Plenty of twists and turns
The North Pennines are criss-crossed by some truly incredible roads and this special ride takes in one of the most infamous – the legendary A686. From junction 43 on the M6 head east towards Newcastle along the A46, where you’ll have the chance to fuel up if needs be. The closest filling station to the start is just past the left turn for Low Row, unless you’re approaching from the east in which case it’s the BP at Henshaw.
At Haydon Bridge the A69 sweeps across the river to bypass the town; this is your cue to watch for the sign that marks the turn to Alston and 36.5 miles of two-wheeled bliss. The fabulous A686 begins with a gentle meander through a funnel of foliage, steadily rising into open farmland before making a steep descent via a series of hairpins to Cupola Bridge – they’re very tight, so steady as she goes. Once across, the road resumes its climb, clinging to the contours of river clefts until it reaches the remote heather and gorse of Alston moor. The wind can get a bit blustery across the top, but the road surface is pretty good and the tarmac gets some amazing twists on for the run into town. Alston itself is famous for being one of the highest market towns in England, as well as the inspiration for the League of Gentleman’s Royston Vasey – thankfully though the local shops are for everyone, as you might want to take the opportunity to top up your tank.
Beyond town the blacktop starts to weave once more, darting between low stone walls as it climbs through a ribbon of sinuous curves; to the left, on a good day, you’ll see Cross Fell, the highest point in England outside of the Lake District. Before the final stretch it’s worth making a stop at the Hartside Café for a cuppa and to take in the splendid view; any good ride deserves a spot for quiet contemplation and a few minutes here on the hillside will provide just that, in preparation of what’s to follow.
This route really does save the best ‘til last and the run down towards Penrith is a slice of pure motorcycling heaven. The sensational switchbacks and compound turns are practically alpine in places, but it’s easy to get caught out so keep your wits about you at all times – sudden changes in direction should not be unexpected, although they certainly add to the charm. Back on the flat the A686 straightens out and the cruise back to Penrith will give you just enough time to wonder what it would be like to swing around the roundabout and ride it back the other way… and why not?
‘It inspired Royston Vasey… but the local shops here are for everyone’