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28 August 2005

Northumbria Cycle Tour

written by: Don

Two weeks of fantastic outdoor holiday in Northumbria and Cumbria, combining camping, cycling and hiking, gave us a fantastic impression of Northern England - and the insight that England is so much more than rainy days.

England is famous for its rain, and some mainland Europeans would never consider England as a potential holiday destination. In fact, when we made up our mind to have our summer holiday in northern England, the main reason was that we believed we would probably never get as close to this part of the world as we are right now (since we are living in London)! So the decision was somehow fatalistic, sort of "now or never". We chose to cycle (despite the prospect of being soaked day after day!) because cycling has such a perfect speed for traveling through a country: slow enough for you to get deep impressions of the surrounding (unlike driving), and fast enough for you to cover great distances and see a broad range of different landscapes.

Our route was biased by the "Lonely Planet: Cycling Britain" guide. Starting from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, we planed to ride along the east English coast of Northumbria all the way up to Berwick-upon-Tweed, then turn inland down south to find the Hadrian's Wall again close to Hexham prior turning west along the Roman road / Hadrian's Wall to the west coast. For all of that, we estimated seven days. Adding two days for getting there from and getting back to London, we would still have five days of the two-week holiday left for exploring the starting point of our journey, Newcastle, and most of all the famous Lake District in Cumbria.

Things turned out to be completely different during the tour. First of all and most luckily, the weather was soooo fabulous, we enjoyed bright sunshine almost every single day on the road. In fact, our rain jackets never experienced the feeling of rain dropping onto the surface at all!

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Within the first few days, we found ourselves traveling through a country with thousands and thousands of historical sites everywhere, ruins of castles, priories, mills, forts, etc. The trip somehow became an educational journey. We spent so much time each day visiting all these sites that we had to cut our tour shorter and terminate it in Carlisle. In the end, after approx. 400 km in seven days (which is not a lot for a cycling tour...), we have visited over 15 historical sites extensively, and we can now think of ourselves as experts in English warfare history at the Scottish border. (No, actually we aren't...)

King of the Castles

The very first castle of our trip was quickly found: The "new castle", also called the Garth castle, which gave the city its name. (It was the son of William the Conqueror who in the 12th century ordered a new castle to be built on the spot of an already existing castle to strengthen the power of the new Norman throne.) Another interesting place was the Angel of the North, a huge sculpture of a man with large wings, found in Gateshead south of the river Tyne. All in all, Newcastle is quite an interesting place to be, a mixture of historical landmarks and modern architecture. Only the YWCA where we stayed was such a dreadful place, we would never recommend anyone to stay there.

Despite of the cloudy sky in Newcastle, the following day, the first day on the road, began with fantastic sunshine, giving us an extra boost of motivation right from the start. Unfortunately, things got slightly astray since navigation was indeed quite tricky enroute from Newcastle to Alnwick (bloody Blyth - a maze!). Our initial plan of riding from Newcastle to Dunstan Hill (90km), was quickly abandoned because we got lost so often that we only made it to Warkworth (70km) at the end of the first day - without seeing the Warkworth Castle which was suppose to be good.

In order to give ourselves a treat, we decided to visit the castle the next day. However, the fact that the castle only opens at 10:00 meant that we wouldn't get back on the road before 11:00 - a circumstance that we simply put up with. The other fact that the castle was so interesting and well-preserved meant that in truth we only got back on track at 12:30! It was doubtlessly worth making the effort, and looking back, we do think that Wakrworth Castle was actually the most interesting one and definitely our favourite.

Back on the road, what followed was more frustrating than the day before, because navigation on our side trip to Alnwick was even more difficult. Strange enough, every time we missed a turn, we were always rushing downhill, so we had to climb the steep hills all the way up again every single time. Luckily, the effort was rewarded with a very delicious pizza in Alnwick and a beautiful castle, where Birgit and I could put our ability as a knight to the test with dummy horses and plastic swords (I won).

Hadrian's Wall Awaits

From that day onward, thing got better and better: The weather never failed us, giving us the perfect tan on the face, arms and from the knees downward. The landscape is frequently breathtaking, most of our route leading over lonely country road, sea shores, beaches and cliffs all the way to Berwick and back down to the Hadrian' Wall. The historical sites until then include Dunstanburgh Castle, Bamburgh Castle (impressive view!), Berwick Barracks, Norham Castle, Etal Castle, Ford Castle (not open to public but very awesome exterior), Chipchase Castle and some other interesting sites.

The toughest day happened to be my birthday on the 21st August. From Alwinton to the Chester Roman Ford (63 km), there are four hard climbs to negotiate, two of them right before and after Elsdon (as for the other two ascents, a local man called them "the killers"). The short interval between the first two was really hard, the hot weather made it even harder. Understandably, the pub lunch (Sunday Roast) in Bellingham was more than just a welcome break. Nonetheless, we managed to get through to the Chester Roman Ford at the Hadrian's Wall in the evening and spent some very pleasant time at the ruins of the ancient bath-house, wondering how it could happened that Europe still fell back to such graceless "anarchy" after the technologically advanced realm of the Roman Empire.

The last day of the tour ran along the old Roman road all the way to Carlisle, which was simply the road along the Hadrian's Wall. That was probably also the most hard-working day in every sense: relatively long distance (65 km), loads of climbs - and three historical sites where we spent in average an hour at each of them. From that point of view, we could be pretty proud of ourselves that we arrived in Carlisle relatively early and even enjoyed a wonderful Italian dinner. As a celebration of the cycling tour which has then come to an end, we allowed ourselves one night of Bed & Breakfast.

For the rest of the holiday, we stayed in Hawkshead in the Lake District, close to Windermere. Hawkshead claims to be the prettiest village of the Lake District, which we can't confirm in its full extend due to the lack of comparison, but it is indeed very beautiful. We rounded off our outdoor holiday by hiking. Unfortunately, the weather worsened during the last few days. That did not put down our spirit, and we walked all the way up the Old Man of Coniston, then conquered the Brim Fell, Swirl How and Wetherlam all in a go! The blowing wind at the summit of the Old Man of Coniston was more than just tough - it was another killer!

It was indeed a very pleasant holiday which we both enjoyed a lot. The scenic views were fantastic, and most of all, the people up there are so extremely friendly and helpful. Some of the impressions from our holiday can be found in the gallery section. It was such a good experience that we seriously consider having another Holiday in the UK next summer!



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