10 of the best wild cycle rides in the UK

A bicycle is the perfect way to explore the countryside. These off-grid routes, from mountainous lung-busters to scenic family rides, explore history as well as wilderness

Malvern Hills, Worcestershire and Herefordshire

The Malvern Hills are wilderness in the Midlands, outliers of the Welsh mountains and beloved by artists, writers, poets and composers. The Malverns were composer (and keen cyclist) Edward Elgar’s muse, and the inspiration for 14th-century poet William Langland, whose famous work Piers Plowman includes the words: “On a May morning, on a Malvern hill-top/A marvel befell me, as might a fairy tale.”

North to south, the Malvern Hills stand like a regiment, a stubborn chain of 680-million-year-old rock, Wales is to the west and the rolling fields of the Midlands to the east. Bike-accessible bridleways trace the hills for almost their whole length, with some stretches crossing close to, or over, the tops. There are several car parks from which you can access the bridleways. Worcestershire Beacon (435 metres) is the highest point. A toposcope at the summit puts names to places in the view. Follow the bridleways north or south to enjoy the lofty, open experience the hills provide, always sticking to the bridleways. The roads on the Malverns’ west side are nice and quiet too. The eastern flank roads are busier but Great Malvern is on the east side and is well-stocked with eating places and watering holes.

Cape Wrath, north-west Scotland

Cape Wrath Scotland
Lighthouse at Cape Wrath. Photograph: Stephen Finn/Alamy

This is one of the wildest cycling experiences anywhere. It’s in a wilderness called the Parph, among some of the oldest geology on the planet. The ride goes from the Kyle of Durness ferry to the surging sea at Cape Wrath, one of only two named Capes in the country (the other being Cape Cornwall). Check ferry times (on capewrathferry.wordpress.com), and the weather, then follow the road from where the ferry drops you for just over 11 miles to the Cape Wrath lighthouse. It sounds simple but the road is rough and hilly, while the scenery is stunning. By 1949 this ride was such a rite of passage for adventurous cyclists that author Rex Coley founded the Cape Wrath Fellowship. All you needed to join was a photograph at the ferry and another at the lighthouse to prove you’d done it.

Torr Head Road, County Antrim

The road leading to Torr Head from Cushendun set in lush countryside

There’s a road in Northern Ireland that’s so improbable the fact it was built at all is pretty wild. It’s called the Torr Head Road and it runs between Cushendun and Ballyvoy. Further south, Cushendall village stands at the northern end of the A2 Antrim coast road, which is a feat of civil engineering itself. The road to Torr Head, though, is narrow, roughly surfaced and consists of three dizzying descents and three brutal climbs. All are at least a mile long, and have sections of 25% gradient. The view east to the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland is spectacular, so long as you have breath spare to raise your head and look at it.

White roads of the South Downs, East Sussex

A young adult couple cycling along the South Downs Way at Butts Brow, Willingdon, near Eastbourne, East Sussex. UK Image Ref EA9YP4 (RM) Contributor parkerphotography Credit line parkerphotography / Alamy Stock Photo Location “Butts Brow” Willingdon “South Downs Way” “south Downs” Eastbourne Date taken 2 September 2014

The South Downs, running from Eastbourne to Winchester, is a chain of round-topped green hills, crisscrossed and followed by old trails worn into their underlying chalk, creating an English version of Tuscany’s famous strade bianche. The perfect South Downs wild cycling experience is to ride along one of the low chalk trails and admire the shapely hills, then climb up on to them and follow a hilltop trail back to where you started. Alfriston is a great starting place.

While there, check out the winged wheel symbol outside Ye Olde Smugglers Inne on Waterloo Square. Winged wheels were an early rating system devised by the Cyclists’ Touring Club (CTC), now Cycling UK. Established in 1881, they were awarded to eating places and hotels that CTC officials had inspected and arranged special rates with for their members. Head north from the Smugglers to a crossroads, where the metalled road goes sharp right. Continue straight on the trail. This takes you along the base of the South Downs, through a glorious patchwork of arable fields. Cross some minor roads and trails: turn left on any one of them when ready to climb to the top of the downs. Once there, pick up the chalk trail that runs along the tops and follow it back to Alfriston.

Bloody Bush Road, Northumberland

Mountain bikers in Kielder Forest, Northumberland National Park, with mist and sunbeams Image Ref CMWHNW (RM) Contributor Jon Sparks Credit line Jon Sparks / Alamy Stock Photo Date taken 1 November 2008
Kielder Forest. Photograph: Jon Sparks/Alamy

Start at Lewis Burn car park in Kielder Forest. Follow the trail next to Lewis Burn to its confluence with Akenshaw Burn. Take the right trail fork, still climbing through the forest to break tree cover at the Bloody Bush Toll. The pillar with old toll prices on it is the Scottish border but Bloody Bush doesn’t refer to battles between the two countries, rather it comes from a time when the border clans regarded themselves as a third country, with its own laws. They were the Border reivers (raiders), and they made a living as mercenaries and cattle thieves. The name Bloody Bush dates from the 15th century, when a Northumbrian clan stole cattle from the Scottish side. The Scottish reivers tracked them down, slaughtered them here and repossessed their cattle in compliance with reiver law. For an extra-wild experience, do this ride at night; Kielder is a dark sky park with very little light pollution and clear nights are unforgettable.

Ennerdale, Lake District

Ennerdale Water in the Lake District

A jewel of the Lake District, Ennerdale Water fills the lower valley floor, reflecting the forested hillsides and surrounding mountains. There’s lots of wild cycling in the Lake District but this simple route is accessible and gets wilder the higher you go. Start in Bowness Knott car park (not to be confused with Bowness-on-Windermere) and head east. The trail follows the north bank of Ennerdale Water, which isn’t truly a lake because the Liza river flows into its eastern end, becoming the Ehen when it flows out of the west. The spot where the river enters Ennerdale is called Char Dub, named after the Arctic char, a fish that only lives in very cold water. From Char Dub follow the Liza upstream, again on the north side, as far as the Black Sail youth hostel (which sells tea and cake), then retrace the route to Bowness Knott.

Glyndwr’s Way, Welsh borders

Mountain Biking Glyndwrs Way Beacon Hill Machynlleth Mid Wales
Beacon Hill on Glyndwr’s Way. Photograph: Alamy

Knighton, on the English-Welsh border, stands at the heart of a web of interesting and ancient bridleways. Glyndwr’s Way is one mile out of town heading west on the A488. It’s a tiny lane at first but becomes a trail/lane you can follow for miles. Owain Glyndŵr was the last Welsh-born Prince of Wales. He led a Welsh revolt against English occupation throughout the first decade of the 1400s. It was unsuccessful, and he disappeared. Head north-west up the Teme valley and you soon see signs for Offa’s Dyke. It was built (long before there was an England or a Wales) by King Offa to keep the people of the Kingdom of Powys out of his Mercia. The dyke can be traced from the Dee estuary south to the river Wye. Parts of it are bridleway, while a network of other bridleways cross it.

Four miles further along the Teme valley, Offa’s Dyke meets the Jack Mytton Way, which is perfect for a wild cycle in the Shropshire Hills. Mytton was a Shropshire landowner and a thoroughly disreputable character. He’s done well to be remembered with this trail, a pub and the annual Jack Mytton run. Expelled from Westminster and Harrow, Mytton left Cambridge without a degree but having allegedly consumed 2,000 bottles of port. In 1819, he entered parliament, giving everyone who voted for him £10. That, along with his drinking and gambling, bankrupted him and he ended his days in debtor’s prison.

Scarborough to Whitby on the Cinder Path, North Yorkshire

View from the Cinder Track from near Hawsker Bottom on east coast of North Yorkshire, located between Whitby and Robin Hoods Bay.
Cinder Path from near Hawkser Bottom. Photograph: Jamie Smith/Alamy

Prepared cycleways aren’t everybody’s idea of a challenging ride but they are perfect for families and some, like this one, are pretty wild. It’s part of Route 1 of the National Cycle Network, and built on the old Whitby to Scarborough rail bed. It had cinder rather than stone ballast, so after the line closed in 1965, and the track was removed, it became known as the Cinder Path. Running from North Bay in Scarborough to Hawkser, a village just south of Whitby, the trail is 17½ miles long and plays hide and seek with the sea all the way. Ravenscar summit has the wildest view: the sea is only 500 metres away but 195 metres below. The tearoom in Ravenscar is a great refuelling stop, and Whitby has the best fish and chips in the country but then I’m from Yorkshire so …

Breckland Droves, Norfolk and Suffolk

Scots Pine trees near Oxburgh Norfolk England UK
Oxburgh in the Breckland park. Photograph: Rod Edwards/Alamy

Breckland is 393 sq m of sandy heathland and forest. It’s one of the driest places in the UK, and there are few hills, which makes for easy riding. The best trails here are called droves, used many years ago to move livestock to and from markets. Their paths are marked on the Ordnance Survey Landranger map (144) with broken long red dashes or larger red dots. Brandon, on the Norfolk/Suffolk border is surrounded by droves and it’s easy to plan rides with a map. Look out for the Breckland pine rows, where tall trees stand between open fields to reduce soil erosion. Scots pines thrive in the dry conditions here, and they have open canopies, unlike some other pines, making Breckland woods delightful places to ride.

Torrington to Braunton on the Tarka Trail, north Devon

Young cyclists on the Tarka Trail National Cycle Route 27 at Braunton, North Devon

The Tarka Trail wanders all over Devon, but this stretch runs through a lovely range of countryside, from its deepest-Devon start to its seaside destination. From Torrington, the trail is smooth for most of the way, with several cafes – the rail carriage in Bideford is fun. It crosses the Torridge river twice in the first two miles. Stop at the weir under the second bridge and if the season is right you may see salmon leaping up it. The Torridge widens and becomes tidal just before Bideford, becoming open sea at Instow. From here, cyclists can ride right around the Taw estuary, crossing the river in Barnstaple, to complete the ride in sunny, sandy Braunton.

Chris Sidwells is the author of Wild Cycling: A Pocket Guide to 50 Great Rides off the Beaten Track in Britain (Little, Brown, £12.99)

Chris Sidwells

The GuardianTramp

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