Kielder Forest (Part One)
Distance – 104km
Elevation – 2,025m
Ride Time – 4h55 (5h54 total elapsed time)
Difficulty – ⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4/5
English forests are notoriously misleading entities when it comes to their names.
The best example of this curious phenomenon is the New Forest. At the time of writing, it has been operating under this title for 943 years and was probably trucking along unrecorded and quite happily since shortly after Noah ran aground.
In addition, it bears very little resemblance to the unbroken sea of firs we associate with Sweden or Canada, boasting instead broad sweeping vistas of scrub and heath and the odd stand of pines.
This peculiar lack of trees (as well as an abundance of untroubled oatmeal-nosed ponies) is something this haunt of the Normans shares with Exmoor Forest, though the forest that spans the border between Somerset and Devon takes this blasé approach to naming to extremes, famously boasting only one tree within its entire boundary. The gnarly and grizzled Hoar Oak, high upon The Chains could never pass itself off as somewhere Hansel and Gretel were likely to get lost.
Of course, this is all because, originally, these places were royal hunting forests or “chases,” where the nobles would jolly off to kill deer, or sometimes peasants, or even each other.
Kielder Forest is reassuringly unambiguous. It’s 250 square miles of trees, all except the bits where trees have been taken for timber and are awaiting replanting, or the area under the 200 billion litres of water in the UK’s largest man-made lake.
On a damp morning in early March, when you’re riding up a road that you know is definitely a dead end, if truck after double-articulated truck full of tree trunks is charging towards you out of this ocean of evergreens, you can be pretty sure that “forestry operations” means exactly what it says on the tin in Kielder.
The car thermometer reckons it’s as warm as a balmy 4º Centigrade as I slot the wheels in the trusty Cannondale, but it doesn’t feel as warm as that. It’s damp, the sort of morning you can get wet without it actually raining, the sort of day where the air is just wet. I’d say that visibility was at about 200 metres, if I could see that far. Ha.
I’ve parked up outside the village hall in Wall, about 75 minutes west of downtown Newcastle-on-Tyne. It’s one of those pretty but practical little stone villages that Northumberland specialises in. There’s a pub – a big old place called Hadrian’s Hotel which has rooms and a snazzy restaurant as well as a cosy bar – and the small number of out-and-about locals I encounter give me a friendly smile as opposed to a you-can’t-park-there scowl.
The hotel has probably given you a clue as to why this place is called Wall. He may not have stayed there. He may not even have seen much of the edifice he commissioned during his visit of 122AD, but, yes, the village of Wall is indeed built upon Hadrian’s Wall. You can still see big chunks of it, and if you haven’t, you should go and have a look some time, it’s pretty impressive for handiwork celebrating it’s 1900th birthday.
The village of Wall… that phrase is nagging at me for some other reason, but I’ve been prevaricating for long enough. Let’s get this show on the (unsurfaced) road.
-Immersed in the vastness of Kielder Forest
-The contrast of leaving the forest onto the open Kielder Mires
-Pristine gravel throughout
Tyre Choice – I ran on 30PSI today, so going tubeless was essential to avoid pinch punctures. If the surface is likely to be variable and the route technical, I would run them at a slightly lower pressure. Today’s perfect uniform gravel gave me the option of higher pressure and reduced rolling resistance.
I’ll be honest with you: the first 10 miles are a right old slog. You’re on decent, well-used farm vehicle tracks that might be fast and dusty at some point of the year, but not now, and certainly not today. There’s no deep mud or ruts to consider, but that slippery, chalky, thin greasy surface is treacherous for those wanting to churn a big gear or do too much in the way of steering. I said I’d be honest, and this stuff really keeps you honest. Let’s be kind and call those first 15+ kilometres a decent 50-minute warm-up, punctuated by the bleating of lambs, the croaking of ravens and the gasping of cyclist.
This early pumping of thighs and lungs pays off quicker than unexpected when I happen upon a long straight piece of heavenly tarmac that takes me skimming along a ridge with views of distinction in every direction. The first hour is ending in a real blast and is leading me into the heart of the Kielder Forest hinterland at a rate of knots.
My planned route assures me that this road leads nowhere but the forest, where it will peter out into various branches of the stuff I’ve come here to ride: real gravel. This cul-de-sac is not silent, however, and thundering out of the misty morning come a regular stream of double-length juggernauts groaning under the weight of freshly-felled firs. The behemoths are without exception skilfully driven and I soon learn that mutual respect and space-allowance is the way to deal with their approach. Whilst this is unquestionably a single-track road, it’s arrow-like straightness and copious verges make avoiding each other simple and courtesy is easily maintained.
The trucks keep on coming as I head straight on, off of the hard stuff and on to the gravel this bike was born for. I can wholeheartedly recommend this place to any searcher of pure gravel. For the best part of four hours, my tyres will touch nothing but the real McCoy.
As my route bends away from the rumbling truck road, the trail narrows gradually, but never gets anything less than a decent 10-feet across. Even with his own private aggregates company and a country park to play with, the most pious gravel zealot couldn’t create a more desirable surface. If they ever start making car adverts for gravel bikes, this is where they will be shot.
It’s a full hour on hard-packed grey grit in deep forest without a view or even a much of a sound. Eerie yet exhilarating. Every now and then I think I hear machinery in the distance, but the damp, thick air is an effective blanket over the endless banks of trees and even the noise of my tyres is quickly swallowed up by the close atmosphere. In fact, I reckon it must be 90 minutes before I come across another sign of logging operations and by then I’ve been singing “A Forest” by The Cure in my head for most of it.
One of the immutable facts of forestry riding, especially on a downcast day without sun, is that once you’ve thrown in a number of bends, some ups and downs and a few changes of direction, you haven’t got a clue where you are or which way you’re headed. And so it is with a mighty gasp of surprise that I suddenly pop out of the seemingly interminable plantation right on to the banks of the massive Kielder Water reservoir. From seeing nothing but branches, grit and a narrow strip of sky all morning, this is like a mirage for a weary camel rider.
And if anything, the brilliant surface actually improves. An extra thin layer of gravel has been forced down into the hardpack to create an all-ability walking/riding/wheelchair path called the Lakeside Way. Not that I see anybody else walking, riding or chairing along it over the very enjoyable five miles or so that I follow it, but I imagine that on summer weekends this will indeed be a great day out for all kinds of visitors. I even come across a stunning piece of engineering where a steady incline with wide hairpins has been created like a mini gravel Lacets to conquer a headland that juts out into the lake. Unique in my experience and a remarkable trail to walk, ride or chair.
Time to make my turn for home, and this is where things began to get a little bit sketchy. Isn’t it always at the point where you’re furthest from the car? Either side of the 50-kilometre point of my 100-kilometre ride, I found the enjoyment of my day severely threatened by two thoughtless visitors who had passed through not long before me and done her best to mess everything up for everyone. That’s right. She couldn’t have caused more opprobrium if she’d just scrawled ARWEN WOZ ERE over the countryside. Thinking about it, that’s pretty much what she had done. Within a scant few weeks of each other, Storms Arwen and Eunice both barrelled through here like binge-drinking teenagers without a shred of responsibility for their yobbish actions. Eunice delighted in wrecking the South in an orgy of vandalism and mayhem, but up here, it was her older sister Arwen who singled out Kielder as if she’d been disrespected by a rival street gang.
The trouble with giving storms people’s names is that we can’t help but then personalise them. And whilst I’m fully aware, officially qualified geographer that I am, that a winter storm is merely a product of our volatile and changing climate, I can’t help but come to the conclusion that there is one very personal and unsociable trait that is undeniably part of Storm Arwen’s disordered personality: she hates trees.
She was here not that long before me, and my God, she must have been pissed off. The carcasses of brutally dismembered Douglas firs were strewn everywhere. This border country has seen battle upon battle over the centuries, but I hope to never see this sort of carnage on a human scale.
My first problem with getting back to base arose when the thoroughly decent track I had been following confidently just abruptly ended in an avalanche of foliage and wood. I tried a couple of alternative ways out, even clambering through a downed majestic fir or two before admitting defeat. Basically, if a trail is blocked by one tree, it’s highly likely to be blocked by more.
After a number of false starts on trails that all ended the same way, I put a bit more meat on the bones of that theory and realised that there was more to it than chance: if the army of foresters at work here had left a tree blocking a path, that was a strong indication that it was just plain impassable anyway. Following this new understanding of my predicament didn’t pay immediate dividends. Although I took on a firm policy of turning back and trying a different route as soon as I was confronted by one of Arwen’s blockades, an hour after leaving the yellow-brick-road of the all-abilities trail I was still flailing about in a mess of destroyed forestry and newly-ruined mappage. I’d caused my own little story of destruction in the number of energy bars I’d gone through and I was beginning to ration the water I had left. It was raining and the stop-start nature of the riding didn’t help the fact that I was really feeling the cold now.
It became apparent that the worst of the destruction had been visited upon the trees in the frontline. The infantry had been mown down when they were left to face the enemy alone, in small groups, or where they were simply the first inline. If I could get back into the depths of Brothers Grimm territory, the forest protected itself through sheer weight of numbers.
Thankfully, I finally found myself on a trail that had clearly seen some recent use. Galvanised that somebody had been this way and I hadn’t passed them, I upped the pace, committed to following this path whatever direction it led me, with the main aim of getting out of the eye of the hurricane. It was more southerly than the south-easterly I’d hoped for, but this was no time to complain and before long I was back into the comparative protection of that dense ocean of trees.
My mood was picking up now despite my tiredness. Suddenly, I was confronted by one of the best moments of the day and one to remember for a long, long time. My path burst out of the trees to leave me facing a vast, barren, wilderness.
Nobody who visits the Kielder Mires can claim to be unaffected by the sheer, immense silence of the place. In fact, this expanse of peat bog, heath and felled plantation was named by the Campaign for Rural England as the quietest spot in the whole country. I’m certainly not going to argue with that. There is a unique, compelling majesty about the place that is almost tangible, and makes comparisons difficult or trite.
As well as blowing the mind of a simple gravel biker, it turns out the Kielder Mires are globally important in the fight against Greenhouse Gases. Huge natural blanket bogs like this and the even larger expanse of the Flow Country in Northern Scotland are immense “carbon sinks” that literally soak up CO² and stop it entering the atmosphere. Experts estimate that if the amount of carbon stored here and in Caithness were released by destroying this landscape it would cause the equivalent damage of a hundred years of fossil fuel burning across the country.
The wonder of the place firing my lungs I head determinedly homeward. Another amazing sight: with open country to my right and forest to my left, for a mile, every single tree alongside the path on that side has been blown down. They must have met the full force of Arwen as she hammered in out of the west across the bleak high moors. As they fell, they tore up the whole long margin of ground they were rooted in as one, so I find myself riding in the lee of a huge earth wall, riddled with the protruding roots of the upended trees.
There are no real choices of path on this side of the ride: you’re either on a pristine gravel-surfaced artery – an A-road if you like – or you’ve picked something impassable. As a result, I end up heading further west than intended to benefit from the good surface, but in doing so I get my final surprise of a curiosity-packed day.
I am now one of the privileged few. I have seen how the mighty maketh our world. In short, I have seen how gravel is made!
It’s a machine what does it, you won’t be surprised to hear, but up here in this most remote of spots, I came face to face with it. The Gravel Maker.
I can only really describe it as a JCB and a steamroller combined. I had to stop and watch it in action, such was my feeling of being in the presence of a primeval god. I wanted to see it create our gravel world.
So, it works like this: the huge, grabbing hand of the JCB bucket scrapes the top layer of mud off the trail, smoothing away potholes and puddles. Grit pours in behind its crunching swoop, but is immediately bullied flat by the heavy roller part of the machine, set just behind. Simple? I suppose. Amazing? Definitely.
I am so pleased when I finally regain that long straight strip of tarmac I left so expectantly all that time ago. From here I promise myself that I will not be distracted by any other curiosities or side turns. I intend to get back into Wall. I intend to chuck the ’Dale into the car and I will not stop until I get back to Newcastle and dislodge the physical remains of this six-hour solo ride into a deep, hot bath. And then a curry, don’t you think? Yes, definitely a curry.
Waaaait a minute… the village of Wall… yes! Stardust, right? Michelle Pfeiffer as the beautiful witch who turns into a hoary crone? Claire Danes as an actual star? Robert de Niro as a crossdressing pirate in the sky? Ricky Gervais as Ricky Gervais? No? You’re missing out. Don’t wait until Christmas.
When to ride: Genuinely anytime. These tracks are as near to weatherproof as you can get. My only caveat would be your distance from civilisation in wintry conditions. I passed one – very tempting – bothy all day, other than that, there’s really nothing out there.
Where to stay: I was staying with friends in Newcastle, but it was still a punchy drive. Hexham is the closest town and is within a few miles ride of the forest-proper. Bellingham is smaller but closer and sweet, whilst there are lots of village inns and B&Bs in the hamlets surrounding Wall. Hadrian’s Hotel is bang on the startline.
Local Glorious Gravel events:
- Northumberland Gravel Epic, 24th September 2022