The Great North Tour – July 2019

The hottest day so far this year coincided with the annual Andover Wine Friends’ summer party (partly arranged to drink up all the unwanted wine which remained from David’s MW exam wine library) and immediately preceded the first day of our whistle stop tour of the North by train and bike.

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We left the house next morning at 08.25 on our folding bikes, and headed for Andover station, en route to London Waterloo; cycled to London King’s Cross to catch the 11.03 for Leeds, where we sampled M & S’ antipasti and pasta on the platform, before boarding the cross country Settle – Carlisle stopping train, much cherished by the society which fought its closure in 1989 and have maintained its stations and steam paraphernalia in pristine condition ever since. 

 

Every train ran to time and we arrived at Appleby station as planned, and found our curious AirB&B on the Sands, directly alongside the part of the river Eden used to wash the horses on sale at the annual fair. The accommodation had been part of a garage, and was perfectly adequate, if lacking a view and suffering from overly processed croissants… 

 

We soon learned that Sky Sports is available everywhere. The evening entertainment was England beating India in the first round of the cricket world cup, in an all-comers pub at the bottom of Appleby’s elegant and famously wide main street: Boroughgate. Appleby Castle stands at the top of the hill, presiding over this strategic site at the centre of the Eden valley. Half way down is a collection of almshouses created for needy widows (unusually) of the neighbourhood by the independent-minded Lady Anne Clifford, b. 1590 and high sheriff of Westmoreland 1653 – 1676. 

Appleby’s pub food was, well, hearty, so supper was at the Indian’s ‘exquisite asian cuisine’ as suggested by our hostess. We also learned that one of her friends travels daily from Appleby to work in Leeds. It seems the 06.30 arrives in Leeds in time for him to be at his desk before 09.00… well, that is a different sort of commute! 

We were touched and amused by the memorial to bishop Eric Treacy; lover of life and of railways. I hope they conveyed him home by train….

It was a short but steep ride to the station the next morning to complete the last leg of the Settle – Carlisle journey whose route passed through the former Westmoreland to Scotby and its junctions. As I watched the river weave and widen, and saw the fields near my first childhood home, my exasperated mother’s ‘O Harry, Harry!’ rang in my ears from 60 years ago. I felt tense and anxious. All too familiar. 

 

Carlisle station was delightful. We stepped off one train alongside the platform for the next, opposite the spacious and gracious loos,  and right next to an independent coffee shop with its zealous advocate of a deeply unhealthy chocolate biscuit cake. It would have been rude to refuse…

The Carlisle – Newcastle line has its own supporters too. Local efforts ensure it thrives, and the line now serves a burgeoning tourist industry, and dovetails with Hadrian’s Wall bus services. We arrived at Haltwhistle, and cycled the mile or two along the burn to Broomshaw Hill Farm where Ann and Martin maintain their B&B through most of the year.

 

We left the luggage with Martin (Ann was still travelling home from a Pink concert at Wembley – her daughter’s Christmas present) and set off for Vindolanda – via lunch in a sandwich shop in the town (baked potato and chicken salad for £7) in the company of two very large women each threatening ‘not to budge until the consultant says what’s wrong with them’. Conspicuous consumption, I’d say…

 

The 72 cycle path hugs the valley floor, avoiding both the A69 and the equally perilous B road known by the locals as the military road. It delivered us eventually to Vindolanda fort and newly refurbished museum, where we learned about the precious and very fragile tablets recently discovered and deciphered using infra-red techniques. These are the earliest written materials in England (third century CE) and include a woman’s signature on a party invitation. Stunning. 

 

The wind was in our faces (and not at our backs) as we slowly struggled up a very modest incline en route to Steel Rigg and the Wall itself. A pint at Twice Brewed (next to the £13.5m The Sill building, housing both the YHA’s Once Brewed hostel (82 rooms, all en suite!) and an education centre) was very restorative. Mainly downhill or gently undulating, we headed back to Haltwhistle along the no. 72, to weigh up the respective culinary merits of the town’s three pubs.

 

The Centre of Britain led the field with its white table cloths, reasonable wine list and its shy young staff. David’s rack of lamb would have fed three people. Not sure whether the hotel info (below) was intended to inform or to bamboozle….We cycled back to the farmhouse in broad daylight despite it being nearly 22.00. 

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Full English breakfasts are a very mixed blessing, even very good ones, and unnecessary after the substantial supper of the evening before. We left our kind and interesting hosts and sped downhill to catch the 09.20 to Alnmouth via Newcastle. Another set of on-time trains; another dry and pleasantly cool day, perfect for cycling. 

 

The no. 1 cycle route travels from Newcastle to Edinburgh, hugging the coast wherever it can.  Our journey to Seahouses had originally envisaged a once-a-day train from Acklington to Chathill in the early evening, after a day’s cycling around Amble. This was scotched in order to make better (ie longer) use of the most expensive of our B&B bookings, and we simply set off along the rough coastal paths, past Dunstanburgh Castle, glad of the metalled roads where they existed. First contact with the sea was at Howick links  – an empty beach in sunshine. Glorious. 

 

The inland sections were easier but duller, relieved periodically by unstaffed level crossings and very fast trains. We arrived on the outskirts of Seahouses, in North Sunderland, at the Old School House and the very friendly Joan, with Charlie and Archie, and partner Andrew who ran boat trips to the Farne Islands from the very cheerful and busy little harbour. The beer in the North has been universally good, and a cycling thirst was very quickly quenched. Hurray.  

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Mixed advice about places to eat (though the Bamburgh Castle was universally rejected as ‘expensive for what it is’) meant we spent an extraordinary hour in the Ship, in the company of a couple from Scarborough reminiscing about the criminally collusive culture around the economically powerful abusers who ran the town in the 60s and 70s. Yes, we all knew. Even us children… We queasily compared notes.

We ate in Insieme in the end; genuinely Italian but struggling with the chief expectation of most of their clients: parmesan with everything. ‘Would your mother put parmesan on pasta al mare?’ I asked, when the waiter offered me some. He hung his head…

Seahouses leaves something to be desired; Banburgh by contrast is National Trust posh, not that we were destined to experience that firsthand, despite our intentions. Brompton bikes are townies, by any account, and the terrain on route 1 is far from conducive to small, narrow wheels and very pumped-up tyres. Having just said our fond farewells on Wednesday morning, and with Bamburgh in our sights, David declared his front tyre punctured. We had a spare inner tyre, but no equipment, and the nearest cycle shop was in our final destination some twenty odd miles away in Berwick. The local garage proprietor was nominated as our best bet, and indeed he was – if only briefly. A little terse, and remarking only that serious cyclists should expect to be able to do this themselves, he obliged us with the repair. 

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This tyre lasted two hundred metres. We took stock… the cycle repair shop was reachable via the two-hourly Berwick bus which fortuitously was due in 35 minutes. We retreated to the little hotel by the bus stop and ordered some coffee,  used their facilities, and waited. 

It was only ten minutes late, and it hurtled along both narrow lanes and the busy A1 at equal pace. We sat on the front row upstairs. It was very exciting. The views of Bamburgh beaches and castle, of Lindisfarne and the causeway were magnificent if short-lived. We thundered over the least attractive of Berwick’s formidable bridges, and alighted on Golden Square, 200m from Tim’s Berwick Cycles on Bridge Street, which turned out to be the beating heart of Berwick’s hipsterdom. 

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Even better: a stone’s throw from the Leaping Salmon (not remotely as attractive as it sounds) and lunch accompanied by yet more world cup cricket; this time England v NZ.  Sky is everywhere.

 

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Berwick on Tweed is an amazing town. The 28 arched railway Tweed Viaduct sets the tone (designed by Robert Stephenson and nearly half a mile wide it was opened by Queen Victoria in 1850), the Old Bridge carries the heart and the ghastly 1920s modernist concrete one carries the traffic. The Walls, begun in the time of Queen Mary and completed by Queen Elizabeth the First at stupendous expense (£40m in today’s money) to secure the border with Scotland, became almost immediately redundant at the accession in 1603 of Elizabeth’s successor, James I of England and VI of Scotland. But the walk around them is spectacular! 

30 years ago, gannets dived to fish in the turbulent waters off the end of the outer harbour wall, and we gather they still do, along with other divers, guillemots and arctic terns. A school of dolphins followed a tourist boat just 200m from Spittal shore, close by our final B&B Eastwatch, on Sea Road. And the puffins and shearwaters are said to be thriving this year on the Farne Islands – or were until the deluge of early June drenched the porous volcanic rock on which their nests rest and in which the shearwaters’ tunnel. 

 

Supper at the Queen’s Head was very pleasant; surprisingly restrained in volume and efficiently served by two very different staff, operating a curious ordering service which preceded being granted a table. The highly efficient woman turned out to be German (we thought she was welsh) while the dishevelled man was another cycling enthusiast who the previous evening had suffered road burn as well as serious damage to his bike in a multiple bike pile-up. We cycled home over the Old Bridge, round the estuary, past the lifeboat and over the sand dunes once again in daylight, despite the time. 

The puncture had reversed our schedule. Having arrived early at Berwick by bus on day three, and seen its sights (as well as the cricket) while Tim repaired the bike, we planned to cycle as much as we could of the coastal path that we had abandoned.

After a short walk on the empty sands at 08.00 with the tide well out, we set off after breakfast cycling south towards Lindisfarne. The path varies at this end too; some rough stretches, some grass riding, some metalled sections, with glorious views in every direction to take your eyes off the potholes and ditches. It was going so well….

 

Five miles on, David’s tyre began to misbehave – again. While not completely flat we turned tail, and headed back to Berwick, stopping four times to use the mini pump to keep us moving. Tim was surprised to see us again so soon, but set to, fitting not only a new inner tube but a marathon tyre to fend off future demons, while we had lunch at Atelier, virtually next door, with charcuterie supplied by Borough Market no less, and excellent mussels. Disappointingly the six oysters for £10 are only available at the weekends. We hope the marathon tyre doesn’t expire after 26 miles…..

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We collected the bikes and the luggage from the long-suffering Tim, who in the meantime had sold no less than seven more inner tubes to fellow coastal cycle route sufferers. Cycling readers take note!

The station is at the top of town; the 15.12 to King’s Cross was on time; we were  cycling across very busy and very hot London only three and a half hours later. The only train (out of the seven we travelled on) which did not run exactly to time was the ten minutes late Waterloo to Andover….

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