Coast and Castles South – Day 1

The Coast and Castles South cycle route runs from Edinburgh to Newcastle, via Melrose and Berwick – a total distance of just over 200 miles. It forms a small part of NCN1 – Dover to The Orkneys via London and the east coast (now there’s an idea for a future trip!). My company has a factory in Newcastle and every year an intrepid bunch organise a sponsored bike ride. This year I was lucky enough to get an invite to tag along. The normal suggestion is to ride south-north, to take advantage of the usual prevailing wind and because Edinburgh provides a wonderful backdrop for any finish line. Our plan however, was to start in Edinburgh and cycle ‘home’ to Newcastle over three days. We laughed at the thought of prevailing south-westerly winds, after all the summer has been glorious so far (not)….

Day 1: It rained…and mudguards failed their Scottish field trials….

The night before we started, Newcastle was hit by unprecedented flash flooding with an inch of rain falling in less than an hour. The omens were not good… As we drove into Edinburgh bright and early on the Friday morning, it was still raining. The minibus and van deposited us and our bikes outside Waverley station and then we incurred the half-hour of ‘faff-dom’ that seems obligatory before any group of cyclists can begin any ride – toilet, drinks, food, waterproofs, photos, helmet, more food, more photos…repeat until group starts to become slightly fractious and as a result, sets off in the wrong direction…oops.

The Scott Monument in Princes Street – I have an almost identical photo from my 2010 JoGLE, this time the bike is somewhat more lightly loaded

To be fair, our slight detour was enforced by the tram roadworks taking place on Princes Street. Wet tram lines now need to be re-added to the list of urban hazards – slightly scary to note that some cycle route signs seem to suggest that cyclists should cross the tracks at quite an acute angle, thereby risking bike wheels falling into the track. We quickly re-orientated ourselves and headed south out of the big city. The NCN1 signs were relatively plentiful, but like many NCN routes, didn’t always take the most obvious direction, preferring to route away from supposedly busy roads and junctions. Consequently, we weaved our way along narrow back roads, through parks and along a cycle path on an old railway line (Dr Beeching unwittingly created quite a legacy for UK cycling). A highlight of this section was the 517 metre long Innocent Tunnel (I can’t be alone in loving cycling through old railway tunnels can I?) which is downhill, allowing you to freewheel the entire length. However it proved hard to establish any rhythm through the suburbs as broken glass, street furniture and pedestrians oblivious to anything beyond their own i-Pod world all created ever-changing mobile chicanes. I longed for the open road….

Virtually the last cycling obstacle that Edinburgh threw at us – a bridge over a railway – how good are your uphill bunny hops? In the background, Woolworths had seen better days.

Finally, the route headed for the open road towards Dalkeith and then beyond to Carrington and the climb up through the Moorfoot Hills.

The open road….in some places resembling small lakes.

The route through the Moorfoot Hills offers ‘some of the most stunning views in Southern Scotland’. Apparently. It is what the guidebook promises, but I didn’t get to find out. Given that it was raining (have I mentioned that it was raining?) I mostly observed the inside of a cloud as I slowly, desparately, winched my way up the long 20 minute climb in granny gear. The gradient itself wasn’t that severe, but what really hurt was the very strong wind directly in the face. With legs burning I crested the first top, relieved to see the road start going downhill. It was payback time for the uphill slog – time for a gloriously long downhill stretch to Innerleithen, the open countryside allowing views way ahead, allowing sweeping bends to be taken at 30mph+, running over onto the right-hand side of the road, knowing that there was no traffic coming in the other direction……fantasy cycling as it turned out. The steep valley sides seemed to trap and funnel the wind, creating nature’s very own wind tunnel. Suddenly fully-laden cyclists coming in the other direction appeared to be gliding uphill, whilst we had to slog downhill in a low gear. It became seriously hard work all the way down the valley.

Innerleithen provided welcome respite from the weather and sustenance in the form of pie and cake (both isotonic, obviously) from the bakery. Beyond Innerleithen, the nature of the ride changed, becoming friendlier and more benign, as the route follows the Tweed valley downstream towards Melrose. The more rolling landscape provided good cycling on country lanes, and even the wind and the rain started to relent.

Bridge over the River Tweed. A fantastic structure for a bridleway, with the river underneath close to flooding.

And then the most welcome part of the day…..our B+B at St Boswells and the chance to dry out and get clean. The best way to dry sodden cycling shoes? On a rack above the huge Aga in the landlady’s kitchen – brilliant! I dread to think what the collective aroma of 15 pairs of slowly drying shoes was like….we didn’t hang around to find out…..we disappeared to the local pub to refuel and invent increasingly wild tales of beating the Scottish monsoon conditions.