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Bike Ride – Keelman’s Way Exploratory #02

Distance: 35 miles (56 km) | Profile: Hilly | Going: multi-terrain on road and multi-surfaced railway paths | Bike: Cyclo-cross + mudguards; 32C tyres | Date: 20-07-14

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Today I set out to complete my recce of the Keelman’s Way (KW), the western end of which I completed last week (see Keelman’s Way Exploratory). This section stretches from Bill Quay near Hebburn on South Tyneside to Dunston Staithes although there is a short and not particularly attractive section running into Dunston that I didn’t cover as I believe there is a plan to extend the route along the riverside past the staithes.

The ride today was more or less 35 miles and took me around four hours in what were hot and humid conditions – so it couldn’t be described as quick (although the return from Team Valley was done as fast as my legs and lungs would allow). The ride out was reasonable enough – a bit hilly, up the A167, Waldridge Fell (4 miles), north-west side of Chester-le-Street (6 miles) then up the B6313 turning off for Newfield, Pelton (7.5 miles), Ouston (8.5 miles) and finally onto the Bowes Railway Path (BRP) at Lamesley Reed Beds (10.5 miles) near Kibblesworth.

The BRP is officially designated as Regional Route 11 and connects the NCN 14 (Keelman’s Way) to the NCN 7 (C2C) at Stanley. The main characteristic of the BRP is that it is hilly: when it operated as a commercial railway, trucks had to be hauled up valley sides that were too steep for locomotives. The distances and inclines involved are astounding and they make for a challenging ride particularly from Lamesley to Blackham’s Hill at the top of the incline on the Gateshead side. The surface further complicates matters as it is not in the best of condition; it is loose (excessively so in places) and for a short distance mid-way up, a large channel is in the process of being sculpted by rainwater running down the steep hillside. Until the surface is upgraded, mountain bikes can definitely be recommended with a low enough gear to be able to sit down and pedal. I like to use a cyclo-cross with 32C tyres for journeys that include long road sections but sometimes I find that even a bottom gear of 34 x 26 is not really low enough depending on ground conditions.

Towards the top of the incline some of the original railway sleepers are still in place, where they have to be ridden over. The top itself comes a short while later when, after a brief flat section, it kicks up viciously to the road. With jersey fully unzipped but still sweating heavily (although the legs felt fine) I just about managed to pedal it sitting down. To stand up would undoubtedly have had the back wheel spinning on the loose surface and probably would have put me into the hedge.

The trail crosses the road right next to the Lambton Arms public house (which serves food if you feel the need to stop). It then continues briefly to the very top of Blackham’s Hill and onto a network of poorly marked paths. To remain on the BRP you need to continue pretty much straight ahead past the Mount Community Centre (12.5 miles) on a trail that leads past what is the Waggon Inn public house on the left. Near the pub the trail crosses a railway track then a couple of hundred metres further along it turns right onto what at the time of writing is an unsigned but well surfaced track that steps up quite steeply at the junction. You then continue to the road, turn left, then right into the Bowes Railway Museum (13 miles) following the footpath sign for Leam Lane.

The next section is long, dead-straight and downhill with the surface improving as the trail descends. It crosses three major roads before the junction of paths at Wardley that leads to the Keelman’s Way. Skirting the derelict remains of Wardley Colliery (15.5 miles) the track widens into what becomes Wardley Lane before reaching the A185. The trail continues across the road where it’s necessary to ride down the cycle path as the road itself is one-way. It passes The Wardley public house shortly after, then turns second-right downhill on Cromwell Road which offers an impressive first view of the River Tyne. The KW riverside trail starts first-left at the bottom of Cromwell Road (16.5 miles).

Now running generally alongside the River Tyne the trail undulates in and out of tree cover again offering lesser known and quite spectacular views of a river that is much wider than at the more popular locations closer to the city. On reaching the large, white-painted, industrial plant on the riverside (17 miles), the trail turns sharply uphill on Low Heworth Lane then right onto a short stretch of parkland where a low gear is recommended as it kicks up a bit more around the corner. Then it’s onto the service roads of the industrial estate for a short way before joining the trail once more at a rather innocuous junction shortly after the bend when Stoneygate Lane becomes Nest Road (follow the signs).

Then once more back along the riverside quite high up this time before joining another road that runs downhill to Friar’s Goose Marina (18 miles), past The Elephant on the Tyne pub to the riverside. After a few hundred metres and a sharp, if short change in elevation, it eventually joins South Shore Road running right past the distinctive Kittiwake Tower (19 miles) that was erected to provide some of Newcastle’s displaced kittiwake population with new nesting sites, replacing those lost during the renovations to the Baltic Arts Centre.

The trail remains on the tarmac of South Shore Road running past the Baltic Arts Centre, the Millenium Bridge, The Sage and under the lofty roadway of the Tyne Bridge. It then turns right downhill on Bridge Street then left along Pipewellgate (just before the road crosses the Swing Bridge) before returning to the riverside for the final leg to Dunston Staithes where it passes under the remaining bridges of the central Newcastle section, the last being the Redheugh Bridge at 20 miles. This is the longest section of purpose-built trail, offering great views of the bridges back down river but precious little up river apart from the dramatic sweep of the staithes themselves.

From the staithes (21 miles) the trail turns away from the river to make a rather unattractive and awkward detour to Dunston and the looming Metro Centre complex but plans are under way to extend the riverside section past the staithes and over the River Team which it undoubtedly needs to make a cohesive route. With my recce of the KW over (I have covered the short distance that links the two sections several times before and there is nothing worth recording) I headed home, initially on the Teams Cycleway before hitting the long avenues through the Team Valley Trading Estate then under the A1 at Lamesley (24 miles) before passing Lamesley church which stands opposite the site of a former medieval village. With no further excuse to stop I gave it full gas and enjoyed a speedy ascent of the bank from Lamesley, crossing the BRP where I had been a couple of hours earlier. Turning right onto the A167 at the top of the bank I rode as fast as could through the town centres of Birtley (27 miles) and Chester-le-Street (30 miles) before taking the much quieter Holmhill Lane back to Newton Hall.

To summarise: the ride falls into four parts; the first, the BRP from Leamside, is simply a long hill that probably shouldn’t pose too much of a challenge but does, thanks to a degraded surface that has been repaired in places with poorly distributed ballast, a deep channel created by what must amount to flash flooding, a couple of long, dark tunnels and a reasonably stiff incline with a nasty sting in the tail. For some, all of this will simply add a bit of variety to the ride while for others it will ensure that they will almost certainly be pushing for at least some of the way. The second part presents a bit of a navigational challenge to remain on the trail but if negotiated successfully it is followed by a long descent and a fairly easy flat transition to the KW. Next is the KW itself of which the part east of Newcastle is quite convoluted and by no means flat. The road surface and character is constantly changing. These routes are often a ‘work in progress’ so for short periods it can be difficult to remember why you wanted to be there in the first place but seconds later when it opens onto a little known section of the River Tyne the question is answered in spades. The busy and cosmopolitan centre of the route with its unfailingly spectacular bridges and breathtaking mix of architectural styles is always interesting and often exciting depending on what might be going on at the time. Under the Tyne Bridge today’s final section of the KW quickly transforms to offer a much quieter, sweeping, flat and fast run towards the historic staithes at Dunston. Lastly, my route home from Dunston couldn’t really be recommended but it is a very popular route back to the Durham area for cyclists who have spent a day in hillier areas offering as it does a relatively flat run down the Team Valley, a rare thing in this part of the country.