Cycle tour from Gretna Green to Whitley Bay – Richard Higginbottom, Paul Oberg and David Stead, 1-4 June 2011.
When Julius Caesar was a boy he was sad. “I wish someone would hurry up and invent the bicycle so I can pedal across the furthest Northern part of the Roman Empire in Britain.” More than 2,000 years later the intrepid post modern legionnaires David “Whitley Bay Champion” Stead, “Crazy” Paul Oberg and Richard Higginbottom – The Bicycle Repair Man – headed North to do what Julius could only dream of, checking out his successor Hadrian’s bricklaying efforts in the meantime.
Off the train at Gretna and the sky was overcast though the wind was with us as we pedalled South down NCN route 7 – which hugged the A74M for a while before mercifully heading off toward the West Coast via some Rhododendron-lined lanes.
Into Carlisle thanks to some directions from a Scouse Roadworker (Dave: “Tanks cum’ead!”) and lunch at The Turf. The picture to the right shows Dave and Paul ready to start the afternoon leg of the journey, following the banks of the River Eden and some fairly flat but green scenery as we made our way out of the Eden Valley.
Around Newby we started to encounter the first hills of the route. Richard realised his 5-speed Pashley combined with his dodgy right knee and his current whale-like physique meant that he was in for a bit of a struggle. Dave and Crazy Paul were quite rightly unconcerned. After a few more minutes Dave and Richard realised they’d forgotten to get any cash in Carlisle and might have to resort to barter until Newcastle as we suspected electricity, let alone 21st century banking, may be yet to reach some of the remote towns en route. Up and down another couple of valleys brought us to a tea stop in Brampton – which was very much up-to-date whilst retaining most of its charming character.
Tea and cake consumed, cash tucked into wallets, we made the considerable climb out of Brampton and pedalled along pretty well, a long descent ending in a sweeping bend Dave and Paul are seen taking opposite.
Up a couple more hills and we’re on a high plain with Hadrian’s Wall at our right hand side. Which means we’re in Scotland again. Dodging around a coach party of Japanese tourists (“This Great Wall isn’t as big as the one next door in China” Paul claims he overheard) it was time for a re-enactment of ancient border struggles – Dave leaping on top of the wall to put the Jock-with-a-viking-name-from Hull back into his place.
Down the hill then we started another serious climb when … ah! I do like Hadrian’s successors, who have built a car-free cycle trail along the line of the wall (and the valley) which is simply delightful for a handful of miles. And offered some respite for my knee on the Pashley. Up hill and down dale we continued and Richard thought “we must be getting close to the B&B at Gilsland” as we gathered speed down a steep hill. Looking to the right and “that’s it!” shouted Richard … Dave slammed on the brakes but couldn’t quite get his gearing right and made an inelegant climb back up the hill to Brookside Villa (see below). Crazy Paul had kept on whizzing down the hill, noticed the village sign said Gilsland, used his common sense (yes he has got a little) and spun around to join us less than a minute later.
Landlady Denise showed us into a delightful guest house with a very nice room and a selection of beer and wine including the fabled “Sneck Lifter” Paul had been dribbling on about during the day.
We took dinner at the Villa, the hoummus and roast lamb were delicious. Then out to sample the bright lights of Gilsland …
… Two pubs, both unpromising – we went into The Samson where the only bitter on pump was (surprise!) the Samson Ale. A gassy pale beer that Paul seemed to enjoy more than Dave or Richard (we assume because it’s another different beer sampled in the Oberg glossary of the proper pint). Richard luckily defeated Dave at Pool. The local Quoits (yes you read that correctly) team made a guest appearance. The barmaid managed to knock two balls off the pool table with one shot (fnarr!) and together with the landlord and a couple of old geezers who stopped for a half of shandy, that was the clientele for the night. We must have been their best guests for years. Back up the hill to the Villa and Paul was rapping on the subjects of Rugby League, Scottish Football, the social history of Hull. In short it was better than Horlicks for me and the Whitley Bay Champion.
The next morning … the clouds give way to the Sun as we tucked into breakfast – full English with excellent black pudding for the BRM and the WBC. Paul had some veggie nonsense (as Richard’s mum would put it). Out to load up the bikes and Dave and Paul decided to try to look Italian. From the North East. Do me a favour.
Down the jolly old hill into Gilsland, up the not-so-jolly hill to Greenhead, sweeping around hills and bends in delightful countryside on the way to the splendid town of Haltwhistle where Richard tried to get some low gears back as 1st and 2nd had disappeared for a short break.
As the Weather Girls sang, the temperature was rising. We bumbled along to Bardon Mill then took a sharp left hander up what Dave and Paul saw as a steep hill (looked like a wall to Richard). Puff-puff-pedal-pedal up to Once Brewed – just got there and turned right along a ridge plateau towards Vindolanda – where we hoped to get a hot curry. Down – down – down into the Vindolanda valley we hurtled, only to find that the coffee shop was only open to people who’d paid to get into the Roman site. We threw stones at the coffee shop windows in protest and then tried to make a sharp getaway up the steepest climb of the day. Climb, climb, climb for about 3 miles until we reached a gradual climb and we’d got to 256m and the highest point of the ride. The next 4 miles were all gently downhill. The sequence of pictures below show some scenes taken from Richard’s camera on the descent.
So whistling on down the hill as it’s steepness increased and Richard decided to test his nerves by not testing his brakes. Dave had hardly any brakes so was weaving about to slow himself down. Paul thinks going fast downhill is too easy. Richard went past Paul who mistook him for a bread van as the we rode to the bottom of the valley at Newbrough. Some light refreshments were taken before another couple of minor climbs until we reached the banks of the River Tyne on the way to Hexham.
Whoa!! No-one told me the Tyne Valley was picturesque. Being someone who’d always viewed the North East as having brown rivers and grey skies this was a revelation. My pastoral fascism rightly excorbated, we rode along gently undulating lanes glimpsing the valley until coming to a splendid towpath
We located a French Restaurant in Hexham. £10.95 for 2 Courses. “A bit expensive” said Paul. “No, this could be a bargain even for a Northern cheapskate like you” countered the man of East Anglia. Who for once in his life was proved right. C’est bon!
A gentle meander took us to our second night stop in Corbridge. A bucolic location overlooking the Tyne Valley at possibly its most verdant point. The landlady at The Hayes was slightly forbidding and pretty ancient. Surprised that Richard could hold himself back. Good storage for the bikes. The room was lovely. If you stayed under the shower for 30 minutes you got just enough warm water to wash the back of your neck.
Into Corbridge – splendid beers and food at The Angel. How come Paul didn’t complain? A pub curry for more than £11? It was very good though. A quick pub crawl including the Blue Cross where the juke box stopped playing and the football-shirt-clad regulars turned around to look us up and down. Ending back at The Angel where Richard was engaged in conversation with the world’s most boring man. Medical equipment sales anyone? He was crap at Crosswords too.
The next morning and after breakfast the landlord of the Hayes asked us where we were going to. “Whitley Bay”, said Dave, “do you know what it’s like?” Unfortunately he was fulsome in its praise – perhaps he saw through Dave’s ruse of trying to get him to give it a verbal thumbs-down so he could have a heated debate.
Continuing uphill for a very short while, we descended soon to the Tyne Valley, the weather and landscape both holding fair. We crossed the river at Ovingham, turned right, turned right again and (guess what) crossed it again. Someone had removed a route sign but for once Richard was awake to the issue, and a quick consultation of the map put us back onto the towpath.
Heading East, through a tight gap, over a little lane, crunch over a gravel drive and before us was the Hagg Bank bridge shown above and this took us onto the Wylam Waggonway – in use between 1748 and 1867, some of it converted to steam railway in 1872. This would take us all the way into Newcastle.
Onto a scruffy path near the Blaydon Bridge, Richard took the wrong route and went into an Industrial Estate. He regained the path via a steep set of steps and was about to head East when he noticed Dave and Paul to the West. Puncture! The Bicycle Repair Man stripped down to his brown overall as he neared the scene, decided to patch the tube instead of replace, pumped up and we were on our way again.
Soon we’d made it onto the really quite glamorous Tyne promenade in Newcastle with a panoramic view of all the famous bridges (particularly the double decker). Dave and Richard took a long while over their coffee after lunch. Mainly because live cricket was on. Paul pretended not to be bored.
Back onto the path and up to South Shields. Not quite as rubbish as Dave makes out. Mind you, the people on the Ferry could have been in the Bar Scene from Star Wars. Up a steep hill on the South of the Tyne and we had reached Arbeia, the Roman fort marking the end of the journey. A remarkably enthusiastic guide was energetically selling the place to us. We did buy some genuine Roman Dr Pepper and Ice Cream from the shop before we pedalled back down to the ferry.
Back on the North side of the Tyne and heading East into an onshore wind that defined the word ‘Bracing’. Up and down along the clifftop road towards Whitley Bay. Mr and Mrs Stead were fortunately at home and Dave managed to persuade them to let us kip for the night. Robert kindly gave me some alcohol and talked to me at length about cricket and tennis whilst we flipped between watching the test match and the Federer / Djokovic semi final at Roland Garros. I thought I’d died and gone to Heaven. I was even allowed to use the shower and then given some incredibly good food by Rhona. I was starting to wonder why Dave ever left home.
Out into Whitley Bay for a big night out … hang on where is everyone? It became apparent that since the Metro made it to Whitley Bay all the Party Animals must be heading into Newcastle for the regional ‘Dare to Bare’ weekend competition. We trudged around half-empty watering holes before Dave and Paul practiced some Tae Kwon Do on a stack of egg boxes (one of them with eggs in), Richard having crashed out.
Breakfast was of course convivial and far too comfortable so that the tres hombres lost track of time leading us to pedal like crazy on the way back to Newcastle getting to the station just in time … to see Dave and Richard’s train leave without them. £100 each later (!) we’d got booked onto other trains and were returning to London.