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Northumberland: Big Ride

Jonathan Manning
30 May 2016

Cyclist heads for Northumberland, where the blissful peace of castles and countryside is shattered only by the occasional firing range.

Hurtling across the River Aln after a dizzying descent, we pass under the impassive gaze of a stone lion standing guard over the bridge. According to local folklore, the lion will wag its tail when the last Scotsman leaves England. And maybe one day it will, but today there’s not the slightest twitch.

The leonine legend is just one of many clues to the battles and bitter rivalries that are deeply woven into the long history of Northumberland, England’s northernmost county. At the top of the nearest hill is Alnwick Castle, backdrop to many of those battles – and more recently the celluloid quidditch conquests in the Harry Potter films. It’s also the site of a monument to King Malcolm III of Scotland, who was slain here in 1093 after invading northern England. 

I can’t speak for Malcolm’s tactical nous or military prowess, but after just one day in the saddle it’s easy to see why this is a region worth fighting for. Sweeping views, wild countryside, rugged hills and a spectacular coastline make Northumberland a spellbinding county. 

What’s most striking of all is how such exceptional beauty can be so quiet. Cycling with friends through the Lake District, Peak District and Yorkshire Dales, I’ve become accustomed to spending mile after mile squeezed against the verge in single file, as a seemingly endless stream of traffic beetles past. Today, however, we spend most of the ride three abreast without calls of ‘car up’ or ‘car back’.

My riding companions are stalwarts of the local cycling scene: Phil Hall is chair of Alnwick Cycling Club, while Mark Breeze runs Breeze Bikes in neighbouring Amble. Mark shares his frustration at how bike shops are struggling to survive due to the impact of internet retailers, but thankfully today is about sprockets, not spreadsheets, and it’s contour lines rather than bottom lines that warm our legs as we set out west over the moors from Alnwick.

Within a couple of miles we’re careering down a lightning-fast descent, the dawn chill making me wish for a gilet for insulation – or a copy of the Northumberland Gazette to stuff down my jersey. It’s an electrifying start that sets a pattern we’ll be following the whole the day: climb, descent, flat, repeat…  

At times this feels like the land that time forgot, and satellite dishes on the side of farmhouses are the only indication that we’re in the 2010s, not the 1950s. Persil-white lambs graze next to ewes the colour of old underwear, while squadrons of housemartins fly in formation across farmyards. 

The gaps between settlements increase as we ride through first Abberwick, then Glanton and Yetlington, and while the gorse lends a welcome vivid yellow to the rough grazing pasture, up close its gnarled branches and sharp thorns speak volumes about what it takes to survive in this uncompromising environment. Ahead lies Northumberland National Park and the mighty Army training estate of Otterburn.

From valueless to priceless

It’s one of the great ironies of the British countryside that vast swathes of land once seen as inhospitable, untameable and ultimately worthless are now treasured as one of the few remaining areas of real wilderness anywhere in England. Back in 1911 the Government paid a pittance to acquire 20,000 acres of moorland at Otterburn as a training ground for the Territorial Army, and it has gradually added to the estate to the point where it now spreads over 58,000 acres, much of which is taken up by firing ranges.

It seems contradictory to describe anywhere subject to heavy bombardment as peaceful – I’ve been up in the hills when helicopter gunships have been training, and the boom of their weapons echoes through your ribs to terrifying effect. But when the artillery falls quiet, the sudden absence of noise only reinforces how exhilaratingly remote your surroundings are.

And anyway, today we’re far enough away from it all that the curlews are louder than the cannons, and the rifle-bolt snap of my Sram gears is the only other sound intruding on the silence. My riding companions are in stealth mode, the murmur of their electric gearshifts barely audible.

As we skirt the flanks of Northumberland National Park, however, our progress comes to an abrupt halt: the firing range’s red flags are flying. A nearby sign pulls no punches: ‘Danger. Do not touch any military debris. It may explode and kill you.’ This is no place to seek an impromptu shortcut.

Before long we’re barrelling along again through Alwinton, which hosts a fabulous Shepherds Show every October – the legacy of an era when flocks would be droved down for winter after spending the summer gorging on hillside pastures. The road pitches upwards for another climb, and we’re out of the saddle as we make for their felltop grazing territory ourselves. This is a merciless ride if you’re carrying any unwelcome kilos, but I can’t resist tucking into a slice of cake at the Impromptu Cafe (aka Cyclist’s Cafe) in Elsdon, a much-loved coffee stop where drinks come with a stand-up routine.

‘Do you remember when that guy ordered a latte?’ asks Mark, before repeating the staccato conversation. ‘“White coffee,” replied the cafe owner. “Latte?” said the cyclist. “White coffee,” repeated the cafe owner. “Latte,” requested the rider. “White coffee,” repeated the cafe owner before the penny finally dropped. “Ah, yes, white coffee, please.”’

‘And if you ask for beans on brown toast,’ adds Phil, ‘he’ll say, “Of course the toast is brown, it’s been in the toaster.”’

We order tea and ‘Gibbet Cake’, a fruit loaf named after a nearby hill with a gibbet on top. ‘Years ago we’d say, “That cake will get you up Gibbet Hill,” and it just became known as Gibbet Cake,’ says the cafe owner, who then goes on to deliver another one-liner from his repertoire: ‘We always said if we got queues we’d close.’

Inside, the cafe is part family home, part shrine to the history of road cycling in the area. Photo collages from decades of club runs, races and hill climbs cover the chronology of bike design and kit. Gears migrate from down tubes to STI levers, toe-clips turn into clipless pedals, frames switch from steel to carbon, and most tellingly of all, cycling caps become sausage-banded helmets, then the ventilated polystyrene of today. I could happily spend hours poring over the memorabilia, but Gibbet Hill awaits with the unforgiving patience of a hangman.

This ascent hosted the National Hill Climb championships in 2004, and while its 3.7km length never exceeds 10% and averages just 4%, it’s so exposed that everyone has a story to tell.

‘I remember a time-trial here when it was raining so hard it was deafening inside my aero helmet,’ says Phil. ‘I got caught by a crosswind so strong I thought I’d get whiplash from the tail of my teardrop helmet,’ adds Mark.

Fortunately the elements are in a kind mood today, but gravity never takes time off, and the incline comes with a sense of doom. Winter’s Gibbet is a grisly monument to a 1791 hanging here on the top of Bilsmoor, a windswept and desolate place. In early summer it’s the colour of camouflage – all muted browns and greens, cottongrass and bog, awaiting mid-August when the moor will get in touch with its feminine side as a cloak of purple sweeps across the heather.

Cresting the summit, a long, straight downhill awaits, and tucking in behind Phil and Mark, who are both in TT mode, I wheel-suck my way to an effortless 45kmh. With 70km under our belts we’ve reached the halfway mark, and we soon point our front wheels northwards along blissfully quiet roads, where the chances of a mobile phone signal seem as remote as a Tomorrow’s World-style hoverboard or jet pack. 

We discuss heading into Rothbury for lunch, but as we cross the River Coquet the B6344 into town is barred due to a landslip. It must be hugely inconvenient for locals forced to drive the long way round, but I revel in the peace as we ride east through Longframlington to cross the A1 near Felton for lunch. The din of the traffic comes as a shock to the system.

Following the ‘build it and they will come’ philosophy of Kevin Costner in Field Of Dreams, The Running Fox Cafe in Felton has acquired a phenomenal reputation. In the heart of this unassuming village in an unassuming part of the county, the cafe is a hive of activity even on a weekday, so we decide to evade the masses and enjoy our paninis while basking in the sunshine.

Coastal conquest

This ride could have swept back to Alnwick from Rothbury, through moorland and above a valley where the views are simply jaw-dropping. But we opt instead to head for the coastline, where a series of magnificent castles act as stepping stones that will take you all the way to the Scottish border. The 2015 Tour of Britain traced its way down much of this coast on Stage 4 between Alnwick and Warkworth, and it’s the latter that’s our next destination today.

We skirt the shadows cast by the walls of Warkworth Castle before coasting down the high street and rattling over the old cobbled bridge for what is our fourth crossing of the River Coquet. The North Sea nudges the beach just a few hundred yards to the east, and it’s not long before we’re high up enough to see a horizon where waves meet sky. 

At Alnmouth we finally get within touching distance of the beach. The village’s standing as a port was destroyed overnight by a storm in 1806 that left the harbour stranded, yet half a century later it somehow managed to negotiate its own stop on the mainline rail service from London to Edinburgh – a bit like a club run cyclist talking his way into Cav’s lead out train. 

This stretch of coastline is an eye-widening sweep of white sand lapped by blue waves, although the water temperature is more conducive to balaclavas than bikinis. We stop to admire the view in the tiny fishing village of Boulmer, and watch salt-rusted tractors towing in the boats from the water.

With 120km in our legs already, it’s tempting to forget about the bikes and just soak up the afternoon sunshine, and we look around for an ice cream van, half-hoping for an excuse to go for the lazier option. It isn’t to be, however, so we clip back into our pedals and continue our pilgrimage along the coastal road, passing Howick Hall where the second Earl Grey had a fondness for adding bergamot to his tea to mask the taste of lime in the water, thereby creating the tea that bears his name. With salt tide lines across our backs it doesn’t seem appropriate to visit the Hall’s tea rooms, and besides, the sun has now passed the yard arm.

Craster is our final stop, a gorgeous fishing village where harbour walls protect a handful of boats like a mother cradling her offspring. There’s the tang of smoke in the air from the kipper sheds, the whiff of fish from piles of lobster pots, and on the northern horizon the haunting ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle.

I’m hoping for a leisurely roll back to Alnwick, but Mark and Phil have other ideas. They hit the drops, whirring their electric gears over the sprockets as the speed increases. I hang on in their wake until the final descent towards Alnwick gives all of us a chance to raise the ‘max speed’ figure on our Garmins. With a clear road ahead we charge across the River Aln, past the stiff-tailed stone lion standing watch over the bridge, and power the pedals up the 16% incline that defends Alnwick Castle from more than just cyclists.

It’s safe to say none of the clans that clashed over these lands had cycling on their minds when they drew arms, but if the freedom to ride were ever a reason for conflict you’d be hard pressed to find a more suitable battleground than Northumberland.

Do it yourself

Getting there

Alnwick in Northumberland is on the A1, about 35 miles north of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The nearest train station is at Alnmouth, which is on the mainline from London to Edinburgh.

Accommodation

For a posh B&B, try West Acre House, where double rooms cost from £110 per night (westacrehouse.co.uk). In the heart of the town, the White Swan Hotel features the dining room from the Titanic’s sister ship, Olympic (classiclodges.co.uk). For cheap sleeps head to the Alnwick Youth Hostel, where a two-bedded bunk room costs from £39 per night (alnwickyouthhostel.co.uk).

With thanks

Many thanks to our ride companions Phil Hall (bc-clubs.co.uk/alnwickcc), Mark Breeze (breezebikes.co.uk) and Phil Manning, who drove our photographer for the day.

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