North Sea Cycle Route (Part 2) Norway

Flying from London Heathrow to Norway was easier than I expected, once I could negotiate Terminal 5 with a bike box. Unpacking and reassembling my Thorn Sherpa in the baggage lounge drew stares, but not as many as I exited Customs dressed and prepared for the next 4,000km of my journey back to London. A surreal scene.

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I had no idea where I would stay that night, but the first task was to find the Hanseatic quayside at Bryggen. This set of buildings marks the start of the North Sea Cycle Route, continuing south and around the coast of Norway towards the Oslofjord. Encouraged by the quality of the cycle paths and roads, I pedalled all the way to the Hahljem and caught the ferry.

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It was then only a few miles to Fitjar and a deserted campsite, apart from a French cycle tourist. The midges were swarming, so I spent a few hours chatting in the communal kitchen about cycle touring and the route south. Cycling 100km in half a day bodes well for the task ahead.

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The roads and cycle paths are a revelation, beautifully smooth and guiding you through the quiet wild coastal scenery of Norway. Every summit reveals an unspoilt landscape of forest and fjords, peppered with local Hutte (huts) that serve as a wilderness retreat for many Norwegians. Campsites are great and an opportunity to meet fellow cyclists. These could be found using Google Maps on my smartphone, which now has good 4G signal and free data wherever I go, thanks to the new roaming regulations and superb Norwegian mobile network.

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I have written a separate blog on the ferry journeys, as these need to be carefully planned to avoid impossibly long detours. Many crossings are discontinued in favour of new road tunnels, which cannot be used by cyclists. The only option, in this case, is to catch a bus or train, but fortunately, the NSCR follows tunnel free routes. I took a shortcut on one section that looked fine on the map, but a tunnel appeared after a long ascent. Several mountain bikers passed me earlier, so I knew there was a way around and I was very fortunate that the old mountain path was still in use. This serendipitous route leads to a close encounter with a White Tailed Sea Eagle, soaring overhead.

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I arrived in Stavanger a day after staying in Haugesund to torrential rain and a bottom bracket that was making unhealthy noises. I found a cycle shop still open until 8 PM and a mechanic happily replace a broken shim to get me going again. Forever grateful I cycle south across a landscape of dairy farms and arable crops until reaching a punishing rough track climbing and descending into Egersund.  The local sign for steep ascent is Brekkabakken – how true.

Now into the mountains, with a series of steep ascents and exhilarating descents down hairpin roads. The Thorn is handling superbly; I lose height faster than the traffic, loaded with camping gear. At one stage I bank over around a 470-degree bend. Yes, one full circle and then a tunnel under the road, I had to draw it out to work out that angle.

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I meet a young student from the Czech Republic, cycling home after an Erasmus year in Trondheim to Brno. He has built a bike for $25 with second-hand panniers but is much fitter than me. We spend a day together as we ride into Kristiansand, where he catches a ferry to Denmark. My route continues northeast towards Oslo.

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The picturesque inlets and ports follow, one by one to a lovely campsite at Gjeving. Endless pleasure boats and spotlessly maintained hutte. The national pastime in Norway seems to be using a lawnmower. Each green lawn is immaculate, including the ones cut by battery-powered Husqvarna robots. It seems almost everything here runs on electricity, the endless procession of Tesla’s, Nissan’s and Toyota’s. Everyone seems to have an electric bike, which becomes apparent as I am regularly overtaken up the hills, by grannies with a full load of shopping. I will later learn to draft the e-bikes in Holland and Germany.

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There is a correlation between the midge population and the quality of the landscape, the more beautiful the scenery, the higher the density of midge clouds. Moving at speed on the bike avoids the bites, but makes good glasses essential. The roads are perfect and quiet as I enter Lillesand after a high-speed descent from Birkeland on excellent smooth cycle paths. The campsite at Gjeving is a delight with an on-site Thai food stall. Expensive, but delicious.

IMG_20170621_094332A 60-year-old wooden ferry Risør brings me towards Stabbestad and another crossing to Kragerø. Like a car always meeting green traffic lights, my ferry timing is perfection and yet unplanned, saving a considerable amount of time. After an overnight stop at Eidanger a full day of rain, the first for a week, brings me to Høsoy and the expectation of a ferry long since discontinued. A fisherman directs me to a lovely campsite for my last night until I catch the ferry from Morten to Hoss across Oslofjord.

I am still in Norway, judging by the windsock like flags on every hutte as I head south towards Sweden. I arrive at Fredrikstad and cross by ferry to the Fortified Town and a campsite, full of Taekwondo contestants competing at a local sports centre. It is raining hard again, but the following day brightens as I cross the border into Sweden, standing astride the road markings on a substantial bridge across the Svinesund fjord.

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It has taken me just over ten days to cycle from Bergen. I have been blessed with great weather, apart from a few days, cycling on some of the best cycle tracks I have ever used. I must come back soon.

National Trail popularity

Digging into the web site statistics, I am surprised at the web site traffic for the National Trails.  Is there an inverse correlation between my favourite trails and their popularity?

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You would expect the Pennine Way and South West Coast Path to lead the table, but why is the West Highland Way so low in the chart when it is easily the busiest path I have walked.

North Sea Cycle Route (Part 1) London to Norwick, Shetland

Distance is nothing – only the first step is difficult, well pedal rotation for this journey – to cycle around the North Sea starting in London heading north to Norwick in Shetland and then on to Bergen and the coast route home via Sweden, Denmark, Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium and France.

This journey will be the longest extended trip away from home. I estimate 60-80 days according to the detailed plans I had been making over the winter. A few short trips on a new Thorn Sherpa, as yet unnamed, confirmed riding comfort and carrying capacity. To keep costs down, I set out to camp every night and do as much cooking myself.

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I booked a flight from Sumburgh airport in Shetland to Bergen and would worry about packing the bike when I got there. The flights departed every Saturday, so I timed my departure three weeks beforehand. I joined the National Cycle Route 1 at Hoddesdon, after cycling along the NSC 6 and 61 from Slough. This route would guide me all the way to Shetland.

The first days surprised me with the number of off-road rail tracks and towpaths connecting the towns. Chelmsford was very picturesque with parks in full bloom. I left the NCR 1 to cycle to Maldon, to pick up a sequence of ferries that would bypass Colchester and Ipswich. The roads in Suffolk and Norfolk are quiet if you follow your intuition, guided by OS maps downloaded onto my Smartphone. I discover the village of Framlingham was the hometown of Ed Sheeran – pop superstar in a local cafe. I had an extra piece of cake, as today was going to be 160km into Norwich. I arrived late, demolished Fish & Chips and pitched at the Camping and Caravan Club site without checking in.

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Norfolk is flat, so progress was good into Lincolnshire along canal towpaths and quiet roads. I zigzag’ed across the fens, almost as if tacking in a sailing boat, wind assisted on a port reach and then an ‘uphill’ struggle into the freshening sea breeze on the starboard tack. I chased Marsh Harriers and Hares across the fields.

Ascending the Wolds provided a glimpse of the Humber Estuary. It needed courage and determination to stay upright across the huge suspension bridge; the views are outstanding. The next few days I spent in the Youth Hostels at Beverly and Scarborough. Full of old people. One group, in particular, had gathered to list what they would change after Brexit. They discussed the colour of car number plates while drinking Spanish wine and eating Indian curry.

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The weather was changing, colder, wetter. The descent into Whitby along the Cinder Trail eat through a set of brake blocks, the gravel was like grinding paste. The cycle shop in town knew what I needed and let me store my bike for lunch, a delicious deli next door. Now into the Yorkshire Wolds, where the higher elevation turned rain into sleet. Pedalling harder seemed to help warm me up until I reach Great Ayton and a welcome B&B. So much for camping every night.

The NCR 1, the A1 in cycling terms, led me through the industrial landscape of Middlesbrough and Stockton-on-Tees towards Sunderland and South Shields, for another B&B, primarily due to the lack of campsites. The Fish & Chips at Colmans is perhaps the best I have ever tasted, now a regular evening meal, a consequence of keeping close to the coast.

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Now on to Dunbar via Lindisfarne and Bamburgh. The cycle tracks are lovely and the roads quiet and easy going, sticking to the coast. I am glad I choose a rugged steel framed bike. The Thorn handles wonderfully even with the weight it is carrying; it loves the rail lines and rough tracks, so diversions on to off-road sections are the concern it would have been if I had selected a pure road bike.

After camping in Dunbar, I entered the bustling city of Edinburgh and cycled right through the middle of the city centre, narrowly avoiding crashing into students and trams. Crossing the Firth of Forth on the road bridge is just as exhilarating as the Humber bridge, but even windier. I have to walk the bike at times.

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Cycling is getting tougher, but I am getting fitter, or so I thought. An elderly gentleman overtakes me up a hill. “Morning” – he says. “Where ye off to?”. “I’m cycling around the North Sea”, to which he replies “Nice day for it – eh!”. Who would miss Scottish banter?

I pay my respects at Stonehaven, the birthplace of the pneumatic tyre, invented by John Boyd Dunlop. My journey would be very different if my bike did not run on the superb Schwalbe Dureme tyres.

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The countryside is now a riot of yellow. Yellow gorse, Yellow Hammer birds, Yellow oilseed rape fields, Yellow Daffodils and Scottish National Party election posters (yellow). My luminescent yellow jersey camouflaged, but of great importance as I cycle through the nightmare that is Aberdeen city centre. I am glad to get out into the countryside inland towards Banff and the coastal route via Buckie and Nairn towards Inverness. Camping is pleasant as the weather improves. Inverness has a delightful cycle cafe where novice riders are getting instructions for a day riding. They ask me where I have come from; they can’t believe I left London 2 weeks ago.

I am now in the Highlands proper and the quiet single track roads across stunning landscapes. The wind helps me northwards through the wilderness of Sutherland and into Caithness and to the campsite at John o’ Groats. Still, on the NCR 1, I cross by ferry to Orkney, a place I know well. It takes me 3 hours to cycle 34km to Kirkwall against a fierce headwind.

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It is here that I learn of a family bereavement, which leads to mixed feelings about continuing the journey. I vow to carry on to Norwick in Shetland so catch the overnight ferry to Lerwick and cycle over Unst and Yell to the most northerly point in the British Isles. The landscape is wild, perhaps explaining why the people are so friendly. On reaching my destination a local gives me a lift back to the inter-island ferry at Yell, and a bus driver lets me put the bike on his bus to Lerwick. This gesture allows me to catch an overnight ferry to Aberdeen and the sleeper service back to London. I have a funeral to attend to, before continuing my journey in a few weeks by flying to Bergen, in Norway.

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Wild Atlantic Way

After cycling the North Sea Cycle Route in 2017, the Wild Atlantic Way has caught my eye.  The Irish Tourist Board do a great job of selling this route and have a wonderful App for your smartphone that couldn’t be more helpful.

WAW Route

The plan is to cycle from Plymouth, around the South West peninsula crossing the Bristol channel at Weston-super-Mare to Penarth, then catching a ferry to Ireland.  After cycling the WAW, I’ll then catch a sequence of ferries to cycle the Hebridean Way, and then from Ullapool to Cape Wrath and then perhaps to John o’groats.  Some 5,000km and 50 days, thereabouts.  Better take a good tent.

NSCR Ferries

Catching a ferry is one of the pleasures of cycling the North Sea Cycle Route.  I counted 26 in total but I probably missed a few.  Some services run for just 6 weeks in summer, so careful planning is needed to avoid long detours.

This is a rough guide to the main ferry services, but it is not exhaustive and some of the ferries mentioned are not strictly on the NSCR.

Starting from London and working clockwise:

LONDON to SHETLAND

  • Brightlingsea Ferry from Mersea Island to Brightlingsea – brightlingseaharbour.org you cycle across Mersea island down a rough lane and then have to push your bike to the end of a shingle spit. There are no signs or indication that a ferry even runs, but phone the number and they come and pick you up

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  • Harwich to Felixstowe Ferry – the Harwich Harbour Ferry harwichharbourferry.com takes you across the River Orwell and past the huge container port of Felixstowe, landing you on the beach near Languard Fort, very friendly, with a café at the Harwich embarkation point
  • The Harwich Ferry is the first of the Four Foot Ferries, see pdf http://www.suffolkcoastandheaths.org/assets/Publications/Other-Publications/2016-Four-Ferries.pdf you can then take the Bawdsey, Butley and Walberswick ferries to Southwold. This route is not strictly on the NSCR but worth a detour if the ferry times work and the weather is good.  Some run to a schedule, others you have to call.
  • The next ferry is much further north at South Sheilds (excellent fish and chips at Colman’s), a regular commuter ferry which takes you into Tynemouth

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  • Now we are in Scotland and the Cromarty ferry which runs from June to September and only recently re-established. Google Cromarty Ferry for the latest.  This saves you a longer route via Dingwall
  • There is a ‘SeaFari’ ferry from North Berwick that can take you across the Firth of Forth to Antsruther. Go to seabird.org to see if this fits your itinerary. Ideal for a bit of bird watching. This route will bypass Edinburgh if you want to avoid this busy city
  • When you reach John o’Groats, you can then take a very pleasant ferry to Orkney after perhaps spending the night at the campsite. See jogferry.co.uk
  • The overnight NorthLink ferry will take you to Shetland from Kirkwall, overnight departures 3 times a week northlinkferries.co.uk which arrive early morning
  • To reach Norwick, the most northerly point in Britain to which you can cycle, and the end of National Cycle Route 1, you have to take 2 further ferries to Yell and Unst. Wonderful crossings with a chance of seeing Orcas

NORWAY to DOVER

  • Now to Norway, the land of the ferry journey, although they have a habit of replacing ferries with tunnels nowadays, working south we start with Halhjem to Sandvikvåg ferry, which you can reach in half a day from Bergen. See fjord1.no for timetables

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  • A short trip from Langevåg to Buavåg see norled.no gets you on the road to Haugesund which has a lovely campsite
  • A pleasant ride brings you to Nedstrand and the ferry to Stavanger. The southbound ferries run at odd times, but it is also possible to catch the northbound ferry, which takes you on a very enjoyable cruise through the fjords, hopping from village to village until returning to Stavanger.  The local shop can give advice, also see kolumbus.no for hours of fun reading timetables
  • At Risør you can catch a wonderful ‘Agnes’ an old wooden ferry dating from the 1950s that will take you to Øysang. Don’t scratch the beautifully varnished woodwork

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  • At Stabbestad you catch another short ferry to Kragerø, a popular retreat for busy Olso commuters. This service runs every 2 hours or so. See fjordbat.no
  • After Sandefjord you cycle to Engø, a small marina, to decipher a timetable ferry. You can optionally stop at Veierland, a car free community island, or continue to Tenvik on the small ferry called Jutøya. visitnorway.com has details
  • GPS data downloaded from northsea-cycle.com indicated a ferry at Husøy, but this has been discontinued for 3+ years. Such a short crossing, that now involves a detour through Tønsberg to pick up the route again
  • Now you reach Horten for a huge roll-on-off car ferry to Moss, free for cyclists and runs every 30 mins. See basto-fosen.no
  • Cycling south the next ferry is a short crossing of the Glomma River at Fredrikstad to the old fortified town, one of the best preserved in Europe and worth camping nearby
  • The first Swedish ferry is at Lysekil which takes you to Fiskebäckskil (line 847) which runs every hour or so, then you reach two cable ferries to take you across Malö, which has a lovely campsite
  • The last ferry in Sweden at Varberg, which runs twice a day, takes you across the Kattegatt to Grenna in Denmark. You can stay in a former prison, now a hostel nearby to wait for the morning sailing at 07:00.  See stenaline.co.uk

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  • The first Danish ferry is at Udbyhøj a cable ferry with a great campsite on the north bank, if you peddle hard you can just reach it after you alight at Greena
  • Next the Hals to Egense ferry, another short trip, which is the last ferry on the east coast
  • The Thyboren ferry is reached on the west coast after a long cycle ride along a ribbon of land from Agger. This runs every hour, that is the last Danish until Germany
  • You can now optionally cross the Elbe at Brünsbuttel, which I did, to avoid the violent clashes at the G20 conference in Hamburg. This ferry takes you to Cuxhaven. See die-elbefaehre.de for timetables for the MV Grete
  • In Bremerhaven, after you have visited ship musuems, you cross the Weser into Lower Saxony and Nordenham (Blexen), this runs frequently and is a popular journey for shoppers
  • At Emden you cross the Emse to Ditzum, a lovely short journey before you reach The Netherlands. See landkreis-leer.de , runs every hour or so

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  • The Dutch like to build polders and huge sea barriers which carry you all the way to Ijmuiden, ferry free until you cross the river on a regular car ferry
  • At the Hook of Holland you catch a regular ferry service to the Rotterdam contaioner port, passing huge vessels being guided into their docks. At this point you could catch a ferry to Harwick in the UK, but then you would miss the Vlissingen ferry which takes you to Breskens and into Belgium
  • The last ferry is at Dunkirk, or Calais, if you choose to cycle further, but take care as the Dunkirk ferry is some 10km from the city centre to the west. Now you can cross the channel to Dover and home again

Almost all of the ferries do not charge for bicycles, or if they do, it is usually a modest fee.  The ferry terminals also bring together fellow cyclists and a chance to exchange experiences.  I plan to cycle from Plymouth to Cape Wrath soon, and will see if I can break my most ferries in a journey record.

NSCR Itinerary

I recorded my journey with a Garmin 520 GPS device, which worked very well.  Here is a summary of each day for those who like statistics.  My observations:

  • Longest day – Inverbervie – 9 hours cycling over 11 hours elapse
  • Furthest day – Netherlands – 165 km – flat and a ferocious tail wind
  • Quietest roads – Scotland (less than 10 cars per hour) – and the sun was out
  • Most off road sections – Denmark, mostly covered in sheep sh*t
  • % on busy roads – Sweden (busiest = more than 10 cars per hour), although England definitely heaviest traffic
  • Toughest day – Feda to Mandal, Norway (Max speed 60kph, 1889m ascent) – exhilarating descents, including one 450 degree bend (I had to think about that)
  • 55 days elapsed, but 53.5 days actual cycling taking into account flights and major ferries (LHR to Bergen, Shetland to Aberdeen, Sweden to Denmark)
  • Highest average speed – to Grenaa to Ubdyhøj – 20.4 kph
  • 45 nights under canvas, 2 on ferries, brothers house, 3 B&Bs, 3 YHAs and 1 night in Prison.

A total of 5,936 km (missing out the G20 conference in Hamburg by catching the Brunsbüttel ferry to Cuxhaven and also taking direct routes in Orkney and Shetland). 193,000 calories, 347 hours of cycling (6.5 hours per day average) at a daily average speed of 17 kph. 36,436 metres of ascent – phew!

Click here for pdf – NSCR Itinerary

NSCR Itinerary

What I did not expect is 74% of the journey (estimated and noted each day) was traffic free or on very quiet roads.  By quiet roads I mean less than 10 cars per hour passing you.  With a few exceptions (Aberdeen, Sittingbourne/Faversham and a few other locations), even the traffic roads were safe to ride, not needing cycle courier levels of skill to negotiate.

Most blogs I have read indicate a 60-80 day itinerary, which is probably a better bet if you plan to see more of the sights.  A lot depends on ferry timings and availability, many ferries do not operate out of a very narrow summer season in Norway.  I’ll write about the ferries soon.

 

 

Completing the circle

After 55 days, of which 50 nights in a tent, 2 in B&Bs, 2 in Youth Hostels and 1 in a Prison (converted into a Youth Hostel I’ll add quickly) – I have completed the North Sea Cycle Route, also known as Eurovelo 12.  My Garmin tells me I have covered just over 6,000km, which is consistent with gpx estimates, given I avoided the G20 conference in Hamburg and did not cycle follow all the options in Shetland and Orkney, having done those on a bike a few years ago.

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Cycling in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium and France has been a revelation for me.  The cycle paths are wonderful.  The ferries have been wonderful (a total of about 25) and most of all, the people I have met have been wonderful.  Apart from a loose bottom bracket (fixed at 8PM in Stavanger by Plamen), my Thorn Sherpa has performed superbly, although I now need to replace a few of the components (another chain, sprockets, bottom bracket) and give it a good going over. I am feeling much fitter and weigh something approaching my 30 year old self.  I took my 2 man Terra Nova tent, which was ideal for the hot weather and stood up to the occasional downpour.

The experience has stimulated thoughts for new adventures, perhaps the Atlantic Coast from Plymouth to John O’Groats, via Ireland and the Outer Hebrides.

Things that worked well:

  • An uncanny ability to turn up unplanned for a ferry to find it departed in 10 minutes
  • Caxton FX card – ease your foreign exchange woes
  • EE (and others) now have European roaming included in your UK allowance – great 4G signal (until I got back to the UK 😦
  • Lovely campsites (particularly “mini camping”)
  • Google MyMaps for navigation
  • Brookes saddle – now run in to perfection

I’ll write up some more details about the trip at a later date.

Northern limits

After 20 days of cycling mostly into a North Easterly wind, I reached the end of National Cycle Route 1 in Norwick, Unst, Shetland.  Then guess what happened?  The wind changed direction 😦

I was surprised at the quality of the cycle route. I would estimate that from Hertfordshire, approximately 40% is completely traffic free, another 50% is very quiet country roads, the remainder is normal traffic conditions.  Who would believe you could cycle safely the length of Britain, thanks to Sustrans. Apart a wet cinder track leading into Whitby eating a pair of front brake blocks, the Thorn Sherpa has been perfection, carrying me and 25kg of gear without fuss.

The next task is to fly to Bergen in Norway for the 4,000km journey to Dover.  I have gone through my panniers and shaved off 3kg of unnecessary gear, not to mention the almost 5kg I have lost in weight!  Must eat more.  My 20 year old MacPac Microlite tent needs replacement as the inner looks like a pair of grannies apple catchers.  Everyone I met said spend the money on a Hilleberg, but which one?

Thank you for the encouragement, support and help from so many on the route. Notably, Berwick Cycles; Velocity in Inverness and Dr. Sprockets in Whitby.

More updates and a full report soon.

Just need an engine 

All the gear together, just need to tune the engine. 

I’m now at the dangerous stage of adding things I don’t need and removing things I do. Pleased to see the gear weight is 13kg. Bike weighs 21kg including tools, lock, lights and fitted bags. Add another 8kg for consumables. I shan’t say what the engine weighs, but the fuel consumption is terrible.