The Best of Northumberland

For this month’s UK Roads James Owen takes us on a tour of Northumberland, home of strange place names and monks…

Being in the North East of England, sharing borders as it does with Scotland, the county of Northumberland has a rather violent past. Northumberland’s neighbour is Cumbria and Hadrian’s wall runs across the two counties in an early attempt to separate England and Scotland. It wasn’t until 1482, after fighting over Berwick upon Tweed ( e city in the most North Easterly corner of Northumberland) thirteen times, did the border line finally settle. As a result, Northumberland is listed as being the county with the most amount of castles, and they do make a striking feature as you ride around. In fact, it’s often said that you can’t throw a stone in Northumberland without hitting a castle, despite it being a big old county at some 1,935 square miles. 

The population is low however with just 316,000 for the area, especially when compared to London at 8,300,000. In fact, 96.7% of the county is classed as rural, meaning there are lots of empty roads to be ridden. Remember though; these features are only a guide, with it quite possible to spend a month in Northumberland and still find hidden little gems dotted about. So what I do is try and get a route that will give you a good weekend away and something that you can build upon – taking in the culture and varying the landscape as much as possible. Here we will have sections of hills and dale, forest, lakes, national park, coastline and island that has a cheeky little causeway for you to amble over. Let’s go take a look at this 165+ mile route shall we. 

Allenheads 

I started off here as it is one of the highest villages in England. Flash in the Peak National Park is the highest English village at 1518 feet, just three feet higher than Allenheads, making it a close runner-up. The town was originally famous for lead mines until this closed in 1896 and just about wiped out the local economy. The main income now is from some agriculture and tourism. The C2C (Coast to Coast) bicycle route runs through the village on the B6295. The big thing here, surprisingly, is skiing, with the altitude of the town meaning it can get plenty of snow in winter. It’s also said to get its fair share of celebrities, attracted by the relative absence of paparazzi. 

Obvious really

Riding the B6295 you will have a steep climb and some amazing views of the open countryside, but take care as it does twist and turn on the way up with a few surprise hairpins. When I went up (June 2013) they had begun to resurface the road and so had no markings – add to that the fact that it was 28C, the tarmac was staying wet on the corners that left more than a wee twitch in the rear trouser department when banking into the corner. Wonderful fun! 

Turn right on to the B6305 when you get to Langley on Tyne. This is a B road but is very well maintained, a long dry stone wall runs down but low enough to see over so you take in the views of the rolling fields that are peppered with small forests and woodlands. It’s an easy going route that allows you to relax a little and enjoy a cruise after the gear and brake play you had over at Allenheads. You will come to Hexham on the A69.

Hexham 

A busy little town, or was when I was there, and home to Hadrian’s Wall. The wall is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and snakes around 73 miles between Bowness in Solway Cumbria to the aptly named Wallsend. You can stop here and explore the remains of the fort and the tourist trappings that always follow a cultural or historical site – all in the name of tea shops and cottage industry goods. It’s a great place to park up and walk around and get an idea of how life must have been like with the influx of leather and metal clad Italians marching around in sandals. You could even pick up a sticker or two for the bike, or perhaps a fridge magnet if that’s your collecting fetish – I ended up with a fridge magnet. Of course there are a lot hotels and pubs in the area for you to late your thirst and take in a bite to eat. 

More than just a large wall, the town also boasts a lot of religious history, with Hexham Abbey the crown jewel of the town – built in 675AD circa under supervision of St Wilfred – Patron of Reformers – with the crypt mainly still in its original state. All done with culture and history we are heading off on the A6079 until you come to the B6320. 

Kielder Water 

As you follow the B6320 that slips and crosses the river North Tyne you will be riding in to the Kielder Forest, the largest man-made woodland in Europe, which in turn brings you to the largest man-made lake in the United Kingdom; Kielder Water. 

Coming into the area – past the sign telling you that you’re in a forest – I felt a little let down and thought I’d made a big mistake. Not a tree in sight for a ‘massive’ man-made woodland. I had a real concern about what I was going to write about – more rolling hills and whichever adjectives I could throw in about a bunch of fields. Then you come over the crop of the hill to a glorious view of tree tops and water, something that had me activating the ABS to get in the layby to savour the view. 

I found a carpark leading on to the lower edge of the waters – there is a road there and so I took it. I saw a ‘guard’ come running out of the fishing hut, but assumed it was to wave hello as I could see no signs to say that I was not allowed to ride down here, so I did, and I could see in the mirror that he had retreated back to his hut. 

The National Park  

As you pop out of the Forest Park you will drop into Scotland, but you can take the back roads – in superb condition and as wide as an A road – this is the B6357 that you will do a right on for the A6088 making a retreat back to England. The main roads of A68 and A696 will take you down in to the Park, but they are a little ‘busy’ and not really what I crave – a bit of open road that twists and turns, pops up and down, as I get to put a touch of power into those bends and the scent of pine gives welcome relief to the stagnant heat in the helmet.

That would be the B6341 towards Alnwick – yet another castle – but before we get there it is the B6341 that will remind you why you ride a bike. Your view is open, the road is inviting for the upper and lower grunt of your gear range and the smell is as far from a motorway service station (cigarette smoke, over priced coffee and diesel fumes) as you can get. The only thing I could see before I got to Alnwick was a pair of Harley Davidson riders with NL plates – I waved as I passed. 

Alnwick – pronounced Ann’ick by the locals – sits off the A1 (boo hiss!) but we won’t be bothering too much with that Caravan magnet of a road. The town is home to a very large castle and home to Ralph Percy, the 12th Duke of Northumberland. The Duke shared his home for a while in films one and two of the Harry Potter series, being part of the film location for Hogwarts. In fact, they now have a running show of looka-likes from the J.K Rowling’s books as they play scenes and put on a show before you get the chance to have your pictures taken next to Hagrid or Harry complete with Nimbus 2000 broom and other paraphernalia. Once you are done playing wizard you can take the B1340 all the way to the amazing coast line of Northumberland and have the scent of fresh pine replaced by the just as welcome whiff of sea salt and cooking battered fi sh – stupid bloody diet – that I was able to taste. 

The road more than made up for my stomach grumbles. I was zipping and banking past villages and open space. To the left would be the glorious British countryside and to the right would be the sea view of postcard cover quality. The sea breeze was very welcome as I headed into Seahouses (that’s the name of the place) up in North Sunderland. It was obvious to see why this place was popular with Scuba Divers, the twin lighthouses on the small islands, a testimony to how many ships had lost their hull trying to navigate the waters. The ships are now a playground for the divers that come in search of treasure. In the coastal road to Lindisfarne or Holy Island, I’d found my own gem… 

Holy Island 

Still heading up the coast, but now on the B1342 towards Lindisfarne, cutting left and zinging right up the coast before we have to cut back inland a tad and take the A1 (Boo hiss!) annnnnnnnd we grind to a halt at the parade of caravans and over packed cars that block the rear view window with beach gear. You’re not on the road that brought the death of fun for long, thank God! 

You come off at the brown sign for Holy Island Causeway and ride down a few miles of twisting road that flicks over a rail crossing (quick! Everyone in adventure gear, it’s a chance to stand up and look adventurey as you cross the tracks – I know I took the opportunity). This brings you to the causeway, which does flood, with plenty of warning signs and timetables to look at as you make your way over the tarmac surfaced causeway on to the island. You will not be able to ride around the island as it is very popular, meaning you have to use the carpark. One good thing is that motorcycles park for free. 

I walked, sweating profusely, about a mile to the main square – they had on some dance with sticks but no bells so it was not Morris. I enjoyed this local show all the same. Then inside to get some famous Lindisfarne Mead, with disappointment my main feeling. Disappointment as the place was very clean, modern and commercial and I was so looking forward to Monks leaping up the bell ropes stonked on mead to the soundtrack of ‘Jump’. Perhaps it only works when eating sweets!? 

I was cheered by the rather ample and unsupervised free mead sample bar, it probably worth booking a B&B here just to get mashed in the mead shop! An array of wines, jams and tourist stuff was layed out and like a child in a sweet shop or an adult in the Touratch shop I dashed around looking for ‘bargains’ or an excuse to buy a shed load of mead as it is more commonly known… ‘It was buy 10 get 2 free Babe, honest’.

The place is well signposted for the main attractions and while seeking the toilets I found a Monk! Fully dressed in robes, he looked the only guy there that was sweating more than me. He was good enough to pose for some snaps and I was gutted that I could not get my bike up here to get a shot of the Monk on the V-Strom! 

Squelching down the road I bid my farewell to the Monk and made my way to the carpark as it was time to move on to the last destination on this play ride – Berwick upon Tweed (Mead safe and sound in the backbag).

Berwick upon Tweed  

You’ve endured the A1 again and come off on the A1167 for the town of Berwick upon Tweed – the most northerly town in England – right on the mouth of the River Tweed. As noted earlier, it is famous for being sacked (attacked) thirteen times during the dispute with Scotland. One of those bloody battles spawned a poem, a ballad actually, that was reportedly the Battle of Ottesburn in 1388. This led to the writing of The Ballard of Chevy Chase, from where the famous comedy actor took his name, forever immortalized in history. It is the story of miscommunication, much like Tennyson’s poem about the Crimean War and the charge of the Light Brigade; a bunch of the local English Toff s lead by the Earl Percy had been out on a hunt on a patch of land that the Scottish Earl of Douglas had forbidden access to. Now the Scottish Earl took the party as an invasion and this sparked a battle where, reportedly, only 110 people survived – there is no mention of how the fox got on! 

So this has been an insight, a tip of the iceberg, a peek or a snapshot of Northumberland and it would be so easy to write a guide book on the county, such are the diverse and fun things to do and see here. I hope you enjoy your ride, have a play, experiment and see where the roads take you. Have fun out there. 

Well clear of the A1

Did you know

Did you know that Berwick-uponTweed was officially at war with Russia for 110 years as the border town frequently changed hands between England and Scotland. Over the centuries it was usually referred to as a separate entity in all State documents. At the outbreak of the Crimean War, Britain declared war on Russia in the name of Britain, Ireland, Berwick-upon-Tweed and all British Dominions. But when the war ended two years later in 1856, the Paris Peace Treaty omitted Berwick. So Berwick was technically at war with Russia until 1966 when a Soviet official, made aware of the situation, visited the town to declare peace.