How to do a cycling holiday in Britain and Ireland

Be prepared before getting on your bike

Every summer for the past five a friend and I have been on a cycling tour somewhere in the British Isles – we go for a week or two and stay in youth hostels and B&Bs. The first ride began in Brecon in south Wales, where we grew up, and proceeded to Cardiff and clockwise around the Welsh coast. Since then we’ve done John o’Groats to Land’s End, the west coast of Ireland and the north of England. This August we spent 10 days on and between the Hebrides, the Western Islands of Scotland. Here’s some of what we’ve learned in the saddle and on the bummel.

Bikes on trains

It can feel like each train operating company has its own anti-cyclist policy about taking bikes on board, so that every time you go somewhere new you have to get your head around another one. Then you get to the train, remember how much bigger it is than your bike and wonder what the policy is for. But to be fair to the train companies, we’ve never actually been turned away.

If you’re on a mainline train and have a tight connection to make, you’ll probably find yourself anxiously haunting the vestibules. But once on the slow train, relax and enjoy the view. A couple of our favourites, both in Scotland, have been the Far North Line to John o’Groats, and the West Highland Line from Oban.

Barnhill in Jura – where George Orwell lived and worked

Where to cycle

The cyclist is something of a refusenik. He chooses to live at the margins of society and must therefore ordinarily ride in the margins of the road. Unfortunately, these tend to fill up with rubbish. The old Glasgow to Carlisle Road is a wonderful exception and is one of our favourite to cycle on. It was superseded by the M74, and now snakes alongside it, largely trafficless, for miles and miles. A trunk road normally turns cyclists into shrinking violets at a dinner party – forever trying to get a word in and drawing back as a car roars in to fill the brief silence – so it’s nice to be able to cycle side by side and chat.

Other recommended roads…

– General Wade’s Military Road, Inverness-shire.
– The back road around Thirlmere, Cumbria.
– Slaidburn Road in the Forest of Bowland, Lancashire.
– The B3224 to Exford, Somerset.
– The A846, Jura. Five miles along a track beyond the northern end of the road is Barnhill, the house in which George Orwell wrote 1984.
– National Cycle Route 818, a seven-mile route between Llangurig, Montgomeryshire, and Cwmystwyth, Cardiganshire (Be aware that the National Cycle Network is to be used with some caution. It has a tendency to recommend routes that go off-road and around the houses, or to simple melt away. But it’s existence is a fine thing and it contains many wonderful routes.)

Saddle up

Pack plenty of snacks – a banana, a malt loaf, a banana malt loaf – and a good waterproof. (Stormzy, my ancient Peter Storm cagoule, proved in the Hebrides to be barely shower-proof. He will not be invited again.)

Early in a tour, you might find yourself moving, during the course of a day, through the five emotional responses: denial (‘The wind will drop’), anger (‘Rain! Rain! Rain!’), bargaining (‘Check the GPS again’), depression (‘Why us?’) and, eventually, acceptance. But one’s body adapts, so that a couple of days in you get up and your brain is asking, ‘OK, where are we going today?’ And when it isn’t rainy or windy, and you’re free with a friend in some out-of-the-way fairyland you never knew existed, it’s the closest thing to flying.

Rules of the road

– When it’s raining and you want somewhere to eat your sarnie, you wait ages for a bus shelter and then three come along at once.
– First, you will lose track of which is your clean underwear. Then you will cease caring.
– Where grass grows up the middle of the road, there is happiness.
– Crossing a county border is always a thrilling experience. (Thanks to Alan Partridge for that one)

Glenfinnan Viaduct (aka the Harry Potter bridge)

Where to stay

Our default preference for accommodation is youth hostels, many of which are run by the Youth Hostels Association. A few of the hostels have suffered makeovers due to the association’s pivot towards family breaks, but most remain free of keycard-operated doors and other modern miseries. (Incidentally, I’ve got nothing against the bourgeois family, but it’s not what youth-hostelling is about. Youth-hostelling is about the unwanted embrace of a cold shower curtain.)

A few of our favourites:

YHA St David’s, Pembrokeshire
YHA Exford, Somerset
Black Valley Hostel, County Kerry
YHA Slaidburn, Lancashire
YHA Edmundbyers, County Durham
SYHA Torridon, Ross-shire
Rhenigidale Hostel, Harris

French windbag Jean-Paul Sartre may have been in a hostel listening to his room-mates snore when he wrote that ‘Hell is other people.’ The older, fatter, and drunker your room-mates, the likelier they are to snore, so be prepared. It’s an awful thing to find oneself interested – from the point of view of physical anthropology – in a stranger’s snoring. Earphones can be used to block out the sound (I favour the soothing music of Richard Hawley.)

This, however, is a wholly negative attitude. Many of the people one is likely to meet in hostels are eccentric and sweet. We won’t forget Patrick, the slightly brash Irish-Chicagoan we met in Donegal. He was a reader of philosophy, and touchingly impressed by where my friend studied the subject. In the crowded communal kitchen, he called across the room, ‘Hey! Oxford!’ My friend feigned deafness, and we heard Patrick, in conspiratorial tones, tell the bemused French family he was sitting with, ‘See that guy over there: he studied philosophy at Oxford. Smart guy. He’s my room-mate.’

Dos and don’ts

Do
– Pose on abandoned railway lines as a bound damsel in distress.
– Compare everything to Lord of the Rings: your fifth cereal bar is (bitterly), ‘More lembas bread’; and any dauntingly faraway place is, ‘Brandywine Bridge – twenty miles!’
– In the event of mechanical failure, keep calm and call Daddy for advice.

Don’t
– Think you won’t get sunburnt. I make a habit of getting sunburnt in unlikely places – County Clare, the Isle of Barra, my ankles.
– Eat an entire bag of wine gums (particularly if you are violently allergic to wine gums).
– Ask for an English breakfast in Scotland. On second thoughts – do.
– And if you ever tire of this sceptred isle, you can always follow the advice of the man we met in a pub in St Just: ‘Go down to Spain,’ he said. ‘Go down to Spain, and just chill.’ Perhaps, one day, we will.

Joshua Gaskell can be found tweeting here


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