I very much doubt whether the Roman Emperor Hadrian ever had a cycle: but he now has a cycle way, and today I spent a fair amount of my time following it. I enjoyed another fantastic day of cycling through beautiful countryside, and then right through the middle of Newcastle, with more great weather, and a welcoming party at the end. You can’t ask for too much more than that. Today seemed to have a bit of everything: steep hills, Roman remains, pretty villages, an iconic city centre, and a ferry to finish! I had some unexpected company along the way from other cyclists, and I am spending the night as a guest in the home of generous people I had never met before today. How lucky!
I left one home, my auntie’s, this morning knowing that I would spend the night in someone else’s tonight. I didn’t want to be late arriving at our rendezvous point, so I kept an eye on the clock today, a little more than on other days. But I would still need to stop and take on fuel. My first opportunity to do so came after half an hour or so in the small but very pleasing town of Haltwhistle, where I remembered doing an urban land-use survey on a school field trip when I was eleven.
I stopped in the bright sunshine to review my route and to take pictures of the range of places in the town celebrating its claim to be the centre of Britain. These included the Centre of Britain launderette and the Centre of Britain Army surplus store. If that is true, I should surely be more than 87 maps into this 204 map journey; but nevertheless it felt like a major milestone, as if it is all down hill from here. Soon after, I was joined by a couple of cyclists up from Yorkshire, who were riding from Carlisle to Newcastle. We turned north out of the South Tyne valley and found ourselves going up a very long, steep hill. But, bags or not, I can power my way up these challenges now, and was rewarded for getting there first with a superb view down over the excavated remains of the Roman fort of Vindolanda, today subject to hoards of visitors.
From here we cycled together along a smooth, straight road, with Hadrian’s Wall to our left on the horizon, and seemingly the whole world beneath us. Eventually we descended at speed back down to the South Tyne valley, first to the town of Hexham, and then to lovely, well heeled Corbridge, once the most northerly town in the Roman Empire. Where I had lunch.
The rest of the afternoon took me first through more of the Tyne Valley, passing through attractive old villages like Ovingham (O-vin-jum) and Wylam. For a few miles, I was accompanied by another solo male cyclist, a fit looking grey haired man who said he was 66 and returning from a hilly 70 mile ride to his home in Wylam. He told me has was retired and if the weather was decent, cycled 7 days a week. He looked happy and healthy. As we parted ways and shook hands, he said that he had never owned a car and had cycled all his life! He pointed me onto the first of a series of bike paths that followed close to the water’s edge as I made my way into the suburbs of Newcastle. It wasn’t all pretty and there was plenty of sign of industry, old and not so old, in this valley where so many ships were once proudly made and launched. Hadrian’s Cycle Way kept me away from the traffic and a few miles further on I found myself staring at a succession of bridges spanning the large river, some high, some low to the water, made from different materials at different times in history. I had arrived in the centre of the city.
In the middle of the city, along the quayside, it was busy with people enjoying the warm sunshine, in continental style bars and restaurants. Many walked over to the other side by way of the superb ”eyelid” footbridge, whose slender arc cleverly mimics the span of the original Tyne Bridge. On the opposite bank are the Baltic Exchange, a wonderfully renovated exhibition space in a tall, old warehouse, and next to it the Sage concert arena and events venue, which is a futuristic looking building – quite like an armadillo – in the shadow of the old bridge. The combined effect is magnificent.
I still had a good ten miles to go to the coast, so I pushed on along more cycle paths of varying quality. At last, I reached my destination, the North Shields – South Shields passenger ferry, that shuttles back and forth across the river estuary. Here are impressive old buildings on both sides of the river, many now being given a new lease of life as desirable residential units. They now sit alongside newer buildings in a pleasing juxtaposition. It is reassuring to see buildings like the old customs house being valued and rejuvenated. After a huge cargo ship had passed by, the ferry arrived and I got on. Seven minutes later we were docking in South Shields, and there waiting for me were two men I had never met before in my life! Tim, and his friend Graham, had driven almost two hours to meet me with a bike rack and take me back to Cumbria, where I would stay the night at his house and eat in style at his table. The connection was my cousin, Alexis, who is Tim’s physiotherapist. Beyond that, everything was a result of Tim’s curiosity, enthusiasm and generosity, for which I am hugely grateful. And before I knew it, I was drinking Belgian Trappist beer and eating the most amazing wood smoked trout in his home south of Penrith, behaving like we had known each other all our lives. Amazing.