Post by Mary on June 19, 2017
At the end of May on the hottest, sunniest week in the North East in (my) living memory Jamie and I set out to ride one of the UK’s newest mountain bike routes – The Sandstone Way. As a native Northumbrian I was hopeful the route would showcase Northumberland at its best and it didn’t disappoint. It is recommended as a 3 day route but we only had 2 days child-free so we knew we’d have a fair bit of peddling to do. Unfortunately we couldn’t get the bikes booked on an early train to Berwick so we set-off at the leisurely hour of 11am on the first day with 110km and 2000m of climbing ahead of us! I definitely wouldn’t recommend that to anyone 😉
The first few kilometres are by the sea on easy tracks through the dunes and on field edges with Holy Island drawing ever closer. Holy Island is a magical place and it would have been nice to ride over the causeway for a cuppa but we didn’t have time on our schedule so we pressed on. It’s a pleasant mixture of forest tracks, minor road and field edges through the Kyloe hills and all the way to Wooler. We enjoyed our lunch in some pretty woodland next to St Cuthbert’s cave. There’s a nice section of singletrack here running alongside the eponymous Sandstone escarpment. Wooler is a traditional Northumbrian market town and a great tea and cake stop. Very friendly folk and a lovely Victoria sponge at the Terrace Café. From Wooler you can deviate from the standard route and take the option of a “more challenging section” across the moors. It was already 3.30pm by the time we left Wooler but we were keen to get up high and into the hills so we opted for “more challenging”. If you’ve got plenty of time it’s really worth exploring this section of the route. You’re truly in the wilds of Northumberland here, the views are stunning and the trails a good mixture of dirt track and singletrack with quite a lot of loose rock in places. It is slow going though. Lots of climbing and no smooth terrain so if it’s late in the day, as we discovered, it’s best to leave it for another time. After a couple of hours we cut back onto the main route and sped along to Ingram. The section from Ingram to Alnham was actually my favourite part of the whole route. You climb up onto the moors on singletrack and then descend down the other side. It was late afternoon, the hills were a-glow in the early evening sun and I almost forgot it was dinnertime and I still had 30km to go to our overnight in Rothbury! The route into Rothbury is mostly on minor road and in fact it was getting so late that we cut out a bit of the waymarked route so as not to miss last orders for food! We rolled into Rothbury at 8.55pm. 5 minutes until the kitchen at the Turk’s Head closed – phew! Rothbury is a beautiful town to explore if you’ve got the time. Sadly we just had time to stuff our faces, shower and hit the sack before another big day in the saddle. The Turk’s Head is a great place to stay. Super-friendly staff, plentiful food, good ale and comfortable rooms.
Day Two was not such a mission. Only 85km and 1,300m of climbing. The first 15km or so is all steady climbing out of Rothbury and up and over the Simonside hills. Nothing too strenuous and lovely views. There’s a long double track descent and then fairly dull forest road through Harwood forest but it’s fast riding so you cover the distance pretty quickly. This is followed by a bit of tarmac riding then the option of the last “more challenging section” up onto the moors again before dropping into Bellingham. We took the challenging option and were rewarded with an enjoyable climb on tarmac and dirt followed by a fun grassy descent. Bellingham is another pretty Northumbrian market town with plenty of tea rooms on offer. Much to his dismay I denied Jamie this tea and cake stop but we had our picnic lunch here and then set out on the steep climb over Ealing Common. Rain was threatening so we after Wark Common we decided to go off route and head to the café at Simonburn as quickly as possible on minor road. Fortunately, the skies cleared and we spent a happy hour scoffing more tea and cake in the beautiful garden at Simonburn tea room. More friendly folk and delicious cake. The next point of interest is the small section of preserved Roman Wall near Black Carts. It’s not the most stunning stretch of wall but Jamie had fun riding the ruins! A mixture of minor road and field edge riding leads up to Warden Hill. The last climb before the finish. The views of the Tyne valley are lovely from here and there’s a nice bit of singletrack off the top. The final stretch into Hexham is on a pretty riverside track. A really nice way to end the ride. The rain that had been threatening all afternoon finally arrived in style with a massive thunderstorm – hail, lightening, torrential rain! We just made it to the ride’s end marker post before getting a proper soaking!
None of the route is technically very difficult but it is not to be under-estimated. There is a deceptive amount of climbing. Living in the Alps I’m used to a big climb then a big descent. Maybe 2 of those in a day. In Northumberland the hills never end. Up and down, up and down, you can never say “that’s the climbing done for the day” until you’ve actually finished the ride! I found that quite challenging and definitely more tiring than I anticipated. Conditions should also be considered. We were riding on sun-baked trails. After a few weeks of wet weather some sections of the route would be something of a quagmire so if you can, chose your weather window carefully. There is quite a bit of minor road but honestly I think we only came across about 10 cars during the whole 2 days so even though it’s tarmac, it’s very pleasant cycling. I’ve heard some riders say they had problems finding available accommodation but doing it over 2 days staying in Rothbury there was plenty of availability, even leading into a bank holiday weekend. The standard route is generally well-signed. There were just a couple of places where the signing was confusing. The long, more challenging section (not the standard route) across the moors above Wooler is not marked so requires more navigational skills. Fortunately I was with Jamie J Above all the scenery was beautiful and the Northumbrian folk so warm and welcoming. All in all a cracking ride that both Jamie and I would recommend for a weekend adventure. It’s good fitness training for an Alpine point-to-point too. If I were to do it again I’d probably take 3 days, have time to circumnavigate Holy Island and do the whole of the challenging section above Wooler. If I had just 1 day I’d go straight to Wooler and make a loop out of the challenging section and the standard route for a grand day out.