The toughest bikepacking route in England, the Pennine Cycleway traverses the largest mountain range in the UK.
The Pennine Cycleway is a long-distance, multi-day bikepacking route from Derby to Berwick-upon-Tweed. It passes through some of the UK’s most stunning national parks, as it traverses the Pennines for over 350 miles.
But what do you need to do to prepare to tackle the Pennine Cycleway? And what are your options for the route?
Fear not! We’re here to give you the lowdown on the Pennine Cycleway. In this article, we’ll be covering:
- Overview Of The Pennine Cycleway
- How Long Does The Pennine Cycleway Take?
- What To Know Before You Go
- The Best Detours On The Pennine Cycleway
- Pennine Cycleway Route In Detail
Ready for the lowdown on Britain’s toughest route?
Let’s get started!
Overview of the Pennine Cycleway
Dubbed the “hardest bikepacking route in England”, and for good reason, the Pennine Cycleway includes some of the most brutal climbs in the country, while following mostly quiet roads and country lanes through some of the most beautiful national parks in Europe.
You will have the option to pass through the Peak District, the Yorkshire Dales, the Lake District, and Northumberland National Parks, as well as a number of designated Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Most of the route follows the National Cycle Network’s route 68 (NCN 68), a 265-mile route specifically designed for cyclists to avoid high-traffic roads. However, the route does have a certain amount of flexibility. You can choose whether to stick to the official route religiously or take little detours in order to take in even more of the UK’s beauty.
Starting in the city of Derby, you’ll cycle over 350 miles before reaching your final destination: Berwick-upon-Tweed on the Scottish border. Of course, you can also do a smaller segment of the route, depending on the time you have and how fast you wish to go.
How Long Does The Pennine Cycleway Take?
It’s really your decision how long you want to spend on this route.
If you’re aiming to do it extremely fast, you can probably finish the whole thing in five days. But if you want to take a more relaxed approach, 8-12 days might make for a more enjoyable experience.
A word of warning, though: the distance of this route (although can be over 400 miles, depending on your detours) is not the biggest challenge. The total elevation gain is absolutely brutal. In some versions of the route, it’s over 8000m!
So as a rule of thumb, plan to spend a bit more time than you’d think.
What To Know Before You Go
Every bikepacking adventure should be planned pretty meticulously before you leave.
There’s nothing worse than unexpected issues that can cut your trip short. But don’t worry, we’ll tell you everything you need to think about before you get going on your adventure!
#1. Plan Your Route
The Pennine Cycleway is an official route, also referred to as the “Pennine Way”.
Confusingly, this is not the same as the Transpennine Trail or the Pennine Bridleway. The official route, however, should be used as a guide to your trip rather than a rigid plan.
It’s a very good idea to plan your route in advance. This will give you a good idea as to where you’ll be on each day, which will allow you to book any accommodation you need well in advance – as in some places, options are quite limited.
As is well known in the UK, trains can be costly on short notice. If you want to keep the cost down, you should book the trains well in advance. This also requires you to plan your route carefully, so that you know exactly how long you are going to take to complete it, and the dates on which you intend to travel.
Most people complete the route from south to north (i.e from Derby to Berwick-upon-Tweed). There is a slight prevailing southerly wind, but this isn’t too much of a factor as you’ll be sheltered by the mountains for much of the journey.
#2. Book Your Transport and Accommodation
Once you’ve planned your route, you can decide where you want to stay each night. It’s sensible to book this accommodation in advance, and there are many excellent hotels, hostels, and campsites along the way.
Wild camping is unfortunately illegal in (most of) England, so you’ll need to book campsites if you want to camp. If you are going to wild camp anyway, though, make sure you abide by some simple rules to avoid upsetting local residents – and bear in mind that you do so at your own risk!
Never camp on anyone’s land, always take all your rubbish with you, try to set up your tent out of sight, and set up your tent after sunset and take it down before sunrise.
However, we do not recommend that you wild camp as not only are you risking prosecution, but if you can’t find a good spot then you can add hours of bike-hiking onto your trip.
As for transport, book your initial train to Derby, and your return journey home from Berwick-upon-Tweed. We’d recommend planning to stay a night in Berwick since you don’t want to be rushing your last day of riding in order to make a train.
You can book these trains online.
#3. Packing Your Gear
Now you’ve planned your route, you can decide what you’re going to bring on your trip!
One of the most important things here is to keep your weight down. Bringing too much will result in a more challenging ride due to the huge amount of elevation gain. For this reason, although you can complete this route on any bike, it might be best to take a road bike or lightweight gravel or touring bike.
There are a couple of decisions to be made here. You can sacrifice a bit of your hard-earned cash to ensure that you don’t bring too much weight. If you have the money, it’s probably best to stay exclusively in hostels and hotels, since you then do not need to bring camping equipment. You also get to have a good night’s sleep and a warm shower daily!
Another thing to think about is whether to bring cooking equipment. Unlike some other UK bikepacking routes, the whole of the Pennine Cycleway is littered with fantastic pubs, restaurants, and well-stocked supermarkets. If you choose to exclusively get your food at these, then you can forego the need to bring cooking gear, another weight-saving tactic.
However, there are some things that you will definitely need to bring. It can get really cold on the Pennines, so it’s a good idea to bring a lot of different layers. At a minimum, you should have a base layer, a few jerseys, bib shorts, as well as a soft-shell outer layer and a good-quality waterproof.
You’ll also need to make sure that you have some layers for the evening; some comfortable trousers, socks, and a warm jumper go a long way to making your recovery more pleasant.
Another thing that’s very important to bring is your bike maintenance kit. It’s a good idea to pack a puncture repair kit, some spare tubes (even if you’re running tubeless!), some wet lubricant, a good bike lock, and some basic tools. Even if you don’t plan on it, you may end up riding in the dark, so make sure you bring some good lights too.
- Check out the Complete Bikepacking Gear List: 7 Packing Essentials here!
The Best Detours from the Pennine Cycleway
There are lots of possible detours for this route. Many might be to get to a certain city for your accommodation or for a meal. Others are to pass through the best possible viewpoints and more National Parks. However, we’ll go through just a couple of excellent detours to make the scenery on your ride even more astounding.
#1. The Lake District
The official route does not actually pass through the Lake District. This is clearly bonkers, however, as many think of it as an absolute highlight. The Lake District has the highest mountain in England, some of the most difficult (but rewarding) climbs the UK has to offer, some beautiful, quaint villages – and of course, stunning lakes.
Interestingly, only one of the sixteen lakes in the Lake District is natural; Lake Windermere. All of the others are man-made, but there’s no way you could tell by looking at them, they are absolutely amazingly beautiful.
A good way of incorporating the Lake District into your ride is to continue towards Kendal after you pass Sedbergh (avoid the A684, there are plenty of smaller roads you can take). Next, follow the roads through Grigghall, Crosthwaite, and Winster to arrive on the shores of Lake Windermere.
Follow the road along the shore towards Ambleside. Out of Ambleside, make your way due north to the toughest climb on the route: The Struggle, which you’ll find is aptly named.
This is one of Simon Warren’s “100 Greatest Climbs“, and there are tougher passes in the UK. It’s a Category 2 climb, 4.8 km long, with a deceptive average gradient of 8.2%. There is a large flat section in the middle which lowers the average gradient, but it has ramps of over 33%! Try not to lift the front wheel on this one…
However, the scenery is absolutely stunning, a well-paved single-lane road through wild mountain moorland. The descent on the other side is equally incredible, and you’ll fly down through the mountains and arrive at Ullswater.
From here, follow the road around the lake, where there are a few small villages and inns you can rest your head for the night. Further down the road, you’ll reach Penrith, the end of the Lake District, where you can start cutting due east to find the North Pennines.
Also worth a mention is the climb up Great Dun Fell, the highest road in Britain!
#2. Northumberland Coast
This is towards the end of your ride, and well worth the slight detour from the route. This route does have slightly mixed terrain, however, so can be more difficult on a road bike (but still possible!).
The trick here is to follow NCN68 until Glanton, a small village in the Northeast. Here, cut towards the coast via Alnwick, a beautiful little town with lots of food and accommodation options.
From Alnwick, start on the way towards Alnmouth on the coast. From here, you can follow NCN 1 the whole way up the Northumberland coast up to Berwick.
This route is absolutely stunning. You’ll pass huge swathes of beautiful, empty, sandy beaches and rugged cliffs between them. Bamburgh beach and castle is a particular highlight.
Pennine Cycleway route in detail
Planning the rest of your route couldn’t be easier.
Any planned detours aside, you simply follow NCN 68, the whole way from Derby to Berwick.
Beginning in the rugged Peak District, this route snakes its way up to Yorkshire Dales through some of the South Pennines. From here, you can take the Lake District detour, or follow it northwards to the North Pennines. It will then wind its way through these mountains towards Northumberland national park, where you can choose whether to go to the coast.
When planning your route, it’s good to do some research on where you wish to see and go. This might be a particular city, road, climb, lake, waterfall, or anything else.
We would highly recommend using NCN 68 solely as a rough plan and making the route your own. Here is an excellent resource that outlines a stage-by-stage route along NCN 68.
Now You’re Ready For Your Pennine Cycleway Adventure…
All that’s left is to do it!
It will not be easy, but it will be extremely rewarding. The elevation gain, the weight of your gear, and sometimes the weather conditions do not help here. However, it will also be a euphoric experience, cresting beautiful mountains and flying down the descents into pretty villages.
So the best piece of advice that you can receive is to enjoy it, push through the hard parts and you will be rewarded!
It’s all part of the euphoric struggle of the Pennine Cycleway.