I started MTB-ing in about 1992 on a rigid bike with a flex stem to absorb the bumps. I started Tyne Valley MTB in 2009.
How did the club get started and how has it changed over the years? What is its size at present and what activities does it undertake?
The club’s aims are still the same as when it started:
· Provide opportunities for MTB enthusiasts to ride together & share route information
· Campaign/negotiate for new and/or improved routes and facilities
· Help repair or build routes for mountain biking
· Create a means to apply for and receive funding to help achieve aims two and three.
Currently we have 45 members not all of whom ride regularly with the club. These ‘supporter members’ have joined to support the work we do for cycling. The main change over the years is adding road cycling to our programme as 55 per cent of members ride both bike types. Even so, MTB is still our predominant activity.
What’s the local riding like and how MTB-friendly is Northumberland National Park? Does it see many visitors from out of the area?
The club rides mainly feature XC routes on ‘natural’ trails but we also visit trail centres. The countryside in Northumberland provides a wide range of trail types and we are located between two high-quality Forestry Commission trail centres, namely Kielder and Hamsterley Forest.
The rolling Cheviot Hills are the jewel in Northumberland National Park and provide some excellent MTB-ing. Our latest project is to help produce a new MTB map called the Cheviot Hills MTB Orbital map comprising many suitable rights of way – including one and two-day challenging orbital MTB routes (52 miles) and 12 full-day MTB loops. There will also be two separate challenging loop tours of the Cheviots: The Cheviot Hills North loop (40 miles) and The Cheviot Hills South loop (26 miles).
I know you as the man behind the Sandstone Way long-distance route from Berwick-upon-Tweed to Hexham; tell us a bit about that?
The Sandstone Way really began its conception in 2010 during a Northumberland Local Access Forum meeting when a member suggested a linear geological feature in north Northumberland known as the Sandstone Ridge, would make a fine walking and cycling route.
Having already originated some 2,000km of long-distance cycle routes since 1996, I quickly realised the idea had potential but it needed extending to Berwick-upon-Tweed at the northern end and as far as Hexham to the south. This would provide towns with accommodation at each end served by main roads and railways and a suitable alignment linking numerous interesting sandstone features and many miles of suitable Right of Way.
And so the idea to thread together a scenic and challenging mountain bike route between two Northumberland towns via three nicely spaced large villages and passing through numerous sandstone hamlets was activated.
Safely crossing two railways, several rivers and four main roads, the Sandstone Way follows a mix of bridleways, ancient byways, old drove routes, little-used unsurfaced county roads (UCRs) all interlinked by quiet country lanes. Some people ride the slightly shorter version in two days but many take three days to ride the full route. Many riders under-estimate the route or over-estimate themselves, or both.
When evaluating a route, great riding is paramount but there are seven types of service provision that need to be in place to turn a route into a product and in order to provide a consistently reliable high-quality experience through the DISCOVER, DECIDE, BOOK, RIDE AND RETURN HOME continuum.
It took us five years to cobble together enough funding to implement the Sandstone Way. It was launched in late March 2015 and since then an estimated 9,000 cyclists having biked its length. In that time, over £10,000 has been raised to manage the route as a result of map sales and rider donations.
The plan now is to build on the success of its first two years by improving its alignment and on-route rider support. We also want to strengthen the Rider Contribution payback system to allow the route to be managed sustainably. Riders have to understand that routes don’t create themselves then somehow look after themselves.
What kind of reception is it getting from riders?
The feedback is that the Sandstone Way is a very enjoyable XC route and whilst it’s not particularly technical, it’s a lot more demanding than most riders anticipate. Many recognise the route takes in remote corners of Northumberland they would not otherwise find, let alone link together. Without exception, riders enjoy the mix of route types and say the scenery is far beyond their expectations.
And have you had any feedback from other stakeholders or local businesses?
Northumberland National Park Authority is delighted with the route’s success and other bodies such Northumberland County Council, Northumberland Coast AONB, Northumberland Tourism, Forestry Commission and Northumberland Joint Local Access Forum have been supportive from the outset.
The Sandstone Way has brought tangible economic impact to the rural economy in Northumberland to the benefit of village and town-based micro businesses some of which are in remote locations. Existing businesses have been strengthened and new businesses have been created. More beds have been occupied, bike taxis have been booked on a regular basis, luggage transfer has grown significantly, cycle hire has grown and new bunkhouses have appeared. More than one cycle holiday company operates on the route all of which have combined so that extra staff have been employed at on-route facilities whilst some businesses have diversified and employed new staff as a result of the Sandstone Way.
Undoubtedly the route has changed the way businesses operate as they adapt to meeting demand with supply.
What’s your take on the demand for long-distance routes? Did the OpenMTB/Cycling UK survey results match your perception?
The Sandstone Way confirms there is a demand for high quality long distance mountain bike routes but and the whole experience provided must be high quality. Cyclist surveys over two years tell us there is a latent demand for more high quality long distance cycle routes both on and off-road.
Yes, the national survey results confirm my perception that there is a demand for high-quality long-distance mountain bike routes which the Sandstone Way supports. Two independent Northumberland cycling surveys over the last two years also backs this up. I am confident there is a latent demand for more such routes both on and off-road, but and the whole experience provided must be high quality.
I know you have some more long-distance routes in the pipeline, including a re-launch of the off-road coast-to-coast Reivers Cycle Route. Tell us about that.
Whilst contracted to Sustrans, I created this route in 1999 as part of the NCN with a mix of on and off-road sections which was the popular approach at that time. However, recreational cycling has developed dynamically since then and the one-size-fits-all approach became out-dated quite some years ago, so Tyne Valley MTB is garnering in-principle support to regenerate the route as two intertwining versions, one which is as off-road as possible and one which is 100 per cent tarmac.
Would you like to talk about the Dozen Dales Routes project? Perhaps tell us what it involves from an MTB point of view?
The Dozen Dales Cycle Routes is predicated on the above concept with two intertwining versions, one which is as off-road as possible and one which is entirely on tarmac. The Dozen Dales Cycle Routes link Wooler at the north of Northumberland National Park with Skipton at the south end of the Yorkshire Dales National Park literally crossing every dale in between. Once sufficient funding has been raised, the routes will be implemented based on the successful Sandstone Way approach. As well as the two intertwining 300km-long linear routes, there will be three optional orbital options for MTBs – the Cheviot Hills Orbital as previously described, the North Pennines Orbital an the Yorkshire Dales Orbital.
What funding was bid for and what was learned from the process? Why do you think it was unsuccessful?
With tremendous support from the North Pennines AONB, a funding bid was submitted to Visit England for a significant sum but was refused as the fund parameters had not been made really clear to us. Nevertheless, VE liked the projects and have helped oil the wheels for a subsequent bid to another funding source later this year. As ever, the failed bid was a learning process and it does mean the data has been assembled (never an easy process) when the time comes to submit a bid to another potential funder. Sadly, such creatures are very thin on the ground.
You’ve been working with the British Horse Society on getting more routes recorded as bridleways, how did that come about?
I have worked closely with Sue Rogers the local BHS contact for a lot of years. Apart from sharing an in-depth knowledge of the access network across our region and a love of historical routes, we often coincide at Rights of Way meetings. Sue has become highly skilled at researching archival evidence and is claiming as many ‘lost ways’ as possible before the 2026 cut-off date. Her endeavours have produced significant gains for mountain bikers as well as horse riders and walkers.
What have you had to do? And what lessons would you want to share with other advocacy groups?
Due to time constraints, I am only peripheral to this vital archival research but I do support as much as I can. I make occasional research visits to the county records office and am happy to submit the completed claim forms to the County Council Definitive Map (DM) team for consideration when enough convincing historical evidence has been gathered to justify a lost way being added to the DM.
The key point is that in 2026, no further proven lost ways can be added to the DM which will be a great pity. It’s also VERY important to ally with like-minded people who share the same interests in access albeit by a different means but also to be able to understand their needs and concerns.
Disparate groups each ploughing their own furrough in isolation merely perpetuates fragmentation and is a barrier to achieving positive change which is more likely to result through having shared aims, understanding and unified effort.
What has the club found are the most-important and/or productive activities from an advocacy point of view?
The most important thing is to build relationships, trust and respect by attending forums and relevant to access and to be recognised as the ‘go to’ people in terms of cycling , access and routes of all types. On behalf of TVMTBC and OpenMTB and sometimes for Cycling UK, I attend a number of access-related meetings and forums.
We are have been known to meet with land agents, farmers and landowners to discuss new access possibilities and each year we hold one or two cycling-related events to raise funds for cycle route development and to raise the club’s profile. In 2016 we invited our MP to cycle the Sandstone Way with us over two days but he had to drop out of cycling the Reivers Route by MTB with us in 2017.
We paid for a cycle cattle grid on the Sandstone Way in 2016 to avoid a gate opening and have plans to install more in the future.
The club also has ongoing input into local guidebooks and route maps I produce or compile. These are progressively geared up to meet the needs of a broad spectrum of abilities. The three below have already been published and there are more in the pipeline.
And what does the future hold for the club? What are the priorities for 2017, 2018 and beyond?
We will continue to enjoy doing what we mainly enjoy doing which is riding MTB as often as possible but our secondary aim of regenerating, re-shaping and creating routes for everyone to enjoy will be at the heart of the club’s planning. Advocacy will continue to be very important to us as it’s the key to lots of closed doors.
Our five-year plan is to work with as many partners and stakeholders as possible to open 2,000km of linear MTB routes traversing fantastic countryside in the North of England and 2,000 miles of high quality road routes.
This is very ambitious but the routes have all been researched and ridden and we already have a lot of support at different levels. The Sandstone Way is the exemplar for best practice and has helped us understand what works and what doesn’t.
We just need a lot of funding for implementation and support from the cycling industry and our commitment and experience will do the rest.