There go my waggonwheels…

If you’re looking for off-road two-wheeled adventure, the North-East of England has a dense network of trails known as waggonways left behind by the industrial revolution providing miles of gripping and secluded tracks just waiting to be explored.

The North-East of England hosts a rich tapestry of often hidden tracks and trails that the less purist and adventurous road cyclist might be well advised to explore. So dense a network of gravel coated tracks and byways – often criss-crossing and intersecting each other – that one could be forgiven for believing that they formed some sort of arterial network – the veins and nerves, if you like, of the rich and rolling landscape in which they are wont to be found. And indeed, these are the very arteries that once carried the coal-laden tubs from the depths of earth – indeed, from the very veins of black gold from which the coal was hacked – to the wharfs and quays that took them far away from the northern shores to be burnt in hearth and boiler and furnace long before CO2 became a thing.

This historical legacy is now a boon for those seeking two-wheeled thrills coasting down trails with some challenging surfaces at times: from rare patches of asphalt to the more common shingle and gravel to pock-marked earth tracks with the occasional bricks and rubble to patch up the poorer surfaces. Each trail provides outstanding views as they snake along river valleys or hew deep cuts as they crawl over the windy tops, often with expansive views across the fells towards Pennines to the West, Cheviots to the North and North Sea coast to the East.

These once noisy and polluted arteries carved out for the benefit of industry and profit are now among the most peaceful and unspoilt gems of the area. With birds undisturbed in the deep hedgerows, embankments and cuttings through which you labour on your bike, the sounds of birdsong and birdlife abound through the lush vegetation. This is truly a very green and pleasant land that has literally subsided back to more prosaic and pastoral times before the Elizabethan (the First) first extracted coal for the burgeoning city of London: as the bleating of the large flocks of sheep will testify.

But it is not all pleasant ruminant-filled pastures. Look closely and the gritty reminders of the industrial heyday are poking out beneath the brambles or thrusting themselves before you in the form of old colliery buildings, memorials and the remains of winding wheels and blackened coal waggons rusting gracefully on ginger-coloured rails. The memories of the men who worked and died below these graceful hills are never too far from the surface, and it is good to stop and take stock of their efforts and the legacy that they left behind.

George Stephenson’s cottage still overlooks the waggonway that inspired the great inventor

You’re never too far from the madding crowds on these trails, and yet, uncannily, it often seems that way. On a cool dark evening when the clouds are scurrying overhead on a keen cool breeze the lights of the towns can seem far, far away you can imagine yourself in some remote and little-inhabited landscape. Yet you are seldom too far away from a main road, a small town with a welcoming corner shop or cosy pub, or even a railway station to whisk you away.

Having been born here it is always welcome to return to these gritty trails – often I discover new waggon-ways in addition to those that have become for me well-travelled byways. It’s wonderful to see how they have been preserved and improved and cherished. How plaques and monuments have been erected to remind newer generations of what remarkable feats of achievements these humble places achieved. How signposts reveal that many of these tracks are now incorporated into National Cycling Routes with wayside artworks, seating and cafés dotting their routes. Could those who built these waggonways return and see what their handiwork had become I’d like to think that they would be immensely proud of their lasting achievement and legacy, and slightly perplexed to see cyclists sending their steeds down to the staithes.

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