Festive 500: Epilogue

UPDATE: I won 2nd place for Best Story! To say I'm absolutely blown away and so proud would be an understatement!

Although I've done my target I decided to have a quick 30km blast to loosen my legs up and also to enjoy the last day I'm going to get to cycle in Northumberland for a while.

After uploading my latest ride data, I worked out the stats.

  • Rode: 604km
  • Climbed: 6,366m
  • Time: 27h:14m
  • Average Speed: 22kph
  • Energy expended (estimate): 10,616kJ
  • Average per day: 75km
  • Overall rank: 585 / 12818
  • Other cyclists seen en-route: 2
  • Mentions on BBC 6Music: 2 ;)

The Festive 500 was an amazing experience but also one of the toughest experiences of my life. The rides themselves varied from around 30km to 143km, although riding every day and in winter conditions really takes its toll. There have been some amazing moments and some moments that I've been reduced to tears, slogging through wind and rain. I've worked hard for every km, doing the entire challenge on my own, and my poor bicycle needs a complete strip, clean and re-build. [Update: My 'Flood' photo also made the Rapha blog.] [Update 2: Very proud to be told I've been mentioned in the Rapha Best of Festive 500 on their blog. Thanks folks! :) ]

But I can say I've done it.

I've done it!

Distance: 32.6km
Overall: 604km
Strava Ride Data



    Festive 500 Stage 7: The Reservoir and The Romans...and Vikings!

    The last main day of my challenge was today with 72km remaining, so I decided to smash it with a 143km ride. Never one to do things by half, me. The main reason for this was that I planned to ride around Kielder Reservoir and the only route that I could find was 143km. Another route is possible covering a similar sort of distance, 110km, takes you into Scotland and near Hawick (pronounced 'hoik') and then back across Carter Bar, although this slightly re-traced my route up to Jedburgh the other day so I decided to loop around through Scotland, into Cumbria and then back into Northumberland. Today's route not only took me past Kielder Water but also the return leg runs alongside Hadrian's Wall and a few Roman Army camps along the way. In fact it was while slogging along a dark, windy and cold road that I smiled wondering what these Roman citizens would have thought about leaving a warm country and ending up in Northumberland. Although many of the Roman army and citizens were natives anyway and became citizens of Rome.

    I parked the car in Wark (pronounced 'waahk'; rhyming more with 'spark' than 'cork'), a small village in Northumberland so-named due to the Viking (I pronounce the word 'vih-king' rather than 'vye-king') word for earthworks referring to a mound at the south of the village where a meeting hall once stood. The meeting hall was used as a main meeting place for the Clan Chieftans and even though it is a small place, Wark was once the capital town of Tynedale and has a Town Hall rather than a Village Hall. It's always very special for me to be in a place with this kind of heritage because being Northumbrian, this is my heritage.

    Riding up to Kielder Water from Wark there are a good few hills and the wind was so intense even going downhill I had to work hard in a very low gear. It did make me smile that the gear I used to climb Mont Ventoux a couple of months ago was the same I used to go down a hill in Northumberland! But I pretty much had the roads to myself and in fact I probably saw only a handful people all day. 

    Riding up past Kielder Water the road is wide and lined with huge trees towering over you. It's a little like riding a bicycle through downtown Manhattan! Heading out past Bakethin reservoir (at the north of Kielder Water) you're taken along a little winding road up into the borders of Scotland again and then into Scotland. There are a few sheep around in this part of the world and seem to be pretty confused by a bicycle coming past so just as I was heading to the Scottish border a couple of sheep in the road started sprinting off through the border! So I'd accidentally chased two sheep into a different country! When I passed them I told them to go back though.

    This part of the route was directly into a headwind. I'd decided I would loop around anti-clockwise so I'd benefit from the tailwind on the return leg (and the outward leg is a little more sheltered anyway) but the headwind all the way down and past the Scottish town of Newcastleton was phenomenal. Spending hours cranking into a headwind really isn't a huge amount of fun and sometimes a bit dispiriting when you reach a downhill section only to still have to pick a low gear and pedal hard to get down it. But soon I turned off back to Gilsland and Greenhead and entered Cumbria. At this stage I had completed the Festive 500 distance so a small 'fist clench' was my celebration. My 'reward' for completing the distance was an approximately 1km, 1:10 hillclimb out of a valley. Seemed appropriate.

    The remainder of the ride was gritting my teeth and grinding up and down the hills back across Northumberland and towards Wark. It was at this stage, around 110km, that I had a few tears but soon felt a lot better and got on with the task of riding my bicycle. I had to push the recurring thought out of my head that I kept having: "What if I get a puncture now?" went around my head. Although I had enough spares to fix a puncture, it would have been pretty crushing to have to stop by the side of the road in the dark and rain to fix a blow-out. But thankfully this didn't happen and I made good progress back to the car. In fact the hill outside Greenhead was a proper killer but soon I was back in Northumberland National Park and counting off the miles. I didn't  check my computer for my milage for about 30km as it became just all about turning the pedals and making progress. It didn't really help too much that I couldn't really see too well either as it was getting a bit dark, but I could see enough to ride safely and was pretty happy. 

    Riding back through the National Park I passed Housesteads Roman Fort which was an auxiliary fort on Hadrian's Wall. In fact this was the closest I'd been to Hadrian's Wall during my rides this week, spending the rest of my time in the more northern 'wild lands'. Although there was a more northerly Roman Wall; the Antonine Wall through what is now the centre of Scotland although this wall was abandoned after only 20 years when they moved down to the more southerly Hadrian's Wall.

    Seeing the sign; 'Wark 5' was fantastic and rolling down the last few hills to the finish was a real relief. Arriving back at the car I was absolutely soaking wet but thanks to my decent cycling clothes I wasn't too cold; although I took the front wheel off and threw my bike in the back of the car and leapt inside to get out of the wind, turning on the heater to get some warmth through me. In fact I drove a few miles back, still wearing my bike gear, before I was warm enough to stop and change into some dry clothes.

    Distance: 143km
    Remaining: 0km
    Strava Ride Data
    Glad I had: Rapha Neoprene Overshoes

    Next: Festive 500: Epilogue

    Festive 500 Stage 6: Coals to Newcastle

    The phrase 'taking coals to Newcastle' (or pointlessly taking something to a place where they already have plenty) is fair enough unless you're in one of the places that actually did take coals to Newcastle. 

    Today I thought I'd take a ride down to one of the coal-producing parts of the north east, a place that fuelled the industry and manufacturing in the area. Of course, today, the area is a much different place and the colliery that I rode past is now a tourist attraction but it's nice that the mine still looks something like it used to. 

    The ride down there was a real slog, into a headwind with icy rain in my face all the way. It was one of the few moments during this challenge that I've wondered what I was doing and wondering why Dr No on the telly and a sofa wasn't a better option, but given I'd done all the hard work getting down there the ride back—with the wind behind me—was quite fun! So, I swore a bit, gritted my teeth and put my head down and eventually got to Woodhorn. Although the road I spent most of my time on is much more busier that I have been used to in the last few days. 

    The museum at Woodhorn Colliery is in Ashington in the south of Northumberland, near the coast. The museum has an amazing array of archives and buildings including 'headframes', a winding house, a steam winding engine, stables, blacksmiths and joiners shops. But Woodhorn is not just a museum but a art space for the Ashington Group—a group of artists, mostly miners, with no formal art training.

    There is still some industry on the coast with the Alcan aluminium manufacturer but the power generated in the area now comes from Lynemouth Wind Farm who's huge wind turbines tower over the original mine workings of Woodhorn.

    Distance: 74.2km
    Remaining: 71.8km
    Strava Ride Data

    Next: Festive 500 Stage 7: The Reservoir and The Romans...and Vikings!

    Festive 500 Stage 5: The Borders

    Yesterday was quite a short ride, mostly because I'd been planning a longer ride today. Forgoing some of the booze the night before, I got an early night but found that I couldn't sleep anyway. I'd been planning a ride over Carter Bar and into Scotland but I was a little worried about being in such a remote location on my bicycle by myself. So I managed to fall asleep about 1am and then wake up again at about 5am. But as my alarm went off at 7am I found myself being able to jump out of bed and eat a big breakfast before getting ready and press-ganging my brother into giving me a lift over to near Otterburn in the Northumbrian Borders.

    Arriving at Catclough Reservoir it was pouring with rain, and grim. Dreich, it's called in this part of the world. So I put the wheels on my bike, put on my rain gear and set off up to Carter Bar with my wheels sucking at the standing water on the road. Turning round to see my brother making a joke about me probably needing to cycle a bit faster I wondered for a second why I was doing this, but it only took me a few minutes to really get into the ride. Sometimes I'm not really into it but today I immediately loved the crank up the slope to the border of Scotland and even the snow on the hills didn't even make me feel cold, although I didn't stop long on the top to take a photograph!

    Speeding down the other side into Jedburgh I only shared the road with a few cars, all of whom seemed to pass nice and slowly, although I suspect it was because I was descending at a decent pace. I really enjoyed the hairpins on the descent, weighting the bike nice and low and leaning into the corners. Because I was descending and not breathing too heavily I pulled my neck roll over my face to reduce the impact of the stinging sleet.

    I had planned to photograph the old tree near Jedburgh but my desire to find a loo must have meant I forgot to look properly and I was soon at the salubrious location of the tourist office using their facilities. But soon I was off on my way up towards Bonjedward and from there to Yetholm and around, back into England, and past Wooler. 

    The entire country around The Borders has a certain feeling to it, much like many border areas and between the 13th and the 17th centuries some people you may meet in this area would be Border Reivers. The Border Reivers were raiders along the border and included both Scottish and English families who raided the entire border country without regard to their victims' nationality, wearing their shepherd's plaid, the oldest tartan in existence. The name probably comes from the Old Endlish 'reive' or 'to rob'. In fact my surname, Anderson, is a 'Middle March' Reiver name. It's said that due to Scotland and England being at war during this period, people relied on their own strength and cunning and in more modern times the Border Reivers have been glamourised in many folk tales and songs including in the Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (a song book I learned from while learning the Northumbrian Pipes). 

    The Border Reivers really deserve much more attention but I can only ask you to read the links to get a full idea of these people in this wonderful part of the world. Although they were relative late-comers to the area. I also passed through Yeavering on my return through Northumberland which is a small hamlet but the site of a huge Anglo-Saxon settlement that archaeologists say was one of the seats of royal power held by the kings of http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernicia">Bernicia in the 7th century but also evidence has been found of settlements from the Mesolithic, Neolithic and Bronze Age periods. 

    Although it was really tough, it was one of my favourite rides I can remember. I covered 112km in 4 hours and 37 minutes with an average speed of over 24kph. It was very moving and special to be in the middle of such a beautiful part of the world; a place that wherever I go is always in my heart. 

    Distance: 112km
    Remaining: 146km
    Strava Ride Data
    Glad I had: Rapha Rain Jacket

    Next: Festive 500 Stage 6: Coals to Newcastle

    Festive 500 Stage 4: Rest Day

    Today was a rest day so I took it easy all morning (so easy I stayed in bed until 11:30) and then popped out for a quick ride just to turn my legs over. Thinking I could get some bits from a local bike shop I headed in that direction but as it turned out the shop was closed anyway.

    But it gave me a nice chance to go some single-lane quiet roads around Alnmouth.

    Was also lovely to see the sea although not sure my bike is keen on the sand and salt.

    Back home in the light and warming up on the sofa is nice too. 

    Distance: 30.6km
    Remaining: 258km
    Strava ride Data

    Next: Festive 500 Stage 5: The Borders

    Festive 500 Stage 3: Cragside and Dark Northumberland

    Today's ride, while a long ride, hasn't been the same kind of tour of Northumberland as the previous two. Rather than following a coastal route, today's ride headed directly into 'Dark Northumberland' which is a name some use to describe the wild and empty parts of Northumberland. My theory being that the heather and bracken than cover most of the moors and hills here give the area a characteristic dark and moody colouring and it's clear that you've entered a wild place. 

    But before I left I got a mention about my Festive 500 on Nemone's show on 6Music, which was really nice!

    I headed up through Alnwick out west towards Rothbury and even before leaving the town it's clear you're not going to have an easy time of it; kicking up into a series of steep and unrelenting climbs. Well, they do relent eventually but the beauty (or curse maybe) of this route is that these climbs are never far apart and it seems that you're riding uphill no matter which direction you go.

    The weather as I left the coast was quite pleasant, sunny skies and quite warm, which lead me to the conclusion I only needed a winter jersey and a gilet, although I did pick the bright pink gilet with lots of reflective stripes on; a decision I was to be very glad of when riding the last part back again in the dark. But it's clear here that you're entering a very different place to the coastal roads for many reasons not least of which were the grey, wispy rain clouds shrouding the higher parts of the road. In fact it wasn't too long before I was riding in the clouds and the humidity and chill increased drastically; so much so my breath became huge clouds of white vapour as I rode upwards and upwards.

    My plan was that I'd ride to Cragside, a large country house near the town of Rothbury, then go around an approximately 40km loop before arriving back in Rothbury and pick up the road back to the coast, although one end of the loop had been closed by police due to an accident (and had remained closed when I passed a couple of hours later) and the other end, as it turned out, was closed due to flooding; so instead I decided to head to Otterburn Ranges and then turn around and come back. In fact a guy I asked directions from later told me "You don't want to go that way, just head back the way you came". While it sounded like something from a horror film, I took his advice later on and re-traced my ride back the way I'd come.

    The road to Cragside was very much a 'climb-descend-climb-descend' type of road and has lots of "Hidden Dip" signs. Of course these are more for when you're driving a car but for me it just meant "Get some speed up, you're about to have to climb back up again". Maybe they'll put those signs out some day. Though after about 30km I arrived at Cragside, a country house first built in 1863 and then extended to form a 'steampunk-style' Tudor-esque mansion, half way up a hill in a pine forest. Cragside generated its own electricity from hydro-electric power and was the first house in the world to be lit by this power source. Clearly water is in no short supply in this part of the world (as was proved today) and by adding the generators to the flow from a reservoir the house had all the power it needed! You might remember me talking about Bamburgh Castle in my day 1 entry and the person that bought Bamburgh Castle and started the restorations was the same person responsible for Cragside too; Lord Armstrong. As the house was closed I stayed for a short while but it was lovely to be back again. Maybe it's the steampunk in me but Cragside is an amazing place and really beautiful and the location for many school trips when I was little.

    Only a couple of miles along the road I stopped off at the town of Rothbury to eat some food and warm up a little, although to my dismay the cafe I used to stop at here when out on my bike was closed on Boxing Day. Rothbury sits on the River Coquet, the same river that eventually makes its way through Warkworth and out to sea via Amble Harbour; the location of yesterday's ride. Rothbury though has been around for a long while and it's said that the name comes from a settlement around the year 1100 called 'Routha's Town'. Certainly there is pre-Norman history here and the town has seen it's fair share of trouble including during the time of the Border Reivers, although more about them later in the week when we get to the borders!

    Heading off from Rothbury I continued as far as Otterburn Ranges which is the site of a the largest army firing ranged in the UK but also has been the site of many a battle through the years including a huge battle between English and Scots in 1388 from which we get the folk song The Ballad of Chevy Chase. 

    Riding out towards Otterburn the road pretty much continually rises and falls and the views (when you're not grinding up a hill) are just stunning. I had my favourite folk songs running through my head and it was a real joy to see the Northumbrian hills again. The most magical moment though was riding at about 40kph with the land falling away to the right towards hills covered in dark brown bracken and shrouded in a crown of fog while a buzzard flew along side me. The buzzard was only about 20 feet from me as we moved together through the hills. Finally it banked away and flew off over the valley.

    Time for me to fly home too so I turned around and started the long journey back home...riding uphill again!


    Distance: 103.3km
    Remaining: 289km
    Strava Ride Data
    Glad I had with me: Rapha Hi-vis Gilet

    Next: Festive 500 Stage 4: Rest Day

    Festive 500 Stage 2: The Harbour

    Today I didn't really have much time—what with family Christmas plans and all—so I just had a short but very welcome ride down to the fishing port of Amble; now home to a marina (mostly filled with pleasure boats rather than fishing boats nowadays) and home to the best chip-shop in the world (in my humble opinion), near the harbour itself. The route I followed took me through the old town of Warkworth and home to yet another castle, this one an exclusively Norman castle although there has been a church on this site for around 1200 years. The castle was also the site of a brutal massacre of some 300 local people by the Earl of Fife's men while seeking refuge there from Scottish raiders. Warkworth is a beautiful village with a stunning stone bridge and a very pretty main street with a pretty killer hill too! 


    Riding through Amble the town was pretty much deserted, although it was relatively early on Christmas morning and pouring with rain. The few cars that passed me gave me loads of space, I think mainly through fear as what kind of lunatic would be riding a bicycle around country roads on Christmas morning in the rain?!? But the space was welcome and it's pleasant coming back up north and remembering that the crazy people in cars don't all want to kill you.

    Amble, the 'friendliest port' may have seen hard times with less trade in the port nowadays but it has a real charm to it. Maybe it's because I've spent so much time there as a child but I have a soft spot for the place. And the view of Coquet Island—one of the Farne Islands—from the pier is pretty special. It's said that Amble either got its name from the Gaelic 'am béal' meaning 'river mouth' or the Old English 'Amma's bile' meaning 'Amma's headland' although I suppose nobody really knows.


    After a brief stop at the pier my ride took me past the huge holiday park on the outskirts of Amble and through the Hauxley nature reserve, again on empty (but wet) roads. Picking up the road back to Amble I made my way back to Warkworth and looped around for a short but very pleasant 30km ride.

    Distance: 31.7km
    Remaining: 392km
    Strava Ride Data

    Next: Festive 500 Stage 3: Cragside and Dark Northumberland

    Festive 500 Stage 1: The Coastal Castles

    Something right next to my ear was making an incredible racket and it took me a few seconds to work out what it was. Turned out to be my alarm clock and it was 6am. Maybe staying up late with family drinking wine wasn't such a good idea after all. Although leaping out of bed (a couple of hours later) I managed a couple of cups of coffee, some breakfast and getting myself dressed and out of the door into the cold (although closer to 10am than the 'early start' I'd planned). At least it was still morning!

    As I'm from Northumberland and always return for Christmas to spend the holidays with my family my Festive 500 would be in Northumberland rather than around London where I currently live. So for the first stage of my Festive 500 I planned to head north up the coast and see a couple of the many castles in Northumberland; Dunstanburgh and Bamburgh. I was setting off from the coastal village of Alnmouth, a tiny village that has seen a lot of history through its long life so a fitting place to start my Festive 500. The village was mentioned by the Venerable Bede in the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum in 731 and according to the Encyclopaedia Metropolitana Alnmouth was taken and fortified by the French during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Alnmouth was also once a smuggling port and was even attacked by the American privateer John Paul Jones during the American War of Independence. In 1779, Jones fired a cannonball at the town which landed in a field before hitting a farmhouse. 

    Leaving Alnmouth I headed up the coastal route towards the tiny village of Boulmer, a small fishing community, and on towards Craster. The little fishing village of Craster is the producer of Craster Kippers, or cured herrings, and the smell of the smokehouse smoke often wafts across the pretty little harbour. 

    By the time I was leaving Craster I started to get a bit more into my ride. Often you just have to start and certainly a headache and hangover is just the sort of thing to keep you indoors on a grey and damp day but after warming up on the first few miles I started to really enjoy myself. Standing up on the pedals I pushed up a couple of the hills and my bike sprang to life underneath me, as if to say "Finally, you're putting some effort in!".

    Just next to Craster is the ruined Dunstanburgh Castle, the largest castle in Northumberland which was started in 1313 by the Earl of Lancaster but evidence suggests the site has been occupied since prehistoric times. During the War of the Roses the castle was slightly damaged and not repaired, so slowly the castle fell into decay. But by all accounts it was a very comfortable castle with a high standard of comfort and design; certainly it's an imposing sight on the coast. Though as I was cycling up north I didn't stop at the castle but carried on up past Beadnell and on towards Bamburgh Castle.

    Covering a few more miles up the coast I eventually found myself riding along the beach-side road towards Bamburgh Castle, the castle looming in the mist on it's rocky outcrop. The castle itself was home to the native Britons known as Din Guarie and may have been the capital of the British kingdom of the region. The castle was then captured by the Anglo-Saxon ruler Ida of Bernicia before bring briefly retaken by the Britons then subsequently destroyed by Vikings in 993. Later, the Normans built a castle on the same site which can be still seen as the core of the current castle. Years later Bamburgh Castle became the property of Henry II and was a target for regular raids from Scotland and during the Wars of the Roses became the first castle to be defeated by artillery at the end of a 9 month siege by the Earl of Warwick. After this time the castle had many owners and slowly fell into disrepair until the Victorian industrialist William Armstrong bought it and completed the restoration and the castle still remains in the Armstrong family today.

    Although it was a week day and the castle was closed it was lovely to spend some time near this imposing building and the last climb up the steep driveway to the castle gate reminded me of climbing Mont Ventoux a couple of months ago. But as the usual Northumberland weather was in place; grey and damp, I decided to return back.

    It was a damp but very pleasant ride back and as it's Christmas eve a large dinner awaited me that evening, and some more alcohol; a common theme during this holiday, I suspect. But I guess that's the point of the Festive 500; balancing some of the excesses of the season with getting out on two wheels and I can't think of many better places than Northumberland! 

    Oh, and in case you're interested, it's 'Northumberland' not 'Northumbria'; that was a mediaeval kingdom. ;)

    Distance: 76.3km
    Remaining: 423.7km
    Strava Ride Data

    Next: Festive 500 Stage 2: The Harbour