I’ve been busy working on a new book called Big Rides: Great Britain & Ireland [edit: now available, so grab a copy!]. It’s been a real joy sharing pictures and experiences in this guide to the most iconic, epic and popular long distance cycle trails in England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Ireland, including two excursions from mainland Britain to Northern France.
To give you a flavour of the book, I have taken time to recollect memories from trips over the last ten years from the routes I have ridden myself (at least in parts), or which are on my bucket list for the near future.
Land’s End to John o’ Groats (LEJOG)
Going from one end of the country to another is always a classic, no matter where you ride your bike. I enjoyed the cycle on my singlespeed in 2011, ten years ago! If I remember right, it took me a bit less than six days, carrying a small saddle bag with the very essentials, and sleeping in hostels along the route. Back then I used 23mm road bike tires, something I would definitely change for another attempt. Starting in the south west of England I remember cranking up many short and steep hills, the stunning beauty of the Shropshire Hills and the Lake District, and transporting a burger from a takeaway in my saddle bag. I recall the challenge of finding a quiet supermarket in Wigan as I didn’t carry a bike lock, my friend Lee booking me into the Travelodge in Kinross, and a very challenging hill near Helmsdale, where another cyclist was convinced I had gears on my bike. Back in those days there only used to be a hostel in John o’Groats, but I believe services are much better now. Somewhere in the visitor’s book there is an entry from me, but as it might take some time to find that, I included it in my pictures from the trip here. And while it is a challenging ride, the journey is also a great opportunity to either explore Cornwall or the north of Scotland further, or both at the same time. And as it is a once in a lifetime experience for most, make sure to take more time to explore everything that’s along the route too.
Highland Trail 550
Back in 2014 this was my first attempt at a bikepacking race, and it was no doubt one of the toughest rides I have done so far. For someone who has ridden around the world on a singlespeed bike this is a bold statement. Alan Goldsmith, who has also created the Lakeland 200, has mapped a true classic for anyone willing to push the bike and wade through bog for stretches. No doubt you’ll suffer a bit on this route, even if you are very experienced. How much hardship there is to come depends on the time of year. While midges can make riding the Highland Trail 550 unpleasant in summer, the snow in winter can make it impassable. But for all the hardship you’ll be rewarded with breathtaking scenery, even in pouring rain. The most demanding part of the route is the crossing of Fisherfield Forest, which, like a few more forests in Scotland, has no trees to hide under. To add to the challenge, the river crossing can have you chest deep in the water, or instead waiting for a few days in the adjacent bothy to wait for the weather to clear and the water level to drop. This is possibly not the right choice for the first bikepacking adventure, but surely a must for the bucket list. And while the race route changes slightly from year to year, most sections have been part of the route since the beginning in 2013. I have completed the route three times now, most recently in 2019. To give you a flavour, you can browse my pictures here.
Riding LEJOG or JOGLE north to south from coast to coast (or the opposite direction) takes considerable time and planning. Going east to west (or the other direction) is often shorter, and there are a few routes to tackle this challenge that deserve a mention.
Starting in the northern half of Scotland the NC500 can be ridden in parts as a coast-to-coast-cycle from Inverness to Applecross or Achlynes to John o’Groats, but the full journey makes it a truly special experience.
Further south the John Muir Way connects Dunbar on the east coast with Helensburgh on the west coast, travelling on a cycling or bikepacking route through Scotland’s Central Belt, with a great variety of scenery and many places to stop included.
Hadrian’s Cycleway is a coast-to-coast-route best ridden on a gravel bike with a lot of history thrown in. The 265 km trail begins on the Cumbrian coast, in the Lake District National Park, and follows the line of Roman fortifications up the Solway Firth and along the course of Hadrian’s Wall.
Slightly further south the 219 km Sea to Sea (C2C) begins on the Cumbrian seashore. It takes a surprisingly low route through the Lake District and then climbs high over the Pennine spine of the country, with a mountain bike the best choice to ride this route.
The Way of the Roses is a 275 km cross country trail, best suitable for gravel bikes, that begins in Morecambe on the west coast and traverses Lancashire and Yorkshire, to reach the east coast at the seaside resort of Bridlington.
The 338 km Trans Pennine Trail (TPT) is a coast-to-coast-route that begins at Southport near Liverpool and finishes at Hornsea near Kingston upon Hull. On often purpose built cycle tracks that take advantage of disused railways, canal towpaths and riverside trails, the TPT is a well-waymarked route and does not feature sustained climbing or technical terrain. It is best cycled on a gravel bike.
And while it is not a true coast-to-coast-route, the journey from London to Bristol via the Great Western Way provides a cycle link between the two cities, following canal towpaths, riverside tracks and quiet country lanes. En route you can enjoy views of the Cotswolds, the Roman city of Bath, waterfront pubs, royal castles and hunting grounds and the two bustling cities with their tourist attractions.
South Downs Way
The 160 km South Downs Way is the only National Trail that falls completely within a national park, and one of only two that can be followed by cyclists as a bridleway (the other being the Pennine Bridleway, which forms part of the Great North Trail). It connects the historical cathedral city of Winchester with the south coast seaside resort of Eastbourne. It follows old drovers’ roads, historic bridleways and well trodden routes over the chalk ridges of the rolling South Downs. It’s far from being an easy ride, but can be cycled any time of the year, although facilities and accommodation might be shut in off-season. I cycled most of it during my round the world trip in 2015, and remember having to detour from the route to find places to eat and stay. The route doesn’t offer the rugged mountains of Scotland or Wales, but the views can easily compete. And being so close to London, it’s the perfect weekend escape from the city.
If you are interested in a copy of Big Rides: Great Britain & Ireland, you can now pre-order the book for £16 instead of £20 directly from the publisher Vertebrate here, or make your local bookshop happy.
Yellow Jersey’s insurance will cover your bikes for all sorts of cycling adventures in the UK and further afield, why not have a look at what it might costs to protect your bike(s) here.