[UPDATED - see base] David Hembrow has a very popular blog. He’s the cycling campaigner who worked to improve conditions in Cambridge for 10 years before he moved his family to the Netherlands. He takes potshots at the UK’s dire cycling infrastructure. He’s almost always right: cycling in the UK, especially in cities, can be a fraught experience, especially for ‘nanas and nippers’.
In his latest posting he criticises the cycling conditions prevalent in Wiltshire (specifically Stonehenge) and Northumberland. Now, Stonehenge is a famous disaster area, ringed by busy roads that shame this country, but Northumberland is pristine cycling country and maligning it in the same breath as Stonehenge is wholly unfair.
David quotes a Dutch website which says that “Northumbria has the most beautiful, well marked cycle paths” which “criss-cross through the area and take you to interesting places”. David asks: “I’d like to know where they are.”
Er, pretty much all over this fine county, David.
He agrees that Northumberland is a “lovely area, but when we were on holiday there, all our cycling was on roads…There’s a lot of exaggeration about.”
Exaggeration? If anything, Northumberland is undersold.
Miffed, I left a comment on David’s site:
David, I was with you until your Northumbria comments. We live in Newcastle so we regularly take family cycle trips in Northumberland.
Out in the sticks you’re riding on roads, but you will see maybe just a couple of cars per day. In the College valley, motorists have to pay to get permits to drive through, and there’s a limit of 12 per day.
To get from Tynemouth out into the depths of the countryside, follow the Sustrans Reivers Route. Much of it is traffic-free in Tyneside because of the many former mineral line cycle paths. Once past hot-spots such as Ponteland the motorised traffic drops off massively and Northumberland becomes wonderful cycling country, on or off road. Tourist literature doesn’t do this part of the world justice, and is definitely not exaggerating.
Now, Stonehenge and environs is different, and truly awful, but don’t put ‘Northumbria’ into the same category.
My kids have been cycling quite happily and safely in Northumberland since the age of 6.
Northumberland would be a great destination for Dutch families and their bikes.
There’s separated infrastructure from the ferry to the mineral lines. Some of it is not up to Dutch standards but so long as the cyclists don’t try to reach Newcastle, they’ll be alright.
I’ve written about family cycling in Northumberland for National Geographic Traveller. Extract here.
I’ve also written about the Netherlands for NGT, and waxed lyrical about family cycling there, but you don’t have to go to the Netherlands to experience the perfect cycling holiday: Northumberland is stunning, and very lightly travelled.
The Reid family has been on many day-trips into Northumberland (cycling from home) and three week-long jaunts (again, cycling from home). Here are pix from some of those trips.
Josh on a boardwalk by the North Sea on the Sustrans Coast and Castles route.
Ellie on the traffic-free path near Druridge Bay on the Coast and Castles route.
The hill descent near Ryal, not a car in sight.
On this particular road near Bewcastle I don’t think we saw any more than two cars in about three hours of riding.
Josh seems to be enjoying himself. This is near Clennell Street, on the way to Kielder.
Let’s play “Spot the car”. It’s a long game when you’re in the depths of Northumberland
The cycle path skirting Kielder lake. The biggest danger around here isn’t motorists but midgies.
Well-surfaced, well-signposted cycle route on Tyneside, thanks to a network of former mineral lines.
Lesson learnt: Don’t ever point out flaws in the arguments raised by David Hembrow. Even a little. In the comments section of his blog he says: “There’s no opinion here, just statements of fact” and “this is the truth.” After reading the National Geographic Traveller article about cycle touring in Northumbria (”…pictures on your link which show helmeted cyclists on gravelly paths…”) he wrote:
“You are willing to take risks with your children that other people don’t see as acceptable to take with theirs.”
Risks? By cycling in Northumberland? Apparently so:
“Just like everything else, cycling on “lonely roads” also carries a risk. A large proportion of the total crashes that cyclists have are single party crashes. If you were to have such a crash, or if you were to have a medical emergency in a sufficiently remote place it is possible that you would never be found.”
Such a risk seems to be confined to the UK:
“You are willing to take risks with your children that other people don’t see as acceptable to take with theirs. This doesn’t happen in the Netherlands. No-one sees cycling as a risk…”
Perhaps David will again accuse me of non-contextual editing - “you have quoted back to me half of one of my sentences out of context in order to try to continue a pointless argument” - even though he’s happy to lift partial quotes from my comments:
“However, thank you for proving my point both with your words: “Much of it is traffic-free”, “Once past hot-spots”, “so long as the cyclists don’t try to reach Newcastle”…
When I suggested his comments about my parenting skills (”You are willing to take risks with your children…”) weren’t terribly kind or accurate, he was in no mood for compromise:
“There’s no opinion here, just statements of fact. I’m more going to “retract” this than I am to retract that the grass is green.”
I’m happy to retract stuff. David was upset that, in the bio above, I said he so hated the cycling conditions in Cambridge he moved his family to the Netherlands. I’ve changed that to the description he suggested.
“please stop the bullshit. I’m bored of your arguing, bored of your pretense, bored of your paranoia and simply don’t believe that you can really be this stupid.”
Sadly, David is no longer OKaying my comments on his blog even though two commenters - including ‘Freewheeler’ - have been let through to write comments disagreeing with me. Debate is good: we can’t all agree with each other all of the time. For the record, here’s the comment, written yesterday, that David won’t OK:
Here we go again, folks assuming I’m anti-seperation.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
On my blog, a commenter sides with David and then launches into an attack on the “old guard of cycling advocacy”. He then suggests I read Dr Dave Horton’s work. I replied that I know it well because I published a huge article of Dave’s and promoted it widely.
My original point was to suggest David revise his views of Northumberland. I thought it unfair he lumped it in with the awful busy roads around Stonehenge, and implying that tourist boards exaggerate about their localities. Some might, but Visit Northumberland doesn’t. I said if anything, it undersells the place. 25 miles from Newcastle and you can be on roads where you may see 2-3 cars all day long.
Northumberland really is a wonderful place for family cycling, and Dutch cyclists could ride off the ferry and straight into the depths of Northumberland on traffic-free paths nearly as good as found in the Netherlands. David doesn’t seem to know this and was unwilling to do anything other than to selectively list some of my quotes and turn them back on me.
He wanted to prove that Newcastle has poor cycle infrastructure, a point I would be in full agreement on.
But the first point was about Northumberland.
None of this needed to spiral into the kind of abuse I later got.
I have been civil and respectful in these postings. I also revised some text that David took a dislike to on my blog (I am always ready to admit to my mistakes). What did I get from David? I’m “stupid”, “vain” “boring”; and full of “pretense” “paranoia” and “bullshit”.
Was any of that called for? Is any of that *ever* called for?
Read the rest of "Defending Northumbria (and the low-risk activity that is cycling)"...
DISCLOSURE: The app I am about to extol the virtues of is published by BikeHub.co.uk, of which I’m the editor. I commissioned the app, but it’s the Bike Hub levy which pays for it. While most of the features were requested by yours truly, some were put in place by Tinderhouse, the design company which built the app (and which also built Map My Tracks, as used by Sky pro cycling team).
There, that’s my bias up front and out of the way.
The Bike Hub iPhone app will hit Apple’s App Store soon. It has been undergoing trials for a few weeks and I’m getting happier and happier with it. In the main, the app is for urban use. It will generate cycle-friendly routes in cities and towns, using the mapping engine provided by Cyclestreets.net. It also finds the nearest bike shops in a six mile radius and has other tricks up its sleeve, too.
But what I didn’t appreciate it would be able to do was help on bike tours. I’m just back from a door-to-door tour of Northumberland (pix) with my wife and three kids. We mainly used the Sustrans’ Reivers Route and the Hadrian’s Cycleway (roughly, routes 10 and 72).
When the kids asked how far it was to the next destination I could have guessed; stopped and measured it out via the SatMap GPS device on my handlebars; or I could do what I did do: and that’s fire up the Bike Hub app and, so long as there was a phone signal, I could ask for the exact mileage on the type of roads we were cycling on.
The app also gives an ETA using 12mph as the average. Of course, we had lots of sweetie stops and tear-and-tantrum breaks so this ETA had to be thrown out of the window. But travel without kids and at a constant speed and I’m sure this ETA feature will work just fine.
The best bit about the app for bike touring was the navigation feature. When in Bardon Mill we wanted to make a detour from the Hadrian’s Cycleway. The Sustrans map was vague on details; and even when zooming in on a 50,000 OS map on the SatMap, there didn’t seem an obvious route that didn’t involve either a long way out of our way or - and this was out of the question - a short ride along the busy A69.
There was a small bridge on the OS map but the route down to it was indistinct to the point of being useless from a is-this-a-worthwhile-route point of view. A 25,000 scale map would have been necessary to see the right amount of detail. With only a 50,000 map card in the device I called upon the Bike Hub app to plan a route.
It planned a route down a minor ‘white’ road, across a railway junction and over the less-than-obvious footbridge. Perfect. So, that’s the way we went. It didn’t look like it was going to work, but it did.
The Bike Hub app uses OpenStreetMap mapping data supplied by ‘the community’ and so some local at some point must have suggested this was a perfectly good route to use. Thanks to whomever that was and thanks to Cyclestreets.net for such a great cycle-friendly map.
The Bike Hub iPhone app will be out within the next ten days. Details will be on the website and on Bike Hub’s twitterfeed.
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Back in the Golden Years of motoring – the 1930s, the 40s, perhaps even into the 50s – driving was a pleasure, the road was a destination in its own right.
Motoring holidays were just as much about the car and the open road as the eventual goal.
From the 1930s on, this started to change.
Author G.K. Chesterton said the motor car “shuts in” the motorist, who sits looking “inward at his speedometer or his road book” as he speeds along roads that do not go “to places but through places.”
This desire for speed and arriving, rather than enjoying the travelling, made motoring something quite boring.
Does any family now head off on a car holiday? Going slow and arriving at a destination whenever is no longer the done thing. Now, it’s a rush along the motorway. The destination is the start of a holiday.
A cycling holiday isn’t like that. Not for me anyway, and nor for my wife and kids. It’s not about athletic prowess or speed, it’s about the road as destination. Yes, we’ll be heading to a B&B, a hotel, a Youth Hostel, a relative’s house or a campsite but getting there is a major part of the holiday. When we leave our front door and start to pedal to our destination, we’re on holiday from the very first second.
Today sees the roll-out of Google Streetview to rural locations in the UK. Previously it was just an urban thing (here’s me on a bike from March last year). Now countryfolk can get all hot and bothered about being given the Streetview treatment. [NOTE: this posting originally contained lots of StreetView embeds. They have now been removed to speed up loading of the site].
Naturally, being able to use Streetview for pre-trip cycle-tour route-planning is going to be a huge boon, but for first day titillation how about taking a virtual tour of Titlington? This is a village near Alnwick in Northumberland. Titlington Training, sadly, is a horse-riding school.
The UK is stuffed with rude town names. And, with 238,000 miles of public road now available in Streetview, it’s easier than ever before to see if there really is a place called Upper Dicker. There is, and here’s a cyclist riding into town from, er, Lower Dicker.
There’s another cyclist coming down Butthole Lane, in Shepshed, near Loughborough.
The Butt in question has more to do with a borehole than a bottom but still local residents wanted to change the name to Buttonhole Road. Arseholes.
If you have a thing about undies, you’ll love this town in Gravesham, Kent: Thong.
Given the likelihood of signpost double-takes from non-locals, it’s good to know that Wetwang, near Driffield in Yorkshire, welcomes careful drivers.
Penistone is only rude if your mind works that way. Spell it out. Pen. P. E. N. Pause. Iz. I. S. Pause. Stone. S. T. O. N. E.
The Dog and Duck pub in Plucks Gutter, near Margate is not rhyming slang. And check out this Y-shaped cyclepath in Pratts Bottom, near Orpington in Kent (hat-tip to Jeremy Jacobs).
Heading to the Highlands and Islands this summer? Take a sneak peek at Twatt, a hamlet near Stromness in Orkney. Apparently, it’s a twitcher’s delight: the RSPB reserve of Loons is just 3/4 of a mile down the road.
If you’re planning a bike tour of Devon, you might not want to have a cream tea in Crapstone.
Sticking to the scatalogical theme, Shitterton is a lovely little thatched-cottage village near Bere Regis in Dorset. Unlike other ’shit’ names in the UK, this place really is named after ordure. According to a crap website which specialises in this topic, Shitterton is named for the river Shiter, a “…brook used as a privy.”
Not on Google Streetview, but plain to see on the 25,000 OS map of the town is a sweetly-named bridleway half a mile from Shitterton: Butt Lane Hollow.
Lumbutts in Lancs, is just half a mile from Mankinholes. “If you’re in Mankinholes, you’ve gone too far,” chuckles town-name contributor Shaun Murray.
In Attleborough, Norfolk, there’s a Sluts Hole Lane so named for the Dutch word for sluice, not a nefarious Medieval resident. But, if it’s lady-of-the-night references you’re after, many Grape Lanes in the UK were once something far, far cruder. You have been warned…)
OK, it’s not rude but it’s funny. I came across this village sign on a ride the other day. Snods Edge no doubt has a perfectly acceptable Norse origin.
There are loads of other funny and rude placenames out there. Get digging and send ‘em in via the comments, below.
A couple of weeks back I was in Italy with Ciclismo Classico, a US-based bike holiday company that’s been showing guests the dolce vita since 1988.
I produced the six minute video above as a record of the trip. It’s different to the YouTube version I posted earlier. It’s now stored on Vimeo.com and is in HD format so click to play but come back in a couple of minutes, giving the player time to load the hi-res content.
I hope the film gives a flavour of what it’s like to go on this particular trip – it’s the Bike Across Italy trip, from Fano to Porte Ercole – but also why guided bike tours are worth every penny.
For sure, they’re not cheap. But, choose wisely, and you’ll be immersed in the country you’re cycling through. Expert guides can bring a country alive; with special insights, local knowledge and, perhaps most important of all, personal contacts.
Marcello, one of the two guides on my trip, seemed to know everybody, everywhere. He was a larger than life character, adored in every town we stayed in or cycled through.
I love touring by bike. I’ve done lots of extended, independent trips, through some fascinating countries, and local colour comes with the territory, but if you’ve got just a week or ten days to spare, a guided bike trip can see you embedded into the local scene quickly and easily.
Most of my long-distance tours were undertaken solo. I’m comfortable in my own company and - pre-children - could happily ride for months on my tod. On a guided bike tour you’re thrown together with a bunch of strangers, linked only by your love of cycling.
As those trip guests I interviewed for the video say, this could be a recipe for disaster but the kind of folks attracted to guided bike tours are, almost by definition, a good kind of people. They’re sociable, bright, intelligent, talented and fun to be with. OK, there might be a few cycle-crazed sociopaths out there frequenting bike holidays, but it’s rare.
Those who choose to spend a large chunk of disposable income on an overseas bicycle holiday are highly likely to be people you’d want to spend time with.
On a technical note, the video was produced using a load of different camera clamps and on-bike booms. Most of the bike close-ups are of the bike I was riding so the legs are mostly mine. There’s also a brief ‘panda’ shot.
The HD segments were filmed with a small Aiptek camera; the vertical-distorting wide-angle shots were achieved with an X170 from Drift Innovations. None of the shots were ’set-up’: it would have been cruel to ask folks on holiday to ride back up a hill just so I could get a better fly-past. On the plus side, this meant I had to ride like the clappers to get in front of people in time for the shot so my sprinting skills improved no end.
Here’s not the place to give a town by town, experience by experience, re-telling of the Bike Across Italy trip. Hopefully, a picture tells a thousand words - and there are lots of pretty pictures in the video above. Please watch it, rate it and let me know what you think of it.
I was 43 on Saturday. I celebrated by bivvying on a remote moor with my ten year old son, Josh. It was the first outing for our new bivvybags from Alpkit. I’ve spent a fair bit of time under the stars while cycle touring, Josh has only ever camped in campsites and under the reassurance of nylon ceilings. He took to wild camping like a duck to water, although he made sure to snuggle up to me during the night.
The dawn chorus woke me at 5.30am, I let Josh sleep through until 6am.
Before finding our bivvy spot for the night we didn’t seek permission from the landowner. This would have been difficult, as we ascended to the shoulder of moorland in the dark, leaving the road at 9pm. An hour earlier we had been dropped in Kirkoswald, taking the bikes off a trailer on the back of the family car, returning from a week in Wales.
The light in Kirkoswald was already dimming. Before ascending the moor it had been fully dark for 20 minutes.
Night navigation was made an awful lot easier with the SatMap Active 10 GPS device. This plots exact locations on to a moving OS map and the backlight comes into its own during black-out bike rides on rough trackways.
I’d chosen this particular area for Josh’s first bivvy because it’s dripping with history and it’s packed solid with wildlife. Josh is young naturalist and knows more about birds than I’ll ever be able to absorb. Part of the King’s Forest of Geltsdale is an internationally important RSPB bird reserve. The bits we were to cycle across were rights of way, we were endangering no hen harriers or black grouse.
The ground underneath our wheels was sometimes peaty and mushy, but there was always a base of rough stones. This is a throwback to when these remote moors were heaving with heavy industry. The moor is studded with former coal and zinc mines, and stone quarries. Only the stone quarries remain, the industrial heritage has left little physical trace, except the trackway and a robust stone bridge, an anamoly in such an obscure and forgotten part of England.
Further back in time, the moor was a royal hunting reserve, a 14th century wildlife park, stocked with boars. The ‘forest’ in the name doesn’t denote trees - there are none now - it’s all to do with the hunting. The word ‘forest’, from the original French, has more to do with an enclosed area stocked with game for the king rather than anything to do with trees.
Even further back than the Normans and their hunting reserves, this area was well known to the Romans. Part of Hadrian’s Wall was built from stone chiselled from quarries by the river Gelt. We know this because of the Written Rock of Gelt, what the OS map describes as ‘Roman inscribed rocks’.
The Written Rock of Gelt? Sounds like it’s direct from Middle Earth.
The area is dotted with this sort of stuff. Stick pins in a 10 by 10kms map of the area and auto-create a Tolkien novel: there are hills Middle Top, Long Tongue and Thack Moor; a hamlet called Scarrowmanwick; a moorside known as Tarnmonath Fell; a house called Black Dub (Dub or ‘Dudgh’ is a Celtic word meaning dark and marshy area); and springs called Cold Well and Foulpool.
The rivers in the King’s Forest of Geltsdale are known, simply, as Old Water and New Water.
We became very acquainted with New Water. We had to cross it. The bridge has long been washed away. New Water now needs to be waded across. Sadly, I have no photographs from this part of the trip. My camera died during the low-light conditions of the morning.
In many ways this was a good thing. Instead of working out the next best vantage point to set the auto-timer and capture the intrepid explorers I could luxuriate in the present, and enjoy the views without fretting over the amount of available light.
After a brisk pedal to Haltwhistle we caught the train back home to Newcastle. Josh said the city “smells bad”. After a night on a barren, pristine, sweet-smelling moor, any city is going to be an olfactorial let-down.
Want to hear a polished bit of audio featuring the posh, cultured voice of Tour de France author Graeme Fife? Click for an MP3 download, or check out all the Quickrelease.tv videos and audio shorts on iTunes. Subscribe - it’s free - for shedloads of eclectic, bicycle-themed content.
The Graeme Fife audio was first broadcast on Radio 4 in the UK and is half an hour of escapism. It was also on an earlier version of the Quickreleadse.tv podcast but it’s since dropped off the radar. It’s about a three-man bicycle tour of Mali, en route to the fabled African town.
The snippets - billed as ‘From the Archive’ - are brought to you in association with Muc-Off.
So, what’s available?
1 Mass v custom build, Raleigh v Dave Yates
This starts with some 1950s footage of the Raleigh factory, and includes a wonderfully cheesy ‘Head Designer’. The 1994 footage is also drenched in nostalgia. The factory - seen here humming with activity - was knocked down and made into student flats. Look out for the way Raleigh employees placed bike decals compared to the way a custom builder did it.
2 Wax or shave?
Bear in mind that I still look like this. I’ve not aged a bit. My leg hairs have grown back since, mind. This episode sees me going out with a road gang for the very first time. (And ripping their legs off…cameras never lie).
3 Bike versus sportscar
Car v bike through city centre traffic has been done umpteen times for TV cameras but this video is a little bit different, pitting as it does, an Aston Martin sportscar against an Aston Martin mountain bike (now a museum piece).
4 Malawi bicycle tour
Hi-8 footage from a hastily arranged bike tour of this beautiful African country. Along for the ride was Bob Strawson, owner of ‘trick bits’ maker Middleburn Engineering.
5 Behind the scenes
How the series was filmed. Helmet and bike cams are now ten-a-penny. In 1994 they were specialist items and required rucksacks…
6 Jason McRoy
Brilliant footage of the first British MTB superstar (RIP). He’s seen sliding around the NE of England as well as ripping down the Kamikaze course on Mammoth Mountain.
The videos will be placed on YouTube in daily installments next week, but are available as a package on iTunes right now. Subscribe to the podcast to start the episodes downloading, iTunes isn’t listing the individual episodes yet.
Read the rest of "‘Chain Gang’ video highlights now on iTunes"...
I can’t quite believe I did this. Yesterday, on a six hour ride in the Cheviot hills of Northumberland, I mistook a map’s giant letter ‘i’ for a socking great obstacle, and said so to Brian, my ride partner.
The ‘i’ in question was a capital. Next to it were the letters ‘V’ and ‘O’. But I couldn’t see the full word: C H E V I O T.
I was zoomed in big on a SatMap Active 10, a brilliant GPS unit that uses genuine OS mapping. On a paper map it would have been obvious that the puzzling black oblong was a letter because I’d have seen the other letters, even though widely spaced apart. While riding along, in a biting wind, and without the context of a full paper map I really was expecting to soon see a large, unknown feature. Some sort of over-size Pennine Way stile, perhaps?
Luckily, Brian is intelligent and he realised my mistake. To his credit he didn’t immediately fall on the floor laughing, but I expect my map reading boob will be in his anecdotal armoury for years to come.
Anyway, it was a great ride. 24 miles in the middle of nowhere. Grassy descents. A few small river crossings. A peat bog just in front of the border with Scotland. Some wild goats. A ruined pub called the Slyme Foot inn. And some great weather despite the fact the hill tops still had some patchy snow.