It must have been 15 years since I’d last been to the Cheviots for biking, and Doug from work had never been, but was keen to see what it was like. So Saturday morning saw us meeting in the Alwinton car park at 10am after a beautiful drive through Northumberland.
We’d decided to ride a big circuit that took us around the Salters Road that the Romans used to transport salt, then we’d planned to come back via another Roman road, Clennell Street. The weather couldn’t have been better: absolutely still, cold while standing around, but warm enough once spinning on the bike. We headed off on the quiet road to Clennell, only meeting the postman driving out of the dead-end road. A bit of tricky navigation to find the right track across to Biddle, and then back on a deserted road to Biddlestone and Scrainwood. While heading down to where we turned off the roads to start the off-road proper, Doug notices that his gears aren’t changing, so we pull over to have a look. Snapped cable! Is our ride off? Luckily, having tubeless tyres (and in case of a serious puncture, needing to remove the valve), I have pliers in the bag, so we’re able to pull the remnants of the shifter wire through and reattach it to the derailleur. This gives Doug access only to the largest ring on his cassette, but as he’s on a triple, and the largest rear ring is the one he’s probably going to need for most of the rest of the day, we decide to proceed and “see how it goes.”
We head due north to meet the Salter’s Road with plenty of ancient settlements marked on the map. The nice farm track rapidly turns into a “Northumberland bridleway” which is only apparent on the ground because (a) someone has mowed a strip of grass, and (b) the map on my GPS says it must be underneath us.
Eventually we meet the Salter’s Road (at a big ancient T junction on the hill), and turn left for a big slog (mostly walking due to the grassy, boggy nature underfoot/wheel) and get to the top of High Knowe, to find two mountain bikers coming the other way and having great fun descending to the T junction.
Now it’s our turn to descend to the farm at Ewartly Shank, but the descent isn’t great: grassy and rutted, leading to Doug having an “off” when one of the ruts claims him. The scenery around is amazing, with beautiful hills arranged layer-upon-layer as far as the eye can see, with just the briefest impression of the wonderful Northumberland coast off to the East, and the brooding mass of The Cheviot to the north. The farm is surrounded by pine plantations that must spoil the view for the occupants (or shield them from the weather).
There’s a great fast descent and a river splash crossing to get to Shank Burn, where we pass two walkers. However we now have a monster climb ahead. We’d seen it looming in the distance from High Knowe, but had been in denial mode. It was reasonably surfaced, but about a kilometre, and roughly 20% with a couple of false summits. We pushed the bikes up it.
Once at the top we have another fast descent to Low Bleakhope, with pebbles on the trail meaning I think I wasn’t slow enough to be safe, but wasn’t fast enough to keep me safe from momentum. However, we arrive at the bottom unscathed and pass another two walkers, before heading up the higher reaches of the beautiful Breamish valley.
Eventually we need to leave the Breamish valley and head steeply uphill on grass again. There’s about a kilometre and a half of mostly pushing on grass, with a quick lunch stop.
Pushing leads to an incongruous wide track starting in the middle of the moor, and heading into the forest around the upper reaches of the Usway Burn. This is real remote forest, and despite it being coniferous, and a popular mountain biking destination, the hard work you need to put in to get here means we don’t see anybody on the fast descents to Usway Burn until climbing out of the valley we see two guys swimming by the waterfall at Davidson’s Linn. We can hear one of them saying how cold it is, so we shout down for them to get on with it (and they don’t have the presence of mind to shout up at us to get back on our bikes, rather than push them up the steep hillside).
By now, we’re reasonably fatigued and feel like we’ve already had value for money, so a change of route is agreed: we head to the confluence of bridleways between Hazely Law, Yarnspath Law, and Ward Law via forest track, and take the route over Middle Hill. This is another push, but a short one, and leads us to a great descent past a big group of walkers and then into the forest at Middle Hill. This has a beautiful, rooty, pine-needle carpeted descent back down to Usway Burn before a short climb over a col to the best big views, wide and grassy fast descent to Barrowburn, where we stop at the café for coke and bacon sandwiches.
At the café, we’ve decided we’re taking the road back to the car park, so disconnect Doug’s gear cable and allow the chain to fall onto the smallest cog. I show him how to use the limiter screws to bring it back up to next-smallest (and stop the jockey wheels bottoming out on the chain due to lack of tension in the system). After a good rest and a chat with the walkers also enjoying the café, we take to the road. Time passes quickly, and we only get separated on the two steep sections where Doug needs to get out of the saddle and grind up, but I can drop into the smallest gear and spin away.
Back at Alwinton we stash the bikes in the cars and call into the pub for a quick pint. I’m not sure if this was a bike ride with bits of walking, or a walk with bits of biking, but it was a hard and rewarding day out with beautiful hilly scenery. I now never need to get back on the Salter’s Road, but the tracks around the Usway Burn look especially tempting, particularly with a fresh set of legs!
Strava log: https://www.strava.com/activities/400721749