Welcome to bandit country,” said Andy, our ride leader, as we crossed into the once lawless borderlands between Scotland and England. The dozens of castles and fortified towns across the region are a dramatic reminder that these fields and hills had been fought over for centuries.
Today, things were different. As our mixed band of Scots and English (even an Irishman for good measure) rode together across this ancient, beautiful corner of Britain, an easy bonhomie prevailed. We headed south along 170 miles of the Coasts and Castles route as skylarks trilled madly on all sides, cow parsley thronged the hedgerows and the sun beamed on our backs. That many miles may sound like quite an undertaking, but how strenuous it is depends on how quickly you choose to do it. There are dozens of B&Bs and certainly no shortage of excuses to pause along the way.
Scotland to England
Established by sustainable transport charity Sustrans, the route runs between Edinburgh and Newcastle, taking in gently undulating coastline, picturesque villages and plenty of crenellated ruins in between.
Some maintain that the best way to tackle Coasts and Castles is from south to north, taking advantage of prevailing winds and allowing a triumphant final loop around Holyrood Palace before entering Edinburgh’s cobbly Royal Mile. We were doing it the other way round, but we seemed to be lucky – friendly tailwinds helped us along the entire length of the route. Our group – a mix of seasoned cyclists and absolute beginners, aged from mid-20s to late 70s – gathered in the shadow of Arthur’s Seat and rolled out of Edinburgh beside the mud-brown Esk. Where river met firth, a stand of cormorants preened and stretched their wings.
Trail of four castles
The Coasts and Castles route is well named. The sea-skirting miles offer crumbling cliffs, sleepy fishing villages and nature reserves such those at Druridge Bay, whose former coal pits are now home to avocets and marsh harriers. Our path across the dunes was waymarked in purple – common spotted orchids and bloody cranesbill abounded. Castles are similarly plentiful. There’s Edinburgh castle at the start, Tynemouth towards the end, and in between are the honeyed ruins of Hailes castle, where Mary Queen of Scots once stayed – a buzzard circled overhead as we passed; Bamburgh castle, towering on its basalt pediment, stronghold of the bloodthirsty Aethelfrith, founder of the kingdom of Northumbria, and the mighty Dunstanburgh, still standing proud on a lonely headland.
As we rode, those in front warned others of oncoming obstacles with a friendly shout: “Pothole!”, “Bollard!”, “Dog!”. Although you have to keep an eye on the path ahead, one of the joys of cycling is that you can do your sightseeing as you go.
We rolled past the boat-bobbing harbour at Port Seton, admired the ancient market town of Haddington with its grand sandstone buildings and steeple-topped Town House, paused for breath above the flood plains of the meandering River Aln, burnished by the setting sun. Bunting fluttered along Front Street as we arrived at Tynemouth, giving the place a festive feel.
We stopped for tea and cake and enjoyed the view out to the priory and castle. The former was sacked by the Danes in 800, the latter built sometime later, in 1095. In honour of Oswin, King of Deira, (651), Osred II, King of Northumbria (792) and Malcolm III, King of Scotland (1093) – all three buried within the priory walls – three crowns are still to be found on the coat of arms of North Tyneside.
And it is through this fine borough that our journey drew to a close, through an industrial no-man’s land, serried suburbia and then along the banks of the Tyne, its famous bridges stretching overhead.We completed the route in three days at a pace that anyone of moderate fitness would manage, but you could easily take a week or more.
A pair of friendly cycling Geordies escorted us to the railway station, even pedalling up the final lung-busting hill to the entrance to ensure our safe arrival. This might once have been bandit country – today it was very welcoming indeed.
HOW TO GET THERE
Edinburgh and Newcastle are both on the East Coast mainline. Singles to Edinburgh from London start from £36.50, and from Newcastle back to London from £13.50.
FIND OUT MORE
The whole route is 170 miles, but you can easily ride it in sections. There are train stations at convenient intervals at Dunbar, Berwick-upon-Tweed, Alnmouth and Morpeth. The route is well signposted, but a cycle-specific map is essential – these are available from the Sustrans website. Our group cycled with the friendly fundraising organisation Charity Adventure. Edinburgh Bicycle Cooperative (with shops in both Edinburgh and Newcastle) can check your bike before the ride.
Toll Bridge Road, Eyemouth, Berwickshire TD14 5GN
Functional but comfy hotel.
Subscribe to BBC Countryfile Magazine today and you can enjoy generous savings from the shop price plus, free UK delivery and discounts off special editions and back issues.