Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Trip Report: Hadrian's Wall Cycleway

Day 1 (Friday 17th August)
70 km
Newcastle to Wall

We had to leave the house by 6:30 am to catch a 7:30 train from Kings Cross, not the sort of start to a holiday that I'm overly fond of. But we had purpose, and by 10:50 we'd seen two power stations, a handful of castles, some ominous rain clouds and transported our trusty bicycles north to Newcastle.

We were hoping to complete our first multi-day bike ride. To ease ourselves into the idea of cycling for more than one day at a time we had packed lightly - a single rear pannier each (changes of shirts, thermals and a set of warm and dry clothes for the evenings), planning to stay in B and Bs across the Hadrian's Wall Cycleway.

The decision to do the wall had all been a bit last minute, so on the train we studied our recently purchased Sustrans map and planned our route. We aimed to get from Newcastle to Carlisle station in three days following the cross country chunk of the HWC, with a short ride out to the Solway on day four weather and time permitting.

From Newcastle station we joined the route easily enough, and headed west to try to find an appropriate 'official' starting point to take photos- roughly heading for the start of Hadrian’s Wall walking trail, with blind faith that we'll see some sort of marker or plaque.

We failed the first mission of remembering my new cycle computer is set to kms rather than miles so happily, after minor navigation disagreements, have not gone miles in the wrong direction, and at around 6 or 7 miles we find a cheesy plaque and graffiti-ridden 'Welcome to Newcastle' sign at about the right spot. (According to HCW webmaster Doug, we missed the mark by 1/2 a mile...) Still in sunshine we turn east and hit the wind, back through town, and remembering to take a few tourist snaps on the way back past the central waterfront.

It was a flat start inland - the Tyne at low tide revealed its extensive traffic cone collection and the mud banks were carved into intricate patterns by receding water. We cycled alongside some lycra-d tourers for a few miles and I had fleeting visions that my holiday would be spent with my old pink mountain bike sandwiched between groups of touring professionals on high speed racers, but at a turning we took the scenic route, our companions faltered and from then on we pretty much had the paths to ourselves.

Aside from persistent wind, it was a gentle 30 miles to Corbridge, where we could recommend both the sandwich shop and bakery, watched a wedding procession and hunted unsuccessfully for accommodation in the area.

The only option we initially found was 9 miles south of Hexham and way off the marked HWC - not really what you want to discover on day 1 at 3:30pm after a 6am start from London. With weather turning grey and much much colder, we headed on and tried the accommodation board at Hexham. We struck better luck, well to a degree - there was room available at St Oswalds Farm B and B up the road in Wall - only problem was the hill you'd have to climb to reach it, which the couple running it said was a bit steep for biking up.

We dropped in at the only pub in Wall to check we could get dinner there and were told again that the hill was pretty steep. They weren't wrong, even my lowest gear was no help and I pushing my bike up the last quarter. Justin was waiting up the top with some bad news - our accommodation was up an equally steep but busier hill in front of us. As we debated the merits of continuing a bare-chested cyclist went by standing up on his pedals. I was ready to give up - the pub seemed too far away to trek for dinner - but there wasn't another option, so it was onward and upwards.

We checked in and locked our bikes in a quaint tea room for the night before meandering back into Wall for the evening. Just on dusk and on our way back to the B and B we spotted a church, St Oswalds, on the far side of a paddock. We wandered over to have a look in ankle deep wet grass filled will tiny snags of sheep's wool, not another soul in sight, and night settling around us. It had felt like a mammoth effort to get to this spot, but that was all worth it.

Day 2 (Saturday 18th August)
Distance: 45 km
Wall to Haltwhistle

Today was meant to be the wettest and hilliest of our trip - so we kept our ambitions low and aimed to have done the easy 25 miles or so to Haltwhistle by early afternoon. A proper farmhouse breakfast fueled the steep downhills that we had climbed yesterday and we rejoined the cycle path at Hexham a good 30 minutes before the rain started in. It was welcome at first as we were climbing again, but it soon opened up and started bucketing down as we turned down to the Vindolando site and museum.

The staff were unfazed by two dripping wet cyclists asking to put wet rain jackets and panniers somewhere, even if that somewhere was under one of the souvenir tables. After an hour or so the rain eased off enough to enable us to check out the ruins of this ancient military fort. We scoffed a quick lunch and cups of tea in the cafe as it started to dry up outside and continued on towards Haltwhistle.

The immediate sharp downhills from Vindolando and mysterious disappearance of the otherwise excellent markers mean that we took an unexpected shortcut down through Henshaw rather than the less steep climb down to Bardon Mill and missed Twice Brewed and Once Brewed completely. (Doug said a car had knocked the sign down - it should be back up by now).

Map reading apathy due to brilliant signposting so far? I suppose we could take the blame for that.

It rained much of the rest of the way to Haltwhistle somewhat blurring the advertised hill climbing into one drenched stretch - we didn't find many reasons to stop. In the town centre we passed a large group dressed in togas - Roman day celebrations - and signs declaring the disputed centre of Britain and decided it'd be as good a place as any to stop. We gave the accommodation boards a shot and hit the jackpot early with Oakey Knowe Farm B and B.

Slightly out of town, yes, and some reasonable hills heading up the driveway but it came with free range chickens, a pony who spent his time staring into the window to our room and grumbling plus stunning views of stone walls over rolling farmland as far as you could see. The owners recommended The Black Bull for dinner and generously offered us a ride in and an umbrella for the walk back. The pub was worth the recommendation, I had a huge portion of lamb and Justin tucked into the savory bread and butter pudding and my leftovers. A fantastic meal.

Day 3 (Sunday 19th August)
70 km
Haltwhistle to Boustead Hill

This morning the rain started as soon as we turned out of the farmyard gate. We were expecting a few steep climbs on the way out of Haltwhistle - the worst was a 17% descent (luckily not ascent like those coming the other way) on gravel in the rain.

Today we were expecting to see a bit more of the illusive wall but missed the turn off at Birdsowald ironically enough because of a flock of low-flying birds which were trying to dive bomb our bikes. That resulted in a very hilly few miles north of our mark, a very bumpy road to get us back on track and a close encounter with a herd of cows instead of the advertised historical sites of interest.

I was hoping for a tea room break in Brampton, but it appears Brampton is closed on rainy Sundays in August. We both managed to get very muddy on our way into Carlisle by cycling on some off-road sections of the cycle way which were slick with manure and rainwater run off.

It was drizzling in Carlisle and we were pretty grubby and hungry and weren't in the mood to stay in town too long. We took refuge in a Subway to fuel and warm up and rang around for accommodation further west.

Following the HWC out of Carlisle was a bit of a nightmare as the off road path was flooded and we had to slowly pick our path through muddy potholes along the waterfront. (Doug says a new riverside path is due to be built). My wheels were submerged one too many times, and my brakes stopped gripping until they dried out again.

Back on the roads and out on the Solway coast, it dried up, and was almost even sunny. While about two miles from the nearest pub (and yes, up a hill), the Hillside Farm B and B gave us a warm welcome, even offering us much needed cups of tea and baking on arrival. Our hosts gave us a ride down to the nearest pub in Burgh-on-Sand for dinner and meandering back later that evening we had stunning views of the sun setting over the Solway.

Day 4 (Monday 20th August)
45 km
Boustead Hill to Carlisle via loop around to Angerton

It was finally sunny and flat and importantly the wind was behind us. Breakfast was possibly the best yet, and our host suggested that we do the roughly 20 mile trek past Bowness-on-Solway and around to Angerton before looping back past our accommodation at Boustead Hill and back into town. After shifting the cows from our path, we had a fast ride around the Solway Coast, seeing loads of walkers and a few cyclists starting their trek from the west.

We missed our target, the end of the wall walking track at Bowness-on-Solway, because we were finally picking up speed. Eventually we settle on stopping at the 'next wooden bench', which must have been somewhere out by Cardurnock but all the settlements aren't much more than a few houses so it was hard to tell.

I was pleased that my heavy Raleigh bike held up, our panniers didn't leak (or fall off) and even though the weather was sometimes atrocious, we still had a damn good few days.

It was an easy ride back in Carlisle (using the main road this time) and we were a bit cleaner than the day before. We found a tea shop and then headed to the park to play a round of minigolf, leaving sightseeing for less leg weary trips. Grey Carlisle finally got some sunshine about two hours before our train was due and we found a bench to sit on and tighten the loose screws on our bikes before a late afternoon train back to London.

Thanks to Doug who runs the excellent Hadrian's Cycleway resource at

No comments: