Round the top: Scotland’s north coast wilderness, by Nell Nelson
Just as I was about to launch myself from the comfort of a minibus on to a bike and into some of the most remote country in the UK, I was reminded to “hold on to the door, or the wind will rip it off”.
I am on a taster trip of Wilderness Scotland’s new North Coast 500 seven-day cycling adventure, a 516-mile circular scenic road route round the top coast of Scotland that starts and finishes in Inverness. On my first cycling day, winds are blustering around 30-40mph, but my cycling guide and driver Mark Cox, with 30 years of cycling, sea kayaking and mountaineering guiding experience, has no qualms. Mark the “wind whisperer” can adjust the route to make sure cyclists are not riding into strong headwinds, he explains, which is why this trip is about half the official route. They have cherry-picked sections, avoiding busy roads and adding in a rest day to explore.
North Coast 500 was launched in 2015 as an initiative to help the local economy and such is the marketing potential of this route, it is co-sponsored by Aston Martin. The switchback single track road from Achiltibuie to Drumbeg in Assynt is a great equaliser: no one can go faster than 25mph, so there is delightful synergy between car, camper van and cyclist, as we all want to give way to the other to stop and enjoy the white beaches, soaring peregrine falcons, cormorants, sea eagles and dive-bombing gannets.
While eyeing up the 20-plus range of freshly baked pies at the Lochinver Larder (yes please to fresh poached salmon in a creamy seafood sauce with dill and potato), I meet four lean Lycra-clad cyclists from the army on a “fun” cycling and camping training trip. They made me realise how Wilderness Scotland makes the NC500 very achievable: they book all the meals and accommodation, due to the overwhelming popularity of the route and relative scarcity of restaurants and hotels. They also provide bikes, which are valeted every night by the guides, and picnic refreshments en route, such as cafetière coffee (specially blended by the Inverness Coffee Roasting Company).
On my last day, as we head east along the top of Scotland, I get my first glimpse of Orkney, then cycle past old flagstone-cutting mills – a reminder of a 200-year-old worldwide industry exporting Caithness flagstones. Suddenly my thoughts of kitchen-floor upgrades are supplanted by the sight of the bright red, green and blue houses of John O’Groats, which lies on the UK’s most northeastern tip. When I arrive at the iconic white signpost, there is an informal queue of cyclists lining up for photos. I feel an incredible sense of adventure and achievement at having cycled through such dramatic and varied landscape and also a sadness that the journey is over. Mark comments: “It’s the camaraderie and the craic of the group which makes the week. It’s handshakes at the beginning and hugs at the end.”
So when is the best time to go? Pretty much anytime, thanks to the wind: the feared west coast midges, whose biting clouds can ruin a day, won’t come out if there is a whiff of a breeze above 6mph – one thing you can rely on.
The North Coast 500 cycling trip begins in 2019. The six-night tour includes bed and breakfast accommodation, lunch, some evening meals, a guide and support rider. Bikes are available for hire. From £1,695 (wildernessscotland.com)
Breaking the wall: Hadrian’s Cycleway, by Helen Pidd
There is something tremendously satisfying about pedalling from one side of an island to the other, so it’s no wonder the English coast-to-coast is top of so many cycling bucket lists. The problem with the “official” C2C route – and also its selling point – is that it’s thigh-tremblingly hilly. Happily, there is an alternative for those who want to traverse the north in a challenging but rather less masochistic manner: Hadrian’s Cycleway.
Named after the Roman wall guy, the 174-mile Sustrans route starts in Ravenglass in southwest Cumbria. Pleasingly signposted with a centurion’s helmet and the number 72, it hugs the coast to the Solway Firth and heads east to South Shields, very loosely following the route of Hadrian’s brickwork.
Since I’m allergic to panniers, I went with CycleActive, who organise self-guided trips with luggage transfers and accommodation. They bin the first 23 miles and start at Whitehaven on the grounds that a) Hadrian probably went nowhere near Ravenglass, b) Whitehaven is easier to get to, and c) 151 miles with 7,171ft climbing is quite enough, thank you very much. Like most right-thinking people, they go west-to-east because there’s more chance of a tail wind. Their version ends in Tynemouth because what better way to toast the achievement than fish and chips in a proper seaside resort?
The trip takes three days, perfect for the two-wheeled dilettante. Day one is flat – it was a good few hours before I’d burned off the deservedly award-winning breakfast from Brookfield Guest House in Penrith, from where we had been bussed to the start. I borrowed one of CycleActive’s bikes, a Trek hybrid with mountain bike suspension and knobbly tyres: a bit of a tank for getting up hills, despite low gearing, but perfect for the many miles of gravel and muddy cycle paths the route encompasses.
Until this trip, I’d never been north of Maryport. Now I could work for the Solway Estuary tourist board. The red sandstone beaches! The double-fronted Georgian houses! The view of the Galloway hills over to Scotland!
Night two was in Carlisle, memorable only for the dreamy slow-cooked beef shin I had at Foxborough, a friendly restaurant. By that point I’d still not seen any of Hadrian’s wall, despite 61 miles in my legs. He’d turn in his mausoleum if he knew that the start of his legendary fortification, in lovely Bowness-on-Solway, is now marked with a dog poo bag dispenser bigger than the sign.
It took another 20-odd miles before I saw any of Hadrian’s handiwork, near Birdoswald Roman Fort, on day two, the hilliest third of the trip. I paid £8.30 to visit the fort: an expensive crash course in Roman history. Carry on instead to Vindolanda, an archaeological treasure trove which was a key military post built on the northern frontier of Britain several decades before Hadrian got into wall-building.
Roman ruins are not usually my thing but I loved the snazzy sandals the archaeologists have dug up, and the wonderfully banal letters written on wooden tablets, especially a Roman woman begging her pal to come to her birthday party. Pro tip: if you’re planning some sightseeing, don’t wear slippy cycling shoes you can’t walk in. I’ll be billing the Romans for some new cleats.
I began day three refreshed after a night in the beautiful Carraw Guesthouse, which is built right on the wall, a few miles off-route but well worth the detour. It was a long day in the saddle with some weaving in and out of industrial estates – but overall an adventure of Roman proportions.
The three-day, three-night tour costs £325 including accommodation and luggage transfer. Bike hire is £90 or £135 for an electric bike (cycleactive.com)
Training wheels: woodland trails in Hampshire, by Chris Hall
The long, rocky driveway to beautiful Blackwood Forest in Hampshire was the perfect preparation for some healthy relaxation during our cycling holiday, forcing us to slow down. When we were finally in the 270-hectare wood and at our cabin, we could feel this was going to be our little oasis, the still immensity of its dense beech tree canopy muting the nearby M3 to a distant murmur.
Forest Holidays is a back-to-nature set-up with cabins sparsely dotted among the woods and there are three walking and bike trails (the longest is 6km) within the grounds. “Did somebody say ‘hot tub’?” became our four-year-old’s catchphrase during our stay – her cheeky attempt to get us back from the cycling and into the tub on the patio whenever possible. We also had a log burner and a gas barbecue, too.
We were a little wary about how much cycling our 10-year-old daughter would be able to manage given that she mostly just pootles around a local park and hasn’t been on the road yet, but apart from a few slightly steep sections where she got off and pushed, she was fine. None of us is exactly king or queen of the mountains so we were very happy indeed with the gently undulating trails and the top-notch mountain bikes we hired. I strapped our four-year-old daughter into a little single trailer attached to my bike and she happily bumped along admiring the scenery – though she occasionally insisted on getting out and running alongside us while we cycled. (I didn’t think we were going that slowly – you could say she’s quite energetic.)
The tracks are very safe and you only come across a few cars (and other cyclists for that matter) on the gravel roads in the forest and they’re going so slowly that it’s not a worry. There are plenty of other nearby trails outside of the forest if you’re more adventurous or your children are used to the roads.
Stopping to see some horses in a nearby paddock, all was calm and quiet until our elder daughter breathlessly informed us of a snake she’d seen slither back into the undergrowth. Hmm, perhaps it was a slow-worm? “No, Dad, it was a snake!” It was probably not the best time for me to remind them of The Gruffalo (“A snake saw the mouse, and the mouse looked good”) and I could see our youngest getting agitated so we swiftly took off again.
Alison, our brilliant and sprightly Forest Ranger, took us out early that evening on a short tour and engaged us all in the history of the forest and its flora and fauna – explaining why yew trees are often found in churchyards, the difference between the meadow and forest plants, the different types of deer, the purple emperor butterflies she’s seen here – and confirmed that, yes, it was almost certainly a slow-worm my daughter had seen.
On Sunday, after making the short drive to Winchester for lunch and a wander around the beautiful cathedral grounds, we headed home for another cycle around the forest and back to our hot tub for one last well-earned soak.
A three-night break in a Golden Oak three-bed cabin at Blackwood Forest costs £695. Bike hire from £18 (forestholidays.co.uk/blackwood-forest)
More rides to enjoy
Whizz around a velodrome, bounce down a mountain trail or follow a sedate path by the sea…
1. The velodrome experience It’s unlikely you’ll break a cycling speed record on your commute, but you might at a velodrome. The indoor track at the Lee Valley VeloPark, dubbed the Pringle because its curving roof resembles a crisp, is where Sir Chris Hoy and Dame Sarah Storey won London Olympic golds. It’s also the fastest in the world. All abilities are catered for, including kids; hour-long taster sessions cost £45. You can also experience perilous speed at Manchester’s National Cycling Centre, the busiest velodrome in the world. Taster sessions cost £10.50 (visitleevalley.org.uk; nationalcyclingcentre.com).
2. The car-free experience What better place to cycle than one of the few places in the world that is joyfully car-free? Get a ferry from Guernsey to Sark, the least spoilt of the Channel Islands. Locals (all 600 of them) get around on foot, by bike or on horse-drawn carts. Bike hire is available all year, and trails will take you pretty much the whole way around the island, through plush forests, to broad sandy beaches. However, cycling the cliff-top paths is forbidden, a local advises – it’s walking only – and cycling after dark is best avoided as there is no street lighting. The upside is that Sark is a “dark sky island”, so it’s ideal for star gazing – you can cycle by day and enjoy the spectacular sight of the Milky Way by night (Bikes can be hired from atobcycles.com or avenuecyclessark.co.uk).
3. The downhill experience If it’s adrenaline and nature you’re after, head to Coed y Brenin (“the forest of the king”), a mountain bike mecca in Snowdonia National Park. You can choose from eight trails – one, for beginners, takes in the magnificent waterfalls on the Gain and Mawddach rivers and is based on open forest roads. The centre’s most challenging trail is suitably titled the Beast of Brenin, physically and emotionally challenging but with spectacular views of Snowdonia (beicsbrenin.co.uk/trails).
4. The trans-UK experience If you fancy the long-haul challenge rather than a one-day affair, try EuroVelo – a network of 15 long-distance cycling routes that criss-cross Europe. The destinations sound romantic and ambitious – Ireland to Russia (EuroVelo2) or the North Sea Route (EuroVelo12) that begins in Bergen, Norway, passes through Denmark, Holland and Germany, and ends in the Orkney Islands – complete the journey and you’ll have clocked up 5,900km. For a gentler option you could stick to the British one, taking you from east Anglia up to Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Inverness, before you have to navigate the North Sea ferry system. “Sample wee drams in Scotland,” the EuroVelo website advises. You’ll need to sample a lot more than that (eurovelo.com).
5. The family-friendly experience The Camel Trail is popular with families for good reason – you can cycle for 17 miles one way under the cover of a canopy of trees for part of it following an old railway line along the north Cornwall estuary, then along the River Camel and the sandy shores of the Camel Estuary. The flat terrain makes it perfect for young children and there’s a range of bikes available: “tagalongs” for children who’ve just started cycling, trailers for toddlers and tandems for adults and teens, from £28. The reward? Reaching the picturesque harbour town of Padstow with its cobbled streets, cosy pubs and cafés: homemade Cornish ice cream for the kids, Rick Stein’s fish and chips and a pint of Tribute from the St Austell Brewery for deserving grown-ups (cameltrailcyclehire.co.uk).
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