I had arranged to spend the weekend at the Friary of the Society of St Francis in Alnmouth on a spiritual retreat, and thought that it would be good to cycle there and back. So, with a fully laden tourer for a weekend by the seaside, I set off from the Fox Covert pub at 10pm on Thursday 29th August.
Riding through the night is a combination of two journeys, one which is from daylight to daylight through the dark, and the other which is from A to B and the associated physical challenge. When you combine this with riding to the coast you have a truly romantic experience on your hands. I feel like I’m in a bubble of unreality as I cycle through the night, I’m on the edge of people’s perception. If they even register that I’m a cyclist they’ll assume I’m on a night shift, commuting to work or back, and that if I had more money I’d be able to afford a car. Yet as the evening progresses into to deep of the night I become more lonely, I have major A-roads and dual carriageways to myself. In the time between 2am and 4am there is nobody around at all.
I set off on a fairly straight route with the outline of riding to Durham, then Newcastle, then Tynemouth and up the coast to Alnmouth. I tore a page from my AA road atlas and covered it with sticky back plastic, the idea being to simply navigate my way rather than follow a pre-designed route. My first section was from Ingleby Barwick up to the Durham Service Station on the A1 near Bowburn. The A177 “Durham Road” from Stockton to Sedgefield is usually busy, and has a twisty dual carriageway section, normally I would avoid a road like this, but in the night time the thundering cars free it up for human power. The evening was warm and I was over dressed having expected to get cold.
By the time I reached the services at Durham I’d shed my arm warmers, my vest and my snood (neck scarf), but was sticking with the reflective gilet for safety reasons. I was toasty and had only been riding for 90 minutes but thought that a coffee and some sweets for the night would be nice. Unfortunately the coffee shop was closed and the service station felt a lot more busy than the last night visit I’d made – the one during my failed arrow.
I didn’t stop long and then took the A177 again into Durham and over the first bridge. Getting a little lost I climbed Leazes Road (A690) in the wrong direction, but enjoyed the descent back down retracing my steps. Then crossing the River Wear again this time found the right climb up Framwelgate to join the A167 by the University Hospital. I’d discussed with others what was the best route from Durham to Newcastle and we’d agreed that during the night this trunk road would be fairly safe and the straightest route, easy to navigate.
There was a good strong breeze taking me all the way to Chester-le-Street and Birtley alongside the A1, before stopping to take a look at the “Angel of the North” in the pitch black. I had a brief chat with the kids who thought I might be selling drugs, and wished them a pleasant evening.
I followed the A167 all the way through Gateshead and really enjoyed cycling over the flyover “Gateshead Highway” all alone and hurtling down to the junction for the Quayside. This is certainly not a route I’d use in the daytime, but I pulled over by the Sage for some more quick photos of the Gateshead Millennium Bridge and to send Carol a message that I was safe and happy.
I realised that I wasn’t going to be able to get down the stairs to the new footbridge over the River Tyne, so I headed for Cannon Street and Bridge Street to cycle over the Swing Bridge stopping for another photograph. There isn’t usually much to photograph at night while cycling so I was taking these opportunities to make a record of the journey.
In the supports for the Tyne Bridge were the words “Great North Run” advertising the hugely popular half marathon, which runs through Newcastle and Gateshead each September. As I arrived in Newcastle Quayside I turned east and followed the A186 through Walker and Wallsend, before I became a bit disorientated and ended up on the A193 over the top of the A19 by the Tyne Tunnel. A genius idea then occurred to me, and I circled the roundabout before accelerating down the sliproad and onto the A19 itself for one junction. Only one articulated lorry came past and I came to the Silverlink roundabout where I turned left onto the A1058 Coast Road. This is another major motorised artery for Newcastle and again there was almost no traffic. I had good lights and a high visibility jacket, so I noticed that the one or two cars which did come past were in the outside lane. I felt really daring to be on roads which motorists treat like motorways, driving in excess of 120kph fairly often.
With no incidents I followed these main roads all the way to Tynemouth village. Now that I look on the map at home in comfort I can see I made a big detour and could have simply ridden through North Shields, but at the time I was happy making progress and enjoying myself. At 1am I made it to the Priory with views to the lights over the estuary in South Shields.
The Priory was deep in the black night, but with my bicycle headlight on full I managed to light it up enough to get this photograph of a ghost floating over the ruins.
Next I followed the road along the sea shore through Whitley Bay, then Seaton Sluice and into Blyth where I started to wonder if there was ever going to be a ’24 hour’ garage to grab a drink. To my right, out to sea I could see the lights of a Northsea Ferry, and of container vessels sailing through the darkness. Ahead was the intermittent light from Blyth Harbour Lighthouse (I think).
I found the 24 hour Asda in Blyth and stopped for a sandwich and drink in the entrance hall. Not the most prestigious restaurant I’ve ever dined in, but it was nice to sit on a carpet off the bicycle for 20 minutes. For entertainment I watched three young men wandering the aisles while being trailed by a security guard and a police officer.
I had some route decisions to make now. On the map the A189 looked like a dual carriageway and I’d had enough of that, whereas there seemed to be a quieter looking A road from Bedlington to Amble, the A1068. In hindsight this isn’t such a quiet road and it is rejoined by the A189 just north of Newbiggin-by-the-sea, but it was worth a try. I was in the very small hours of the night and wondered when I’d see dawn break to my right. I hoped to reach at least Amble in time, although as it was I had made much speedier progress than I thought. At 4am I passed through Amble and Warkworth, keeping the pressure on I made it to Alnmouth seafront at 4:20am.
Riding into the night, through the night and out the other side is a privilege. It requires gifts of strength and endurance, the ability to be melancholy and still to go on. It requires a contentment in your own company and confidence in the outcome. I feel truly blessed to have been given these gifts and as I sat on the beach, getting colder and colder as the sky lightened, I gave thanks to God for a beautiful bicycle ride.
What I should have done is check the internet for sunrise time, then I wouldn’t have spent 1 hour 48 minutes staring out to sea wondering at what moment the sun would pop its head up. At 6:08am through the clouds I saw the sun rise. The little fishing boats which had been working through the night were coming home and being tied up.
I’d covered only 150km, (not even 100 miles) in about 6 hours, but with a fully laden tourer it had been tough on the ascents, so I was pleased there hadn’t been many of them.
Once I was satisifed I had seen the sunrise properly, I decided it was time for some breakfast and pootled back to Alnwick.
In Alnwick I found “The Lunch Box” was open first, and treated myself to a bacon and egg sandwich and an excellent cup of coffee. Then I picked up some swimming shorts and headed out to find somewhere for a swim. I was so stinky from the night ride I was having difficulty bearing my own company, and hoped that a dip in the salty sea would help to clean me up a bit.
I had a spiritually refreshing weekend retreat with the Brothers at the Friary. I joined in the morning and evening prayer, and the Eucharist on Sunday morning. I sat in the library, read and prayed. In Exodus Chp24 vs12 there is a sentence, ‘The the LORD said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain and be there;”…’ – Rob Bell in his talk “Everything is Spiritual” highlights the last three words… “and be there”. Rob is highlighting our human nature to think ahead a lot; to climb a mountain, but with one thought about how to get back down. I was really fortunate to “be at the top of the mountain” (in a sense) this weekend, and fully engage with just being present in the moment. As I say, it was a spiritually refreshing weekend.
Sunday morning came and after breakfast with the Brothers of the Friary, I loaded the tourer back up and headed home – taking a much more direct route this time, and finding it a lot easier in daylight. I also discovered a useful B road which runs from Bedlington all the way into Newcastle, alongside some of the major trunk roads – the B1505. I’m sure I’ve said before, “B roads are our friends”.
As I came into Newcastle I avoid the mistake of cycling on the A167(M) (motorway), and rode through the city centre to the High Level Bridge. From here I had a good view of the speedboat racing on the River Tyne, not to mention the interesting experience of the high Level Bridge itself.
There was a strong headwind which lasted all the way back to Durham, but as I was heading back to Ingleby Barwick and wanted to make it back in time for a friend’s leaving party, I kept my head down and dug deep for strength to keep the pace high. I stopped at the “Angel of the North” for a daytime photograph, and drank some lovely coffee at the catering van in the layby.
Only 125km to get back; 25km shorter than the coastal route and I blasted along at about 25kph getting home in 5 hours saddle time and 6 hours elapsed. Just in time to celebrate with friends. All in all, an excellent weekend. I would also encourage everyone to try cycling at night, even if it is only a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Dawn in Alnmouth