Cycling to Orkney: a Meandering Tour of my Beautiful Country
Deepti Marchment talks through cycling 750 miles from Yorkshire to Orkney, with everything you need to know to do it too or create your own bikepacking adventure.
Have you ever wished you could see a country? I mean really see it: get to know the lay of the land and how it changes as you move through different counties. Spot wildlife, wildflowers, trees and birds (no matter if you’re not often sure of their names!). Find hidden paths so pretty you wonder how they can possibly be deserted and even see major road routes from a totally new perspective? How about whiling away hours in cafés and pubs indulging in eating loads, and still getting fit along the way?
Having an adventure where you can leave all life worries behind… where the only thing you need to decide is where you’re going to eat and sleep that day? If that sounds good, you should definitely try bikepacking – and I hope my story convinces you that anyone interested in the outdoors can have a go at it!
What was your bikepacking adventure?
In Summer 2018, I spent two weeks cycling 750 miles from Yorkshire to Orkney with my husband. That sounds like a big expedition, but when you break it down, it was an eminently doable adventure and lots of fun.
Is that cycle touring?
Yes, more or less. You can split hairs about the difference between bikepacking and cycling touring but, to me, bikepacking is generally a lightweight business. Hauling heavy loads up hills makes me grumpy and slow, so it’s a great incentive to pare down the stuff and lose the panniers (more on this later).
Ok… what are the fitness requirements?
Low! In 2018 I had a busy full-time job as a junior doctor. I had been a low-key hobbyist cyclist for about 3 years, picking it up after marrying my bike-mad husband. My cycling habit was sporadic, getting out for a 2-3 hour ride every few weekends in the summer, between long periods of quiescence when work ramped up.
I didn’t enjoy the grind of speed-focused cycling and I found pushing to keep up on group rides demotivating, so resolutely avoided them. But although I wasn’t particularly fast, I discovered that even a little experience “getting miles in the legs” allows you, crucially, to cycle slowly for quite a long time. This is especially true if, like me, your rides include nice long obligatory café stops.
By the time of the trip, I knew I could ride 50 miles at a leisurely pace without any hassle but hadn’t done any focussed training. In the 6 weeks beforehand, I’d managed my usual short cycle commutes and just one 33 mile leisure ride, sincerely hoping that I could “ride into fitness” through the trip itself.
How did you choose a route?
I will unashamedly advertise the charity Sustrans here. Their National Cycle Network (NCN) is a fantastic, reliable source of low-traffic or traffic-free long distance routes that traverse the UK. They include minor roads, gravel tracks, canal towpaths, cycle paths and more. For this trip I used my gravel bike with slightly chunkier tyres, but I have done many NCN routes in dry weather on road bike tyres, only occasionally having to walk.
Sustrans’ threshold for assigning a path NCN status is that “a sensible 12 year old should be able to ride it alone safely” – so you can generally trust the routes will be safe and passable. I used a mapping website to link NCNs, and put it on my entry-level cycle computer (the cheaper ones like this don’t have a stored map, just a breadcrumb trail that is more than sufficient for navigating). NCNs are lovingly signed by Sustrans, so if you don’t have a cycle computer, you can still follow signposts without stopping too frequently to check your map.
I had a rough idea for the distance I could comfortably cover in two weeks (40 - 60 miles a day) and plotted a route that started and ended at a train station for transport to and from home. I decided to begin at Dent, which has the highest altitude train station in England. From there I could cheekily roll almost all the way downhill to Scotland. NCNs often follow train lines, which proved handy when I was delayed by a mechanical and caught a train from Penrith to Carlisle to make up ground.
Most of the UK is populous enough that there’s always a nearby supermarket, café or pub for food. It was only in the upper Highlands that this required a little planning, as corner shops became sparser with shorter opening hours. Bigger supermarkets are also great for toilet facilities when cafés aren’t an option.
What about sleeping?
A couple of years previously, I had become smitten with Alastair Humphreys’ microadventures. These small, short, achievable adventures were a great introduction to wild camping using a bivvy bag instead of a tent. Alastair’s website was full of helpful tips and ideas that got me started. My first attempt was a short hike to a wild campsite near my house, sleeping in a second-hand £30 ex-army bivvy bag, and I was hooked.
Bivvy bags are a game-changer because not having to lug a tent around dramatically reduces your bike weight and eliminates the need for panniers – plus sleeping wild under the stars is pretty thrilling. My husband did take a basha (sheet of tarp to string from trees or the bikes) in case we had an unexpectedly rainy night. But we were firmly fairweather wild campers: I checked the forecast each morning and booked an AirBnB if it was going to rain!
In Scotland, where wild camping is legal, bivvying had the added advantage of freeing me from the need to cover a set distance each day. On bivvy days, we would rise with the sun and cycle as far as we liked, stopping as often as we liked. Café lunches were leisurely and pub dinners even more so. We would then cycle into the dusk, stopping whenever we saw a suitable place to sleep, with no pressure from having to reach a campsite or B&B by a certain time.
Practically, we usually alternated bivvy days with AirBnBs, as while the freedom of bivvying is great, there’s a lot to be said for a shower, laundry and soft bed every other night. If you don’t like the idea of bivvying, you could “credit card bikepack” and book B&Bs every night. (Cons: more pricey, more planning; Pros: saves on bike weight, more comfortable).
Any memorable moments?
We slept in some of the funniest places:
by a barrow on Orkney (the only shelter we could find from unrelenting gales);
in a picturesque layby in the forest of Galloway (we were so smug until the midges arrived);
in a hidden clearing overlooking a motorway layby (which felt surprisingly special, given its proximity to the road);
under a pub garden picnic table (with kind permission from the pub owners when we couldn’t book a room in the rain)
and on a beach in the Highlands being lulled to sleep by the waves.
We ate good food – although it’s funny how good anything tastes when you’ve been cycling all day. This included breakfast pastries toasted each morning on our homemade beer can stove, followed by fine fry-up second breakfasts 5 or 10 miles later. We saw plenty of sunsets, sunrises, stars and blissful views. Everything was interesting in its own way, but highlights included the oil rigs at Cromarty and the Neolithic sites at Orkney. We were especially grateful for the midge nets on our bivvies and the midge jackets I’d packed at the last minute: summer in Scotland is no joke without them!
So, how was it overall?
Brilliant! I’d planned the trip because there was so much of the UK I wanted to get better acquainted with, and cycling is a perfect way to do it. The scenery doesn’t whip by as fast as it does in a car, and the lazy, ambling fashion of travel permitted a more intimate connection with the countryside I passed through. At the same time, I covered a much greater distance than walking, meaning I could observe the changing landscape through the counties and finished with a huge sense of achievement for the total distance I’d traversed. Bivvying was adventurous and always came with a little adrenaline rush, especially for a goody two shoes like me: it pushed me out of my comfort zone just enough.
It’s hard to capture the freedom and sheer joy of meandering through our beautiful UK countryside by bike on a sunny day, knowing ahead of you lies a good dinner and the slightly nervous thrill of sleeping under the stars, with no other cares in the world. Give it a go, no matter how short the time or modest the distance. As per Dr Pepper, what’s the worst that could happen? I can’t wait for you try it for yourself.
Deepti has gone on to do many more leisurely long-distance bikepacking trips and has just returned from 7 days bivvying around South Wales. She does not have social media but is more than happy to answer practical questions via Intrepid Magazine.