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Bike Ride – Tynemouth & South Shields via Ferry

Distance: 54 miles (67 km) | Profile: Flat to undulating | Going: Road & cycle paths | Bike: Cyclo-cross + mudguards; 32C tyres | Date: 09-08-14

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Today I set out on the bike to see the burial place of three kings, a seven foot wooden ‘dolly’ and a ‘disappearing gun’ along with a load of other stuff – all to be found on a trail that I’ve never cycled before although thousands of others certainly have. The C2C cycle path has duplicate starts and finishes on each coast: Workington and Whitehaven on the west with Roker and Tynemouth on the east. To date my many associations with the C2C have all ended (or started) at Roker mainly because it’s so much closer to my home and because the Weardale Way, one of Durham’s two long-distance trails, also has its start/finish nearby.The plan was to join the C2C from the recently explored Keelman’s Way via the Swing Bridge at Newcastle. The C2C runs down the north bank of the River Tyne from Scotswood Bridge where it joins another long distance cycle trail – Hadrian’s Cycleway (NCN 72) – which links two Roman sites on opposite coasts: Glannaventa Bath House near Ravenglass on the west and the fort of Arbeia in South Shields on the east. The trails diverge at North Shields where Hadrian’s Cycleway takes to the ferry to cross the River Tyne to South Shields. Today my plan was to visit the ends of both routes by cycling to Tynemouth then turning around and cycling back the one-and-a-half miles to North Shields and the ferry.

Away from the trails themselves the route wasn’t particularly inspiring although the busy A167 did lead me past the totemic ‘Angel of the North’ that is fast becoming the media’s go-to icon for all things north of York. Close up it is undoubtedly impressive as a feat of engineering given that it seemed to be ‘hoyed up’ overnight [date]. If you take the time to read the interpretation board (and who doesn’t love a good interpretation board) you’ll find that there’s a hell of a lot of concrete holding it down in addition to it being grouted into the mine tunnels that sit below it. Personally I think it pales in comparison to Penshaw Monument which was built by public subscription in 1844, took much longer to build, is much bigger, looks like the Parthenon, commemorates a real northern personality (‘Radical Jack’ Lambton, 1st Earl of Durham and first Governor-General of Canada) and you can walk on top of it!

Once past the Angel, accessing the Keelman’s Way at Dunston staithes is best done by studying the map carefully because it’s not straightforward. After reaching the Keelman’s Way on the riverside we turn right and head east downstream towards Newcastle and the Swing Bridge, crossing the bridge then turning right to pass ‘Bessie Surtees House’ a timber-framed 16th century building and the unfailingly impressive Tyne Bridge high above. We then continue downstream following the signs for the C2C/NCN 72 along what can be a VERY busy quayside.

In general the signage is pretty good although I did veer of it a couple of times. Like many, if not most, cycle paths it follows the route of an old railway line so if you keep in mind that railway engineers were very big on straight lines when laying their tracks it’s usually possible to find the next access fairly quickly. I did find that where signs on posts might be thin on the ground the cycleway is often marked on the ground (which I found was easily overlooked).

There is so much history associated with Newcastle’s quayside that it has filled many books and is impossible to deal with here. One picture that always sticks in my mind is that of hooded figures whipping their horses as they hauled carts up the medieval street of Sidegate alongside the uncovered burn (which is still there) that would have stunk with the effluent from the fleshers and tanners that conducted their business along it. This street, the lower part of which is now populated with pubs and restaurants, is one of the oldest routes into the city and leads away from the quayside between ‘Bessie Surtees House’ and the Tyne Bridge.

Away from the hustle and bustle of the quayside, the route crosses the Ouse Burn, another of Newcastle’s ‘disappeared’ rivers, then begins to climb away from the riverside, passing along the ex-railway line that serviced an area that was once heavily industrialised and populated with shipping.

A couple of miles later we arrive at Wallsend and the World Heritage site of Segedunum (which means ‘strong fort’) that guarded the eastern end of Hadrian’s Wall. Today it is marked most obviously by the high glass viewing platform that stands at the eastern end of the site.

On the other side of the track the old shipyards that once belonged to the iconic Tyneside firm of Swan Hunters, are now rapidly being devoured. At the time of writing, large areas along with the tell-tale outlines of the dry docks that were capable of taking large ships (some of which have already been filled in) lie dormant and sterile, awaiting the developer.

The trail soon joins the road and if you wish to stick to it, you’ll need to cross it and turn right on the cycle path past Hadrian Road Metro station. It then descends to cross the surprisingly picturesque Wallsend Burn before heading towards Willington Quay. At this point I had a little trouble finding the trail when it turned off what is Western Road at this point but after no more than a minute noticed a blue sign with a tell-tale red square stuck to a lamp post in the distance. It was around this area also where signage was probably least effective but the route is noticeably being developed here.

The route then crosses the A19 and the northern end of the Tyne Tunnel; if you look to the south over the toll booths, there on the horizon is Penshaw Monument, visible from almost all directions across County Durham and Tyneside and impressing its rightful claim to being the north’s premier monument. Once again the cycleway runs alongside the road, this time the busy A187 dual-carriageway that leads into the Royal Quays shopping park. At this point I lost the trail for a second time but knowing where I needed to be I found my way into the park around ‘Wet & Wild’ then quickly found the signs again.

This led me almost directly on to the large and impressive marina, made more so as the massive bulk of the North Sea ferry passed behind the multitude of boats moored there. The trail circumnavigates the marina (if you want straight lines, stick to the road) then negotiates more reclaimed shipyards before descending steeply downhill in North Shields to arrive on the narrow strip of flat land alongside the river that is the site of the original 13th century fishing port created by the Prior of Tynemouth.

To the right is the quay for the Tyne Ferry but the plan was to continue east through North Shields to Tynemouth (‘Shields’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon ‘schele’ meaning a shelter or temporary dwelling and also features in the names of upland communities in the north). Not far along the road I passed, for the first time, the ‘old wooden dolly’, a larger-than-lifesize replica of the original ship’s figurehead that had traditionally stood in North Shields since 1814. It stands outside a pub on the Customs House Quay, now known as the Prince of Wales Tavern but formerly known (as is proclaimed on the pub itself) as ‘The Old Wooden Dolly’.

Further along, I passed the Fish Quay with its trawlers almost hidden beneath the quay on a low tide. Only when I got home and did some research did I realise that I had just passed beneath one of North Shields’ iconic architectural landmarks, that being the ‘High Light’ that was once home to a beacon built to help ships navigate the dangerous harbour mouth. Just past the end of the fish quay is another tower of the same design known as the ‘Low Light’ together with the scant remains of Clifford’s Fort – built in the 17th century, first to deter the Dutch and then the French. It then became a submarine mining depot before, somewhat ignominiously, becoming the foundations of a fish processing plant.

Then it was on to the promenade for the final mile-long section of the C2C to the headland at Tynemouth. Visible for miles and towering over the promenade is the memorial statue to Vice-Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood, friend of Nelson and hero of the battle of Trafalgar who took over command on Nelson’s death (and who had also fought at the battle of Bunker Hill in the American War of Independence as I learned recently). Although born in Newcastle his family homes were at Morpeth and Chirton on the outskirts of North Shields.

Not far beyond the celebrated Admiral, a short, steep path leads up to the headland itself which is dominated by the castle and the ruined priory that stands within its walls. A fortress has stood on the headland for over 1000 years and has been the burial ground for three kings; two Anglo-Saxons and one Scot as well as serving as a bolt-hole for Edward II and his favourite, the tragic Piers Gaveston in the early 14th century.

Also to be found at the cliff edge beyond the gravestones is an artillery battery that served in both World Wars complete with 6-inch gun and magazine which can be visited to see how the shells and cartridges were stored and moved to the guns – absolutely fascinating (I should add that I didn’t have time to visit the castle but did so a couple of days later).

Pausing only long enough to consume a 99-Oyster (the messiest ice-cream ever dreamt up by man and one certain to have your hands stuck to your bar tape for hours afterwards), I retraced my tracks, stopping briefly to study the notorious ‘Black Middens’ rocks (the nemesis of many a ship attempting to enter the mouth of the River Tyne) that were fast disappearing beneath the waves. After that I was soon through the Fish Quay and at the bottom of the hill that I had descended earlier. I now left the C2C to take Hadrian’s Cycleway and the ferry to South Shields. At £1.50 one-way (with bike free) it’s pretty good value and takes only 10 minute to cross. The plan now was to head straight to Arbeia and then on to find the ‘disappearing gun’ that overlooks the beach at South Shields.

Arbeia is to be found somewhat incongruously in the middle of a very ordinary housing estate (apologies to any residents that might read this) with its most distinctive and impressive feature being a full-size reconstruction of a Roman gatehouse that doubles as a museum. Once again I didn’t actually visit the site but I have done several times in the past, always finding my way to it by a different route. Unfortunately I took my eye off the ball with respect to the signed directions for Hadrian’s Cycleway and once again made up my own route which involved crossing a public park (check the map).

Leaving the gatehouse behind, I passed the white commander’s villa on Fort Street then right onto Lawe Road which I followed downhill to the junction with the A183. Here I turned left and followed the road onto a busy sea-front emerging at the roundabout by the amusement park, then heading south towards the vast grassy cliff-top area known as The Leas that plays host every September to the Great North Run.

Turning onto a little used road that runs behind the beach I could see my objective sitting on top of the headland known as Trow Point in the distance. A solitary gun with its grey-painted barrel pointing out to sea continues to stand guard against an enemy that never came. On climbing the sandy paths with my bike slung over my shoulder (a ‘cross frame is comfortably handy at times like these) I was able to see that the gun sat on top of a circular, concrete platform that was clearly hollow given the low arched door in the wall. I carefully laid my bike down and climbed up to find there was a smaller circular, segmented, steel platform set inside the concrete one, on which the gun traversed. As I was to find later on doing a little research, this was a clue to why the gun was described as ‘disappearing’. Contrary to what I had imagined – that it was slowly corroding (or something of that sort) – it was actually an experimental installation from the 19th century (the gun itself was a substitute for the original) which involved it being raised on the steel platform when going into action and lowered when it was over.  Turns out that the experiment wasn’t a success and the gun site was moved to Frenchman’s Bay a few hundred metres down the coast (where there is an interesting interpretation board that explains the visible geological structure of the cliffs in Frenchman’s Bay).

Armed with the necessary photographs it was now time to turn for home. Only now did I realise the strength of the headwind that would retard my progress on the way back. To do this trip I’d had to compromise on one of the major rules for successful rides in my book: always come back WITH the wind! As soon as I turned off the coast road my speed dropped considerably and as if this wasn’t bad enough the low sun (it was about 6.30 pm by now) was full in my face making it difficult to see signs. This led to me taking a series of wrong turns as I fumbled my way towards Boldon (I always try to include roads that I’m not overly familiar with and this was not an unusual consequence for someone who is loathe to use sat-navs or any device other than a map). But I got my head down and did my best to make a decent session of it; consequently it wasn’t long before I’d crossed the A19 and was mashing away on the long, remorselessly exposed roads past Nissan heading towards Washington.

From that point the journey really didn’t have too much to recommend it: I could have made it more interesting or challenging but by now I was keen to get back home. I did have time though, to ponder on just how flat the terrain was given that west of the A1(M) there is precious little flat at all. Happily, the sun continued to shine as it dropped towards the horizon although the temperature was noticeably following it.

It always feels good to be able to concentrate on the simple act of riding harder after a day filled with diversions of all kinds. My legs felt pretty good as, although I’d been out a long time, the overall distance wasn’t that great and the profile had been generally flat. Perhaps every sporting cyclist should engage in a bit of heritage hunting as it’s a great way to get the miles in without really having to think about the distances involved. I was looking forward (I know it’s sad) to finding out more about the ‘disappearing gun’ and to once more putting my English Heritage membership (the best value purchase I’ve ever made) to good use in the coming days.