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Hadrians Wall Walk Day Six – 24 September 2019

We slept well in the cabin at Roman Wall Lodgings, woke up, dressed (gingerly putting our well worn feet into our boots) and headed to the reception cabin where Paul was cooking up some excellent breakfast wraps and preparing us a packed lunch.

We discussed our plans for the day.  The original plan was to crack on with the last few miles to the end of the Wall at Bowness on Solway.  From there we could get one of the two or three busses running back to Carlisle.  This plan involved us having to carry our kit with us.  We had rather got used to the idea of travelling a bit lighter over the last two days.  We were tired.  Our legs and feet were not happy with us. Paul had a much better idea.

Heading off at the start of the final day
Heading off at the start of the final day

We could leave our bags at the site and arrange for a taxi to meet us in Bowness.  Paul had a deal with a local driver who would do the run into Carlisle for a fixed price, and would be happy to come back via the site for us to collect our bags on the way.  Not only did this sound like a much better plan, but on checking, the cost of the taxi was not much more than the price of two bus tickets.  Sold.

Setting Off Day Six
Setting Off Day Six

We left the campsite the way we had come the previous evening, re-joining the wall path at Beaumont.  The lovely church is likely made of stone from the wall and is, apparently, the only church that sits exactly on the wall’s line anywhere on its route.

The Church on the Wall
The Church on the Wall

In Burgh-on-Sands we sadly didn’t have time for me to make a hoped for pilgrimage to the monument to Edward I.  It lies about a mile north of the route and marks the spot where he died on his way to fight the Scots in 1307.  At least the village has a statue to him next to the path which I could pull some stupid poses next to instead.

Hanging Out With Edward I
Hanging Out With Edward I

Leaving Burgh we were following an arrow straight road along the line of the wall and across the very flat and low lying marshes of the Solway Firth.  Fortunately the fabled winds were relatively light and we were not in a time of year at which any potentially dangerous high tides were forecast.

Don't Get Wet Feet
Don’t Get Wet Feet

At Drumburgh, the ‘castle’ built to protect its occupants from attacks by the Rievers has a couple of Roman Altars sitting in the front yard.  The village also has an enhanced honesty snack box:  a covered tuckshop with toilet facilities.  We made use of both. I do like a Calippo and to get one here was most welcome. 

For the next few miles we left the road and were back across some fields; passing through the village of Glasson, and then some more fields, re-joining the road close to Port Carlisle.

Port Carlisle is a strange place.  Built in 1819 (on the previously named hamlet of Fisher’s Cross) the port was built at the end of a canal designed to allow goods traffic directly into the centre of Carlisle.  The canal was short lived but was superseded by another short-lived enterprise, the Port Carlisle Railway.  The wall path follows the edge of the Solway Firth into the village and across the silted up remains of the harbour entrance.

Port Carlisle Harbour
Port Carlisle Harbour

We left Port Carlisle and were back onto the road, but we were now almost there.  We were into the final mile.  It seemed to both go quickly and yet take forever.  By this time we were just putting one foot in front of the other more in hope than expectation.  We rounded a corner and there was the start of the village.  A footpath in the village leads you back to the waterfront, and around another corner, and there it was.  I’d been here before and so knew what to expect.  Nash saw the little hut that sits on the path and looked round to me.  “Is that it? Have we done it?”  We had indeed.

We were both quite emotional.  It had been a long walk.  Over 80 miles across four full and two half days.  We took in the results of our efforts, put the final stamps into our passports, and finished our lunch as a celebratory treat.

Made It!
Made It!

We had finished about 15-20 minutes before our taxi was due to arrive.  We wandered into the village centre.  Sadly we didn’t have time to visit a pub, but did find an open toilet in the village hall.  As we came out we saw a taxi pull up (a few minutes early).  We met him and poured ourselves into the cab.

The driver was nice and friendly.  Though he was driving nice and steadily it took a disconcertingly short amount of time to get back to Roman Wall Lodges to collect our bags.  After a few more minutes we were driving into the big city and were dropped off at the station.  We bought our tickets and, with about half an hour to wait for the train, picked up a couple of take away coffees.

The ride back on the train was rather surreal.  We couldn’t really directly see where we had walked but we could work it out and it was odd to count back the days as we passed the places where he had our overnight stops.  We were too exhausted now to contemplate the possibility of breaking the journey at Bardon Mill and making the 3 miles or so round trip to Vindolanda.  We had tickets from our visit to the Roman Army museum but they were valid for a year.  We promised ourselves that we would use this as an excuse to come back in 2020 and do a more leisurely visit with the car.  Sadly of course, Covid-19 prevented that from happening in the end.

Instead we stayed on the train and all too quickly we were pulling into Newcastle.  We had one final bit of walking to do; down to the riverside and along to the Malmaison. 

Our suitcase was still waiting for us and the reception team greeted us and congratulated us.  We had been given a better room higher up in the hotel overlooking the riverside.  We made our way up in the lift are gladly crashed out on the massive and comfortable bed.  When we were washed and refreshed and ready we were more than happy to put on the nice clothes that we had left in the hotel.  First up we had a voucher for a celebratory cocktail that we cashed in at the hotel bar before making our way to a restaurant a few doors down for a slap up Mexican banquet.

We ate well, taking our time and savouring that tomorrow we didn’t have to walk anywhere.  We were actually booked in for two nights at the Malmaison and spent the next day exploring the city – but entirely at our own leisure and with nothing that we had to do and, more importantly, nowhere that we had to get to by the end of the day.  Newcastle is a great city and we had a lovely day.  We didn’t venture far but made the most of the day and our extra night at the hotel.

Back in Newcastle
Back in Newcastle

What a fantastic end to an amazing trip.  There is quite a diversity of landscape across the width of the country and all of it is lovely. 

Hadrians Wall Walk Day Five – 23 September 2019

We had a fantastic nights sleep in the lovely room in Quarryside Bed and Breakfast in Banks.  The view from the bedroom window was gorgeous with lovely views out across the Irthing valley and the fells to the South.  The garden was filled with birdlife and, though a little cloudy, the day looked like it would be a good one.  The breakfast did not disappoint and soon, feeling full, we were ready to put our boots on and get walking.  As we had the day before we left our bags at the accommodation ready for them to be collected and taken to our final night’s resting point another 20 miles or thereabouts to the West.

View from Quarryside
View from Quarryside

As we left our host suggested that stop for a coffee in the village of Walton. We said that we would.

We left the village of Banks behind us and, after passing a tall section of (largely reconstructed in the 19th century) wall, we were back into some fields and admiring the views ahead of us.  We were on some of the last of the high ground.  From the hills on the field we had a lovely panorama of the flatter land ahead of us and also, off to the side, the hills of the Lake District were filling the landscape to the South.

The most westerly wall on the walk
The most westerly wall on the walk

We walked across more fields still following the line of the wall, although there was less evidence as we moved on.  Before Walton a diversion due to a broken footbridge had us following a small country lane into the village.  As we crossed King Water River, off to our right, and covered under turf (to protect its structural integrity) were the remains of the Roman Bridge. These hidden remains would be, according to our guidebook, the last time that we would ‘see’ the wall.

Dovecote Bridge
Dovecote Bridge

In Walton we found the Reading Room coffee shop.  We were still full from breakfast and were low on cash at this point so we only stopped for a coffee but we were glad that we did.  The café owner told us that Elizabeth from the B&B had a habit of popping in to see if her visitors had stopped in as per her instructions.  Although we were not likely to be back this way and staying at Quarryside again at any time soon we somehow felt as though we had passed a test and avoided a curse!

Reading Room Cafe
Reading Room Cafe

On leaving the village we came across the first of many honesty boxes that we would find from here on.  With very few shops on the route a number of households leave cool boxes full of pop and snacks to sell to passers by who are asked to just leave money in a pot.  It’s a lovely system and hopefully the number of boxes we passed are an indicator that it works.

Honesty Box
Honesty Box

The next few miles were largely uneventful.  The path mostly cuts across fields with the occasional short section on a quiet lane.  We passed to the side of Carlisle Airport and, in the village of Crosby on Eden, left the line of the wall behind us for the remainder of the walk into Carlisle.  We would now be largely following the line of the River Eden to the city instead.  We stopped on a bench in Linstock to have some refreshments (Quarryside had prepared us a packed lunch for the day) and then crossed over the M6, passed through Rickerby and into Rickerby Park, crossed the Eden and followed the riverside path into the centre of Carlisle.

Across the Eden
Across the Eden

The next stopping point was the unassuming leisure and entertainment complex, the Sands Centre.  We stopped here both to use the toilets and also as this is the latest of the passport stamping sites on the route.  As were low on cash, I made a mercy dash into the city centre to find a cashpoint and also to pick up some blister plasters!  On the way I almost ran into a TV crew.  This was the day that Thomas Cook had gone into liquidation and the local BBC crew were filming a piece outside of the closed store.  I wonder if I made it onto local news?

Ready to continue, we would still be following the meandering twists and turns of the River Eden for the next few miles Westwards.  We were now tired and though the path is quite pleasant it did feel much as though we were merely walking for the sake of it by now.

At Grinsdale we finally got to leave the riverside path and were back to following the line of the wall. Not that there is much evidence of it.  At Beaumont we had reached the end of our day on the wall; though still had a short walk towards Monkhill and our base for the night at Roman Wall Lodges.  We were more than glad to have found our way to the accommodation.  The very friendly and welcoming host, Paul, met us and showed us to the log cabin which was to be our home for our final overnight stop.  Our bags were waiting for us and we gladly kicked off our boots, showered, and rested up for a few minutes.

Large man in a large landscape
Large man in a large landscape

Once refreshed, although our feet were swollen and though not keen to put shoes back on, another short walk down the road took us to the Drovers Rest pub where we had our fill of some excellent value, and well stacked burgers.  Stuffed and properly refreshed, we made our way back to the cabin and fell soundly asleep.

Hadrians Wall Walk Day Four – 22 September 2019

Sunday morning and we awoke in our bunk beds at the Old Repeater Station. We were tired but ready for another day on the wall.  This wouldn’t just be any day. We knew that this was likely to be toughest and, spoilers, it was.

After breakfast I made a call to the luggage company that the other walkers were using and, in exchange for leaving them £20 in an envelope, they would take our bags to our overnight stops on both of our remaining days.  Some of our kit had to be transferred into carrier bags as I was still going to be taking one rucksack, but it would only be carrying the supplies we would need for the walking hours.

We set off into a beautiful morning. However it was a beautiful mix of low sun and dark clouds. It looked unlikely that we’d get through the day completely dry.

A very short walk on the busy road and a trek along a farm track brought us back onto the wall path at Sewing Shields Farm and onto the crags.

Climbing Up
Climbing Up

Although we’d been watching the countryside open up as we headed west the previous day, we really noticed the difference now. From the urban sprawl around Newcastle the country had been expanding, even until later in the day (somewhere around Limestone Corner), the landscape was still regular farm fields with hedges and fences. Now everything was high open moorland intercut only with occasional low stone walls. It is a beautiful part of the world.

After about a mile we approached Housesteads Fort, probably the best of the sites situated directly on the wall.  The last time I came here (on a short afternoon walk from Brocolitia whilst visiting an old friend in the North East) it was possible to continue walking on the wall straight into the fort. Now, however, a fence on the wall meant that we had to go to the English Heritage ticket office and pay entry. Which was, of course, perfectly fine with us.

We had started the day a little later than planned (largely due to sorting the luggage). We had anticipated being at Housesteads before opening hours so it was a double edged sword that we were able to get in. We could visit, but we couldn’t spare too much time so we had a brief look around, used the toilets, stamped our passports, and walked back to the wall at the West side of the fort.

The path continues along the crags. With such a sharp cliff face making a natural barrier from the north it’s a wonder that a wall was needed at all. If any attackers did make it up the crags they would surely have little energy left for a fight.

Mile Castle 37
Mile Castle 37

We passed the beautiful remains of Mile Castle 37 and dropped down to the farm next to Mile Castle 38, then back up some stone steps onto the narrow path overlooking the drop to Crag Lough.

Crag Lough
Crag Lough

From Housteads, atop the crags, admiring the wall, and the countryside across the Lough is one iconic view after another.

And then you come to Sycamore Gap.

The most famous and photographed section of the wall, and therefore the busiest section full of daytrippers coming here from the nearby Castle Rigg carpark. It was also where the first drops of rain started to fall.

Sycamore Gap
Sycamore Gap

We had the approach to the famous tree largely to ourselves but there was a lot of for traffic from there on for the next mile.

We also had the first taste of how the walking would be for the next few miles as we headed up and down some steep, rocky tracks.  We had been warned that this section felt a lot longer due to all the hills and we were about to find out how true this is.

The rain was quite heavy as we approached the car park and some of the group of German students being marched across to Sycamore Gap did not seem pleased to be dragged out in the rain and mud.

After passing to the other side of the nearest car park from the gap, the number of other walkers dropped back down again and we largely had the path to ourselves along the ridge of Winshields Crags.

On a Hill Top
On a Hill Top

We had, at one point, considered a diversion here to visit Vindolanda. We had by now however agreed to just continue on our way without deviation. It would be a three mile extra walk plus time (which we couldn’t spare) at the site.  We would come back another time. Possibly even by breaking our journey back to Newcastle.

Winshields Crags
Winshields Crags

It was the right decision.

At the trig point on Winshields Crags we reached the highest point on the trail however, whilst the direction now would be West and Down, we were far from down with any uphill climbing.

Another Hill Top
Another Hill Top

Bogle Hole, Caw Gap, Bloody Gap, Thorny Doors, Hole Gap.  The next few miles were a near constant round of ups and downs. The rain had eased but the path was now slippery and as a result, carefully picking our way down from the crags was just as slow as climbing back up the other side of each of the gaps. It was also very tiring work.

Striding On
Striding On

At Cawfields we made use of the toilet facilities in the car park and took a break on a bench for a mouthful of coffee and a biscuit.  We needed some sustenance, however, today we did not have any lunch with us so only had the lightest of snacks.

Cawfields Gap
Cawfields Gap

From Cawfields there was a bit of respite on some more even territory across to Great Chester Fort, another of those still buried under fields, yet whose outlines are easy to see.

Marking the wall lines at Great Chesters Fort
Marking the wall lines at Great Chesters Fort

If we thought we had been lulled into the easier walking of the last mile, we were right and we were soon brought back to earth. The ground became more undulating and. as such. our progress slowed again.

At King Arthur’s Turret we were close to done. At the bottom of that gap was a road. Spying more crags and climbs and dips ahead we took a quick look at the map and without any hesitation followed the road. Yes, we might officially be deviating from the path but the distance would be the same. We were tired. We were hungry. We were both a little emotional. We were close to throwing in the towel. We needed the easier walking on the much more even road and would follow it to its end and our planned break at the Roman Army Museum.

We might have missed something amazing here by taking the road. Who can tell? Not me that’s for sure.  But for us, at that time, we had made the right decision.  We paid entry into the museum and had a quick look around. It was much later than we hoped to be here. It was gone 3pm and the museum closed at 4. 

We enjoyed the exhibition, though not as well as we should. Then we went to the tearoom and ordered the last remaining sandwiches and cake that were still available.

Had it not been Sunday we may well have finished the day at this point. There was another 8 miles or so to go and we were shattered. However, the AD122 bus along the wall was not running today.  If we were going to bail we’d either have to try and persuade a taxi to pick us up here and take us to our B&B, or we could get a bus back to Haltwhistle, a train to Brampton or (more likely) Carlisle, and then get a taxi.  It seemed more trouble than just keeping walking.  What was more, having rested and actually having eaten properly for the first time since setting off from the Old Repeater Station, we both felt refreshed and ready to tackle the remaining miles. I was doubly glad that the new feeling of refreshment would keep us walking. Not only as we naturally really had no desire to give up, but also as it was very close to this point that I had suffered a major mechanical problem when cycling along the wall a few years earlier and had to abandon from here and start again the following morning in Carlisle.

We were now almost off the hills (and almost out of Northumberland National Park). Leaving the museum we were back to following the line of the vallum rather than the wall; indeed we were not going to see too much of the wall from here on in.

Thirlwall Castle
Thirlwall Castle

We passed Thirlwall Castle and carried on across some fields towards Gilsland. Through the village, across a couple more fields, and down towards the River Irthing, which not only has another great section of wall to admire, but also the footings of the Roman Bridge that crossed the river here.

Down to the Bridge
Down to the Bridge

The bridge itself has long gone, but a new replacement has, fortunately, been built and so we were very soon and easily on the other bank and ready to head back up a surprisingly steep hill to rejoin the wall, which was surviving quite well here.

A few yards on and we came to the fort of Birdoswald. By now we were too tired to stop and admire the site. This was just as well as it was also too late and had just closed up. We were able to stamp our passports from a box on the wall though before carrying on along our way.

We were now 2 to 3 miles from our base for the night and were desperate to push on and get there. The path here crosses some fields to avoid the road but we wanted to push on. It was late and the road was quiet. Unlike our earlier tarmac diversion we were actually closer to the line of the wall by staying on the road. Being dead straight and largely flat, we could vaguely see our destination in the distance but it felt as though we were never getting any closer.

The Final Road of the Day
The Final Road of the Day

It was close to 7pm by the time we finally made it to our destination; Quarryside B&B. We arrived and were welcomed by our hosts and we were pleased to find our bags waiting for us. I’m so glad we had made those arrangements. We were exhausted and not having to carry our luggage had been a godsend.

As pleased as we were to get to our room, we had to shower quickly and get changed as our hosts were keen to get us out of the house. This was not a bad thing.  The village of Banks does not have any facilities so the hosts were driving us to a local pub for dinner.

We were taken to the Belted Will Inn a fair few miles away where we had an excellent and massive meal. When we were finished the pub landlord, once he had cleaned up in the kitchen, took us back to the B&B.  Apparently this arrangement has been in place almost every day for around 15 years. Hospitality at its most remarkable.  It made for an excellent end to a very long day and was most welcome.  Once back at the B&B we were soon fast asleep in a very comfortable, large double bed.

Hadrians Wall Walk Day Three – 21 September 2019

We woke up on the Saturday morning stiff but ready for another day of walking.  The day was looking quite bright as we dressed and stiffly negotiated the stairs down to the bar for breakfast.  We’d done one full day of walking but were still unsure how we might get on today. We ate well – though not so much that we couldn’t move!  As well as breakfast, the Robin Hood Inn had prepared a packed lunch for us both. As we continued westwards we would be in fairly open countryside and were not likely to come upon too many supermarkets.

Setting Off from the Robin Hood Inn
Setting Off from the Robin Hood Inn

Ready for off we gathered our bags, checked out, stamped our passports at the box on the wall of the pub, and started walking West, leaving just after 8am.  By now, in late September, the sun was still low on the horizon at this hour.  There were a few morning clouds but it looked like they would burn off and it promised to turn into a nice day.  The path follows the line of the ditch by the side of the busy road but it was a pleasant start.  We passed Wallhouses and Halton Shields and across a small part of the unexcavated fort at Halton Chester before coming to the roundabout that marked the junction of the Wall and the Roman Dere Street (which ran from York into Scotland).  There was likely an impressive gate here at the time of the wall but now there is just an old pub recently converted to a coffee shop and café.  There weren’t going to be many places to stop so, although we had not yet ventured overly far, we took a quick break for coffee and cake.

For the next few miles, the remains of the Vallum on the South side of the wall were particularly clear.  The path then carried on through a plantation which had some uneven ground and lots of tree root trip hazards, however the trees did provide some cover from the sun which was now getting quite strong.  We were about 8 miles into the day by the time we arrived at the site of the Battle of Heavenfield where we made a quick diversion to look at St Oswald’s Church (where we also made grateful use of the pews for a few minutes to rest our feet).

From here we started to drop down from the hills and came upon the first visible stretch of wall since Heddon. The path then takes a diversion along some lanes  to avoid a busy stretch of wall side road with no footpath.  We headed down into the North Tyne Valley and towards the first major Roman site since Wallsend.  After walking to, and across, the bridge over the river, and having walked through Chollerford we were very much ready to have a break at Chesters Fort.

We paid the entrance fee and started with a good look around the excellent antiquarian museum and then found a bench to sit and eat our packed lunch.  We had a look around the excavated remains of the fort, probably slightly less full heartedly than we would if we weren’t already tired.  We had an ice cream, stamped our passports, and got back on the road.

From the valley the only way was up. From the top some stiles (there are a lot of stiles on the route) led us into a field and into Northumberland National Park.  Upon entering the park we were soon we were starting to get to the good stuff so far as the wall is concerned. The stretch through the National Park would take us the rest of today and most of tomorrow. Within the Park we would be following some of the best preserved bits of the wall along the most beautiful and dramatic countryside.

Black Carts
Black Carts

The start of this stretch is marked by a stretch of wall at Black Carts. This is the longest section of wall so far on the route coming in this direction. The joy of finding some proper wall remains here also helps to hide that you are still slowly but steadily climbing onto the hills.

The wall remains disappear but the ditch remains very evident and before long we were turning the ‘corner’ at Limestone Corner. We were at the most northerly point on the walk and the landscape was opening up wider and wider with every passing mile.

It was also getting later though and we had to press on. It was almost 5 o’clock by the time we turned the corner with the best part of 4 or 5 miles to walk.  The path follows the line of the ditch close to the road but on the grass, the path is quite uneven and the walking was slower as a result.

Despite this we were soon at the site of Brocolitia Fort, partially excavated but with no extant above ground remains. The path here crosses the road and skirts around the fort. It is pretty, but did add a few more yards onto the straight line distance remaining. You do, however, get to visit the temple of Mithras which is evacuated and open for viewing.  After the fort we crossed the road back onto the ditch and some more uneven ground.

With time ticking on, and the sun beginning to set, we came to a point where the path and the road diverge.  Here we jumped the fence and onto the road.  Our guide book warned against doing this, but we were late and our B&B was a short way ahead alongside the road so this should be a good shortcut.  It wasn’t much fun though. Although not the busiest stretch of road, being straight and open most drivers were, shall we say, playing fast and loose with the speed regulations.

Approaching the Old Repeater Station
Approaching the Old Repeater Station

However in front of us we could spy the Old Repeater Station and, at just around half past six and roughly 10 and a half hours after leaving the Robin Hood, we arrived and kicked off our walking boots.  Les, the owner of the B&B was cooking and we had just enough time to shower and change and join him and two other walkers for a simple but excellent supper and a couple of beers.  The other two gentlemen, not traveling together, were an American retired teacher and a Dutch airplane mechanic and Roman reenactor.

The company was excellent. We exchanged tales of where we had been and what was ahead (we were walking in different directions so could share tips). Both gents were using a service that was transporting their luggage from one B&B to the next. Why didn’t we think of that? I resolved to call the company in the morning and see if we could do the same.

Tired, but feed and refreshed, we went back to our bunk beds and fell quickly to sleep.

Hadrians Wall Walk Day Two – 20 September 2019

Friday morning and it was time to start the walking proper.  We got all of our kit ready, leaving anything that we wouldn’t need for the next five days in the suitcase which we would be leaving at the hotel.  We made sure our respective troublesome joints were strapped and ready for a full day of walking.  Before setting off we made full use of the hotel buffet breakfast and made final adjustments to the bags.  Then it was time to checkout and shortly afterwards we were standing on the quayside ready to walk.

Ahead of us today we had 15 miles. The day promised to be one of two halves. We would start with 9 or 10 miles following the Tyne valley upstream, and then the remainder would be following the wall on higher ground above the valley.

Heading Out of the City
Heading Out of the City

We had a glorious bright and clear morning to set off into, and the gorgeous Tyne bridges lay just in front of us. After a quick diversion to a Tesco Metro to gather lunch and snack supplies  we headed upstream out of the City through Elswood.  We soon got into a good, steady, stride.  The path is tarmac here, though it does lead away from the riverside every now and again following some old waggon way routes and various other footpaths, but you get a real feeling for how lovely the Newcastle area is even in some of its more deprived areas.  We passed the Lemington Glass Works site and a statue commemorating the 38 lives lost in the Montagu Mining Disaster of 1925.

At Newburn the path passes back down to the riverside and we took a break on a bench by the Riverside Country Park visitor centre where the cafe provided us with coffee and a biscuit as well as refilling our water bottles.  I had stopped on pretty much the same bench on my cycle ride a few years earlier on a similarly warm day.

The Tyne valley along here is glorious and the going was still good, although by now we feeling a little frazzled and hadn’t gone quite as far as we had hoped by this time of the day.  The path diverts away from the river to follow the old Wylam Waggonway track for a mile or so before we had to turn to the right and tackle the first hill of the walk; a long but steady climb up onto Heddon on the Wall. 

Wylam Waggonway
Wylam Waggonway

After a few hours walking and having got used to flat ground the hill took it out of us a bit, but eventually we made it to the top. We took a short diversion (although it felt a lot longer at the time) to get our first glance of the wall since leaving Wallsend, and then found a small park close to a garage and shop.  We got some fresh drinks and some extra food from the shop, made use of the garage toilet, and had a good refreshing lunch on a bench in the shade of the park.

The Wall at Heddon-on-the-Wall
The Wall at Heddon-on-the-Wall

Despite the time we had already taken we still had a long way to walk today.  We were over half way; but not by too much.  From now on up we were off the flat riverside land and, whilst we had climbed the main hill of the day, the path ahead promised some good undulations and lots of stiles to climb over.

The Way Ahead
The Way Ahead

At least we now had the feeling that we were actually following the wall.  The vallum was obvious to the south in many places and there were some suspiciously well faced stones in some of the field walls.  The miles ticked over slowly.  We were tired now; out of snacks and low on water.  A couple of diversions around some fields were known and planned for, but still felt like they were taking us out of our way when we just wanted to get to the end of the day.  Passing the Great Northern Lake (a couple of reservoirs built to power some of the Victorian factories of Newcastle) indicated that we were getting close – just a mile or two to go – but despite the open countryside we couldn’t yet see our destination in front of us; it was hopefully hidden behind some trees rather than still beyond the horizon. 

Along the Line of the Wall
Along the Line of the Wall

The light was starting to fail as we eventually came out of a footpath to the side of the road and realised that we had made it to the hamlet of East Wallhouses and our destination for the night The Robin Hood Inn was clearly visible.  It was a very welcome site and is a lovely pub – if you’re up that way it’s definitely worth a visit.

The Robin Hood Inn
The Robin Hood Inn

We had twin rooms for the night (due to availability rather than choice).  We rested up and got refreshed and slowly and gingerly on tired legs walked back down to the bar for a much needed pint or two and a lovely pie based supper before heading back up for a well earned sleep.

Passport Stamping Point
Passport Stamping Point

Hadrians Wall Walk Day One – 19 September 2019

2019 was a different year for me.  I didn’t do one of my annual cycling tours due to a variety of factors; mostly just time slipping away during the year.  I had some tentative plans for a couple of possible routes but I’m going to keep hold of those ideas for the future (though, as I am writing this up almost a year on from the walk described here, Covid-19 has put paid to those plans happening in 2020 as well).

Instead, towards the end of the summer when we’d still not had any real sort of a break, Nash suggested planning a trip.  I was thinking of something nice and relaxing. A week somewhere to France to chill quietly perhaps?  “I thought we could walk the length of Hadrian’s Wall” came the suggestion.  So I was almost right.

I won’t bore you with the details, but after a few checks of maps, B&B booking websites and guide books, we came up with a plan to complete the route over six days of walking (four full days with a “half day” at either end).  So it was that on a Thursday in the middle of September we set off drove north up the A1.  We parked the car up in the long stay parking at Newcastle Airport and, laden with a suitcase and a medium sized rucksack each, we walked into the terminal, straight back out the other side, and got the Metro into the City Centre.  After getting lost in some underpasses we made it down to the river front and checked into our base camp: the Malmaison hotel.  We would be staying overnight here tonight and we were also booked back here for a final night at the end of the trip.  With some more spartan accommodation awaiting us en-route we had treated ourselves to a quality room to bookend the adventure.  As such we could bring some nicer clothes for travelling and the evenings in town here and leave the suitcase with the hotel whilst we were away walking.  We were too early to check in but we left the suitcase and one of our rucksacks at reception.  We wouldn’t need to be carrying much for today’s warm up walk.

Manors
Manors

We headed back up the hill to Manors Metro station and got the yellow train east towards the end of the wall at the appropriately named Wallsend (aka Segedunum).  As the name suggests, the station is close to the fort that guarded the end of the wall overlooking the River Tyne.  The museum was quiet so we had a good chance to explore the excellent exhibitions, take a look over the site from the viewing gallery, take a wander around the site itself, and have a panini each in the café.

Having got ourselves into the Roman spirit we made ready to begin.  Back at the museum entrance we bought our “passports” and collected our first stamps just as a small group entered.  They had just completed the walk in the opposite direction.  After congratulations and good lucks were shared, Nash and I made our way down to the southern gate of the site and onto the path ready to start the walk.

Today we had just four miles or thereabouts ahead of us, more aligned with the river than the line of the wall.  It was a hot afternoon and we were going to need plenty of water, even for this short walk.

Let's Go That-A-Way
Let’s Go That-A-Way

The very end of the wall is now lost under the remains of the derelict Swan Hunter ship building yard but one of the best remaining sections of wall is right outside the fort and as such forms the traditional start to of the route.  From here we headed Westwards.  For most of the today we would be following the start of the Hadrian’s Wall cycle route which I had ridden back in 2015

For the first mile or two the path sits at a good height above Tyne, but the views are intermittent as you pass through wooded parks and around housing estates.  The walking was nice but largely uneventful.  One of the key tests for today was to see how our limbs would hold up.  Nash had damaged her knee a month or two previously and she was a little concerned about how it might take to all this walking. She was testing a new knee bandage which needed a bit of regular adjustment but seemed to be helping. I had been forced off my bike 3 or 4 weeks earlier by a driver pulling out at a roundabout and as a result had a fairly badly swollen foot. It was much improved by now but still not quite right.

The Start of the Wall
The Start of the Wall

At the end of one stretch of park the pathway drops down to the riverside and the rest of today would be at waterfront level as we walked back towards the city centre.  It’s hard to believe that you are so close to one of the major UK city centres as you follow the lovely waterside path.  We were just a mile or so from the centre of the town but could barely tell as we looked across the river to the green banks on the other side.  The occasional riverside industrial units gave the game away a little, but it’s still hard to imagine that you are so close to the core of one of the UK’s major cities at this point.

Across The Tyne
Across The Tyne

After only  a little over an hours walking from Segedunum we turned a corner in the river and saw the sites of Newcastle honing into view in front of us. Within very short order you glimpse the Baltic Mills and the Sage on the Gateshead side of the river, and the various bridges crossing the Tyne, most notably the iconic Tyne Bridge. After a brief stop to fill up a water bottle at a bike shop we carried on and before we knew it we were back at the Malmaison.

We were both hot and had a few aches and niggles but on the whole we felt pretty good.  We settled ourselves into our room and both had a long bath each before heading to the hotel restaurant – we had got a deal which included a two course meal and a glass of Prosecco along with a nice room overlooking the River.  It was nice to then be able to simply get the lift back up a couple of floors to our room with its very large and very comfortable bed.  Our accommodation for most of the remainder of the trip was likely to be a bit more basic.

Next Up: Day Two from Newcastle to East Wallhouses

My first 200km (A Greatest Hits Ride)

I’ve ridden 100km a number of times now; and even ridden 100 miles on a small handful of occasions in the past. However I’d never extended the distance to the mystical 200km (124.27 miles).  As Spring started turning towards the Summer of 2019 I was feeling inspired to put this “right”. 

The blame/credit for this inspiration came in two forms. 

The first form was in the super human shape of Mark Beaumont.  I had been to see him talking about his ‘Around the World in 80 Days‘ cycle challenge and then read his book.  If he could do 80 days riding on average around 240 miles a day, then I’m sure that I could surely manage one day of 125 miles. No?

My second inspiration was my old University friend Jill.  Jill has long been astounding me with her amazing long distance fell running efforts but more recently I had looked on in awe as she rode the C2C route in one day – a truly amazing feat with the hills involved in that ride.

So, suitably inspired, I planned a route. I wanted to ride a circuit that I already knew so that I had an idea of what was ahead of me. I wanted the route to be a circuit rather than linear. I often like riding A to B in order to see a bit more countryside (and yes, to keep the wind at an advantageous angle). However for this adventure I didn’t want to do a long ride and then have to spend a few more hours on a train getting home.  I also wanted a known route so that I could put my head down and turn the peddles without feeling inclined to stop and take lots of pictures every mile or two.

You will notice that there are photos in this blog post. I chose to use this as a ‘Greatest Hits’ post using photos I had taken on previous rides that I’ve (mostly) not used on these pages before.

I settled on a trip that I had undertaken around Kent and Sussex a year or two earlier, but with the addition of a section of old railway line cycle path which would get me to the required distance, without any steep hills.  All planned I set off on a good early Summer’s day in the first week of June.

I had taken a day off work for the trip but I was up earlier than I would have been had I been going to the office. I was saddled up and on my way, heading East out of Hastings before 6am.

I followed my usual route East, heading through Pett village rather than following NCN2 through Fairlight; the road surface down Battery Hill is still too dangerous for the angle of descent.

Pett - Dec 2016
Pett – Dec 2016

Instead I joined NCN2 at Pett Level and followed it’s alternative (and better) route along the coast through the Rye Harbour Nature Reserve and then up into Rye itself.

From Rye I headed off the National Cycle Network for a few miles; following the straight line (with defensive dog legs) of the Royal Military Canal for a few easy miles to Appledore.

Military Canal - Jan 2015
Military Canal – Jan 2015

From here I headed slowly up into the green low hills on the edge of the Weald, passing through Woodchurch (it has a church; made of stone) before finding the turning onto NCN18 just before entering the excellently named Shadoxhurst.

From here on the route is onto the Weald proper with the near constant rises and falls one expects from this part of the world. The hills aren’t big here but they are punchy with lots of short sharp climbs.  Whilst these are naturally followed by a similar series of descents, they aren’t of sufficient duration so as to allow any recovery.  With very few sections of relatively flat riding, the Weald acts like a form of very pretty but enforced high impact training.  Just to make sure that the riding is never easy the next thirty miles also saw a gradual rise up further onto the Weald. If it felt like every hill was that little bit higher than the last, they were.

I was planning on mainly sticking on Route 18 for this part of the ride, however a closed road diverted me to High Halden and a few miles cycling on the main A28 road.  Normally at the sight of a Road Closed sign I might try ploughing on regardless in the hope that, whilst blocked for cars, I might be able to get my bike through any obstructions.  With the length of ride I already had planned though, I didn’t fancy the risk of having to make a U-turn and follow my breadcrumbs back.  The A28 wasn’t what I had in mind but I got a decent speed and rhythm going and knew I’d soon be back on the quiet lanes.

As St Michaels I re-joined route 18 towards Benenden where I took my first break at the village stores and coffee shop.  Although I had already covered about 40 miles it was still only just about 9am so I was happy with progress and enjoyed a coffee and pastry.

The next few miles continued with more of the same Wealden riding until broken up upon entering Bedgebury Pinetum.  The woods here still have the same hills as the previous 20 miles; but the change from the open hills to deep woodland makes it feel quite different.  Back out of the other side of the woods I knew there were some more steep climbs up to and around the hilltop town of Goudhurst and then on towards Matfield.  By the village pond here I took another short rest.  I knew that, whilst there were still some hills before then, I would soon be at Tunbridge Wells and the high point on the Weald for this part of the ride.

Passing that high point between Pembury and the Royal Spa town felt like a minor triumph.  I had bigger hills still to climb, but the relentless stretch of Weald was mostly behind me now.  I powered on through Tunbridge Wells and on towards Groombridge.

Groombridge - Nov 2016
Groombridge – Nov 2016

Here I would now add the ‘there and back again’ extra 20 miles that I needed to make this route add up to 200km.  I had expected these few miles to be some of the easiest of the day but somehow they were some of the toughest.  Maybe that was partly mental; when you expect the riding to be smooth anything else is unexpected and therefore feels much tougher.  Maybe it was simply that, although the downhills on the Weald stretch didn’t really give a chance for recovery, they did offer brief free-wheeling respite.  Here on the old railway track it was pedalling all the way.  In order to make the distance I needed to follow the railway path until its end on the edge of East Grinstead.  The final miles to that town also include quite a steady climb. 

Before then however, at Forest Row and about 75 miles into the ride it was almost over.  An unexpected turning from the old railway path onto a short stretch of road saw me bundle over a speed bump which shocked the bike and instantly cramped up my right thigh.  I had to emergency stop, unclip and dismount as the lactic pain shot up my leg.  I was forced into an emergency break with a lot of slow walking; thigh rubbing, drinking water, and eating some crisis Malt Loaf!  Fortunately it did the trick.  I gingerly got back into the saddle and eased myself back towards East Grinstead.  The legs were soon feeling better and I was back underway, but I knew I had to keep better hydrated.

Forest Way - Nov 2016
Forest Way – Nov 2016

After doubling back where at the point where the old railway path becomes the main ‘Beeching Way’ road through East Grinstead I headed back to Forest Row and pulled into the River View Café where I stopped for another coffee and a panini (and to refill both water bottles).  Properly refreshed it was back to Groombridge and time to get back to some hills.

I was now (and indeed had been since the double back at East Grinstead) following the route of the Avenue Verte (London to Paris) route which I had cycled along in my first proper cycle tour a few years previously.  That meant that I had two big hills ahead of me.  On that ride both of those climbs had got the better of me and I had not been able to get up them without briefly stopping (in the first case) and even having to walk a little  (on the second hill).

The first hill, the Northern approach into Rotherfield, I had completed on a couple of subsequent rides without a problem and once again I made my way up to the village without needing to take a breather.

I then let the miles (and the smaller hills) to and through Mayfield ease along knowing that I had the toughest single climb of the day to come.  Whilst I had conquered Rotherfield hill before, I had never yet managed to cycle up Newick Lane into Heathfield without stopping.  I made sure to give myself the best chance this time.  At the foot of the hill I pulled over and gave myself five minutes to relax, take on an energy gel and plenty of water, and psyche myself up.  This technique had worked for me in the past; notably when climbing the biggest hill I have still ever ridden to date – Hartside on the Coast to Coast route.  Hopefully it would work again.  It did.  I won’t say the riding was easy, but relaxed and mentally prepared I was soon up the initial steep lower slopes which had always been the section that had beaten me before.  From there on I flowed on up the rest of the hill and near the summit, on the edge of Heathfield, I clocked up 100 miles for the day.  I celebrated by coasting down into the town centre and pulling up outside Costa for another coffee and a bun.

With 100 miles clocked up, and all of the big hills (bar the final push back up to my house) behind me I could begin to feel like I was on the home straight; even though there were still 25 or so miles in front of me.

From Heathfield the cycle route (I had been on NCN21 since East Grinstead) joins another former railway line on the beautiful Cuckoo Trail.  From the hill top at Heathfield the cycling South is an easy drop from the top of the Weald to almost sea level over a distance of 10 miles; all in beautiful wooded scenery. I have ridden this way a number of times now but the Cuckoo Trail is never not lovely.

Cuckoo Trail - Oct 2018
Cuckoo Trail – Oct 2018

Leaving NCN21 after Hailsham I headed onto Rickney Marsh.  Here I began to struggle.  I still had 15 miles to go and now I was on the flat all the way back to Hastings.  There is no difficult riding here; but on tired legs there is no break in the pedalling.  Also I was now hitting a big psychological wall.  I know this part of the route blindfold – its a regular cycle commute.  With nothing here to look at with fresh eyes I just wanted to be home.  There was still an hour of riding to go.

The closer to home it got the worse the feeling became.  The legs were empty and the head was already at home and in the bath.  The worst came at Galley Hill; the low cliff top that marks the Eastern end of Bexhill and from where I can look across and (almost) see my house – only, and yet still, 5 miles away.

I stopped on the cliff here for some time and made a call to my other half to pep myself up and to take my thoughts elsewhere.  5 more miles.  That was all.  And now having taken that final break I pushed on; along Hastings prom and up the West Hill. Climb up. Almost.  For the first time in over a year I was unable to make it up the hill to my home without stopping and walking for a short section.  I just had nothing left in my legs.  I wasn’t going to beat myself up though.  I still made it. My house is just off the top of the hill but you have to go to the top and glide back down. 

Hastings Prom - March 2015
Hastings Prom – March 2015

125.95 miles.  202.69 km.  I had broken the 200km barrier.  I knew now that I could do it.  I also knew that I wouldn’t feel the need to do it again for some time to come!

To Eynsford after Coffee with a Dame

The back end of November was approaching and I felt the need for what would likely be one last long, full day’s ride of the year.  I’d taken the Wednesday off work and had a route planned to take me Northwards. I’d heard that Eynsford was a nice place to visit and I calculated that it was a good 100km ride away.  The weather forecast indicated that the wind was going to be relatively accommodating so I got ready to ride.

I wanted to travel light but still took a pannier with me as this was going to be a one way ride and I wanted some warm clothes to change into for the train journey home.  As  I got up in the morning it was clear that I was going to need them.  I looked out of the bedroom window and then rushed down and out of the back door to check that my eyes were seeing right in the half light.  They were.  There had been snow overnight.  It wasn’t much; only a light dusting, but it had settled.  I decided to carry on as planned and had a good warm breakfast to set me up for the day, knowing that it was possible that I might have to abandon or at least severely curtail the riding.  Being so close to the coast we don’t normally get much snow.  It’s normally worse inland and I was going to be heading directly away from the Channel and climbing up onto The Weald.

This Gate Muse Be...?
This Gate Muse Be…?

It was therefore a pleasant surprise to find the snow vanished as soon as I climbed up onto, and beyond, the ridge that marks the northern edge of Hastings.  I was soon out of the town and turning off the busy urban roads straight onto quiet back lanes.  There was no evidence of there having been any snow here at all. The morning wasn’t warm but I was properly layered up and relishing the riding.  I passed through Three Oaks and Doleham and skirted around the East side of Westfield where I re-joined the main road for the short and nasty little climb up into Brede. It wasn’t long however before I was leaving these roads, which I knew well, and turned off onto Pottery Lane and onto some virgin Weald lanes.

Weald Lane
Weald Lane

I was in my element now with my traditional riding technique of building up a nice steady rhythm before screeching to a halt to admire a wonderful view across the Weald.

View Across the Weald
View Across the Weald

Before too long I was through Ewhurst Green and dropping back onto familiar roads on the approach to Bodiam Castle, which is of course impossible to pass without popping in for a photo.

Bodiam Castle
Bodiam Castle

North of Bodiam and I was still riding nicely along the quiet back lanes of the Weald.  Some of these I had ridden before; some were new to me.  All were lovely.

A few miles north of Bodiam I picked up cycle route NCN18 near to Iden Green and would follow it for some while as it rolled up and down the rolling Weald hills pushing me slowly North Westwards passing close to, whilst avoiding, Cranbrook, Hawkhurst and Goudhurst.  The riding was tough in places but enjoyable.

Getting Mucky on the Weald
Getting Mucky on the Weald

After passing a field of Alpacas and a small pen of pigs, the route heads into and through Bedgebury Forest, which is a lovely little bit of riding. 

Bedgebury Piggies
Bedgebury Piggies

West of Bedgebury I stopped for a sausage roll and a can of pop at Matfield which would be where I would leave route 18 and continue pushing North through Colt’s Hill and Capel before heading in towards Tonbridge.

Tonbridge does not have the nicest cycling infrastructure, or if it does I didn’t find it.  The odd cycle path cut through some otherwise dead ends, but there was a lot of riding to be done on the town’s busy, tight streets.  I diverted towards Tonbridge Castle briefly and then headed out of town along the main road to Hildenborough which I had earmarked as my destination spot for lunch.

Tonbridge Castle
Tonbridge Castle

I had been aware of Café 1809 for some time and had long been meaning to visit, but had found out recently that its owner was closing it this week to try her hand at other endeavours instead.  This trip had therefore felt like a chance to pay a visit and it was perfectly placed along my route.

I parked up outside the café using one of the many decent bike racks and made my way inside where I ordered a jacket spud and a coffee or two which hot the spot perfectly.  I had been starting to get a little tired and cold before I got to the café. Though there might not have been any more sign of snow, the day was far from toasty.  It wasn’t long though before I was feeling the warmth from the café and the welcome from the staff. 

Café 1809
Café 1809

Feeling fully refreshed I plucked up the courage to say hello to the owner and grab a selfie with her.  Café 1809 is named after the bib number that Dame Kelly Holmes wore when she won the 400m and 800m Olympic titles in the 2004 Athens Olympics. Needless to say Dame Kelly was lovely and charm personified. She managed to both put me at ease whilst totally accentuating the difference between an overweight middle aged man and a true athlete.  She also knows how to pose for a selfie a hell of a lot better than me.

Selfie with Dame Kelly Holmes
Selfie with Dame Kelly Holmes

I left the café and veered slightly Westwards following Noble Tree Road before heading back North on Egg Pie Lane!

Something from Tizwas?
Something from Tizwas?

I soon passed more Alpacas (I don’t think anyone in Kent keeps sheep anymore) and rolled along to the village of Sevenoaks Weald where I got an unexpected chance for another short rest as a builders merchant’s lorry was entirely blocking the small lane so I got out of the saddle and stretched my legs for a few minutes.

Beastie Boys
Beastie Boys

Although mildly annoying if I had to stop anywhere, then this was a good place.  I had come this way as I was aiming for the climb that lay ahead of me, so it was nice to get ready for it.  I had got a bit out of practice on the hills over the last month or two and at over 45 miles into the day was starting to feel the miles.  The climb started well though, and I easily made it on the bridge that crosses high above the A21. 

Take a Breather
Take a Breather

The bridge, which is angled quite steeply as the road climbs up the hill, is quite a landmark when driving North from home.  I’d often wondered what was above it and now I was finding out.  I was happy therefore to use the opportunity of taking some photos back down from the bridge in order to get my breath back.

View over the A21
View over the A21

I regretted doing so however, as after stopping I struggled to get back into a rhythm and found it stop-start up to the top of the hill.  I made it eventually though.  What’s more, now I was here I had a few miles of largely downhill riding.  First along the Southern edge of Knole Park (with deer running around just off to my left behind the big chain link fence), and then heading North again I had a long easy drop down towards the M25 which I was soon passing underneath.

Railway Ventilation Shaft
Railway Ventilation Shaft

I still had one big and final climb to go and I was very soon upon it.  The Cotsman Ash Lane Climb turned out to be one hill too far.  I struggled up having to walk up a part of the steepest section.  When I did feel ready to get back on and ride it was only a matter of seconds before my left leg cramped up.  I had to jump off the bike and stretch it out.  I was soon going again but was glad to see the brow of the hill finally appear.  I did still have another five miles before I would get into Eynsford; but it really was now all downhill from here.

Approaching Eynsford
Approaching Eynsford

I rolled down into the village and headed straight for the Castle; a small Norman keep by the River Darent.

Eynsford Castle
Eynsford Castle

Finally I then passed back to the picturesque Ford from which the village takes its name.  It might have been more picturesque if it didn’t have a broken down van sitting in the middle of the river, but it still looked nice.  The light started to fade. 

I took that as my cue to think about heading for home.  I rode the short way to the station; sneakily got changed out of my cycling gear into the spare, warm clothes I was carrying in my pannier, and awaited the train back to Hastings (via a change and a coffee at Sevenoaks).

Heading Home
Heading Home

Stats:

Exploring around the Midlands

2 Days Exploring Enigma and Eleanor

Just a few days after my visit to Dante’s Inferno and I was looking at adding a few more miles to my September itinerary. My other half was attending a conference at Cranfield University, a few miles east of Milton Keyes, and I was going up as well to sneak into her room in the evenings, and explore a different bit of the country.

After driving up, meeting her at Bedford station, and driving us over to the University (which is located in a village in the middle of open countryside and not easily accessible without a car) I unloaded the bike from the boot of the car and got ready for a first trip.

Today would a fairly easy ride. I looped around the airfield which sits at the centre of the campus and then headed South for a mile or two into Salford, a pretty village with a lovely church with some excellent bells in a fantastic wooden frame on one end.

Salford Church
Salford Church

The church itself was shut so I was soon back on my way and didn’t get far before coming upon an old sign village dating to the 1951 Festival of Britain. I do love coming across bits and pieces that still hang around from the Festival, so this was a very welcome and unexpected treat that got me very excited!

Festival of Britain sign, Salford
Festival of Britain sign, Salford

I headed on, over the M1, and entered Milton Keynes at Wavendon in its south east corner. As I suspected might be the case, Milton Keynes turned out to be mostly a pleasant cycling experience. Its famous grid road layout with roundabout after roundabout was a great example of road planning of its time. Another characteristic of those times was the provision alongside the roads of a good layout for cyclists and walkers.

Milton Keynes Cycling
Milton Keynes Cycling

The riding was a bit stop-start at the various junctions (although most of the bigger roundabouts had good underpasses for cycling across) but before long I had ridden to Bletchley and was pulling up and parking my bike in one of the old bike sheds built for the code breakers at Bletchley Park in World War II.

Parking up at Bletchley
Parking up at Bletchley

The site and museum was my targeted destination for this outing and I spent a couple of fascinating hours exploring this wonderful site.  I really cannot recommend a visit here strongly enough and would happily have spent longer here.  I would also have liked to have been able to visit the neighbouring National Museum of Computing as well however it was not open on the day of my visit; I shall have to come back!

I did need to get back to Cranfield though, so eventually I headed back to the bike shed and rode off again.

Rather than heading straight back I planned to complete a loop. I had to double back a short way but then headed North when I reached the River Ouzel and later, The Grand Union Canal. It was quite interesting to see another side of Milton Keynes available from this route. Between the River and the Canal I came across signs of some of the old settlements that pre-date the New Town such as Simpson village with a lovely selection of medieval buildings hiding here in the middle of this most modern of towns.

By the Grand Union Canal
By the Grand Union Canal

I continued along the Canal until getting close to the southern edge of Newport Pagnell at which point I headed Eastwards again and rode across the low rolling hills through North Crawley and back to Cranfield to complete what was a rather nice ‘warm up’ ride in advance of the next day.

The following morning my other half woke and went for breakfast and then off to her conference. As I wasn’t officially staying there I couldn’t get any food at the hotel so instead just got ready for a day’s riding. There was a Spar shop on the campus so I’d pop in there. However when I got to the shop there was nothing for me (the hot sandwiches counter was empty and the coffee machine broken). I got back to the bike and for the first few miles headed back in the opposite direction to the one I had used to return to base the previous afternoon; through North Crawley and back towards Newport Pagnell.

Today I headed into the town centre where a handy bakery in the rather attractive high street provided me my missed breakfast.  I ate at a table on the pavement as the day started to warm up and was now starting to feel more relaxed and ready for the day.

I headed North West out of the town along a B road. There was a bit of traffic around but on the whole this was pleasant riding. The road was climbing up most of the way but it was nothing more than a nice warm up. I left the road at Salcey Forest which marked the summit of that set of climbs and I subsequently began the drop back down as I rode towards the southern edge of Northampton.

I had no intention of riding through the middle of this busy town, however one of my main ‘objectives’ for the day was to be found a very short distance on the main road into the town.  So rather than immediately following the cycle ring road, I initially followed the main roads until there, by the right hand side of the carriageway, was the Hardingstone Eleanor Cross.

The sorry state of Hardington Cross
The sorry state of Hardington Cross

The Hardingstone cross in one of just three of the original twelve Eleanor Crosses that still survive. The crosses were placed to mark the locations at which the body of Eleanor of Castile, the wife of King Edward I, had rested on its return to Westminster Abbey following her death near Lincoln in 1290.

Selfie with Eleanor
Selfie with Eleanor

Despite having survived this long the cross is currently in very poor repair and at the time of my visit was fenced off. It was a huge shame to see such a beautiful and important national monument in such a sorry state of disrepair. I understand that Northampton Borough Council are now commencing works to restore the monument. I do hope that this is indeed the case and that it can be restored and have access to it improved so that it regain the status which it so deserves.

Save Hardington Cross
Save Hardington Cross

I headed back on my way, back through some underpasses under the busy main roads, and rejoined the cycle route around the town’s edge.

Northampton
Northampton

The route took me through Hardingstone village (pretty) and then alongside the A45 (less so but still some decent riding well segregated from the dual carriageway). The cycle route jumps between the roadside and bank of the River Nene and progress was fairly slow; but pleasant.

Nene Valley
Nene Valley

Eventually at the South East corner of the town I diverted onto some small country lanes and headed back out to the countryside from the village of Ecton.

Though the cycle paths around the edge of Northampton had been fine it was nice to be back onto open roads, even though they also coincided with the next set of hills. A drop and a climb around Sywell Reservoir got the legs back into action after the slow urban cycle paths. Mears Ashby is a pretty village and I took 5 minutes to rest on a bench and read some signs detailing the sad account of the crash of two American Bombers during World War II.

Meet the Lieutenant
Meet the Lieutenant

A few more lovely open miles led me across to Little Harrowden and then dropped down towards the railway line by the old Finedon station on my way into that village, passing an old windmill/house conversion on the way.

Finedon Windmill
Finedon Windmill

Riding into Finedon I noticed the church was having a summer fete so I leant by bike against a tree in the graveyard, then went in to look around the church and to partake of some tea and cake. There was unfortunately, no sign of the vicar, one Rev. Richard Coles, but its a lovely church and the villagers were friendly so I’ll forgive him.

The tea and cake was great but I still needed to drop into the Co-op to get some more water (and a sneaky Calippo) before heading back off Northwards.

Finedon Obelisk
Finedon Obelisk

I followed the A6 for a few miles but it was easy going; it was not busy and the surface was nice and fast. It wasn’t long before I peeled off into Burton Latimer and rode through Barton Seagrove; which is a sentence that sounds more like it should be in the salacious memoirs of a 1950s Hollywood Starlet.

Somewhere just to the west of me was Kettering but I couldn’t see any sign of it and instead was continuing along some lovely country roads across a pretty bridge over the River Ise at Warkton, and up the hill into the picture postcard pretty Weekley.

The Old Post Office, Weekley
The Old Post Office, Weekley

Next up just off to the right was Boughton House – a rather amazing looking stately home in some classic landscaped parklands with herds of deer running free.

Boughton Park and House
Boughton Park and House

From Boughton I dropped back down to the Ise valley at Geddington; my target destination for the day.  I rolled across the 13th Century bridge back over the River Ise and into the centre of the village.

Geddington Bridge
Geddington Bridge

Geddington is the home of another of the surviving, indeed the best surviving, of the Eleanor Crosses. Compared to Hardingstone the cross here is much better cared for and I spent a good few minutes walking around admiring the various statues and carvings on its faces.

I then took a wander into the churchyard where I was ‘accosted’ by the villages resident historian, Kam. I had been planning on a quick wander around the church but instead I got a very full and thorough tour around the church. I wasn’t totally convinced of all of the stories that Kam was telling me (this is the most interesting church in England apparently) but he is certainly a captivating guide and the church does have a lot of great features including some lovely old tombs and monuments.

I thanked Kam and left him as he was starting the tour again with another couple who had wandered in.  I headed back to my bike. At the outset of the trip I had considered making this a round circuit back to Cranfield but I was hot and tired and the day was now a bit later than planned so instead I carried on a few miles further North into Corby, found the station, and climbed onto a train that was heading back down to Bedford.

Taking the easy way back to Bedford
Taking the easy way back to Bedford

The journey was relaxing and allowed me to get refreshed enough to make the ten and a bit mile trip back to the University. The journey back was quite straightforward and pleasant.  Leaving the city was a little slow but I was soon on open roads on my way back to Cranfield. The main highlight of this little extra warm down ride was rounding off the two days in the saddle by finding another piece of Festival of Britain history in the form of The Festival pub in Upper Shelton.  Happy Days.

The Exhibition, Festival of Britain Pub
The Exhibition, Festival of Britain Pub

Overall Stats:

Dante’s Inferno…

…and Deal

A few weeks after coming back from my ‘Four War Tour‘ in Belgium and France and I was ready to tackle my next big day ride.  I wasn’t planning on anything too adventurous and nothing that would take me far from some of regular riding routes.  The aim for the day would be to explore the old coal mining area of Kent; I’d been close before on the previous trips to that part of the county, but I was less aware then of the geographical details of Kent’s coalfield locations and had skirted past some of the key sites.

I was up fairly early and on the road from home at about 8.30am.  Leaving Hastings by climbing out of town on the main road at rush hour is never ideal but I’m used to it now and I don’t have to go too far before turning off onto the quiet lane to Pett village.  I’ve used this route for a couple of years now as my default way out East.  When I first started riding around here 5 or 6 years ago I would follow NCN Route 2 out of town and down Battery Hill through Fairlight.  However the road surface on that big steep hill is now so awful I don’t feel safe on it.  Although that is the higher class road and the one used by bus service to Rye, it remains dangerous whilst the quiet country lane through Pett has been recently resurfaced and is a joy to ride along; joining the main road on the flat by the Western end of the Royal Military Canal at Pett Level.

The wind was nicely behind me as I headed along the sea front; firstly behind the sea wall between Pett and Winchelsea Beach and then on the edge of the beach itself through to Rye Harbour.  Up, into, and through Rye. Join the Royal Military Road next to the Canal, still with wind assistance, and then continue on the flat through to Appledore.

After the flat of the canal I hung a left through the village centre and up into the low rolling hills on this North East corner of the Weald through Woodchurch (its church is made of stone).  On the climb out of there I stopped to remove my base layer; the day was warm now and I wasn’t going to be needing it now.  That gave enough time for a small club ride to come up past me and having stripped, redressed, and got back under way I slotted in at the rear of their group for a mile or two towards Shadoxhurst where I swung off towards Ashford.

Ashford is a town that I greatly admire for its provision of cycle paths.  It’s not the prettiest town but it has an excellent network with only one minor issue; on an all too regular basis the cycle paths and foot paths swap sides.  One minute you’re cycling on the left; next you turn a corner and you’re supposed to be on the right.  However it wasn’t that confusion that led to me riding into a bollard.  I was looking out to see if I was right in thinking that there was a shop nearby where I could get some more water.  There was but I was looking around so much that I didn’t notice the great big chunk of metal in the middle of the path.  It was a very slow speed impact and I think I got away without anyone noticing.  It didn’t stop my riding for the day.  In fact it wasn’t until another couple of weeks later when I tried to remove my front wheel to load the bike into the car that I realised that I had bent the central pin.  I managed about another 1,000 miles before I finally got it fixed just last week; I just had to put a wrench into my saddle bag to make sure I could remove the wheel in case of punctures.

Ashford Park
Ashford Park

The mishap was at least of value though as I spotted the Tesco Metro I was looking around for and topped up on water and snacks and then headed back out of Ashford through the Northern side of the town in the direction of Wye.

Wye left to rot
Wye left to rot

The cycle route North East out of Ashford is one I’ve ridden a few times and very much enjoy. Either side of Wye some quiet and pretty back roads help the miles to tick nicely by. Wye itself is a pretty village with some good cafes.  I didn’t stop at any of them today though, I still had too many miles planned left to ride.

Tree Knots
Tree Knots

The cycle path continues following the roads for a few miles until they run out and the cycle route continues on a dedicated track along the side of the hill roughly following the route of the train line.  After rising above the tracks, a small opening in the trees indicates that you have reached the lovely viewing spot at Catha’s Seat.  The seat, with built in bike rack storage (not being used by me in the picture below!) is a memorial to Catharine Keegan who was involved in the setup of this cycle route from Ashford to Keegan.  I did not know Catha and have no connection to her but always like to rest here and raise a water bottle in her honour; the bench is a lovely spot on a great little cycle path.

Catha's Seat
Catha’s Seat

The path now starts to drop back down to the valley and into and through Chartham where you join the riverside path next to the Great Stour.  The next couple of miles must be (on a good day; and I’ve only experienced good riding here) amongst the most bucolic on the National Cycle Network as it winds next to the lovely clear waters through the water meadows.

The Great Stour River Meadows
The Great Stour River Meadows

On the approach into Canterbury I turned back and headed out along a narrow and quiet lane back alongside the railway lines.  I was aware of a special treat for rail nerds along this lane but, until today, I had never investigated it.  What is it?  Well – just watch my lovely video!

Having played on the railway tracks long enough I headed back into Canterbury.  Today, other than pausing briefly to bemoan the continuing deterioration of the state of the Castle, I rode straight through the city, heading out South Eastwards having joined cycle route number 16 which crosses the North Kent Downs in the direction of Dover.  I wasn’t planning on following that route too far however.

Canterbury Castle
Canterbury Castle

I followed it across the open land to Patrixbourne and then on towards Aylesham.  However rather than following the route which skirts around the latter village I headed in to explore it as this was one of the places that I had come to see.  Aylesham was developed in the 1920s to accommodate workers coming into work at the new coal mines that were being opened in Kent around that time.  It was associated with the nearby Snowdown Colliery.  It was planned to grow to hold around 30,000 people but only about 1,000 houses were ever built for the colliery as the Kent seams never proved as profitable as hoped.

Water Tower on the Kent Downs
Water Tower on the Kent Downs

I rode into the village, stopping to get some supplies for lunch at the One Stop on the way, and then rode into the small park in the centre of the village.  I sat on one of a number of benches that commemorated the mining community.

Aylesham Mining Benches
Aylesham Mining Benches

A part of the pit workings in the park with some notice boards tell the story of the mine and the village.  Having seen me looking at the boards a gentleman came out to speak to me ask ask what I knew of the village.  I told him that I was (fairly recently) aware of the Kent Coalmines and Snowdown in particular and had wanted to come and get an understanding of what remained of the pits and the village that had been left behind.  He had been a miner here up until its closure in 1987 (he was still wearing an old miners T-Shirt).  He didn’t want to tell me any stories of his own but wanted to make sure that I was aware of the legacy and the story of the village.  He also pointed me in the direction of the miners memorial garden in the village council offices on the edge of the village.  I was pleased to hear what he would tell me and could have happily sat and heard his stories for longer had he been willing to share more.

Snowdown Pit Wheel
Snowdown Pit Wheel

Instead he headed back to the cafe he had been sitting in and I finished my lunch and loaded the remains back into my pannier.

I was very glad to have received his advice about the memorial garden.  Had I not been made aware I would have passed it by unseen.  The garden is only small but contains a new memorial to the lives of 57 men and boys who died during the 80 years that the colliery was active.

From the memorial garden I headed across the next valley and up the hill to Snowdown station and then came to the gates of the old colliery.  Despite having been closed for 30 years now the majority of the above ground mine buildings (except for the pit head winding gear towers) remain intact.   The mine shafts have been capped off and the compound surrounded with razor wire but you can still get an impression of the site; though not the conditions for the workers.

At over 3,000 feet at its maximum depth Snowdown was the deepest mine in Kent.  It was also the hottest and most humid.  Conditions were so awful that the miners often worked naked as clothes became too uncomfortable.  Miners could get through 24 pints of water in an 8 hour shift and there were frequent cases of heatstroke.  Snowdown was regarded by many to be the worst to work in throughout Britain and as a result of its heat and humidity gained the name amongst its workers of “Dante’s Inferno”.

After briefly considering an attempt at jumping over the fence to take a good look around (from some concrete bollards I could likely have jumped into the compound; but I wasn’t then going to easily make my way back out) I headed back on my way.  I understand that there might finally be some plans to develop the land into something new; I hope that someone might look to run some tours around the site beforehand.  I would love to see around inside.

Snowdown Colliery
Snowdown Colliery

From here rather than continuing towards Dover I turned East along the country lanes across the hills through Nonington and Northbourne before dropping down to the coast at Deal.

Hidden Cycle Path
Hidden Cycle Path

I have ridden through Deal many times, but before today I had never visited the Castle. I had made sure that I got here in plenty of time to rectify that today.

I rolled into the car park, locked the bike up and went in.  The staff there were happy to look after my helmet and pannier whilst I wandered around.  Deal Castle is probably the best surviving of Henry VIII’s coastal forts and as such is quite different from the classic view of what a medieval castle might look like.  It was an entirely functional building with its petal layout designed to ensure that it had a complete 360 degree line of fire.

As well as never having visited the Castle I’d also never been onto the Pier in the town either.  The English Heritage staff agreed to look after my kit for a bit longer and I made the short walk onto and along to the end of the pier.

The current pier is Deal’s third and was built with a concrete structure in the 1950s.  Its been in decline lately and I found out afterwards that the main pier had only just re-opened before my visit.  There was still much work to be done but progress looks to be getting made and I hope to revisit again soon and be able to get a coffee from the (at the time of my visit) closed cafe at the end and to be able to wander down to the lower deck (also closed).

Deal Beach
Deal Beach

After a walk around I made by way back to the Castle.  Coming back I noticed the gap in the railing and then the car sitting in the bottom of the moat.  Back into the castle the staff told me that the crash had occurred the previous Saturday just as the castle was about to close.  Miraculously the driver had walked out of the car with only superficial injuries.  I gathered my kit and returned to my bike for the very short ride to Deal Station where I ended my ride and waited for a train home.  My legs were tired and I was feeling the effort.  I certainly hadn’t been working in Dante’s Inferno though.

Oops!
Oops!

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