Cycling The Great North Trail – Southern Half

As winter starts coming to a close and summer is on the horizon I often start day dreaming of flying the coop and getting outdoors for an extended cycling trip. Generally this is around April, but I quickly realise that while the south of England may be warming up, it’s still generally a bit cool and wet up north, so I’ve become accustomed to planning trips to Northern England and Scotland in May or June. It’s been a long year sitting inside our flat in London due to covid so I’ve been extra excited for the warmer weather and promise of outdoor trips.

Last year I had the chance to forget about covid for a couple weeks and do the Northern section of the Great North Trail aka the An Turas Mor. This year I felt like seeing the north of England and Scottish borders would be a good mountain bike tour of some of the iconic mountain bike trails and views outside of the Scottish Highlands. I was a bit torn as I usually like to head directly into the highlands and islands of Scotland for my trips, but I needed to see what northern England and the Scottish borders had to offer as I’ve been trying to get up to that part of the country on my bike for few years now.

Day 114 miles 2400ft of gain

I began my ride from Chapel en le Frith in the Peak District. I decided to cut out a bit of the lower part of the Peaks as I had ridden that section a couple years earlier – but in January and not June. Quite a different experience! I also wanted to give myself a bit of a buffer in case anything happened along the way so I could still finish before my train ticket back from Edinburgh on the following Tuesday.

While on the train from London to the Peak District I contacted Rich Seipp to see if he was up for a quick drink as I passed through the town he lived. Rich is the writer of 20,000 miles, a book about he and his son’s cycling adventures in different parts of the world. I’ve followed Rich’s adventures for quite some time on instagram as it reminded me of the trips I’ve done with my Dad which were a big part of my interest in endurance and adventure cycling. Rich was gracious enough to meet up and I had the chance to meet his wife and son and well. It was a great and very social start to my trip.

It was late evening when I departed the pub to head back into the hills for a couple more hours cycling before I bedded down for the night. Not many miles done this day as it was a travel day, but was a good intro for what was to come.

Day 243 miles 6600ft of gain

As with any camping trip, you quickly get adjusted to sleeping when the sun goes down and waking when the sun comes up. During the summer months in the UK, the further north you go, the less darkness you’ll actually have, so it wasn’t dark long before the sun came up for a beautiful sunrise. I snapped a picture from my tent with a view over Manchester. This is the first trip I brought a proper camera with a big lens (14-140). I found the last time I wrote a blog on a bike trip that the pictures didn’t really hold up very well when viewed on a large monitor, so over the past year have been enjoying the quality of a real camera and lens. More weight, but worth it in my opinion.

Starting the day at around 4:30am I made my oatmeal breakfast, packed up, and hit the road with a big downhill to leave the national park and rejoin the Peninne Bridleway.

Something special about the early hours before anyone else is awake. All the animals, birds, sheep, cows etc are up and making noise much before people are. The route out of the park was fast and winding down bridleways and then country roads.

After a couple hours of riding, I was hungry again and knew it was time to find a nice bakery or cafe for second breakfast. The constant eating is something I look forward to most on these trips. Having battled against my weight my whole life, I find these bike trips to be a bit of a vacation from having to be conscious of what I eat. Cakes, pies, chocolates, sandwiches, burgers are all in great supply. There generally tends to be a turning point after a couple days when I just don’t want to eat anymore junk food, but the first couple days are definitely the sweet spot.

I stopped into a small village and grabbed a couple bits at the farm shop and bakery, It was my first time trying northern hot pot (the pie with the spoon in it). Not totally sure how I feel about it, but glad to have tried it. The other pastry and pie were very good though, so I packed those up and took them on the way for a snack later.

I found the going on the second day to be particularly hard. I come from a road cycling background, so mountain biking and off road terrain doesn’t come easily to me. I’m very cautious, especially as I can be in remote places without any cell phone signal, so I tend to push and pull my bike rather than risk falling off on difficult trails. This made for slow moving on the first day as the Pennine Bridleway was very rocky and steep in many sections. Required lots of pushing and walking. Can only imagine how difficult it would be in wet and cold weather! I’d see a trail off in the distance and think to myself – That’s a piece of cake! – only to realise it was a crazy gradient or had large rocks scattered about.

It’s difficult for me to explain to my family back in California how hot these first few days felt (It was about 22 degrees) since they’ve been getting regular weather of 35-40 degrees over the past few weeks. Think I’m becoming a bit soft to hot weather after living in England for so long!

Finally ate the last pie from earlier and then moved on through the rest of the day to find another camping spot. Amy bought me some non contaminating camp wash for Christmas a couple years ago and I found it completely invaluable on the trip as it gave the opporunity to wash off in streams and rivers along the way before I went to bed at night. Wild camping can just as nice as a B and B when you go to sleep clean for the next morning!

Day 3 – 47 miles 6400ft of gain

I awoke very early this morning with the call of nature around 3:30am or so. When I opened my tent the sun hadn’t risen yet, but the sky was dark with this bright orange color spilling out over the horizon. It was a very beautiful moment and one I don’t think I’ll forget. Luckily, I had my tent positioned towards the rising sun to catch this, but after watching the sky for a few more moments I went back to sleep until around 6 or 7. Made myself a quick breakfast and then was off into Yorkshire and the Dales later on that day.

It was another beautiful but difficult day on the bike heading onwards north towards the Yorkshire Dales. The farm gates on this route (and there were countless!) it always seemed to mention keeping your dog on a lead so it doesn’t disturb ground nesting birds. I happened to find one flying around on a telephone pole sunning itself in the early morning. Quite a long beak!

Not long after setting off I crossed paths with a couple women on electric mountain bikes out for their morning ride. It dawned on me how nice it would be to be able to take a ride like this every morning before work. Long and car free bridleways with just the sound of nature around you. Hopefully our move to Cornwall in a few weeks will scratch that itch.

The two women mentioned a breakfast spot about 9 miles further which I was keen to find, but never did, but alas it spurred me on with the promise of food! Along the way I tested out my new mini tripod which I brought on my trip. It was a nice addition as long as I had a high spot to place it on. Get those action shots!

Today was marked by long winding climbs up green hills as I slowly left Greater Manchester and made my way into Yorkshire. A local mountain biker let me know that as you travel north you’ll see subtle differences in the landscape including the types of stones used for their walls. Even in a country that’s relatively small, just a few miles in any direction can yield differences in how the landscape, houses, and buildings look.

After a solid few hours climbing and descening on ridable tracks it was time to find a lunch spot. Just as I left a wooded area this tiny village with a ruined castle popped up on my left. I hadn’t a clue whether they would have a cafe, but saw a fellow touring cyclist in the village, so thought I’d try out my luck. Turns out the other rider, Tom, was looking to complete the Great North Trail and head all the way up to John O’Groats or Cape Wrath. It’s an epic ride, and I can only imagine how difficult, yet rewarding it would be to do it in one go. I tried my best to convince him that Cape Wrath was well worth the visit. Hands down one of the most special places I’ve ever been, mostly because of how difficult it is to get to and how untouched by tourism it seemed to feel. Good luck Tom!

After a nice lunch at the cafe stop and a raspberry lemonade I was as ready as I could ever be to continue the journey. I was feeling tired and a bit exhausted from all the time in the sun but lathered myself up with sun cream and made sure my water bottles were filled before I started off again. I had brought my purifier and Cnoc water bladder for the trip which I used everyday, but filling at a tap was 100x easier.

This entire route was either up or down. There were only a couple times where it felt like I was on flat ground and even then it wasn’t for very long. The tradeoff was that the views were incredible along the way, especially as visibility was so good.

From the top of these hills I could see Pendle Hill which reminded me of some of the audaxes I’d done in the past. This area was also the home to the Pendle witch trials which are playfully talked about today, but obviously must’ve been similar in some regards to the Salem witch trials that we had in the states back in the day. Even some of the walking sign posts celebrated this old history.

As the day drew to a close I began to enter into the Yorkshire Dales. Chasing me was a large and dark cloud which I was trying to outrun before I setup camp at the end of the day. Luckily, I made it to another camping spot before any weather set in and was able to eat, clean off and setup for bed.

Day 455 miles 6400ft of gain

The next morning I awoke and broke down camp. Unfortunately, this was my first encounter with midgies on the trip. Thankfully not many at all, but was a bit of a warning as to what may be waiting for me as I get closer to the border of Scotland. A reminder that camping near water at this time of year can come with consequences!

This next day was probably my favorite day of the trip. The Yorkshire Dales are absolutely stunning to cycle through. They feel large and remote and all the villages and man made structures are so old and charming. The climbs and trail quality were fantastic as were the views and weather. It did get a bit windy as the day went on but never really rained much.

Not long after starting my day I found a small cafe in the heart of the Dales that had just opened for breakfast. Finally! My first full english breakfast of the trip. A great way to fuel yourself for many hours of the day. I sometimes wonder how people could be hungry for lunch and dinner after eating this for breakfast, but I wasn’t complaining!

From there on it was beautiful climbs and views for the rest of the day. One of my favorite sections of the day was this large rocky basin with these stone walls seeming to stretch for miles in every direction. Around the park were also several groups of students preparing for their Duke of Edinburgh tests. Great to get kids outside to appreciate the outdoors.

Many lonely roads later I came across a couple hikers from Newcastle that were down in the Dales for their yearly walk together. They must’ve been in their 70s but had a great spirit and were just happy to be outside after such a long year dealing with covid. Asking them if they were wild camping as well, they said ‘NO! We’re too old for that now.’ Fair enough! It definitely is much more difficult than a hostel or B and B.

I loved the viaducts throughout the Dales. Felt like Harry Potter all around – even though this wasn’t the famous Glenfinnan Viaduct from the movie, these were still very special to see, even if from a distance.

Up, up and up the trail kept going. Through farm gates and across roads then up again. Luckily, it was only windy, but this wouldn’t be a very unpleasant place to be if the weather turned. Sheep and great views every way I turned.

At the top of the climb I noticed my brakes playing up so I took my wheels off to find that both sets of my resin pads had worn away. I couldn’t believe it! I just replaced them before the ride, but found out later at a shop in Kirkby Stephen that resin pads aren’t really that durable for mountain biking. He replaced the pads with a brand called nuke proof which were ‘sintered’ and I had no more issues for the rest of the ride. He also changed out my gear cable as my bikepacking bags had bounced on it and frayed the ends of it so the gear changes weren’t working super well. On top of that re-indexed my derailleur as my chain kept slipping into the space between my cassette and wheel. Not fun, but well worth the visit to Coast to Coast cycles in Kirkby Stephen. What a relief to have the bike fixed after that. It’s surprising how quickly a bike can lose its shape after a few hard days.

I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to camp or stay in Kirkby Stephen for the night but realised all the accommodation was either too expensive or booked so I continued on up the road towards Appleby. After cycling through the Dales this next stretch felt like mostly road, which made for a quick going. It also made it a bit more difficult to set up camp, so I ended up riding longer into the evening than I normally do and set up camp a few miles outside of Appleby-in-Westmorland. I was hoping to visit Appleby during the day as I’ve heard a bit about it since it’s the location of the annual gypsy gatherings. Probably some great breakfast spots, but I will never know!

I finally set up camp a few miles south of the biggest climb in England – Great Dun Fell – which I would tackle the next morning. The evening was incredibly windy which meant the tent shook most of the night making it hard to get a long stretch of sleep.

Day 549 miles 5000ft of gain

I don’t really plan much on my rides or do tons of research before I go unless it’s very remote, so I didn’t really know I was doing this huge climb until I saw the elevation profile of the ride. I then realised it was going to be a tough start to the day! Something about a really big or popular climb that can be a bit intimidating. It’s almost like a boss battle in a video game and the only way to defeat it is to keep pedaling.

It was a very foggy day so I didn’t get many pictures of the actual climb, but did manage to get one of me riding up towards the top. Luckily, when you’re climbing for that long it keeps you warm so you don’t get a chill going through the howling wind and fog.

It was a long a steep climb, but thankfully it was all on a private access road so no cars except for those that work at the top of the hill. There’s a big tennis ball sized radar tower at the top but I didn’t get to see it as the GNT trail veers off a couple hundred yards from the tip top, but it certainly felt like enough at that point!

There’s a path somewhere!

The fun didn’t end there as the next few miles consisted of following a barely visible track in boggy moorland with the occasional river crossing and bike carry. Not the most enjoyable section of the trip, but these are the times you earn the nice stuff by going through the difficult stuff.

A few endless miles later a nice bridleway path appeared and it was fairly smooth sailing for the next few hours. The elevation profile on my Wahoo showed that I would be losing elevation over the next 30 miles or so, but it still felt very hilly to my brunch stop at Alston. I unfortunately didn’t get a photo of the breakfast, but it was the first time I was offered haggis on the route, so I knew I wasn’t far from Scotland! It was also a delicious breakfast shared with a fellow cyclist who was from Plymouth but lived in Newcastle. We chatted about our rides future and past and enjoyed each others company while I was charging all my electronics until we both parted ways. The highlights of these trips are usually the good people you meet along the way.

Today was a tale of two rides. The day began with probably the toughest climb and descent of the whole ride but then after brunch it was a steady downhill along the Tyne railway path for 20 or so miles. It was SO nice just cruising for a bit without any massive hills in the way. The sun was out and I managed to stop for a bit to take my wet shoes off (from walking around the boggy river earlier) and dried off my socks and shoes and layed in the field for a bit looking up at the clouds. A moment I usually attempt several times on these types of trips. Just enjoying the quiet and relaxing sounds of nature.

The old railroad trail would eventually end in the town of Haltwhistle which has the claim to fame of being in the middle of Britain and also very near Hadrian’s Wall. I’ve been interested in visiting Hadrian’s Wall since I moved to the UK but always found it hard to visit while visiting other places, so I was very excited to finally get a chance to see it in person. It certainly did not disappoint! The amount of history in this country is amazing and going back even further you’ll find history relating to the Roman’s that once ruled this land.

The route takes you right up to the wall and to a small wall marker where a tower once stood where the Roman’s would stand guard. These towers were spread out every Roman mile or 1.6km. As you can see from the pictures the wall’s base was quite substantial and the height of the wall was about 15 feet. Incredible for the time!

Moving on past the wall felt a bit eerie as it was considered ‘barbarian’ territory many centuries ago. The opening battle scene in Gladiator kept playing over and over in my mind. Beyond the wall was definitely more empty and open feeling. From several miles away you could still glimpse the shape of the wall snaking across the hill line. What a sight that must’ve been so many centuries ago.

Beyond the wall I could feel I was getting closer to Scotland. Still a fair amount of distance between the wall and the Scottish border though so it would have to wait until the following day.

That night I camped just within the limits of Kielder Forest – the largest man made forest in Europe. It truly was huge! But with a man made forest comes man made gravel tracks, so the going was smooth albeit hilly!

Gravel heaven

That night I camped next to a stream and was greeted by a fellow outdoorsman later in the evening. An older man named David drove into the forest for a night to visit the remains of a couple friends that were buried nearby. He was a real character from Newcastle. Had lots of interesting historical stories to tell about the Roman’s and the Scottish battles that happened in the area. Was a fun chat before bed. Unfortunately, the chat was cut short as the midgies came out on force for the evening. Sad to say they were still there in the morning, so I put on all my clothes including midge net, making sure to cover all skin, before I began to breakdown the tent. Nothing like the past August in the highlands, but still a faint reminder of what happens when you travel north during the summer months.

Day 656 miles 5500ft of gain

Scotland was in my sights today. I didn’t really realise how much further from Hadrian’s wall it was as it took most of the morning to cycle through Kielder Forest and then around Kielder Reservoir. It was now the weekend so the roads and paths were a bit more busy than they were the previous few days with cyclists, motorbikes and cars.

Eventually I ended up on a cross border trail called NCN 10. I found it funny that at the beginning of this trail there was a warning plaque about how difficult and remote the trail was and to be careful, but it was one of the more rideable trails of the entire ride! Certainly makes you think about what a plaque would say on some of the other trails I rode earlier in the trip!

After several days I had finally arrived to Scotland! It was a good moment as I’ve been wanting to explore the borders of Scotland for quite some time now, but the travel links to get there have always been hard to pull off on a short weekend getaway. The borders of Scotland are where some of the fiercest clashes with their southern neighbors were had. You can just imagine English and Scottish soldiers walking along these paths for hundreds of years and meeting for battle. And in many cases these paths were the same that were used to cross the borders by large armies. Pretty interesting!

Once across the border on the Bloody Bush trail it was a climb up to the top of this hill with a large telephone mast, then a massively long gravel descent on perfectly maintained forestry roads. Really cruising now!

The remainder of the day was spent climbing hills on and off road through old forestry tracks and rails to trails lines before I managed to get into the town of Hawick (pronounced Hoyk) where I stealth camped at the top of a field overlooking the town. I generally prefer wild camping in open and empty places, but the borders, while sparsely populated, were mostly farmland and therefore fenced and gated off so it was frustratingly difficult to find a place to sleep.

Day 736 miles 5800ft of gain

From Hawick I decided to take a bit of a detour to Selkirk for breakfast. The issue with camping is you generally wake up much earlier than the shops, so I fit in a couple hours of riding before I got to Selkirk. By this time in the ride I generally find I’m pretty slow on the bike for the first hour or two of the day until I get something to eat. Probably normal with the long days and amount of climbing.

Selkirk was a very old and picturesque town. It had the courthouse that Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott worked in and also a large sculpture of him in the town center. A plaque commemorating a poem by Robert Burns was penned in Selkirk as well. The breakfast wasn’t as filling as I had hoped due to the kitchen not opening until later that day, but it was enough to keep me going for a bit longer until I could find a more substantial meal.

The last two large climbs of the trip would take place on this day. One called Minch Moor where Edward I ‘Long Shanks’ would lead his troops through to battle William Wallace and another location where William Wallace set his battle standard and called on Scottish men for help in their battles with the English. Don’t always think of these types of things when you’re pushing your bike up a steep hill, but you can’t really spit without hitting something historical in this country.

The climb up Minch Moor was long but steady. Lots of other mountain bikers were at the top on their local day rides around the hills. The descent was the same as the ascent and I had the chance to enjoy a long and fairly untechnical downhill back to the valley floor before the last climb of the day.

It’s pretty common practice for me that I take pictures when I’m having fun but don’t when I’m not. Unfortunately, the last hill of the day wasn’t a fun experience. It was very windy and misty with a thick fog over the top of the hill. Things were going just as fine as they could be, but just before I hit the summit of the hill overlooking Peebles, my crank arm jiggled loose and fell off my bike. Not an ideal place to lose the ability to pedal, so I dropped the bike and went on a search for the missing pieces. Unable to find the piece I went back to my bike and put my jacket on as the windy and mist were cooling me down a bit. I carefully began to descend the hill and not far from the town of Peebles I got off my bike to check in with my Dad about Surly parts that I’d need to replace to fix this and realised I forgot to button up my rear saddle pack and my waterproof trousers had fallen out at some point on the descent. As I was frustrated about the mechanical already I had little motivation to go back up the hill a few miles to find trousers that may have already been blown off the side of it.

Licking my wounds I got into Peebles and began trying to use my tools to tighten the crank back on. Not much luck, but a man and woman saw me trying to fix my bike and it turns out the guy was a frame builder and had the proper tools to tighten it down until I could get to a bike shop the next day. Very lucky!

I stopped in town for my second fish and chips dinner. Peebles was a beautiful little town with an alpine feel to it. A place I wouldn’t mind visiting again someday.

Day 856 miles 5000 feet of gain

I camped above Peebles that night and needed to get to an Innerleithen bike shop the following morning where I could grab another crank cap. The town wasn’t more than 8 miles away, but was in the opposite direction so it added an extra 16 miles to the final day. Peebles has a bike shop but was unfortunately closed on Monday. I awoke the next morning and packed up my wet tent as it rained very hard over night. Thankfully it stopped when I was ready to get up. It was a quick ride to Innerleithen along a cycle path where I stopped by Tweed Valley Bikes to get some help. Unfortunately, the cap on these Surly cranks needs a specific Surly cap, so they didn’t have it, but at least I had the chance to stop at one of the cafes in town for a full scottish breakfast and to recharge my powerbank before I set off for Edinburgh later in the day. I overheard a shop in town sells haggis scones. Not sure how I feel about that, but wish I had tried one at least!

The last big day of riding was marked by many sheep, cows, and long empty off road tracks. It was a fitting end to a journey that began in a rural albeit densely populated part of England to an ever more remote feeling Scotland.

I could have finished that night in Edinburgh, but was my rail journey wasn’t until the following day, so I camped in the Pentland Hills overlooking Edinburgh and dropped down the next morning to get a picture in front of the Edinburgh Castle before I stopped by a cake shop and then the train station.

I’m really happy I chose to do this route. As I mentioned at the beginning, I struggled with choosing to not cut directly to the highlands which is what I normally do on my big yearly bike trip. The highlands are more epic and beautiful to me, but cycling through the different counties of England and the Scottish borders gave me a better understanding of the culture and geography in the north of England and south of Scotland. I couldn’t have been more lucky with the weather as this ride would’ve been much more difficult if it was raining. Happy to finally say after two years that I’ve completed the Great North Trail, and have many great memories to take home with me.

View over Edinburgh on the final day

4 thoughts on “Cycling The Great North Trail – Southern Half

  1. What a grand adventure. Even an armchair traveller like myself enjoyed the recounting of the beauty and challenges of this journey.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hey Nick really enjoyed the blog read it to the end
    Great adventure and you tell the story very wel, felt like I was with you and had to read the whole story. Kent

    Like

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