Singletrack Magazine Issue 113 : Borderlands

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Olly Townsend sneaks up to nearly touch the Scottish border in this most northerly and unridden of English counties. 

Words & Photography Olly Townsend

Apparently, there’s a widely held view in the customer service industry that employees with Geordie accents come across as friendly, helpful and trustworthy – pretty much ideal characteristics then. Luckily, it’s not just the accent either – having lived up here for nearly four years now, I can happily confirm that even when they’re dealing with a bona fide shandy-drinking southerner like me, they’re some of the friendliest people you could ever have the pleasure of meeting. 

Now obviously that’s a generalisation and I’m sure that not all Geordies are uniformly lovely, but at least in the mountain bike world it seems to be 100% the case. Which is a good job, as I’ve just asked a small bunch of them to turn around and slog back up the same hill they’ve just careered down on their bikes so that I can get a better set of photos. ‘Can you do it one more time?’ is probably the most widely overused phrase in cycling photography.

Luckily the view makes up for the temporary build-up of lactic acid in their calf muscles as they push back up the short steep climb. From the top, whichever direction they look in, all they can see are the rolling grass-covered hills of the Northumberland National Park. Down below the peat-coloured River Coquet meanders through the interlocking spurs of Shillmoor, Inner Hill and Through Hill in perfect geography textbook manner.

Enough misty-eyed gazing!

But we’ve not just come to gaze misty-eyed at the (undeniably brilliant) scenery – we’re here to ride some of the miles and miles of 100% legal singletrack liberally sprinkled through the county. Northumberland is practically unknown to anyone not from the area, and with good reason. This remote part of the UK seems to have more sheep than residents and it’s certainly not within easy reach of big chunks of urbanville – the only city of any size nearby is Newcastle and even that is more than an hour’s drive away. A lot of mountain bikers probably overlook Northumberland altogether, speeding past en route to the Lakes or Scotland, but for those who do make the time to stop off and explore, the wealth of superb, flowy singletrack is like a pot of undiscovered gold at the end of a distant rainbow.

I’ve been lucky enough to have spent nearly two decades working as a mountain bike guide, so I’ve got an in-depth knowledge of the benefits of being guided around by a local trail expert, rather than just randomly plotting a route from an OS map (or maybe more commonly now, hunting for routes on a Strava heat map). Luckily, I’ve found just the team to show me around. Headed up by the inimitable Willie and his partner Julie, the Muddybums mountain bike club seems to know every single centimetre of good trail in Northumberland. The skill, of course, is not just knowing the trails, but knowing which ones will be in the best condition for the time of year and being able to link them together in a way that brings a smile to your face.

With this loop, Willie had struck trail gold. We meet up in the centre of Alwinton, not that far from the Scottish border. Although not well known by out-of-towners, Alwinton is a popular place with local ramblers to start a walk from – so much so that the village green has been reinforced with a textile mesh to allow it to be used as an eco-friendly car park. From here, a quick glance at the map shows trails heading off in every direction. We head west, initially on tarmac, then turning off onto a grassy singletrack climb. 

Slick Velcro.

Northumberland grass has that special characteristic of being at once energy sapping, yet quite often a grip-free zone. The climb is steep enough to be unpleasant on barely warm legs, and having to give it some beans in order to get ahead to take photos does nothing to keep my heart rate and breathing down to a sensible level. Luckily there’s a gate halfway up which permits a regroup and a lowering of collective pulses. After the gate, the gradient lessens to a dull ache rather than a stabbing pain in the chest.

You may wonder at the logic of putting in such a challenging start to a ride, but the answer soon becomes apparent. At the top of the climb, you bear left at a fork, crest a small rise and there, dropping away in front of you, is the Upper Coquetdale valley. 

The valley is broad, with grassy shoulders on either side and a small dark river incising it neatly. On the right-hand side is what we’ve climbed all this way for – a sweet looking ribbon of grassy trail, dropping steeply away and hugging the right-hand side of the hill in front. This trail drops quite steeply at first (and even has a lovely natural bermed corner at the top to help launch you), but then the gradient eases off slightly – although the drop on your left seems to be more impressive to make up for the shallower gradient. The trail is gently rippled and once you let go of the brakes, the surface is perfect for catching micro-air™ as you hurtle downwards. 

This first descent captures quite neatly the essence of Northumberland riding – you won’t find much of the mega-technical rockfests of its more westerly Lake District neighbour, but you will find lots of fast and flowing trails, often grassy under-wheel and remarkably rut and braking-bump free (thanks to a combination of low visitor numbers and the naturally well-draining sandy topography). The riding won’t always test your tech skills, but don’t underestimate the energy you’ll need to ride here – although the loop we’ve chosen is pretty short, it’s ‘concentratey’ and has plenty enough climbing to make sure you’ll feel like you’ve got your money’s worth by the time you’re safely back at the car park.

Because of the remote location, lack of people and perfect topography, a lot of Northumberland is regularly taken over by heavily armed gangs wearing green camouflage gear, whose sole aim is to shoot at things or blow things up. While this does make route planning a little challenging at times (as there are quite big chunks of land off-limits to civvies for most of the year), the flipside is that regular Army training in the past has helped maintain and improve the infrastructure. As we head north away from the River Coquet, we enter a steep-sided valley with a perfect 4×4 track running along the bottom. At regular intervals, the track traverses the Usway Burn and each time it does so, we give thanks to the Corps of Royal Engineers and their amazing Bailey Bridges.

Let the pop and flow begin. 

We spin our way up the valley. Colin, one of the Muddybums gang, pops manuals over the bridges as easily as normal riders change gear. At the head of the valley the 4×4 track stops and the fun begins. The trail starts wide, fast and grassy, but as it heads for the right-hand side of the valley it narrows to the correct width for a mountain bike trail and climbs away from the stream. The trail hugs the side of the valley and undulates perfectly to give a good dose of pop and flow to proceedings. There are a couple of narrow sections where a bit of body English is needed to keep your wheels planted on terra firma rather than slipping off the side into the stream (now quite a long way below), but there’s nothing too terrifying and it is lots of fun – what more could you ask for?

As we near the end of the valley, its character changes and we go from steep-sided grassy valley to a man-made forestry plantation. Unfortunately the timber has been fairly recently stripped out, which isn’t the most beautiful sight, but luckily the trail that runs along the base of the forest has been left intact. This trail is completely different to anything else on the ride in that it’s narrow, root infested and quite techy. There’s enough flow to make it fun, but you have to work for it – if you let your speed drop too much you hit every root and it feels like hard work. But if you’ve got the legs to give it some speed, you can use the terrain to your advantage and the roots give you enough of a kick to fly along happily. My southern wood-riding heritage comes into play here and I’m soon hitting warp speed, grinning manically as I pop from root to root. 

As all good guides know, planning a long/hard/steep climb straight after lunch is pretty much a legal requirement and Willie does us proud here. Lunch is in a secluded woodland glade, complete with a fallen tree to perch on. The post-lunch climb is suitably hideous – we manage to ride about half of it before succumbing to a killer combination of boggy trail conditions and stomachs refusing to send blood to our leg muscles. Luckily, as we push towards the top, we get a temporary reprieve as the operator of a monumental logging machine working adjacent to the trail turns out to be a mountain biker and friend of the group, so we stop for a quick natter.

At this point, gremlins appear from stage left – the logging guy tells us that a chunk of our proposed trail for the next section is currently closed as it’s buried under a couple of thousand tons of timber. This is a shame; the loop we had planned includes a stonking descent down to the tiny settlement of Barrowburn (although it would have also included a second attempt of the post-lunch climb, so maybe we lucked out after all…).

Willie doesn’t seem at all fazed by the change of plan and we soon have a Plan B – first a superb, narrow, off-camber traverse of The Middle, then a short, fast descent to a bridge over the Usway Burn (which Colin manuals over, natch). We’re going to gloss over the horror-fest of a climb which follows. I’d ridden it before in damper conditions and barely got about a third of the way up before lack of traction forced me to dismount. This time it was bone dry, so I had no excuse (except a heavy bag of camera kit…), and I did manage to clean it, but it wasn’t pretty. Or fun.

Eyes on the prize.

Our prize for successfully reaching the top of the climb, apart from an ace view across to Windy Gyle and the Scottish Border, is a few kilometres of gentle forestry fire road, which takes us to the top of the final swoopy descent. Unfortunately, ‘gentle’ is actually a lie. The area is now being extensively logged and the previously smooth fire road has been armoured with big chunks of crushed limestone to prevent too much damage from logging vehicles. 

This isn’t the most pleasant surface to ride on, but it’s pretty fast and we’re soon off the end and standing at the top of the final descent with an amazing view over the hills of Northumberland stretching away into the distance.

The last descent has a similar feel to the first one – super-fast, hard-packed grass with a rippled surface that makes even the most curmudgeonly of riders finish with a huge grin plastered over their face. The descent seems to be longer than is possible for terrain that is only hilly, rather than mountainous. Luckily what the area lacks in vertical bragging rights, it makes up for with a huge grin factor. The fact that the final descent drops us back at the car park in the centre of Alwinton is a sign of Willie’s genius route planning skills. We pack the bikes away and swap dust-covered riding kit for civvies before heading off to a local tearoom to replenish our calorie levels. If we were from the other side of the pond, I’m pretty sure we’d be thinking the stoke levels are high with this one 

Why bother?

Northumberland is really underrated as an area to visit for mountain biking. It’s got an impressive network of legal riding choices, useful geology – big chunks of sandstone so lots of it drains really well, which means there’s great riding year-round – and you’ll pretty much have the trails to yourself!

It’s a wild and remote place – there are way more sheep than people, so the hills are quiet and peaceful (apart from the army occasionally blowing things up). Northumberland was awarded the first Dark Sky Park status in the UK precisely because there’s so little urban development and light pollution here. You may not go on a mountain bike trip to go stargazing, but this is a good place to do it if you get the right weather.

The route included in this guide includes some of the best bits of singletrack in the area, tagged together to make a cohesive, flowy route. There are plenty of other ways of doing things, but it’s worth knowing that some of the trails marked on the OS map for the area don’t actually exist on the ground!

If you want to make a weekend of it and fancy some uber-tech riding, there’s plenty of potential to scare yourself in Thrunton Forest, about 15 minutes north-east of Rothbury. None of the trails are waymarked, so it’s a case of follow your nose. The descents tend to be short, steep and rooty. Bring fat tyres and a dropper post and try to avoid it in wet weather, as it gets pretty boggy.

The Knowledge

There are two routes on offer:

• Short route – 23kms, 600m of climbing, 3–4 hours

• Longer route – 30kms, 800m of climbing, 4–5 hours

Map: OS Landranger 80 

Parking and other bits

Both routes start and finish in the centre of Alwinton village (grid ref NT922063), 14kms north-west of the town of Rothbury. There’s free parking on the village green, public toilets less than 100m away and a small pub, the Rose & Thistle, which does food and accommodation. Alwinton is small and remote – there is zero mobile signal, so it’s best to come prepared for all eventualities!

Route options

Due to forestry operations closing one vital trail, we cut our route short and missed out the loop which descends to Barrowburn. Signs posted by the Forestry Commission say there will be forestry work in this area until September 2017 and this might entail the closure of certain trails at times. If the trail is open, the descent to Barrowburn is amazing – fast, twisty and scenic. 

Places to stay

If you want to stay really local, the Rose & Thistle in Alwinton does accommodation. If you want to go slightly more upmarket, then Clennell Hall is the place for you – just a few minutes’ ride/drive away from Alwinton. There’s also a big campsite adjacent to the Hall, which has spaces for tents, camper vans, touring caravans etc. Tomlinson’s Café in Rothbury has a great value bunkhouse.

Bike shops

As befits a county with more sheep than people, bike shops are a bit thin on the ground! Tomlinson’s Café in Rothbury has some emergency spares (inner tubes, patch kits, chain oil etc.). For a full-blown bike shop, Sims Cycle Workshop in Morpeth is your closest choice – bear in mind that it’s 25 miles/50 minutes or so from Alwinton and come prepared…

Food and drink

Unfortunately, at the time of writing, the café at Barrowburn is closed, but the plan is for it to reopen towards the end of the summer once the owners have refurbished their B&B. It’s worth doing the Barrowburn loop just for the quality of the cake you can get there! In the meantime, Tomlinson’s Café in Rothbury are equally fine purveyors of cakey goodness. And they have a log burning stove/comfy sofas/local beer…

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