A tale of two rivers

Artworks, sandy beaches and towers of all types line this varied coastal route in a rejuvenated corner of north-east England.

Wearmouth Bridge, Sunderland

Wearmouth Bridge, Sunderland

In a region renowned for rivalry South Shields has split loyalties. Ten miles to the west up the Tyne lies Newcastle and a similar distance to the south on the coast sits Sunderland. I grew to love Newcastle from working there but always had a blind spot towards its rival city partly because of the derogatory remarks my colleagues said about it. How wrong they were on the evidence of this ride along the Two Rivers Cycleway, the best I’ve done this year. In fact, the southern end turned out to be my favourite.

The coastline is a case study in regeneration and, I suspect, has never looked more spick and span. I started my ride at a spindly red lighthouse at South Shields which marks the mouth of the Tyne. Here work is underway to rebuild the sea defences and, in the process, create a new beach area and promenade.

Marsden Rock

Marsden Rock

Much of the route is off-road including the first few miles. To start with, however, the cycle path just runs alongside the main road with a grassy sward separating the cyclist from the cliffs. All a bit frustrating. I diverted briefly to have a look at the Souter lighthouse. Opened in 1871 and now owned by the National Trust, it’s located on a headland that was the site of the Marsden coal mining village and, as such, was the first lighthouse to use electric light power by a coal-fired generator. This stretch of coastline was once the most dangerous in the UK with an average of 44 shipwrecks per mile. They’re very proud of the lighthouse around here: it figures on the logo of both the primary school and dental practice.

Sunderland City Council is spending over £5m improving the city’s seafront with more than half of this sum dedicated to Seaburn where new granite steps on the promenade and seating have been completed. The existing shelter is to be redeveloped into a bar, café and restaurant complex. A little further south, Roker beach is also undergoing improvement and restoration. I couldn’t resist a pedal past all the fishermen along the long curve of the pier to the lighthouse both of which are included in the works.

Shipyard cranes, River Wear

Shipyard cranes, River Wear

Around the corner the sea became the River Wear and I suddenly entered another world. The contrast in surroundings would have been all the more dramatic a few decades ago. I had swapped golden sands for a pair of dockside cranes. The packed marina in the sunshine soon brightened things up, though, looking as if it had been transplanted from the south of France.

At the site of the former canoe club trees are protected by fences made of paddles and steel rope while a door frame sculpture has two further paddles leaning up against it. Nice touches and a hint of the quirky street art that punctuates the rest of the ride. The Wear’s industrial past is evinced by giant concrete nuts and bolts and other shipbuiding materials lying on the riverside. I also passed a steel sculpture of the metamorphosis of a shipyard crane into a tree entitled Shadows in Another Light. An inscription below read dramatically: “Follow the footsteps to see what these people saw and then pass from shadow into light.” Another artwork was a ruined house in which all the furniture and fittings as well as the coat hanging on the back of the door are made from recycled stone. Nearby a similar creation depicts a telescope, two maps, a book, Gladstone bag and wicker basket also made from stone.

This stretch of the river was once flanked by 10 shipyards as pinpointed on a sign outside the new Sir Tom Cowie Campus, part of the University of Sunderland and one of the new buildings on the riverside. The freshness and peacefulness of the National Glass Centre next door seemed so far away from the grime and noise of this landscape’s previous usage. Sad that I didn’t have time to make it all the way to another of the city’s newer structures, the Stadium of Light football ground, I turned back at the Wearmouth bridge (which looks a bit like the Tyne Bridge, dare I say?) and returned the way I came with a couple of variations on the theme.

Whitburn windmill

Whitburn windmill

One of them was a map reading error at Roker which happily diverted me through Whitburn, a pretty village set around a green with pond and colourful flower beds which otherwise I’d have missed. Afterwards I passed two fields with grazing horses and a windmill in a wildflower meadow. It felt like I was in the middle of Olde England rather than a mile or two from one of the north’s great industrial cities. Thinking back it had been an afternoon of towers of all sorts. As well as the windmill I’d passed shipbuilding cranes, a mast on the North Pier, three lighthouses, and a stone memorial cross in memory of St Bede.

Sunderland had certainly made an impression but, before I set off home, it seemed rude not to give South Shields some attention as well especially as there was an appealing cycle route ringing the town and leading down to the Tyne. I had a look at the Customs House – built in the 1860s and today a theatre, cinema and art gallery – and arrived at the ferry terminal just as the service to North Shields was departing. Beside me the Spirit of South Shields sculpture (this had been a very arty ride) harboured a ship safely in one arm while raising the other in greeting.

I’d seen why Sunderland must make a fine finale to the Sea to Sea cycle route. The dunes at Littlehaven beach, with an ice cream in my hand, were the perfect ending to my little outing.

Roker lighthouse

Fact file

Distance: 20 miles

Time: 2 hours.

Directions:

Sign outside The Bungalow Cafe

Sign outside The Bungalow Cafe

Park at the Littlehaven Beach car park (charge). Proceed south along Sea Road then, at junction next to yachting lake, turn left onto off-road cycle path along the promenade. This soon bears right to become National Cycle Network Route 1 which runs alongside the A183 past Souter lighthouse. After Whitburn windmill turn left at the dental practice, bear right and at crossroads, turn left to pass the new academy. Bear right past garages then push through width restriction on the left and onto the coastal path. Rejoin the cycle path running alongside the southbound A183.

At Roker beach, just before The Bungalow Café, drop down towards Roker Amusements then turn sharp right to the lower promenade to pass the Smugglers pub. Go around Sunderland Yacht Club then continue towards Marine Activity Centre. At a BP petrol station turn left to stay on signed NCN Route 1 and proceed past the National Glass Centre to the Wearmouth bridge. Return the same way (staying on the A183 if you want to visit Whitburn village).

As you approach South Shields keep to the cycle path beside the A183 to the roundabout with Bents Park Rd. Keep ahead at roundabout but using the cycle path along the edge of the park. Where the path ends turn right then immediately left up Sea Way. Keep ahead on Maudline Row (traffic-free). At the end cross over main road and continue ahead down the Two Rivers Cycleway signed to the pedestrian ferry. Pass to the rear of Wicks then, at Asda, turn right (still on cycle path) up to roundabout. (Turn left here for Customs House). Keep ahead (and on road) at roundabout up Ferry Rd. After the Alum Ale House turn left down Coble Landing. Follow riverside path over a wharf and ahead onto an estate road. At t-junction turn left down Long Row which becomes Wapping St. Turn left on B1344 back to Littlehaven.

Map: here

Eating:

Whitburn 1

Time for a cuppa in Whitburn

Water’s Edge bar, restaurant and function room, Marsden. 0191 427 5504. Also see Marsden Grotto, below.

National Trust tea room at Souter lighthouse, Marsden. See below.

The Village Café, Front St, Whitburn. 0191-529 2603. whitburncaterers.co.uk.

Toney Minchella ice cream and refreshments, Whitburn. 0191 456 6125.

The Bungalow Café, Roker. 0191 519 6660.

The Smugglers bar, Marine Walk, Roker. 0191 514 3844 and the-smugglers.com.

MarinaVista Ristorante, Sunderland marina. 0191 510 0600 and marina-vista.co.uk.

Brasserie at the National Glass Centre (see below).

Bike hire:

Available every day from Sports Recycler, a South Tyneside Council social enterprise operating from the foreshore office of the amphitheatre (which also houses the Tourist Information Centre) on the South Shields seafront. Only adult bikes available. From late July-early Sept ring 0191 455 6313 and at other times 0191 427 4615.

Littlehaven beach, South Shields

Littlehaven beach, South Shields

Advertisements

Mines, all mines

There are reminders of the north-east’s coal mining heritage strung all along this route from Seaham to Hartlepool.

Crimdon Dene

Crimdon Dene

A gangster bludgeons his brother’s killer to death then hauls him into a coal spoil skip and watches, smirking, as it creeks along an aerial ropeway and empties out to sea. The final scene of the gritty 1971 thriller, Get Carter, starring Michael Caine was shot in east Durham and depicts a desecrated coastline utterly at odds with the sort of environmental controls that exist today. Waste from coal mining turned the sea black and created a thick crust on the shore which has taken a long time to clear. Regenerating the region is just as challenging but already well underway as I find out on this journey close to one of the UK’s least visited shorelines. The tourism authority call it “the heritage coast”. It could equally be “the forgotten coast” but never again the Get Carter coast.

I catch the train from Hartlepool to Seaham to allow for a one-way linear ride. Once at the heart of the Durham coal mining industry, Seaham looks pretty spick and span these days with Seaham Hall leading the way. Today a five star hotel, it was once the 18th century home of the third Marquis of Londonderry who built the giant harbour for the shipping of coal from collieries owned by his wife near Durham city. A new housing estate on the site of a colliery (the last in Seaham to close in 1993) looks like an artists impression come to life and includes 30 cast iron sculptures inspired by single cell organisms that symbolise the start of new life and the town’s regeneration. Other evocations of Seaham’s industrial past include sculptures depicting the Vane Tempest colliery and three miners.

IMG_1130

Seaham

An old statue of the sixth Marquess stands on the now trim green in front of the Londonderry Institute. There’s a new shopping centre and, on my way out of town, I pass the new premises for Durham County Council as well as many shiny commercial and industrial units with plenty of offices still to let. I divert to have a look at Nose’s Point. This used to be where spoil from the former Dawdon colliery immediately behind was dumped into the sea. Bizarrely, an affect of the disposal has been to protect the cliffs, the only place in Britain where magnesian limestone and the unique grassland habitat it supports meets the sea.

IMG_1135

Kinley Tower

From here it is a steady but gentle climb away from the coast. I avoid the main road by taking a bridleway that runs parallel. Another diversion takes me to Kinley Tower, a mid-18th century mock medieval look-out house built as a folly eye-catcher and now a holiday cottage. My last sign of Seaham is a mobile phone mast that in these parts could easily be mistaken for the last pithead wheel.

I then join a cycle track that runs along the former course of the railway opened in 1833 to transport coal to Seaham harbour from South Hetton. The route wends it way below electricity pylons and over a moonscape of low rounded mounds that are all that remain of the Hawthorn mine that saw South Hetton’s population soar, gold rush style, from 263 in 1831 to 4,000 just 10 years later. Despite being part of the National Cycle Network navigation is something of a challenge. I’m lost at the end of a road to nowhere in a Bermuda triangle of roundabouts which were presumably built in anticipation of development that is still waiting to happen. It feels like I’m in some sort of science fiction movie.

IMG_1155At Haswell I switch tracks to follow the old mainline south. Opened in 1835, the route was built by George Stephenson to transport coal to the newly opened West Hartlepool docks but never stretched further than Haswell because of cost restrictions. It closed in 1980. The village is the birthplace of Tommy Simpson, the first British rider to make his mark in professional European cycling. Riding for the Peugeot team in the 1960s, “Mr Tom”, as he was known, won the world championship road race and was the first Englishman to wear the yellow jersey in the Tour de France.

Tuthill Pond

Tuthill Pond

I don’t quite match Tommy’s pace but from this point my speed picks up considerably. Ah, this is more like it – and much more similar to the sort of old railway lines I’m used to. I initially cycle through tunnels of arching trees and bushes and then along a novel boardwalk across the long Tuthill Pond which was created by the removal of railway tracks. Crested newts, water voles and the carniverous water beetles all thrive in the algae covered waters. I pass the old platform at Shotton Colliery but there are few other obvious cues that tell me that I’m on an old railway or, because most of the line is in a cutting, where I am at all. A bridge formed of grand columns over the track nearing Crimdon catches the eye, though.

All that remains of Hart station is its footbridge which, with a trough for bicycles wheels running beside the steps and leading to a winding path, is the perfect access to Crimdon. I’m glad I make the diversion as Crimdon is the highlight of the route, a stretch of coastline as appealing as the sands of Durham’s neighbouring counties, North Yorkshire and Northumberland. I can see why the spot was so popular with miners and their families in the inter-war period. The tide is right out and sun makes its final shy appearance of the day, sending shafts of light across the dunes. Southwards I gaze towards the long pier at Hartlepool and I make a mental note to walk to it from here another day.

Once back over the bridge it’s a straight-forward matter of following the National Cycle Network signs through the suburbs of Hartlepool. To finish I have a quick look around the marina and, beside it, Hartlepool’s Maritime Experience billed as “the north’s premier maritime attraction” complete with the oldest British warship afloat in the world. This is regeneration with a capital ‘R’. The Seaham area may never be able to compete as a tourist destination but has more than enough to interest and exercise the curious cyclist.

Hartlepool Marina

Hartlepool Marina

Fact file

Distance: 22 miles.

Time: 3 hours.

Directions:

IMG_1192

Confusing spelling at Hart station footbridge

From Seaham station cross over the rails then turn left on a lane signed to Seaham Hall. Turn sharp right to pick up a new cyclepath through an estate, crossing a minor road. Emerge at the coast road, the A182. Turn right to pass the harbour and Byron Place shopping centre. When the road bears away from the coast fork left down a track signed to Nose’s Point. Return to the road and turn left and up. Continue ahead at new roundabout for the Spectrum Business Park. Just before the next roundabout turn left onto a signed bridleway which bears sharp right past a farm. Follow the bridleway parallel to the main road. Pass through another farm and emerge at the Pemberton Arms. Cross the road and go up a short, steep cycle path to the roundabout with the A19. Cross above the A19 and, at the next roundabout turn right. After 100 yards turn left onto the signed National Cycle Network Route 1. After a mile at a t-junction of tracks turn left. At another t-junction with an unused road turn right, right at the roundabout and then, before reaching a second roundabout, turn left (easy to miss) back onto the cycle track. Pass between gorse bushes then turn left into South Hetton. Emerging beside The Grey Horse convenience store turn left then, after 100 yards, right to rejoin NCN Route 1. After 1½ miles at a wood turn left to join another railway track still on Route 1. Just after some stables cross over the A181 at Wingate (staying on Route 1) and, shortly afterwards, fork right to join Route 14. At the end of the line at Hart push bike over the railway footbridge then cycle along narrow path (bikes permitted) to Crimdon. Return to the footbridge, cross back over and, at the road, turn left to follow the Route 1 signs into Hartlepool town centre. Just before reaching the A1048 turn right, still on Route 1. Pass the football club and Morrisons, go over at the lights and then turn left to the station.

Map: here

Getting there: Park at Hartlepool station for £2.50 per day. A single fare from Hartlepool to Seaham is £4.50. Trains go roughly on the hour at weekends and journey time is 15 mins. Each service takes two bikes but you can’t book spaces. Board at the door marked with the bike logo.

Pubs and grub:

Lickity Split Creamery & Juice Bar, 13 North Terrace, Seaham, SR7 7EU. 0800 917 5531 and lickety-split.co.uk. Renowned 1950s-style ice cream parlour serving 15 different flavours.

Pemberton Arms, Stockton Rd, Cold Hesledon, SR7 8RN. 01915 812791. Route passes right by.

Lots of choice in Seaham and central Hartlepool.

IMG_1159

Railway path at Wingate.

Water, water everywhere

Five reservoirs, quiet lanes, an old railway path and two attractive villages are the highlights of this peaceful ride in Co Durham.

IMG_2189e

Blackton Reservoir

England has another lake district. It’s not as spectacular as the one in Cumbria but is just as peaceful, better suited to cycling and all five lakes – or reservoirs, to be exact – can be visited in half a day on a bike. I’m talking about Baldersdale and Lunedale, north-west of Barnard Castle.

I began in Cotherstone. Remains of daffodils lined either side of the brook which wends its way down the long green underneath a tiny footbridge and then under a small, humped back bridge at the end. Soon I was away from the houses, out in the open and heading for the first reservoir. A flat outcrop of rock beckoned to my left. It’s called Goldsborough Rigg but ought really to have table top in its name. A footpath – the Pennine Way, no less ¬– leads the short distance from the road to the summit but, though tempted, it was too early in the ride to be perambulating so I pressed on. To the right I passed the deep gouge of a floodwater channel and then Hury Reservoir House before reaching the start of water world, Hury Reservoir itself, stretching out in front of me.

IMG_2154

Near Goldsborough Rigg

All around was still and quiet and stayed so for the whole ride. I only encountered a single walker on my outgoing route and barely any cars since the lane I followed is a dead end – but not for cyclists, thankfully. I pushed my bike through a farm to join a bridleway that led me up to a superb vantage point over Baldersdale. I saw a castle-like building perched on the reservoir dam and could so easily pick out my route ahead that I barely needed a map for the next stretch. I passed over two bridges to the shore of Blackton Reservoir where I had sandwiches followed by a quick peep inside the bird hide overlooking a nature reserve. So much for wigeon, tufted duck and whopper swans; the log book recorded sightings of a pterodactyl and Loch Ness monster! Balderdash in Baldersdale.

IMG_2228

Cotherstone

You wouldn’t know it from the outside but the farm here, Low Birk Hat, has a claim to fame. It was home to Hannah Hauxwell, a hill farmer, who worked alone and without power or running water for 50 years until her retirement in 1988. Her unbelievably harsh subsistence was portrayed in a series of Yorkshire Television documentaries in the 1970s. Hannah would barely recognise her property now. Private and fully restored, the farm has a nice conservatory at the back, skylights in the roof and satellite dish. I can’t imagine the current owners have ever had to break the ice on the reservoir for water as Hannah did back in her day. What was once a rough track is now a smooth Tarmac lane providing an ideal right of way up to the road. This was one bridleway gamble that worked out.

IMG_2165

Descent into Lunedale

I paused half way up the ascent to have a look at Hannah’s barn somewhat grandly designated as a visitors centre. Accessed via a winding boardwalk, the building contains simply some old farm implements hanging on the walls and three panels. They explain how the adjacent upland hay meadow is one of the rarest natural habitats in the country and, for this reason, is a Site of Special Scientific Interest. In her biography Hannah wrote of Baldersdale: “To me there’s nowhere like it and never will be. This is my life – my world.” Her soul seems even more embedded in these Durham dales than James Herriot’s was in the Yorkshire Dales but the locations of Hannah Hauxwell country are much more discreet in keeping with her way of life.

In danger of becoming a reservoir bagger I diverted briefly to cycle along the dam of Balderhead Reservoir and then resumed the planned route by heading over a moor, the highest point of the ride at 1,556ft, and into Lunedale. A farm nestling in a hollow looked so lonely and surrounded by empty moorland I felt that I was much further away from civilisation than I actually was. Two mysterious concrete sighting towers with what look like iron handles on top of them were erected to aid construction of water mains leading from Selset Reservoir. I swept down through a forest and emerged at old road sign denoting the former North Riding of Yorkshire which used to extend this far. Fittingly, the landscape has the feel of a remote border post about it.

IMG_2177

Blackton Reservoir

My next stop, the Grassholme visitor centre, explained more about the water supply network. Not surprisingly, reservoirs partly owe their location to the high volume of rainfall in the area. If this point has already been driven home on your ride then the centre is the ideal sanctuary. The small exhibition room is as cosy as a hostel common room and has a great view over the reservoir and, on the other side of the block, is a café and shop.

When Hury and Grassholme opened in the 1880s and 1915 respectively the Tees Valley Railway was already well established. It closed in the 1960s and now provides an off-road alternative from Mickleton back to the start. Be warned: the number of gates en route makes the line more of a stopping than express service. The best bit is the unexpected Balder Viaduct over a deep river valley near Cotherstone. It was good to be off-road but I was sad to exchange the untamed wilds of the dales for dog walking country.

Romaldkirk church

Romaldkirk church

The railway path halts briefly at Romaldkirk since part of the former line crosses private land but the diversion into the village is anything but a hardship. In fact, Romaldkirk is a real gem and it would have been a great pity to have missed it boasting, as it does, stone cottages around three greens, a mini-cathedral of a church, pair of stocks, water pump and two pubs. The watercourse nearby is called Beer Brook. This is my kind of place. With just two miles of the route remaining I could afford to relax and linger as long as I liked. Perfect timing at the conclusion of a perfect ride.

Fact file

Distance: 18 miles.

Time: 3 hours.

Directions:

IMG_2168From the green in the centre of Cotherstone cycle north through the village and fork left signed to ‘Hury and Blackton Reservoirs’. Keep following these signs all the way to Clove Lodge Farm. Where the road ends continue ahead along a bridleway passing through the farm via two gates. Follow the bridleway (a distinct track) beside a dry stone wall up to the brow of a hill and descend into the valley. Pass over two bridges then bear sharp right along a grassy track to Low Birk Hat Farm. Bear left and through a gate and then cycle up a Tarmac lane passing Hannah’s Barn to the road. To check out Balderhead Reservoir turn left or, to carry on, turn right. Soon turn left signed ‘Grassholme 2’. Pass through a gate and over a cattle grid then descend sharply through a forest to Grassholme Reservoir. At a crossroads turn right (unsigned). Pass the Grassholme visitor’s centre and café and head towards Mickleton. Shortly before reaching the village, leave the route and descend via steps to the right to join the railway path towards Romaldkirk. After a very steep incline the track reaches the road. Turn left and into Romaldkirk. At a crossroads in the village centre turn right and right again (signed ‘Balderdale, Hury and Hunderthwaite’) to rejoin the railway path. Follow it over the viaduct and across a road then, at the next junction, turn left onto the road into Cotherstone.

Map: here

Pubs and grub:

IMG_2169The Fox and Hounds Country Inn, Cotherstone. 01883 650241.
The Red Lion, Cotherstone. 01883 650236.
The Crown, Mickleton. 01833 640381.
The Rose and Crown, Romaldkirk. 01833 650213.
The Kirk Inn, Romaldkirk. 01833 650260.
The Coach House coffee shop at Egglestone Hall. 01833 650553.

Art for cycling’s sake

Kielder Water on the England/Scotland border is a giant outdoor art gallery and perfect for exploration by bike.

Kielder Water & Forest Park

Gowanburn

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.

Kielder Castle

Kielder Castle

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.

Silvas Capitalis artwork 1

Silvas Capitalis artwork

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!

Freya's Cabin artwork

Freya’s Cabin artwork

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.

Mapping artwork - and crazy golf!

Mapping artwork – and crazy golf!

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.

Bertie Kirkwood at journey's end - outside Kielder Youth Hostel

Bertie Kirkwood at journey’s end – outside Kielder Youth Hostel

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.

Fact file

Distance: 27 miles.

Time: Full day.

Directions:

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 IMG_0469Water. 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.

Eating:

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

Ferry:

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.

Bike hire:

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).

Lewisburn Bridge

Lewisburn Bridge

Border lands

Compare and contrast castles on either side of the North Yorkshire/County Durham border on this varied and interesting ride.

Whorlton suspension bridge

Whorlton suspension bridge

I love Richmond – and I’m not the only one. It’s been named by Country Life as one of the top 10 places to live in the UK and, in 2009, as Great Town of the Year by a group of academics and town planners. The castle, the River Swale and the huge cobbled square where I parked merit a few hours in themselves but, sadly, on this visit I couldn’t linger as I had many miles – and a fair few hills – in front of me on a journey to Richmond’s equivalent in Co Durham, Barnard Castle.

One of the biggest hills came right at the start and took me past woods and up to the first of several points of interest, the hamlet of Kirby Hill. Around the green are several old buildings including, Dakyn House, a listed 16th century almshouse which, after renovation, was re-opened by local MP William Hague three years ago.

Butter market, Barnard Castle

Butter market, Barnard Castle

I then passed through the villages of Gayles, Dalton and Newsham, keeping the high moors on my left, before arriving in the biggest in the series, Barningham. The Milbank Arms closed a few years ago and is now private house and the former post office is now Post Cottage with a peculiar green telephone box in front of it. The village also features a grand arched well, quoits pitch, hall and tall chapel set back from the road.

Soon after Barningham the landscape changes. Suddenly I was out in the open with broader, more Pennine-type views. The route goes past the medieval Scargill Castle, purchased as a ruin by the present owner, an archaeologist, as a wedding present for his wife in 1999 and currently undergoing restoration and conversion into a luxury holiday home. The place certainly needed some TLC. It was used by the Home Guard for target practice in the second world war!

Bridge over River Greta in Rutherford

Bridge over River Greta in Rutherford

At the bridge over the river in Rutherford I came across vintage cars participating in the Beamish Run coming from the opposite direction. Named after the open air museum where it starts, the Run included 150 cars and some military vehicles all at least 50 years old and mainly from the 1930s by my reckoning. The convoy provided extra interest as I pedalled onwards towards the A66.

A stretch of this busy trunk road was unavoidable but thankfully only lasted for a quarter of a mile before I was back on a minor road for the final approach to Barnard Castle. The A66 feels like it is the border between Co Durham and North Yorkshire but the boundary actually lies largely to the south of the road. Further confusing the geography the signs hereabouts refer to Richmondshire which, while it sounds like a county, is a local government district within North Yorkshire. The ancient county boundary followed the course of the River Tees which I crossed via the County Bridge with the castle looming imposingly above. Illicit weddings were once held in the centre of the bridge where neither the bishops of Durham or Yorkshire would object. Once firmly and finally in Co Durham there were many subtle reminders that I was in another region. This is the land of the the Newcastle Building Society and the men wearing black and white football shirts.

Barnard Castle

Barnard Castle

I had my sandwiches on the lawn in front of the entrance to the castle which gives the town its name. Barnard Castle seems to mimic its cross border twin. Both are gaunt ruins that, perched high above fast-flowing rivers, dominate the surroundings and define their respective towns. The other main building in Barnard Castle is the butter market which has been a town hall, courtroom, lock-up and fire station. Up to the 1930s farmers’ wives sold varied produce around the veranda hence its name.

I began my return with an easy cruise east and past the Bowes Museum towards Whorlton. A sharp, wooded descent from the village brought me to its suspension bridge over the Tees, a little gem of civil engineering reminiscent of Clifton suspension bridge albeit it on a far smaller scale. The original crossing was swept away in a storm in 1829 just four months after its foundation stone had been laid and the replacement – complete with toll keeper’s cottage – was completed two years later.

Aldbrough St John

Aldbrough St John

On the other side I passed the site of Whorlton lido, a swimming spot in the river. No chance of old fashioned water fun these days. The pool closed in 2005 and signs specify in no uncertain terms that the riverbank these days is private. There’s no problem, though, with access at the Stanwick Iron Age fortifications a little further around the route. Dating back to Roman times, today they take the form of a four-mile bund enclosing about 300 hectares. On the day of my visit the bund added topographical interest to an equestrian event – as a good vantage point for spectactors and an extra obstacle for riders.

In the main the landscape is much flatter on the return route compared to the outgoing and I made quick progress down country lanes to Aldbrough St John. The village has an air of importance about it as befits a place or person with a ‘St’ in their name. It boasts two huge greens, one large enough for a football pitch, and the golden crown on top of a white clock outside a house nearby positively gleams.

The last two villages in the trail, Melsonby and Gilling West, have both been put on the map in tragic circumstances in recent years. In March this year, the postmistress of Melsonby post office was murdered in the premises and, in July 2007, Gilling West was hit by flash floods which sent three feet of water gushing through the village. Both incidents seemed so far away on a sunny day.

Olliver Duckett folly, Richmond

Olliver Duckett folly, Richmond

I’d zoomed into Gilling West on the best freewheel of the route. Payback came right at the end of the ride with a stiff ascent to the outskirts of Richmond. Just at the point where I wanted a rest I spotted the perfect place to have one, the Olliver Duckett, a Grade II-listed castellated folly dating back to the 18th century. Built as an eye-catcher for Aske Hall, which I’d passed on my ascent, the folly fortress is accessible only from first floor level and originally formed part of Richmond Castle.

Ain’t nothing like the real thing, though, I mused on my return to the town centre, tired but fulfilled after an absorbing day’s ride and already planning another visit.

View from Richmond Castle tower

View from Richmond Castle tower

Fact file

Distance: 38 miles.

Time: Full day (five hours excluding stops).

Directions:

Leave Richmond via King St just to the side of the Kings Head pub. Pass over two roundabouts and follow the road (the A6108 to Catterick) as it bears right. At the lights turn left signed to Ravenscroft to leave the town.

Whorlton

Whorlton

Just after Whashton Green turn left to and through Kirby Hill and Gayles. Shortly after the Travellers Rest in Dalton as the road bears right turn left signed to Newsham. In the village turn left at a t-junction signed Barningham and Scargill. Pass through both villages and Thwaite and over a bridge to reach the A66. With care cross over and turn right for a quarter of a mile then left on the B6277 to Barnard Castle. At junction with A688 turn right, over County Bridge and up to the butter market. Continue ahead to visit the castle and high street or turn right at roundabout (and begin to follow signs for the National Cycle Network Route 52). Pass the Bowes Museum and through Westwick. At the crossroads in Whorlton turn right to pass through the village and over the suspension bridge.

Turn left at a t-junction signed to Ovington and Wycliffe. At a t-junction beside a small triangular green turn right signed to Hutton Magna. Turn left at next t-junction junction then right just outside Caldwell. Pass through the village and fork left signed to Eppleby. Take the next right turn to pass through Forcett. Turn left a t-junction then, after the sign for Stanwick Camp, take the second right (leaving Route 52 at this point) to Aldbrough St John. In the village turn right to and through Melsonby (and straight over the crossroads in the centre along Moor Rd). With care cross over the A66 following the sign for Richmond and Gilling West. In Gilling go over the crossroads and continue ahead on the B6274 back to Richmond. At the roundabout with the A6108 turn right and retrace your route to the square.

Map: here

Eating:

Hack and Spade, Whashton, DL11 7JL. Tel 01748823721.
Shoulder of Mutton, Kirby Hill, DL11 7JH. Tel 01748 822 772.
Travellers Rest, Dalton, DL11 7HU. Tel 01833 621225.
Stables Café, Barnard Castle, DL12 8LX. Tel 01833 630575.
Café Bowes (at the Bowes Museum), Barnard Castle, DL12 8NP. Tel 01833 690606.
Brownlow Arms, Caldwell, DL11 7QH. Tel 01325 718 471.
The Bridge Inn, Whorlton, Dl12 8XD. Tel 01833 627341.
Stanwick Inn, Aldbrough St John, DL11 7SZ. Tel 01325 374258.
Angel Inn, Gilling West, DL10 5JW. Tel 01748 823811.
White Swan, Gilling West,DL10 5JG.Tel 01748 821123.
Lots of options in Richmond and Barnard Castle.

Pond near Scargill

Pond near Scargill

Trip around the Bay

Sandy beaches line a section of the Tyneside and south Northumberland coast that’s little known to visitors from outside the region.

South Shields beach

South Shields beach

Hoard of happy holidaymakers swarmed over swards of grass in front of the gleaming, white mosque-like dome at Whitley Bay. That was the scene depicted on a Victorian railway poster hanging in my B&B. When I visited one evening recently there were fewer people but as much activity. The funfair had started up, a boy was sailing a kite and skateboarding (at the same time), people were pitching and putting on the links and there were joggers everywhere.

Paint now peals from dome, several other buildings are boarded up and the former outdoor swimming pool is a square of tarmac surrounded by benches and flowerbeds. The big attraction of Whitley Bay for me, though, was that it provided a convenient starting point for an excellent and largely traffic-free coastal bike ride with an equally enjoyable and peaceful return along a former railway line.

St Mary's Lighthouse, Whitley Bay

St Mary’s Lighthouse, Whitley Bay

The first – and most obvious – attraction en route is St Mary’s Lighthouse which is connected to the mainland by a short causeway. Sitting so neatly on its little island with two houses adjacent, the lighthouse looks as picturesque and pristine as if it were part of a model village.

A short distance further on is the village of Seaton Sluice. Its name comes from the sluice erected across the mouth of Seaton Burn by Sir Ralph Delaval, a great landowner who lived nearby in the 17th century. The object was to pent up the waters of the river after the tide had come in before releasing them to flush out the silt and sand from the harbour. Although the idea was sound it didn’t work and, instead, a great cut was made through solid rock in the 1760s to serve as a new harbour entrance. Now it lies abandoned with great sandstone boulders blocking the entrance.

Seaton Sluice

Seaton Sluice

I left my bike beside the road and set off on foot up Holywell Dene in search of Starlight Castle. It was built in 1750 by a later Delaval, Frank, after accepting a bet that he could not construct a home for a lady friend in a day. The name comes from the legend that it was started when the stars were shining and completed by daylight. Now all that remains is an arched window and a scrap of wall but its position – high in trees with a great view down the dene – make it well worth seeking out.

After Seaton Sluice the path weaves its way in and out of the dunes. Around one corner I across a group of monoliths with pictures of cyclists engraved into them between which the sun was setting. Resting on the beach at Blyth I watched two windsurfers and a lifeboat returning to the shore leaving only the jet skiiers out to play. I was ready to head back too. In the distance wind turbines, cranes and other evidence of industry marked the boundary of cycling country.

Starlight Castle near Seaton Sluice

Starlight Castle near Seaton Sluice

Between the road and the beach are lifeguard buildings that, in another guise, formed an anti-aircraft site in the Second World War. It was occupied by the 225th AAA Searchlight Battalion Skylighters from the United States whose purpose was to home friendly aircraft and detect and illuminate enemy aircraft approaching over the North Sea from Norway. In the event no hostile planes were engaged as they turned south before coming in range. However, the battalion’s posting provided good training for its role in the D-Day landings at Omaha Beach. Either side of the bridleway that took me inland were several solid cement buildings. What were other anti-aircraft installations are now pig stys built to last.

The last section of the route followed the course of a disused railway line. As I sped along I rang my bell on the approach to each corner much like trains may once have tooted. As the path narrowed so willow herb brushed my shoulders and I lifted my feet off the pedals to avoid the nettles.

At long last, I came to a point at which the old railway would have joined what is now the only railway line. Above me was an illuminated ‘M’ sign. No: I hadn’t reached MacDonalds but Monkseaton Metro station. I was back in Whitley Bay. A takeaway, though, was not far from my thoughts.

South Shields beach

South Shields beach

Fact file

Distance: 16 miles.

Time
: 1¾ hours.

South Shields beach

South Shields beach

Directions: The outward journey up the coast follows the signed, Sustrans cycle route No 1. Follow path through the links just above Whitley Sands. The official route turns L just before lighthouse but you can carry right up to it if you like. Shortly after a group of masts turn L up East End to Hartley. R at roundabout then fork R down Bay Rd to Seaton Sluice. At junction with A193 turn R, go straight over roundabout then follow path on R into the dunes to Blyth beach. Return south along the A193 leaving road to take bridleway on R immediately after Gloucester Lodge Farm. After entering Lysdon Farm fork immediately L past a house then keep going in direction of the railway and through Seaton Red House Farm. Cross over A190 and turn R and immediately L onto disused railway line back to Whitley Bay.

Whitley Bay

Whitley Bay