When you’ve got an island to catch, you need to get going early. It’s 7am, and we’re cycling south across the Old Bridge in Berwick-upon-Tweed. The stone crossing is 350 metres long, 400 years old and – in the dawn half-light– a thing of beauty, but we don’t have time to dawdle. We did enough of that last night, meandering between two of the town’s excellent craft beer pubs (pints duly raised to The Curfew Micropub and The Barrels Ale House).
Now we’re moving rather more quickly, because Holy Island won’t wait. The tide times at Lindisfarne, as it’s also known, vary by the day, but once the waters close in across the causeway, it’s unreachable. This morning we have until 8.40 to get there, with undulating coastal paths and a tangerine sunrise showing the way. Just after 8 o’clock we spot the island’s crag-top castle bathed in cloudburst sunrays. We make it with 20 minutes to spare.
But reaching Lindisfarne is just the start of today’s ride. My friend Daniel and I are cycling from YHA Berwick-upon-Tweed to YHA Alnwick, a 60-mile journey along the Northumberland stretch of National Route 1. It’s a simple enough plan, and was simple enough to arrange – Wilson Cycles, Berwick’s hire shop, is located directly across from the hostel, which itself offers newly revamped cycle storage facilities.
Lindisfarne is only around 12 miles south of Berwick-upon-Tweed, and today’s tidal patterns dictate that we need to spend four hours on the island before continuing. The enforced stay is no hardship. Once we’ve pedalled around much of its birdlife-rich perimeter – with a visit to the old priory that once made the place both a vanguard of Celtic Christianity and a magnet for loot-hungry Vikings – and recharged our legs in a café, it’s time to splash back across the waning tide to the mainland.
National Route 1
National Route 1 is well suited to this kind of day-ride, sticking close to the bays and bluffs of the coastline for much of its length. But it also makes plenty of diversions inland, as we discover. On the map, the distance between Lindisfarne and the medieval castle at Bamburgh looks fairly trifling, but the rising meadows and sycamore woods stretch on for far longer than expected. When the castle finally arrives, it’s worth it.
“That… is more than I was expecting,” gapes Daniel, voicing the first impressions of a millennium’s worth of visitors. Spread across a basalt outcrop and ringed by high curtain walls, the fortress is an uncompromising, monumental sight. This area of Northumberland witnessed conflict between the English and the Scots for centuries, and later, during the Wars of the Roses, the sea-flanked castle was under siege for a full nine months before falling to the Yorkists. You can see why they would have wanted it.
Back on the road
There’s a superb seafood place on the fringes of Bamburgh called the Mizen Head, where you simply have to try the lobster. Apparently, anyway. This is the advice we have, but we spend so long at the castle that we’re obliged to skip the shellfish – each of us blaming the other for wasting time – and turn our wheels south to clock up some serious miles. Loping hills and foam-stippled waves lie ahead.
This is a region I’ve wanted to cycle for years, and the landscapes are as uncrowded as I’d anticipated, full of broad views and curving, hedge-hushed lanes. The trail ahead dips and ascends without ever throwing anything too steep our way, and only sporadic sections of it are off-road (the hire bikes cope well). We pass the Farne Islands offshore, using binoculars to squint at seals, then veer inland through gull-mobbed farmland. It’s an invigorating ride – the kind where every time you stop to chomp down another Double Decker, you realise there are more medieval ruins in view than there are people.
The route returns to the coast through a series of handsome old-time maritime settlements – the harbour village of Craster, the scarp-topped parish of Longhoughton, the golden-beach spread of Alnmouth – and at the latter we leave NCR1 to pedal a final five miles inland to Alnwick.
YHA Alnwick sits in a town with yet another show-stopping castle (as seen in Harry Potter, Hogwarts fans) and the hostel itself is based in an old courthouse. Our only trial, thankfully, is whether to pre-order the full English or the local kippers for breakfast. We climb up to bed early, full of pasta and wine and agreeably worn out from the day that’s just been.
When we take the bikes back to Berwick on the train the following morning (book bike spaces ahead), Norman at Wilson Cycles surveys us with a smile. “Good, was it?” he asks. “I hoped it would be.” He’s being modest. In this corner of the country, with the sun pouring down on the islands and old battlements, he knew it would be.
National Cycle Route 1 – my favourite stretches
Helen Curry at Sustrans shares her tips on the UK’s longest cycle path
“National Route 1 is 1,695 miles long and runs all the way from Dover to the Shetland Islands, travelling the east coast. It’s also part of the EuroVelo North Sea Cycle Route, passing through 7 countries.
For a fun, family-friendly day out, the 7-mile section between Canterbury and Whitstable is the perfect choice. It’s largely traffic-free and travels past Blean Woods, one of the largest areas of ancient woodland in the south. On arriving in Whitstable, sampling the local seafood is a must. YHA Canterbury is a great local place to base yourself.
In the Yorkshire Wolds, the 20-mile stretch between the market town of Driffield and the seaside resort of Bridlington is great. It takes you past pretty villages and stately homes, and the undulating route means you’ll have definitely earned an ice-cream on arrival. YHA Beverley Friary is ideally located for exploring East Yorkshire by bike and gives good access to National Route 1.”
Coming soon to Northumberland: The Sill Project
Currently under construction on the county’s northern border is The Sill: National Landscape Discovery Centre, expected to open in 2017. It’s billed as “a bold, ambitious project that will transform how people of all ages understand and explore the landscapes, history, culture and heritage of… the North East,” and will also feature the brand new YHA Hadrian’s Wall. Watch this space.