Northumberland Unicycle Holiday
Day 1 – Arrival and planning
After purchasing a copy of Northumberland MBG from eBay, I looked at a few of the trails in there. The first one that stood out to me happened to be the longest one in there; 58km. Well, it it’s good enough for mountain bikers, it’s good enough for a unicyclist! The fact that it was showing a fairly even split between tarmac and forest road with a few bits of more hardcore offroad thrown in made me think that this little jaunt would be ideal for the Schlumpf 29er. I wasn’t sure exactly where the route was starting or going, but I could sort that out once I got to the campsite.
A few minutes before I set off from home, I had the bright idea to check the T-mobile website for 2G and 3G coverage of the likely campsites I was going to use. Both my first and second choices had no coverage at all. I wasn’t sure if my third choice had electrical hookups for tents. Hmmmm… power, or internet? Could be a tricky decision. I drove to the third choice (now the first choice) campsite, checked I really could get the internet on the phone, and then asked if electrical hookups were available for tents. It was. Woo Hoo! Now to set up the tent, power up the lappy, and see where this route was.
Would you believe my luck, the route went strait past my campsite, and I was only ½ a mile from the ‘start’ point. So, all I had to do now was decipher the obscure markings and legends in the book and plot it out on to Memory-Map. One or two of the tracks were a bit ambiguous, but if I opted for the more road like one, I couldn’t go wrong… could I? After downloading the tracks and maps to the handheld GPS I was all set for tomorrow
Day 2 – “Kielder Loop”
The plan was for an early morning start. And it kind of worked. I had picked up some Magura clamps on the trip up so I could attach the spare set of brakes to the Schlumpf. I set these up early, and tested them out. A little tiny bit rubbing, but nothing I couldn’t put up with. So, by 9.30 I was ready to set off. How long would this take? Well, I’ve been known to average over 12mph, so maybe as little as 3 hours for 36 miles. On the other hand, it included hills and some off road. Add in a few breaks, and maybe 8 or 9 hours. So, off I go.
The brake rubbing wasn’t so bad in low gear, but the first 5 times I tried to change up to high gear, it kicked me strait off. So, within ½ a mile I adjusted the brakes so they didn’t rub. Great, off in high gear on a rough forest track. The first down hill I got to, I realised that the brakes weren’t close enough to do any good at all. Oh well, it looks like I’ll just be carrying the extra weight for no use. Never mind. The down hill bits weren’t so bad anyway and I could control the descent easily enough. The up hills were bad enough that I took to walking bits of them though. The first 12 miles was a forest toll road ‘suitable for 4x4s only’ and during its entire length I only saw 5 cars. Despite riding for over 95% of it, 60% of the cars saw a unicyclist walking! Not good stats really. Just before the end of the toll road I spotted what looked like a grave stone with “Spooky Well” on it. Worth a look and a photograph. Yup, it was a well with a few rusty old coins in. Off I go again. The end of the road is right by Kielder Castle, at the top of Kielder Lake, near Kielder. I was going to stop for some lunch here, but as its only 11.30, it seems a bit early. Besides, I didn’t see anywhere worth stopping at. As I approach a T junction, I get the only heckle of the day – and its an original one; “I just saw a pair of handlebars, they went that [left] way”. I retort “More fool them, this [right] is they way they should be going”
Its taken 2 hours to do just over 12 miles. No way I’ll be finished within 3 hours! But I’m back on tarmac, so time to crank out a few more miles. I check the GPS, and it has decided to have a ‘moment’. After rebooting, I realise the previous 13 miles log has gone [should I go back and re-ride it? NO!] but at least it still knows where I’m going. I head up north past Deadwater (very apt name. I have seen more life in a glass of water), and before I know it, I’m at the Scottish border. Time for a few photos. Then off again. I rode past the turning I should have taken, but only by a few meters as I checked the GPS, turned around, and headed up a narrow farm track. This track went up. And more up. Some occasional riding happened, but it’s fair to say there was more walking than riding. Every time the track changed direction, or had a junction, I checked the GPS, and was still on course.
After 2 miles of up, I stopped for a banana at a junction. One way was blocked by a tree, the other was downhill. I double checked the GPS, and headed off downhill. The bend over the river wasn’t expected… Oh, ok, I read the GPS wrong! Ooops, back up the hill, and climb over the tree. Then climb over the second tree. This was still a steady up hill climb, but now it was in thick grass. It might be ok on a bike, but wasn’t rideable at all on a unicycle. So, I push on up. A few muddy bog puddles mean I have to navigate around them, or jump over them. And its starting to rain (again). The ground starts to get quite soft, and within ½ mile, its quite boggy everywhere. I check the GPS; I’m on the right track, and with heavy woodland left and right, I can’t be anywhere else. The rain is getting harder. Its not much fun any more. More up hill, ankle deep in black slime, reeds up to waist height, and I’m cold and wet.
I get to a clearing and a 5 way junction. To be honest, every way looks as bad as the rest, but the GPS tells me which way to go. No option, but more boggy trampings. I have already resigned myself to throwing away the socks, and its looking as if the trainers might be destined for the bin too.
A mile after the boggyness started, I get to a raised forest trail that bisects my path. I check the GPS – I am supposed to go strait on (more boggyness). I don’t really know where the trail goes if I go left or right. Do I stay on course, or deviate? Well, I certainly have had enough of tramping through slime, so head left on the dry, solid, lovely gravel. Then a right. Then I try to see where the map says there are tracks off to the left that take me back on to the route; but they aren’t tracks as far as I can see.
I start to worry. Apart from a couple of cars after I left Kielder, the hecklers were the last people I have seen. There’s been no one on this route at all. Its forestry land with signs about forestry vehicles and such like, but I’ve not seen any foresters, or vehicles, or walkers, or mountain bikers. I’ve still got a bit of food left, but I haven’t had a nice lunch I was planning on. The weather is looking very dodgy. What if it gets worse? Who knows where I am? Who knows where I was planning on going? Is there a phone signal here? How long before my body is found?
The clinkered track runs out, and I’m forced to take a muddy track that’s not even marked on the OS maps on the GPS. It’s partially rideable though, and within a mile I am back on the proposed route, and it’s a proper forest road. A few more ups and downs (more downs luckily), and I’m heading out of the forest. Excellent!
Eventually I get to a road where I head right. It feels good because I know this road leads to the road where my camp site is. So, only tarmac left. It is, however, very windy, and up hill, and rainy. But I set off with optimism. This doesn’t last long though, as without the forest to protect me from the wind and rain I am suffering quite badly. Once I get to the junction with the A68 though, I know I can’t get lost any more. And, before I know it, I see signs saying I am crossing the border from Scotland back in to England again. There are tourist lay-bys on both sides of the road, and the northbound one has a burger van. That’s got to be worth investigating!
Any mere mortal may have described the burger as tepid, tasteless, small or pathetic. But, to me, it was manna from heaven! Maybe not the best small burger served in a large panini I have ever had, but the best food I had had all day. The wind was severe, and the rain stinging, but there was time for a few tourist photos – even if it did look like I was crossing the border back in to Scotland again.
My hunger diminished, I set off. Only about 5 miles to go – and they were all down hill! I was keen to get back as quickly as I could. On a less windy day I would have been wishing my brakes were working properly on these downhills, but having ‘air-brakes’ kept my decent under control. A mile or so later, whilst pulling on the handlebars for better control on a steep bit, I heard a click and felt my hands move. Ooops, that’s the T7 handlebars broken then. I have heard about a few other people breaking them, but I assumed that either I had a good one, or I was more gentle than most. Nope, pushing again revealed that there is certainly some movement. I don’t want to push or pull again, as that might be the end of them, and that could mean a very awkward ride or even walk back, particularly now that the brakes are attached to them! So, I gently push on, and get back to the campsite in one piece just over 6.5 hours after I started.
What a day. 36.5 miles. It had its highs and its lows, in whatever sense you see it. But it is a good achievement. I’m going to sleep well tonight.