Bellingham to Alston
Left the Brown Rigg Guest Lodges and backtracked on the route into Bellingham centre for breakfast. A few choices for take away food and cafes. I selected Rocky Road (opens at 8:30) which was well frequented by locals and offered a good full breakfast.
As seemed to be a common occurrence on most days, after a short flattish section, the route started to go uphill. Including the excursion into the town centre for breakfast, by 3 miles I was up over 800ft high. Then a nice downhill until meeting the Pennine Way at about 5.5 miles. All on lovely, undulating, very quiet and narrow country roads. A steep climb up to Hetherington (6.2 miles) which is a good vantage point for a rest.
After 10 miles, the first surprise “mountain biking” section appears. This is a reasonable stone surfaced path that runs for 5 miles along the side of Kielder Forest and up and down dale. There are a few areas that look like they could be particularly hard in wet weather. One part of the route had been resurfaced for forestry traffic with large stones. This might be fine for the large log lorries but isn’t very good for cycles. Certainly this section isn’t suitable for your best, expensive road bike but I found it fine on my gravel bike. Overall, this section was hard work!
Then a 2 mile downhill followed by a 2 mile uphill (!) before joining the B6318 Military Road which is a very straight Roman road and hence attracts fast traffic.
At this point I made a diversion to visit the Roman fort at Housesteads. Worth visiting if you’re already a National Trust member but probably not good value if you need to pay for admission.
Good views of Hadrian’s Wall and remains of the Roman fort. There is a small museum and gift shop which claims to sell some refreshments but basically consists of a few sandwiches and a coffee machine – not recommended for food or drink. I ate my provisions purchased in Bellingham and then moved on as the only raindrops of the week appeared – my raincoat was on for only 10 minutes. Perfect weather!
Back onto quiet back roads and more ups and downs as I passed the tourist attraction of Vindolanda. Looked to be fairly popular and there seemed to be a lot to see but you would need to allow a good time to get your money’s worth. This part of the route runs through the UNESCO “Frontiers of the Roman Empire” World Heritage site which also includes sites in Germany.
Various meanders (the route is certainly not direct) brought me to Bardon Mill and I was more than ready for a rest at this point so stopped at Bardon Mill village shop and tea room which is recommended (about 30 miles into the ride).
Suitably refreshed it was then onto the next surprise – “the centre of Britain”. I had no idea this was even a thing but find that Haltwhistle makes a big thing of it with lots of the buildings labelled as the “Centre of Britain xxx” – Hotel, Restaurant and Army Surplus Store. The calculation of the centre can depend on various things but Haltwhistle and a site in Lancashire both have strong claims to be the geographic centres.
After some problems finding the exact route out of Haltwhistle I eventually gained the route along the old railway line that headed towards Alston – the South Tyne Trail.
There is a gradual climb from Haltwhistle but nothing too steep. At Lambley Viaduct the cycle route is directed away from the railway route and down a steep hill (and back up the other side) to avoid passing over the viaduct. The walking route is directed towards the viaduct and I toyed with the idea of trying to cycle on the walking route but decided to cut my losses and follow the signposted route. Parts of the surface are not great so again it is suited to a mountain or gravel bike rather than a road bike.
At Slaggyford (44 miles), the cycle route leaves the railway route and follows more scenic (but hilly) back lanes towards Alston. Some of these needed to be walked!
After a hard day (probably the hardest of the whole ride with hindsight) the Lowbyer Manor Country House Hotel appeared and I was pleased to check in and rest. I had high hopes for the hotel as it was the most expensive place to stay on the trip (£55 for a single room and breakfast). It turned out to be a mix of good and bad. The owners were very friendly and locked my bike into their garage, there was a small bar which offered a welcoming pint and parts of the hotel looked to have been very well upgraded. However, my single room wasn’t one of them! Whilst I didn’t expect a large room as only designed for a single, I didn’t expect the owners to think the single person to be unfeasibly small. There was an en suite bathroom but the space was so small that the door had to slide and there was no room for the washbasin which was in the bedroom. I tried to use the over bath shower but it would only spray water from the bottom of the hose so a bath was necessary. This was fine except it was so short that I could only wash either my legs or my chest.
The room looked out over the car park and the curtains didn’t seem to function as one would expect in that anyone in the car park could easily see me in the room due to a combination of ineffective curtains and a mirror right by the window. However, the bed was reasonably comfortable.
On the plus side, the breakfast was fine and all the staff continued to be friendly. After leaving, I checked my credit card bill a few weeks later and found I’d been charged twice. After a couple of chases the excess was refunded but beware.
I didn’t eat my evening meal in the hotel (although other guests recommended it) and had a walk around Alston eventually selecting the Cumberland Inn for a meal. This was an excellent find with a good selection of food, nice beer and friendly staff and customers. The Inn also offers rooms and, if I was visiting Alston again, I’d explore staying there rather than the Lowbyer hotel.