the cathedral majestically on a hill in the meandering river Wear, on which people are rowing at a slow pace. We walk along the quay, take pictures of old tombstones, and climb stairs. Apparently the rest of the day is so insignificant that I can’t remember what we did. What I do recall though is eating curry for dinner. It was a lousy day.
Day 14: Durham > Newcastle (52 km)
Today the road leads us through the densely populated areas between Durham and Newcastle. I cannot recommend this. For cyclists Gateshead is hell. The busy main roads lack shoulders, cycling lanes or side roads which would make cycling a little safer. On the northern side of the River Tyne, i.e. in Newcastle, cycling conditions improve. We eat and drink in a pub near a marina. Next we join a fanatical cycling lady in a yellow coat. On this part of the Coast2Coast route the cycling paths are littered with broken glass. Fortunately, we don’t have a flat tire with the boat in sight. It’s time to go home.