After almost a decade walking the National Trails of England, Scotland and Wales I needed a new challenge. I noticed a sign on the Cleveland Way which gave directions for the North Sea Cycle Route (NSCR), sounds interesting. This led to the world of the Sustrans National Cycle Network (NCN) and Eurovelo project.
Cycle touring seemed an opportunity to travel greater distances and in more comfort, so in 2017 I completed that tour, 6,000km around the North Sea over 55 days. This journey was a great success, so for the next adventure I considered the Wild Atlantic Way (WAW) in Ireland.
The first journey explored the Anglo Saxon and Viking coasts, and the Wild Atlantic Way offered an opportunity to do the same for a Celtic nation. With a little imagination I could add Cornwall, Wales and Scotland to the itinerary which led to the concept of cycling the Atlantic Seaboard from Land’s End to John o’Groats (LEJOG), some 4,000km. Studying the Sustrans and Eurovelo maps suggested I connect NCN Routes 3, 4, 78 and 780 to the WAW to form one continuous journey.
So with a rough route in mind I started to plan in more detail. I anticipated a 40 day journey, using these routes and a few ferries. Hotels and B&Bs each night would be prohibitively expensive, so I researched hostels and camping sites. The Independent Hostel guide and Youth Hostel Association covered Scotland and England, and various searches reveal possibilities for Ireland. Campsites can be searched on Google Maps. All of this information can then be plotted on My Maps, overlaying the upload GPX files. While not sticking to a strict schedule or booking ahead, it would save time researching accommodation each evening.
My bike, a red Thorn Sherpa, required a decent service, new transmission and tyres, but remained unchanged to the formula that worked around the North Sea. It is a traditional setup, with Ortlieb panniers and gear shared with my backpacking equipment, except perhaps for a slightly larger tent and bigger kitchen. To save costs, I planned to cook as much as possible and stay at campsites or wild camp. Hostels every 3-4 days would make for greater comfort and an opportunity to meet like minded travellers. All up the load carried was 20kg. Even with this weight the bike handled superbly and was comfortable, even on rough tracks.
I am a bit casual about Navigation and tend to just follow the signs, which for the NCN, are usually excellent. Whenever I felt lost I would just pull out my Android smartphone and open the View Ranger or Backcountry Navigator apps to pinpoint my position. After many years I have developed a sixth sense, which tells me something is up – the sun is in the wrong place, the wind has changed, tyre marks have gone and so on…
What came as a surprise when I cycled NCN Route 1 as part of the NSCR, was the extent of the traffic free sections and quiet roads. Cycling was much safer than I expected, only 15% of the route is shared with traffic, which I took to mean > 10 cars per hour. This was equally true for NCN Route 3, which takes you from Land’s End to Bristol. The only challenge being the relentless climbs and descents of the Cornish and Devon landscape. It is a brutal introduction, made easier with connecting former railway lines, notably the Camel and Tarka trails, popular at holiday times.
Crossing the Severn Bridge on NCN Route 4 (like the M4 but for bicycles) I entered into Wales and again follow great cycle paths through the urban areas of Newport (via the Transport Bridge), Cardiff, Port Talbot and Swansea. These paths connected to lovely disused railway sections which led into the quieter countryside of Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire. After a few days I had crossed Wales east to west and boarded the Fishguard to Rosslare ferry, with a few other cycle tourists. The first I had met.
It was wonderful to be back in Ireland after 25 years and a large welcoming Eurovelo Route 1 sign pointed westwards. Good roads, the Waterford Greenway, a couple of ferries and a few busy stretches led me to Kinsale. The start of the WAW.
I should perhaps point out, that the WAW is more of a marketing concept than an actual cycle route and is really designed for motor vehicles. Nevertheless it is a route used annually for a WAW Cycle Sportif and with a few exceptions is generally safe for cycling. Unfortunately, it is not yet up to the standards of the NCN, so I used a 1:400,000 Michelin Map (#712) to seek out quieter roads. This was successful and on the whole I had a safe riding experience, more than offset by some glorious coastal cycling and idilic rural lanes.
The coast is exposed to the Atlantic ocean and weather in a more dramatic way than I had experienced (“Wild and Windy” is a better translation of WAW). Combined with Irish hospitality and relax nature made for pleasant days, even if it is raining and wet. Now I get “inside” the ride, a point at which I have left my normal life behind and the cycle tour routine kicks in. I’m packed and fed each morning within an hour. A huge bowl of Flahavan’s porridge with nuts and berries is perfect cycling fuel, washed down with fresh coffee made using an Aeropress system – a weight penalty I could not contemplate as a backpacker.
On the road from Mizen Head I came across numerous M2M painted marks in the road way. These, I later learned, mean Mizen to Malin, the Irish equivalent to LEJOG and over 600km in length. A distance covered in a straight line and two days by ultra-athletes. It would take me a further two weeks hugging the coast. Perhaps 2,000km to reach Malin Head – but why rush? I could not miss the iconic Healy and Conor passes ahead, with tough ascents, yet exhilarating descents and a chance to see panoramic views.
Choosing my own route, but keeping roughly to the coast and electing not to explore every peninsula, I progressed up the west coast taking ferries as they presented themselves. Dingle and the Ring of Kerry deserve their popularity, but the less popular Beara Peninsula and Slea Head were not to be missed as a cyclist. The biggest “short cut” ferry is across Galway Bay via the Aran Isles, which are a delight and fit in with the spirit of an Atlantic coastal journey. Connemara retains a strong Irish speaking community and has lovely cycling roads all the way to Clifden through an ancient rural landscape. The past few days are perhaps a highlight of the tour as a whole, taken at a relaxing pace, stopping for long lunches at the many picturesque locations.
Campsites and hostels have been great so far and I am meeting more people who are touring the west coast, mostly from Europe and America. We share notes and experiences, which often result in changes to plans. I hear about the Western Greenway Cycle route to Achill Island from Westport and good cycle shops that can help me find a new chain I am sure I will need. Surfers frequent a particularly nice section along the coast past Easky towards Sligo, where of all places Halfords has the exact right chain I need. The smooth transmission has improved my mood after enduring mechanical imperfection and I take a half-day servicing the bike and giving my body a chance to rest. I am averaging a pleasing 100km a day, but now I judge progress in units of time rather than distance. If I have cycled 8 hours elapse I am happy.
I had high expectations of Donegal, having spent a few boozy nights there many years ago, enjoying the local craic and superb music. Nowadays it seems to be a tourist trap, with coach loads of people idling about, studying overpriced menus. I’m happy to move on to Killybegs, a pelagic fishing port, along the beginnings of the Donegal Cycle Network (DCN). The campsite to the south of the port offers superb views south towards Benbulbin, a distinctive coastal mountain.
County Donegal is very relaxing and superb for cycling. The roads are quiet and new former railway lines are being converted for off road cycling use. Ideal for my Thorn Sherpa with wide 2″ tyres. Sections past Errigal on peat roads and farm tracks are rugged and tough going, but a welcome break from traffic. The DCN follows Eurovelo 1. I would highly recommend the region for cycle tours, with perhaps a break to walk along Slieve League – some of the highest coastal cliffs in Europe.
I time my pace to catch two ferries ahead, but learn that the Rathmullan ferry has not yet started the summer season, so I divert around Letterkenny and cycle along Drongawn Lough towards Malin Head, the most northerly point in Ireland. I’m the only guest at a huge hostel in Buncrana and sleep well before an exhilarating day on the Inishowen Peninsula. I have a favourable tailwind that beautifully changes direction with me into Moville. Malin Head does not disappoint for its raw beauty, watching the Atlantic swell crash against the rugged coastline.
It is a calm evening, with a still sea, but on waking a full gale has kicked in. I depart early to catch the 08:00hr ferry from Greencastle across Lough Foyle. The crew are studying the sea state and unfortunately tell me the service is cancelled. I now have a long detour via Londonderry, but set to the task, with a touch of adrenaline. I have to be in Ballycastle that evening for a ferry to Islay the next day. I don’t feel guilty about using a train service to Coleraine to at least cut out some heavy traffic and fierce headwinds, but I can’t resist riding along the North West 200 motorcycle road course into Portstewart and Portrush. One week later, motorbikes would travel at speeds of 200mph along the same roads. I reach my destination hostel in time, after bypassing the Giant’s Causeway and the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. The Antrim coast is wild, made more so in the Force 9 gale I battle against.
It is with sadness I now leave Ireland for Scotland and Islay. The boat, a fast RIB, takes bicycles and I am met at the quayside by three cycling couples planning tours north. The crossing saves me several days. My only other options was to take the vehicle service from Larne to Cairnryan and cycle NCN 73 and 7 to Ardrossan and cross to the Mull of Kintyre via Arran. After a tipple at one distillery, I take the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry to Kennacraig and cycle in glorious weather to Oban, using the Crinan canal route along NCN Route 78. A good tailwind brings me into the town on a gorgeous sunny day. I meet up with many more cyclists, all kitted out with Bikepacking rigs, en route, like me to Barra and the Outer Hebrides. The gulls are stealing the seafood from unwary tourists who have just spent £30 for a platter of lobster, shellfish, crabs and prawns. No wonder the Herring Gulls are so large and brazen, the spread looks delicious.
We see Dolphins chasing the ferry as we glide across the Sea of the Hebrides and arrive in Castlebay late afternoon. A dozen cyclists depart and go their separate ways to hostels and campsites. I settle in to a site I know well and relax to the sounds of Oystercatchers and a rolling swell gently crashing onto the beach below.
Somehow, and I still don’t know how, I ride the 185 mile length of the Hebridean Way (NCN 780) in 3 days. It usually takes 5. It is amazing how much a strong tailwind helps. Perhaps more telling is the uncanny knack I seem to have of arriving at a ferry terminal 10 minutes before departure. So I perfectly connect to South Uist and ride to the hostel on Berneray, a few miles from the ferry to Harris. The hostel is full of quirky, battle hardened cyclist and walkers drying out in front of a coal fire. We have a great evening finding out if all 500 pieces of a wildlife jigsaw puzzle are in the box, drinking tea and sharing stories as the picture builds, each one of us assigned to a particular species.
The beaches on Harris are sublime, followed by the ascent of An Cliseam in heavy mist towards Tarbert. A roadside burger van is a perfect fuel stop before I set out to the west coast on Lewis and the Stones of Callanish. The hostel at Garenin fortunately has one bunk left. So I settle in with an excited group of Canadians, Americans, Scots and Czechs for the evening in an old Black House, recently restored. Unfortunately, the peat fire has been replaced with an awful remote controlled electric effect monstrosity. I don’t know if to laugh or cry.
I’m up early and the day is glorious. I can reach the Butt of Lewis lighthouse today and pedal to a hostel in Stornoway before catching the ferry to Ullapool. Lunchtime consists of moreish Black Pudding rolls, a local delicacy. In the capital, I meet more cyclists and pitch my tent in the garden. We meet later at the local brewery for a pint or two to share stories epic climbs and sandy beaches.
The crossing to Ullapool is surreal. The Minch is like a mill pond, silky smooth with crystal clear visibility, that I cannot believe how close the mountains of Coigach appear – I think we are off to Harris and I’m on the wrong ferry. I service the bike again, replacing brake blocks and sample local food from a great food shack. My fellow cyclists have found out a Ceilidh is on this evening. It is not advertised and the local shop selling tickets asks how I heard of it. The evening is fantastic, with many tunes and reels that make a homesick cyclist reflect on the journey and the few days remaining.
Now onto the North Coast 500, at first light, to avoid peak traffic. I hear Cuckoos and see Eagles in a silence that makes your ears pop. The geological abnormalities of Suilven, Stac Pollaidh, Canisp and Quinag are unreal and cycling through this landscape is perhaps one of the greatest cycling experiences. I cycle alongside competitors in the Cape Wrath challenge before entering Durness, whose supporters are keen to know if I can remember the leading runners bib number. It is a long day into Melvich and a bustling North Coast 500 campsite, full of camper vans and motorcyclists. I chat to a few, who struggle to believe how far I have cycled over the past few weeks.
The journey now to John o’Groats seems trivial and the final marker post is deserted on a dreary day. Looking at the forecast which demands I carry on into Wick to camp overnight before a long train and sleeper service home. The passenger (seating) coach is faulty and we are upgraded to sleeper beds. I wake at Euston to the bustle and noise of London going to work. I have to stop and adjust for 30 minutes, before cycling across the city to catch a train home.
What next? Perhaps take Eurovelo 1 to Nordcap, or south into Portugal and Spain, similar Celtic communities that, no doubt, still retain the echo of a strong connection with the route I have just taken.
This blog post also appears on www.wildaboutscotland.com a fellow cyclist, walker and campervan’r.