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).
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
I have been having fun with Google Maps. Now the whole of the North Sea Cycle Route has been mapped out as I plan the route and decide how how I am going to navigate. I have a few paper maps, but Google Maps, MyMaps, ViewRanger and BackCountry Navigator provide too many options. I have also used OpenCycleMaps too, downloading custom routable maps for each section that I can just about squeeze into my Garmin GPS. See http://garmin.openstreetmaps.nlfor more info and perhaps donate a few Euros to this project.
My Android Nexus 5X is more than up to the job of storing the maps, and the UK section is adequately covered by the Ordnance Survey offline 1:50k maps. Plus, at last, OS have re-released the Road Map series at 1:250k, which is nigh-on perfect for cycle touring, other than it doesn’t show cycle tracks, but it does cover the whole of the UK in 8 maps.
Now to overlay campsites, points of interest, ferries and find a means of attaching photos as I progress, as I mean to use this Blog in real time, with weekly updates. Just add StreetView and I can start now with a virtual tour.
…after 12 years of sneaking time off and pounding the paths, I have finally finished all 19 National Trails. Some 3,000 miles, over 150 days, perhaps 6 million steps over the most beautiful and awe-inspiring countryside in the world.
Now, what to do? Shall I wait for the completion of the England Coast Path and completed the Wales Coast Path first? What about a Scottish challenge?
Actually, the plan is to cycle the North Sea Cycle Route next year, if time allows. Some 6,000km from Bergen to Shetland via Dover. See the Cycling section as it evolves.
I even got an LDWA Diamond certificate. How sad is that? There are only 25 odd members who have done them all.