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Northern England (2006)

This is the report of a cycling trip in Northern England, May 2006. The area of barren landscapes (Lake District, Pennines), remarkable buildings (castles, monasteries, Hadrian’s Wall), hedges and dry stone walls, Land Rovers, lots of sheep, and above all terribly steep roads. Rudi and I travel some 830 km in two weeks.


Day 1: Newcastle > Dunstan (83 km)

We arrive in good mood by night boat from IJmuiden. In Newcastle we buy some stuff in the supermarket and head to the north. The weather is excellent: 15 °C and no rain. Today we follow the Coast & Castle route. It is not before long when we leave the big city and cycle along the coast and St Mary’s Lighthouse. We can still see a lot of buildings here. Near Blyth we see a plant with four gigantic chimneys, and pass a slum and football pitch. The more beautiful part of the route starts after Newbiggin. The coastal road is almost flat and unpaved every now and then. We even ride on the beach for a while. With a short but firm climb we reach Dunstan where we order dinner in the local pub and pitch our tent at the simple camping site.

Day 2: Dunstan > Wooler (68 km)

It has been very cold at night: 7 °C. Rudi was freezing in his synthetic sleeping bag. The first part of the road is a bit from the coast. I am in an exceptional shape: cycling with luggage is a piece of cake for me. Quite often I am the first to reach the top. My legs are strong! Then, in a distance high up a hill we see Bamburgh Castle. We shoot photographs in the grey weather. Just after the castle there is this nice old church with an interesting graveyard (good for making pictures).

The weather gets worse when we cycle in the direction of Holy Island. It is there where monks were terrorized by the Normans. They say its setting is panoramic. Unfortunately we arrive far too late (2.50 pm) at the road leading to the island: due to the tide there is only one hour left to go to the island and return. Since the continuous rain reduces visibility, we decide to skip this five star attraction and move on.

We leave the Coast & Castle route and cycle between the many hedges to Lowick, Horton and finally Wooler. The weather has improved at the moment we reach today's target. Wooler's camping site is beautifully located against the background of a high, ball shaped hill. There are lots of ducks and sheep around here. We have dinner in the local pub. Rudi orders a gigantic 14 inch hot & spicy pizza, but it is way too hot to handle. So, with his tail between his legs, he orders another pizza, less spicy this time.

Day 3: Wooler > Bellingham (83 km)

The day starts cold with a watery sun and bleating of the numerous sheep. Is "Wooler" named after "wool"? We have our breakfast very late in front of one of the many churches of the cute town. When we depart we have to climb right away. Today we cycle along the border of the Cheviot Hills, a panoramic area with large bald-headed hills.

We do not look on our map when we bump into the Pennine Cycleway. After a few km  we find out that this route seems more suited for ATB's. We have to pass fjords, by cycling right through it or taking the narrow bridges. The worse the road gets, the more Rudi's temper worsens. Particularly when we have to take a slippery forest track at a gradient of 17%. Pretty adventurous when I think back to it. But at that moment, having managed to ride just 9 km in a few hours we are far from happy. Therefore we are glad to arrive at a nice off-road track near Biddlestone.

It is not before 4.30 pm when we have lunch in a bus shelter Next follows a long climb along the "Bacon". An Englishman on a tandem offers us a cup of tea but we have no time to stop. It has become very late. In the remaining and boring 20 km the headwind gets stronger. During the day a my right knee has started to ache, which is not very promising for the remainder of the holiday.

Day 4: Bellingham > Alston (81 km)

First we cycle through a friendly landscape, including the River North Tyne. Next we go in the south east direction to Chollerford where we "take" Hadrian’s Wall. I had looked forward to this day, since there are not many opportunities to see Roman defense works in real, but this part of the Northern England tour is disappointing. First of all because Hadrian’s Wall is hardly there. Okay, bits of it, and one can imagine how it has been a long time ago. But to call it impressive would be a tremendous overstatement. Secondly, the road is very wide. Third, the wind blows in our faces for 25 km.

Having arrive in Haltwhistle we do groceries. We are being laughed at by local kids, bur when put on an angry face they get scared. (How are they supposed to know I have a bad temper due to the wind.). We are going south now. The first part is on a cycling path on the old railway track, and climbs easily. After a few miles on the A689 we take a narrow and sometimes very steep road on the east bank of the River South Tyne. It is exceptionally beautiful here, especially in the evening sun.

Far too late we arrive in Alston and head for the camping. It must be somewhere, but we cannot find it. When we ask a local, he says that the camping is on the scrapheap. We check in at the mobile home at the left of the garbage. We pay Alston's local hooker and pitch our tent next to the other mobile homes. With regard to the toilet building: one can reach it by going through a huge pipe on the scrapheap. The state of the sanitary is not great, but we know for sure this camping is unique so why bother. Rudi is incredibly happy, and makes a lot of pictures.

Day 5: Alston > Keswick (71 km)

We move out of this garbage as fast as possible en start ascending the Hartside Cross. With its  summit on 580 m it is one of England's highest pass roads. It is an easy climb: a moderate gradient and the wind in the back (the whole day). On the top we eat in the warm restaurant. The descent is nice and long. From Busk we bounce on an unpaved road. De roads thereafter are very hilly and the landscape is varied.

We pass a stone circle named "Long Meg and her Daughters". In Penrith we eat again and move on. We cycle in the direction of Keswick where the high hills of the Lake District are. Thunder is in the air; we can hear it in the distance. Just before the finish we arrive at a beautifully located Stone circle. We have fun making pictures here. One boy has no respect for the ancient menhirs and uses them as climbing wall.

Next we leave for the Keswick camping, which is nicely situated at the north bank of Derwent Water. Of course we want to find a place but that is not allowed. We have to wait for a silly assistant wearing sports outfit looking for a place for us while riding with his ATB over the camp site. He wants to know exactly how big our tent is to find the appropriate place. This is ridiculous since there is ample room. What a übergeordnete Zeltplatz. Despite feeling very uncomfortable we decide to stay for two nights. We have a meal in the pub, where a lady sings quite well. We read that Kane (= Dutch rock band from The Hague) had a concert last Tuesday. At night it rains.

Day 6: Keswick (day off)

We have a day-off. The last few days I pushed myself too hard and stressed my knees. So a little bit of rest might help. We take a walk from the village of Swinside, situated west of Derwent Water. On the summit of the hill we see intense green grass divided by lots dry stone walls. Rudi teaches me some more on how to make pictures. Back at the lake we start reading. In the area we see loads of aged people and Land Rovers, and we also encounter two aggressive-looking Mitsubishi Warriors. Tonight we go this Mexican restaurant where Rudi falls in love with a group of ladies in their thirties.

Day 7: Keswick > Eskdale (68 km)

We have breakfast in front of the large Keswick supermarket. Today we cycle first to the west, and then we follow the boundaries of Lake District National Park to the south. First we take the Whinlatter Pass. The pass road is dull (wide road through a forest), but is contains a few quite steeps parts. The descent is much better. We drink coffee in a farm pub near Loweswater.

We continue our trip and turn left after a few miles. We cycle for quite a long distance along the boundaries of the national park. The roads are narrow and varied. On the left we have a splendid view of the Lake District, and on the right hand Sellafield's nuclear plant dominates the landscape. Far, far away the Isle of Man rises out of the sea. We pass the road to Wast Water and Wasdale Head; looking back we should definitively have taken this road, because it must be beautiful. But we decide to go straight to Eskdale.

On a lovely road we arrive at the camp site. After Keswick's "golden water tap" camping, this is just how campings are meant to be: primitive and in the middle of nature. It attracts another kind of people as well: lots of small tents and vans, and no caravans. We take a walk to the pub at the main road. It is cozy there, also less tattooed folks than in Keswick. By the way, we eat a lot in pubs this vacation. It is so tempting to not cook after a day's cycling, and to have dinner on a chair next to the heating. Back at the camp site barbecues and camp fires are burning until late.

Day 8: Eskdale > Kendal (55 km)

Yesterday we reached the most western point of out holiday. Today we cycle right through the Lake District back to the east. I have read that the pass road ahead is one of England's steepest. At an altitude of 393 m the Hardknott Pass is strategically located. No wonder that the Romans have built a castle here (Mediobogdum). The first few miles of the day are almost flat. Rain is drizzling.

Next we see a big sign saying that the pass is dangerous - the gradient is up to 30%. After a short bit through a forest we bump into a wall, at least that is how the pass road feels. This is beyond what we have ever cycled. After a few hundred meters of "just" 15-20% the road climbs up to 29%. On this part of the pass road several car engines simply turn off. Of course for us it is extremely hard to stay on the pedals, and I have to stop after just a while. But Rudi holds on - he is such a strong guy.

We take a short break: I make pictures of sheep at the southern side of the pass road while Rudi climbs to the Roman fortress where he can use his wide angle objective. At first sight the rainy weather was a bit of a bummer, but it appears ideal for making pictures: the green becomes deep green, the light brown grass becomes orange brown, and the low clouds add a mystical touch. Wonderful! Back on the bikes we move on to the summit of the Hardknott Pass. Suddenly we are being overtaken by racing cyclists: contestants of a tour through the Lake District with a length of 190 km.

The awful ascent is followed by a hardly less steep descent of 25%. Next we cycle a few miles to the steep Wrynose Pass. We make pictures of the passing racing cyclists, some of them almost hitting sheep crossing the road. After the descent to Waterhead we take a busy road to Windermere. At Troutbeck Bridge we decide to take a short cut. One km 17% on average hurts a lot after the climbs earlier this day. The last part to Kendal we ride over narrow roads through an almost abandoned area. Finally we arrive at the rather boring camp site north of Kendal.

Day 9: Kendal > Muker (67 km)

Today we have a strong headwind. From Kendal we go eastwards and cross the M6 to Sedbergh. On this first part of our trip we have to climb a two very steep hills without any reason (why do they construct roads this way?). Okay, it is just 20%, but even fit Rudi gets aching legs. Still he manages to be faster than me, which depresses me. From Sedbergh on the landscape becomes more rough: back in the Pennines again. The Calf (677 m) dominates the landscape. Hardly anyone lives around here. Full headwind in the narrow valley.

At the pass summit we must descent some 300 m to Ravonstonedale where we take a single track road to Pendragon Castle. This 12th century castle is now a beautiful ivy-grown ruin, old trees, merry sheep and bold hills in the background. A nice spot. After a photo shoot we descent to Kirkby Stephen (200 m) followed by a climb to 500 m with full headwind. This up-and-down thing has been going on all day. But, I must admit: the sun is shining and we have lots to see. The descent to Keld and Thwaite is very special. We enjoy this very much. Swaledale is one of the prettiest places I have ever been. We pitch our tent in Muker where some local folks made a camping of a grass strip directly next to the road. Very primitive. But we are lucky: the beer is excellent in the nearby pub.

Day 10: Muker > Pately Bridge (67 km)

This morning we have no time for a relaxed warming-up. At Twaite we face a steep climb of 300 m to the Buttertubs Pass (526 m). Unexpectedly, this time I arrive first at the top and continue right away along the Lovely Seat (675m). Afterwards Rudi tells me that he made pictures of the Buttertubs: a number of slate columns from deep in the ground. Meanwhile all the climbs make my legs hurt. I cannot cycle 15% for more than a few hundred meters before halting to take care of my aching legs. The main town in Wensleydale, Hawes, attracts many tourists. The average age is 85 years.

From Hawes, we have to get a few hundred meters higher before going down again to the south. We cycle through the picturesque village of Kettlewell, where we buy something to drink in the local "Winkel van Sinkel" (i.e. the Dutch expression for a small 1950's-style shop where they used to sell almost anything). The last part of today's route is a busy road neglecting all contour lines. No wonder we are tired when we arrive in Pately Bridge. Actually, we are tired of the continuous up-and-down cycling between dales and hills. The camp site is boring but well-equipped. It takes more than 5 minutes before I dare to get under the very hot shower. With our skins almost burned we dive into the tent.

Day 11: Pately Bridge > Brompton-On-Swale (59 km)

We have several steep hills for breakfast before we descent to Fountains Abbey. Long ago it was one of Europe's largest monasteries. Founded in 1132 and extended in the next centuries. In 1539 Henry VIII thought it would be jolly good idea to destruct all monasteries and so the decay began. Yet much of the abbey is still standing. It is not hard to imagine how big the buildings once were. The cathedral, living spaces and water mill are all located next to a little stream starting nearby. Unfortunately the sunlight is too sharp to be able to make good pictures. And we have no time to wait for evening light conditions.

Today's route via Winksley, Grewelthorpe, Masham, and Patrick Brompton is far from attractive. Near the barracks of Catterick Garrisson it is even busy. We are in May and it is already bloody hot. My ears and arm are getting burned by the sun. I buy a far too big bottle of sun cream smelling like coconut. Richmond is a nice town, with a market place on the spot where in 1071 Richmond Castle must have looked impressive. Now all what is left are some walls and the beautiful 12th century tower.

The neat camping is 5 km east of Richmond in Brompton-On-Swale and is extremely boring. We manage to find a local pub in the nearby slum. Outside hooligan-like guys play a local game in which they throw large metal rings. This is no place to stay.

Day 12: Brompton-On-Swale > Durham (73 km)

We get up late and depart not before 11.30 am. We know that we have seen the better part of Northern England, so what's the reason for cycling onwards? Next cycling holiday we sure have improve planning. Today we can go north to Durham by going west or east of the M1. The west option looks rather hilly so we decide to do the easier eastern route. We find our way between Darlington, Teesside International Airport and Stockton-On-Tees. It is less dense populated that we had imagined, but to say it is beautiful here would be inappropriate.

Near Sedgeby Racecourse we see a gipsy enclave which is "into horses". It reminds me of Brad Pitt’s funny presence as quick-tempered horse trader in the 2000 movie Snatch. Highly interesting information. Was this all we encountered today? No: In Sedgeby I managed to fall while I was standing still. That is the consequence of forgetting to click my shoes off the pedals. Next we move to Durham. The camping site, some 6 km north of Durham, is situation on a very special spot: on Finchale Priory, a 12th century monastery and nowadays a ruin. Tents are not allowed, but when we check the owner he says he does not want the local drinking youth to camp here - we are welcome.

Day 13: Durham (day off)

We have one day left before returning by ferry to IJmuiden. So we decide to explore Durham. When I was younger I had seen pictures of the beautiful cathedral, and I want to see it with my two own eyes. I must admit: the old, compact city centre is unique, with a fortress and the cathedral majestically on a hill in the meandering River Wear, on which is rowed at a slow pace. We walk along the quay, make pictures of old tombstones, and climb stairs. The rest of the day apparently is so insignificant that I cannot remember what we did. What I do recall though is having a curry. It was a lousy day.

Day 14: Durham > Newcastle (52 km)

Today the road leads us through the densely populated areas between Durham and Newcastle. I cannot recommend this. For cyclists Gateshead is hell. Along the busy main roads are no shoulders, cycling lanes or side roads which would make cycling a little safer. On the northern side of the River Tyne, i.e. in Newcastle, cycling conditions improve. We eat and drink in a pub near a marina. Next we join a fanatical lady in a yellow coat. On this part of the Coast2Coast route the cycling paths are littered with broken glass. On the ferry we "enjoy" a night show. The holiday was superb, although it could have been three days shorter.