The Coast and Castles cycle route – the clue is in the name – offers some of the most spectacular cycling in the UK. On this tour, Tracey Radnall advises avoiding setting time limits, just simply soak up the stunning scenery at your own pace
Bamburgh Castle, one of the highlights of the route |Photo www.visitnorthumberland.com
THE COAST AND CASTLES is an epic cross-border route stretching almost 373 miles (600km) along the north-east coast from Hadrian’s frontier city of Newcastle, via the Scottish capital to the sparkling granite city of Aberdeen.
From Edinburgh’s Waverley Station, I purchase a one-way train ticket to Newcastle with the sole purpose of riding home again by bicycle. I have not planned a finish day or time – simply set-out to absorb as much of this heritage coast as possible.
Arriving in Newcastle, I meet up with friend Jules, a GP from Cambridgeshire. A cunning choice of riding pal as all will obviously be sorted in the event of an accident! We spend our first night in this welcoming city before heading out the next day, following the River Tyne estuary to the coast at Tynemouth.
As we head northwards from this northern outpost of Hadrian’s empire, and geared for
a scrap, we join the Coast and Castles route number one. History has taught us this has long been a battleground. So with sleeves rolled up we break out of the city – the views open up and with the wind blowing through the spokes we revel in a blast of much-needed fresh air as we pedal along the seafront of Whitley Bay.
The Northumberland coast
is largely flat before reaching the borders|Photo Skedaddle
I’m excited… having hiked the associated St Oswald’s way a few years ago I know we are in for, at the very least, some dramatic scenery. The vast extent of this coast is intriguing for its conflicting combination of pilgrimage and violent feudal battles, the extremes of which have left a legacy of smugglers’ havens, dedicated saintly seats and enormous brooding castles. Throw in fishing villages complete with smoke houses, iconic bridges spanning ancient burghs and you are set for a heady culture-fest mile after mile.
As sightings of folk decrease and a wealth of seabirds and other wildfowl increase, we soak up the freedom of the trail. After a few hours taking in Cresswell and the wild beauty of Druridge Bay we amble into Amble – the stop for our first night out under the stars at the back of the beach a couple of miles further on.
The next morning we make a brew on our stove and munch a couple of cereal bars before saddling up. In no time we are approaching the ancient fortified town of Warkworth, set in
a picturesque horseshoe of the river Coquet.
I pause for a drink from my bidon on the old bridge when I spot a grey seal going the wrong way upstream, no doubt lured by the warmer waters. The weather is fresh for May with spring reluctant to make an appearance. After taking a photo of the first castle we press on.
The route heads inland to navigate the estuary at the pretty town of Alnmouth where we stop for lunch. Under warming skies and with the call of wildlife we head to the fishing village of Craster.
Holy Island, Northumberland |www.visitnorthumberland.com
We follow the scent toward the old smoke house with kippers being gently smoked in an old wooden shed. Breakfast sorted we head now for our second night at Embleton. Again we camp late at the back of the deserted beach, somewhat illegally – but despite looking we cannot find the landowner. We take our chances and pitch late and leave early without trace. As we pedal north the next morning, under an angry black sky, the stiff wind nearly blows me off my bike and into the North Sea.
From Embleton the route takes you inland, twice crossing the main rail line before passing Seahouses and onward toward the enormous castle at Bamburgh. Although the castle has changed hands many times it’s in fine condition today and we must visit it. Not to be overlooked too is the nearby Grace Darling Museum, commemorating the efforts of a 22-year-old local marine hero from the 1800s.
We stay overnight at the Blue Bell – a former coaching inn on the market square in Belford. Swapping a cosy room for our tiny tent we look forward to the next day at Holy Island (Lindisfarne). It’s helpful to make a note of the tide tables before planning your visit here as the causeway gets washed by the sea twice
Successfully navigating the 2km causeway, we pause to sample a glass (just one) of the famous honey-based mead, before edging our way closer to the Scottish Border. At the walled town of Berwick upon Tweed and the ‘corner’ of the route, where we will spend the night.
Tantallon Castle and Bass Rock in south east Scotland on the
North Sea Cycle Route|Tracey Radnall
In fact the first half of it is spent in a local hostelry enjoying some rather fine Belhaven beers. From the jolly bar it’s only a short ride to our campsite. However, on alighting the tavern and like something out of a Giles cartoon, I fail to allow for the camber on the edge of the road and as I mount my bike, I immediately fall off the other side of it – my trusty stead, rather ungainly, ending on its side. My travelling companion, Jules, inexplicably follows suit and as we fall about in the middle of the car park unable to move for laughing, the landlord calls through an open window… “Is everything alright ladies?” “Oh yes!” we eventually manage amidst crys of laughter. Ahem! Order is restored (eventually) and we wobble off to bed.
From here, you are faced with a difficult choice. If you are following route one, the trail takes you inland and up the majestic Tweed Valley to Melrose, which is famed for its gothic abbey, and onward to Innerleithen, with the final leg offering a spot of ‘King of the Mountains’ style riding through the Moorfoot Hills before a glorious finish in Scotland’s capital city.
We, however, are in pioneering mood and are not to be drawn from the coast and its magnetic properties. We decide to detour onto route 76 – a trail which follows the coast all the way to Edinburgh instead.
We pedal off in search of route 76 to find it’s a lot like I’d imagine Route 66 to be on the west coast of America, in this case the east coast of Britain. It’s a very linear route with the A1 trunk road and the main England to Scotland railway shadowing ours along the way. As we head towards Eyemouth, the dramatic cliffs of St Abbs in the far distance offer a tempting taste of what lies ahead. We are overtaken by a Dutch couple who amuse us with their tales of ‘good times’ pronounced in an accent not dissimilar to Sean Connery in his role as James Bond.
Eventually we cross the border from England and into Scotland and straight away there is no doubt you are in a different country. The hills become bigger and the Saltire is fluttering away in all directions – rightly so, East Lothian is ‘home’ to the Scottish flag (there is even a flag heritage centre at Atheltaneford).
A view along Hadrian’s Wall towards sunrise near Housesteads Fort in Northumberland| Rod Edwards / British Tourist Authority
We stop overnight in Dunbar, or ‘Sunny Dunny’ as the locals call it. This is officially the sunniest town in Scotland and home to John Muir, famed across the pond for masterminding America’s National Park system. There is even a statue celebrating the local conservationist hero on the main street of this pretty seaside town.
Riding through a pretty East Linton, we turn right to follow the North Sea Cycle Route towards North Berwick. We picnic at Tynninghame perched on a stone bench called St Baldred’s Cradle with a 180 degree view along the coast, and with a sense of satisfaction
we resume the final miles of our journey.
We linger at Tantallon Castle with its stunning views across to Bass Rock and we can see Fife across the Forth in the distance. The isolated Bass Rock looms larger all the time as we approach the popular seaside resort of North Berwick. The next day after a fine lunch of lobster and chips in the smallest restaurant I have ever seen, we pedal toward the port of Leith on the southern edge of Edinburgh before enjoying a celebratory dram at the Inn on the Mile in the ancient Burgh, before a fast descent through Holyrood park and home.
Making castles on the beach is obligatory|Photo Skedaddle
Final tally is at least six castles, three volcanoes and endless miles of golden sand. This is a majestic route, chocker-block with awesome scenery, historical interest and some rather fine ales too. It’s easy to see why the Normans, English, Vikings and Scots have long squabbled over this land… every mile is a gem.
Coast and Castles 1 North
National Route 1 between Edinburgh and Stonehaven via Dunfermline, St Andrews, Dundee, Arbroath and Montrose. 172 miles.
Linked by: Route 76
134 miles from Kirkcaldy to Dunbar, which is covered in the Round the Forth map, and continues southwards for another 34 miles to Berwick-upon-Tweed, covered in the Coasts and Castles South map. Much of the route on the south of the Forth is part of the John Muir Way, which runs from Dunbar to Helensburgh (opened in April 2014). The section from North Berwick to South Queensferry is also part of the North Sea Cycle Route. You can also shorten the route or create circular routes by crossing the estuary on the Forth Road Bridge or the Kincardine Bridge.
Coast and Castles 1 South
The Coast and Castles South cycle route links the Forth and Tyne estuaries, joining Newcastle and Edinburgh via 200 miles of unspoiled coastline and some of Britain’s best coast and natural heritage.
A pocket guide to the entire route by Andy McCandlish is recommended (not including the route 76 detour though) and is published by Sustrans at £6.99
• Following the Tyne past the dramatic Tynemouth Priory
• Cycling past the pristine dunes and sandy beaches at Druridge Bay
• Stunning vistas as you approach the imposing Bamburgh castle
• John Muir’s Dunbar and the gold coast road to North Berwick
• Glimpsing Edinburgh as you cycle from the Moorfoot Hills
• The rugged beauty of the Scottish Borders
• A celebratory dram in the shadow of Arthur’s Seat.