If I thought I had it good yesterday, it only got better today. For starters, the weather was perfect for cycling west to east. Mostly sunny, always dry, not too warm, a helpful breeze. I knew I had taken on a big day today and I didn’t make the earliest start; but I arrived in the wonderfully named Northumberland village of Longframlington, at the Granby Inn, with daylight to spare and a cracking pub meal of local sausage, mash, vegetables and gravy already inside me. It was a pretty hilly day in places. I climbed 6,800 feet altogether according to Strava – the most in a day of the whole trip so far – despite barely topping 1,000 feet in altitude; but that doesn’t bother me too much these days. My legs can cope with most of what is asked of them. If I keep myself well fuelled, that is. But on a Sunday, in pretty remote border country, refuelling stops of any kind can be pretty few and far between. My third stop of the day came after fully 90 miles at 7.25pm. That is a lot of empty space. I stopped despite being just 30 minutes from my destination, because I was hungry and didn’t dare arrive and discover there was no meal available. As it happened, there was, so I had a pudding. Well, I had deserved it today.
The predominant features of the day were consistently lovely, if not quite spectacular, upland scenery and endless, undulating, winding, wide empty roads. The only places of any significance I passed through were Lockerbie, the biggest town around, after 5 miles (too early to be of use); Langholm, after about 25 miles, where everything seemed to be closed; Newcastleton, a remote and pretty planned village in Liddesdale, where I had an excellent late lunch at the wonderful Olive Branch cafe; and lovely Rothbury, where I had dinner four and a half hours later. There was nothing much in between. No shops, no cafes, no garden centres, no pubs, no petrol stations. Nothing but farms and the odd lonely cottage. The exception was the visitor centre at Kielder Water (the largest artificial body of water in the UK by capacity), which supplied me with a late latte and a piece of their only remaining cake after a busy day. They also had a telscope trained on an osprey nest on the far shore, with two birds in attendance, which was rather cool. There are multiple nests here, annually fledging multiple chicks, so the story seems to be a positive one.
But throughout the day, I saw few vehicles and I barely recall seeing another cyclist. When I say empty, I mean it!
With a bit of planning, however – and good weather – that emptiness becomes the essence of the ride. I am almost at the east coast now, with just Alnwick, a lovely small town, to come first in the morning. I have perhaps 90 minutes more cycling to do. And I really think that, with decent rail connections at both ends, and sufficient dots to connect together, this journey deserves to be better known as a classic bike adventure in an otherwise crowded island. You could take four days over it and not be in a hurry (like me), leaving time to enjoy the stops along the way.
Anyway, I will leave that up to you. For me it has been eye-opening. The only parts of today’s ride I had seen before were Newcastleton, which I passed through on a similar day last summer en route by bicycle to Edinburgh, to see my family, soon after a lockdown ended; and Kielder. My first experience of Kielder was running a marathon around the shores of the reservoir. It was my first marathon (of two) and I was challenged by my younger cousin to run it in 2012. That was also a year when I was cycling 5,000 miles, so I was pretty fit. I always said I would never run a marathon. Never say never. Other competitors at the start warned me it would take an extra 15 minutes compared to a ”normal” marathon. It was true that the route was never quite flat, always slightly up or down. I finished in 4.01 and pretty much passed out upon crossing the finish line. It was the hardest physical thing I have ever done. Harder than cycling over 200 miles in a day. Even harder than a couple of much longer ultra events I have done since. I was utterly spent trying to get under four hours. In my other marathon, in Barcelona (different younger cousin this time), I got under four hours and hung up my running shoes. But I was in much better shape at the the end. I hadn’t been back here since. Until today.
My favourite part today came towards the end. After Kielder, the road to Otterburn climbed up high and crossed through expanses of purple heather. You felt like you were on top of the world and could see for many, many miles in every direction. At one point, the newly resurfaced road stretched away in a dead straight line, up and down across the moor for a couple of miles in an unbroken line, like a Roman road, but with the blackest of tarmac and the whitest of white lines. There were some steep, straight descents and nothing in my way. My top speed today was 47 mph, without really trying. I got nowhere near that yesterday. It was brilliant.
The last hour or so was spent descending the length of the Coquet Valley, with the purplest of high hills to my right. The road brought me eventually to Rothbury, which has to be one of the most delightful large villages / small towns in the country, without being especially touristy. It is just lovely, and feels quite prosperous, too. I think I could live in a place like this. Although, thinking about it… I suppose I do!