Northumberland Coast Tandem

Thursday 3rd September 2020

Although we’d put about three thousand miles on the tandem in 2019 including a 200-mile single day event, short tours in Holland and Belgium and a 3-week camping tour of the Dordogne, Lot and Tarn regions of France, a knee injury had curtailed much of Diane’s cycling in 2020 resulting in little subsequent activity. This ride was meant to help her regain fitness for a resurgence in 2021. I’ve resurrected the report just to kick things off as a ‘ride of the week’ (a nominated ride rather than slavishly being something done during the week although that will probably be the case in general from hereon).

We had driven twenty or so miles from our home in Durham to Ponteland, north of the River Tyne, in sunny, warm but very windy weather. The chap parked behind us had just returned from his own ride and was quick to warn us of the strength of the wind. 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 with twice the power and extra mass to mitigate the effect of the gusts and headwind.

We hadn’t long been on the road when Diane shouted at me to stop. Jumping off the bike she disappeared into the verge. Thinking it was an impromptu ‘comfort break’ I wasn’t paying too much attention. I vaguely recall mention of ‘a mushroom’ 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 the size of a football! In fact it was so big she couldn’t close the trunk bag so we decided to leave it to be picked up later.

With the wind generally in our favour we made good time through quiet lanes before entering the outskirts of Morpeth where it got much busier. I’m a fan of the work of Durham artist and metalworker, Ray Lonsdale, and it occurred to me that in Carlisle Park (that’s in Morpeth) there’s a sculpture of Emily Wilding Davison, the suffragette who threw herself fatally under the king’s horse at the 1913 Epsom Derby. While photographing the statue, the wind blew the bike off its stand. Remarkably, it seemed undamaged but we realised a short while later that we’d lost the bar-end mirror, which must have popped off on impact.

Diane volunteered to go back and look for it rather than turn the bike round in the busy town centre. After only ten minutes, I was popping the mirror back onto its stalk and we set off for coast at Creswell on a very welcome stretch of cycle path alongside the A197. Through the village we passed Creswell Tower, a c15th pele tower, which would have been a focus of the visit but was undergoing major renovations and covered in scaffolding, so we kept going and turned left onto the NCN 1, heading north up the coast into a gusting cross-headwind. 

Beyond Druridge you continue along the coast on a mixture of surfaces all of which, luckily, are suitable for narrow high-pressure tyres like ours. Standard, hinged gates are appreciated too as they’re easy to negotiate with a tandem (planners seem pay attention only to solo bikes). Despite the wind, the scenery – which includes lakes, burns, dunes, sea and beaches – makes cycling along this stretch of beautiful coastline an absolute joy.

A short while later we arrived at the visitor centre at Ladyburn Lake, Druridge Bay, so much more quickly than we’d walked it a few days earlier when we’d been walking the Way of the Sea, part of the Northern Saints Trails and the inspiration for today’s ride. Due to an oversight charging the electronics my watch had died and 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. However, we retain a good old Cateye cyclocomputer which informed me that we’d done a shade over 25 miles.

This was the period of Covid and I’d made a note that everything seemed quite normal at the visitor centre cafe other than a few cones to improvise a one-way system. It never seemed to bother Diane as much as it did me but for once, I was able to enjoy a near-normal cafe stop, so much so that I had a refill. After about an hour or so we hit the road again, looping around to take a hillier route inland, back to Morpeth, through South Broomhill, Tritlington, Cockle Park and Hebron, when we’d turn west under the A1M to visit Mitford castle and church before retrieving the fungus.

Despite being an enthusiastic and reasonably knowledgeable student of border warfare in these parts, I was shocked to find us passing the impressive medieval pele tower at Cockle Park, once the possession of the Bothal family and now part of Newcastle University’s experimental farm. I’m slightly embarrassed to say exactly how excited I was but ‘very’ just about sums it up. 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!

After passing through the relatively quiet outskirts of Morpeth and following the lengthening shadows on the River Wansbeck, we arrived opposite the ruins of Mitford Castle. It was still a functioning fortress in the early c14th when acquired by Sir Gilbert de Middleton who was a notorious rogue and came to a sticky end. On the other side of the road is an attractive church with an elegant spire ascending through the trees, dedicated to St Mary Magdalene. At this point the Cateye was telling me that we probably wouldn’t quite make the intended 50 miles. Diane didn’t seem to disappointed while her legs were in good nick and the knee remained trouble-free.

On the reaching the ‘fungal cache’ we redistributed the contents of the trunk bag but, nevertheless, had to leave the top open to squeeze in the massive mushroom. Just as we set off, and with only a few miles to go, it started to rain. 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 this oversize mushroom bobbing about in it. While the rain stopped almost as soon as it began, I just kept going – until a cheery group of racing types breezed casually past. The remaining half mile was covered somewhat more sedately.

What had been an impromptu training opportunity had yet again turned out to be a rewarding day, particularly as the stoker’s knee had held up as it continued to do so for subsequent cycling trips that year. Whether cycling or walking, that stretch of coastline has a lot to offer – particularly the aforementioned dunes and beaches – helped in no small way with a large dose of good weather. The route is easy, relatively speaking, on good surfaces (mostly) with no particularly difficult climbs. Traffic is fairly intense in Morpeth but there’s a good cycle path for most of the way along the A197 and the visitor centre offers a nice cafe stop at almost exactly half way. Give it a go.

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