ONE week before departure, everything is ready: the shiny bike loaded with four carefully filled pans, the boat and train trips all booked, the accommodation and campsites booked. Cycling in Iceland is a complicated business: ferry to Amsterdam from Newcastle, trains to Aarhus, cycling through Jutland to the port of Hirtshals near the northern tip of Denmark, ferry to the Faroe Islands, which I will explore by bike before heading to more cycling in the east of Iceland. Three weeks in total and no flight. A small sacrifice for the climate emergency, but also an opportunity to alert everyone to the wonderful adventures they can have without flying.
But four days before departure, I am in the hospital looking at a very sick person who cannot stay. Weeks of planning and preparation are at stake. Departure day passes, but then the miracle of IV antibiotics happens and I realize I can still travel, catching up on my own itinerary if I make a few changes.
I have to give up the idea of taking my own bike, using rental machines. I also have to leave immediately, and – gulp – catch a short flight. I hastily pack a few things into two of the cases and fly carry-on only to Denmark. From the airport, I take trains and buses to Thisted, Jutland, where I rent a Dutch-style city bike with a pedal brake. I load my cases and bag onto the handlebars, then start out into the rolling empty countryside towards the coast and some dark clouds.
I feel good that it is ongoing. Planning an international trip without bicycle flights is much more difficult than it should be. Ferry services have been cut in recent years – the journey would be much simpler if there was still a ferry between the UK and Scandinavia. Not only that, but getting bikes onto international trains can be frustratingly difficult (regional services are much easier). Our transportation systems are hopeless at doing the right thing for the planet.
As I finally approach the coast of Jutland, I run headlong into a vicious north-westerly gale bringing freezing rain straight from the North Sea. Any optimism is quickly washed out of me. I arrive at Hanstholm campsite (two-bed cabin from £63 a night) at dusk, soaking wet, shivering and hating bikes. All the camping equipment is back at the house. I’m getting a small chalet. I’m unpacking. I pull out a down jacket and gloves. How did they get in there? Silly items to collect in a heat wave, but I pull them with gratitude. I brought the wrong bag. But what is this? A copy of War and Peace, the book I was reading and intended to leave behind. I open a random page and start reading.
Tolstoy’s masterpiece is perhaps the most harrowing read I could have chosen: the story of how everyone participates in a pointless outburst to predictable disaster. Even my tiny no-fly contribution has already failed.
When I wake up the next morning, things don’t look so bleak. The sun shines in a blue sky as I cycle across the grass towards a roaring sea. Denmark’s West Coast Cycle Route is 450 miles of dunes, forests and back roads, but that morning all I want is the beach.
Without consulting the map – the one I’ve left in the UK – I go onto the sand and turn north. Holding the edge of the waves I can make decent progress unless I try to turn which causes me to fall. A cloud of curls rises to my right, the wind holding the birds so close I feel like 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 finally pushes me onto the softer sand, I am forced inland to the grassy dunes, where I find a marked path. A string of black diamonds thrown on the path suddenly unravels and slides into beds of wild snapdragons and orchids. This is the adder area. On Thorup Strand, I find a fishing club selling excellent fish and chips. In the late afternoon I’m at Svinkløv campsite (tent for two £47) where my fixed tent has a very comfortable bed. I love Denmark’s low-key, common sense mentality. There is no fuss, no mess and certainly no exaggeration.
When King Frederick VI came here in the early 19u century, he proclaimed 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 flashy or spectacular, just some manicured meadows, a hay mill and a long beach. There are simple sleeping huts along this coastal path, where I had planned to camp but am now riding past. In the town of Blokhus, having lunch in the thatched restaurant Futten, I chat with an 82-year-old doctor whose practice was once in Greenland, and his son. “I liked to make house calls,” he recalls, “I would go by dog sled.” In the summer he came back here, to the family’s summer house. I imagine a weathered cabin filled with bits of driftwood and sea creature skulls. I suddenly feel a connection to my path forward, the vast northern seas salted with craggy volcanic outcrops and ice caps. For the first time I feel the benefits of arriving slowly from land and sea. There is time to talk and build knowledge and expectations.
The doctor’s son talks about the equality of the Danes. “When a group of 9th-century Viking warriors were asked who their leader was, they replied, ‘We are all leaders.’
He asks if I like the flat landscape. “For us Danes, wilderness is not mountains, but sea.”
I continue along the beach, following the undulating line of the spute to Løkken and what turns out to be a top B&B, Villa Vendel (doubles from £104) in a lovely old-fashioned house with a bike shop in the former stables. From here, in the spitting rain again, I push the bike over a headland and into the impressive remains of WWII German guns. They are pulled by the sea, slowly drowning them. Before long, their dark corridors will be fish nurseries.
Apart from the occasional deep inland loop, I’m almost always by the sound of the sea on this trip and whenever I can, I ride on the beach. Cars are allowed in places and the sand is churned up, but I can always find stability going to the water’s edge. Sometimes I take the bike to the dunes and lie out of the wind, watching birds and flowers, then go for a swim. To dry off, I stand in the air. No towel. I buy open sandwiches and coffee in beautifully painted clapboard coffees.
I arrive in Hirtshals harbor the night before the weekly ferry to the Faroes departs, checking into the Montra Hotel (doubles from £90) near the waterfront. The town itself is a navigable place, where you can buy a rod and a knife, as well as trousers, socks, water bottles and towels. But I don’t. There is no space. My son Conor, who lives in Berlin, arrives by train to join me and in the morning we set off under the sun, walking towards the towering ship, Smyril Line’s Norröna, which appeared. We will rent bikes when we get to Tórshavn, but I know little more than that: cycling is said to be new to the Faroes. On the quay I chat to a Faroese crewman: “I have a bike,” he says. “But I’ve never driven it. People don’t cycle in the Faroes. It’s very cold, very windy and we have a lot of long, dark tunnels.”
We board the ship with a little excitement spiced with a little trepidation. After the gentle charm of Jutland, it looks like the epic bike ride is about to get significantly tougher.
The trip was organized by Visit Denmark. Bike Havs in Løkken rents bikes from £13.50 per day (electric bikes from £22), with pick-ups and drop-offs around Jutland. DFDS ferries sail daily from Newcastle to Amsterdam. A Eurail “Four days in a month” pass. cost approx £200. Smyril Line sail weekly in autumn from Hirtshals to Tórshavn in the Faroes, cycle passenger from £80 one way