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Bike Ride – Keelman’s Way Exploratory

Distance: 46 miles (73.5 km) | Profile: Hilly | Going: multi-terrain on road and multi-surfaced railway paths | Bike: Cyclo-cross + mudguards; 32C tyres | Date: 13-07-14

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I wanted to do this ride in order to explore the Keelman’s Way (KW) cycle path (NCN 141/NCN 14) that runs east-west along the south bank of the River Tyne from Wylam to Bill Quay on South Tyneside. Specifically the idea was to recce the route and its heritage eastwards from Wylam to its intersection with the Tanfield Railway Path (TRP) at Dunston. Until I had started looking at the KW earlier this year I hadn’t realised that the TRP extended any further than Sunniside and was intrigued (if not a little bit excited) to find that they actually met. I was keen to see how hilly this particular railway path would be and how its conversion had been handled and I can safely say that the reality exceeded my expectations. Although the distance is logged as 46 miles, the demands of better understanding the route and a very disappointing navigational mistake took the whole trip to well over 50 miles (note that the mileages shown in the text are approximate, rounded up or down to the nearest half mile). Also I humbly apologise for the sparsity of pictures accompanying this report; I never quite got my act together on that one and had to resort to some taken earlier of the Tanfield Railway.

My route from Durham via Witton Gilbert (3.5 miles), Burnhope (7.5 miles), Greencroft (10 miles), Harperley (12 miles), Tantobie (13.5 miles), Burnopfield (14.5 miles), Rowlands Gill (16.5 miles), and Greenside (19.5 miles) is a one that I use quite a bit, all on road with long, steady climbs and fast descents that on this occasion would end in the commuter village of Wylam (23 miles) on the banks of the Tyne. Although I thought I knew the route well enough I missed the left turn to Crawcrook at Greenside and ended up on the busy A695 too far to the east. Turning west on the A695 I then turned off too early ending up in the middle of Ryton and losing more time before I found my way to the crossroads in Crawcrook.

Now on the correct route and descending quickly it wasn’t long before I was approaching the level crossing in Wylam beyond which lay the KW. Once over the tracks I immediately turned off the road and into the station car park. The trail begins in the far corner of the car park and turned out to be well, if loosely, surfaced and although I was running 32Cs it is probably suitable for narrower, higher pressure tyres than mine. Although it is generally pan-flat for about 8 miles to Dunston there are frequent minor but, at times, sharp changes in elevation, sometimes on undressed surfaces. The first couple of miles are alongside the river but in summer the trees in full leaf make a frustrating screen, however shortly after, at Ryton Willows Nature Reserve (25.5 miles), the view of the valley and the river downstream towards Newburn is much more expansive.

One of the best ways of rating a cycle path in my opinion is the frequency with which you have to dismount to tackle a gate or some other poorly designed control feature. This path is pretty good but on the reserve there are a couple of double gate arrangements that demand a bit of dismounted bike juggling. Out of the reserve I arrived at Newburn Bridge (26 miles) which marks the location of the Battle of Newburn, Tyne & Wear’s only registered battle site. It stands on the site of what was once a tidal ford and was a location that I had been particularly looking forward to visiting.

The bridge marks the beginning of a more industrialised area and it wasn’t long before I emerged onto King Oswald Drive, a new road leading to one of the many riverside developments that are springing up along the river. Things then got a bit confusing: I decided, quite reasonably, to follow the visible signage to the junction with Newburn Bridge Road (as indicated by the KW sign) then crossed the railway and turned left at the lights on Stella Road. I then found a signed lane at Bridge Street but missed the track which leads downhill under the railway line and onto the KW. Instead I continued onto the busy roundabout then onto Chain Bridge Road where I lost all signage for the KW.

Realising that as an exercise in checking out the KW it would be pointless to continue I turned off into an industrial estate shortly after the roundabout and immediately found signs for the KW that indicated a well surfaced track behind the railway station. So being keen to find out what had gone wrong with my navigation I set off upstream on this track and quickly arrived at a bridge under which lay the minor track that I had missed earlier. I opted to continue along the main cycle path and a few minutes later found myself back on King Oswald Drive where I had been 15 minutes earlier.

So, I turned around and retraced my route to the industrial estate where once again the signage was a bit vague; after deciding that I didn’t want to continue alongside the main road I elected to follow the sign that directed me along Patterson Street on the industrial estate. This led me back onto the riverside trail at the end of the estate where it passed under Blaydon Bridge (28.5 miles), followed by a disused railway bridge and finally under Scotswood Bridge (29 miles). Then after passing behind Derwenthaugh Marina I crossed the River Derwent (29.5 miles) for the second time that day. At this point the NCN 141 joins the NCN 14 and it requires a sharp turn to the right under the bridge then right and right again to cross the river using the footbridge alongside the railway.

The path then led me very neatly past and beneath the various bits of infrastructure that service the busy and uber-commercial Metro Centre (30 miles) until I reached Cross Lane where I had to turn once more under the railway and onto the cycle path on the far side of Handy Drive (A114). This soon became a bit too quirky for my liking and I ended up taking to the road through Dunston before I came across a sign for the TRP (31.5 miles). I had actually been a little unsure as to whether I was going to explore the TRP that day or just take the link through the Team Valley and back home via Birtley. Now that I’d found it so neatly I thought that I’d definitely make the most of it. The link between the two trails is about half a mile and not particularly well signed. Basically a short road on the right (just after Cormorant Drive on the left) links the A114/Railway Road/Colliery Rd with Ravensworth Road then it’s straight uphill on Ravensworth Road, across Ellison Road, up Ravensworth Terrace then a sharp turn under the railway and onto Rochester Gardens before riding up a spiral cycleway (32 miles) and onto the footbridge over the A1.

Exiting this footbridge on a bike is ridiculously tricky and would be best attempted on a unicycle; however once through the barrier I rode a few metres up the road and turned left on the track, staying high and following the ‘bike’ sign. A few metres afterwards I turned sharp right, off the tarmac path and onto the TRP which at the time was looking nondescript and rather overgrown (I didn’t notice any specific signage for it). Like many similar paths throughout the North East and particularly County Durham, this is an old railway incline (19th century or possibly even 18th century) on which the trucks were mechanically lowered to continue their journey on less severe slopes and thus today they always result in a steep climb or descent. This one is not too bad but bear in mind that my opinion is highly subjective – and the degraded surface (eroding miserably in places) makes it more difficult than it would otherwise be. I certainly wouldn’t recommend it for a road bike.

At the top (which seemed to come sooner than anticipated) I crossed the Whickham Highway (B6317) at Lobley Hill (32.5 miles) and continued into Watergate Country Park. Once in the park the trick is to bear right slightly uphill then pretty much continue straight on; at the junction near the lake, keep left steeply uphill and hang on until it flattens out near to the exit onto the A692 (33.5 miles). I then crossed the road and continued, again steeply uphill and still on a fairly loose surface, until the next road junction after which it eases off up to the junction with A6076 Stanley/Sunniside road (34.5 miles). Across the road the TRP becomes ‘entertainingly undulating’; in fact soon after the junction there is a very short but very steep hill which is quite difficult to ride successfully due to the loose surface (you really need to be sitting down in a low gear after a good run up).

Crossing the railway at the gate I continued to the Tanfield Railway Centre itself then crossed the A6076 again (35.5 miles) to continue on the Bowes Railway Path (BRP) for a short flat section to Birkland Lane (36.5 miles), crossing Birkheads Lane en-route. I then turned right and made a fast descent towards High Urpeth, crossing the Urpeth Burn (38.5 miles) before the stiff but fairly short climb out of what is a steep sided and heavily wooded dene. From there, instead of the usual route straight up the road to High Handenhold I decided to take the C2C cycleway (39 miles) which cuts across the road just before the village, as far as Pelton Fell (40 miles) and from there I took a shortcut through the woods on what seems to be a rapidly degrading trail with deep muddy sections churned up by local off-road motorcyclists (I’m not keen on getting the bike dirty if I don’t have to). This emerges at Waldridge (42 miles) where I rejoined the road and made my way to the A167 (43.5 miles) that took me back to Durham.

In summary the KW from Wylam to Dunston is a pleasant, easy ride that can reasonably be attempted on most types of cycle including road bikes. It is sheltered for the most part but at the moment the signage is not particularly consistent and the route breaks down a bit around Dunston (although in general it appears to be in a continual state of development and improvement). The trail allows the cyclist to bypass the busy roads around the Metro Centre and does well to stay close to the riverside. The TRP is a different beast altogether and involves a lot of climbing on surfaces of varying quality with what are, at least for the moment, minor obstacles in the shape of timber ‘slats’ that cross the path and which seem to have something to to with maintaining the integrity of the path with respect to drainage on steep inclines. Unfortunately they can quickly become challenging ‘staircases’ as, after periods of high rainfall, the surface often seems to get badly washed away in front of the timber making it necessary to attempt to negotiate them at the ends (where all the scratchy stuff is). The Bowes Railway Path (BRP) at Kibblesworth and on the Bowes Incline itself is a fairly extreme example of this effect. All in all the incline section between Sunniside and Dunston is excellent but couldn’t be recommended for road bikes (particularly those with narrow, high pressure tyres – but that’s not to say it’s impossible). The road sections out and back are hilly with fast descents that lend variety and a touch of excitement to the ride. Like most rides, it’s probably best done when the weather has been decent (as it was for me) but the incline section would make a decent challenge when conditions are less favourable.

On this ride there is plenty of heritage to be found particularly that associated with coal and railways: Wylam itself is a medieval village that has changed much throughout its history and is the birthplace of both George Stephenson and Timothy Hackworth, two of the country’s most prominent railway pioneers. The railway theme continues with the Tanfield Railway Path that once brought coal from the collieries at Tanfield and Marley Hill to colliers waiting at the staithes at Dunston. Somewhat ironically it was the railways that ultimately brought about an end to the keelboats whose job it had been to load the waiting ships until the partnership of railways and staithes showed that it could be done much more efficiently. All that seems to remain of their legacy is the name of the trail. The route also includes the Tanfield Railway visitor attraction and the nearby Causey Arch and passes close to the internationally famous Beamish Museum. For me the stand-out feature of this ride is the site of the Battle of Newburn that was an important indicator of the North of England’s economic importance in the 17th century – again with respect to coal – and with its relationship with to the forces of Scotland before and during the English Civil War.