Thursday, 30 June 2016

Hadrian's Cycleway

It's been a few weeks since I've cycled across the frontier cycling route known as Hadrian's Cycleway. It's a coast to coast route stretching from the Irish Sea in the west to the North Sea in the east with a distance between 150 and 170 miles depending on where you start. It has a number of start points including Ravenglass and Whitehaven, while the walking route also has a different beginning point at Bowness-on-Solway. The start points on the east coast stretch southwards giving you opportunities to visit Roman ruins on your way up the Solway Coast. 

I started in Whitehaven, a busy seaside town, and also a starting point for the ultra popular C2C and Reiver's cycling routes, so a town used to seeing groups of cyclists. Unfortunately I was doing this alone, Kay and the wee one were resting up in Glossop. I had been looking forward to doing this tour for a few reasons, one of them being its historical context. Kay and I had spent the previous five years living in Seville, the birthplace of Hadrian – him of the wall. Hadrian was actually born a few miles outside the city in a place called Italica, which house very impressive Roman ruins, and which we have visited, ran past and cycled past on countless times over the five years we spent in Seville. For those visiting Seville, it is definitely a place I'd recommend visiting. It has an amazing amphitheatre where you can walk around and actually visit underneath and see where the gladiators were kept prior to fighting and where also there is a reproduction of the gladiators prayer written in Latin and Spanish. There are also numerous ruins of houses and an interactive museum, it is serviced by a local bus and entry is free to EU citizens. Seville has streets and hotels named after Hadrian (Adriano) so connecting Adriano and Hadrian was something I was looking forward to, that and three days on the bike, Cumbria, Solway Firth, Carlisle, Pennines, the River Tyne, Northumberland, Newcastle and Tynemouth. Overall it is not supposed to be as challenging as the Way of the Roses or the C2C, it's mostly flat on either side with a big bump in the middle going over the Pennines.

I arrived in Whitehaven on the train from Carlisle, it's a very scenic journey and the line hugs the coastline as it makes it way closer to Whitehaven, sometimes slowing to a crawl as the cliffs the train travels over are being reinforced as they attempt to slow down the forces of erosion moving the cliffs backwards. So not exactly a white knuckle ride but interesting nonetheless and you can spot the cyclepath from your window on occasions. After arriving in Whitehaven I realised the both of my memory cards for Virb and my camera were back in Glossop. Luckily there's an Argos in Whitehaven so after making a couple of purchases, off I head following my map and Sustrans well placed signposts numbered NCN 72 with a Roman helmet icon on it. 

The route takes you back past the train station and also hugs the coast for a bit before heading inland and back to the coast to Workington. The weather which had started out a bit dull has started to brighten up and the views across the Solway Firth to Galloway in Scotland are getting better and clearer. Through Workington and over the River Derwent the cycle paths diverge where Hadrian's cycleway continues north along the coast and the C2C heads eastwards inland towards Keswick and the Lake District. So after shedding my jacket and sweater I head north enjoying the cyclepath that will take me all the way to the sleepy seaside town of Allonby, a nice place for an ice-cream as you take in the views across the bay, it's also a place to go for a pee with clean public toilets in the centre of town.

Before Allonby you come to Maryport, a town built around a large marina on the southern tip of the Solway Firth. It also has an aquarium which houses the tourist information centre, and a Roman museum housed in a 19th century naval building and is home to the oldest collection of Roman Artefacts (or so it says) in Britain, and sits next to an old Roman fort from where the artefacts came.

On the way up the coast you start noticing slightly Latin sounding names such as Moota, Aspatria and Cockermouth!, well some sound Latin while others just sound very strange. After Allonby you follow a local road which eventually leads to Silloth, a relatively new town with a slightly American feel about it as it is a planned town based around a grid system. A queue outside a fish and chip shop gives it away as being English as does the cobbled streets rattling the bike as I trudge along the main street. After Silloth the road leads inland for a few miles before again turning north and meeting the Solway coast by the River Wampool near the village of Angerton. From here you follow the head around, past a strange electrical structure on your right and beautiful coast and marshland on your left. Bowness-on-Solway is the next village the road leads you to, the start of the Hadrian's Wall Walk, and it looks directly across the firth at villages in Scotland. From Bowness the road undulates at first before becoming long, straight and flat. This is the end of the road today for me as I stayed in a lovely farm b&b in Boustead Hill, with fabulous views of the Solway Firth after completing around 60 miles today. Hillside Farm B&B is a working farm that has both full bed and breakfast rooms and also a hostel style shared romm that they call camping barns, used mainly by people walking and cycling through the area, it also has a fully equipped kitchen and the people in the dorm rooms can order a cooked breakfast for a small fee. As for dinner, I went off with two lads who were also staying at the B&B. They guys were from Sheffield and worked on old, disused bridges by keeping the vegetation in check and they were also enthusiastic rock climbers. So a curry and a couple of pints later we returned full to the B&B and I returned a little more enlightened about old disused bridges, rock climbing and Sheffield, a very nice night indeed. 


The next morning I'm up early and the sun is out making it a beautiful morning to begin cycling into the Pennines. After a big breakfast I head off down the marshes towards Carlisle. A bit of a longer day today and a bit hillier with a plan to cycle across the Pennines to Ovingham to pitch a tent in the High Hermitage campsite. The first stop is Burgh by Sands, the town where Edward the First died and where a statue of him was placed facing across the firth to Scotland, Edward the First was nicknamed the Hammer of the Scots so make of that what you will. The statue itself is off the official HCW route on a small road that leads towards the firth and marshes. Afterwards the road loops back to connect with the main HCW again and leads us into Carlisle. There is one strange part where you are shown into a little wooded area in which you must push your bike down a series of steps to go under a bridge (there is a groove where you can push your bike, but make sure you keep hold of it as it's steep!) The road will then take you through an industrial estate and into Carlisle proper. It eventually brings you to the castle and here the road intersects with another C2C route called Reivers. The HCW will take you around the back of the castle into Bitts Park where the sign posts will lead you away from the castle as you come back towards it. Make sure you park up the bike or push it around to the front of the castle to take a look at it even if you decide not to go inside. It's an impressive red fortress that has dominated the city skyline for 900 years, and given its proximity to the border has seen its fair share of battles over the years. It also has a Roman connection as it was built on the site of an older Roman fort. From here the bike path leads you into the foothills of the Pennines, no tough climbing yet, just gently rolling hills and passing through small bucolic villages. The road does start getting a bit bumpier and the first biggish town you get to is Brompton. It's a town with a nice centre and a well informed Tourist Information Centre, and a nice place to stop for some lunch which I did – sandwiches and pork pies, the lunch of champions but as there were no champions about it was left to me to eat them.


The man working in the TIC told me that me that the road starts more of an upward trajectory but still had its descents, and that Lanercost Priory was just a few miles down the road with a long stretch of Hadrian's Wall, the first we come across, a little further on. I really enjoyed the priory, it costs £4.10 to enter but is free to English Heritage members. There are quite a few heritage sites across the route each with it's own cost and each needing more than an hour to see it properly, so therefore before deciding which ones to visit you will have to budget your time as well as your money. The church itself was enough for me. The church and the history of the Priory are fascinating and the interior of the church on a sunny day is spectacular, especially when the priory ruins outside are lit up through the stained glass windows. There's also a tea shop (there always is in these types of places) to sit and have a wonder.

After Lanercost the road climbs to Birdsowald – a Roman fort where just before we find the ruins of the wall. It's a great feeling to actually see and you can see why they built it where they did – the views are great north and south, and we all know how the Romans loved a good view. The wall itself was small and not so much a wall to stop people getting in but as a warning that here begins the Roman empire, as in what the Great Wall of China was used for, in my absolutely non expert view (so not what George R Martin was thinking of when he wrote the Game of Thrones). Along the wall there are square ruins of lookout posts and dwelling areas with lots of info for what they were used for. 


Birdsowald is the first in a number of Roman interest heritage sites that can be visited between here and Tynemouth including the Roman Army Museum a few miles down the road, Vindolanda - a newish excavated site sitting near to the highest point of the tour, Housesteads Roman fort a little further on, and there are two more forts just outside Newcastle; Segedunum and Arbeia.


Cracking on but stopping to take pictures every too often I make it to Gisland on the border between Cumbria and Northumberland where I stopped for a snack and a breather on the bridge between both counties and wondered where I was? From Gisland the road took me to Haltwhistle a town which advertises itself as the centre of Britain, and which also has a lot of its own history. With its proximity to the border it had to endure raids by reiver parties, as many towns on both sides of the border did, for centuries. There are many tales and legends of the border reivers and reiving famalies, and some of the old houses in the town were built with reiving money. Haltwhistle was also great for another pitstop/second lunch which I had outside the public park in the centre of town in the company of some locals out enjoying the sunshine.


After leaving Haltwhistle I followed the train line for a bit before climbing again to Once Brewed, with it's iconic sycamore gap (you'll probably have seen it many pictures) waiting to be photograped, after which I turned back towards Vindolanda (they're very close together – instead of turning off for Vindolanda you keep going for half a mile) and its Roman ruins. Leaving Vindolanda the road drops quickly before rising again just as fast. As you rise if you turn around you get great views of the excavation site below you. A little further on you reach a sign saying it's all downhill from here (it doesn't actually say that, it's what a lady in Vindolanda told me and I laugh/don't like/hate it when people say this to me because it's never true and there is usually a few steep hills that people forget about because they drive the route. But in fairness she was right, it was all downhill, almost! The sign says you are now at the highest point of the tour.) and the road gently falls for a while before picking up speed and eventually slowing down as you reach the River Tyne, my guide for the next day or so.


The bike path brings you into Hexham, which when looking around somehow reminded me of cycling in Canada. A big river flowing through it, timber industry and the smell that comes with it, the surrounding forest and possibly the good weather; I'd also just cycled fully loaded over the Pennines and I was a bit tired so it could have also been that. From Hexham I was now starting to zone in mentally and physically on my quarry, Ovingham and dinner. You first pass through Corbridge, a beautifully picturesque town which needed more time than I had to explore but my goal was calling me, but is definitely on the list for the future. From Corbridge the road leads away from the Tyne before again rejoining it near enough to Ovingham. This area was hit badly by the recent floods which meant our road was closed to all traffic except pedestrians and cyclists, great for me this time. However, it is in flux and the situation might change again where the whole road is closed (they need to fix it) and you may be diverted. 


Not long after, I arrive in Ovingham and it's only another mile down the road to the High Hermitage Campsite. Tent goes up, quick shower and I'm ready for some grub. Now comes the big question: Walk or cycle?! I'm too hungry to think which is the best option, so grab the lock, lights and bike and cycle. The white Swan is welcome sight, I order beer, food and I call Kay. Oh the joy of eating after a long day on the bike, it's hard for anything to compare to it and it's a pure high produced by your body burning and storing fuel, and a pint or two is just the icing on the cake (actual icing on an actual cake could also produce the same function!)


There's a pub quiz starting so I go to leave before I embarrass myself. But before I get to the door, they ask the first question: “Who is the boss of Ryanair?” The couple that are sat at my table couldn't remember his name, so I gave them a little help and then made my exit. It was most likely the only question I would have known, but I left with a 100% record, and that's all you can hope for! So with Richard Branson after getting strangers a point, I set off for my night curled up in a tent. 


Third and final day of Hadrian's Cycleway and it was a gorgeous one, albeit a slightly chilly one to start with. So off I head on the road to Wylam to jump of the trail again. Today is basically an easy and flat ride, which follows the River Tyne to Tynemouth and the North Sea. However, first you have to cycle through Newcastle. The trail to Newcastle alongside the river is very pleasant, lots of parks and greenery along with the River Tyne being glorious in the spring sunshine. Just outside Wylam on the trail, you come across the museum of George Stephenson's birthplace, the railway pioneer. The trail continues through the parks banking the river Tyne which look great for a run, walk or cycle, until you come to the edge of the city. The trail now follows cyclepaths/footpaths to Newcastle quayside crossing some bigger roads but all with traffic lights to allow you to cross safely. Newcastle was probably the most surprising part of the tour, riding through the quayside with all those beautiful bridges and buildings, I thought it looked absolutely spectacular in the morning sun. The quayside was littered with caf├ęs frequented by people enjoying their morning coffee at the tables outside; it looked like a chic European city. Later when I returned to get the train back, I got to discover a bit more of the city centre to walk around, and a place I plan to return to again. 


From here, the trail joins the 'Coast and Castles' trail, one which lead from Newcastle to Tynemouth up the coast across the border to Scotland before heading inland to the Scottish capital of Edinburgh.
The trail is very well sign-posted and it flows through the different towns surrounding Newcastle, including Wallsend, which, as its name suggests, is the end of Hadrian's Wall. There was an original section of the wall there and museum/fort called Segedunum. From Wallsend I reached North Shields where I passed through a park to come into the town. Now, Hadrian's Cycleway actually has two endings: South Shields and Tynemouth. It used to be that you could reach South Shields by the tunnel connecting it to North Shields, but at this time the tunnel was under reconstruction so the only way to get there was by pedestrian ferry which left every 30 minutes and takes seven minutes to cross. South Shields also has the Arbeia Roman Fort.


I was heading towards Tynemouth rather than South Shields, so I cycled on through North Shields and onto the coastal path which followed the coast around before climbing up and around toward my destination… and oh, what a sight it was! A picturesque town centre facing the beautiful Tynemouth Castle and all surrounding by majestic cliffs jutting out from the golden sands and the North Sea. 


So it was here that Hadrian's cycleway tour finished for me and it was time for a bit of lunch. Dotted around the square were benches with people eating fish 'n' chips. Now, I'm not normally a fan, but the smell got the better of me so I followed my nose to find a local 'chippy'. On the door it stated that Jimmy Hendrix once ordered takeaway from here, and ate it overlooking the coast and castle. If it's good enough for Jimmy, that will do me. So after a fish and chips that smelled better than it tasted, surrounded by lovely views, thinking back on the previous 2 ½ days, I headed back to Newcastle train station to catch the 3 o'clock back to Manchester. 

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