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800 Mile Great North Trail Opens

By Mark Roberts
03, Sep, 2019

New 98% off-road cycling trail links the Peak District with Scotland’s North coast

Looking for ideas for your next long-distance bikepacking trip, or just an excuse to get off the tarmac for a day or two? The new Great North Trail, devised by Cycling UK, joins up various existing bridleways, byways and cycle routes to take you from the foot of the Pennines all the way up to Cape Wrath or John O’Groats. 

The charity’s new route comes about as a result of increasing demand from cyclists for routes away from busy road traffic and a growing sense of frustration at the lack of progress in extending or developing national off-road cycling trails. For instance, the proposed extension of the Pennine Bridleway into Scotland was published 20 years ago this year without being implemented, prompting Cycling UK to take matters into their own hands. 

Taking in 4 national parks, the route passes through some of the most dramatic landscapes of mainland Britain, touching just 16 miles of road in the process. Starting at the base of the Pennines, the Great North Trail takes cyclists through the Peak District (and a stones throw from our Hathersage Store), the Yorkshire Dales, Northumberland and Loch Lomond and the Trossachs before passing Loch Ness and heading into the far North of Scotland, with options to finish in either Cape Wrath or John O’Groats. 

The appeal as a multiday bikepacking challenge is clear and the route has certainly generated a bit of a buzz around the Alpkit offices – it was only earlier this year that Alpkiteer Pete McNeil was giving us his advice on long distance cycling challenges after riding the Highland Trail 550.

Pete McNeil: At the Bothy by sunset on the Highland Trail 550

We spoke to Sophie Gordon, Cycling UK’s Off-Road Campaigns Officer to find out a bit more about the trail: 

How long has the trail taken to develop?

“It's taken around a year of detailed map research and negotiating permissions to link together existing long-distance trails using bridleways, forest tracks and disused railway lines. We were helped a lot by Obscura Mondo Cycle Club who suggested we used their newly-developed 'An Turas Mor' route from Glasgow to Cape Wrath, which sped up the process considerably! 

The route isn’t perfect: the trail will continue to evolve in the future as we campaign for increased off-road access. For example, sometimes an ideal connecting trail is designated as a footpath rather than a bridleway, so we’ve had to take the long way round and include a quiet on-road section. In places, we’ve managed to negotiate permissive access, but in other areas, the process is still ongoing.” 

What do you see being the biggest significance of opening this trail? 

“Though the Great North Trail makes use of several existing long-distance trails, it's the first route to connect them all together, so you can ride from the Peak District all the way up to the north coast of Scotland. It also forms an end-to-end Scottish route, which is exciting in of itself. 

We're lucky to have a great selection of long-distance cycle routes in the UK, but the majority of them are road routes. Of the 15 National Trails (long-distance off-road trails) in England and Wales, only two of them can be cycled along their full length. Cycling UK has put together a riders' route for the North Downs Way (find the GPX route here) and we're continuing to find alternative routes and connect existing trails into a network that will enable you to cycle off-road across the length and breadth of the country. These will be adventurous routes on unsurfaced terrain, in keeping with the spirit of the Pennine Bridleway.” 

Would anyone be able to tackle the whole route? 

“Mountain bike guide Max Darkins kindly test-rode the entire route for us and wrote up his experience for the route guide. This can be found here, broken down into individual sections. 

The idea was that while the route as a whole is a challenging adventure, it doesn’t require high-level technical mountain biking skills (although there are options to include that if you want to) – so it should be achievable by people with a good level of fitness and experience of the outdoors. It’s important to bear in mind that some of the route crosses hilly terrain in remote areas, so you would need to be able to look after yourself.” 

It covers a vast range of terrain. What would you suggest the most suitable style of bike would be?  

“We asked Max which bike he would recommend after riding the route and this was his advice: The ‘right’ bike will depend on the rider, and your abilities and priorities: efficiency, comfort, or to ride the more technical sections at speed. Some experienced riders who prioritise efficiency, and would be willing to tough it out on the more challenging sections, could use a gravel bike – although we would suggest 40mm tyres as a minimum width. Our recommended choice of bike would be a hardtail mountain bike or short travel (100mm) full-suspension: for comfort, enjoyment and security on the rougher terrain and descents.” 

What else is in the pipeline from Cycling UK – or is that top secret?! 

"A key link will be a 200-mile loop which will connect the heart of historic Britain – Stonehenge, Avebury stone circles and Winchester – and link to the existing National Trails of the Ridgeway, South Downs Way and North Downs Way, which we are developing rideable routes for. 

An eventual goal is to create a connection down through Cornwall so it’s possible to cycle off-road from Land’s End to John o’ Groats – but that will take a lot more research and negotiation so no promises for anything soon!"

To support their efforts and read Max Darkins’ write up of the Great North Trail in their latest members’ magazine, you can join Cycling UK at: cyclinguk.org.

Thinking of riding it yourself? Make sure you're well prepared by taking the right bikepacking kit with you. Happy riding and see you out there!

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Share your thoughts about this article.

Don't stop at John O'Groats

Just returned from cycling Lands End to Cape Wrath to John O'Groats (via SUSTRANS) to Orkney to end of route 1 on Shetland on a Surly Ogre 3-by. Orkney and Shetland were by far and away the most enjoyable days of my adventure. The landscape, seascapes and sky-scapes were stunning. And the sense of remoteness away from the busy UK mainland was a joy. Now I am plugged back into The Matrix.

Maybe I could use The Great Northern route as practice for the Tour Divide.

Don't stop at John O'Groats.

I'll be doing it but....

I noticed that the route goes over the Corriyarrick. I went over there in June this year. Notice I didn't say ride. The Southern side is not a good prospect due to erosion control works involving large drainage ditches traversing the path. I ended up pushing down til about a mile short of Melgarve. Kudos to you if you manage to ride up it. Great bothy on the North side though.

Long, SLOW and Wiggly

15 years ago I rode from Culver Down on the Isle of Wight to Cape Wrath on my folding bike using off-road routes as much as possible. It was an attempt to roughly follow the longest straight line in Britain and to celebrate SLOW food and SLOW travel. It was an appallingly wet summer but at an average speed of 5 mph was never intended to be fast - just enjoyably scenic and fun. It was written up in CYCLE magazine. I hope the new route to/fro Scotland can eventually make it to the IOW too. Happy to help.


Utterly brilliant, hopefully a lot more to come spanning the length and breadth of the country.

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