Start: St Michael’s church, Burgh by Sands, 4:59am.
My alarm went off at 4:30am, just as some big drops of rain started landing on my bivvy bag. I quickly packed up and set off towards Carlisle. Before long the rain turned torrential, to the point where rivers were running down the roads. I paused briefly in a bus shelter to finish off a big pot of yoghurt for breakfast but otherwise just tried to keep moving. I had sussed out a café in Newcastleton that opened at 7:30 so my aim was to have a decent stop and refuel there. I must have paced this section to perfection because I arrived at 7:29! I managed to stomach a full cooked veggie breakfast featuring a wonderful new form of carbohydrate that confirmed I had arrived in Scotland: the tattie scone, basically a fried potato pancake. Amazing! I also made good use of the hand-drier in the ladies toilet to dry all my gear; unfortunately it only stayed on for about 5 seconds so there was a lot of wafting going on. I’m not sure what the staff thought I was doing in there but I had long since reached the point in the trip where I cared what anyone thought. All in all it was a very welcome stop on an otherwise empty stretch.
Today’s top tip: don’t sleep with chocolate in your back pocket
After Newcastleton I headed north through Hermitage, Denholm, Kelso and over to CP6, Berwick-upon-Tweed. Passing through Denholm, I exchanged a wave with Colin, the guy I’d met at Studley Royal, who had paused to eat a sausage roll in a bus stop on his way back to Silloth. As the rain petered out to a fine Scotch mist, I really started to enjoy myself. The route was undulating but not too hilly and I finally had a tailwind! The Scottish borders were very empty though, and I was starting to feel the lack of human company quite acutely. I waved at every car driver I saw (only about 10 in total), wished several sheep good morning and on some of the straighter, more boring sections of road, started to sing songs to myself (out loud). Anything with a hearty chorus hit the spot. Think “She’ll be coming round the mountain”, but with “pink pyjamas” replaced by “soggy bibshorts” and it was basically written for me! One of my favourites was “One man went to mow a meadow”, because counting the numbers down in the chorus is a good workout for a tired brain and also because it makes me think of my Granny, who used to think “Mowameadow” was a place. I got quite good at doing the countdown really quickly – if you ask me sometime I might give you a demonstration if I’m feeling generous! If I got the numbers in the wrong order I’d go back to the beginning and start again. For the record, it gets significantly harder to fit the numbers into the available syllables once you get past 10. It sounds a bit daft now but it was a good way to pass the time!
How I felt about the Scottish weather…
Berwick was busy with tourists and I got a bit flustered about not being able to answer the checkpoint question (which turned out to be a red herring!), riding up and down the same stretch of road several times looking for a house number before giving up and going to find a coffee in the most ridiculously hipster of all hipster coffee establishments ever. Think exposed brickwork and pipework, staff with massive beards and pointy brogues, big houseplants etc. But the coffee was decent and the toilets had a huge sink where I could wash my face and brush my teeth.
CP6 Berwick lighthouse
Looking a bit rough but so glad I packed a toothbrush!
As Berwick was the most northerly checkpoint, I knew the tailwind would be over as I turned south into a prevailing south-westerly. And it really was quite blowy. As I was unlocking my bike an old lady walked past me and said “Is it not a bit windy for driving?” (I think she meant riding) … unfortunately there wasn’t a lot I could do about it. I also had a major faff trying to get out of Berwick on the National Cycle Route 1, which is definitely more suited to the gravel/MTB end of the spectrum. I hadn’t spent as much time planning this section of route as I’d have liked and it was starting to come back and bite me in the bum. The trouble with route planning in coastal Northumberland is that you feel like you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place, either the busy A1 or the gravelly NC1. In the end I went for a bit of both. The biggest gravelly booboo occurred at Goswick, where I’d planned to cross the East Coast Main Line only to find the level crossing was now private and closed (thanks RideWithGPS!)! I decided the £1000 trespassing on the railway fine/risk of death wasn’t worth it and had to backtrack along a whole kilometre of gravel track before bumping along through the sand dunes for a bit and finally rejoining the tarmac at Beal. What a waste of time! Very frustrating, but I tried not to waste mental energy dwelling on it and cracked on.
I’d planned my route so I could stop at Mum and Dad’s house in Amble (although they were actually away for the weekend). If this had been an actual race, this wouldn’t have been allowed, and I still wasn’t sure how I felt about it, so I limited everything I did there to stuff I’d have been able to do at a decent bike shop or café. No shower and no nap. I had 2 cups of tea, a couple of bowls of Shreddies, charged my electrics (lights, Wahoo, phone) for a bit, pumped my tyres up and gave my bike and bottles a quick wash. There had been a lot of slurry on the back roads on the Silloth-Berwick leg and I was a bit concerned about my already compromised gut picking up a bug, so it felt good to wash my bottles in some hot soapy water. There’s definitely a mental boost that comes from riding a clean bike compared to a filthy one! I reckon my feet had been wet since Saturday lunchtime (over 48 hours ago) so I also chose this moment to remove my socks, shoes and shoe covers and assess the trench foot damage – you may want to scroll past the next image quickly if you’re of a delicate nature. An hour of drying out and a fresh pair of socks felt good. The sunset in Amble was stunning and I felt physically and mentally refreshed by having a decent stop in a familiar place.
I pressed on into the night, picking up some food at Morrisons in Amble (focaccia reduced to 5p anyone?!) and then the last croissant from Lidl bakery in Morpeth around 9:30pm – I wasn’t that hungry but Lidl was too good to pass up! I paused briefly in Ponteland to phone Andy from the comfort of a bus shelter. We’d exchanged WhatsApps but this was the first time we’d actually spoken since I set off, which was nice. I was feeling really strong and positive now, and felt that finishing was definitely within reach. My secret goal all along had been to finish in under 4 days but I had written that off when day 1 and 2 were so hard. But after some quick calculations I worked out that it might just still be doable if I put in a mega long day 3 and 4… I would need to put in 190 miles today to get to CP7 (Blanchland), leaving me with another 190 miles to get home tomorrow. Could I do it? I wasn’t sure, but I was going to have a decent stab at it!
I had tried to recce the Ponteland – Blanchland section of the route during Storm Dennis in February but unfortunately Dennis had proved a little too gusty for riding and Andy and I had ended up driving round the route instead. Nonetheless there were still bits that looked familiar, even in the dark, and I was treated to a lovely night sky with very little light pollution and another big orange moon. After crossing the River Tyne at Stocksfield it was pretty much uphill and into the wind all the way to the checkpoint, quite a slog but by now the bit was firmly between my teeth! At last the bright lights of Blanchland appeared in the distance and I arrived at the checkpoint at 01:19. I’d already decided to bivvy somewhere in the village as it lies in a little valley and it would be warmer there than up on the windy tops, and mentally I couldn’t think about going any further. In a weird case of déjà vu I ended up going for another spooky graveyard bivvy experience, this time round the back of Blanchland Abbey, which was founded as a priory in 1165 and is now a Scheduled Ancient Monument – let no one say I’m not cultured! Of course the culture didn’t even cross my mind at the time as I could think about only one thing- sleep!
Blanchland in the small hours
Spooky bivvy #2
Tap! Bivvy luxury!