The #CelticCrossTrail – A Rollercoaster Ride Across Britain and Ireland

CelticCrossTrail Scotland
The idea for the Celtic CrossTrail tour evolved from a desire to see unexplored areas of the British Isles. An aspiration to draw lines and make tracks: through the Scottish Highlands and North West Coast; down Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way, and through the great Welsh mountain parks.

Ideas became lines on a map, and those lines evolved into a route plan and a rough itinerary. Before long, a 2000 kilometre tour took shape; a journey that for me would pioneer a passage through unchartered territory.

In late spring, whilst having lunch with a good friend, he listened to the idea and became equally enthralled and captivated. So, we set dates, booked flights, organised kit, and upped the mileage in anticipation of an 11 day tour covering the length and breadth of the British Isles — the #CelticCrossTrail was born.

A mid-August departure date was set, and we were prepared with kit, bikes, and equipment from some of the world's leading brands (take a look at my kit set-up here: The #CelticCrossTrail Kit Layout). Then, with ten days to departure, a tragic development in my riding partner's family meant he was forced to withdraw. I searched for back-up ride partners, but on short notice it was too tricky; it became evident that the Celtic CrossTrail would be a solo adventure. Certainly not my first lone expedition; the #7Countries7Passes and #RoadsFromRome were also solo rides; but I knew this route could be a challenge without another rider to share the headwinds.

I came to view the development as another challenge, but one that could add to the spirit of adventure. I would now seek out the road less travelled between the highlights we had selected for the tour; knowing that if the terrain was too much, then it would be only myself to hold accountable; but equally, in the hope of finding some hidden treasures in these beautiful remote regions…

Route finalised, kit packed, and bike in a cardboard box; I set off for Inverness, the Scottish Highlands, and the start of a great adventure…


Scotland

Touchdown in Inverness. The late afternoon sun is warm, and a light easterly breeze blows me westwards along the Beauly Firth for a prologue day of just 30 kilometres. I set up camp on the edge of a forest, overlooking the estuary; it is a relief to finally be on the road, and I am filled with a spirit of adventure as I look out at a horizon dotted with Highland peaks.

I start out early the next morning, eager to get into the mountains and explore. Before long, my route takes me off the main highway and onto a small single-track road. Here is the first of my 'adventure sections'…

The road fast deteriorates to a gravel track, and the mountain pass heads up and over the first Highland peak. For 50 kilometres I ride without seeing another soul; storm clouds scudding either side of me, but my small gravel path heading along the river in an isolated patch of sunshine. When I emerge back onto the main road it is lunchtime, and a Scottish smoked salmon sandwich and bowl of soup from the local café provide perfect satisfaction.

The afternoon continues with a strong tailwind taking me northwards towards the coast, and the sun being only briefly shadowed by a passing shower. By the time I reach my guesthouse it is 19:00, and I have 200 kilometres on the clock; it was a beautiful ride though, and sitting down to fish and chips overlooking the loch, I already feel at home riding through this remote landscape.

My second full day in the saddle begins with a breakfast looking out from the hilltop guesthouse; preparing myself for another day of peaks and windswept coasts.

The route turns southwards now, as I traverse the North Coast 500 route down towards Ullapool. These roads are the kind that I dream of — small ribbons of tarmac laced to the edge of the coastal cliffs; constantly rising up and down with the coastal terrain. Progress on these kinds of roads is never fast, and a building headwind only toughens the effort; by mid-day I have only 80 kilometres of a planned 200 clocked, but I stop for Scotch pancakes in Ullapool, and head onwards in good spirits.

By mid-afternoon, the clouds that have loomed ominously on the horizon suddenly arrive. I am on the top of one of the most exposed climbs of the day, and have also just discovered a route mapping error that would have taken me down a road 'too less travelled' — necessitating a 20 kilometres detour. Things deteriorate rapidly. The heavens open, and combined with the now gale force headwind create an onslaught that has me saturated in minutes. I battle on making only single digit speed headway; calculating that at this rate it will be midnight before I reach my planned bothy overnight stop.

When the Highland Rescue truck pulls me over to check that I am okay, I affirm to myself that these conditions are not sensible to endure. I find the nearest town on my GPS, and make a B-line to the only open hotel. Never before have I been so grateful for a warm shower and protection from the elements.

The storm passes overnight, but my detour has taken me out onto the remote North West Coast, and more foul weather is forecast for later that day. I make the decision to re-route inland, and then head down the edge of Loch Ness to my planned wild camp south of Fort William.

The decision to change course proves extremely justified; for most of the third day I ride in sunshine, but watch deep black clouds filling the mountain valleys behind me. With 240 kilometres logged and over 15 hours in the saddle, I eventually reach my camp on the sun-drenched Loch Linnhe; overlooking the stunning Castle Stalker. A long day, but a great day.

My final day in Scotland starts in the rain, but is soon blessed with warm hot sunshine. I ride southwards through Oban, up and over the moors, and down the Mull of Kintyre. The small single-track roads that I have routed myself on continue to offer up challenging gradients and gear grinding cadences; but the views are spectacular, and a warm wind welcomes me into Campbeltown, where I await the ferry to Ireland the following morning.

Scotland's North Coast has been an 'Ups and Downs' tour in more ways than one; but, a spectacular and challenging experience. Next stop, Ireland...

CelticCrossTrail Scotland

CelticCrossTrail Scotland

CelticCrossTrail Scotland

CelticCrossTrail Scotland

CelticCrossTrail Scotland

CelticCrossTrail Scotland



Ireland

At first light, with a bacon sandwich from the kind hotel ladies in my hand, I head down to the marina to find my transport to Ireland — a high-speed RIB that will take me across the Irish Sea to the second country of the tour.

The crossing is rough — testament to the last few days of persistently strong southerly winds that battered me on the North Coast. It is a thrilling and fast way to get across the water though, and by 9:30 we are docked in Ballycastle, and I head out to explore the Causeway Coast.

The rough waters on the Giant's Causeway make for a spectacular sight; waves crashing on the dark rock faces. I stop to capture the scene, before pressing on along the coast to the city of Londonderry. Crossing over into the Republic of Ireland, my route continues on rolling backroads that take their toll on the legs, but offer up some amazing views. I finally set up camp a little short of my intended end-point, but in a beautiful secluded estuary with just the sound of bird calls for company.

My slight shortfall in distance on day one in Ireland means that the second day needs to be big, in order to get me to my pre-booked hotel in the coastal town of Strandhill. It is dry as I set out from camp, but as soon as I head up onto the moors the wind and rain arrive in abundance. Then they grow stronger, and stronger. The 'road less travelled' for this section includes a lot of the Wild Atlantic Way route, which takes you along open exposed coast roads; or it is on the National Cycle Route 1, which takes you on short, sharp (15%+) inclines and descents. My progress is abysmally slow, with an average speed of just 18 kilometres per hour; by mid-day I am only 80 kilometres into my required 200, and am forced to shelter in a café to try and bring some feeling back into my numb hands and feet.

The wind and rain continue for another four hours into the afternoon. I start cursing my decision to take the smaller roads, and where possible divert along the larger highways in search of forward progress. By late afternoon, the sun eventually breaks through and dries me out, and I eventually arrive in Strandhill in the late evening; forced to cook a JetBoil supper in my hotel room because I lack the energy to walk down the hill to the shops on the seafront. The Wild Atlantic Way lives up to its name.

I enjoy a comfortable night in the hotel, and mull over the prospect of another 200 kilometre day down the coast in conditions forecast to be similarly bleak to the previous morning. Sat eating breakfast I produce an alternative plan…

I will head east, escaping the heavy storms that are set to pepper the Atlantic Coast for the next few days. I will take two days to get to Dublin, then catch the ferry to Holyhead and ride down through Wales to re-join my planned route at Bristol. It will mean I miss the majority of the Wild Atlantic Way and the southern part of Ireland (I had intended to cross to Wales from Rosslare), but it also means I might be able to feel my toes again — especially as a heatwave is forecast for Wales for the coming days.

Ferry crossings and hotels changed, I set off eastwards, with the strange feeling of a tailwind on my back.

I make great progress across Ireland, and get within 50 kilometres of Dublin by the end of the day; enjoying the changing scenery as I traverse the country from the west to east coast. Sat in sunshine at my wild camp at the end of day, I look at the rainfall radar map that still shows the west coast shrouded in cloud — good decision. Flexibility is the key to good planning.

My final morning in Ireland is a sun soaked descent down into Dublin, before jumping on the ferry to Wales in the early afternoon. We steam out of Dublin Bay with a following wind; sunshine on the horizon. I will come back for the Wild Atlantic Way; but perhaps when it is a little less wild.

CelticCrossTrail Ireland

CelticCrossTrail Ireland

CelticCrossTrail Ireland

CelticCrossTrail Ireland

CelticCrossTrail Ireland

CelticCrossTrail Ireland

CelticCrossTrail Ireland



Wales

It is warm and dry when we arrive in Holyhead, Wales. I grab some food from the supermarket and then head up onto the cliffs to find a spot to camp for the night; looking south to the Snowdonia mountains in the distance.

The next morning I am up with the sun, and riding over the Britannia Bridge onto the Welsh mainland before most are awake. My route then heads straight up into the Snowdonia National Park; along secluded back-country roads that are near free of traffic.

Mid-morning I stop for my first ice cream of the trip, in the village at the base of Mount Snowdon. The hills are tough, but this region is stunningly beautiful, and it is hard not to grin from ear to ear.

I push on southwards, down the length of Snowdonia and into Mid-Wales. My route takes me down gravel roads, and tiny lanes with grass down the centre; it is like discovering a hidden side to this emerald landscape.

In the late evening I eventually reach my planned camping spot next to the Elan River, and wash the sweat from my limbs after a long hot day in the saddle. Wales has never looked this good before (it has rained every other time I have visited).

My second day in the land of the dragon takes me on more winding roads up into the Brecon Beacons. Fuelled by welsh cakes and coffee, I make good speed, despite having to conquer the heights of Gospel Pass and the ever undulating road to Chepstow.

In the afternoon sun I cross the Severn Bridge back onto English soil, and head along the waterfront to Bristol. Washed and cleaned up, I walk down to the harbourside to take in the Bank Holiday summer scene. This is English summertime touring at its best.

The final day of the trip sees me head south through the Cotswolds, up over Salisbury Plain, and then through the New Forest to Lymington. I meet a dear friend en-route in the New Forest, and we celebrate being re-united with an ice-cream, before racing for the ferry — it is great to finally feel the benefit of a slipstream!

CelticCrossTrail Wales

CelticCrossTrail Wales

CelticCrossTrail Wales

CelticCrossTrail Wales

CelticCrossTrail Wales

CelticCrossTrail Wales


Heading back over the Solent to my home on the Isle of Wight, I reflect on what a diverse and amazing ride the #CelticCrossTrail evolved into. Bike touring is always full of surprises, challenges, and tests; but it is those moments that create memories, and great happy memories that will last a lifetime.

'The best laid plans of mice and men oft go astray…' 

But, as I wash off bike and kit in the sunshine the following day, I am already planning the next adventure…



Ride Statistics

  • Distance – 1875 kilometres (1165 miles)
  • Riding time – 92 hours (11 days riding)
  • Elevation gain – 22,000 metres
  • Bike weight – 24-26 kilograms fully loaded
  • Rider weight – Pre-tour: 68.5 kilograms – Post-tour: 65.5 kilograms




Comments

  1. Fantastic ride and great pics, thanks for sharing. I'd love to get a week in Western Scotland on the Bike

    ReplyDelete
  2. Amazing tour sir!
    Do you have the route as a gpx file? I would love to it as well. thanks.
    best regards, Firas

    ReplyDelete

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