Destination: Northumberland

Trail Running editor Paul Larkins discovered the delights of the North East last summer

Dove Crag looking towards Simonside

by Paul Larkins |

History books don’t record St Cuthbert’s favourite brand when it came to running shoes, but it doesn’t take much to conclude, judging from all the evidence we’ve gathered, that he must have been one of the earliest known off-road running legends, given the paths and tracks the county’s patron saint frequented on his Northumberland adventures.

The cold historical facts suggest St Cuthbert retired in 676 to spend his time contemplating (and with it logging some big miles), moving to what is now named St Cuthbert’s Cave to do so. But even back then, like today, it had to be known as a good place to start an eight-mile run, give or take. The paths and accompanying views are just so inviting.

Of course, there’s much more to his tale, including becoming an archbishop, fleeing from the Danes, becoming the leader of a cult long after his death after being perfectly preserved for centuries (further proof of his fitness; running is good for you after all) and most importantly lending his name to the county’s eider duck – the Cuddy. But it’s at this point we’ll take up the reins and ferry you on a journey of discovery, culture and what can only be described as stunning runs. We might even see a duck or two.

With nearly 40 miles of pristine beaches, an incredible national park featuring endless rolling moorland that disappears into the far distance, and that wonderful history we’ve already hinted at, it’s no wonder that Northumberland can rightly claim to be one of the finest counties in Britain for us running folk. We’d describe it as a hidden gem but actually that doesn’t do justice to the range and wealth of countryside at your feet. It’s nothing short of simply superb.

So, let’s start with the beaches. Any beach will do if you’re into smooth, pick-up-the-pace sand, a stunning sunrise and an impressive fort to focus on. We started our adventure with a few miles along the beach near Dunstanburgh Castle – superb running for all the right reasons. It’s quiet, the views are to die for, and, of course, there’s a 14th century castle occupying the headland – we’re just a few miles from Scotland after all. In fact, along with the incredible sunrise, there was even a promise that the northern lights could put on a show in the right conditions. That’s worth an early start in anybody’s book and, despite the fact they are notoriously tricky to spot, not a bad punt given the just about guaranteed stunning early morning light the coastline will treat you to.

Indeed, a social media post of the sunrise resulted in a quick response. “That’s my favourite run; I was there just yesterday,” replied Tony Leonard, marketing manager of the Finnish trail shoe brand VJ. “A great place to test shoes, not to mention get the day going. Shame about the lights, though.” Oh well, there’s always another visit and another chance.

Of course, if sunrises aren’t your thing, there are always killer races like the Montane Cheviot Goat, a 55-mile epic across the Cheviots. One of the only animals you can find on the bleak Northumberland hills is the feral cheviot goat from which the race takes its name.

As you head up Hedgehope Hill, the first of many climbs, you’ll get an idea of just how remote and spectacular the area can be. But don’t think it’s all about stunning vistas. Nothumberland has a few tricks up its sleeve when it comes to keeping us runners entertained and challenged. In the Cheviot Goat race, for instance, one of them is Comb Fell, waist-deep in stinking wet bog mud, which we just had to experience ourselves, albeit in the more comfortable and controlled surroundings of a weekend adventure.

We’ll take you through our day, but what’s great is that the routes, challenges and adventures you can create are endless. Mix and match tough climbs and their accompanying views with friendly, flat and forgiving routes. It’s your call, although be warned: if the Cheviot Goat has piqued your interest, it’s a tough day out!

Anyway, our adventure is more about relaxed running and amazing views; ultra-tough challenges can wait for another day. St Cuthbert’s Cave is just such a route that provides all that and more. The cave itself is remote and moderately tricky to find – remember St C had retired for a bit of peace and quiet – so you won’t see too many others there, which of course is part of the attraction! It’ll form part of an hour’s loop of easy running that will reward you at every turn with everything a trail runner loves – friendly, soft forest paths, short sharp and very rewarding climbs, and solitude. As for the cave, well, it’s definitely worth the visit. Covered in graffiti, you might at first think ‘that’s a shame’, but on closer inspection you can see the notes are from a past age – 1815, 1765 and earlier. Today’s romantics don’t appear to favour it in the same way as our ancestors did, so you’ll find yourself drawn to messages of undying love from a very different time. For all the right reasons, it’ll send a shiver down your spine. And then you’ll remember St C lived here as well. For a cave, it looks moderately comfortable and then of course, you need no more than to look to the horizon from the entrance – spectacular. Even on the greyest of days, the coast and all its might shimmers impressively in the far distance, while those rolling footpaths he must have loved so much (why else would he live here?) beckon. Time to crack on with the run.

That one out of the way, and as fans of all things challenging, we couldn’t resist what on paper looked a simple 5km starting in Simonside in the Northumberland National park. Short yes, but it packed a punch when it came to mud and climbs as well as tempting horizons that seduce you with the promise of just one more sensational vista, the imposing Cheviots inviting you to visit them when the time is right. On we push. More selfies, more history, great wildlife. There’s the promise of curlew, wild grouse, wild goats and even elusive red squirrels. Look carefully and you’ll see Neolithic cup and ring markings, while the impressive mounds of stone date back to the Celts and earlier, their exact meanings lost in time. Below, in the forest, there is a Bronze Age cemetery and swords from this era, unmarked by fighting, have been found on the lower slopes of Simonside. No running holiday is complete without a visit to some of the sights. Bamburgh Castle is great, Lindisfarne is always magnificent, while a personal favourite is Alnwick, home to the Percy family for more than 700 years. Apparently, these days it’s better known as Brancaster Castle in two Christmas specials of drama series Downton Abbey, as well as a filming location for the Harry Potter films. But we prefer to remember it as a venue for a running race more than 25 years ago – one we still chat about on lunchtime runs. To celebrate those days gone by, we run an easy lap around the comfortable grounds; it has to be done to end a great trip. Although you could of course be brave and head further south to Hadrian’s Wall and all that has to offer. But that’s what Northumberland is all about. Just when you think you’ve ticked that box and done that, there’s just that little bit more to discover.

Where to stay (pandemic restrictions allowing)

We stayed at the the Harbour Guest House, Morpeth. When it comes to location, you’ll be hard-pushed to stay closer to the sea than this runner-friendly guest house that is also just 1.6 miles from Coquet Island, a puffin sanctuary. Owner Vicki Wonders has only just taken over but already it’s clear she recognises what runners love! “It’s only my second month in the guest house so I’m only getting started with upgrading the place,” she says. “We’re currently working on an outdoor seating area and snug out in the patio area and we have secure storage for sports equipment as we attract a few cyclists.”

Try this run

If you fancy experiencing amazing sights, a few climbs and plenty of mud, take a quick 5km spin around Simonside.

Try an ice cream

Nearby Spurelli’s in Amble is perfect for just such an indulgence.

Treat yourself

The Fish Shack, a converted boat shed in Amble, serves up a great evening meal.

That all-important sunrise

We ran a few miles along Dunstanburgh Castle beach, but the choice is endless. Try the Alnmouth Coastal run and you’ll be equally impressed.

Breakfast

Trying local foods is what trips like this are all about. Sunnyhills Farmshop will provide you with that experience!

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