Bicycle Touring in the UK: An Intense Little Place For A Fun Bike Tour
Cycle touring the UK is about as much fun as you can have on two wheels on a tiny island. Just prepare yourself for the weather, weird customs and wonderful folk.
Ah, the United Kingdom – a land where the weather changes faster than a chameleon in a bag of Skittles. Are you embarking on a bike tour here? Brilliant idea! You’re in for a treat. Rolling hills, quaint villages, and the occasional sheep traffic jam.
But seriously, there’s more to this strange little Island than crap food, expensive trains and weird customs. There’s live music, sealed roads and more pubs per square mile than any other place on Earth*.
Before you pedal off into the Great British sunset, let’s talk essentials – and I’m not just talking rain gear (though, honestly, that’s top of the list). In this guide, we’ll cover everything from the must-ride routes to the best pub pit stops.
So, grab your helmet and a sense of adventure – we’re going on a quintessentially British bicycle tour!
The Charm Of Riding A Heavy Bicycle Around A Small Island
Picture this: you’re cycling through the Cotswolds, surrounded by rolling green hills and historic stone cottages. That’s the magic of biking in the UK – each turn brings a postcard-worthy view. But it’s not just the diverse scenery; from the rugged Scottish Highlands to the serene Welsh valleys, every region offers a unique UK cycle touring experience. And let’s not forget the cultural pit stops – ancient castles, quirky seaside towns, and, of course, a traditional British pub at every corner, promising a hearty meal and maybe a local tale or two.
I’ve a great affinity for the lands of the UK. It’s my place of birth and residence. I’m a little bit of each corner of the UK: Welsh, Irish, English, my partner is Scottish, and my Auntie is Cornish. A proper mongrel I am. Maybe that’s why I love to explore the place so much. I feel at home wherever I lay my cycling cap.
A Great British Bootstrapping Bicycle Tour
The British Isles, though tiny comparatively to the rest of the world, packs a punch on all the scales of possibility.
Everything is possible here. It’s a little expensive in some ways, but with a bicycle, a tent and an open heart, it’s possible to travel well in this pagan place. My overarching philosophy for bicycle touring has always been to bootstrap the kit and wing the rest. And operating that way on your bicycle tour of the United Kingdom will serve you well in this diverse country.
Essential Gear for UK Bicycle Touring
Packing for a UK bike tour? Let’s dive into the essentials! Your trusty steel steed should be sturdy and reliable – think classic British make, a Dawes Galaxy perhaps, something that withstands both cobblestones and the countryside. For luggage, go for practicality: front and rear panniers and maybe a messenger bag for extra space. And remember, the UK weather is as predictable as a plot twist in a British soap opera, so waterproof everything is a must!
Camping gear needs to be robust yet compact – a tent that battles the elements but doesn’t weigh you down is ideal. Choose one that’s easy to pitch because, let’s face it, you’ll likely be setting up in the fading light after a day’s ride. Comfort is critical for bedding, so a lightweight, comfy sleeping pad and a compact bag are essential. And for those chilly British nights? A silk liner can be a game-changer.
There’s No Such Thing As Bad Weather
When it comes to clothing, layers are your best friends. From the highlands of Scotland to the hills of the Lake District, temperatures can swing faster than a cricket match. And, of course, remember the all-important rain gear!
I find that dressing for all seasons on the same day holds some merit. However, I tend to find that a decent pair of waterproof shorts with a Merino base layer is a great starting point. A reliable waterproof is essential as you’ll want to stay as dry as possible for as long as possible. Lycra is handy if you’re into that style, but I prefer quick-drying cotton or breathable fabric. Usually, a long-sleeved Oxford collar cotton shirt.
Check out this bicycle touring kit list for a comprehensive guide of what to pack for a cycling tour in the UK based on real-world experience.
Top Routes for Cycle Touring in the UK
Bicycle touring the UK is a feast for the senses, and the routes are as varied as the landscapes. From the iconic Lands End to John O’Groats (LEJOG) to the awe-inspiring Sea-to-Sea bike trip, these relatively short cycle touring itineraries are packed with breathtaking views.
The Peak District is a cyclist’s dream, offering a mix of challenging and family-friendly routes. For a taste of wild and untamed beauty, Devon’s Dartmoor is a must, and the iconic North Coast 500 route presents a thrilling challenge.
Lastly, bike touring routes from London offer a unique blend of urban and rural cycling experiences for city-based rides. Each ride is a story, full of character and ripe for adventure.
Selected UK Cycle Touring Routes
The Heart of The Midlands
It is an easy yet charming route starting from Stafford and leading into the Peak District. This journey offers a blend of pastoral landscapes and the beginning of rugged terrain, perfect for a leisurely ride.
Cycling around Staffordshire offers some useful gateways to much of the UK canal network, and there are some lovely NCN cycle paths to follow to find your way into the open country.
Cycling the Lake District
This two-day itinerary cycling in the Lake District is nothing short of spectacular, offering breathtaking views and tranquillity. It’s an immersive way to experience one of the UK’s most scenic areas. As is often the case with beautiful places, it’s challenging in the extreme.
Hardknott Pass was one of the few climbs I’ve ever dismounted for. It was a long walk to the top.
Peak District National Park
The Peak District National Park boasts a variety of routes suitable for both challenging rides and family-friendly adventures. The area’s natural beauty provides a perfect backdrop for cycling. As a lad from the Peaks, I have a soft spot for these roads. I started my epic Hippie Trail by bike world tour from the Peaks. It’s so accessible and beautiful.
Here are two of the best cycling routes around the Peak District.
Devon and Dartmoor
A bike ride around Devon and wild camping on Dartmoor offers an experience of raw, natural beauty. It’s a route that promises adventure and a connection with the untamed countryside. I loved the freak snowstorm in April that had us cycle across Dartmoor in a whiteout. The fact we got to camp in a children’s playpark was just perfect. Some of the toughest climbs in the country. Earn those cream teas!
Coast to Coast
The Coast-to-Coast cycle route presents a thrilling challenge, crossing from one side of the UK to the other. It’s an iconic journey that captures the diversity of the British landscape. Imagine the thrill of biking from one side of England to the other, passing through stunning landscapes and historic towns along the way. The Coast to Coast by bike offers just that!
Starting in Barrow-in-Furness on the west coast, this 140-mile route takes you to Robin Hood’s Bay on the east coast. Pedal through picturesque Lake District villages, conquer challenging climbs in Yorkshire Dales and feel a sense of accomplishment as you dip your tire into the North Sea. Wensleydale cheese is optional.
Cycling Routes from London
Cycling routes from London offer a unique blend of urban and rural cycling experiences, showcasing the contrasts and diversity of cycling in the UK. Expect serene canals, busy roads and daft cycle lanes, and a right old cockney knees up (East End only).
Do say; alwight geezer. Don’t say: Isn’t it a bit muggy today?
The Taff Trail
Look no further than the Taff Trail for those seeking adventure in Wales. This 55-mile route stretches from Cardiff to Brecon along an old railway line and canal towpaths.
As you cycle through lush green countryside and charming towns like Pontypridd and Merthyr Tydfil, watch for remnants of Wales’ industrial heritage – from abandoned mines to towering viaducts. Wales is a must-visit for a UK cycle tour.
The North Coast 500
Calling all adrenaline junkies! Prepare for breathtaking scenery and hairpin bends on Scotland’s North Coast 500 route. This epic journey covers over 500 miles around Scotland’s northernmost coastline – think rugged cliffs, pristine beaches, majestic castles, and maybe even spotting some Highland cows along the way!
With plenty of opportunities for wild camping or cosy B&B stays in quaint villages like Ullapool or John O’Groats (the starting point), this is every cyclist’s dream come true. Plan your NC 500 bike trip with these useful resources.
Hadrian’s Wall Cycleway
Step back in time as you pedal alongside one of Britain’s most impressive Roman ruins – Hadrian’s Wall Cycleway. Following ancient Roman roads for approximately 174 miles across Northern England from Newcastle upon Tyne to Bowness-on-Solway, this cycle route combines fascinating history with beautiful landscapes.
Marvel at the engineering feat of the wall, explore Roman forts and 15th-century castles and take in the panoramic views of the Northumberland National Park.
Each route offers a unique glimpse into the UK’s cycling culture, scenery, and the spirit of adventure that bike touring embodies.
Etiquette In The Land Of The King
When cycle touring in the UK, remember that a friendly wave to fellow cyclists and a cheery “morning” to passersby is the norm. British roads can be narrow, so practice your best courteous cycling, especially in quaint villages.
Don’t be surprised if you find yourself going in circles at roundabouts – they’re practically a national sport!
In pubs, a post-ride chat over a pint is customary, and you might end up with more local bicycle touring tips than you bargained for. And remember, queueing is sacred – whether for a tea or at a traffic light. Keep calm and cycle on!
The Old Grey Idiom Test
After a few drinks, it’s possible your new chum could start to sound a little peculiar. It’s not the drink taking hold; it’s a lapse in concentration. The English language is full of idioms. Ahem! Idioms are among the hardest part of comprehension for folks visiting a new country for the first time.
“Bob’s your uncle and Fanny’s your aunt! I was chuffed to bits when I found my lost brolly, but then it rained cats and dogs, and now I’m up the creek without a paddle!”
These quirks in language will have a strong regional variance. Be prepared to ask your companion to speak slowly and clearly and possibly write down the best ones – they’re wildly funny once you get the gist of them.
Food To Die For Without Actually Dying
While cycling in the UK, take advantage of the culinary delights! In Cornwall, treat yourself to a genuine Cornish pasty – but remember, it’s a severe faux pas to add gravy. If you find yourself in Scotland, haggis is a must-try, though it’s wise to ask what’s in it after you’ve tried it!
Stop for a Yorkshire pudding in the Yorkshire Dales – it’s not a dessert but a delicious savoury treat. And in any coastal town, fish and chips by the seaside is a classic experience – watch out for cheeky seagulls eyeing your meal!
While tackling the Coast-to-Coast route, indulge in a slice of Kendal Mint Cake in the Lake District for that much-needed energy boost. As you pedal through Cumbria, stop for a hearty Cumberland sausage – a local favourite.
In Northumberland, the Craster Kipper is a smoky delicacy worth a try. Whitby has black ice cream. Melton Mowbray has the best pork pie. Good job, you’re cycling, really.
Eat First, Think Later
For further examples of regional foods in Great Britain, consider these delights: In Wales, Welsh rarebit offers a cheesy, comforting experience. Scotland’s shortbread is a sweet, buttery treat that is ideal with tea after a long ride.
In Northern Ireland, a hearty Ulster fry will fuel your cycling day. And in the English Midlands, the delicious Derbyshire Bakewell tart is a must-try. Each region offers unique culinary specialities, with local flavours and traditions cooked into the stories of the place.
History Of Tasty Treats From My Hometown
As a Clayhead, I must mention the Potteries Oatcake. Stoke-on-Trent became the centre of the pottery industry due to its abundant supply of clay, coal, and lead, key ingredients in pottery making. The area also had a network of canals and roads facilitating easy transport of materials and finished products.
The skilled workforce in the region further contributed to the development of the industry. Known as “The Potteries,” this area attracted numerous famous potters over time, solidifying its reputation as a hub for quality pottery production.
It’s like a savoury pancake, only better!
Saggar Makers Bottom Knocker
Many family and friends worked on the Pot Banks in the glory days of the Five Towns. And an oatcake was an early morning staple of the Potters diet. Typically filled with grilled cheese, oatcakes were the go-to fast food, found on most street corners and sold through a ‘hole in the wall’ in every town. These days, fresh oatcakes are few and far between.
A few dozen specialist shops remain, predominantly in North Staffordshire. Meir is a good place to start; Broadway, Box Lane and Foley Oatcakes are all available. Further towards the city, I can recommend High Lane, Hole in the Wall and Six Towns Oatcakes. Look out for the iconic Bottle Kilns that once smoked the Five Towns black with soot.
Safe Cycling Is Not A Euphemism
When cycling in the UK, always wear a helmet, no exceptions! Be mindful of the ever-changing British weather, so pack layers and waterproof gear. Stick to cycling paths where available, and keep to the left on roads.
Remember, those quaint country lanes can be narrow and winding. Use lights and high-visibility clothing, especially in the countryside, where street lighting is rare. And most importantly, always carry a good old-fashioned map. Sometimes, even the best GPS can get puzzled by the British countryside.
Putting pedal power into practice – remember these common-sense guidelines:
- Always ride in a single file.
- Signal clearly before making any turns.
- Give way to pedestrians on shared paths.
- Maintain a safe distance from other cyclists.
- Leave enough space between yourself and parked cars (door zone alert!)
Should You Go Cycle Touring in the UK?
To sum up, this guide to cycle touring the UK will see you right. Pedal your way through the UK, and you’ll discover more than just a spiffing good cuppa. From the cheeky seagulls eyeing your fish and chips to the unpredictable ‘sunshine’ that gives you a splendid excuse to wear your snazzy jilet, biking across Blighty is a jolly good adventure.
So hop on your bike, say ‘cheerio’ to your sofa, and explore the charming nooks of the UK. Whether you’re a seasoned bike tourer or a newbie and just fancy a bit of a lark, there’s a route with your name on it.
And remember, every hill you conquer is a story to tell, and a Scotch Egg earned. You might just find yourself chatting about the weather over a pint of ale in a historic tavern after a day’s ride – it doesn’t get more British than that!
Long-form reader bonus!
Here’s a beautiful film made by a couple of the founding members of MUD.cc. Will and Walter filmed this video in 2016. It’s epic and offers a real insight into adventure cycling the length of the UK, twice.