Northumberland Coast by Tandem (NCN 1)

The other day, while I was writing the directions for the first two sections of the Northern Saints Trails Way of the Sea (for our own series of Route Sheets), I realised I’d omitted to photograph the finish/start of sections 1 & 2 at Druridge Bay Visitor Centre. It was a minor annoyance in fairness, but I’ve learnt that the photos are always handy for reference. However, it seemed like a lot of time, fuel and effort to drive all the way back to Druridge just for a couple of documentary snaps.

During the walk I’d been impressed by the Northumberland Coast Trail as a cycling route (it’s part of the NCN 1) and how it appeared to be suitable for our mainly road-going tandem so, to kill a couple of birds with a single stone, I decided that it would be a great opportunity to go for a spin to the seaside with the specific objective of getting the pics I needed. Starting in Ponteland, we’d  ride through relatively easy lanes to Druridge via Morpeth, Ashington, Ellington and Creswell. 

Although we’d put about three thousand miles on the tandem last year, culminating in a 3-week tour of the Dordogne, Lot and Tarn regions of France, a knee injury sustained while sitting on the toilet (I kid you not) had curtailed much of Diane’s cycling for 2020 and hence there’d been very little tandem activity. Now it’s back to shorter, gentler rides, gradually picking up mileage for a resurgence in 2021 hopefully.

We left Ponteland in sunny, warm but very windy weather. The chap parked behind us had just returned from a ride and was quick to warn us of the strength of the wind. He seemed like a nice guy, so we listened dutifully but if you’ve ever ridden a tandem, you’ll know that they’re much better in the wind than solo bikes. You’ve got the same frontal area, but twice the power and the extra mass softens the effect of the gusts (you die much more quickly on the hills mind, but that’s the case anyway).

We hadn’t long been on the road and had just crested the first hill at Saltwick when Diane shouted at me to stop. She jumped off the bike and disappeared into the verge. I thought this was an impromptu ‘comfort break’ so didn’t pay too much attention. A few seconds later I realised that she was tugging at the back of the bike and muttering darkly. I vaguely recall her mentioning ‘a mushroom’ or something but when I turned round I was astounded to see her holding what she informed me was a ‘Giant Puffball’. I’d never seen fungus that big before – it was literally the size of a football. In fact it was so big that she couldn’t close the top of the trunk bag, so decided to leave it after making sure we’d return to pick it up. It was duly concealed in the tall grass by a road sign.

With the wind generally in our favour on the out-leg we made good time through quiet lanes before entering the outskirts of Morpeth where, as expected, it got much busier. You might see elsewhere on this site that I’m a fan of the work of Durham artist and metalworker, Ray Lonsdale, and it occurred to me that in Carlisle Park (Morpeth) there’s a sculpture of Emily Wilding Davison, a local suffragette who famously died after throwing herself under the king’s horse at the 1913 Epsom Derby. A successful photo shoot in such a lovely park was marred only by the wind blowing the bike off the stand. When I retrieved it from the ground, it seemed remarkably undamaged until I noticed, shortly after setting off, that we’d lost the bar-end mirror, which must have popped off on impact.

Diane volunteered to go back to look for it rather than turn the bike round in a very busy town centre. Ten minutes later she was back, mirror in hand. I popped it back onto its stalk and off we went on the busy A197 out of Morpeth, heading for Ashington on a very welcome stretch of cycle path. Stopping only to take a couple of photographs of the ‘accidental’ nature reserve of Coney Garth Pond we pushed on through Ashington, Ellington and eventually to the coast at Creswell where we’d been a couple of days previously in even sunnier conditions. After speeding downhill past a heavily scaffolded Creswell Tower (a c15th Pele Tower currently undergoing major renovations), we turned left onto the NCN 1, heading north up the coast into a gusting cross-headwind. 

Three kilometres further along the exposed, undulating road, there’s a sharp left at Druridge, at which point you continue straight ahead, still following the coast, on a mixture of surfaces all of which are suitable for narrow high-pressure tyres, plus standard, hinged gates, through which it’s simple to negotiate a tandem (it’s surprising how little attention planners seem pay to anything but solo bikes). Despite the wind, the warm sun and scenery including lakes, burns, dunes, sea and beaches make cycling along this stretch of coast an absolute joy.

It wasn’t long before we arrived at the visitor centre at Ladyburn Lake where I’ve done a couple of triathlons in the past and, not surprisingly, so much quicker than it was for us to walk the same section the other day. Due to a catastrophic charging oversight, my watch had died. Because I was using the 1:50 000 mapping on our Garmin 64st GPS to navigate on-the-fly I was somewhat short of stats for the journey but the good old Cateye cyclocomputer was at hand to inform me that we’d done a shade over 25 miles.

Everything seemed quite normal at the visitor centre cafe, with little to remind me of the current Covid restrictions other than a few cones set up to improvise a one-way system. It doesn’t seem to bother Diane as much as it does me and we enjoyed a relaxed cafe stop, so much so that we had a refill. I left Diane sitting in the sunshine to mooch around taking the photos I’d neglected to take the other day – in almost identical conditions.

After about an hour or so, we hit the road again, straight into a headwind that would intermittently dog us on the return journey but, as I’ve said, on a tandem it’s never as bad as on a solo bike. We’d planned to take a hillier route back to Morpeth, through South Broomhill, Tritlington, Cockle Park and Hebron before turning west under the A1M to visit the castle and church at Mitford, then linking up with the out-leg to retrieve the fungus.

I’m fascinated with all aspects of history but particularly so with the history of conflict (battles and stuff). Over the years, I’ve visited many of the hundreds of sites and structures that we’re lucky enough to have along the border of England and Scotland (and many further afield) but I’d overlooked the impressive defensive hall at Cockle Park. I’m slightly embarrassed to say exactly how excited I was but the word ‘very’ comes into it. The light was good and I got a couple of nice shots despite a limited vantage point. I also took the opportunity to pop the phone onto the tripod and got quite a nice shot of us on the bike, using only the timer – a minor miracle!

Next stop, after passing through the relatively quiet outskirts of Morpeth and alongside the River Wansbeck, was the castle overlooking the leafy lane through Mitford. It’s now a ruin, as it has been for a very long time. In the early c14th when still a fully functioning fortress it was acquired by Sir Gilbert de Middleton, a notorious rogue, who came to a sticky end. Directly opposite, through the dense tree cover, is the elegant spire of the attractive church dedicated to St Mary Magdalene. At this point the Cateye was telling me that, with the few remaining miles, we weren’t going to make the magic ‘50’ with the course we’d chosen, although we’d be close. Diane seemed happy enough as her legs were still in good nick and the knee remained trouble-free.

A long slow rise, behind a couple of cyclists who looked like they knew how to go quick, but were going slow (and causing me a bit of stress, not wanting to overtake) led us to our fungal stash. After rearranging the contents of the bag and leaving the top open, we were on our way again – just as it started to rain. We only had a few miles to go so I put my head down and began to charge, not wanting to get wet if I could help it and imagining that the open bag would resemble a bird bath with a mega-mushroom bobbing about in it. Thankfully the rain stopped almost as soon as it began but I just kept going, until a cheery group of racing types, chatting casually amongst themselves, breezed past when we were almost back to the car. The remaining half mile was covered somewhat more sedately.

For me, the focus of the day had been to get a few fairly ordinary photographs but the opportunity to explore the Northumberland coast on the tandem turned out to be a rewarding one, particularly as the stoker’s knee had held up which bodes well for future two-up cycling trips. Whether cycling or walking, that stretch of coastline has a lot to offer – beach, dunes or path – particularly if you can factor in some good weather. The route is a fairly easy cycle ride, on good surfaces (mostly) with no particularly difficult climbs. Traffic is more intense in Morpeth but there’s a good cycle path for most of the way along the A197 and the visitor centre is almost exactly half way. Give it a go.

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