Planning a route around the Atlantic Seaboard of Scotland would certainly include the Western Isles, but planning a route across the Inner and Southern Hebrides had infinite possibilities. I resign myself to doing a route around the islands at a later date and to catch a ferry to Barra to complete the Hebridean Way.
I was a delight to see so many cycle tourists waiting for the Islay ferry at Ballycastle. Our bikes were loaded swiftly and we settled into our aircraft like seats and lifejackets. The weather was set fair we were all really looking forward to crossing the North Channel.
90 minutes later we disembarked at Port Ellen after a wonderful high-speed crossing in the powerful RIB used by The Kintyre Express service. The winds are slight and the skies are clear as I set out to explore the distilleries along the south eastern shores. Suitably refreshed I set off across an inland route to Port Aksaig to catch a late afternoon ferry to Kennacraig on the Mull of Kintyre. I dawdled gentle along the lanes in no particular rush to reach the terminal, busy with happy tourists delighted with the weather. The Paps of Jura dominate the skyline.
After a mill pond crossing, without any sightings of Dolphins or the like, I settled into a campsite in process of being constructed. Before I slept I noticed a delay on the CalMac App to Barra the next day and calculated that I could make that ferry if I got up early enough. The roads were excellent and a fresh tailwind saw me pushing a great average speed all the way to Oban, via the Crinan Canal and National Cycle Route (NCR) 78 in part. I meet up with cycling friends I met in Ballycastle and after a good shop at Tesco before sailing to the Western Isles, we wait by the quayside in glorious weather. At least 20 other cyclist join us, all resplendent in bikepacking rigs.
At last we saw Dolphins as we cross the Sea of the Hebrides to Barra, chasing the ferry bow waves in crystal clear water. We dock and go our separate ways, some to wild camp on Vatersay, some to stay at the hostel. I camp further up along the west coast and rest well, to be woken by Sandpipers in the early morning. I’m now on the Hebridean Way (aka NCR 780).
My rules for this trip did not mean that I had to religiously follow the Wild Atlantic Way (WAW). Any route by bike or ferry that kept to the Atlantic Coast was acceptable. I also wanted to visit the Aran Islands again, after a 25 year absence, to see what has changed.
I could catch the ferry to Inisheer, then later to Inishmore and stay at the campsite. Question was which ferry to catch, the competition being fierce between the MV Happy Hooker and Bill O’Brien’s Doolin Ferry. The latter won out, giving an opportunity to see one of the smaller Aran Islands.
I had been cycling with a strong westerly wind that morning and the sea state was rough. This didn’t seem to worry the Doolin Express which coped easily with the swell as we left the harbour, much to the excitement of the passengers aboard. You certainly needed your sea legs for this journey.
Safely deposited on Caherard Pier, Inisheer, I set about exploring the island before the later ferry to Inishmore. It didn’t take long, so I settled on the beach to absorb the peace and tranquility of the island. The upturned Currach’s waited patiently to be put to some use, but needed experienced rowers, who perhaps now had turned their attention to providing horse and trap trips for visitors.
It was nice to just sit and reflect for a while, but soon I was ushered aboard the Doolin Express for Inishmore. I was the only passenger, the ferry really making the journey to collect day trippers for return to Doolin. Inishmore has changed significantly in the 25 years since I last stepped ashore. Kilronan harbour has been enlarged and more commercial activities predominate, not least huge fleets of hire bicycles.
My original idea was just to cycle the Wild Atlantic Way (WAW) in Ireland, catching ferries from Fishguard to Rosslare and from Larne to Cairnryan. But why not follow the Atlantic seaboard from Lands’ End to Cape Wrath and then extend it to John o’Groats too? Part 1 and 2 cover England and Wales, now into the meat of the ride.
After an uneventful ferry journey and nice campsite at Tagoat, I set out for the start of the WAW at Kinsale. Along the country lanes I immediately notice I am getting the finger from local drivers, but not the f’off sign I get back home, but the inverse – a gentle acknowledgement and welcome. This is pleasant cycling as I follow the new Eurovelo 1 signs through gentle remote farmland.
The ferryman at Ballyhack collects €2 and transports me to the opposite bank of the River Barrow and into Country Waterford. The car registrations confirming what the boundary signs tell me. It is a brief cycle to a cafe in Waterford Quay for lunch, before I connect with the Waterford Greenway – a traffic free cycle route along a rail line to Dungarvan. The route is easy under wheel, but hard going into the wind. I have to give way to a tourist train that runs parallel to the cycle path, full of warm cosseted passengers.
The sea comes into view after passing through a tunnel, decorated with pixie like carvings by local school children. I stop to check directions and meet Jack and Sonia again, a couple I met on the ferry. We cycle together to Caseys campsite and are made most welcome by the owner, busily preparing the site for the summer season.
Cycling during a school run is never pleasant, but soon I am winding my way through the Monmouthshire country lanes towards Newport. The NCR 4 will take me all the way to Fishguard for the ferry to Ireland in a few days, after cycling through the industrial landscape of South Wales.
Llanwern Steelworks dominates the skyline until I arrive at the wonderful Newport Transporter Bridge. One of only 8 in the world, it is a marvel of engineering and a fantastic way to cross the River Usk. Everyone is smiling and happy in the glorious weather. Everywhere is beautiful on a clear sunny day.
The castle at Caerphilly is an ideal time to stop for lunch. The whole town centre seems to be doing the same. All of us watching the geese nonchalantly waddling around looking for tidbits. A good rail track leads to Pontypridd, which would not be at the top of my list for a lunchtime stop and is followed by a steep, endless climb out of the valley and into the hills. The effort is worthwhile as the descent follows the Ogmore Valley. I can imagine the unspoilt beauty of this part of Wales in a pre-industrial era.
It took some effort to persuade the local campsite to let me stay. Even though the weather is grand, the ground is sodden and have not yet opened. It is a convenient stop, before entering Bridgend and navigating towards Port Talbot by way of the smoke stack belching from the steel works. There are well maintained cycle paths, a result of significant investment, with dedicated bridges to keep you away from the traffic.
After cycling the North Sea Cycle Route in 2017, I hatched a plan to cycle the Atlantic Coast from Land’s End to John o’Groats, via England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland. Although shorter (I estimated 4,000km), this was going to be tougher than the 6,000km NSCR, but with more dramatic coastal scenery. Starting in April will add to the fun, with the threat of high winds and rain.
The journey started with cycling from Land’s End to the Severn Bridge along National Cycle Route 3 taking in the hills of Cornwall and Devon, before the Somerset levels. I would use Youth Hostels where possible and camp otherwise, cooking for myself to keep costs down.
The journey started at Slough station, changing at Reading for the service to Penzance. The guards vans empty apart so plenty of space for a fully loaded Thorn Sherpa. A short (hilly) cycle ride brings me to Land’s End, deserted in the rain and wind for the mandatory photograph, fish & chips before reaching the nearby Youth Hostel. I rest easy, contemplating 40-50 days cycling, keeping the Atlantic coast to my left hand side. The hostel is full of adventurous types, walking the SWCP.
The rest was important, as this is Cornwall, where the profile of the hills resembles a chocolate Toblerone bar, the older version without wider spaces between the peaks. A great way to get in shape as you cross the grain of the land. National Cycle Route 3 (NCR 3) takes me through former mining areas between Redruth, Camborne and Truro, patrolled by eerie squadrons of crows and ravens, that frame the desolation, towards King Harry ferry to cross the River Fal.
Now approaching it’s second birthday, my red Thorn Sherpa has carried me around the North Sea Cycle Route and the Atlantic Seaboard. Time to reflect on the quality and performance of a dedicated touring bike after a fair amount of abuse. I would estimate it has covered 10,000km over 100 long riding days, perhaps as much as 50% off-road.
I purchased the bike with a few sensible modifications and added an Alpkit Frame Bag and Ortlieb panniers:
Thorn Sherpa Mk3 frame 600L – straight bars
Shimano Deore hubs, 10-speed triple chain-set (48/36/26) / cassette (11-36) with XT 9-speed rear derailleur and Dura Ace thumshifters
Andra 30 wheels, standard front and CSS rear, with XT V-brakes/levers, standard brake blocks front, Swiss-stop blue pads rear
Schwalbe Marathon Dureme 26 x 2″
Brookes B17 saddle
Shimano T780 SPD pedals
Thorn expedition racks front and rear and a T-bar extension for the handlebar bag
Ortlieb Front Loader Plus and Bike Packer Plus panniers
20-year old Ortlieb front bag
Cateye Volt800 front and TL-1000 rear lights
Bordo 6000 lock
Over a period of 2 years I have changed:
3 chains – replaced with Shimano HG-X 10-speed
1 Marathon Dureme tyre (rear)
5-6 front brake blocks
Shimano T780 pedals for Shimano T8000
Front hub outer cones and bearings
Complete chain-set for an XT M780 triple (42/32/24), including Bottom Bracket
I was expecting greater durability from the transmission, but given the wet, gravel, cinder and off-road tracks I frequented, I am happy with the 6,000km the original set covered. Finding HG-X chains at bike shops proved difficult, as they tended to cater for road bike transmissions. I changed these every 3,000km. After the major service, I replacing the entire system with lower gearing XT chain set. The 42/32/24 front chain rings gearing are my preferred my choice now – they are more durable and ideal ratios for pushing heavy loads up steep hills.
The Dura Ace thumb shifters are great and changing gear becomes second nature after a while. Gear changes have been faultless and accurate on the whole.
The bottom bracket came loose after 2,000km due to a broken spacer shim, easily fixed. But the bearings were a wreck shortly afterwards as water had found it’s way into the frame and bottom bracket cavity.
The tyres are superb, offering grip and durability and tackling loose gravel and heavy conditions easily. However, the replacement pair doesn’t seem to be lasting as long, perhaps they are using a different compound. Continue reading →
After 38 days of cycling and approximately 4,000km I am back home. Cycling from Lands End to John o’Groats hugging the Atlantic Coast around England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland. I generally followed the Sustrans National cycle routes 3,4 and 780; the Wild Atlantic Way, Hebridean Way and North Coast 500 on my trusty Thorn Sherpa. The weather was Wild and Windy, with many good clear exhilarating days. Mostly camping, with the occasional Hostel.
Now I have completed the North Sea Cycle Route and the Atlantic Seaboard, I am thinking of circling the Irish Sea and English Channel to complete all of the coastal options around the British Isles.
Cycling from Land’s End to John o’Groats (LEJOG) via the Wild Atlantic Way. Google MyMaps plan completed at https://goo.gl/raAtwt
I think I have a plan. Follow the NCR 3 and 4 from Land’s End to Fishguard and then catch a ferry to Ireland. Connect to the Wild Atlantic Way at Kinsale and follow the Irish coast to Ballycastle. Ferry to Islay, Colonsay, Oban, Barra (maybe Mull), then the Hebridian Way to Stornoway. Ferry to Ullapool and then coastal to John o’Groats. About 4,000km I think. Mostly Eurovelo 1, but with many diversions.
With a bit of effort, I have finally got my head around using Google MyMaps. This is an extension to Google Maps that allows you to overlay points of interest (POIs), photographs and route information on top of Google Maps. This aids navigation and can be used to record locations on your journey for future reference.
Here is the MyMaps I used for the North Sea Cycle Route. It shows campsites, photographs (automatically geotagged), Ferries and other POIs.
Click on these links to interact with the map. You can switch each layer on/off and zoom into each country:
My arrival in Germany was rewarded with a huge punnet of Strawberry’s, perhaps not as good as the Norwegian variety, but succulent nonetheless. The landscape had barely changed, the same sheep tracks, gates and sheep droppings I had been cycling through for days. On occasion, the track was on the seaward side. The view of the Nordfriessische Inseln (islands) was ethereal, a mirage of sea, sky and man-made navigational towers.
I waited at a railway crossing to see a surreal sight of a train, transporting cars, with the drivers and passengers still seated within – reading the days papers. Their destination was Sylt, the aspirational holiday destination which can only be reached by train.
I cross a huge tidal barrier, which guards the entrance to the River Eider. full of day tourists enjoying the endless North Sea views. Continue reading →