Cycling has exploded!’ laughs Ted Liddle, who lives near Hexham. He has a point. In recent years, getting on your bike has become the most fashionable way to get from A to B, new cycling events are de rigueur, and cycling gear has been given a stylish makeover (though it still looks a little off when worn by MAMILs – middle-aged men in lycra).
Ted has taken advantage of this two-wheeled zeitgeist by creating the Sandstone Way, a 120-mile cycle route from Berwick to Hexham, which is due to be officially opened this spring. It’s not the first route he’s created – Ted is actually one of the country’s top cycle route planners, a role he adopted after his son, Angus, was a passenger in a car crash in 1990. The crash left Ted’s son with brain damage, so to make sure Angus enjoyed some exercise Ted started taking him on bike rides.
‘We started to use the old, deserted rail paths, which were traffic-free, and going for short, gentle journeys,’ explains Ted. Due to his son’s injuries they had to ride on flat, easy routes, which is why Ted developed an interest in cycle paths and route-planning. ‘There was very little information about them, so as I gradually built up Angus’s confidence and stamina, I also started to research where the most suitable places were for us to ride.’
As his knowledge of cycle routes increased, Sustrans, a UK charity which promotes travelling by foot, bike or public transport, got in touch with Ted. They quickly recognised his expertise and in 1994 he was asked to start surveying routes, before being officially subcontracted in 1995. ‘I moved into working independently in 2000 and carried on developing routes,’ he explains.
He has now created over 2,000 miles of cycle paths, including the Coast and Castles route from Tynemouth to Scotland, and the Pennine Cycleway from Derby to Berwick. Ted’s latest project is a cycle route in the Alps from Geneva to Salzburg. ‘Each year I’m developing it further,’ he says, ‘And there are a hearty bunch of guys who turn up to go with me. They never ask where we’re going, they just turn up ready to roll and an adventure unfolds.’
The Sandstone Way began with a proposition to create a cycle route near the sandstone ridge in Northumberland by Victoria Brown, a fellow member of the Northumberland Joint Local Access Forum. ‘It quickly occurred to me that it needed to be extended to the north and south so it could link with two sizeable locations: Berwick-upon-Tweed and Hexham.
‘I researched the potential. I always do it as a desktop exercise first, using maps. I usually have two or three options and then I go out on my bike and ride each of them. Then I got my friends in Tyne Valley MTB [Mountain Bike] Club to come along with me to get their opinions on what I had found.’
Because it followed public rights of way along the Northumberland Coast and in the Northumberland National Park, Ted had to contact their key officers to get permission for the route. He explains, ‘The first question they ask is, “Where does it go?” So, I tell them and they come back and say, “Well, we think it should perhaps avoid that place and we’re a bit concerned with that landowner issue there.” I take all that information and reshape the route. The finished route doesn’t happen immediately, it takes time to evolve.’
Ted has ridden the final 120-mile route from top to bottom five times (he’s lost count of how many times he’s ridden individual sections). ‘I think it will take most people three days to do,’ says Ted. ‘There’s already a challenge out there for people to do it in one day, but those are few and far between.’ At the moment the record is held by endurance mountain biker Richard Rothwell, who completed it in under 11 hours as part of his training for the Fort William Mountain Bike World Cup.
Most cyclists will no doubt be setting a more leisurely pace and hopefully getting a chance to enjoy the views. So what is Ted’s favourite spot on the route. ‘I love the coast section,’ he says. ‘It’s very easy to ride, and as you come out of Berwick, along the cliff tops just south of Spittal with beautiful red sandstone rock beneath you, you look ahead and you can see Holy Island. Then a little bit further down you get your first glimpse of Bamburgh Castle. That’s spectacular.’
Riders then pass over the sandstone hills of north Northumberland. ‘I love the view when you get to the top of the sandstone ridge and you look one way and there’s the fantastic Northumberland coast, and you look the other way and see the wonderful, rolling horizon of the Cheviots, and you know that’s where you’re going,’ says Ted. ‘It’s just full of iconic scenery and fantastic places with historical links. Wherever I am on the route, I love that part best!’
Ted has designed the ride to pass through what he describes as five ‘gateways’ – Berwick, Wooler, Rothbury, Bellingham and Hexham – where people will find it convenient to stop for food or to sleep. While speaking to Living North he adds an extra tip: to pause at Chillingham Castle. ‘It’s a super place to visit,’ he says, ‘And you can get a lovely piece of lemon cake there!’ No doubt there’ll be a lycra-clad queue this summer.
To find out more about the Sandstone Way, and to plot your route, visit www.sandstoneway.co.uk