UK Cycling Trails to Explore this Autumn
The schools are back and the Covid-19 restrictions have been eased, so Autumn 2021 is a great time to jump on your bike and explore some of the UK's finest cycling trails. Whether you are looking to build on the cycling skills the whole family has had a chance to develop during repeated lockdowns, or you want to take on an epic bicycling adventure on your own, our pick of the nation's best cycling trails has something for every cyclist.
We’ve split our selection by distance, from one-day adventures, which can easily be achieved by new cyclists and younger riders, right up to a 1000-mile+ epic journey that traverses the whole of mainland Britain. We've included a variety of terrains and too, from traffic-free flat routes on disused railways to off-road challenges that will whet mountain bikers' appetites. Where appropriate, there are also recommendations for bike hire shops and suggestions of places to stay. Do let us know if our list inspires you to take on a cycling trail this autumn by getting in touch via Instagram, Facebook or LinkedIn.
Day Trip Exploring
The Cuckoo Trail, Sussex (14 miles)
Forming part of the National Cycle Network, the Cuckoo Trail is a largely traffic-free surfaced path that links Heathfield to Shinewater Park. It follows the route of Cuckoo Line railway track, so look out for the original Victorian brick arch bridges and the Heathfield Tunnel. The route is a green corridor for wildlife and is home to a host of birdlife including green woodpeckers, bullfinches and cuckoos. You may even spot a weasel on your journey, if you're lucky!
The gentle gradient and sealed surface mean that the Cuckoo Trail is accessible by riders of all abilities, whatever the weather. There are picnic spots at various points along the track and plenty of shops and cafes close by too. Cycle hire company, CountryBike, have bikes available trackside at Horam and these can be paid for on the go if you download the CountryBike app for Apple or Android.
If you are looking to stay in the area before or after your Cuckoo Trail bike ride, Font Mills Farm Campsite is located just off the track at Hellingly. You can opt for a basic pitch for your own tent, or add some luxury to your break by staying in one of their beautiful bell tents.
Coed y Brenin Forest, North Wales (various technical mountain bike trails)
A Mecca for adrenaline-junkie mountain bikers but also a great place for kids and beginners to get out and explore rural North Wales on two wheels, the Coed y Brenin Forest offers eight different trails of varying degrees of difficulty, from an easy 6.5 mile green route to the 'Beast of Brenin', a challenging 23.5-mile black route that tests the technical skills and fitness of experienced mountain bikers.
The onsite Beics Brenin Cycle Centre offers both manual and electric bike hire and detailed trail information, along with other useful facilities such as showers* and toilets, and there is a visitor centre nextdoor with a cafe for post-ride refreshments.
Make the most of your time on the Coed y Brenin trails by staying nearby the night before or after your off-road adventures. The nearest campsite is just down the road at Cae Gwyn Farm, where you can either pitch your tent or, if you are travelling as a group and planning to stay for two nights or more, you could opt for their Hayloft Barn or Camping Barn accommodation.
*currently closed due to Covid-19
Callander to Killin, Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park (24 miles)
Part of Route No.7 on the National Cycle Network, this Scottish cycling idyll connects the Perthshire town of Callander (often referred to as the Gateway to the Highlands) with the village of Killin at the Falls of Dochart. This cycling route largely follows the old Callander to Oban railway and is a mixture of traffic-free paths and quiet road sections.
If you are contemplating this trail as part of a family holiday, it's worth noting that, although the majority of it follows the disused railway line, it is uncharacteristically challenging for a trail of this description. Fit, active older children and teens could probably do the full 24-mile route with you in a single day. However, if you have young children, or would like to explore at a more leisurely pace, there are plenty of opportunities for shorter rides that miss out the tricky ascents around Glen Ogle.
Weekend/Long Weekend Challenges
Whitehaven to Sunderland (137.5 miles)
One of the most popular cycle trails in the UK, this route is often called the C2C challenge (which stands for Sea to Sea, as in Irish Sea at Whitehaven to North Sea at Sunderland). It is most commonly cycled from west to east, to ensure that the prevailing wind is behind you and helping to push you up the hills! Most people use road bikes for this ride because, although there are off-road sections in places, there are surfaced alternatives you can take if the conditions are such that you think you would struggle on your road bike.
This iconic cycling adventure takes you across two of the country's main mountain ranges (the Pennines and the Lake District) and explores woodlands, pine forests, lakes, streams and moorland too. Much of the route is on cycle paths and minor roads that are part of the National Cycle Network, but there are a few short sections through urban areas (comprising around 4% of the total) that, of necessity, are on main roads. There are a few steep climbs on your journey, especially in the section between Langwathby and Allenheads, but the fantastic views are worth the hard work and you can refuel at the highest cafe in England, which awaits you at the top of Hartside Fell.
C2C is a challenging route and, as the days are getting shorter and the weather conditions more wintery, we recommend taking between 3 and 4 days to complete it. If you would like to tackle the hills unencumbered by luggage, you could either enlist your own support crew of non-cyclists to carry your stuff between your accommodation stops each day, or you could employ a company such as Saddle Skedaddle to do it for you.
However you decide to tackle this trek, don't forget to obey the route tradition of dipping your rear bike wheel in the Irish Sea before you start and dipping the front one in the North Sea when you finish.
The South Downs Way (100 miles)
If you are looking for more than a few km's worth of technical downhill for your next mountain biking challenge, then why not take on the South Downs Way? Arguably one of the country's finest distance cycle routes, it blends picturesque scenery with historical city landmarks, such as Winchester Cathedral. Pack a picnic to enjoy at Queen Elizabeth Country Park and, if the sun is shining, make a detour to the centre of Brighton to enjoy fish and chips on the seafront.
Running from Winchester to Eastbourne, this is the only UK National Trail that is fully navigable by bike. If you want to put your head down and really pedal for it, you can do the full route in one day, but with so many things to see and do along the way, we would suggest taking 2 - 4 days to complete it, so that you can really appreciate your surroundings.
If you hire bikes from Bespoke Biking in Winchester, they will collect them from you in Eastbourne at the end of your ride (for a surcharge). If you are looking to complete the route in two days, a stopover in the village of Storrington, near Worthing, works well. Little Rock Cottage Camping and Glamping was voted best campsite in the South East by camping website pitchup.com and is conveniently located for your overnight stay in Storrington. If you would like to take a little longer to enjoy the stunning views, city centre attractions and picturesque villages en route, there are three and four day options outlined here, on the South Downs Way website.
Epic Cycling Adventures
The Great Western Way and the Shakespeare Cycle Way (334 miles)
This epic adventure is actually a combination of two popular long-distance cycling challenges, which you could take on individually, on two separate occasions, or power through in one go. The Great Western Way takes its name from the railway designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel and the route begins in Bristol, home to many of the famous engineer's great works, including the Clifton Suspension Bridge. Cycling along the Kennet and Avon Canal, you enjoy the green spaces of Richmond Park and Windsor Great Park before finishing at the Brunel Museum in Rotherhithe.
From exploring the world of engineering you move to celebrated literary giants, as the Shakespeare Cycle Way links the Globe Theatre, on the banks of the Thames, with Shakespeare's hometown of Stratford-Upon-Avon. You get to revisit Richmond Park at the beginning of the route (but you may get to see the picturesque deer herd twice, so that's a bonus) before following the River Thames out to Reading. Having crossed the city on traffic-free trails that avoid most of the busy roads, you then return to the countryside, travelling through the Chilterns and Oxfordshire before skirting the Cotswolds and traversing the hills of Warwickshire. Your journey ends at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, on the banks of the River Avon.
We recommend taking at least a week to do both routes together, as there is a wide range of sights and attractions to enjoy along the way. You can stay rural and camp in countryside locations along the way, or chose to stop in the city and town centres including Bristol, Devizes, Reading, Oxford and Stratford. This two trail combo is a cultural feast as well as a physical challenge and you may come away with a few historical facts that could be useful in a future pub quiz.
Land's End to John O'Groats (1189 miles)
Known to those in the know as LEJOG, this epic journey is the holy grail of Great British bike rides. Spanning the entire length of mainland UK, the route is traditionally travelled from south to north and is often split into the following five sections:
- Land's End to Gloucester (355.5 miles)
- Gloucester to Nantwich (129.5 miles)
- Nantwich to Gretna (235.4 miles)
- Gretna to Pitlochry (213.6 miles)
- Pitlochry to John o'Groats (254.9)
It takes between 7 and 14 days to complete the whole journey and we recommend taking as long as you can manage, as there is so much to see and do along the way. Enjoying an unscheduled stop in a nature reserve or two or pausing to eat an ice cream on a sunny afternoon are simple pleasures that a tight schedule could struggle to accommodate.
If you are not an experienced cyclist, it is unlikely that you will be able to jump on a bike and complete this cycle ride this autumn, but if you are looking for a new fitness goal or travel ambition, now is a good time to set your sights on achieving this iconic goal in 2022. And if the thought of planning the whole thing yourself puts you off before you even get on the bike to start training, don't worry, there are lots of brilliant travel companies, such as Bike Adventures, who will relieve you of a bit of cash to do all the logistical hard work for you. This allows you to focus on pedalling and enjoying the spectacular views, of which there are many. However, do be aware that there is no standard route for the ride, so make sure the company you chose is doing a route you are happy with before you book.
PS - Don't be distracted by anyone who tells you that it's possible to travel from Land's End to John o'Groats in 874 miles. Whilst this is technically true, it would feel longer than the 1189 miles we have quoted here, as the shorter route is really not an enjoyable cycle ride. The one recommended here is the one detailed on the Sustainable Transport Charity website, which incorporates lots of National Cycle Network tracks and trails, to keep you off busy A-roads as much as possible.