How can you spot a happy cyclist? goes the old joke. Count the number of flies on his teeth, goes the old answer.
And this particular cyclist is currently scratching off a large number of flies from his teeth (not to mention hair, shirt and legs) after a pleasantly challenging two and a half days in the saddle with the lovely Mrs E.
An emotional start to the journey as we waved goodbye to jr emu#1, to start his new life in the quiet, reserved city of Newcastle, where almost nothing is likely to lead him astray from his studies, and then we set off on what would prove to be a fairly ambitious plan to cycle from Newcastle to Edinburgh.
There are some things that by now I should have learnt about planning cycling trips. You need to build in a bit more contingency, for example, to your journey than if you go by car, as if you get a problem or go in the wrong direction, it can take you ages to recover. You need to look at the weather forecast a bit more carefully and a bit more skeptically than you might otherwise do, as you kind of need to know which way the wind is blowing. And, particularly if you decide that the ideal vehicle for your journey is a single speed bike, you ought to have a quick look at the terrain. These were all very useful planning tips that we completely ignored and may well ignore again, as was our first mistake when leaving Newcastle.
Mistake number one: When asking for directions, never ask a car driver.
Specifically, never ask a Newcastle car driver the way to Tynemouth. They’re likely to tell you to take the coast road, which is about as unfriendly a start to the journey as you can imagine. I’ve spent a bit of time in the last few weeks thinking about where I want to live for the rest of my life and I’m afraid the coast road to Tynemouth, which appears to be the busiest and most industrial road in the northeast, isn’t going to feature anywhere near the top ten. But, after that inauspicious start, we turned left when we got to the sea and started pedalling North.
The coast and castles cyclepath is part of the SUSTRANS network of bike routes around the country, and basically takes you through terrain that by turn is not suitable for mountain bikes, road bikes, children or anyone with any sense of sanity running in their family. But the bits are kind of stitched together in a ‘we haven’t got any money so we’ll see if we can link together some tarmac, footpath, A roads and sheep fields with neat little blue stickers’ style. And if you can put up with that, it’s just great fun.
Heading up from Tynemouth, we got as far as Newbiggin by the sea, found our B&B, and headed into town to see just how wild a Friday night in Newbiggin could be. Relatively tame, it would turn out, a few kids on skateboards and a bit of aimless adolescence by what is apparently Britain’s longest promenade, but that was about it. Even the curry house (‘can we get a table for 8?’ ‘No, you’ll have to wait until 9, we’re really busy on Fridays’), seemed really quiet, with about a dozen people in with their heads together, in the sort of hushed reverence that I don’t think I’ve seen before in a curry house on a Friday night.
Had an interesting conversation the next morning with a couple of Australians, who’d been in Newbiggin for 3 days, apparently to recapture the husband’s roots.
‘It was pretty easy’ he told us. ‘There’s two family names in Newbiggin, and one of them’s mine’.
I asked if he’d been able to trace any relatives in the churchyard headstones.
‘No mate, the sea’s worn away the writing, and that’s just the one’s that haven’t sunk’.
Wasn’t really sure what he meant by this, so we biked up to the graveyard by the church overlooking the sea, and sure enough, there were loads of headstones with only a few inches of granite above the grass. And those that you could see looked as if they’d been wiped clean. Now, if I was a tad more pretentious, I could make some profound statement about the analogy of life and remembrance. Fortunately, that’s not going to happen here.
So onto the big day, which I’d rather optimistically calculated at 70 miles, and which turned out to be the sharp side of 80. We pretty much hugged the coastline, seeing a few castles on the way, hitting some fabulous country around Amble, Boulmer, Embleton, Seahouses and Bamburgh, where we ate about half our body weight in panhagerty pie, while fielding questions about what we were doing.
Kindly waitress: ‘Are you doing this for charity or for pleasure?’
Mrs E: ‘Neither’
Past Holy Island, and on towards Berwick on Tweed, (incorporating a fairly hairy spell on the A1), where I had to break the news to Mrs E that we were booked in to a hotel about 10 miles further north. And it was getting dark. And we didn’t have any lights. And she’d had the pleasure of #1 chastising her all the way up to Newcastle for not bringing a reflective bib or lights, as a payback for all the times we’d nagged him. Oh, and we had to go across the border into Scotland onto something spookily called Lamburton moor.
A couple of things you need for context here. All of the glasses in the Emu household are filled to exactly 50% of their capacity. Mine are half full, and as I look at them, my hat is on the side of my head, and I have fond memories of drinking them to this point, and enthusiastic expectations of drinks to come. Mrs E’s drinks, however, are very much half empty. Worse than that, they’re also in a chipped and cracked glass, with someone else’s lipstick on the rim, and occasionally a fag end in the bottom. Which is a bit of a shame, as the chivvying along that I try at times like these tends to get pushed back at me with a certain amount of interest added.
After we’d had the inevitable discussion about which parts of my wife’s anatomy hurt the most (in reverse order, the top five were: back, knees, wrists, bottom and bottom), we then had a hearty chat about how her bike wasn’t really up to the job. She described it on one of the hills as like ‘pedalling a dressing table uphill’. Now, Mrs E and I have few secrets, but we did both have a life before we met, and it may well be that she has some experience of pedalling dressing tables. I know for sure that when moving house she once went up Gas Hill in Norwich on a sofa being pulled by a mini van, so she may well have worked her way out of motorised soft furnishings and into self propelled bedroom furniture, so I tried not to argue. Or indeed, to point out that I was doing the whole exercise with one gear. I think I offered to swap bikes at one point, but for some reason this didn’t seem to be perceived as much of an olive branch.
But with the light fading, we started what would end up being about a 6 mile descent into Eyemouth, and even Mrs E cheered up at the prospect of a pretty fab hotel and a seemingly unlimited supply of 7.5% cider.
Day three, and we were keen to try out both a new concept and a new word. We’d invented the word ‘Companyful’ the day before on one of those stretches where we had the path to ourselves, it was wide enough to cycle side by side, and to was comfortable to ride, and enjoy each other’s company . Perhaps a little twee, but I think it’ll catch on. Try a companyful ride yourself some time. So we were looking for as much of that as we could, but unfortunately the fates were against us. You know those pictures of God controlling the winds that you see sometimes in religious drawings, where this great omnipotent being puffs out his cheeks and breathes a gale all over the world? Well, He was at it again, and although occasionally He may have looked back on an eternity of cigar and pipe smoking and run out of puff, it was only for an instant, and He was at it again almost straight away.
Well, at least we got a few sympathetic looks from fellow cyclists as we were on our way. These were, inevitably, the ones travelling at 30mph in the opposite direction without having to pedal. Particularly in Northumberland, people really went out of their way to say hello, and in a fairly peculiar way – typically their face breaks into a grin, then they jerk their head to the side and then across as a gesture of goodwill. Unfortunately, this not only acts as a friendly hello, but also looks like the early onset of Parkinson’s disease or some sort of stroke. Thinking about it, I’m worried now that it wasn’t a greeting at all, in which case there’s a real worry for the southern bound ramblers and cyclists of Northumberland.
As a result, we spent pretty much 60 miles in single file to Edinburgh, but stretches like the drop into the cove before Torness or the railway path near Tranent made it all pretty much worthwhile. If you take the train along this route (the coastal bike path crosses the train track half a dozen or so times, so it’s pretty much the same), you’ll blink and miss some of this stuff, but it’s a fabulous coastline, with deep blue seas, cliff tops and coves, and only a couple of enormous power stations and cement factories to get in the way of the view.
Passing through Cockenzie, we found ourselves in the middle of the reenactment of the battle of Prestonpans, which was taking place in the rather odd setting of the field next to the power station. Knowing nothing about the battle, I assumed it was one of those contests involving knocking back the sassenach invaders, so I looked it up, and, surprise, surprise, that’s pretty much what it was. But everyone seemed to be having a whale of a time, if you judge people’s happiness by randomly firing muskets and sitting on horses in Jacobean costume looking rather miserable, but for all I know, it may well have been the party that they’d been waiting to go to all year.
And so, after miles and miles into a bloody awful headwind, we hit Edinburgh, and, weaving our way through a million tourists, onto a train that neatly deposited us back in Newcastle an hour and half later. A bit demoralising when you think it had taken us two and a half days to go as far as a train goes in 90 minutes, but as far as I could see from the train ride, the driver had very few hills to contend with. Oh, and he had the wind behind him all the way.