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Coasts and Castles, a ride along the NCN1/76 (Part 2): Fenwick to Dunbar

Coasts and Castles, a ride along the NCN1/76 (Part 2): Fenwick to Dunbar

After a pleasant breakfast we set out once again, I wasn’t feeling quite as fit as the day before, probably due to my only recent recovery from flu. As we didn’t have the official “Sustrans Coast & Castles South” route map, nor did we have the updated sheet to the 2004 2nd edition of the OS map, we were following the signs for NCN 1 and using an older OS map. So we didn’t know that the route we were about to turn onto was unsuitable for road bikes, or that there is an “alternative road route (not signed) via Scremerston and A1167.” Thanks, Sustrans!! This is supposed to be part of an International long distance cycle route, not a mountain bike track, international visitors must think this is some sort of sick joke. But then this is the UK, and we have well meaning groups like Sustrans, who are there to remind us that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

We knew from the evening before that the off road route from Beal to Beal Point had a loose surface which could be dangerous on loaded touring bikes. Also, that there were closed gates at either end, but an open entrance to the road half way down to where the north bound route turns left (this is fairly typical of Sustrans engineering). So we rode down on the road and turned left through the open gateway (which doesn’t actually have a gate) on to a farm track leading north. Then more gates and a high bridge over a drainage ditch called the South Low, the land here has been reclaimed from the sea, but one wonders, with climatic change, how long before the sea decides to claim it back again.

We meet several groups of cyclists coming the other way, all of whom were riding mountain bikes, which were far better suited to the path than our road oriented trekking bikes. After several kilometres of slow going over rough ground we finally regained the road and crossed over the North Low, shortly followed by the last crossing of the East Coast Main Line on a level crossing of the trip. The next crossing of the railway line was only a couple of kilometres further on, but this time on a humpback bridge, after which we were off road again, following a better made path through the dune slack. A couple more gates later and we briefly back on to black top, which lead us past Cocklawburn Beach and a car park, deserted save for a solitary ice cream van, next to which was a bored looking youth sitting on the grass, smoking.

By now the sand dunes had given way to rocky skerries and we were climbing towards low cliffs. The road turned sharply right, just by the imaginatively named Sea House, unfortunately our route departed from the road and followed the coastal footpath along the top of the cliffs. Don’t get me wrong, this is all very scenic and a fine walking path, but it is poorly suited to being a long distance cycle route.

On the NCN1 Coast and Castles cycle route

The final section of the of the cliff path was not only steep, it was rough and loose, which was far from ideal. Then we were back onto road again, phew.

As we cycled into Berwick-Upon-Tweed, we met several large groups of cyclists heading the opposite way. I am not sure where they were going, but there were lots of lots of friendly waves and hellos. After a confusing twisting and turning route, we found ourselves on a high bridge over the river, the Royal Tweed Bridge. Here the route makes you ride on the pavement, normally I object to riding on the pavements, but in this case I was happy to do so. The town was completely clogged with motor vehicles going nowhere fast, and the drivers getting increasingly cranky.

By now Ulli was wanting a map of the route ahead, we knew from information the previous night’s B&B that there was a cycle hire shop on Bridge Street. This turned out to be leading to a different bridge to the one we were on and required us to ride through the centre of the old town. When we finally found the shop, it was closed as it was a Sunday. So we thought we would try a bookshop, but none there, so finally we tried the Tourist Information. They were able to give us a free a Northumberland Cycling Map, but they didn’t stock the Coast & Castles South cycle map because it crosses the border. I tried pointing out the route started in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and that ¾ of the route was in Northumberland. The lassie was embarrassed, but very apologetically said that she wasn’t allowed to sell them. Then there was the next wee issue. It had been slow going getting to Berwick and the wind was getting stronger and we had decided that we wouldn’t make Edinburgh on the same day. So we need to book a B&B around Dunbar, but Berwick Tourist Information couldn’t make a booking across the border, we would have to cycle to Eyemouth to do that.

We followed signs to get back on to the NCN 1 cycle route, I was glad to be leaving the crabbit bampot drivers of Berwick-Upon-Tweed behind. This put us on a known route, having been there almost two months before. The first bit was on quiet roads then turning onto a off-road path which was even more overgrown than it had been the last time we had passed. Then across the A1, to the point where we were to leave the NCN 1 and join the NCN 76, to follow the coastal route north.

The NCN 76 started by heading steeply uphill for about 500 m (gaining 50 m in altitude), then we turned sharply left and lost the altitude gained over about 2 Km. Then at a cross roads we turned left in to no man’s land, along the Scottish / English border for about another 2 Km. We knew when we had crossed the border into Scotland, as there was a big sign saying “Welcome to Scotland”, the other side was merely marked with a sign saying “England”, don’t expect a welcome going south.

The landscape was changing, gone was the flat to slightly undulating coastal strip, now it was becoming more rolling hills and we were climbing more. We topped out at 200 m, then started the steady decent towards Ayton, with splendid views across to the massive red sandstone pile that is Ayton Castle. It was just a shame that the light wasn’t right for photos. Beyond Ayton, we wound our way on down to Eyemouth, where we sought out the Tourist Information office. In Berwick-Upon-Tweed we had been told that it closed at 16:00 on a Sunday, but now found that it closed at 14:00, fortunately we had 10 minutes to spare. A lovely lady found us a room in a B&B in Dunbar, which meant that we could relax and enjoy rest of the afternoon’s ride.

Leaving Eyemouth, we headed up hill again, this time straight into a westerly wind. A couple of kilometres out of Eyemouth we met a pair of German cycle tourers heading the opposite way, who stopped and asked how far it was to Eyemouth. We were climbing steadily again, by-passing Coldingham, but making our way up onto Coldingham Moor. Out on the moor the landscape was more open and we felt the full effect of the wind, which slowed our progress. On the few occasions where there was a bit of shelter, our speed increased by about 10 Km/h without our changing cadence, only to drop back down as soon as we left the shelter. The road crossing the moor is a very straight A road, but not particularly busy, we passed by a Brompton rider going in the opposite direction, zipping along at speed.

We finally topped out at 226 m and were greeted with an inviting looking sweeping downhill, which looked like it was going to be an easy ride.

Looks like and easy downhill ride

Unfortunately the wind had other ideas and we had to pedal hard to make progress. Before setting off downhill, we also had a dramatic view of coast, cliffs, and Pease Bay, marred only by the caravan park. Beyond that Torness Nuclear Power Station and the Dunbar cement works sticking out as landmarks among yellow cereal fields.

Evidently the route planners at Sustrans thought these were all sights not to be missed as the route took us past every single one of them. We made our own diversion to visit Dunglass Collegiate Church, which was worth the effort.

Dunglass church

A quick note here on the historical background to Dunglass Collegiate Church: “The term ‘Collegiate Church’ covered a variety of sins, often literally. Collegiate Churches were generally endowed by the great and the good (and the rich) of the land. Each was served by a small religious community whose primary role was to pray for the souls of their benefactor, his wife, and his family. Presumably the idea was to relieve the great and the good of the onerous burden of praying for their own souls. Lennon and McCartney may have been right in suggesting that ‘money can’t buy you love’: but in the Scotland of the 1400s many believed it could buy you salvation” (Undiscovered Scotland). It was held against the English in 1544 when Henry VIII engaged in his rough wooing of infant Mary, Queen of Scots, and by the 18th century it was be used as a stables. These days it is occasionally used for weddings.

Dunglass church

The caravan park, nuclear power station and cement works, I could happily done without. It would have been better to have continued on the A1107 and ducked under the A1 to go to Cockburnspath. This looks possible on the map and satellite images, but I haven’t tried it on the ground yet. Either way, we were please to reach Dunbar. Having located our B&B, we dropped off our luggage and had a shower, before headed out for a splendid dinner at the Volunteer Arms. I can recommend the monkfish and salmon kebabs, if you can’t get fresh fish 200 m from the harbour, you can’t get it anywhere. After which we sat on a bench in a wee park over looking the harbour entrance, waiting to take photos of the sun set.

Bass Rock in the gloaming

While we were waiting, we saw a kestrel being mobbed by swallows, something I have never seen before.

There is a map of our route here.

My stats were:

  • Distance cycled – 92.2 Km
  • Time spent riding – 05:18:37
  • Max Speed – 65.3 Km/h
  • Ave Speed – 17.4 Km/h
  • Vertical climb – 670 m
Coasts and Castles, a ride along the NCN1 (Part 1): Alnmouth to Fenwick

Coasts and Castles, a ride along the NCN1 (Part 1): Alnmouth to Fenwick

So there I was standing, bleary eyed, on Platform 19 of Waverley Station, waiting for the 08:05 to Alnmouth. Fortunately it wasn’t long to wait and, once aboard the train, I was free to get back to sleep, it was a Saturday morning after all.

Waiting for the train

An hour later, suitably refreshed, we were clambering off the train with our bikes, ready to embark on a short cycle tour. The plan was to cycle all the way back to Edinburgh over two days. We had thought of starting further south, the official start point of Sustrans “Coast and Castles” cycle route is Newcastle upon Tyne,. It goes all the way to Aberdeen, and is in effect a sub section of the North Sea Cycle Route. However, as I have only just recovered from a heavy bout of flu, we decided to cut the route short. OK, so this meant missing out Hadrian’s Wall, but I somehow suspect that we do the whole of Hadrian’s Wall someday anyway.

Exiting from Alnmouth Station, we picked up signs for the cycle route straight away and followed them to the village of Alnmouth, which, to me, is nothing much to write home about, but did enable us to pick up some supplies (I had forgotten to pack a water bottle). Then onward, northwards, well you’d think it would all be northwards, but a quick look at a map showed it was also westwards, this would prove to be significant later in the trip.

Leaving Alnmouth behind, the route took us along quite minor roads, criss-crossing the east coast main line, which was to become a bit of a habit for the day. The other thing we encountered on leaving Alnmouth was a couple on a tandem with panniers heading in the opposite direction. I usually think of tandems as a rare sight, but on this day we saw another two and I started to wonder if there some sort of tandem event going on.

On reaching the wee village of Craster, to discovered there was a lifeboat fête going on. Despite the tempting looking home baking, we decided to carry on to Dunstanburgh Castle. This is not actually on the “Coast and Castles” route, but a couple of friends of ours had recommended visiting it. They had cycled across from Sweden, via the ferry to Newcastle, to see us in Edinburgh. They said that they preferred Dunstanburgh Castle to Bamburgh Castle and I agree, it is an impressive ruin. On the way out there was a sign saying “cyclists please dismount” but, as there was a van coming the other way, this seemed totally pointless, so I ignored it.

Dunstanburgh Castle

Having seen the castle, we decided that, rather than going back the way had come, we would follow the coastal footpath. At first this path was easy to cycle along, then we passed through a gate and path was routed between sand dunes and a golf course, it was far from ideal for road bikes, but it was fun practising some mountain bike skills. If I were doing it again, I would go part way back towards Craster, then turn on the path to Dunstan Square to rejoin the cycle route. Instead, we regained the NCN 1 at Dunstan Steads, where were once again routed along minor roads, winding our way northwards.

After crossing the railway a couple more times, we came to the large village of Seahouses, which was incredibly busy and choked with motor traffic. It is also home to the slowest cash machine in the country, or so I was told by one of the locals. Cash obtained, the next thing was lunch, so across the road to the bakers where, among other things, I bought two “Danish pastries”. Now, a Danish pastry is something normally made of puff, but these where so heavy they seem to have been made of some sort of oil dough. No matter, to hungry cyclists in need of carbs, they set us up for the day. We took them down to the sea front to eat, while sitting on a bench looking out to the Farne Islands, some bits white with guano, and the tourist boats going out to watch the birds.

Lunch over, we set off to look for the next castle on the list, Bamburgh. Having seen it, I tend to agree with our friends from Sweden that Dunstanburgh Castle is better. While looking for a view point to take some photos, we found ourselves atop some sand dunes north of the village. Just off shore there were some surfers trying to ride the slight swell, none of them were very good, but they provided some entertainment for a short while.

By now it was getting on for mid afternoon, and the thought of stopping in a tea shop had crossed my mind. We decided that Bamburgh was too touristy and too crowed for this and we would look for somewhere further along. Cycling out from Bamburgh we found ourselves heading into the wind, up ahead I saw a couple of touring cyclists and decided to overtake to take my mind of the headwind. When I caught up with them, I saw that they were both riding mountain bikes with wide knobbly tyres, which is an odd choice for touring, slick tyres are a better option for road use. Having said hello and passed them, I reached a turn off and realising that I have left Ulli behind, I stopped to wait. The other two tourers then passed me, turning right to follow the NCN1, no matter, there was a gentle up hill gradient and we soon passed them again.

A wee bit further on we came across an odd looking stone tower, about 20 m (65 ft) high. I suggested that it might have been Rapunzel’s tower and we stopped to take photos. It turned out to be The Ducket, a holiday cottage for two. It looks like a fun place to stay, if you can get a booking. While we were taking photos, the two tourers overtook us again, but not long after we passed them again for the last time.

Having run out of water, we decided to make a detour into Belford, but before we could get there, there was a wee bit of a surprise in store. The road had been fairly flat with the odd bit of undulation, but nothing to really raise the heart rate. We crossed yet another level crossing on the east coast mainline railway, then the A1, arterial transport routes tend to take the course of least resistance. We were just passing a quarry, I was reading the notice about blasting and would have missed a more pertinent road sign had Ulli not pointed it out to me, 17% uphill! Just in time I changed to the granny ring, before crawling up the hill. Having reached the top, we turned off the NCN 1 and swooped down into Belford to look for a tea shop.

Said tea shop found, we put away a litre of ice water each, followed by a large pot of tea, but following the heavy buns from lunch time we was nae hungry! Then it was back up the hill to rejoin the NCN 1, following minor roads, parallel and inland of the A1. At one point the road became an alley of cherry trees, which prompted a short stop for foraging. Shortly after there was a paddock with a couple of lamas in it, so we stopped to say hello. A wee bit beyond there was a hollow tree in which there was a wild bees ‘ nest. Then, as we passed Fenwick wood, we spotted a group of Monkey puzzle trees, some had large female cones (I didn’t see any male cones). You don’t get that sort of thing driving up the A1!

Cone on a  Monkey puzzle tree.

Not long after, we reached the wee village of Fenwick and the Manor House B&B, where we were to stay the night. We checked in so we could drop off a couple of panniers and have a bit of a rest before setting out for Lindisfarne. We knew there was no rush, as we had checked the tide times and found that the causeway wouldn’t be passable until 17:45.

Crossing to Lindisfarne.

We crossed the causeway amid a rush of cars on and off the island, however once on to the island proper, we came across a large car park where all visitors were required to leave their cars (only residents are allowed to drive further). This gave the rest of the island, in particular the village, a very tranquil feeling. There are many tourist places on the mainland that could learn from this model (which is not so uncommon in the rest of Europe), but then the village of Lindisfarne has been doing tourism for over a 1,000 years. St Mary’s church remains a place of pilgrimage (pilgrims being an early form of tourist), it is a quiet place, with swallows nesting in porch. Step outside and there is a strange howling noise that seemed to come from a small island, is it caused by the wind or birds, or the prayers of saints? Probably just the wind. [update] Having watched a wildlife programme on TV, I now realise it was grey seals (Halichoerus grypus)!

On the far side of the village, there is a fairytale castle sitting on a rocky outcrop, and upturned boats used as storage are among the other things to see.

Lindisfarne Castle

Having done some of the sights, we were ready for dinner and, having looked at a few menus, we settled on the Anchor & Crown, only to find that it was full. But we were fortunate, in that a Dutch couple (also on bikes) made room for us at their table in the bar. Chatting with the barman, I found that it was always busy, the island has 140 inhabitants, and ¾ of a million visitors a year. The food, when it came, was excellent. So my advice would be, as soon as you get to the village, book a table, then see the sights.

Dinner over, we cycled back to the mainland before it got too dark, the traffic was much quieter this time.

There is a map of our route here.

Part 2: Fenwick to Dunbar is here
Part 3: Dunbar to Edinburgh is here.

My stats were:

  • Distance cycled – 92.2 Km
  • Time spent riding – 04:35:20
  • Max Speed – 62.3 Km/h
  • Ave Speed – 19.7 Km/h
  • Vertical climb – 360m
Bimbling through the Borders (Pt 1) – Berwick to Galashiels

Bimbling through the Borders (Pt 1) – Berwick to Galashiels

After some effort, we managed to secure reservations for two bicycles on the train from Edinburgh Waverley to Berwick-upon-Tweed, that was the good news. The bad news was that it was on the 08:11 departure, and this was a Friday. We had decided to set out on Friday for two reasons, one because the weather forecast for Sunday was increasingly poor and we wanted to be back before the weather broke. The second reason had something to do with the date, which I always forget.

As we set out, the weather was glorious, blue sky, sun shine, light wind, what more could you ask for? The train journey south was uneventful, I dozed through most of it. Getting off the train in Berwick-upon-Tweed, it was grey and dull, no real surprise, well we were in England after-all, or maybe it was the haar caused by the onshore breeze? On our way out of the station, we found signs for the NCN 1 telling use that Edinburgh was 100 miles (160.9 Km) away, doable in a day for those who are into that sort of thing, or a good distance for a two day jaunt.

100 Mile to Edinburgh

Photos taken, we set off. The route is refreshingly well sign posted and quickly takes you out of town on quiet roads. However it wasn’t all good news, little more than 2 Km from the station you get a typical Sustrans experience. The route turns off a quiet farm road (which has a bridge over the A1) and down a narrow overgrown path with hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) on both sides, and then it pops you out on the A1 to cross a dual carriageway without a marked crossing. Safely across, we were soon back on a quiet country road, pedalling along through open farmland under a dull grey sky. Then, as we crossed over the Whiteadder Water and approached Gainslaw Hill, the sky started to clear and the sun come out, the explanation for this was clear, just ahead there was a large sign “Scotland Welcomes you”.

This was one of the three border crossings on the route, each time the pattern was the same, on the Scottish side there would a sign saying “Scotland Welcomes you”, but on the other side there would be a sign saying “England”. This speaks volumes about the different cultural attitudes towards strangers of the two nations ;-). Not that we were in Scotland for long, as only 5 Km further on, the route took us back across the Border. This time crossing the River Tweed on the Union Chain Bridge, one of the interesting things about this bridge is that there was a toll booth on the English end of the bridge. So you had to pay to get into England, but on the west side of the river, “Scotland Welcomes you”.

Just up the road from the road from the Union Chain Bridge is the next point of interest, the Chain Bridge Honey Farm. It is well worth the visit, but a warning to the touring cyclist, when you pick up a jar of honey, the weight marked on the label is the weight of the content not the whole weight you will end up carrying. That said, it is worth it, as is getting some of the Beer and Honey Cake for later consumption, taking in calories is important if you are cycling distance.

Next stop of interest is Norham Castle, first built by the Bishop of Durham in 1121 and encapsulating 900 years of turbulent borders history in one building. Ulli was keen to stop and take photos, but I, to be honest, was more interested in the road down to Norham village, wide swooping bends dropping by about 30m in about 200m, great fun. Beyond Norham we crossed the river Tweed and the border once again and were welcomed back into Scotland. The riding was easy along quiet back roads, sometimes lined with trees, through rich rolling farmland.

Another quiet road in the Borders

Mostly, along this section, the routes seems to avoid settlements, which is probably why there was so little traffic. The route is well signposted, so there is little chance of getting lost, but it is worth carrying a map if you want to branch out to explore or look for supplies. It does pass through the occasional villages such as Eccles and Ednam, but these are just wee places. It also bypasses Kelso with its ruined abbey, which is worth a diversion. We stopped for a long lazy lunch in a small café (the Hoot ‘n’ Cat) not far from the abbey, which was very welcome. There is little left of Kelso Abbey now, much of it destroyed in the wars of the three kingdoms, but in its heyday it must have been massive.

Leaving Kelso, we had to negotiate a short section of A road (the A6089), which is also part of the NCN1. It was odd to realise this was the busiest road we had encountered since crossing the A1. The other thing of note on leaving Kelso is the large gilded gateway to Floors Castle, a clear statement of wealth and power. Our route took us round the back, past the tradesmen’s entrance, and once again we were on quiet roads with great views across the Borders countryside.

Looking to Hume Castle in the distance:
Borders landscape, looking to Hume Castle in the distance

Or looking to the Eildon Hills:
Looking to the Eildon Hills across the Borders landscape

While were stopped for photos, we were passed by a speed walking lady who was in training for the MoonWalk. We then moved on, only to stop again just round the corner to take more photos (from a better angle or without power lines in the way), and a couple of minutes later we would be overtaken by the speed walking lady. It felt like being in one of Aesop’s fables.

Next off was Dryburgh and its Abbey, but first there was the little matter of Clinthill. Given the rising temperature, we were fortunate to be going down the hill, unlike the couple on the tandem who were working hard on the way up, well the guy on the front was, the lassie on the back was taking easier. We didn’t actually go into the Abbey and visit Sir Walter Scott’s grave, we got as far as the shop at the entrance where we bought ice cream, then sat in the shade to eat it.

Ice cream eaten, we were off to cross the Tweed once again, this time by a beautiful traffic free bridge. Of course, having crossed the river, we then had to climb up the other side, but at least it was shady and cool. Then on across the A68 and along the old road. Just beyond Newton St Boswells the old road is closed to motorised traffic, which makes for pleasant cycling. We passed round below the Eildon Hills, which we had earlier seen the distance, but now we were so close we didn’t see them above us. Then we dropped down into Melrose, skirted past the Abbey and decided to visit it another day. We picked up an off road cycle path along an old railway through Tweedbank. It is not yet clear where the NCN 1 will go when the railway line is reinstated in a couple of years time.

It was then on to find our B&B for the night in Galashiels. There was still on surprise to come, between Newton St. Boswells and Tweedbank we had passed a number of touring cyclists, eight of whom proceeded to turn up at our B&B a short while after we did. It turned out that 90% of the guests at the B&B that night were cycling the NCN 1.

There is a map of our route here.

My stats were (mostly lost):

  • Distance cycled – 86.51 Km
  • Vertical climb – ca. 510 m
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