Sycamore Gap

Ride across England

For a while I had a vague plan to cycle across the width of the country, from the Solway Firth in the west back to Newcastle. I’d been put off previously by concerns about getting to Carlisle with my bike on the train and a lack of routes that avoided main roads between Carlisle and Brampton.

On a quiet evening I decided to put the plan in to action and got the maps out again for a session going between maps and Street View which confirmed that there were quiet, if slightly indirect, roads everywhere I wanted to go. I eventually decided on a route following NCN72 in places and going more directly east elsewhere.

All that was left was waiting for a dry Saturday with a westerly wind. A chat with a friend who wanted to go for a ‘long ride’ led to a firm commitment to meet up for the 6:30am train west one morning in August.

In the couple of days between planning and going I found myself suffering a mild bout of train anxiety. I had been out as far as Haltwhistle on the train with my bike a couple of times before and on both occasions the trains were the much-derided Pacers. At the time they had very clear signs on the train and platform saying there was only space for two bikes per train. When I turned up with a friend shortly followed by two more people with bikes everyone spent a few tense minutes pretending not to have seen the signs. Both times the train staff, after a bit of a moan, were very understanding and let us all on anyway but I didn’t want to find the day there wasn’t room was the day with a 5am start.

My concern didn’t diminish when we arrived at the platform to find three Pacers in the process of being separated from each other. Fortunately, our train turned out to be a different, more modern variety that had room for 6 bikes. Unsurprisingly given the time, we were the only two getting on with bikes at Newcastle anyway so we hung the bikes on the hangers at the front and settled down for a sedated run along the Tyne valley and on to Carlisle.

By the time we got to our initial destination we had met another cyclist who joined the train in Northumberland and was planning a similar but shorter version of the ride we were about to start. As he set off on the ride back east we set off to negotiate a few sets of traffic lights, duck down a cobbled side street to avoid an unappealing roundabout and find the road west out of town.

It wasn’t long before we were on to quiet roads and riding straight in to the hoped for westerly wind. The first 25km of the ride took us due west and were, on the whole, flat and the wind wasn’t too strong so we made good progress.

The first landmark was the masts for the VLF transmitter at Anthorn (used for sending messages to submarines). Being right on the coast it was motivating to get the first glimpse of the towers as it signalled the most westerly point of the ride but, being very tall, they appeared to stay in the distance for quite some time.

It was a relief to get to the old airfield that houses the transmitter and follow the road north around the headland towards Bowness-on-Solway and the point we would start heading towards home rather than away from it. Leaving the wind behind led to the speed increasing until we had to slow to weave our way through a heard of cows. The cows were all very docile and more interested in the grass than us so we made it through intact.

After a brief photo stop we headed through Bowness and, with the wind at our backs headed back towards Carlisle. Now on the Hadrian’s Way path and cycle route we started to pass walkers and a few groups of cyclists heading out to the coast as well as a small convoy full of bikes and people heading out to start a ride at the coast.

The Solway Firth
The Solway Firth – the most westerly point of the day

For most of the previous week the forecast had been for a dry day but the day before we set off this changed to a ‘heavy shower’ day. The forecast proved its accuracy as we approached the by-pass to the west of Carlisle as the first raindrops started to fall. The transition from light to torrential rain was brisk and we blasted, heads down, along the by-pass (on a great segregated cycle path), over the river Eden and into the northern part of the town. I had to stop a few times as the rain was stinging my eyes (despite wearing glasses) and I was riding almost blind at points.

Luckily the rain eased off so I could see again as we got to the first set of traffic since leaving Carlisle the first time. A quick scoot down a back street and across a main road saw us riding through the delightfully peaceful Rickerby Park and out of Carlisle for the second time that morning. After a brief snack stop and a quick reflection that, at almost 60km, we had already done what would normally be a good Saturday ride but still had another 100km or more to go we carried on through the drizzle.

Trying not to think too hard about the remaining distance (and wet feet, gloves and shorts) we headed to the point of the first route decision of the day – 7km straight along the A689 to Brampton or twice that on the backroads. One look at the clouds of spray surrounding cars hurtling off the roundabout made that decisions for us so we stuck to the cycle path alongside the road for a short distance before turning off to go through Low Crosby and the quieter roads.

Approaching Brampton saw the end of flat terrain with a few gentle hills and the re-emergence of the sun which helped us warm up and dry off after the earlier soaking. Brampton was also the closest place of any significance to the halfway mark and was a good place to stop and buy some more drinks and snacks.

After Brampton the route started to rise over a series of steeper inclines as it made its way up to the course of Hadrian’s Wall. Although we had been following the route of the wall up to Carlisle there hadn’t been any visible remains so far. This changed at Birdoswald where there was some impressive remains of walls and a fort and a milecastle in a field just off the road.

We made fast progress past the fort, where we joined the B6318 through Gilsland, where entering Northumberland felt like another step closer to home, and then on to Greenhead. Better known from Greenhead eastwards as the Military Road (and dating from 1746 rather than Roam times) this would be the road we would be following for the next 50km.

The start of the Military Road also brought the first serious climb of the day – Grenwhelt Bank. With gradients in excess of 14% it provides a decent challenge and is made more enjoyable by a separate paved cycle path alongside the road, which is very narrow at that point.

I had time at the top of the climb to take in expansive views of Northumberland while I waited for my friend to get to the top. This gave me just enough warning to put my rain jacket back on as I watched a wall of rain move towards me than proceed to soak me for the second time that day.

Rain Arriving
Watching a wall of rain wash over me.

When we got going again the rain was so heavy I was having trouble seeing again so we stopped under some trees for a while until things calmed down. Once the rain turn from torrential to steady we set off in again to head to the recently opened National Park centre at Once Brewed.

The Sill, as the visitors centre is known (presumably named after the Whin Sill), had only been open a few weeks and was very busy. We stocked up on drinks at the kiosk, had a few squares of flapjack and then headed out on to the almost dry road once again.

Sycamore Gap
One of the more well know views on the route

I hadn’t ridden along the Military Road before as I’d thought it would be a bit too busy and there is a quieter road that run to the south for quite a lot of it. There was a little too much traffic going too fast for my liking with the usual dangerous drivers passing too close. The road itself made for an enjoyable ride despite the traffic. Being almost straight any hills could be seen from a long way off but they always looked much harder than they turned out to be. Never too steep, the inclines seemed to flatten out just as you wanted them too and the westerly wind didn’t do any harm either.

Once the road gets near Walwick there’s a long section of decent and things got very fast as we flashed through the village and onwards past Chesters Fort to Chollerford. The drawback of all the fast decent is ending upon the banks of the North Tyne faced with a 5.4km climb to gain all the height we had just lost again.

The first couple of kilometres fluctuate between steep and ridiculous but after that it eases off. Twenty minutes of climbing later we reached the highest point of the day, theoretically making it all downhill from there onwards.

We made the most of the downhill and tail wind after that, only slowing for the odd undulation. After crossing between the reservoirs of the Whittle Dene Watercourse (which supplies the drinking water for Newcastle) and topping Harlow Hill we turned south, more out of boredom and the novelty of turning a corner after 50km of almost straight road than anything else.

Shortly afterwards we were passing through Heddon-on-the-Wall and the last visible signs of the wall we would see. There followed another brisk decent through the outer west of Newcastle, down to the banks of the Tyne at Scotswood.

Tiredness was kicking in now so we opted to forgo the traffic lights and streams of cars on the city roads and switched to NCN72 again which took us through the business park and along Newcastle Quayside.

We (very) briefly toyed with the notion of carrying on to Tynemouth to ‘officially’ do a coast-to-coast ride but, after a quick check of the GPS, we decided to stop at a pub and reward ourselves for riding over 100 miles to that point. The final distance was 161.6km and importantly (for no real reason other than self-satisfaction) 100.4 miles.

Burgers, chips, cakes and beer were all consumed which gave us just enough energy to ride up Stepney Bank and home to our respective houses to reflect on a long but satisfying day on the bike.

Total distance: 161584 m
Max elevation: 268 m
Min elevation: 1 m
Total climbing: 1872 m
Total descent: -1894 m
Download