One of the historically resonant things about riding the Bowes and the Tanfield railway paths close to Newcastle is the proximity of the family-friendly Beamish, the ‘Living Museum of the North’. This 350-acre open-air museum houses several significant steam locomotives that once toot-tooted along these former rail lines. It’s a given that North East England led the railway revolution almost 200 years ago, but what’s less well known is that this was the second railway revolution. North East England was at the forefront of the first one, too. Wooden railways, ‘waggonways’ with wooden rails, were used in the region at least 20 years before the English Civil War in the 1640s, and the world’s first passenger railway wasn’t the Stockton and Darlington line of 1825 but Kitty’s Drift, an underground railway beneath a Tyneside colliery that carried paying guests in the early 1800s. The waggonways of Tyneside and Wearside – known as ‘Tyneside Roads’ and over which parts of the Tanfield Railway were laid – were technologically advanced, many requiring massive embankments and valley-spanning bridges long before the civil engineering feats of George and Robert Stephenson. The earlier and later innovations came about thanks to the extraction of squished vegetation pressed into place millions of years previously: coal. The Great Northern Coalfield was once the beating heart of the Industrial Revolution, but most of the once-teeming rail lines and horse-drawn waggonways that started to vein Durham and Northumberland in the 1600s to transport coal are now linear backwaters, their rails long gone. However, on one stretch of the Bowes Railway path you can still see the remains of oak sleepers and can even ride between steel rails on a bridge that was once part of the Bowes incline railway. Stationary steam engines pulled carriages up steep valley sides on this 15-mile industrial line, the earliest section designed in 1826 by Stephenson Snr. Only part of this supposed Permanent Way still exists as a working rail line. Before they were mothballed a couple of years back, the line’s hill-climbing trains would be paraded periodically. Today there’s no sign of activity, and I was able to ride between a short stretch of rails and then on to the gravel-strewn remainder of what was once a busy colliery rail line. I had started this ten-mile bike ride on Newcastle’s Quayside, rolling over the Millennium bridge beneath the futuristic curves of the Sage Gateshead culture centre. Almost all of the route is on traffic-free cycleways, some of it tarmac but most of it gravel. The Bowes Railway path – strictly speaking, the former Pontop and Jarrow Railway – leads to the Tanfield steam railway. This line, kept alive by volunteers, once crossed the historically significant Causey Arch, a railway bridge built more than 100 years before the first steam locomotives. You could ride this undulating route on a mountain bike or, if you don’t mind the loose stones, a road bike, but I opted for a mix between the two, a gravel bike. Helpfully, the Cannondale Topstone has front and rear suspension. The front fork – called ‘Lefty’ – has one prong, not two; it turns heads. Think a one-prong bike ‘fork’ can’t be safe? Fighter jet wheels use the same cantilever principle. And the technology is far from new: the first bicycle made with a mono-fork was the Invincible of 1889, at the height of the steam age. And talking about the steam age, there are several puffing locomotives to see on this ride, including a whole bunch at Beamish museum on relocated tracks. And, for the real thing, steam trains also run during summer weekends on the Tanfield Railway. In four years’ time, the Stockton and Darlington line will celebrate its 200th anniversary but, amazingly, in the same year the Tanfield Railway will be blowing out the flames on a cake adorned with an additional 100 candles. Built in 1725 to transport coal to the Tyne with gravity and horse flesh, the Tanfield Railway was a cartel formed by three wealthy industrialists, one of whom – Sir George Bowes – was an ancestor of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. The centrepiece of the Tanfield Railway is the Causey Arch, erected in 1727 and now the world’s oldest surviving single-arch railway bridge. Ralph Wood, a local mason, was so unsure his bridge would stand he threw himself into the burn below, a fatal drop that the local authority today averts with fencing and ‘you’re not alone’ notices. Just over a mile from Causey Arch is the Beamish museum. Popular with families since it opened in 1971, Beamish has costumed staff and volunteers bringing history to life: it started the trend for regional ‘living’ museums. The museum’s expansive parkland has recreations of a Georgian hall and an Edwardian town that was used as a backdrop for the recent Downton Abbey movie. There’s also an early 1900s colliery and adjoining pit village, and – rising behind fencing – there’s soon to be a 1950s extension complete with post-war prefab houses and a cinema. Beamish contains brick-by-brick relocations of historic buildings, but the adjacent Beamish Hall is original. It’s not part of the museum today, but it’s why, in 1970, the founder and first curator chose this site. The hall is a mid-18th-century country house built on much earlier foundations. It was the museum’s first storeroom, following its previous uses as a National Coal Board building and then a residential school. The hall was converted to hotel use in 2000. After a surprisingly hilly bike ride and a few hours walking around Beamish in strong sunshine, I was too tired to do anything much but collapse in the shade. Those with more stamina might have once swung through the trees on the hotel’s high ropes course. However, due to the coronavirus lockdown, Beamish Wild closed down after 10 years of operation. I have it on good authority that, even when open, you couldn’t see the Angel of the North from the rope course, but from a prone position on a grassy bank, I could see Antony Gormley’s iconic sculpture thanks to my trusty DJI drone. I used this eye-in-the-sky to take many of the photos illustrating this article. In fading light, I rode back to Newcastle via the Angel, now silhouetted against the dark orange sunset, but still watching my every move.