How to get from coast to coast without blisters

The famous cross-country terrain is not just for walkers. Carlton Reid pedalled off on the cycle routes that take you from one side of England to the other
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The Independent Travel
MANDELSON'S Millennium Dome hogs all the headlines, but the real flagship project of the Millennium Commission isn't Greenwich's answer to Disneyworld but a 6,500-mile cycle network scheduled for opening in the year 2000.

The National Cycle Network is the idea of John Grimshaw. He's the road engineer and radical thinker behind the construction charity Sustrans. Founded 18 years ago, Sustrans is a charity dedicated to designing and building traffic-free routes for cyclists and walkers using disused railway lines, towpaths, derelict land and minor roads. In 1994 Sustrans was awarded pounds 42.5m in Millennium funds to help develop the National Cycle Network (NCN).

The creation of his network can be likened to the building of Britain's motorways in the 1950s and 1960s, or the railway boom of the 1840s, or the canal building frenzy of the 1790S. It may not be as grandiose as any of those projects but it's cheap. The whole network will cost pounds 400m, the price of a bypass, yet a section of it will be within a 10-minute ride of 23 million people. Some of the National Cycle Network is already open, and around 3,000 miles should be open by summer 2000 and the rest completed by 2005. But its greatest potential is probably as a safe, car- free destination for dayrides or waymarked cycle holidays. To get a taste of what the Sustrans' National Cycle Network will be like try the Hull to Fakenham route, or Glasgow to Inverness. Both are well waymarked and maps are available from the Sustrans HQ in Bristol.

Probably the most challenging of the existing routes, and the first recreational route to be designated as a part of the National Cycle Network, is the C2C which starts at either Workington or Whitehaven on the Irish Sea and ends at either Tynemouth or Sunderland on the North Sea. In 1996 it was estimated that 15,000 people had ridden the 140-mile Sea-to-Sea that year. Given the rapid rise in holiday companies, B&Bs, guidebooks and (forthcoming) videos with an interest in the C2C, the numbers were probably double this for 1997. The C2C is fast becoming one of Britain's favourite long-distance trails, a Pennine Way for bikers. So popular, in fact, a return route has been devised. The Reivers Route is to be a 140-mile waymarked route through north Northumberland, starting in Tynemouth and ending in Whitehaven. It is not part of the official National Cycle Network, but it is a good example of how smaller link routes are expanding the riding possibilities to and from all NCN waymarked trails.

Despite being marketed as a cycle trail the C2C, in common with other NCN routes, is not wholly traffic-free. Eighty-four of the 140 miles of the route follow minor country lanes although Ted Liddle, one of the C2C surveyors, believes a group of bikers acts as a rolling traffic-calming measure.

"We've had no major problems with cars on the C2C because the minor roads really are minor. That said, we never stop looking for car-free alternative routes."

Most C2Cers dip their wheels in the Irish sea at Whitehaven, which is marginally prettier than Workington, and then head for the northern edge of the Lake District. At Keswick comes the long ascent to a welcome brew at Hartside cafe with ups and downs still to come between

Garrigill, Nenthead and Allenheads. This is the most desolate stretch of the C2C. In bad weather you wonder what could have enticed you to such a Godforsaken moor in the middle of nowhere; if the rain keeps off, the views can be superb, given extra majesty when you start freewheeling down the long, slight descent to the former steelworks at Consett, which is now scrubland. The C2C ends after the urban sprawl of Tyne and Wear with Tynemouth being the preferred terminus of the majority of riders.

Much of the last part of the route follows old wagonways which once transported coal from pits to ports. It's not quite urban dereliction, but it's certainly not what you'd expect of a ride which won the British Airways Tourism for Tomorrow Global Award in 1995.

To take your mind off the grotty bits there are two open-air art galleries on the C2C. The first starts just outside Whitehaven and follows the old railway line to Rowrah. There are unusual seats, wacky markers, unusual cast-iron signposts and other gob-smacking artworks. The second takes in part of the length of the Consett to Sunderland path. Highlights include huge earthworks you ride through and cows made from rusting JCB cast-offs.

If you prefer your monumental sculptures to be older than the late 1980s you have Castlerigg stone circle just outside Keswick, spitting distance from the C2C. This has 40 standing stones in a dramatic Lakeland setting. The slopes of Blencathra and Skiddaw form a glorious misty backdrop to this photo-friendly example of neolithic art and it's well worth timing your visit to coincide with sunrise or sunset.

Of more importance to history buffs, but not nearly so dramatic, are the 68 standing stones of Long Meg and her daughters, seen just off the route on the way to Allenheads.

Despite the scattering of artworks ancient and modern, one of the abiding memories of the route for most riders is the freewheeling. The C2C has some marvellously long, wind-assisted downhills. But only if you follow the route map recommendations and plot a west to east crossing. This takes advantage of the prevailing winds. The hills going eastwards may be steep but they are generally short with long runoffs. Hit the right weather and you sail along.

Cycling A to B is fine for some but many cycle tourists want their rides to be A to A. To cater for this demand, and to spread the economic benefits of the C2C northwards into the borders, a consortium of local authorities, tourist boards and the recreation wings of Forest Enterprise and Northumbrian Water have devised the Reivers Way, a return C2C. This goes north from the C2C on Tyneside, crosses Hadrian's Wall country and runs parallel to the Roman ruins for much of its length. The central aiming-off point is Kielder Water, Europe's largest man-made lake. This area was the Wild West of the 15th and 16th centuries, a lawless buffer zone between Scotland and England, peopled by cattle rustlers, ruffians, ne'er-do-wells and bandits, known collectively as Reivers. Because of these past troubles the Reivers Way passes many imposing castles and fortified farmhouses.

The Reivers Way opens in May. It's easier than the C2C and will probably be busier, although this is a comparative term because the wild expanses of Northumbria have the pleasing ability of being able to swallow the small number of visitors they get. The 12-mile Camel Trail in Cornwall fills up with cyclists in the spring and summer months. On the C2C and the Reivers Way cycle congestion is never likely to be a problem.

The official C2C map costs pounds 5.99 and is available from the national Sustrans office (0117 929 0888). The Reivers Way map is available for pounds 4.50 and will be available in April from Foot print Map Guides (01786 479866). Further details on the C2C and the Reivers Way can be found on the Sustrans web site: http://wwwsust-rans.org.uk.

C2c fact file

Where to stay

There's no shortage of campsites for most of the route, especially in the Lakes, until you leave the Dales in the east. Wild camping is possible in the central section. Very wild. For those wanting a bit more comfort the route is well-served with B&B, pub and hotel options ranging from farmhouses through to five-star country house hotels. The C2C B&B Guide by Curlew Press (01768 863298) has a full listing.

Supplies

Not a problem anywhere on the route. Some of the small village shops do a roaring trade from C2Cers. The Allenheads post office was once scheduled for closure but was saved by the number of C2Cers posting home their washing.

How long does the C2C take?

The C2C can be an extremely tough ride. The route crosses some of the most remote and wild parts of England.

But if you're fit and you fancy a challenge, you can do the C2C in a day. Get up early enough and you should make it by sunset. But don't use a road bike, the going can be downright treacherous in parts. The Old Coach Road section after you climb from the Lake District to Hartside summit can be very hard going in muddy conditions. Take the main road if conditions look bleak.

Most enthusiastic cyclists do the ride in three days, lingering at the many pubs and cafes that dot the route. Bike virgins do the route in 30- mile stages and end after a saddle-sore five days. Companies that can carry luggage between hotels include Holiday Lakeland (016973 71871) and Tyne Valley Holidays (0191 284 7534).

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