Which of England’s big cities is most likely to get the cyclist huffing and puffing? In other words, which of them is the hilliest? Central London is almost entirely flat. You have to head north to Hampstead and Highgate, or south-east to the Streatham/ Dulwich area before you find terrain that will start to test you. Manchester? Flat. Liverpool? Flat. Birmingham? Flat. Leeds has its moments, Sheffield more even more so, and Bristol is definitely hilly. But after cycling there last week, I think the honour must go to Newcastle. The Tyne runs along the bottom of a valley. The land rises steeply on the south side – the Gateshead side – and even more steeply on the north side leading up from the Quayside to the city centre. The clefts on the sides of the valley create their own little inclines, and improbable though it sounds, there are points in Newcastle that put one in mind of San Francisco.
Ask people why they don’t cycle and they’ll most likely tell you it’s because they think it’s dangerous (which it need not be). Ask people in Newcastle why they don’t cycle and they might well say, “Have you ever tried cycling up Dean Street?” There are still plenty of cyclists in Newcastle, and in many ways it must be one of the best places to ride a bike anywhere in the UK. For the keen cyclist, hills are a positive attraction, but even if you don’t like hills, Newcastle is endowed with a cycle-path network that is among the best in any UK city.
Cycling as I do mainly in and around London, it came as a revelation. My introduction to cycling in Newcastle was provided by someone who could hardly be better qualified for the job – long-time resident and Geordie-born Carlton Reid, who, as the editor of BikeBiz, the cycling industry’s leading trade publication, knows his bottom bracket from his top tube. We hooked up south of the Tyne and rode through Jarrow before reaching the Tyne Tunnel. The tunnel is actually two tunnels – one for cars and one alongside it that’s split into separate passageways, enabling pedestrians and cyclists to go their own ways. An arrangement of great foresight when the tunnel was opened in 1951. Having often made use of the Greenwich foot tunnel under the Thames, where cyclists are obliged to dismount and wheel their bikes from one end to the other, it felt almost illicit to speed through this historic and atmospheric structure.
Out the other side, Carlton and I were into Wallsend and stopping to look at a recently uncovered patch of Hadrian’s Wall. Then on to the cycle path that heads east-west across town – part of the coast-to-coast route linking the North and Irish Seas – and which follows the course of the river. For this superb development we have to thank Sustrans, the organisation that exists to open up and create cycle routes all over the country. There’s no disguising what has enabled the provision of the facility – the collapse of heavy industry on the river. “Where before there were factories, shipyards and tramways, now there are traffic-free routes both sides of the river,” Carlton explained. “They are flat and last for miles. It’s possible to start down town and ride 10 to 15 miles out into the countryside without interacting with cars.”
Countryside was where we were heading. We cycled up river and crossed the Millennium Bridge – like the Tyne Tunnel, designed so that pedestrians and cyclists are kept apart. Then past the Baltic and the Sage arts centres – two other great symbols of the city’s regeneration – and up the hill to Gateshead. Then west out through the suburbs and quickly into quiet lanes and rolling fields where the sky was big and you could see for miles. There, in the distance, was The Angel of the North. Is there anywhere else in Britain that can boast this kind of environment so close to a city centre? “Choose the right lanes and you’ll hardly see a car for hours,” Carlton reckoned.
Back in town, I tackled Dean Street – the vertiginous slope that leads up from the Quayside and continues into the 19th-century splendour of Grey Street, where the reward for stopping and catching your breath is one of the most elegant thoroughfares in Europe. “Many of the central streets are now being closed to cars and, by stealth and perhaps even by design, Newcastle is becoming more and more friendly to cyclists,” Carlton told me. “We’re also blessed with the Town Moor, a huge green lung. There’s a cycle path from the posh suburb of Gosforth through to town. The path has been newly resurfaced, and it’s buzzing with bikes at rush hour.” I love my ride to work across London. I pass most of its major landmarks and I see its traffic more as an exciting challenge than a problem. And at weekends I am happy to put up with the long trawl through outer London in order to reach countryside. But Newcastle by bike was special, and I’ll happily admit it: Carlton, I envy you.