A week before departure everything is ready: the polished bicycle laden with four carefully packed panniers, the ferry and train journeys all booked, the accommodation and campsites reserved. Cycling to Iceland is a complex business: ferry to Amsterdam from Newcastle, trains to Aarhus, cycle up through Jutland to the port of Hirtshals, close to the northern tip of Denmark, ferries onward to the Faroe Islands, which I will explore by bicycle before embarking for more cycling around the east of Iceland. Three weeks in total and no flights involved. One small sacrifice for the climate emergency, but also a chance to alert everyone to the wonderful adventures that can be had without flying.
But four days before departure, I find myself in hospital staring at a very sick person who cannot be left. Weeks of planning and preparation are in jeopardy. Departure day passes, but then the miracle of intravenous antibiotics happens and I realise I can still travel, catching up with my own itinerary if I make a few changes.
I must abandon the idea of taking my own bike, using rented machines instead; I must also leave immediately, and – gulp – take one short flight. I hurriedly stuff a few things inside two of the panniers and fly hand-luggage-only to Denmark. From the airport, I take trains and buses to the Jutland town of Thisted, where I rent a Dutch-style town bike with pedal brake. I load the panniers and my handlebar bag, then set off into the rolling empty countryside towards the coast, and some dark clouds.
It feels good to be under way. Planning a no-fly international trip by bike is a lot more difficult than it ought to be. Ferry routes have been slashed in recent years – the trip would be far simpler if any ferry between the UK and Scandinavia still existed. Not only that but taking bikes on international trains can be frustratingly tricky (regional services are far easier). Our transport systems are hopeless when it comes to doing right by the planet.
As I finally approach the Jutland coast, I run headlong into a vicious north-westerly gale that brings icy salvoes of rain straight off the North Sea. Any optimism is quickly washed out of me. I reach Hanstholm campsite (two-bed cabin from £63 a night) in twilight, soaked, shivering and hating bicycles. All the camping equipment is back at home. I take a small chalet. I unpack. I pull out a down jacket and gloves. How did they get in there? Stupid items to pack in a heatwave, but I pull them on gratefully. I’ve brought the wrong bag. But what’s this? A copy of War and Peace, the book I had been reading and intended to leave behind. I open at a random page and start reading.
Tolstoy’s masterpiece is probably the most poignant read I could have chosen: the story of how everyone participates in a pointless stampede to predictable ruin. Even my tiny no-fly contribution has already misfired.
When I wake next morning, things do not seem so bleak. The sun is shining in a blue sky as I cycle across grass towards a roaring sea. Denmark’s West Coast cycle path is 450 miles of dunes, woods and side roads, but that morning all I want is beach.
Without consulting the map – the one I’ve left in the UK – I ride on to the sand and turn north. By keeping to the edge of the waves I can make decent progress, unless I try to turn, which makes me fall off. A cloud of curlews rises to my right, the wind holding the birds so close I feel I could reach out and stroke their long curved bills. The sea thunders in my ears and I stop thinking about anything. I love cycling. I love Denmark.
When the tide eventually pushes me into the softer sand, I’m forced inland on to the grassy dunes, where I find a marked trail. A string of black diamonds discarded on the path suddenly uncurls and slithers away into the beds of wild snapdragons and orchids. This is adder territory. At Thorup Strand, I find a fishing collective that sells excellent fish and chips. By late afternoon I’m in Svinkløv campsite (tent for two for £47) where my fixed tent has a very comfortable bed. I love the understated, commonsense mentality of Denmark. There’s no fuss, no mess and certainly no hyperbole.
When King Frederick VI came here in the early 19th century, he declared it the most beautiful part of his empire (which at the time included Norway, Greenland, Iceland, the Faroes, a trio of Caribbean islands, the Nicobar Islands and the Bengali city of Frederiknagore, now Serampore).
There is nothing showy or spectacular, only some tidy meadows, a thatched windmill and a long beach. There are simple sleeping huts along this coastal trail, where I had planned to camp, but now I ride past. In the town of Blokhus, having lunch at the thatched Restaurant Futten, I drop into conversation with an 82-year-old doctor whose practice was once in Greenland, and his son. “I loved doing home visits,” he recalls, “I’d go by dog sled.” In summer he would come back here, to the family’s summer holiday home. I imagine a weatherboarded cabin filled with bits of driftwood and the skulls of sea creatures. Suddenly I feel a connection to my onward route, the vast northern seas salted with craggy volcanic outcrops and ice caps. For the first time I sense the benefits of arriving slowly over land and sea. There is time to talk and build knowledge and expectations.
The doctor’s son talks about the egalitarian nature of the Danes. “When a group of ninth-century Viking warriors were asked who their leader was, they replied: ‘We’re all leaders’.”
He asks whether I like the flat landscape. “For us Danes, the wilderness is not mountains, but sea.”
I carry on up the beach, following the wavy line of spume to Løkken and what proves to be a top-notch B&B, Villa Vendel (doubles from £104) in a lovely old-fashioned house with a bike store in the former stables. From here, in spitting rain again, I push the bike over a headland and into the spectacular remains of second world war German gun emplacements. The sea is tugging them down, slowly drowning them. Before too long, their dark corridors will be fish nurseries.
Apart from occasional deep loops inland, I am almost always within sound of the sea on this journey and whenever I can, I ride on the beach. In places cars are allowed and the sand is churned up, but I can always find firm going by the water’s edge. Sometimes I carry the bike into the dunes and lie down out of the wind, watching birds and flowers, then go for a swim. To get dry, I stand in the wind. No towel. I buy open sandwiches and coffee at neatly painted clapboard cafes.
I reach the port of Hirtshals on the night before the weekly ferry for the Faroes departs, checking in to the Montra Hotel (doubles from £90) close to the quay. The town itself is a strapping, seaworthy kind of place, where you could buy a fishing rod and a knife as well as trousers, socks, water bottles and towels. But I don’t. No space. My son Conor, who lives in Berlin, arrives by train to accompany me, and in the morning we set off in sunshine, walking towards the towering boat, Smyril Line’s Norröna, that has appeared. We will hire bikes when we arrive in Tórshavn, but I know little more than that: cycling is said to be new to the Faroes. On the quayside I chat to a Faroese crewman: “I do own a bike,” he tells me. “But I’ve never ridden it. People don’t ride bikes in the Faroes. It’s too cold, too windy and we have many long, dark tunnels.”
We board the ferry with some excitement spiced with a little trepidation. After the gentle charms of Jutland, it seems, the epic bike ride is about to get significantly tougher.
The trip was provided by Visit Denmark. Bike Havs in Løkken rents bicycles from £13.50 a day (ebikes from £22), with pick-ups and drop-offs around Jutland. DFDS ferries sails from Newcastle to Amsterdam daily. A Eurail “four days in a month” pass costs about £200. Smyril Line sails weekly in autumn from Hirtshals to Tórshavn in the Faroes, passenger with bicycle from £80 one way