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I'm more of a 'ride the bike to see places' than a 'ride the bike for it's own sake' person so Hadrian's Cycleway appealed as my first cycle touring effort, and two days with around fifty miles per day from Carlisle to Newcastle sounded about right. My bike's an Orbea road bike with 25mm tyres and I started cycling a couple of years ago after a forty-year layoff, I'm 63 now, and rode the route solo.
I took an evening train from Northallerton to Newcastle, pre-booking a bike space, and found the bike-on-train experience to be simpler than I expected. No, there aren't many bike spaces, but their location was clearly marked outside the carriages of the train and there were more than enough empty seats for me to ignore my reserved seat and sit where I could keep an eye on the bike. Changing trains at Newcastle was easy enough, and the onward train to Carlisle even quieter so I could load the bike and then again sit nearby.
Hotel in Carlisle was the County Hotel, which was perfectly sited just across the road from the Station, but badly run-down and in need of some TLC, I'll stay elsewhere in Carlisle if I go back. After breakfast - quite good - my route started outside the hotel door and took me via a quiet road and an underpass to a pedestrian bridge over the main road with a great view of Carlisle Castle, then onto shared-use paths and bike lanes out of town without ever setting a wheel on a main road.
First stop was Lanercost, and the riding so far had been tarmac throughout. Don't be misled into thinking there are no hills on this route, it's very like the Dales where I often ride and undulates up and down and then up some more! I was at Lanercost just after 9.30, which was good as the tearoom opens at 9.30, and my pot of tea with a Bakewell slice was very nice indeed, recommended. Then more country roads and more hills took me to Thirlwall Castle (Tiny ruin perched on top of a man-made hump, just great), on to the Roman Army Museum (Very well done but smaller than I expected, with cycle parking that's just a few wheel-breaker hoops so I locked the Orbe to a tree instead, and a little cafe that did me a take-out tea and a tuna mayo sandwich that was more than adequate) and finally Cawfields milecastle on the Wall itself. I'd read some history about the Wall and really wanted to see Cawfields, it's not on the official route but it's just wonderful, bang in the middle of nowhere with stupidly steep wall sections either side and a positioning that owes nothing at all to practicality!
This section had also taken me past a number of other sites, some just small ruins by the roadside, others much larger and that would have been good to visit, but with so many places of interest in such a relatively short distance there wasn't time to see them all so I'd pre-planned what I wanted to do and tweaked the route a bit to allow me to do so. 'My' route took me along some rough tracks, on footpaths and even across a field, but nothing my skinny-tyred road bike couldn't deal with, though the dry weather probably helped with that. Bicycles are amazingly adaptable machines if you're prepared to go slowly where necessary.
From Cawfields I did a short 4 mile section of main road to Vindolanda rather than the official loop via Haltwhistle and spent two or three hours there. Once again the bike parking was just a few awful wheel-breaker loops but this time there was nowhere else obvious to leave it. That aside, Vindolanda is a fantastic site, with some good recontructions, clear signeage and the opportunity to see archaeological excavations underway. I had no idea archaeology was so wheel-barrow-intensive! Dandelion and Burdock and a fruit scone in the cafe, drink good, scone 6/10.
From there it's largely downhill to Hexham but there are one or two really vicious up-hills, such as the one that leaves the valley bottom in which Vindolanda sits and welcomes you back into the saddle by making you gasp and pant for breath. I was back on the official route now, following quiet country roads. As promised on the route guide there are some screamingly quick downhill sections - hello forty mph - but then a path beside the cross-country rail-line I'd ridden to Carlisle the previous evening to lead in to Hexham.
Overnight was the Station Inn in Hexham, which had lovely staff, a decent room, acceptable food and somewhere to safely store the bike, I'd use it again, especailly when they smilingly replaced a full English breakfast with two mighty bacon sandwiches.
I was too late to visit the Abbey when I arrived in town, it closes at 5, so had a wander around the quiet streets instead. Lots of stone buildings, lots of art galleries and small shops, it was like small market towns ought to be, except it's infested and over-run by cars. It's the first time I've really noticed just how much space is allocated to cars and how much they spoil small towns. Thirsk near home is the same, but it's so familar I'd never realised just how dreadful it is.
The following morning started on the main bridge out of town, which was fine, there was so much traffic it was moving more slowly than me, and then was soon into quiet country roads that took me through Corbridge, took me over the road bridge at Ovingham and then on to a long section of off-road but nicely surfaced country park road beside the river. There were one or two interesting things on that section, a wonderful old railway bridge and George Stephensons birthplace, but it was largely bounded by trees either side and maybe more about cycling pleasantly along than very much to see. I eventually asked a couple where I was and discovered I'd bypassed Prudhoe without even seeing it! If I did the ride again I'd look a bit harder at that section and maybe tweak the route, not that it isn't lovely riding.
Then it was into the hurly burly of Newcastle, but almost all off-road on either shared use paths or cycle routes. The ride led along the riverside past the Newcastle bridges, then once again swung on to a park pathway. I'd tweaked the route here to finish at the true end of the Wall at the Roman fort of Arbeia in South Shields on the south side of the Tyne and used the cycle tunnel to get under the river, which was just great. I can't imagine what it must have been like when it was full of blokes on bikes going to work! From there to Arbeia there were shared use paths I might not have used if I'd been more confident of my route but were good as it didn't matter if I had to stop and map-read.
I was a bit earlier than I'd expected as there hadn't been much to stop and look at on the Hexham to Newcastle section so I headed past Arbeia to the seaside for fish and chips and a large tea, then a walk - no cycling permitted - to the end of the pier, before retracing my route to the fort. Free entry, big site, though not as big as Vindolanda, with a nice little museum and - glory be! - proper bike parking hoops. I had a good hour and half there, and enjoyed it immensely before heading back to Newcastle along NCN14, Keelman's Way, on the south side of the Tyne so I could ride over the Millenium Bridge back to the north shore. A nearby Greggs supplied a large tea and a milk-chocolate cookie for less than two quid and I sat by the river in the sunshine before pottering safely back to the station for the train home.
It had been an excellent two days, and a perfect introduction to gentle cycle touring. Writing this has made me realise just how many sites I bypassed on day one, and how many alternaivtes there would have been for the second day. I'll need to do it again, won't I?
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