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Cycle touring in Northumberland

'How about a cycling trip round Northumberland?' asked Moira, my regular cycling companion. The idea appealed, particularly after checking that the map contours along the coastal plain south of Berwick-on-Tweed were encouragingly well spaced.

A month later we were on the train heading north to Berwick with our bicycles in the guard's van. We were booked into a bed and breakfast in Belford, about seventeen miles from Berwick, leaving us with a three-hour ride along the cycle-way between the two towns. The term cycle track was a little misleading as we started on a very off-road coastal headland route only previously trodden by sheep. But it did improve to gravel track which criss-crossed its way back and forth over the main North-eastern railway line and was therefore pleasantly flat until a steep hill announced our arrival in Belford. Resuscitation, with Northumberland shortbread and tea, was gratefully received from our bed and breakfast hostess.

holy island causewayHoly Island
The next day we decided to visit Holy Island, or Lindisfarne as it was originally known. Holy Island is linked to the mainland by a tidal causeway and old newspaper photos of cars stranded on the causeway, and accounts of rescue operations, made us check the tide tables closely. The threat of the tide together with our lack of cycling fitness meant that we could allow just three hours on the island if we wanted to be spared the embarrassment of being hauled out of the sea on bicycles. We therefore decided to stay overnight, abandon the bikes and explore the island on foot.

There were plenty of visitors on the Sunday, but at three o'clock the tide turned, the car parks emptied and a snake-like trail of traffic wound its way back to the mainland. The island was soon surrounded by the sea and a sense of peaceful isolation. We walked out to Lindisfarne Castle, which stood, imposingly, on a high crag near the sea. In former times it was a site of strategic importance in war efforts against the Scots. Now it is run by the National Trust. From the tower there were far-reaching views of the island-studded coastline, sea and sky.

lindisfarne priory, holy islandThe Priory is the spiritual center of the island. It was built in memory of the life and teachings of St. Cuthbert, who spread Christianity from Holy Island to northern England in the seventh century. Wandering around the quite extensive ruins gave a sense of the priory's resilience in the face of repeated assaults over the years. In the late evening light, cut off from the mainland and with only a handful of visitors, it was a place of serenity.

Seahouses and Bamburgh
The following day we cycled on down the coast to Seahouses via Bamburgh. The village of Bamburgh is the ancient capital of Northumbria and is famous for its castle, which dominates the village from a vantage point high on a hill. In its time the castle protected the land from coastal invaders. A quick tour confirmed its grandeur and opulence full, as it is, of armoury, artworks, furniture and historical archives.

Seahouses, in marked contrast, was originally a small fishing community famed for its crabs and kippers. It is now more often visited as a small-scale seaside resort, complete with amusement arcades and fun rides. Its fish and chip shops and cafes are renowned. The harbour is still busy and hot kipper rolls, fresh crab and shrimps are on sale from kiosks lining the harbour wall. However, most of the boats heading out to sea were full of binocular-carrying tourists off to the Farne Islands to the sea bird breeding grounds. June is the main nesting season and prime time for a visit.

birds on the farne IslandsAfter checking in to one of the numerous bed and breakfasts in the town we donned fleeces and cycle helmets (a necessary accessory we were warned) and bought tickets for one of the boat trips. We sailed to the outer islands getting close to sea stacks packed with sea birds: guillemots, kittiwakes, shags and cormorants all jostling for position on the stack ledges. The air was thick with their shrill cries and the stench of guano.

Landing on Little Farne was a quite extraordinary experience. We threaded our way over ground heavily burrowed by puffins. Arctic terns swooped onto our heads to protect their newly hatched young from the threat of attack and the cycle helmets, though somewhat absurd looking, offered us some protection. Peering over the sea-cliffs we could see tiers of nests full of furry chicks with mouths open in anticipation. It was a scene of constant frenzied activity and deafening noise, a race against time to fatten up the young before winter.

Into Scotland
Our final day of cycling took us inland through verdant low-lying farming country with the Cheviots misty in the distance. We cycled up and over sheep-grazed Chatton Moor and onto Wooler, an old wool town, where we had a well-deserved coffee stop. The town was busy with morning shoppers and delicious smells of cooking pies and sausages wafted down the street from the local butchers.

We then headed north, through the pretty castle villages of Ford Etal and Northam. Crossing the River Tweed announced our arrival in Scotland and made us feel we had really covered some distance that day. We cycled close to the river, heading towards the coast, until finally the distinctive bridge of Berwick came into view and we were nearing the end of our tour.

That evening we reflected on how much we had done and seen in just three days. For the moderately fit and environmentally friendly holidaymaker, cycle touring is a perfect way to see this unspoilt and beautiful part of Northumberland.

Ann Tonge

FACT FILE: – for information on Lindisfarne Castle, Holy Island and the Farne Islands
– Northumberland County Council's Holy Island Tide Tables, which provide the official safe crossing times to the island. – Sustrans National Cycle Network. Due to be officially opened in May 2002, Northumbria's Cycling Kingdom includes 300 miles of the National Cycle Network in Northumberland and Tyneside. This covers an area that includes Hadrian's Wall, the Gateshead Millennium Bridge, Northumberland National Park and Holy Island. In addition to this, local cycle circuits are being developed with communities in Northumberland to encourage cyclists to explore the less well known parts of the area. Day boat trips to explore the Farne Islands.

Related travel-quest sections: cycle touring, mountain biking, birdwatching, walk/trek/hike

Recommended guide books:
Mountain Bike Guide: Northumberland
Northumberland: Towns and Villages
Northumberland, the Borders and Hadrian's Wall Walks
Holy Island: Pilgrim Guide
Lindisfarne Priory and Holy Island
Farne Islands

© Ann Tonge and travel-quest 2002