Northumberland Coast Winter Cycle Adventure

Seaton Sluice

Seaton Sluice

This blog is long – enjoy reading, or for a video of the trip click here or there’s a gallery at the bottom!

There was banging coming from the next carriage as I awaited the train to depart. It was 6:22, 2 mins after it was due to depart. Typical, the day you’re early and got up at 4:30 and the train is delayed. Still I wasn’t in any rush, I just had to get to Newcastle to start the cycling back up north.

The tannoy went, the guard said in an out of breath pant “sorry for the delay, we’re having trouble getting the front door shut”. Immediately I had the feeling of guilt. It was most probably the door they opened so I could put my bike in. I poked my head out of the door and sure enough it was. The guard spotting me, points and says “it’s all your fault” in a joking voice I will add.

Eventually I was on my way south. The sun starting to rise making the sky lighter and the horizon more red.

I started thinking that I was glad of the delay, as out of the window, as the sun rose over the horizon, partly covered by large cumulonimbus clouds there was an amazing sunrise, as we coasted along the cliffs above Berwick. Rounding the Royal Border Bridge at Berwick the town was being illuminated by the sun giving a warm hue across each building. My thoughts turned to when the next time I’d be there, three days time and 180 Kms in the saddle. I wasn’t sure how I’d be after the three days of solo riding as it would my first solo cycling adventure.

Not one to shy from my own company I guessed I’d be fine. As long as there is wifi! (I can almost hear some people tutting at that comment).

We arrive 2 mins early after stopping 5 times between Edinburgh and Newcastle. The bike wheeled through the Guard’s office so they didn’t have to open the broken door.

Stepping onto the platform a stiff cold breeze blew through the station. There were other cyclists on the platform waiting on the train to Hexham. None were as heavy laden as I was, I seem to have packed the same as I had when I was riding for two weeks!

Newcastle Central is a majestic station, the curve of the station canopy is the defining feature. That with the entrance hall from the outside with big arches. It’s a grand place to start any journey. I remember waving good bye to my parents on the platform when I went off to Canada, and another time, when I went to Workington at age 16 to cycle the C2C. This was the start of another journey.

I headed up toward Monument and then up Northumberland street which was quiet being 8.20 in the morning. It’s a pedestrian zone so I knew I was breaking the rules cycling but I was going very slow. I made it quite a way up and a stern voice on the street tannoy told me off for cycling. And as I jumped off a large white van drove down the pavement after being allowed through the retractable barriers. It’s a bit imbalanced. Anyway I made my way down toward the Civic centre where I located the cycle path.

I had no real clue where I was going, which is daft as I grew up here. I mean, driving I’d be fine but cycling on motorway is frowned upon more than riding down a quiet pedestrian zone. So I found myself twisting in and out of small lanes and roads. There doesn’t seem to be a joined up cycle network in Newcastle, bits and bobs but nothing substantial. Anyway I took the back roads and eventually found a road I was familiar on and decided to just cycle along that. It was busy but it got me to where I needed to get to. Which was to see my Aunty, in Killingworth. I’d not seen her in such a long time and it was long over due. I must admit, part of my reason to do this trip was to see her. I gave me a reason to go to Newcastle, and of course the draw of the Northumberland Coast was a lot to do with the reason for this trip.

I was met with open arms and was duly invited in and welcomed into my Aunt’s Saturday morning routine. Sausage sandwiches! Brilliant. Just what I needed. Mind the breakfast I had on the train was good. Tho not as good as this, and with all the cycling I will be glad for a 2nd breakfast!

After a few hours of catching up, and with some disbelief in why someone would cycle up to Edinburgh, never mind in winter, I parted ways and left for Northumberland.

My first off-road bit was between Killingworth and the road to Backworth where there’s a marked cycle path / bridalway which misses out the busy road and off ramp of the A19. It turned out to be very narrow and muddy and then underneath the A19 there was deep gravel making riding difficult with 2 large panniers. Back on the road I headed toward the sea, I could make out in the distance St Mary’s Island with the White lighthouse, and beyond blue sea. The sun was out, blue skies but a brisk wind, thankfully pushing me towards the coast. I was in familiar territory now having flashbacks of when I was only young and rode solo to my mates house which was only 5 miles away but seemed like such an adventure when 14 and having to cross roads and crossing into North Tyneside. I guess this was the first time that I’d put two and two together to discover where a bike could take you.

Riding through the old red brick streets I ended up at the coast, at the Rendezvous Cafe in Whitley Bay, cycling through the arches to get to the promenade. This was the start of the coast but I wasn’t in Northumberland yet! I followed the coast to Seaton Sluice, the village where I grew up. This is a little fishing village that is the first place in Northumberland from the South on the coast. I wanted a photo of the road sign which stands on the main road opposite the Delaval Arms so I took a detour up the hill to get the picture. From here looking south you can see all the way to Tynemouth, the towns of the coast all merging into one long line of promenade and the unfortunate closed down hotels.

So many memories of this place and mostly all good. I still have some family in this village, none by blood but my God Mother and a few friends of the parents. I had a brief visit with the God mother, going deaf and ageing but nevertheless good to see her. I took a trip around the old estate where my Grandparents lived and also the house I grew up in around the corner. We moved out at age 12, to not very far but to the Pub across the river, this was my next stop. The owners are still the folk who bought it off my parents, nothing has changed save some new decoration and the staff. The food still as good as ever. I planned to refuel here but as I’d been fed too much by my Aunts I stuck with a roast beef sandwich.

It’s time to start the actual journey now, heading 40kms up the coast to Amble following the NCN1. I was more looking forward to the latter part of this route as the first bit goes through some industrial sections of Blyth, Newbiggin and Ashington. These are old mining towns turned to industry and some now have areas that are derelict. I followed the cycle route through the dunes. A hard gravel surface winding up and down the mounds of sand reaching from Seaton Sluice to Blyth Beach. It was built after successful canvassing for a safer route after three blokes got killed by a driver on the adjacent dual carriageway. I remember the night well, the road was closed all night. It remains in my memory, it was the first time I’d seen a road side tribute which seem more common these days. There would be new sets of flowers each week, this lasted years. Up near the area where it happened on the cycle way there’s a wooden sculpture of three men on bikes. A fitting tribute and rather nice art.

The wind was strong coming from the south west. I was only getting partial benefit, I stopped to take in the refurbished beach car park at South Beach. Colourful beach huts and a paved prom with seats now adorn what used to be a pretty bleak place. The old watch towers of WWII turned into lifeguard stations still stand now with a new lick of paint. The route follows the coast which turns into the River Blyth estuary, bounded on one side by large warehouses and the other a large pier with 7 wind turbines and the old smelting plant at Cambois. The cycle path takes you two miles inland through the town before crossing the river and heading back to Cambois. Blyth has changed a lot since I was young, it still has an air of deprivation but a new Morrisons has changed the scene.

The path by the banks of the river was littered with junk and broken glass, the tide was out exposing the mudflats and making it feel more dirty than it really was. The path was Tarmac which helped a lot. Suddenly I was out on a road, crossing a familiar bridge at Bedlington bank where many a driving test would travel there to attempt hill starts. Thankfully the cycle route didn’t go up the steep hill but calved a nice Z shaped switch back. From here the route travelled through back streets and onto the road back toward the coast, this detour felt inconvenient and positively non scenic.

The village of Cambois and North Blyth has always seemed to have seen better days. My brother used to take me here regularly as kids when he first learned to drive. Firstly to smoke and secondly as it had an air of danger. The then Blyth Power station was still in operation and towered over the terraces back to backs. These houses were first built for the pit that stood here and then lastly used to house workers for the plant.

The power station closed down late 90’s and the chimney stacks demolished in 2002. The gate house and sign for the power station still remain in tact behind sharp steel fences guarding the wasteland behind.

I turned here, in a northerly direction. The dunes and sea defences built high obscuring the sea from my view. I could hear the waves crashing and smell the salt. The road here was quiet, no other cyclists the wind was on my left side. The road undulated alongside a railway which looked disused but somehow up kept. The river Wansbeck blocked my path north, with the cycle path heading inland I was forced to brace the strong winds. I was up until now fairly happy with the cycle path signage – managing to keep me on the right track. The road seemed to fork with the right fork leading to a dead end, they type of dead end, where they thought they’d build a spur for future use but never got around to finishing it. I was tentative to take it but trusting of the signage I rolled along.

The path took me under a dual carriage way, the road littered with junk, broken glass and God knows what else. A bloke in a dodgy car was parked, himself leaning on the car door, a staffy running about mad just where the end of the road barrier was. I was looking around for a blue sign to give me faith I was on the right track. Hidden by overgrowth was a faint blue sign pointing an arrow alongside the dual carriageway, I was breifly pleased not to have had to ask the bloke for directions. The path took me on the bridge across the Wansbeck toward Ashington. I passed a couple walking the other way, drinking alcohol out of a can, and I was greeted in a way I’ve not been greeted for a while ‘Alreet?’. This is usual for the North East and certainly was how I used to greet people abut it’s a bit of a conundrum as you never really reply properly, you just reply ‘Alreet’. So I’m not sure if we’re asking if you are Ok or if it’s just a greeting! Which is random.

The Number 1 skirts past the outskirts of Ashington and toward Woodhorn, a spur to Newbiggin could be taken but I stayed on the NcN1. The path took me on roads toward Lynmouth and a bit of a climb before dropping back toward the sea. My route now took the coastal route, there were more cyclists out on day trips, wrapped up in tights, buffs and long jerseys. At least the sun was shining. At Cresswell there’s a choice of a road route or an off road route. My steed is a hybrid specialized cross trail bike, and has some front suspension on the forks, though not the greatest they can manage the odd bump. My tyres are a bit narrow for proper mud though but that wasn’t enough to stop me. I’d a few hours left in the day so at worst I could push if the going got tough. Amble, my first night stay was 20kms away, and I was beginning to tire or get hungry. The path entered a field, signposted well, there were metal sculptures of birds on the wall. Cows and sheep were in the field. I was riding through cow pats and other lovely squishy stuff. Thank goodness for the mudguards.

Again the sea was obscured by dunes rising high above the field. The sun was firmly on my back, warming me up though the wind was doing well to cool me down. I entered Duridge Bay country park, a path appeared, gravel, fairly dry too so was good going for a while. Birds could be seen on the ponds and there were hides along the banks. I stopped to take it in and rest.

The next town is Low Hauxley which looks out over to Coquet Island with a great vantage point of seeing the long curve of Duridge Bay stretching from here to Newbiggin in the distance giving me perspective on how far id gone. From the clouds that hung over the distance it looked like rain was falling yet I was in sunshine and blue skies. I’ll take that as a win!

Arriving in Amble I was happy to get to the B&B. The Harbour Guest House had a single room for £25, and a decent shower. I was pleased to get showered and warmed up.

My choice of food was fish and chips, I’d been craving it for most of the journey, and I sat eating out the wrapper, in the dying light looking out over the harbour on a park bench, wrapped up in layers and layers. It had been a good day.

Day 2

I slept like a log. Cycling really does take it out of you, and even after a massive portion of chips, I was famished in the morning. The large breakfast at the guest house sorted me out and I seemed to be the only diner, though it was 8am on a Sunday morning.

The path took me up the hill toward the main road, and then follows the Coquet to Warkworth. The Castle could be seen in the distance, high up on a hill overlooking the town. The Coquet meanders around the town making it defensible so no wonder there was a castle here. I stopped and took pictures of the light, purple in the sunrise, a Heron standing majestically in the river hunting and ignoring the seagulls flying around him squarking and fighting with each other.

I rode up to the castle, being early it was still closed, the portcullis closed, so I took the opportunity to get a picture with my bike, only I’d disturbed the castle keeper who came to take a look.

The NCN1 bypasses the main street and follows the river to the old bridge where again, I stopped to take photos. I had plenty of time to do the 40kms to Beadnell so I was going to enjoy it. The weather had forecast rain for the latter half of the day but I was prepared for that with waterproofs and many layers.

A short sharp uphill on a quiet road took me above the otherside of the Coquet, and Northward to Alnmouth. They’d built a segregated cycle path that ran on the otherside of a hedge from the main road, a fantastic path all the way there. I only passed a couple of early morning runners, no other cyclists to be seen. I was high up about a mile inland, with the land sweeping off to the right toward dunes, and in the distance, there was Alnmouth harbour with pretty houses coloured, and old lining the river bank. I was there in no time, the wind was on my back and I was sailing along.

I didn’t stay for long and was on my way toward Boulmer taking quiet B roads. It was at Boulmer where the path goes offroad. There was an on road section again but I was here for adventure and wanting to stay close to the coast if possible. The RAF Sea King helicopter was hovering above, as they have a base here, I wasn’t sure if they were just training or going somewhere for an emergency. I still don’t know!

The path was proper offroad again but it was good to be near the sea, the smell of the salt and the wind at my back. I reached a gate, a blue NCN1 sign affixed giving me comfort that I was on the right route, though it would be hard to get lost with the sea fencing me in. Through the gate was a stream, and a bridge that crossed it. It had three concrete steps to get up to the bridge and then on the otherside a bank of sand being right on the beach. It would have been impossible to carry the bike with the panniers so I took them off and carried them across by themselves. It was a pretty spot, in a curve of a bay, and at the other end was Dunstanburgh Castle, poking up off the horizon. After assembling my bike again with panniers I had to push the bike up through mud and cow pat to get to a semi hard path again, from here there were more gates, and more bridges and more secluded sandy bays until I reached a farm track and eventually the coast road. I took this to Craster, which is a small fishing village, picturesque with a harbour and famous for their smoked kippers. Not being a fish man, I sat in a cafe with a sandwich and a large cup of hot coffee. I kept watch on my bike from the window, watching the tourists walk on by. One by one, slowly but surely either putting theirs hoods up, or opening their umberellas as the rains started. I spoke with the lass serving me my food, she looked about 50, strong Northumbrian accent, telling me about her Coast and Castles journey over 4 days from Berwick to Newcastle. I wondered it would be strange setting off on a journey when half way actually going through your home village. Mind, I’d assumed she lived here but nevertheless it was good to talk to another person who’d done it after passing no other cyclists today I felt a bit lonely.

I headed up the coast, via the road. The path to Dunstanburgh is owned by the National Trust and they have no Cycling signs up so it was my only choice. I did want to get to Dunstanburgh but I had a plan for that later.

The detour on road wasn’t too bad, not far from Craster there is a route through a farm and then a farm track led me a fair way. The farm track was made of concrete and I guessed was from the war as there were pill boxes all along the side of this route, though maybe not as it looked too perfect. It was downhill too and I was pleased to get some speed up as the wind was blowing the rain on my back. Dunstanburgh was to my right, hanging in a grey mist and beyond the grey sea.

I took the road to Beadnell, pretty much a direct route, deciding to leave the NCN1 as the route went inland and would bypass Beadnell altogether. The wind was strong, and when entering Beadnell I turned into the wind and boy was it tough to cycle. Even downhill was a struggle. I got to the harbour which is the only west facing entrance to a harbour on the East coast, and the wind was crazy. Sand was being blown into my chain and face. Kite surfers were battling to stay near the ground and fishermen were hiding in the old Lime Kilns. I didn’t hang about and headed toward my hotel for the night, Beadnell Towers. I was a bit early for check in but the bloke at the front desk said the room would be 10mins so I waited in the reception. I resisted getting a pint in as my plan was to get my trainers on and run to Dunstanburgh.

I’d planned this when I was planning the route that I would instead of breaking the rules and cycle the non cylcing path, I’d run along the coast back toward the castle then head back, this was a 21km in total run.

I got to my room and lay on the single bed. I was tired and it was only 2pm. There was 2 hours of daylight left and the rain was full pelt. I struggled to get motivation to run, but eventually I decided that it would be good and would give me something to do.

Trainers on, I was back on the coast, and heading south, into the wind and the driving rain. The waves were being blown back, the maraham grass in the dunes was soaking my trainers and spiking my bare legs, the cold salty air making it sting a bit more.

I reached the village of Low-Newton-By-The-Sea, I was tired and I could see Dunstanburgh in the distance. I took the decision to head back, the cold was getting through my base layer and I just wasn’t fast enough to keep warm. BAck at the hotel I was exhilarated by the weather and although it would have been nice if it had been sunny and warm, the weather was making the trip more of an adventure. I was now warming up in a hot shower, I was there for ages. I was also thirsty and thankfully I still had a bottle of water that the lady on the train gave me ‘For later’.

I had a little shut eye and then headed to the pub next door, The Craster Arms. I ordered a pint of Black Sheep Best – one of my favourite beers and sat next to the open fire in front of the TV and browsed the internet. 5pints later and a massive burger I headed back across the road to bed. It was 9pm.

Day 3

Another crazy good night sleep, beer and running and cycling makes for good sleeps. The weather was fine again but cold and no let up of that wind. It was a westerly now and was coming in strong. I left Beadnell to Seahouses where I bought a massive bottle of juice for the journey and some dark chocolate for some emergency energy if I needed it. There was no cloud in the sky, and the sun was picking out Bamburgh Castle from miles away sitting proud on its hill. I cycled right underneath its walls and onto the beach. I’d seen the castle from this vista so many times on TV and I’d been to Bamburgh many times but I’d never been to the beach here. NOw I can say I have and that was where i got sand in my chain. For the next 60kms it would be crunching away stuck in the oil that was covering my chain.

The route out of Bamburgh was into the wind, taking an inland route on quiet roads. It was up a hill too and this was the first time that I was a bit sick of cycling. The next stop would be Holy Island and I was aiming to be there for 11. The tide timetables for the causeway said it was good crossing from 9am to 4pm so I did have enough time to get there and off.

The route though would take me all the way inland as there was no coastal path, crossing the A1 and into Belford, another steep bank to contend with I was in my lowest gear, spinning it out. The road too me high up the hill and I could look back toward Bamburgh and across toward Holy Island and Lindisfarne castle.

To get there though I had to go on these windy B roads, with no direct route it would twist and turn until I got to Beal, crossing back over the A1. The wind was pushing me toward the coast at this point and I crossed the East Coast Main Line where I’d been on just two days before. It seemed like a long time ago. Heading down the hill now, racing toward the causeway. I looked out and the causeway was still wet, some cars were on it but not going very far. I checked the times again and sure enough it was safe crossing time. I ventured out, the wind firmly at my back still. I got to the safety hut, a raised section with a hut on stilts in case you get caught in the rising tide which you see all too often on the news. A car was ahead, but stopped, I was cycling on sand that had been washed onto the concrete road, wet sand that was hard to ride in. The car was doing a 3 point turn, it was in 3 inches of water and the driver had decided not to risk it. I did the same, except turning back I was into the most almighty headwind, with nothing to stop it, it was blowing straight across the water and into my face. I struggled to get back to shore. I had a decision to make, as my lunch stop was now inaccessible would I cycle back up the hill, into the wind to the Barn at Beal, that I’d passed on my way down, or do I just eat chocolate and head on the coastal path to Berwick?

I went back up the hill and I was glad of it. I’d failed to eat any cake on my journey so far so that was my motivation. Sadly though, they only had flapjack and so I settled with that, and a cheese scone and a cup of tea to warm me up.

Back on my bike I took the cycle path, which is off road thankfully, and raised above the flood plains. It was good cylcing but the wind was relentless. I wasn’t enjoying it as much and was longing to be finished.

I reached Scremerston, or rather Cocklawburn Beach which I know very well, as my Friend grew up here and her family’s farm is not far from the beach. I decided to call in to see Christine, my mate’s mum. I was glad for the friendly face and a warm cuppa. I was only a few miles from Berwick, my destination for the night, but I was in no hurry. A good chinwag and I was off Northward again, following the offroad path to Tweedmouth and then across the bridge to Berwick. I bypasssed the town centre and headed inland toward Foulden where my parents now live. The NCN1 unfortunately takes you up a hill, only to take you down the hill to cross the A1. It is across the A1 that the path splits. The NCN1 which is the Coast and Castles route follows an inland route through the borders to Peebles and then onto Edinburgh, however I was to follow the NCN76 back up the other hill and onto the Eyemouth.

My plan was to ride Berwick to Edinburgh on day 4, except I’d almost surely made up my mind that I wouldn’t be doing it and I’d be taking the train. It was the wind that was the issue, a westerly head wind would have greeted me from near Pease Bay all the way to Edinburgh and that didn’t sound much fun.

Arriving at my parents I was happy to have done Northumberland, and I stood at the sign at the other end thinking back to when I was at Seaton Sluice and all the miles in between.

I’d gladly recommend doing a winter cycling holiday and also the Northumberland Coast. Well signposted and waymarked.

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