I first found out about the Sandstone Way cycle route in September and within a week I'd ordered the map and was trying to find a way to sneak just one more adventure into the year. That's how I ended up in Hexham with a heavily laden bike at the start of the 120 mile route at 9:45am on Monday 19th December.
I had rather optimistically set myself the challenge of completing the ride to Berwick upon Tweed in 3 days and then pedalling the 100 miles or so back to Newcastle along the Coast and Castles route for the final 2 days of my trip. My biggest challenge on this adventure was to wild camp on my own. It's something I've been wanting to do all year and working towards with small steps but I needed to bite the bullet and overcome my fear to make it happen and that is the part of the trip that I was most worried about. I have an overwhelming need to feel that I have achieved something this year and hopefully this last adventure of the year will be the greatest.
This is it now, just me and my trusty steed about to head off into the unknown. Nervous with excitement I set off over the train tracks and it isn't long before I've got a great big grin on my face and am breathing in big gulps of country air like the crazy city dweller that I am. The last week of people saying 'You're doing what? In December...' are a distant memory as I make my way off-road and into my first muddy field of the trip.
My aim for the day was to get as far past Bellingham as I could, ideally somewhere near Harwood Forest but the further I rode the muddier, boggier and harder the riding became until I very nearly had a serious mud bath around Goatstones, just east of Simonburn. If you have ever seen the Vicar of Dibley episode where she is jumping in puddles and then jumps in one and ends up right up to her neck in it then imagine that but on a bike! The entire width of the track was a giant brown lake and I rode into it rather slowly only to very quickly lose half of my front wheel in mud. The bike was fully immersed and I grabbed out to the side to the flimsy wire fence to stop myself from falling off the bike and into the water. 'How the hell and I going to get out of this one?' Not easily is the answer - as I climbed off the bike to balance precariously on a wire fence whilst ensuring the bike stayed upright and jumping back to the shallows of the puddle to try and haul a now very stuck and heavy bike backwards out of the quicksand-like mud. At this point I should have foreseen that this trip was going to be far more challenging than I had conceived from the comfort of my sofa but the adrenaline fuelled 5 minutes of almost comedy-like manoeuvring to free the bike had me thinking that I'd overcome my first blip and that surely the rest would be fine once I got out of this section.
I must have made a wrong turn at some point and ended up a bit lost just before Bellingham so it was Google Maps to the rescue (once I'd managed to find a signal!) and I decided to stop at the Rocky Road Cafe in Bellingham for a warming pot of tea and a slice of date rocky road. It was 3:30pm and I was aware that the daylight wouldn't last much longer but needed the boost of a bit of warmth and also the chance to use a toilet and get my water bottles filled up before a night of wild camping. The cafe wasn't busy and the lady was very friendly even though I was covered in mud. Rejuvenated and refuelled I left and headed towards West Woodburn where I hoped to arrive before sunset in order to find somewhere to bed down for the night.
Reaching West Woodburn I soon found that I had my first puncture of the trip and set about replacing the tube. I was a bit miffed at first but then realised that it was much easier to fix a flat in the last of the daylight than in the pitch black so I took a moment to reflect in the pretty pink skies of the sunset.
Half an hour later (yes I know - I'm out of practice but those darn tubeless-ready tyres are a bitch to get off!) I set off again and before long was on a single carriageway in the dark - something wasn't right. I couldn't figure out where I'd gone wrong looking at the map so continued until I got some phone signal and checked Google maps. Luckily I wasn't far off course and headed east to get back onto the route where not far from the road I found a nice corner of a farmers field - fairly sheltered from the wind and as good a spot as any I supposed.
Sneaking through the gate and into the corner of the field I set about pitching my tent and getting some water onto boil for my dinner. It wasn't until I was waiting for my ration pack to re-hydrate that I realised I hadn't touched base with anyone and had promised to do so when I stopped for the night. I hadn't any phone signal so I started to walk back up to the main road until finally I had enough signal to make a hasty call to my ever worrying Mam and text my brother and Dad to let them know I was ok. I might be 32 years old but everyone seemed to be worried and think I was crazy with this adventure so I suppose a call or text wasn't too much to ask.
Come 6pm ish I was in my tent out of the cold and wind and in for a long night. That's the problem with winter adventures, not enough daylight and it's too cold to sit out on an evening. Nevertheless I was happy in my little cocoon for the meantime and hoping to keep the fear at bay. It is fear of the dark, of being alone, of being attacked and it's all totally illogical but the brain doesn't always work that way. Later on that evening torchlight filtered over one side of the tent and immediately my heart was pounding and I was listening to hear for any sign of people - nothing! I told myself that it must be another side-road that was nearby and headlights had filtered through the stone walls but it happened again about 15 minutes later and then twice later on in the night. I had visions of the farmer coming to kick me out of his field and worse still people with darker intentions. Let's just say that sleep didn't feature much that night, something that I thought would happen but had hoped wouldn't be the case. By 11pm I needed my last wee of the night and knew I'd have to bite the bullet and get out of the tent. It took pure bladder pain to make me finally get up and venture out. Opening the tent flap I saw that it was dark and silent and once outside I realised I was in for a treat. The cloud had gone and the skies were clear and covered in the most amazing stars that I had seen only one before, last year in Norway - truly stunning. Northumberland is known for it's dark sky status and at that moment my fear was gone and replaced by wonder. It might sound cheesy but there is nothing quite like a sky full of beautiful clusters of stars to make you feel like a tiny blip in the grand scheme of things and to make you smile and be grateful for the small things in life and nature.
See day one of my ride on Strava here.
My alarm sounded at 6:30am and I was relieved that daylight was nearing after a rather long night. It had rained overnight so I dried the tent with my towel whilst boiling water for my porridge and started to pack my kit away as the darkness faded.
I was back on the road by 8:30am and was hoping to make it to Ingram by sunset. Arriving at Harwood Forest early morning I was relieved that it hadn't been my stopping place the night before. Huge areas of land had been cleared of trees which resembled the aftermath of a bombsite followed by narrow stretches of trail hemmed in on both sides by immense forests of pine trees and conifers so thick that there was no daylight visible a metre in from the track. Definitely spooky and not a single soul to be seen anywhere, just the sway of the trees in the wind and the sound of my pedalling. I'm sure if there is any place where a Gruffalo would live then it would be here!
The next hour seemed to be a steady stream of ups and downs followed by a long gradual climb through the Simonside Hills where I finally got to appreciate the view rather than being surrounded by trees.
After not seeing a soul all morning I saw my first person of the day and my first cyclist of my trip, albeit fleetingly as he hurtled down a rather large hill I was plodding up - so there is life out there after all! It was getting colder and the wind was picking up as I reached Simonside where I saw two walkers and exchanged a few words.
The descent was thrilling but absolutely freezing and by the time I reached the flat again I had to put thicker gloves on and my buff. I wasn't far from Rothbury now but I missed a sign and did a few extra kilometres finding the route again which I could have done without in the cold. Arriving in Rothbury I stopped for lunch at Tomlinsons Cafe & Bunkhouse for a much needed pot of hot, steaming tea. It had taken me a few hours longer than I had hoped to get here and I didn't relish heading back out into the bitter wind and so seriously considered calling it a day and staying in the bunkhouse for a night even though it was only lunchtime. It's amazing what a good sarnie and a caffeine hit can do though and I managed to drag myself back outside only to find that the wind had vanished and the sun was shining - yay, thank you weather Gods.
There always seems to be a hill straight after lunch and today was no exception with a long, slow slog up a steep bank to the moors where the sun continued to shine.
There's no tonic quite like a bit of sun to make you smile as you're squelching through boggy heather. Not long after passing through Snitter I felt the familiar drag of a flat back tyre on a track alongside the farmers fields. Hoping it just needed a bit of air I stupidly wasted time to stop and pump it up rather than just changing the tube. 100 metres down the road it was flat again and time to do what I should have done in the first place and change the tube - stupid girl. I must have taken my time as the farmer rode over on his quad with his two sheepdogs to see what I was doing. He said all he could see was an orange jacket by the corner of his field and thought I might be a council worker, haha. I told him I was managing thanks but it was nice to have a quick chat and for him to check I was ok. It was now around 3pm and I knew that I only had an hour of daylight left and wasn't going to make it to Ingram, but there was a campsite and bunkhouse marked on the map at Clennell which was roughly about 6 miles away so with no time to waste I was back on the bike to race the fading light.
Passing through a quaint village I was greeted with the sight of a big bright Christmas tree and flashing decorations and I got a warm fuzzy feeling at the thought of enjoying Christmas when I had finished the trip. The warm fuzzy feeling didn't last long though as I went back off-road over very rough ground and grass before coming to a bridge to take me across the river and back onto the road that would take me towards Harbottle. The only problem was that there were 5 very steep steps up to the bridge and my bike was very heavy and I have about as much upper body strength as a kitten. I am so glad that no-one was watching me as I struggled and failed continually to get the bike past the third step and I seriously thought I was going to have to remove all of my kit bags to get the bike up. After 5 minutes I was exhausted and my GPS battery had just died and I was rather peeved. So close and yet so far...but one last attempt, a good bit of shoulder action and some rather inventive swearing later and I had done it - thank God for that!
It was completely dark when I arrived at Clennell Hall Country House and there wasn't a soul to be seen. I left the bike outside and headed into the reception where I rang the bell on the front desk. I waited a few minutes and rang again and still no-one came. After another 5 minutes I thought that this was seriously spooky. A giant old hotel with the lights on and a few cars outside but no-one around. I even wandered down the corridors to the kitchen and into the other rooms and there was nothing - it was like the beginning scenes of a horror film or something. To be honest I didn't know what else to do but to keep ringing the bell and after going outside again to check on my bike I came back in to see a lady scuttling off down a corridor. Thankfully she was the lady of the house and soon had me sorted out in the bunkhouse with my bike just outside the room. After a hot shower and a recovery shake I headed for the bar where the open fire was roaring and the owners dog was pleased to see a new face. There were no other guests but my hosts were very friendly and we chatted whilst I waited for my meal to arrive. One very tasty game pie and a pint later I excused myself and went back to my room to patch up my punctured tube and hit the hay.
See day two of my ride on Strava here.
My plan was to be riding by 8:30am today but having been told at breakfast that today was the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice, daylight didn't appear until 8:30 and with it came the rain. Hoping that it wouldn't last too long I enjoyed a full English breakfast and a pot of tea before finally resigning myself to the fact that the rain wasn't going to stop and I had to get riding. The aim was to get as far past Wooler as possible in order to try to finish with route in 4 days. Starting my 3rd day of the trip and being just halfway to Berwick made me realise just how unrealistic I'd been with my planning.
It was colder today but I soon warmed up on the hills and after an hour there was a brief respite in the rain.
Brief it was and in the next hour I managed to get lost, soak my feet even through waterproof socks and get very cold in the wind and rain on Wether Hill before taking shelter in the covered gateway of a church near Ingram. I had hoped that the cafe next door would be open for me to thaw out with a brew but no joy, so I snacked on a flapjack whilst jumping and stamping my feet to try and regain some feeling. If it wasn't for two ladies who had just been arranging the flowers for the church service that spoke to me, I would have seriously considered stopping.
The rain and mud were relentless and it wasn't long before the inevitable happened again, a puncture - although this time I was really annoyed because it was all my fault. Something had caught my eye on the front tyre and when I stopped and picked at it I realised I'd just dislodged a huge thorn and with an almost instant hiss it was flat as a pancake. Lesson 1 for the day - don't pull thorns out of your tyre unless you want to spend the next 20 minutes wrestling to put a new inner tube in muddy puddles with an audience of sheep. Luckily it was only lightly drizzling but I struggled with numb fingers to get the new tube fitted before snapping my very first tyre lever - great, one more thing to worry about with only one tyre lever now! It was at this point that I came pretty close to crying. I was cold, had numb feet and hands and was covered in mud with a flat tyre and not a soul to be seen. The answer to my problems was in my backpack. No, not a hip-flask but a letter. My good friend Tim had sent me an envelope in the post the week beforehand with instructions to only open it in time of dire need when all you want to do is quit - no time like the present! Five minutes and two reads later, I'd laughed and smiled and managed to find my game-face again. That was exactly what I needed and a good kick up the arse so with that I finished changing the tube and got back on my trusty steed to 'just keep pedalling - as each revolution will bring you closer to your destination'.
The afternoon wasn't pleasant at all. Heavy downpours and gusting winds had sapped my heat. The problem was my wet feet - it totally chilled my core and it was pretty relentless. I was starting to get too cold and knew that I had to get somewhere warm soon or I could be in trouble, so it looked like I was going to have to stop at Wooler after a rather short days riding. With only a few miles to Wooler I was devastated to find I had another puncture, again in the front tyre, not one but two thorns this time. Another slow fix and I was back on the road and desperate to get to Wooler. The lady in the tourist information office was a godsend and although it wasn't officially open to individuals (only large groups), she rang the youth hostel and the manager agreed to let me stay for the night as there was no-one else booked in. The relief was immediate and after a short cycle back up the hill to the youth hostel I was very kindly welcomed and given the managers old accommodation, with an adjoining shower room and most importantly an electric heater.
Under normal circumstances I think I would have scalded myself but even with the shower at it's hottest it took a long time before I even felt slightly warm. I put my thermals, down jacket and hat on, turned up the heater to the max and lay on the bed. I do honestly think that if I'd tried to continue then it would have been a very bad decision as I had struggled to even get my words out in the tourist information centre and had completely forgotten where I'd even started from that morning. 39km (24 miles) was a very short day, particularly when I needed to crack out the miles the most - but I was happy that I'd made the right choice for the safest end to the day. When you're on a trip like this you rely only on your own judgement and decision making and knowing that I'd made the best call today was a very positive sign, even if it meant that the next day of the trip would be that much longer now.
Tomorrow would be an epic last push to Berwick upon Tweed, roughly around 55km (35 miles). Just to make things more interesting storm Barbara was on it's way and was going to hit on Friday so there was no question that I had to make it to the end tomorrow. Having spent some time patching both inner tubes I had only one patch remaining and two spare tubes that had already been patched if I were to puncture again - no pressure or anything!
See day three of my ride on Strava here.
Day 4 - The Finale
After an unsettled nights sleep I left the youth hostel at 8:30am and began what I knew was going to be a tough day. I was relieved to find that it wasn't raining outside but the wind had definitely picked up overnight. I was excited and rather nervous for the final day of the route. There were still so many unknowns with this last section and most worrying for me was the fact that I had only one patch left to repair any punctures and two inner tubes that had already been repaired if I punctured again. I was hoping and praying that today the puncture Gods would be smiling down on me as I very slowly made my way up the first uphill climb of the day.
As I rode east over the fields towards Newtown the sun was rising over the hills and what a sight it was! It is moments like this that remind my why I love bikepacking. Just me, my bike and natural beauty - it simply doesn't get better than this.
Just after Chatton there was a section of off-road that went to South Lynam that turned into a complete nightmare. The mud was horrendous and there were no route markers on any of the gates so I plodded from field to field guessing until I came to a dead end and had to backtrack to try another route. Looking at the map I thought I had found my way when I saw the road and figured out how to get there but having turned right onto the road and continued on, I realised at the next junction that I was totally lost. The signposts didn't make any sense as to which way I should go and I had no phone signal to check Google maps. I turned left and continued the only way I thought I could go which wasn't back to Chatton and hoped that I was going north. It was another few miles along the road before I realised I was headed east and was 6 miles from Belford but without knowing exactly where I was on the map I couldn't do much but keep cycling. When I finally managed to get a phone signal and consult Google maps I was devastated. Somehow I'd taken the completely wrong way on the off-road section and headed east rather than north and if I continued on the road I was on then I would probably end up on the A1 to Belford. There was nothing to do but turn around and retrace the last 3 miles into a headwind back to where I had come out of the farmers field and then to head north along that road towards Belford Mains and ultimately towards Belford Moor to rejoin the Sandstone Way. I was angry and upset at getting lost and wasting so much time but no-one was going to do it for me so I just had to keep pedalling.
After roughly an hour and a half and nearly 10 miles of riding the wrong way I was ecstatic to see the little green arrow of the Sandstone Way on a gatepost. The relief was immense and with the sun still shining I forgot about the nightmare of the last few hours and set my sights on the route ahead.
The ride became enjoyable again and it seemed I had the world to myself as I had only seen one person all day and there was no sign of life anywhere. It wasn't long before I reached St. Cuthbert's Cave where I stopped for a quick look around.
Having quickly demolished a sandwich in a bus stop outside of a petrol station on the A1 I was feeling pretty good. The wind was strong but I was close to the coast now and had been seeing glimpses of it for a fair few miles. A nice downhill stretch later and I was there, the start of the Coast & Castles route and only 11 miles from Berwick.
Heading inland for a short spell towards Cheswick I was riding directly into the wind. I felt like I was moving slower than walking pace (which is quite probable) and I caught the last of the sun dipping below the horizon.
Sometimes the longest miles are the ones when you're closest to the end and this was no exception. The scenery was beautiful though and it was a refreshing change to see the sand and sea rather than fields. I could finally see the lighthouse at Berwick in the distance as I turned to see the pink evening sky behind me.
With the light fading fast it was pedal to the metal to grind out the last few miles. I had started to notice that my back tyre was rather soft but I put my head down and carried on as I was scared to stop and see if it was a puncture. Eventually it was slowing me down too much so I decided to blast it full of air and keep my fingers and toes crossed that it would get me to Berwick.
As I reached the promenade it was dark enough that I needed to put my lights on and it had also started to drizzle but I knew that I was very close. It wasn't long before I was cycling across the river and according to the map the end should be in sight just on the right along the river path. Expecting to see a big sign signalling the start/end of the Sandstone Way I was rather surprised to see a simple signpost with the green Sandstone Way logo on. This was it - 120 miles of the Sandstone Way completed. In fact probably a good 15 miles more than I needed to do given the amount of navigational mishaps that occurred, haha. I was happy but distinctly underwhelmed. This tends to happen to me at the end of a big challenge, the anti-climax when you get there is a bit strange but I think mostly I just felt proud and relieved. I was also amazed that the puncture Gods had granted my wish of no flat tyres and for that I will be eternally grateful. Realising that the youth hostel was literally just through an arch behind the sign I happily took one last look at the end of my epic journey before heading into the warmth of the hostel.
First on my list of priorities for the night was a celebratory pint and boy did it hit the spot. I sat looking rather stunned as the adrenaline of the day wore off and the alcohol kicked in. I couldn't believe that I'd done it and yet I knew all along that I could. The sense of achievement was awesome and at that moment I could honestly say that I was the happiest I'd been in months.
Waking up the next day and realising that I wasn't getting back onto my bike was a bit odd but I headed for the train back to Sunderland and prepared myself for the Christmas merriment that was soon to commence. It turns out that I had slow punctures in both my front and rear tyres but I managed to make it the last few miles from the train station back to my Mams house and finally collapsed on the sofa. It had only been less than 24 hours since I had finished my ride but I seemed so far removed from the muddy fields and biting winds that it was all a bit strange and I needed some time to process the journey that I'd been on.
In all honesty I had majorly underestimated the weather and off-road conditions of the route in winter. It's all fine when you're in London having a nice mild winter and riding on tarmac roads everyday but the contrast was shocking and I learnt an important lesson in planning and expectations with this trip. With regards to my kit I was extremely happy, I had no issues with any of my new bike bags and I used everything piece of clothing I packed and wasn't missing anything important. I think the only thing that I really could have done with on the trip that I didn't have was a compass, and definitely something I will pack for my next trip.
The Sandstone Way did seriously push me both physically and more importantly mentally and I came through the other side having completed my challenge. I learnt a lot about myself in those 4 days and was pleased with my decision making and navigation skills given the difficulty of the off-road sections of the route. It has given me the confidence to start thinking of bigger and longer challenges and was the perfect end to a rather difficult 2016 for me. Remember that it is more important to get out there, try something and fail than it is never to have tried to achieve it in the first place! Now, time to start planning some epic rides for 2017 :-D