We like to encounter variety on our bike journeys. Whether it’s a constantly changing panorama with a different view around every corner, a change in gradient every now and then to engage different muscles (and build up an appetite for the cafés…) or a varying suite of wildlife to be on the lookout for. Well, the Coast to Coast cycle route feeds this appetite for diversity in every way and the North Pennines section of the route does so in abundance.
The Pennines form the backbone of Northern England, running roughly north-south from the Scottish Borders to Derbyshire and the North Pennines contain the highest hills within the entire range, with Cross Fell reaching 893m. The landscape of the North Pennines is one of open heather moors incised with deep valleys, which are home to plenty of welcoming villages with a strong sense of identity, possibly due the feeling of remoteness that this landscape evokes. With those hills come some rather extensive views and this really does feel like crossing the ‘roof of England’ as you pedal from west to east, up hill and down dale as you make your way across the width of the country.
Although not too far from the Lake District, the North Pennines are very different in many respects. The Carboniferous millstone grit and limestone in the Pennines are of sedimentary origin, as opposed to the much older and volcanically derived mountains just a stone’s throw to the West. This geology is important from a C2C cyclist’s perspective, since the way these sedimentary rocks have been uplifted and tilted towards the east means the climbs are (generally…) steeper and shorter on the western scarp slopes, but the descents are gentler and longer on the eastern side. This is a rule with numerous exceptions, however, most notably the section from Garrigill to Nenthead which is steep on the way up and even steeper on the way down!
This geology has also shaped the region’s cultural heritage, as the rocks beneath the moors contain a wealth of minerals and metal ores that have made the area world-famous, being mined since at least Roman times. Barytes, fluorite, and the ores of iron, lead and zinc are all found in the region and there are signs of this activity scattered throughout the North Pennines, including mine shafts, chimneys, spoil heaps and larger-scale processing facilities such as those at Nenthead and Allenheads. The mining activity has long ceased, taking jobs and residents with it, but the C2C has helped to revitalise area, transferring cash from riders’ pockets into accommodation providers, pubs, museums, cafes, shops and one excellent and much-needed bike repair shop in Nenthead.
The upland habitat also supports a wealth of birdlife, including golden plovers, lapwings, curlews and 80% of England’s rare black grouse. You’ll encounter signs and sounds of the grouse all along this section of the route and, from March onwards, the trilling calls of curlew are a common accompaniment. In summer you may even have to slow down to allow a clutch of chicks to be shepherded across the road by their mother.
The Coast to Coast route enters the North Pennines as you start the climb out of the Eden Valley towards Hartside Pass. A long descent follows on the way to Alston – England’s joint-highest market town (‘joint’ with Buxton). If you follow the official route you’ll pass through the picturesque village of Garrigill instead of Alston, but it doesn’t really matter which way you go: you’re still cycling coast to coast. The friendly community shop and Miners Arms pub in Nenthead provide sustenance for weary legs and there’s also the opportunity for having your bike ‘fettled’ by Dave at North Pennine Cycles.
From Nenthead, it’s onwards and upwards to Black Hill, the highest point on the entire National Cycle Network at 609m. The summit also marks the border between Cumbria and Northumberland – you’re in the North East now, as the local accents will have hinted at some miles back. But don’t be tempted to think it’s downhill all the way from the highest point, there’s only a relatively short descent before you’ll be climbing once more over the moors and down into Allenheads. Allenheads provides another fuel stop in probably the most welcoming pub on the entire route, as well as several options for spending the night for a well-earned rest. Otherwise you could continue to the town of Stanhope, 10 miles and 2 hills away for an even-more-well-earned rest.
The C2C route leaves the uplands on the long and gradual descent towards Tyneside and Wearside from Parkhead, above Stanhope. We’ll talk about the climbs and the descent in later posts as I have only touched on the amount of climbing you’ll have to do in order to cross the roof of England. However, it is only fair to say that as well as the scenery, wildlife and industrial archaeology the North Pennines section of the C2C is equally memorable for the hills.
If you want to experience the joy of cycling the C2C, join us on one of our Coast to Coast cycling trips. We organise scheduled and tailor-made cycling holidays and we have a fleet of cycles for hire which allow you to experience the very best of cycling in the region.