Cycling the Great North Trail – Off-Road – Yorkshire Dales, North Pennines, Northumberland and Scottish Borders

We were looking for an adventure near home in the UK after being locked down due to Covid for over a year. We don’t like cycling with cars so we decided to cycle our Fatbikes on rough tracks, bridleways, byways, fields and moors from the North Devon Coast in the South West, right across the South of England below London to Aldeburgh on the East Coast. From there around the East Anglian Coast into Norfolk crossing inland again to Derbyshire where we picked up the Great North Trail and the Pennine Bridleway that would take us to Scotland. This led us over the Peak District and on into the Yorkshire Dales, the North Pennines, Northumberland and into the Scottish Borders to Edinburgh. In all the trip was 1,800 km (1,118 miles) and was over 80% on unsurfaced tracks. I have often heard cycle tourers say they won’t cycle in the UK as the traffic is so dangerous. This trip proves you can cycle all over the UK without worrying about cars.

There are just the two of us on the trip and we were carrying everything we needed on the bikes including tents and cooking equipment. This blog is about the last section of our adventure from Settle in North Yorkshire to Edinburgh.

We had had a day off in Settle, seen here from above, and just as well as it rained so heavily it was nice to be indoors. As we set off the next day, up always up, it was foggy but this soon cleared and became the best day of our trip in so many ways.

Initially our morning push was through sheep fields and it was really difficult to find our way. There were sheep tracks in all directions on the steep hillside and no bridleway signs.

Near the first hilltop we left the bikes in the hedge and walked down to see Catrigg Forge which is a series of waterfalls.

I was hoping that this section of the trail, through the Yorkshire Dales, was going to be a less technical cycle than the Peaks we had just left as the base rocks were different. Here we were cycling over limestone pavement which you can see in the picture above. This leads to hills with flattish tops.

Well the tops might to flat but is was still a long climb up. As we are tending to stay in the towns and villages each night we always start the day deep in the valley with the inevitable result every morning.

It was wonderful to finally ride the bikes as we got nearer to the top and the gradient eased off a bit. This turned out to be a popular area for hiking, mountain biking and Duke of Edinburgh groups and we saw more people that day than we had for a long time.

Looking down on an immense area of Limestone Pavement.

There were a lot of flowers up here, this is a Cinquefoil with Hoverfly

Prunella vulgaris, selfheal

This seemed the perfect spot to stop for lunch in the sunshine with wonderful views

Once at the top the cycling was much easier than of late and this led to a bit of overconfidence about the distance we would achieve that day. We had originally planned to wild camp at Cam Head but as we had reached there by 2.30 p.m. we could see no problem in getting to an Inn we had noticed on our map just over the next hill at Moorcroft.

Heading down into the valley was wonderful

But the climb up the next hill was long and totally energy sapping as it had been a really long day. I was determined to keep pedaling as long as possible as pushing is so much harder.

The summit was finally reached quite late in the day and I was dreaming of a delicious supper and nice bed just at the bottom of this hill, although still a fair way off.

We stopped at the top for a well needed rest, we were really tired now and glad there were no more hills to climb that day, or so we thought. Just sitting in that quiet landscape with only the sound of sky larks and a few other birds was wonderful. It is moments like this, moments of total isolation in such a crowded island like the UK, that make off-road cycling here so wonderful.

There was an old railway running through the valleys down below us and several viaducts. A bit later, when in the valley, we had just finished taking a photo of the viaduct and put away our camera when a steam train went over. Nearly perfect timing but not quite!

Just over this ridge we dropped into the valley only to find the Inn, where we had hoped to eat and stay, was shut. It was getting late and we were really tired. There were a few flat grassy areas there in the valley but some walkers had already claimed the space with their tent. So we filled up our water bottles from the stream and headed up the next hill looking for somewhere flat to wild camp.

That is Bernie further up the hill still looking for a flat space to put the tent. The good thing about heading up was leaving all the midges and horseflies down by the river. After a lovely sunny day dark clouds were now building overhead which added some urgency to our search.

Right at the very top of Tarn Fell we eventually found the perfect spot with wonderful views. We were also sheltered from the increasing wind by an area of limestone pavement. Although exhausted it was the best end to a perfect day and we sat up on the Limestone Pavement to eat our supper. Blissful!

This short video shows the variety of terrain we cycled over to get here from Settle.

One of the good things about climbing to the top to camp was that the following morning the first 10 km were downhill.

There is still large scale stone quarrying being carried out in this area. While we were staying in Settle many large, heavy stone laden lorries controversially roared through the center of the small town on the narrow roads. Here a slow train is pulling the quarried stone along the valley.

It is difficult to describe the wonderful remoteness of this beautiful area. There were low clouds just covering the tops of the surrounding hills, early summer meadow flowers, bird song and no people.

Every now and then on these remote trails we came across a large work of art. There is one on the brow of the hill here.

The hillside was purple with foxgloves

Down in the Mallerstang Dale we came across the ruins of Pendragon Castle near Outhgill. It is reputed to have been founded by Uther Pendragon, the father of King Arthur. Legend has it that Uther and a hundred of his men were killed here when the Saxon invaders poisoned the well.

We had imagined that cycling along the Dale would be easy, but our route took us through cattle fields which were heavily pock marked from cow hooves and with the long grass it was very heavy going.

The flowering meadows here on either side of the River Eden were full of Common Spotted Orchids. We had a relatively easy day as we criss-crossed the River Eden along the valley through Kirkby Stephen and on to Appleby-in-Westmorland where we stayed the night.

Arriving at this lovely old hotel in the center of Appleby with very muddy bikes we were surprised to be told just to wheel the bikes in though the hall and leave them up against the fireplace.

We had needed a good night as we knew what was waiting for us the next next day. We were going over the Great Dun Fell which was the highest point on our trip. The approach to it was pleasant with nice tracks.

And better yet the little village of Dufton had a café. We chatted to the owner while filling up with coffee and cake and he turned out to be a sheep farmer from the next village of Knock. He told us that the track going up was surfaced, although it was just for bikes and pedestrians, sounded too good to be true.

The café owners sheep being moved as we started our climb.

Initially the climb didn’t seem too hard, it was a steady incline.

But then it kicked up steeply from 10% to 16% and just went on and on. I wasn’t complaining about the fact it had a nice smooth surface, although I did wonder why they had gone to all that expense. We found out when we got to the top. Here we have just been passed by some road bikers on a training ride, the young riders at the back couldn’t keep up with the old guy at the front even though he was breathing like a steam train. You can just see the snow poles marking the road for the winter.

At the top (750 m or 2460 ft) we found a radar station and presumably they had paid for the smart access road.

Here it got very cold and the visibility was low. This is the track down on the other side. Well I couldn’t see it either! No surface here and if there hadn’t been a sign pointing across this bog I wouldn’t have known there was a track there at all. Its times like this when I am really glad of gps which we had to follow for the next hour or so. If the mist had been any thicker we would probably have turned round and gone back down the road.

What looks like a rocky track here is the path of the flood that washed the bridleway away a few years back. I am on a track but there were identical ones made by the sheep going in all directions.

Bernie made much better progress than me over the peat bog. I kept finding that my front wheel would suddenly disappear up to the axel and the bike would stop dead. So I ended up pushing down quite a bit of it. Although at this point I can’t workout how Bernie got across all the boggy water that is between us.

There were a lot of stream crossings, some deeper than others.

And a lot of bog crossings

There had been a track along the top of this embankment but it had washed down into the river during the winter. Bernie took both of the bikes through this bit. He had to get them up to where the sheep are, higher up on the bank, having negotiated the boulders first. It needed more strength than I had.

Finally on a bit I was able to cycle. This boggy descent was only about 5 km but had taken us hours and we were exhausted. While we had a rest and a picnic on the gravel track at the bottom a group of male mountain bikers came down. Obviously it would have been loss of face for any of them to walk so they had tried to cycle all of it. They were covered in thick mud from going over the handlebars when their front wheels got stuck in the bog but looked fairly happy about it.

Wild Thyme

Viola tricolor, heart’s ease

Finally on the valley floor, with coffee and cake demolished in Alstone, we headed down an old rail trail. This section reminded me of Aspen Alley in Colorado if a bit smaller.

This is a short video showing the terrain we cycled over between Tarn Hill and Once Brewed, including coming down the Great Dun Fell.

We struggled to find anywhere to stop for the night in this area, but eventually made it to a place called Once Brewed, which was just a brewery and an Inn called Twice Brewed, just below Hadrians Wall. We somehow managed to cause chaos at breakfast. As I hate soggy toast I put it through their machine twice to get it nice and crispy. It got a little black too and set off their fire alarms. We sat there calmly and guiltily eating our breakfast while all around us people were rushing around in a panic. Unfortunately there was a thick fog when we set off and this is the only bit of Hadians Wall we could see.

We spent the day cycling through the Kielder Forest and passed this delightful bothy. It was closed because of Covid but I had a little wander around inside and it would have been a very cozy place to stay.

As we were cycling through the Kielder Forest I was somehow expect there to be trees! But there was about 20 km of chopped devastation.

We eventually found some trees and I realised how lucky we had been earlier. Here we were besieged by horseflies or cleggs as they are called up here. We had been ready for midges as we got near Scotland, but this year midge numbers are down but clegg numbers are up. We got badly bitten every time we went under trees and particularly if we had to push for a bit. Luckily this section was easy to cycle and keep the speed up.

We came out of the trees just above the Kielder Lake which we then cycled around.

Down next to the lake were boggy areas full of Common Spotted Orchids and Ragged Robin.

Silene flos-cuculi, Ragged Robin

Dactylorhiza fuchsii, Common spotted orchid or marsh orchid

The trails around the lake were well maintained and easy cycling, which made a change.

Camping in the Kielder Forest was not at all how I had imagined it. This is meant to be a special place of dark sky and no artificial light, where you can see stars easily. This campsite was busy with young families, noisy for most of the night and very definitely not dark.

But we were soon away from all the noise as we headed up narrow, boggy single track to Bloody Bush. I am not normally that good at single track as I suddenly find it impossible to cycle in the straight line required. But here, with a orchid always within an inch of my wheel I managed just fine. There was no way I was going to squash one. Then, at the top of the hill we arrived in Scotland!

This monument, at Bloody Bush, marks the site of the battle between the English raiders returning from Scotland and their Scottish pursuers. It is exactly on the England/Scotland border.

The boggy single track up a fairly steep hill made it hard going.

Geum rivale, water avens

We were expecting to find an old rail track in this area, and there were bits of it we could cycle along. But regularly we found the trail took us off this and straight up an overgrown hillside with all the associated horseflies. It seems that bits of the old railway had been sold off in the past so we had to go around.

A face only a mother could love.

We passed by Stops Camp, a first world war POW camp

We stopped in Hawick for the night. This monument was erected to commemorate the return of Hawick Gallants from Hornshole in 1514, when, after the Battle of Flodden, they routed the English Marauders and captured their flag. In fact the English won that battle, the largest between the two kingdoms but no mention of that is on the monument.

It was another foggy day. We seemed to be having too many of these. There was a stiff climb out of Hawick, then into fields pockmarked with cattle prints so heavy going

We had heard there were a lot of styles on this section and thought we had avoided them, but found one more.

We got a bit lost on the way up to Minch Moor which unfortunately meant backtracking down a steep hill we had just pushed up.

But eventually on the right path we continued up through fields with wonderful meadow flowers and grasses that were full of butterflies and moths.

There were clouds of these Chimney Sweeper Moths – Odezia atrata.

It was wonderful cycling up through these meadows

Once up on Minch Moor the vegetation changed and we were cycling through bracken and bilberry bushes, they were very tasty.

Fritillary butterfly

As we got to the top we could see the mist lift off the surrounding hills.

But as we arrived at the top of the Innerleithen mountain bike center the skies opened into a torrential downpour. We were drenched in seconds and all the tracks down to Innerleithen turned into rivers. We thought we would take a Blue Run down as it should be the easiest, but it was still beyond my abilities in those conditions with a loaded bike.

Fortunately the sun came out again after a lunch break in Innerleithen, where they are so used to mountain bikers they didn’t bat an eye at two sodden bikers making pools of water on their floor

We stayed in busy Peebles that night. It is always a bit of a shock to come down to a town after a day spent in the wonderful empty hills. It was particularly crowded here as we had forgotten that the Scottish school holidays had already started, earlier than the English ones. Despite this reminder of Covid and the apparent stricter Covid rules in Scotland we felt very uncomfortable in a town where no-one observed social distancing, all restaurants were full to bursting with no extra ventillation and very few people were wearing masks. This was a week before any easing of the rules.

Peebles is a very pretty place

Amazingly, it was sunny as we climbed up from Peebles the next day so we were not eaten or stung by anything on our morning push out of the valley, which was a novelty.

We knew it was going to be a hard, remote cycle along the Old Drove Road to Edinburgh, and were looking forward to it.

Steeped in history, this fantastic route is based on the main route taken by the drovers who for hundreds of years drove cattle south from Falkirk and Crieff trysts to markets south of the border.  Winding its way along tracks and informal paths over the rolling hills and through the sheltered glens and woodland of the Tweed Valley, there is great variety in scenery and surfacing.

The Drove road varied from wide dark forest tracks to single track, lumpy and boggy field crossings and boggy moorland.

Hypericum perforatum – St John’s Wort

Some of the varied fungi we saw. Looks like something has taken a bite out of this one.

It was hard work on the Old Drove Road but we loved it. It was probably our best day of cycling yet.

We were up of the Pentland Hills, with not a soul in sight and the views were amazing. Like most of the trip our soundtrack up here was Sky Larks

We had come nearly 1,800 km, mostly off road, and I was just thinking how amazing it was that nothing had gone wrong with the bikes, not even a puncture, when I heard some choice four letter words coming from Bernie.

His saddle had broken; both the rails had snapped. We were about as far from a road as it was possible to get today. Bernie managed to bolt the snapped bits back in place and reattached his rear seat bag which strapped onto this point of the saddle. A quick check on the map showed that we could take a quicker route off the hills, but we still had about 20 km to go on rough tracks before we could turn off.

A reservoir high on the Pentland Hills

A Northern Lapwing

An Oystercatcher

Heading gingerly along the tracks after the temporary seat repair

Unfortunately, just after this, not only did we get lost but the tracks got much rougher

But we eventually managed to get on some gravel tracks that took us down to Edinburgh, far below. You can just see the bridges down there.

We decided that we were going to stop our trip here in Edinburgh. We had been away from home for about six weeks and we were tired. We could easily have got another seat here if we wanted but the horseflies were making life very unpleasant and everywhere was much more crowded than we had expected when we came off the hills. So we will come back, probably in the spring, before midges, horseflies and school holidays, and finish the section from Glasgow to John o’Groats. As we were passing Edinburgh Airport we went in, hired a car and drove home.

This picture shows the luggage we carried to cycle 1,800 km (1,118 miles), climb 20,661 m (67,785 feet) and cycle off surfaced roads on tracks, through fields and bogs and along byways from North Devon to Edinburgh, taking in the East Anglian coast on the way. We have had a fantastic time and it has been a great adventure in our home country, which I think has some of the best scenery in the world.

This short video shows the terrain we cycled between Hadrian’s Wall and Edinburgh.

Below is a map of our whole route that is covered in the previous two blogs. If you click on the link you can access our route in google maps and could download it for your own use.

To see the previous blogs on this route click on the links below:

The start of the trip from North Devon to Aldeburgh on the Suffolk Coast

The second part of the trip from the start of the Pennine Way in Derbyshire to Settle in North Yorkshire

2 thoughts on “Cycling the Great North Trail – Off-Road – Yorkshire Dales, North Pennines, Northumberland and Scottish Borders

    1. It was difficult to stay off road around East Anglia, although we did find quite a bit, and going from Boston across to the start of the Great North Trail in Derbyshire. But we were surprised how many bridleways there where in other places.