TwoLegsTwoWheels

A record of my cycling trips in Britain and abroad

Aug
06

Route Number One

Hello dear reader,

Having recently returned from a trip to Ethiopia, which occasioned a long absence from cycling (over three months; longer, indeed, than any that I can remember), I decided to renew my acquaintance with the two-wheeled mode of transport. I settled on a trip north to visit my brother, with a destination but no more than a vague plan. For some time, I’ve been meaning to investigate the recent advances in electronic navigation for bikes, and in fact, one of the first things I did on returning home was to order a new phone, one that has GPS and mapping capabilities. The phone arrived, but within five seconds of plugging it into the wall, it exploded. So much for electronic navigation.

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My vague idea became a firmer plan to travel along the sustrans route 1, which heads along the east coast of Northumberland before cutting inland from Berwick to Edinburgh (see linked map). I had itchy legs to set off, and didn’t want to hang around any more to sort out either paper maps or some form of electronic device; in any case, I rather liked the idea of entrusting myself entirely to the route signposts and seeing what happened. Afterall, for this trip I was under no time pressure whatsoever, so it was the perfect time to try it out. I reckoned on a trip of perhaps three days, but I could quite happily have taken five over it without anything spoiling - one of the benefits of having few fixed commitments.

I set out on a gloriously sunny Sunday afternoon. I realised very quickly, however, that the cleats on my shoes were somewhat out of line; so, after a brief detour back to fix them I set off once more (I could have attempted to fix the cleat position on the road, but as I wasn’t far from home it was easier to go home and use the proper tools). I had a lovely afternoon and evening, and managed to push on a fair distance. I passed through the seaside town of Seahouses, where I stopped for fish and chips; the villages of Alnmouth and Craster, among others; and I passed Warkworth, Alnwick, Dunstanbugh and Bamburgh castles. Not bad scenery for one afternoon! Somewhat before sunset, I found a nice spot, a small clearing in a patch of woodland, and pitched my tent for the night, with Lindisfarne - also known as Holy Island - off to the east.

I woke later than expected on the second day; I thought I’d wake very early, as I normally do when camping at this time of year, with the morning light. However, the combination of a damp, cloudy morning, and camping amongst trees, meant I wasn’t underway until nearly 7 o’clock. However, I’m glad I was a little late: it meant I was still in sight of Lindisfarne as the clouds cleared and the sun came out above it. I stuck to the route, and shortly after breakfast I crossed the A1 (the main road to Edinburgh) towards the island. The cycle ‘path’, if it can be called that, turned north a couple of miles short of the coastline. From riding on roads so far, the large-grade gravel was something of a shock, both to me and my bike! But worse was yet to come. Within a mile or so of leaving the road, even this gravel track petered out completely, leaving the route to wind its way through the grass of the desolate, brackish countryside. I was very glad at this point that it had been a dry summer, as otherwise, the route would be completely impassable on a road bike. As it was, it was very slow, bumpy going, and I had to stop at numerous points to walk and push my bike. This stretch went on for a few miles, so definitely not the route to take in winter, or if you’re in a hurry! However, the scenery was worth it: especially in the early morning, grey lukewarm light, it felt an incredibly bleak place. The saltmarsh on either side sent up a salty tang into the air, and save the occasional cry of a curlew there was not a sound at all to be heard.

Leaving behind the dreary plain, I slowly wound my way back to civilisation along the coastal track towards Berwick, which wended its way past fields of horses, a golf course, and finally along a clifftop path sandwiched between the railway and the sea. Arriving in Berwick, I meant a pair of cyclists following the same route as myself, but heading in the opposite direction; we chatted for a while and compared notes about the route.

After Berwick, my route plan here was to stick to the coast. This meant leaving behind the trusty route number 1, whose singposts had served me so well thus far. I elected instead to entrust my direction to the route 76, which stays much closer to the coast for the section between Berwick and Edinburgh. Crossing into Scotland, I descended into Eyemouth to find the town festooned with flags advertising the upcoming Eyemouth Herring Queen festival. In the mood to press on, I didn’t stop, but soon left the town behind me to climb away from the coast. A long chunk of climbing followed, by and large at a manageable gradient, but steadily chugging away. I was rewarded on gaining the ridgeline with a view north beyond the Forth Estuary into Fife; not far, indeed, from my final destination, though it was a many miles away as the crow flies, and many more still without a boat. A flying descent down onto the East Lothian plain followed, at the bottom of which I was close upon Dunbar. I stopped there for lunch, and saw a fair few other cyclists. Some, like myself, were on long trips - another pair, in fact, heading south to Berwick, doing the reverse of my route; many more simply cycling around town.

I had to make a decision soon after leaving Dunbar; I didn’t want to camp to close to Edinburgh, as I thought there wouldn’t be many spots to camp easily near the city, so I had to decide either to cut the day short and find somewhere to stop beforehand, or to push on and go through in order to find somewhere on the far side. It was slightly awkward timing, since I’d quite fancied the idea of spending an afternoon there, but I would be arriving in the early evening. Feeling keen to get on, and thinking I’d have another chance to explore the city (which I had seen a few times before, besides), I made the decision to press on at speed. The ground between Dunbar and Edinburgh is for the most part quite flat; the surface is a mixture of good parts (such as a long section along an old railway line, which I highly recommend!) and bad parts (such as a very bumpy, noisy, dusty and gravelly footpath alongside the A1). I arrived in the centre of Edinburgh just before 6pm, in glorious evening sunshine. I had dinner under the walls of the castle, watching people scurrying past. There were at least 10 times as many tourists as locals, and the festival hadn’t even started. It was as I tried to leave Edinburgh that I lost the route for the first time; it doesn’t seem to be signposted very well through/out of the city centre. I thought, no matter: I knew it had to cross the Forth and as there was only one bridge between the railway and Kincardine, it should be pretty easy to pick it up again. And so it proved: in fact, I saw the blue-and-red signs some miles before reaching the bridge, where the route branched away from the road to follow a track through some woodland. This is a point where I was very glad I was travelling in a more relaxed manner; I met plenty of cyclists out for an evening ride, and was told that the woodland route was perhaps ten times as long as the direct route, as we were almost at the bridge. Had I been travelling with a time limit, I would have likely missed out on one of the nicest bits of scenery along the ride. Moreover, my aim had been to cross the Forth by nightfall, and find somewhere on the north bank to spend the night. Instead, I found one of the most stunning places to pitch a tent I have yet camped in: I found a secluded little bay, from where I could see the sun set over the twin bridges of the Forth Estuary. At close on 10pm, the long, slow, majestic sunset of a Scottish summer, setting behind the dramatic human achievements of the two bridges, made for a spectacular view; the soft sound of small waves gently lapping the sand provided the background music; and the sultry scent of a pine forest from behind my tent wafted out to me as I sat on a rock watching the view.

The third morning of my trip dawned as the second had finished: with a blazing sun and a dramatic view. I crossed the Forth Road Bridge with the sun a couple of hours above the horizon, over the open sea beyond the estuary. Although I’ve crossed that bridge a few times by car, it’s an awful lot more dramatic to do so by bike - especially when you look down through the fence! The weather looked great, and I was looking forward to a relaxing ride. I was confident that I would make it to my brother’s that day, and having a solid mileage under my belt from the previous day meant I was very much in the mood to relax and soak up the scenery. And it was certainly a stretch of the route to do that on!

One of the best bits of the route was the descent down to, and the climb up from, Loch Leven. This is a loch which has been made into something of a tourist centre, for obvious reasons for anyone who has visited it. Unfortunately for most tourists, they probably arrive along the main roads by car, which run through the valley floor; the cycle route follows near-deserted roads over the hills, and the rolling farmland of central Fife was spread out below me like a chequerboard, with the loch gleaming in the centre in the sunlight.

All too soon, I passed out of that broad valley on the climb up towards Cupar; the final climb before the descent towards St Andrews. From there, it was but a short stint round the Tensmuir headland to Tayport. All in all, a spectacular ride; and though I couldn’t have asked for better weather, I strongly recommend it as a ride to anyone. The only exceptions I would say to that, are the busy bits around Edinburgh and Dunbar, and the track near Lindisfarne, unless you’re keen to get off and push your bike, or carry it if it’s been a wet couple of days. But otherwise definitely worth riding :)