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The joys of cycling into the centre of Britain

The joys of cycling into the centre of Britain

Our travel correspondent is making the most of the UK in August by taking on a challenge a day. Today: across Cumbria and Northumberland. Slowly.

Had you been following my progress in trying to enjoy seven adventure in seven days, you might have seen a pattern start to emerge, most easily summed up as: over-ambition and under-achievement.

On Monday, for example, not only did I fail by some hours to hitchhike across Wales faster than the train from Cardiff; I also construed to arrive at Holyhead one minute after my intended ferry to Dublin had sailed.

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Friday’s adventure was billed as: “Is it possible to cycle from the Irish Sea to the North Sea in a single day … on a folding bike?” My aim was a coast-to-coast journey on my Brompton.

I calculated that 84 miles was just about feasible. You need not be Geraint Thomas to manage 12mph on a bicycle, which neatly works out at seven hours.

Even allowing for some steep climbs for which this city bike is not designed, and refuelling stops for tea and cake, I thought I could make the Newcastle suburb where Hadrian’s Wall reaches a conclusion.

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UK news in pictures

1/50 23 May 2020

People take a walk near Durdle Door as cows graze in Lulworth

Reuters

2/50 22 May 2020

Waves break onto a wall at Brighton beach

Reuters

3/50 21 May 2020

Cafe owner Francini Osorio serves customers in a trial phase during the coronavirus lockdown. Osorio has installed an air purifier and 35 clear shower curtains, which will divide customers and tables, in the Francini Cafe De Colombia, Worcester, ready for the re-opening of his business as lockdown restrictions are eased

PA

4/50 20 May 2020

People at Bournemouth beach in Dorset, as people flock to parks and beaches with lockdown measures eased. The Met Office has predicted the hottest day of the year

PA

5/50 19 May 2020

A dog jumps into the water as families relax at a Lido in London

AP

6/50 18 May 2020

A fan celebrates outside Celtic Park after Celtic were crowned champions of the Scottish Premiership. Hearts were also relegated after a decision was made to conclude the season with immediate effect

PA

7/50 17 May 2020

People on Brighton beach after the introduction of measures to bring the country out of lockdown

PA

8/50 16 May 2020

Police lead away Piers Corbyn, brother of former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, as protesters gather in breach of lockdown rules in Hyde Park in London after the introduction of measures to bring the country out of lockdown.

PA

9/50 15 May 2020

Estonian freelance ballet dancer and choreographer, Eve Mutso performs her daily fitness routine near her home in Glasgow, Scotland

Getty

10/50 14 May 2020

Senior charge nurse Jan Ferguson views artwork "Theatre of Dott's" by Kate Ive, inspired by Professor Norman Dott and his neurosurgery theatres at the Western General from 1960-2019. It is one of a number of artworks which sit on the walls of NHS Lothians' Department of Clinical Neurosciences (DCN) which has been transferred into a purpose-built new home on the Little France campus in Edinburgh

PA

11/50 13 May 2020

Team GB's karate athlete Jordan Thomas trains outside his apartment in Manchester

Reuters

12/50 12 May 2020

Nurses from central London hospitals protest on international nurses day about the chronic underfunding of the NHS and other issues surrounding the health service outside the gates of Downing Street, London

PA

13/50 11 May 2020

Waves crash at Tynemouth pier on the North East coast

PA

14/50 10 May 2020

A woman passes street art and a poster in East London

Reuters

15/50 9 May 2020

Police patrol the beach in Brighton

Getty

16/50 8 May 2020

The British Royal Air Force Red Arrows conduct a fly past over the statue of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in London to commemorate the 75th Anniversary of Victory in Europe (VE Day) in Britain

MOD/Reuters

17/50 7 May 2020

Team GB sailor Eilidh McIntyre during a training session at her home in Portsmouth

Reuters

18/50 6 May 2020

Labour Party leader Keir Starmer listens to Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaking during PMQs

UK Parliament/AFP/Getty

19/50 5 May 2020

The sun appears to explode over the horizon in this montage of images captured by photographer Nick Lucas near his home in Ringwood, Hampshire. Nick took a number of pictures just a few seconds apart on a tripod mounted camera which were then combined to give the eye catching dawn image

Nick Lucas/SWNS

20/50 4 May 2020

Leeds Green Watch firefighters observe a minute's silence outside the fire station in Kirkstall Rd, in memory their colleagues that lost their lives in the line of duty

PA

21/50 3 May 2020

Staff at The Berkeley hotel give food to ambulance workers

Reuters

22/50 2 May 2020

One of a small group of anti-lockdown protesters speaks to a police officer as they gather outside New Scotland Yard in Victoria, London

AFP via Getty

23/50 1 May 2020

Bonnie the Llama grazes in a field in the Scottish Borders alongside a sign supporting the NHS as the UK continues in lockdown

PA

24/50 30 April 2020

Colonel Tom Moore and his daughter Hannah celebrate his 100th birthday, with an RAF flypast provided by a Spitfire and a Hurricane over his home in Marston Moretaine. Colonel Moore, formerly a Captain, received a promotion in honour of his birthday and in recognition of the funds, in excess of £30m, he raised for the NHS by walking laps of his garden

Capture the Light Photography/Getty

25/50 29 April 2020

Britain's Labour leader Keir Starmer speaks during Prime Minister's Questions, as members of Parliament observe social distancing due to the coronavirus, in the House of Commons, London, Wednesday, April 29, 2020

UK Parliament/AP

26/50 28 April 2020

NHS staff at the Mater hospital in Belfast, during a minute's silence to pay tribute to the NHS staff and key workers who have died during the coronavirus outbreak

PA

27/50 27 April 2020

The sun rises behind redundant oil platforms moored in the Firth of Forth near Kirkcaldy, Fife. Global oil prices have crashed after the coronavirus pandemic reduced demand, with analysts warning that the oil majors may be looking at one of their biggest quarter-on-quarter profitability hits in history.

PA

28/50 26 April 2020

Frankie Lynch celebrates on the Mall where the finish of the London Marathon was due to take place today after running 2.6 miles instead of 26 miles to raise money for The Running Charity

Reuters

29/50 25 April 2020

A muslim woman walks past balloons outside the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in London

Reuters

30/50 24 April 2020

An empty Brighton Pier, closed during the Coronavirus pandemic as temperatures reach 20 degrees in the South East

Rex

31/50 23 April 2020

Farmers work with vehicles to prepare a field next to a field of flowering rapeseed near Pontefract, West Yorkshire

AFP/Getty

32/50 22 April 2020

The Northern Lights, the Milky Way and a Lyrid meteor at the Bathing House near Howick, Northumberland, as the Lyrid meteor shower reached its peak

PA

33/50 21 April 2020

Badger the Border Collie surrounded by bluebells at Shrawley Wood in Worcestershire

PA

34/50 20 April 2020

A dog walker on Blyth beach in Northumberland

PA

35/50 19 April 2020

A piece of coronavirus themed street art grafitti in East London

AFP via Getty

36/50 18 April 2020

Members of the City Specialist Cleaning team spray disinfectant around posts in the town centre of Eastleigh, Hampshire

PA

37/50 17 April 2020

A taped-up bench in the hamlet of Diglea, Greater Manchester

AFP/Getty

38/50 16 April 2020

A woman wearing a protective face mask and gloves walks past graffiti in Bow, London

Reuters

39/50 15 April 2020

A burned down mobile phone mast in London. According to reports, at least 20 mobile phone masts across Britain are believed to have been vandalised and government and telecom sources are increasingly concerned about the impact of conspiracy theories linking coronavirus to 5G networks

EPA

40/50 14 April 2020

The new Nightingale Hospital in Washington, Tyne and Wear, being fitted out

PA

41/50 13 April 2020

Walkers enjoy the bluebells in Wanstead Park in London

PA

42/50 12 April 2020

A woman prays at the closed doors of Westminster Cathedral ahead of the Easter morning mass in London

PA

43/50 11 April 2020

A man jogs on an empty beach in Scarborough as the UK continues in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus

PA

44/50 10 April 2020

Military personnel testing people at a coronavirus test centre in the car park of Chessington World of Adventures

Reuters

45/50 9 April 2020

Posters drawn by children displayed in support of the NHS in a building near St Thomas' Hospital in London

Getty

46/50 8 April 2020

A street cleaner in front of Coronavirus messaging on Picadilly Circus in London

Getty

47/50 7 April 2020

A jogger on the Millennium Bridge in London, as the UK continues in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus

PA

48/50 6 April 2020

A Royal Signals soldier practices during training held by the British Army. They are preparing them to support the Welsh Ambulance Service NHS Trust in the battle against coronavirus

Ministry of Defence/Reuters

49/50 5 April 2020

A police officer advises a woman to go home after spotting her enjoying the sun in Primrose Hill, London

AP

50/50 4 March 2020

New Leader of the Labour Party Keir Starmer speaks on the announcement of his victory in the leadership race of the Labour Party

AFP via Getty

1/50 23 May 2020

People take a walk near Durdle Door as cows graze in Lulworth

Reuters

2/50 22 May 2020

Waves break onto a wall at Brighton beach

Reuters

3/50 21 May 2020

Cafe owner Francini Osorio serves customers in a trial phase during the coronavirus lockdown. Osorio has installed an air purifier and 35 clear shower curtains, which will divide customers and tables, in the Francini Cafe De Colombia, Worcester, ready for the re-opening of his business as lockdown restrictions are eased

PA

4/50 20 May 2020

People at Bournemouth beach in Dorset, as people flock to parks and beaches with lockdown measures eased. The Met Office has predicted the hottest day of the year

PA

5/50 19 May 2020

A dog jumps into the water as families relax at a Lido in London

AP

6/50 18 May 2020

A fan celebrates outside Celtic Park after Celtic were crowned champions of the Scottish Premiership. Hearts were also relegated after a decision was made to conclude the season with immediate effect

PA

7/50 17 May 2020

People on Brighton beach after the introduction of measures to bring the country out of lockdown

PA

8/50 16 May 2020

Police lead away Piers Corbyn, brother of former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, as protesters gather in breach of lockdown rules in Hyde Park in London after the introduction of measures to bring the country out of lockdown.

PA

9/50 15 May 2020

Estonian freelance ballet dancer and choreographer, Eve Mutso performs her daily fitness routine near her home in Glasgow, Scotland

Getty

10/50 14 May 2020

Senior charge nurse Jan Ferguson views artwork "Theatre of Dott's" by Kate Ive, inspired by Professor Norman Dott and his neurosurgery theatres at the Western General from 1960-2019. It is one of a number of artworks which sit on the walls of NHS Lothians' Department of Clinical Neurosciences (DCN) which has been transferred into a purpose-built new home on the Little France campus in Edinburgh

PA

11/50 13 May 2020

Team GB's karate athlete Jordan Thomas trains outside his apartment in Manchester

Reuters

12/50 12 May 2020

Nurses from central London hospitals protest on international nurses day about the chronic underfunding of the NHS and other issues surrounding the health service outside the gates of Downing Street, London

PA

13/50 11 May 2020

Waves crash at Tynemouth pier on the North East coast

PA

14/50 10 May 2020

A woman passes street art and a poster in East London

Reuters

15/50 9 May 2020

Police patrol the beach in Brighton

Getty

16/50 8 May 2020

The British Royal Air Force Red Arrows conduct a fly past over the statue of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in London to commemorate the 75th Anniversary of Victory in Europe (VE Day) in Britain

MOD/Reuters

17/50 7 May 2020

Team GB sailor Eilidh McIntyre during a training session at her home in Portsmouth

Reuters

18/50 6 May 2020

Labour Party leader Keir Starmer listens to Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaking during PMQs

UK Parliament/AFP/Getty

19/50 5 May 2020

The sun appears to explode over the horizon in this montage of images captured by photographer Nick Lucas near his home in Ringwood, Hampshire. Nick took a number of pictures just a few seconds apart on a tripod mounted camera which were then combined to give the eye catching dawn image

Nick Lucas/SWNS

20/50 4 May 2020

Leeds Green Watch firefighters observe a minute's silence outside the fire station in Kirkstall Rd, in memory their colleagues that lost their lives in the line of duty

PA

21/50 3 May 2020

Staff at The Berkeley hotel give food to ambulance workers

Reuters

22/50 2 May 2020

One of a small group of anti-lockdown protesters speaks to a police officer as they gather outside New Scotland Yard in Victoria, London

AFP via Getty

23/50 1 May 2020

Bonnie the Llama grazes in a field in the Scottish Borders alongside a sign supporting the NHS as the UK continues in lockdown

PA

24/50 30 April 2020

Colonel Tom Moore and his daughter Hannah celebrate his 100th birthday, with an RAF flypast provided by a Spitfire and a Hurricane over his home in Marston Moretaine. Colonel Moore, formerly a Captain, received a promotion in honour of his birthday and in recognition of the funds, in excess of £30m, he raised for the NHS by walking laps of his garden

Capture the Light Photography/Getty

25/50 29 April 2020

Britain's Labour leader Keir Starmer speaks during Prime Minister's Questions, as members of Parliament observe social distancing due to the coronavirus, in the House of Commons, London, Wednesday, April 29, 2020

UK Parliament/AP

26/50 28 April 2020

NHS staff at the Mater hospital in Belfast, during a minute's silence to pay tribute to the NHS staff and key workers who have died during the coronavirus outbreak

PA

27/50 27 April 2020

The sun rises behind redundant oil platforms moored in the Firth of Forth near Kirkcaldy, Fife. Global oil prices have crashed after the coronavirus pandemic reduced demand, with analysts warning that the oil majors may be looking at one of their biggest quarter-on-quarter profitability hits in history.

PA

28/50 26 April 2020

Frankie Lynch celebrates on the Mall where the finish of the London Marathon was due to take place today after running 2.6 miles instead of 26 miles to raise money for The Running Charity

Reuters

29/50 25 April 2020

A muslim woman walks past balloons outside the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in London

Reuters

30/50 24 April 2020

An empty Brighton Pier, closed during the Coronavirus pandemic as temperatures reach 20 degrees in the South East

Rex

31/50 23 April 2020

Farmers work with vehicles to prepare a field next to a field of flowering rapeseed near Pontefract, West Yorkshire

AFP/Getty

32/50 22 April 2020

The Northern Lights, the Milky Way and a Lyrid meteor at the Bathing House near Howick, Northumberland, as the Lyrid meteor shower reached its peak

PA

33/50 21 April 2020

Badger the Border Collie surrounded by bluebells at Shrawley Wood in Worcestershire

PA

34/50 20 April 2020

A dog walker on Blyth beach in Northumberland

PA

35/50 19 April 2020

A piece of coronavirus themed street art grafitti in East London

AFP via Getty

36/50 18 April 2020

Members of the City Specialist Cleaning team spray disinfectant around posts in the town centre of Eastleigh, Hampshire

PA

37/50 17 April 2020

A taped-up bench in the hamlet of Diglea, Greater Manchester

AFP/Getty

38/50 16 April 2020

A woman wearing a protective face mask and gloves walks past graffiti in Bow, London

Reuters

39/50 15 April 2020

A burned down mobile phone mast in London. According to reports, at least 20 mobile phone masts across Britain are believed to have been vandalised and government and telecom sources are increasingly concerned about the impact of conspiracy theories linking coronavirus to 5G networks

EPA

40/50 14 April 2020

The new Nightingale Hospital in Washington, Tyne and Wear, being fitted out

PA

41/50 13 April 2020

Walkers enjoy the bluebells in Wanstead Park in London

PA

42/50 12 April 2020

A woman prays at the closed doors of Westminster Cathedral ahead of the Easter morning mass in London

PA

43/50 11 April 2020

A man jogs on an empty beach in Scarborough as the UK continues in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus

PA

44/50 10 April 2020

Military personnel testing people at a coronavirus test centre in the car park of Chessington World of Adventures

Reuters

45/50 9 April 2020

Posters drawn by children displayed in support of the NHS in a building near St Thomas' Hospital in London

Getty

46/50 8 April 2020

A street cleaner in front of Coronavirus messaging on Picadilly Circus in London

Getty

47/50 7 April 2020

A jogger on the Millennium Bridge in London, as the UK continues in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus

PA

48/50 6 April 2020

A Royal Signals soldier practices during training held by the British Army. They are preparing them to support the Welsh Ambulance Service NHS Trust in the battle against coronavirus

Ministry of Defence/Reuters

49/50 5 April 2020

A police officer advises a woman to go home after spotting her enjoying the sun in Primrose Hill, London

AP

50/50 4 March 2020

New Leader of the Labour Party Keir Starmer speaks on the announcement of his victory in the leadership race of the Labour Party

AFP via Getty

How I wish I had instead offered: “Cycling to the centre of Britain.” Because that is where, inadvertently, I ended up.

The cycle ride to Wallsend is paved with good intentions. The official start of the Hadrian’s Wall Path National Trail is in the village of Bowness-on-Solway. The village occupies the site of a Roman fort that helped guard the frontier marking the edge of the empire.

A planned archaeological dig may soon reveal that this was actually the location for the biggest fort on the entire wall. For now, though, you can reflect on events since AD122 at the pavilion where the trail begins: a location called The Banks.

You gaze across the tidal flats at Scotland. Online maps often suggest to people on the Cumbrian side of the water that the nearest pub or petrol station is just a mile or two away, when in fact it is an hour’s drive via Carlisle.

In 1869, the longest bridge in Europe was built across the estuary, connecting Bowness with Annan in Scotland. But with 12 years an extreme winter saw it damaged by actual icebergs, and by 1935 it was demolished.

Still, some locals say it is possible to walk north across the Solway Firth at low tide. Sea-to-sea hikers and bikers, though, head east. I met Spike and his dog, Dora, who were setting off on a week’s hike.

I’d like to say that I wished them Fortuna vobis adsit – “Good luck go with you.” But I read the inscription on the pavilion only after they had set off on their six combined legs.

Fortune deserted Edward I, “the Hammer of the Scots,” who died at Burgh-by-Sands, halfway between Bowness and Carlisle while leading a campaign against Robert the Bruce.

A Hollywood-style statue of the late monarch, clasping a sword in one hand and a crown in the other, guards the village playing field. On the long trudge to Carlisle, this is what passes for entertainment.

Hadrian hike: the road between Bowness and Carlisle (Simon Calder)

Dozens of hikers followed the road to the city, their spirits dimmed by the absence of any sign of actual Wall or half-decent scenery. Yet a treat awaited them. The trail cuts between the Castle and the Tullie House Museum.

Unless you are five or younger, you will have seen plenty of castles that look quite like Carlisle’s. But whatever your age, Tullie House, should astonish you. It is a Jacobean mansion that became the city’s Institute of Science, Literature and Art. Today, it has a dazzling pre-Raphaelite collection, plus some classic Arts and Crafts textile design by William Morris.

The Arts and Crafts movement shows up again eight miles further east along the road, in Brampton – a market town whose crowning glory is St Martin’s Church.

I was heartened to read, on the front page of the Cumbrian church newsletter, “Armed Robber turned Vicar,” celebrating the reformed Reverend Matt Martinson.

Equally impressive: a church that is a shrine to late 19th-century British art. The stained-glass windows were created by Edward Burne Jones and fashioned in William Morris’s workshop in London. They are exquisitely of their age, with the light of late August shining through the figures of Hope, Charity and Faith.

Hope of reaching the other side of Britain was dwindling. The distractions along the way had slowed me down, and Brampton was proving a gem. Chains are almost non-existent, and pride of retailing place goes to Cranston’s Food Hall.

You can judge a location by the quality of its tourist office and at Brampton it occupies a strange and wonderful octagonal structure called the Moot Hall.

I asked a passer-by how I could find the place; she gestured in the right direction with a moot point. (I’m here all week.)

Unfounded optimism meant I was way behind schedule, and loving every minute. Cumbria is a county where art and nature are beautifully entwined.

For all the hope I had of reaching Wallsend and the North Sea, I might as well have set the controls for the heart of the sun.

Wheel world: a view from the Wall (Simon Calder)

Furthermore, I was on the edge of Northumberland, and revelling in the high-altitude ridge on which Hadrian’s engineers created their enduring masterpiece. The barrier that signalled where the emperor’s appetite for empire ended, and the wild northlands began, is increasingly intact and engrossing as you head east.

The views become ever more spectacular as the Wall and the accompanying road climb towards the sky – with heavenly views across deep valleys draped in the greens and golds of late summer. It is a scene of tranquillity the Romans might recognise.

By now, though, the gloom was gathering. Time to change course and insist I had been heading for the heart of Britain all along.

Open top: a 1970s Marlin sports car in Northumberland (Simon Calder)

In the 17th-century Manor Inn in the middle of Haltwhistle, they are playing “We built this city on rock’n’roll”.

They actually built this village on the edge of the Roman empire. And as enterprises from the Heart of Britain Launderette to the Heart of Britain Army Surplus Store will testify, there is nothing marginal about Haltwhistle.

This amiable community claims to be the geographical centre of the UK, excluding Northern Ireland. You may wish to challenge their working, but they insist that when you calculate the intersection of Shetland to Scilly and Durness to Dover, it passes through the heart of Haltwhistle.

Hadrian’s Wall wasn’t built in a day, and attempting to parallel it in a day is a fool’s errand. But sometimes failure can bring a kind of success: travel, like life, is a succession of moments, and yesterday’s miracles are now etched on my memory.

Tomorrow: in his final adventure, Simon Calder walks across the sands of Morecambe Bay. Possibly.

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