Kielder Water on the England/Scotland border is a giant outdoor art gallery and perfect for exploration by bike.
Last year the final stretch of the Lakeside Way at Kielder Water was finished making it possible for the first time to cycle all the way around the shore of the largest man-made lake in northern Europe.
You can start at any point on the lake. The Tower Knowe visitor centre is the southernmost tip so the easiest place for most people to get to but Kielder village at the northern end is the lake’s capital as such and makes a better base if you’re there for a night or two.
The multi-user path – which means its used by walkers, runner, wheelchair users and horse riders too – is well signposted throughout. Since its pretty obvious what you’re cycling around anyway (cycle clockwise and keep the water on your right) it’s very hard to get lost leaving you free to enjoy the views without constant map-checking.
Setting off from Kielder the first section of the track is among the newest and it’s not long before you get your first views of the lake – and an impression of the terrain that lies ahead. The track is well surfaced and easy to cycle for both touring and mountain bikes but while it includes no major inclines it’s forever dipping up and down and twisting and turning like a roller coaster. By the end you may be starting to feel the strain especially if, like me, you’re towing your son on a tag-along bike.
I have to say that at times I wondered how much effort Bertie was putting in behind me. I suspect he was more mascot than co-pilot. We both loved all the weird and wonderful artworks strategically placed all along the route. They provided great staging posts, bags of interest – and a good excuse for me to take a breather.
The first one we came across was called Silvas Capitalis and takes the form of a giant head made from timber. You can walk through the mouth and up into the brains and then peer out through the eyes. About half-way along the northern shore we paused again at Robin’s Hut from which you can look out over the lake towards its sister sculpture, Freya’s Cabin. Some artworks have a practical as well as aesthetic purpose. Entering Belvedere from behind it feels like you’re going into the Big Brother diary room and, inside, a narrow slit of a window gives the impression of a bird hide. Through it you can see a jetty which reveals its purpose – as a shelter and waiting room for the ferry. The good news is that the ferry takes bikes which opens all sorts of novel boat/bike combinations – and provides an escape route if the weather deteriorates or you’re flaking.
From Belvedere the track heads gently downhill into an inlet and across a bridge over the Belling Burn and then up along a gentle incline to The Belling that, but for a narrow neck of land, would be an islet. Leave your bike and pick your way through the bracken along a waymarked path towards our favourite artwork of all, Wave Chamber. It takes the form of a conical, dry stone-built hut with wooden door. Step inside, allow a minute or two for your eyes to adjust to the darkness then look down to the floor. You will see see a magical image of rippling water which is projected into the hut via a pinhole camera arrangement.
At the dam you have a choice. Either cycle along the top of it (and make the lakeside route completely off-road) or, take our lead, and continue east to Hawkhope and, via a farm track, to Falstone. After so much novelty it’s a nice change to come across such a traditional village complete with church, pub and first-rate café. A perfect lunch stop, then. If you fancy another wander on foot then we recommend the Stell artwork which, bizarrely, is a sheep pen containing furniture you’d expect to find in a sitting room. All of it – including cushions – is made from stone!
Turn right at the t-junction in Falstone and then right at the main road (but not busy) for a short climb to the southern end of the dam at which point you can get back to the track. Tower Knowe acts as the welcome point for visitors to Kielder. As well as a café, there’s an interesting display and films about the reservoir’s history and some models of the lake. Shortly afterwards you have another choice. Nosing east into the lake is the Bull Crag peninsula. You can either cut it off or – for the sake of completeness and as we did – go around the edge. The path is particularly up and down here and this, combined with the number of gates you need to pass through makes for frequent dismounting and slow progress. You get a glow of satisfaction – and a clear idea of your progress – when you descend to Freya’s Cabin and remember seeing it from afar earlier in the day.
For a mid-afternoon stop you can’t do better than Leaplish Waterside Park, the main holiday centre on the lake. If you have a child – or just a playful companion – with you then allow plenty of time to have a game of crazy golf on a course that doubles up as an artwork and takes the form of a stylised map of Kielder. There’s also a playground, birds of prey centre, modern pub with great views over the water and, on the approach to Leaplish, hides where you can search for – and probably spot as we did – red squirrels. Alternatively, just crash out with your water bottle on the grassy bank beside the jetty. We were there on a Sunday in August and it was remarkably quiet. We had the golf course to ourselves and, while en route, only came across other cyclists every 20 minutes or so. Northumberland is often called Britain’s best kept secret and – from our experience – I’d say that Kielder was the best kept secret in Northumberland.
North of Leaplish the route passes over striking 50-metre span Lewisburn Bridge which curves in an elegant arc, its timber deck hanging from steel posts. The final two artworks are Mirage – which looks like lots of CDs hanging from the trees – and the totem pole-like Kielder Column.
On our ride this was the point at which the weather took a turn for the worse. Rain pelted down and Bertie was soon spattered in mud from my back wheel from helmet to toe. “Keep your eyes closed!” I advised, instructing him to open them only to read signs that I couldn’t because my specs were obscured.
This is what father and son bonding is all about – as I explained to my son as I hosed him down in the shower in the youth hostel as soon as we got back. But however you cycle around Kielder and whoever you’re with it’s a ride to savour.
Distance: 27 miles.
Time: Full day.
Star at the roundabout beside Kielder Castle. Take the exit that leads steeply downhill and past the Anglers Arms. At a t-junction turn left and then almost immediately right down a track throughout Viaduct Wood. Emerging at a road turn left over a bridge and then turn right to pick up the Lakeside Way. It winds its way up and around a sewage works and then hugs the northern shore of Bakethin Reservoir and later Kielder Water. The next time you need to think about orientation is at the car park to the north of the dam. Pass by it and continue in the same direction. Take care at the farm at Hawkhope. Don’t speed on ahead but turn right just past the farm and down a farm track that leads across fields and becomes a lane that leads to Falstone. At the t-junction in the village turn right and then right again at the junction with the main road. Just after the dam cross over the road and pick up the Lakeside Way again. After a sailing centre either turn right to go around Bull Crag or keep ahead. The two routes join up at Freya’s Cabin. Pass through Leaplish and proceed north to the Matthew’s Linn car park where the route swings away from the lake briefly to pass under the road and cross Lewisburn Bridge. Pass back under the road and shortly after the Mirage artwork turn left at a t-junction of tracks then right just before the road to proceed to Kielder village. At the end of the track turn right onto the road then first left down the track through Viaduct Wood to the village centre.
The Angler’s Arms, Kielder village, NE48 1ER. Tel 01434 250072.
Dukes Pantry Tea Room, within Kielder Castle, NE48 1ER. Tel 01434 250100.
Falstone Old School Tea Room, Falstone, NE48 1AA. Tel 01434 240459.
The Blackcock Inn, Falstone, NE48 1AA. Tel 01434 240200.
The Pheasant Inn, Stannersburn, NE48 1DD. Tel 01434 240382.
Café on the Water, Tower Knowe Visitors Centre, NE48 1BX. Tel 01434 240436.
The Boat Inn, Leaplish, NE48 1BT. Tel 01434 250294.4 240 459
The terminals for the ferry are at Tower Knowle and Leaplish where you can book tickets in advance. Alternatively, call 01434 251000. Always check the ferry timetable before setting off. You can also board or disembark at Belvedere.
Purple Mountain, Kielder village, NE48 1ER. Tel 01434 250532.
The Bike Place, Unit 3 Rivermead, Kielder, NE48 1HX. Tel 01434 250457.
Weblink: http://www.visitkielder.com/site/things-to-do/cycling (includes map).