Over 2,000km and 3 weeks to complete from the west of London to the tip of Shetland. So this section doesn’t include the Dover to London journey. Follow the Sustrans National Cycle Route 1, with selected deviations for interesting ferries, some of which only run infrequently.
I was surprised how safe the route is to cycle, with over 85% being very light traffic or off-road, following canal towpaths and old railway lines. Scotland is a delight if the weather if fine and the winds favourable. Orkney and Shetland are unforgettable. In hindsight, I would have added a week to the trip just to explore these networks of islands more fully – they are worth 3-4 weeks on their own.
I planned to be away for 60 days, so camping kept costs low, but YHA Youth Hostels are cycle friendly and excellent, particularly at Beverley and Uyeasound in Unst. Campsites easy to find, I used Camping and Caravan Club sites, with good facilities. B&Bs are needed where there are no campsites in urban areas in North East England.
Assuming you cycle northwards, you have to work out how to get home from Shetland. It took me 36 hours to reach London from Norwick, but the planets had perfectly aligned on that day.
From Shetland, there is a once a week FlyBe service to Bergen on Saturdays. Alternatively, catch the NorthLink ferry back to Orkney, for a similar Saturday service to Bergen, or take the Northlink ferry to Aberdeen and catch a flight to Bergen from there. These services change frequently, so check beforehand.
An overnight sleeper service is available from Aberdeen to London, which takes cycles, if booked ahead of time.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Continue reading for the European section.