Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Cycling near Newcastle: Slow and steady does the job

Picnic a la Courbet, beach between Seaton Sluice and Blyth, photo copyright Margaret Sharrow 2009
One of the biggest surprises of my explorations of the Newcastle area is that it has a fantastic coast. Sandy beaches stretch for miles to the north, comparatively uncrowded even in summer, and lit by the Baltic blue sky. Wonderful for walking, paddling, though swimming seems too adventurous for me (but not for the Panama Swimming Club of Whitley Bay, whose members dash from their modernist beach hut straight into the surf, even in midwinter). And, perhaps surprisingly, a fabulous place to cycle. Sustrans Route 1 takes the explorer from the Newcastle central rail station up right along the coast as far as Blyth before cutting inland on its route to Edinburgh.

I determined to cycle north from Whitley Bay (conveniently reached by Metro from the centre) as far as Seaton Sluice, but decided to continue as far as the south beach at Blyth, a total distance of about five miles (and another five back) from Whitley Bay's free car park, a bit north on the coastal A road from the white onion dome of Spanish City. After crossing the four lane road I was in the park area near the skateboarding / stunt cycling area packed with earnest boys, and found myself entirely off road, either looking down on the beach or on the promenade, as far as the par 3 golf course (£4 adults plus rental of ball, putter, and iron - no drivers allowed) from which a pleasant diversion can be made to visit the tidal St Mary's Island. Like Holy Island, St Mary's Island is connected to the mainland by a paved causeway. Unlike Holy Island, St Mary's Island is tiny, dominated entirely by a lighthouse. And unlike Holy Island, there are more hours of the day when the island is cut off from the mainland, so it is best to check the tide times before setting off. The surrounding beach is a pleasant place for poking around rock pools if the causeway isn't quite clear when you arrive, and the car park (pay and display) boasts a nice little van that will do the usual greasy fare. The woman was very nice to me, apologising that they didn't have proper espresso cups, and offering to hit the button on the multinational dispenser twice, thus offering me a styrofoam cup completely full of espresso for £1 with all the milk and sugar I could add - far superior to instant, and kept me going all day long.

But back to St Mary's Island.

to be continued...

London: Smart NHS Russell Square Hostel

The Smart NHS hostel is near the British Museum, with its fab new rotunda! Photo copyright Margaret Sharrow 2009

You're looking for somewhere cheap to stay in London. You want it to be central, and easy to get to. You want a bit of privacy, but you don't mind going down the corridor to the loo. You want clean, and well-organised. You want 24 hour access.

What you don't want is a 24 hour party.

Roll up to the Smart NHS Russell Square Hostel. For the older traveller, or qualified health professionals looking for work in London, it's a dream come true. Just around the corner from Russell Square, it means you can get the tube from Heathrow without changing lines, and take advantage of the lift at the tube station (there are a small number of stairs to negotiate with luggage).

You will be sleeping in bunks, but they are hospital-clean (you have to do your own hospital corners, but they provide the sheets), and best of all, have curtains, so you can sleep, read and change in privacy.

All the showers are together in the basement (gents' & ladies' separate), saving water and annoyance ('Who's STILL in the bathroom?!'), and although you have to keep pushing the button to keep the water flowing, it is HOT HOT HOT in a very nice way. And in the ladies', there is a locker room outside with free use of hair dryers. There's even a diffuser (for the hair inept, this is an add on gizmo that distributes warm air over a larger surface area, to what effect I know not, being one of the hair inept myself).

In the morning, there is free tea and coffee (instant), and the inevitable toast conveyor belt experience - place two slices on the ramp at one end, and wait for them to trundle slowly through, and pop out on the slide at the other end. The conveyor belt isn't actually inevitable - I've stayed at some hostels where they have normal home toasters, and after the French girl ahead of you has popped the maximum four (or two!) slices down, you have no choice but to stand and wait... not great when fifty plus people are trying to breakfast simultaneously. So at Smart NHS I was extremely grateful. And nobody else wanted the crusts, so it was pretty easy to tell which toast was mine.

Another great feature of this hostel is the sense of security. You need a £10 cash deposit for your key card, which you need to get past the 24 hour reception room, and into your own room (from 4 to 24 beds, depending on price). Furthermore, for around £1.50 per day, you can pay to have your card activate your own security drawer below your bunk, where you can safely store your goodies. For extra large items, or to have a look round the day you leave without trailing your wheelie luggage everywhere, you can leave them in the storage room for £1.50 per item per day. However, unlike other hostels that leave you to fetch your items yourself, giving you a key attached to something improbable like a cricket bat (a veritable passport to theft), the Smart NHS staff accompany you to the room, to make sure that you only take your own ticketed items. Brilliant! Why doesn't everyone do this?

Best of all, there are no unaccompanied under 16s allowed, and aside from the odd school group booked into their own room, there are very few under-18s here. The large number of job-seeking nurses, medical technicians, etc. means that you are far more likely to see people spending their evenings glued to the free wifi access on their laptops (you can pay 50p per 15 minutes to use their computers, too) than wanting to have a singsong in the common room. And there are always a number of mature backpackers lurking about, on the Ikea sofas in front of the two televisions.

In fact, the only drawback of the place is that you just might end up on the top bunk... of three! But the ceilings are high enough that I didn't bash my head when sitting up, and I kind of got used to it - thank heavens for the secure bars on the exit side, or I would have spent the nights in a state of vertigo.

N.b.: 10% deposit payable online at time of booking. To pay the balance on arrival, it's best to have cash, as they don't take UK debit cards, and credit cards have a 5% processing fee. You also need £10 refundable key deposit. Laundry: £4 wash, £2 dry (ouch!)

HSBC cash machine is down the street from Russell Square tube station, and 24 hour Tesco Express across the street from the station. To reach Smart NHS, turn left out of the station, left again at the corner by the newsagents, and left again on the next proper street, opposite the President Hotel. Smart NHS is on your left, not tremendously signposted but with signs asking you to be quiet and considerate, a good omen...

Smart NHS Russell Square Hostel

Address: 70-72 Guilford St, United Kingdom, London, WC1N 1DF

Email: srsbookings@smartbackpackers.com
Phone # : +44(0) 20 7833 8818

Fax # : +44(0) 20 7221 9444

Information correct as of 8 September 2009.