The Geordie Tour- 5 days cycling around 'Tyne and Wear Metropolitan County' and 'County Durham' (110 miles)

In the second half of the nineteenth century there were typically well over a thousand working collieries in the north east area, by 1913 over 165,000 men and boys laboured in the mining industry around County Durham and Tyne & Wear Metropolitan County. Now, all the pits have gone, leaving behind hundreds of old railway lines. It is this legacy of the old colliery railway lines which allows us to ride from Bishop Auckland to Newcastle. We stay the second night at the Geordie capital, a City famed for it's shipbuilding, and iconic bridges. On the third day we ride past the abandoned and levelled ghost shipyards, visiting Roman remains on both sides of the Tyne, then southerly along the east coast. We go through Sunderland, historically a larger shipbuilding area than Newcastle; at one time Sunderland was said to be the biggest shipbuilding town in the World, now the shadows of its glorious past have all gone replaced in part by the National Glass Centre. On the fourth day we visit the World famous Beamish open air museum before heading back to Bishop Auckland via Durham (a UNESCO World heritage site), hardly ever going on main roads.

Day 1- Newport - Bishop Auckland via Shildon (278 miles- car)

It’s a tedious four and a half hour drive from Newport to Bishop Auckland where we're due to start the ride tomorrow. To break up the journey we visited ‘Locomotion’ at Shildon National Railway Museum a few miles from Bishop Auckland. This is a free museum and is well worth a visit and would have any train spotter drooling. It has a huge selection of fantastic exhibits, but the place was kind of sterile; there was not much explanation about the trains and you were unable to see some locos tucked behind others. After an hour wandering around the Shildon museum, we drove to Bishop Auckland. The scenery seemed drab, where big factories once stood, now are great swathes of flat concrete wasteland. When we arrived at the Park Head Country Hotel set in a former 18th century coaching inn, we were weary, and tired of travel.

Day 2- Bishop Auckland- Newcastle (45 miles)

There’s a long day ahead today, not so much the millage, there’s just lots to see, but when we left the hotel, it took us almost fifteen minutes just to cross the busy A688 road to begin the ride. As soon as we're on ‘Auckland way’, one of the many old ‘Northern Eastern railway’ lines converted into cycle paths, the traffic noise died and it was peacefull. Shortly we arrive at Bishop Auckland and with room only at our hotel last night, we headed for a café for tea and toast. Across the road was the Miners art museum, providing a permanent home for the renowned ‘Gemini Collection’ of Mining Art. It had just opened and the receptionist was happy for us to place the bikes inside, but this was blocked by a burly security guard, so alas, we didn’t go in. The entrance arch of Auckland castle was just to the right, but the castle is closed until the end of this year for renovation, so there wasn’t much to see except for lots of scafolding. The castle (more of a large house) was official residence, diocesan office, and palace of the Bishop of Durham since 1153. Downhill on a shale path is the deer house, a charming gothic revival built in 1760 to provide the Bishop’s deer with food and shelter. Next, it would be rude not to visit Binchester Roman fort (a mile away) founded around 80 AD, it’s up a small steep hill and past a former hotel and nursing home, now abandoned and almost derelict. Binchester didn't open until later, so we cheekily hopped over the fence and had a walk around. We couldn’t see much of the site, as a lot of the museum was in covered buildings, but it was reputed to be one of the largest Roman military installations in the whole of Northern Britain.

After a 'U' turn from the Roman fort, we ride along the River Wear and under ‘Newton Cap Viaduct’. Towering over us, this ten stone arch viaduct once carried the Northern Eastern railway across the river, when the axe fell (and several years later), the bold highway builders put a wider concrete top on it and built a tarmac road across it. The fact it was suitable to do this, is a testament to the Victorian engineers that built it. We double back on ourselves and cross the mighty viaduct, then onto the Bishop Auckland Railway Path. At Brancepeth ten miles from Bishop Auckland, it’s another diversion from the cycle path to see Brancepeth castle. Spotlessly clean, it looked brand new, and unblemished, leading me to the conclusion that either this wasn’t an original Norman castle or it has been recently (historically speaking) been rebuilt, but it is a spectacle to see. Back on the track bed we crossed loads of roads as all the bridges had been removed making quite a disjointed ride. At ‘Neville’s Cross’, there was a major railway junction where we currently parallel the main line railway and proceed on the ‘Lanchester valley Walk’. Eighteen miles from Bishop Auckland is Langley where the famous Durham Gin Distillery resides. The route now loosely follows the River Browney and continues gently uphill, past a few railway stations subtly disguised as private residences. The path goes through Lanchester, and we feel it’s worth mentioning ‘Kaffeehaus Amadeus’, a café with over twenty different coffees. I had an Indian coffee, nutty, and strong and I never even knew the country produced coffee.

Twenty five miles from the start gets us to the outskirts of ‘Concett’ where we turn south west to see the ‘Hownsgill Viaduct’. Another Victorian bridge which only shut to trains in the late eighties, but today it’s more infamous for people jumping off it, than it was for trains going over it; there was one suicide from the bridge every two weeks in the first half of 2011 and more fatalities in 2012. In 2013 the authorities had enough, and fitted anti-suicide fences to the bridge. We head north at Lygett's Junction and skirt around the northern edge of Concett. We are now riding on the footprints of a massive steelworks which closed in the 1980’s, the last steel ingot from Consett steelworks was made into a cross and is kept at St Mary's Roman Catholic Church, Blackhill. The rain spat at us while we made our way downhill through the wooded Derwent valley, crossing a few of viaducts. At Swalwell we turn east and head towards Gateshead passing a huge curved wooden jetty. Dunston Staiths were built in 1893 to allow large quantities of coal arriving by rail from the Durham Coalfields to be loaded directly onto waiting colliers (coal ships). Finally we cross the River Tyne on a swing bridge and head east passing near the ‘King Edward VII railway bridge’, and the iconic ‘Tyne Bridge’. Over the river in Gateshead is what looks like a great silver winnebago, it's the ‘Sage’; a performance venue surely as identifiable as the ‘Sydney Opera House’. The second nights stop is in a humble ‘Travelodge ©’ booked a year in advance for the bargain price of £39. It was a long hard day today, with the temperature changing from 16°C to 21°C, I finished with my head burnt to a crisp. We ate at ‘Aneesa's’ an all-you-can-eat Indian buffet, and we felt we deserved to eat until our bellies hurt, but of course there isn’t any justification for gluttony, nevertheless it was a great place to eat.

Day 3- Newcastle- Beamish (39 miles)

From the hotel we went north just ¼ a mile to see the ‘Holy Jesus Hospital’ a small building built on the foundations of an Augustinian friary, it became a hospital and was in use for 700 years, but blink and you’d miss it. We now proceed along the river by the Gateshead Millennium Bridge a massive cantilever pedestrian arch across the river then onto ‘Hadrian’s Way’ past the old ship building yards. One thing that struck us riding along the Tyne was the abundance of wild flowers, there were loads we’d never seen before. With no more than five miles from our departure, we come across Segedunum; a Roman fort and settlement. It’s incredible to think for centuries the area was open farmland, then in the late 19th century, collieries were sunk near the fortification, and gradually the whole fort disappeared under terraced housing. The site was excavated in 1997, then construction of a replica bath house followed and conversion of the former Swan Hunter shipyard buildings to house a new museum. For us, it’s like we discovered Segedunum for the first time while riding past it- well worth a visit.

We ride under the Willington viaduct and head east towards Tynemouth Castle and pass the ‘Master Mariners' Homes’, these were Almshouses, built in 1837 in a Jacobean style originally for the Tyne Mariners’ Benevolent Institution, with the then Duke of Northumberland’s statue (as he donated the land) standing in front of an impressive clock tower. Finally we can’t ride any further east, as high on a spit of land is Tynemouth Castle, combined with the ruins of the Benedictine priory where early Kings of Northumbria were buried. It’s £5.70 to enter through the gatehouse towers and through the bailey into open space, then you can see the priory ruins. It’s such an odd place walking between hundreds of graves, eerily quiet except for the sea down below crashing against the rocks. It’s an obvious location for a military battery to defend the River Tyne, and there's been a garrison here since Napoleonic times. Today there’s remains of a WW2 guardroom and an armoury, and the gun emplacement is a formidable reproduction. We rode back along the river mouth past the ‘Life Brigade Watch House’ (a predecessor to our modern day Coastguard) and to the North Shields ferry quayside. We asked a man painting a house when the next ferry was? His reply was somewhat unexpected; "Yee divvent want te gan sooth o the river son, the Mackems live ower there," (in a Geordie voice). We later found out 'Mackems' are people from Sunderland, I guess the chap was a Newcastle football supporter.

We didn’t have to wait long for the next boat and crossed the River Tyne. It’s a short ride from here to the ‘Arbeia Roman Fort’, the gate house has been partially reconstructed, but the rest is a ruin. It’s another free entry and we spent thirty minutes walking around the Roman Fort. Downhill from here we met the North Sea, and I never knew South Shields had a beach front, we had the traditional donuts and moved on. We come across Souter Lighthouse, built in 1871, Souter was the first lighthouse in the World purpose built to use electricity. We passed a 'Whitburn Colliery' plaque on a wall, Whitburn Coal Company sunk two shafts south of the lighthouse between 1874 and 1877 reaching an incredible ten miles out under the sea. A short distance after ‘Whitburn Windmill’ we arrive at Sunderland and turn west following the ‘River Wear’. We dropped into the 'National Glass Centre' for an hour and watched two amazing demos by talented glass artists. Seeing glass being turned on a lathe and blown was a sight to behold. Sunderland is also famous for its shipbuilding, once dubbed 'the largest shipbuilding town in the World', all closed by the mid 1980’s. We crossed the river on the Wearmouth bridge (Sunderland’s equivalent of the Tyne bridge) and followed the River Wear on the south side on another old Northern Eastern railway path. Turning off the path at Coxgreen, you can just see the Penshaw Victorian folly, a replica of an ancient Greek temple, high on the hill. We re-cross the River Wear near the pub, ‘the Oddfellows Arms’ and follow the ‘Consett & Sunderland railway' (the C2C) path all the way to Beamish Best Western hotel, our third stop for the night.

Day 4- Beamish Museum

Beamish is an open-air museum located near the town of Stanley. The museum's guiding principle is to preserve an example of everyday life in urban and rural North East England at the climax of industrialisation in the early 20th century. Much of the restoration and interpretation is specific to the late Victorian and Edwardian eras, together with portions of countryside under the influence of industrial revolution in 1825. On its massive site there are original, and replica buildings, a huge collection of artifacts, working vehicles, and equipment; as well as livestock and costumed interpreters. Well that’s the official version of Beamish. The only original features of Beamish are; the drift mine, Pockerley Old Hall, and the farm, but unless you knew that, you wouldn’t be able to tell all the other sections are a reproduction. The different parts of the museum are spread out over a gigantic area, a fair old distance to cover if on foot. However, the beauty is that there are bus stops and tram stops conveniently placed everywhere. The tram goes around in a huge circle and where the tram can't get to- there are vintage buses to take you around. Period dressed staff are at each attraction, and it is they who bring the museum to life with their stories of real people long since departed. It gives you a sense of awe, and really was like taking a step back in time. Beamish museum continues to expand (and has the land to achieve it) with a 1950’s village in the making. This is the third open-air museum I’ve been to in the UK. The others were; Blists Hill Victorian Town and Crich Tramway Village. It’s difficult to favouritise which one is better as each have slightly different attributes, but if I had to; it would be Blists Hill. Would I go back to Beamish? No, only because there are others to see in the UK; Amberley Museum and Heritage Centre at Arundel and the Black Country Living Museum Dudley, West Midlands, to name but two.

Day 5- Beamish to Bishop Auckland (27 miles)

After visiting Beamish Museum yesterday, it’s back on the bike again today heading west. Though we’re on an old railway track, there are loads of new bridges crossing over the main roads and we’re very grateful for time, effort, and money to build these. We ride through ‘Stanley’ on the C2C cycle route (the Consett and Sunderland railway path) and leave the path at Annfield Plain and onto Howden road to rejoin the cycle path at Lanchester cutting a horseshoe of eight miles out of the return journey. We’re back on the route from the first day, through Langley Park, but leave the cycle path once again at Bearpark heading for Durham. Down Redhills lane was St Nicholas burial ground with six Commonwealth war graves, four from WW1 and two from WW2. Inside the graveyard were three elderly men voluntarily clearing the wild foliage, the cemetery had become denigrated, unkempt, and overgrown for decades. The chaps had been working on it for over twelve months and did have ‘community payback’ people helping them at one stage, but the funding was withdrawn (what the hell does that mean, isn’t this what the naughty people are supposed to be doing?). We continued riding down the lane and came across the ‘National Union of Mineworkers’ (NUM) headquarters. We took a chance and went in, we were lucky the security guard showed us around, inside the hall seats were grouped around like an auditorium with each chair numbered, this is where each Union mine leader would sit. Quiet now, but I would have liked to be a fly on the wall during the pit closures of the eighties. It’s through a series of one way streets to cross the River Wear on ‘Framwellgate Bridge’, re-built in the 14th-century. We walked from here up the hill, with the massive silhouette of Durham castle masking the sky, through Silver street and then Saddler street past modern shops in old buildings to the ‘Durham World Heritage Site Visitor Centre’, housed in a refurbished 19th century almshouse.

There are not many official places to lock the bike, but we found the university 'police lodge' and with permission, we stowed the bikes there (at one stage the Durham security lodge was manned with real police, but now it's manned with by a private security company). We went on a tour of the castle, but the great hall was closed. The tour guides are students from the university and seemed enthusiastic about being there. There are places off limits due to the university use, but it’s defiantly worth a visit. After an hour here it’s on to the Cathedral, just one hundred yards away. I’m not religious in the slightest, but one can’t help be drawn into the magnificence of the size of this building, but I failed to see why Durham Cathedral has officially been named the UK’s most popular cathedral. We re-crossed the River Wear this time on the ‘Prebends bridge’, probably Durham's most 'visited' bridge, offering views of the Cathedral and wooded riverbanks. We head back to ‘Lanchester Valley Walk’ cycle path to proceed towards Bishop Auckland, and meet back up with it at ‘Nevilles Crossbank’, continuing on the old railway line for a few miles before coming off again at Brancepeth, where we join Whitworth lane across the River Wear and now into ‘Stanners Lane’. It's time for a tea at ‘Whiteworth Hall and Country Park’, the park includes a Grade II listed stately mansion (the ancestral home of an 18th-century MP), a deer park, and a Victorian walled garden which allegedly contains England's most northerly vineyard. You can pay to feed the deer’s and I watched a man do that, I couldn’t believe how cheeky these animals were, butting the man for more. Now, we turn west onto ‘Aukland Way’ back to the start of our adventure to pick the car up.

The weather man never predicts more than two days in advance anymore and our week was as inconsistent as the next, it ranged between 16°C and 21°C and was mostly overcast. The journey up was long, but broken up by visiting the National railway museum at Shildon. Roman influence around the area is substantial, during the construction of Hadrian’s Wall their numbers grew and remained at that level for around two hundred years. We saw four castles, but two were clearly fortified homes and Brancepeth castle was strange, it just looked so new, that said they’re still worth visiting and are very interesting. It’s not fair to highlight any single attraction at the Beamish museum, because they are all credible and unique in their own way, though personally Mahogany mine was my favourite. We were quietly disappointed with Durham cathedral (as it was named as one of the best in the UK), but loved the National Miners hall and Commonwealth graves in Durham. It was a great few days cycling and sightseeing in the area, the people were very friendly, and the traffic was excellent; on the road everyone gave us room and were courteous. It was on the Swansea ride last year where we met a man who suggested cycling around the Tyne and Wear area and I’m glad we heeded his recommendation. What a great few days away.

  • Gallery

    gallery page Why not have a look at the gallery relating to this ride. Click the image or the title.

  • Stockton and Darlington Railway

    The world's first passenger railway; the Stockton and Darlington Railway opened in 1825 with a train hauled by Locomotion No 1 which took two hours to complete the twelve mile journey from Shildon to Darlington.

  • The Gemini Collection

    The Gemini Collection of Mining Art includes more than 420 works by prominent local artists. The art shows what it felt like to work in the coalmines and shed light on why some miners felt it necessary to paint the dark, clamorous, claustrophobic, and arcane world of a coal mine.

  • Binchester Roman fort

    Known from inscriptions on tablets, the garrison in this fort was a cavalry unit originally recruited from central Spain accompanied at some point by a unit of cavalry originating from the area we now know as Holland.

  • Brancepeth castle

    The present building is largely a 19th-century restoration carried out in the 1820s. During the WW1 the castle was used as a hospital by convalescents from Newcastle General Hospital. In 1939 it became the regimental headquarters for the Durham Light Infantry, who erected a military camp of over 100 huts to the south of the village during WW2. The Durham Light Infantry left the Castle in 1962.

  • The Consett Steelworks

    The sky over Consett, had long been famous for its thick haze of red iron oxide dust thrown up by the steelworks, as was the cloud of steam evaporating all around the tall cooling towers, but the price for cleaner air was high. Amidst intense debate and large demonstrations by workers and sympathizers, Consett Steel Works was closed in 1980, leading to massive job losses, but the true reflection of unemployment and social impact couldn’t be calculated because of all the support industries lost.

  • Dunston Staiths

    As the coal industry declined during the latter part of last the century, so too did Dunston Staiths, the jetty eventually fell into serious disrepair. Though some reprieve came when the National Garden Festival was held in Gateshead in 1990, some repairs were done and it became a grade II listed structure.

  • Swan Hunter Shipyard

    In the 19th century, shipbuilding and heavy engineering were central to the city's prosperity. The shipyards employed generations of families, today only one small shipbuilder still exists. Swan Hunter was the biggest shipbuilder in Newcastle, launching famous ships including the Mauretania, and the Carpathia in 1912 (which braved icebergs to rescue the survivors of the Titanic). The city was a powerhouse of the Industrial Revolution, by 1800 Tyneside was the third largest producer of ships in Britain. In May 1993 the receivers were called in and job losses of over 2,000 were announced at the Swan Hunter yards.

  • Tynemouth Priory

    The Priory was sacked by the Danes several times, despite fortification by the monks. Time has left behind its spiritual scars and those brave enough to walk through the Castle and Priory after dark may catch sight of the Black Monk, who is said to roam the grounds in his hooded robes. Even in daylight it’s quite odd walking amongst the graves, and despite the spit of land being open, you can clearly hear people speaking on the other side of the site.

  • Arbeia Roman Fort

    Arbeia Roman Fort Arbeia guarded the main sea route to Hadrian's Wall, and was a key garrison and military supply base to other forts along the Wall. A Roman gatehouse, barracks and Commanding Officer's house have been reconstructed on their original foundations.

  • Sunderland’s shipyards

    Noisy and smoky, Sunderland’s shipyards were once the most successful on the planet, producing, at their peak, a quarter of all the ships in the entire World. The National Glass Centre now stands on the River Wear, and was where the death knell for shipbuilding in the town ended.

  • The Penshaw Monument

    The Penshaw Monument, officially ‘The Earl of Durham's Monument’, was built in 1844 on Penshaw Hill. The monument dominates the local landscape as a half-sized replica of the Temple of Hephaestus in Athens.

  • The Mahogany Drift coal mine

    The Mahogany Drift coal mine at Beamish was a real mine, which originally opened in 1855 and run for one hundred years. It re-opened as a tourist attraction in 1970, once inside the coal mine; it did not take long to imagine what conditions must have been like for the miners. People were shorter in those days and those that weren’t, ended up with either ‘bow legs’ or a curved spine. Miners often had to work lying on their backs or sides while chipping away at the coal seam using hand tools. They even had to buy their own tools, but by law, safety lamps had to be supplied by the mine company and even though they provided less illumination than a candle, they were compulsory to use because they were incapable of igniting firedamp.

  • Pockerley Old Hall

    The Old Hall sits nestled amidst a dark copse of trees and is set very much apart from the quaint little town – with all of its touristy hustle and bustle and jolly Edwardian re-enactors. The hall has a remote, older feel to it, emphasised by its situation overlooking the empty shell of a church and the old railway line below it.

  • Lest we forget- St Nicholas burial ground Durham

    Private- James Arthur Cleckner- East Yorkshire Regiment- died April 16, 1941, Age 24. Able Seaman- Kenneth Aubin- Royal Navy- died July 12, 1944, Age 20. Private- T Davis- Durham Light Infantry- died October 14, 1915. Private- Joseph Bell- Durham Light Infantry- died September 17, 1917, Age 34. Serjeant Major- John William McCann- Royal Field Artillery- died September 13, 1919, Age 45. Corporal- William Henry Lofthouse- Northumberland Fusiliers- died July 5, 1916, Age 24.

  • Durham castle

    Durham Castle was originally built in the 11th century as a projection of the Norman kings' power in the north of England. The castle has been wholly occupied since 1840 by University College, Durham. It’s worth a tour, and we only paid £3 because some of the rooms were off limits.

  • The Rose Window- Durham Cathedral

    Originally glazed in the 15th century by Richard Pickering, the present glass dates from the late nineteenth century, and depicts Christ surrounded by the apostles, in turn surrounded by the 24 elders from the 'book of Revelation'.

  • Auckland Way Railway Path

    Auckland Way Railway Path The Railway Path passes through countryside which was once part of the Bishop’s Park. Bishop Lightfoot hated the railway so much, he would only give his consent for the use of his land if a special 'double' bridge was built over the railway for his personal use. On ‘Google’ maps the two bridges above are not attached to roads, just fields each side.

  • Happy to be Geordie

    It's official, Newcastle is one of the happiest places to live in Europe (15th in 2016). To get this accolade they conducted a European survey, and Geordies were voted the happiest people in the UK, and were the most satisfied with where they lived. I still wouldn’t live there, it’s too cold.

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