Now that the world is beginning to unlock and return to a semblance of normality, it means that we can roll up the garage doors, dust off our motorcycles and start to plan a summer of riding to blow away the cobwebs, raise the pulse, clear our minds and enjoy the numerous benefits of riding our bikes again.
While many will be firing up the European sat nav and waiting for ferries and the Eurotunnel to come calling, let’s not forget that there is some absolutely stunning riding to be had right here in the UK, on almost everyone’s doorstep.
We picked the best areas to go riding in all four corners of the UK, with reasons and routes that will remind you why you like riding a motorcycle. We’ve also chosen what we feel is one of the UK’s most iconic tours, taking in almost every form of scenery possible in just a couple of days.
So… see you out there…
There are numerous amazing riding destinations in the north of England; the Lake District, the Pennines, the Yorkshire Dales. But few offer the variety of scenery or topography, the potential solitude nor the quality of the roads that the North York Moors do. Add in a decent stretch of seaside and you’re onto a winner.
Located on the east coast roughly halfway between the Midlands and Scotland, the North York Moors sit to the north of York itself on the upper edge of the county. It consists of primarily moorland but with numerous streams and valleys running in and around with pretty, stone-built villages scattered across it. And sheep… lots of sheep.
The riding here is superb; the roads are, on school days when traffic is as light as it gets, simply addictive. Snaking across the high moorland, you can often see miles ahead so swinging your way between the bends is a relaxed and enjoyable experience, with the gorse and heather blurring past. The sky is huge when you get to the open moorland and, on a bright sunny day, you could be anywhere in the world; just you, your bike and your thoughts. There’s variety here too, as the roads climb and dip in and out of various valleys, following streams and rolling hills to add a little spice to the riding.
The stretch of seaside to the east, from tourist-haven Scarborough to the charming Robin Hood’s Bay and up to Whitby and Staithes, means there is plenty of opportunity for sea-level antics and fish ‘n’ chips, the staple of any motorcycle ride. And of course, Scarborough is also home to Oliver’s Mount, England’s only road racetrack.
In terms of riding, the area is bounded to the south by the A170 running east-to-west from Thirsk to Scarborough and to the north, the A171 from Middlesborough out to Whitby then south to Scarborough. Between the two, running largely north-to-south is a variety of roads that will see the senses alight. Pick a start point at one corner of the area and either trace a large circle or an ‘M’ or ‘W’ shape winding up and down between the two major roads, Whatever you choose, you won’t be disappointed.
B1257 from Helmsley to Stokesley, the ‘Yorkshire TT’
Helmsley is one of the UK’s major biker meeting points and the staging post for a 20-mile snake through moors and forest, up and down hills and swinging between wide open views for miles and tight switchbacks. It’s no wonder it’s called the Yorkshire TT but don’t ride like Joey Dunlop or John McGuinness – there are cameras about and you don’t want everyone thinking you’re an arse.
Cornwall is famous for lots of things; pasties, pirates and Land’s End, the mainland’s most westerly point and one extreme of the UK’s most famous point-to-point route and ending at John o’Groats in Scotland – LeJoG. And that forms part of what we’re talking about here but it’s just a part.
The west country is perhaps one of most difficult parts of the mainland to get to – motorways go in that direction but soon peter out and as you get closer to the good bits, the roads get smaller and smaller, making them less fun in the height of tourist season but they remain well worth the effort away from the trains of caravans and SUVs loaded to the gunnels with body boards and sleeping bags.
The early part, just out of Somerset and into Devon, gives rise to two lovely moors – Exmoor in the north and Dartmoor, closer to the south coast of Devon. The two have very different topographies – Exmoor is very open and barren with deep valleys while Dartmoor is a bit greener and more rolling scenery.
As the land narrows into Cornwall, the traffic builds in holiday season but the scenery changes again – narrow lanes and rolling hills with stunning, wide-open vistas. As Devon has the moors and the Jurassic Coast, Cornwall has the beaches; surfers, wannabe surfers and foodies jostle with families and just-tolerant locals grateful for the grockles and their money.
In terms of riding, a great route is starting in Bridgwater and heading across the top of Devon, above Exmoor and down the western side, past Bideford and down the Atlantic coast to Land’s End before returning via the southern coast up to Plymouth then across Dartmoor to Exeter and up to finish where you started in Bridgewater. It’s a chilled two-day ride but worth the effort to get down south.
Forming part of the two-day route above, this is either the beginning or the end of the ride, depending on which direction you do it in. Running at the top of the cliffs bordering the Bristol Channel, it’s a challenge for anyone who doesn’t like heights but does offer some relief, as the road climbs and drops again between the two, from a height of 200mm to sea level in around a mile. Lots of engine braking please…
Had to believe but Norfolk is one of the UK’s driest counties, with among the lowest rainfall throughout the year. Coupled with relatively flat countryside and some delightful coastline, it’s no surprise that the Norfolk in general and the north Norfolk coastline in particular, offers some exceptional riding.
You do need to pick your moments though. As the decent bits are relatively sparsely occupied and offer concentrated clusters of interest, it means that the roads around that areas can be busy, particularly in school holidays and weekends in the summer. That part of the world is also extremely popular with horse riderists and so there can be lots of horses around on the narrow roads, as well as slow-moving mid-sized Skoda hatchbacks with octogenarians at the wheel. So don’t head this way and expect to be getting your knee down… it’s more about enjoying the countryside and a chilled ride.
The section from Hunstanton round past Wells-next-the-sea to Blakeney and on to Cromer is delightful, running through the North Norfolk Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The road traces the shore as if it were drawn on with a set of dividers, just a few hundred metres inland of the stunning, sandy beaches that offer enormous playgrounds at low tide. As a result, the road flows at times but it also gets a bit nadgery and twisty at others and is interspersed with tiny hamlets and villages.
This isn’t a bad thing, of course, as it gives plenty of opportunity to stop off and grab a cuppa and a bag of chips at any of the popular spots on the way. If that’s not your thing, then there is a massive array of fresh seafood available, including dressed crab and shellfish.
The harbour at Wells is a particularly nice spot for a pause and you can watch the tide go out and leave the boats stranded or come in and save them. You can, of course, ride, walk or take the train out to the beach if you fancy crossing the dunes in your riding boots but if not, simply continue threading your way along the eastern edge of the UK until you get to Cromer and the end of the AONB. From here, you can continue round as far as you like – to the UK’s most eastern point at Ness Point in Lowestoft or to mix it up a bit, turn south-west and head for a quick blat through Thetford Forest on your way home from the eastern corner of the UK.
If you’ve had enough of the nadgery A149 and the old duffers pootling along, then jink onto the faster and wider A148 farther inland to pick up the pace and, if necessary, some juice. It will also take you past the impressive Felbrigg Hall just outside Cromer if you need or want to stretch your legs.
When you think of impressive mountains, Wales is top of the list and of all of Wales, Snowdonia has the most impressive. There’s a reason it is one of the most popular spots for walkers, climbers and mountaineers – its scenery and topography are just stunning and the National park houses some of the UK’s best riding roads.
Single-lane roads cut into the side of hills, running under tree canopies before bursting out onto moors or between craggy outcrops; low stone walls separating you from streams on one side and Lord of the Rings-style enchanted forests on the other. Barren landscapes or lush green rolling hills alongside lakes. Snakes of surprisingly smooth tarmac stretching off into the distance between two walls of rock.
The area has almost every kind of road you would possibly imagine, which is why it is so popular, even though it takes a bit of effort to get to. It’s right up in the north-western corner of Wales – go much further and you get your feet wet but there’s more than just the stunning roads to enjoy.
There’s Caernarfon with its castle, Portmeirion with its Italian-style façade and scene of The Village from 1960s TV show The Prisoner and a host of slate mines with the Ffestiniog Railway taking old-school steam train tours through the National park. There’s also a range of crazy activities run by Zip World, including the enormous zip-line at the Penrhyn Quarry, slate cavern trampolines and downhill forest coaster.
The ‘evo triangle’
Named after the triangle of roads used by evo magazine to photograph and test its range of sports and super cars, the area bounded by the A5, the B4501 and the A543 around the Alwen reservoir to the east of Betws-y-Coed has become a mecca for drivers and riders alike. In fact, it has become so popular that the local council installed speed cameras to improve safety. However, it’s still a stonking route, even at legal speeds and well worth the effort if you’re anywhere near it.
The Big One
The North Coast 500
Until recently, the North Coast 500 – a 500-mile loop around the very top of Scotland – was perhaps the UK’s best-kept riding secret. Starting and ending in Inverness, the trip is typically run over two or three days to make it enjoyable and allow plenty of time to soak up scenery that needs to be seen to be believed.
As a loop, it can be run clockwise or anti-clockwise but anti-clockwise tends to be favoured by bikers, as it saves the best of the ride till last. This direction takes you north out of Inverness on the A9 which is quick but not especially entertaining. Eventually, you reach John o’Groats and begin to head west, towards Tongue and on to Durness after it. But the very best of the scenery starts to unwind ahead as you approach the bridge at Kylesku and then follow the jagged coastline out to Lochinver and on to Ullapool.
The route winds its way inland and back out again, following the edge of the jagged coastline until Applecross and then run back across towards Inverness and over the fearsome Bealach na Ba, which includes the UK’s steepest road ascent. Not for the faint-hearted but a monumental achievement.
It’s a monster of a trip and one that words cannot do justice to – it has to be ridden. And therein lies the problem. As a stunning route, it is starting to become a victim of its own success. The locals along the route were always grateful of the passing trade but the roads are now increasingly becoming clogged with campers, coaches, caravans and tourists to the point where it is in danger of becoming a bit of a cliché.
So if you fancy one of the UK’s best rides, we’d suggest get out there and do it sooner rather than later. But be courteous, take your litter away with you and tread lightly.
All of it – just ride it. You must…