A week ago last Sunday, we decided to squeeze in another attempt at cycling around the Otterburn military training area in the heart of the Northumberland National Park, before our upcoming holiday to France began to encroach. We’d tried the weekend before that, but only got as far as the village of Elsdon on the southern edge of the training area, where we decided to cut it short thanks to a malfunctioning rear derailleur and Diane’s twinging back. This time it was me causing the problems as for some reason, I wasn’t feeling super motivated and needed to be coaxed out of the car, away from my flask of coffee.
Once up and out, I wasn’t too bad and was soon going through the familiar routine of unloading the bike from its roof-rack. On this occasion, we were using a (free) public car-park alongside the River Coquet in Rothbury where it’s wide and fast-flowing. Today, we’d be crossing it several times, at one point very close to it’s source, where it looks like just another unremarkable, peaty, stream, tumbling out of the Cheviot hills. Weather-wise it was forecast to be reasonably pleasant, remaining dry at least until late afternoon, with a favourable wind for the final half of what was intended to be a 60-mile ride.
Starting where we planned to meant that the first few hundred metres would be steep. It’s a hill I know well from a fell-race that also starts in Rothbury. It isn’t very long but it stings the legs a bit, coming so soon after the start – running or cycling. As it turned out, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I’d talked it up to be and we were soon buzzing along, enjoying a gorgeous panorama across the valley, towards the hills we’d be climbing shortly, and beyond which lay our first café stop, in the village of Elsdon. At 10 miles, it was early by our standards, but the Impromptu Cycling Cafe is a particular favourite.
The pace was deliberately relaxed over the low, gentle, hills along the river valley. Then we hit the long pull up Birkmoor, where more effort was required and where we were passed at the bottom by a couple of guys who, by the time we arrived in Elsdon, had installed themselves comfortably at a table outside the cafe. As usual, it was an oasis of tranquillity, with the exception of sparrows swarming over the bird-feeder as usual, desperate to get their share. A vacant wooden bench, facing the church, beckoned us.
At the Impromptu Café, you get a pot of coffee that is effectively 2 large mugs-worth for £1.50 (at the time of writing). We were in no hurry, and took our time, chilling, listening to the birds, the bees in the bush next to us, and the banter from the table behind us. All seemed well, and when we finally set off, it was in the direction we’d intended last week. According to the firing notices on the government web page (https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/firing-notice), there’d be no red flags to stop us either. For the record, Otterburn, at 90 square miles, is the second-largest live-firing range in the country and has been used by the military since 1911. The Open Access Areas, on the periphery of the training area are accessible all year round while the inner, Controlled Access Area, is subject to restrictions indicated when red flags are flying.
The landscape immediately began to take on a very different character as we eased ourselves over the first hill – the panorama from the top, with the road snaking into the distance, was stunning. The early cross-headwind was now a cross-tailwind, blowing us along with a force that made me think of the guns firing their shells over these ranges. We’d been told several times that the roads were quiet, and we weren’t disappointed: we saw only a couple of civilian vehicles plus a single horse and rider, looking very much alone in the wilderness.
Being keen on all things military, I was anticipating coming across bits of debris – like the odd burnt-out tank here and there, for instance. In fact, there is very little to see from the road. We passed the limestone outcrops of Bushman’s Crag, where I vaguely remembered attending a firepower demonstration as a very impressionable Army Cadet and other places where I recalled exciting times, almost as many years ago, playing with helicopters, in the Territorial Army, with absolutely no clue where I was at the time.
The terrain is as good for tandems as it is for tanks: the climbs aren’t overly long or particularly steep and the roads, in general, are well surfaced. We’d been advised that there was a section of 1:4 somewhere in the area but, if there was, we never found it. As we continued higher, we eventually joined the ancient Roman road of Dere Street, which can be traced through much of the north, as it once linked York with the Antonine Wall (a turf-built predecessor of Hadrian’s Wall) near Edinburgh. At various points close to it are earthwork remains of several Roman marching camps, none of which is more visible than the one at Chew Green which we could see clearly, on the opposite slope, as we descended off the moors towards the upper reaches of the River Coquet.
Shortly before that, however, at a military observation point known as Outer Golden Pot, we chanced across an unobtrusive memorial, that we’d have missed if we hadn’t stopped to inspect an interpretation board that helped explain the impressive valley on our right. Directly behind the board is a marble tablet set horizontally onto a natural rock. It is inscribed with the names of three Royal Marines (a picture suggests that they were a mortar crew) who had been killed in a training accident just before the start of the Falklands War in 1982. A single, sculpted poppy stands at its head, waving in the wind. It’s a poignant reminder that not every soldier is killed facing the enemy and that military training has always been a dangerous business…
The descent off the moor into the top-most part of Upper Coquetdale on the northern edge of the Controlled Access Area is steep, with stony debris on the roads. A couple of cattle grids are placed mischievously on the exit from tight bends so be warned! Immediately after the last grid is the bridge over the peaty stream that is the embryonic River Coquet (Coquet Head lies just upstream). I don’t know why but I always love finding river sources: three major rivers near us, the Tyne, Tees and Wear, all rise on the watershed between County Durham and Cumbria, within an area of only a couple of square kilometres. Imagine being a raindrop and wondering where you might end up…
Summitting the short climb on the other side, I decided that the bridge might have been the perfect place to stop for a brew. With a nice view across the valley and of the road beyond, it would also make a great place to do a bit of filming, to capture us honking up the hill, with the moors spread out majestically behind us. So, back down we went, and for the very first time since we bought it last year, we found ourselves pushing the bike, a short distance up the steep section opposite. It was worth it though, and when we’d finished, we left the bike parked at the top of the hill and walked back down to the bridge for a bit of shelter from the warm, but blustery, wind.
As I was approaching a small car park at the bottom of the hill, I noticed a military truck coming down the road on the other side of the stream. I switched on the camera and began filming so that I had proof of at least one close encounter of the khaki kind. As I panned the camera, I realised that the driver was intent on pulling into the carpark. A silver pickup, followed him in and from both vehicles jumped a large group of soldiers, with packs, guns, the works. It looked like the MOD was gatecrashing our party!
After that, it just got silly: the guys deployed military-fashion, posting a sentry about 30m away, who hadn’t much else to do than watch us. Surreal, and even quite exciting at first, it didn’t stop us from an enjoying a lunch of cheese, tomatoes, and keto cake. You can only handle so much excitement though, and after half an hour or so, we tired of the maneouverings and made our way back up the hill to the bike. I just needed to film us riding away from the camera now, to complete the sequence. Unfortunately, the cloud was thickening rapidly, and the light was very different – darker and flatter – which was going to have an obvious affect on the continuity. Shame, but it’s a lesson I’ll remember until I forget.
The next phase of what I was looking at as a journey in three parts, was mostly downhill through Upper Coquetdale, alongside the river, to the village of Alwinton. In a fashion that only those who know the joy of the tandem will be familiar with, we were soon speeding through the picturesque, steep-sided dale. The roads here are narrow and more gnarly than on the moor, with more cattle grids than seems reasonable, one of which we hit with so much force that I was in no doubt we’d punctured the front tyre.
After much prodding and pressing, it seemed that our luck was in, and the tyre – a Continental Gatorskin – stubbornly refused to go down. So, we pushed on, past Barrowburn and the footbridge at Wedder Leap, where a rascally, sheep-rustler is rumoured to have drowned, along an ever-broadening valley. Further down the road, a random portable toilet and a few parked cars indicated activity was close at hand. Across the valley, we could see what appeared to be a large archaeological dig on what I learned later, had been the site of a medieval village. Not long after that, we stopped again, at a place called Linbriggs (the term ‘linn’ generally refers to a stream; ‘brigg’ is a bridge), to take some photographs of the river where it passes through a small gorge crossed by the bridge implied in the name.
After one final stop to photograph Barrow Scar, a handsome geological feature where layers of volcanic ash thrown out by the erupting Cheviot volcano can clearly be seen, we found ourselves in the village of Alwinton, another place I know quite well from fell-running. That didn’t help me locate the door of the Rose and Thistle pub though, and I had to do a u-turn at the end of the street before we could rendezvous for the next hardly-earned coffee. By now it was properly cloudy, but still very warm, and we had the beer-garden to ourselves (handy when you don’t want to feel inhibited eating your own carb-free dietary provisions).
Whether or not to have that second cup of coffee always tears at my soul, but this time the decision was made for me when I felt the first few shuddering drops of rain on my arms and neck. Usually adequately equipped, I’m nevertheless a fair-weather rider who only braves the elements if he has no other choice. Knowing that the weather wasn’t forecast to get any better, my priority now was to close out the remaining 20 miles, as much in the dry as humanly possible. So, with what remained of the route clear in my mind from last week, I just wanted to get on with it, knowing that the undulations that lay ahead would conspire against us – particularly an ‘off-road’ section of about a mile or so, that I wasn’t particularly looking forward to.
Crossing the bridge out of Alwinton, we turned left and began climbing. At the top, the plan was to turn left again, towards the off-piste section mentioned earlier, but the road ahead looked so inviting, and the clouds above, so dark and threatening (it had stopped raining though) that I quickly scanned the GPS to see whither the road might lead. To my amazement, I could see that it offered a direct route back to Rothbury and, judging from the contours, looked like it would be lightning-fast (that’s OS 1:50,000 mapping for you). Without trying to sound too conniving, I suggested to Diane, that this ‘might’ be our best option given potential conditions. Happily, she seemed okay with it and so it was “home James and don’t spare the horses” and to hell with the other 10 miles we’d planned to do that day.
Without wishing to bring things to an overhasty conclusion, those final miles – as fast as they were – were unexceptional. There was a climb that looked more intimidating on the map than it was in real life, and somehow I managed to get the GoPro out of sequence so that the shots I’d planned to get of us passing through Thropton and entering Rothbury never materialised – all that I had to show for my efforts was a few minutes of unremarkable country lanes. Despite the lack of video evidence to prove it, we arrived nevertheless, and were soon back at the car, dry, and in good nick, but with only a very modest 52 miles on the clock. Okay, we’d beaten the rain, but, as it turned out, it would probably have held off long enough for us to do the planned distance anyway. Not that I cared: a small part of the considerable energy I had left, was being invested in getting the bike back on top of the car so that we could get back home in time for a reasonably timed meal and my annual, three-week-long, daily dose of the Tour de France.