Since the Trans European Trail was created a few years ago, legions of riders from across Europe have enjoyed the unique delights of adventure travel without having to go through the faff of planning a route and everything that entails.
Thanks to a dedicated band of motorcycling enthusiasts and the work of the army of ‘linesmen’ in each area who have actually come up with the routes, exploring in many countries throughout Europe has become both easy and accessible for everyone with a computer and perhaps more importantly, a motorcycle.
In the UK, the English Trans Euro Trail stretches for more than 1,816 miles. Starting at Dover in the far south east, it follows a meandering route across England, then heads into Wales and up to the Lake District, before cutting across to its finishing point in the UK at Newcastle. Along the way it takes in stunning scenery and plenty of national parks. And if you want to explore down to the tip of the South West, the recently added Great Western Trail goes all the way down to Land’s End and back.
The northerly section
My plan was to pick up the trail in Kendall, on the edge of Cumbria’s Lake District National Park, and ride the most northerly section of the TET in the UK, 450-miles to Newcastle. My riding buddies were Matt, trip organiser and head honcho of Bristol Adventure and Trail Bike Club on his SWM R300, and Chris who is the Trail Riders Fellowship rights of way expert and serial trail rider, mounted on his beloved Honda CRF250X.
I was going to be riding a 2019 KTM 690 Enduro R. I was hopeful that the bike would be the perfect tool for the job, combining the range of the my Ténéré 660 with the agility of my much travelled KTM EXC 250. OK, so luggage options were a tad limited but you can’t have everything. ‘Pack light and pack right’ was the mantra I’d aimed for and, as a man who always overpacks, one I managed to stick to surprisingly well.
So, at 7 am and under leaden skies, we set off from Bristol for the north, buoyed up with excitement and an oversized bag of jelly beans, the snack of heroes. Five hours and three coffees later, we reach Kendal on the east of the Lake District where we unloaded the bikes in unexpectedly bright sunshine.
Matt’s plan involves him dropping us off and then taking the bike trailer on to the other side of the country before returning by train some six hours later. It’s a fine plan for Chris and me as all we have to do is while away the afternoon in a lovely little town that boasts a historic castle, a pleasing selection of antique shops and, perhaps more importantly, over a dozen pubs offering a wide selection of local ales. If heaven exists, I suspect it looks very much like this.
Matt eventually rejoined the party at around 8pm, by which time Chris and I could barely focus, but we heroically join him for more beers and the most excellent Thai banquet at Bangkok 7. From what I can recall, I’d thoroughly recommend the Pepper Squid and the Chicken Pad Thai. We stagger back to the hostel and I’m thankful I’m not on the top bunk.
Onto the trails
After a hearty full-English breakfast, it’s time to load up and, with sun already wearing a hat, the prospects for a great day of riding are good. Matt fires up the Garmin and we’re off out of Kendal in the morning commuter traffic, the pleasure of being out riding bikes when others are off to work is evident on all our faces.
We have to backtrack a little towards Windermere to pick up our planned start point but soon we’re on lovely little twisty country roads that take us towards the epic hills and mountains that this area is famous for. The route takes us up a long and beautiful valley between dry stone walls for three miles or so before we head to our first lane, a gnarly and technical challenge straight from the off.
If you’ve any intentions of trying to tackle the TET on a big adventure bike, then it’s lanes like this that make it clear you may have made a mistake. The 690 makes short shrift of the climb, the MOTOZ rally tyres and the KTM traction control system working perfectly to propel me to the first of many gates on our three-day journey.
Matt’s bike isn’t hooking up quite as well and he’s spinning out a bit on the rock steps in the next section, but when we reach the top of the climb, the epic view is well worth the effort.
Green veins through the landscape
We gradually drop back down the hill to pick up a great selection of farmland trails and wooded tracks that take us on a meandering route back into Kendal. There’s a bit of roadwork to take us out the other side before diving into tiny and overgrown ancient lanes that wind through the landscape like green veins.
The final lane pops us out onto the road that leads down to the Mallard chain ferry across Lake Windermere. As the ferry chugs across the iconic waterway, I take in the incredible views across the lake. We ride off the ferry and follow another stunning section of lanes and roads leads up towards Ambleside.
The route passes by Hilltop, Beatrix Potter’s former house where coachloads of tourists are snapping away at everything in sight and bulk buying Peter Rabbit merchandise. The place brings back fond memories as we brought our daughter here some 29 years ago and probably took the same photos.
We find a quiet pub for a lunch stop and are treated to a wonderful fish finger sandwich on crusty, white bread and a medicinal shandy, the perfect trail meal. Sadly, all of it nearly makes a return appearance once we set out again, as the first post-prandial lane is a really tough climb up a sunken valley with football sized rocks covering the whole route.
We all make the top in good order, if a tad rosier than we started, and we go on to cover a series of loops through beautiful woodland and along paths that are so good it’s hard to believe we’re allowed to be on them – a view that is evident on some of the ramblers faces too. The great thing about the TET is that it’s all legal, so we slow down obligingly and wave cheerily at the occasional grumpy face.
After our second fuel stop of the day, thanks to Matt’s pea-sized tank and 2-minute reserve capacity, the late afternoon route sees us travelling high over moorland littered with great trails and more gates than we’d really prefer, but the trade off with the scenery is suitable recompense. The recent rain has left lots of puddles to avoid or wheelie through, or in Chris’ case – accelerate through and totally soak me.
As we’ve come all the way over to the west coast, the clear sky allows us to see across the Irish Sea to the Isle of Man, an area with just as many cracking lanes and trails. With the sun slipping down over Ramsey, we head for our elected overnight stop at Seascale.
It’s a bleak and unlovable town overshadowed by the massive Sellafield Nuclear power station, but the hotel is warm and friendly and serves some of the best burgers we’ve ever had, washed down with a few hipster IPAs for good measure. What a fantastic day.
The following morning we’re up bright eyed and bushy tailed for a truly enormous breakfast, one so large that the two Japanese businessmen alongside us are photographing the feast before tackling the mound of food.
With the bikes extracted from the function suite where they had kindly let us store them overnight, it’s straight out onto the road for 20 or so more miles of roads interspersed with a series of surprisingly challenging grass covered lanes that hide all manner of ruts, holes and rocks. After crossing a long moorland section, we’re soon at Keswick for a morning coffee at The Filling Station, a regular biker stop.
Suitably caffeinated, and with the weather moving up a gear from great to glorious, we head out of the town and follow a long climb that picks up the Old Coach Road, a great route with fantastic views all around and long sections of fast and wonderfully enjoyable trails.
We drop down from the moor heading east now and, as we pass by Ullswater lake, we’re sad to be leaving the Lakes behind, or in Matt’s case, leaving Chris and I behind as he forgets to stop at a turning and we carry on for some miles before retracing our steps to locate him again. It’s more grassy overgrown lanes as we head towards Penrith and the Pennines beyond, but with blue sky in every direction the riding is just joyous.
The joy is a tad short lived as, stopping at the end of a lane, my bike randomly decides the side stand is down and won’t click into gear without cutting out. It takes some fettling to eventually sort a fix that involves nothing more complicated than a half millimetre thick washer on the switch bracket to make it happy again.
Meeting fellow riders
Lunch at the Clickham Inn at Blencow is a welcome stop, and the staff seem pleased to see us despite our dusty and mud splattered clothing. Suitably refreshed it’s on to more grassy lanes, but now they are interspersed with tricky and rocky climbs as we head across the rolling landscape of the Pennines.
Turning into another overgrown lane, we meet two more trail riders, who stop for a chat. Mounted on an older 690 Enduro and a XR250, the two lads are actually following the TET, having come down from Scotland to fit in a two-day stint on the trail. Considering there is much internet wailing about the TET becoming overcrowded, these two guys are the sole riders actually following the route that we have come across.
As we are riding on the Summer Solstice, it’s particularly apt that the TET passes through the stone circle at Little Salkeld. Long Meg and her Daughters, as the circle is known, looks particularly beautiful in the pale afternoon light and there are a few druid and goth types wandering around finding themselves and feeling mystical.
The next hour or so brings a mix of challenges, notably a deep-water crossing that I feel best advised to walk the bike through rather than risk a downing. The annoying thing with waterproof boots is that once the water has gone over the top, the waterproofing only serves to keep the water inside.
With a good half pint now swishing back and forth in my boots we press on up through a series of farm fields, narrowly avoiding being chased by a particularly pissed off and enormous bull.
Britain at its finest…
Having booked a room in a pub for the night in Alston, which lays claim to being England’s highest market town according to Matt, the final section of trail is a long sandy track with beautifully formed natural whoops that beg to be jumped.
All is going well as the three of us leap along the track with glee until my tank bag slips forward on a landing, and inconveniently knocks against the ignition key and turns off the motor. The resultant immediate deceleration almost pitches me over the bars, and its more luck than judgement that I manage to keep things upright.
Our chosen accommodation in Alston is particularly random. The Victoria Inn is an old-school pub that doubles up as a curry house run by a slightly shouty landlady. Turning down the delicacies that pervade through the whole of the building and even up to the bedrooms, we opt for a gentle wander through the town with added beer stops. We finish the evening in a pub down by the river to the sound of young people laughing inside and two older locals fighting outside – Britain at its finest.
Our final day welcomes us with bright sunshine streaming through the thin curtains and the aroma of sweaty, wet kit in a confined space. Our host provides another large and thankfully curry-free breakfast and we’re out on the road again at 8.30am sharp.
Long stony climbs
The first lane comes just minutes after we’ve left Alston with a long and stony climb that gets the blood pumping at full speed. When we rejoin the road, it’s a lovely sweeping ribbon of tarmac that lays across the top of the hills like a strip of silk, it’s beauty marred only by the legions of baby rabbits that want to play on the carriageway, and sadly, the crows feasting on those with slower reactions.
We turn left off the road through a gateway and pick up a trail that is signposted to Tyne Head. As our final destination will be alongside the banks of the mighty waterway in Newcastle, it’s apt that we should pass by the source of the river on our last day on the trails.
The track is actually the toughest we’ve ridden in the course of the three days, with rock steps, boulder strewn climbs, and polished slabs to contend with. The 690 smashes through the lot with Terminator style efficiency.
A long loop over the moors brings us back to Alston to refuel and then up again as the track takes us into County Durham. We grab a late morning coffee in a great little country pub, the day then settling into a gentle rhythm of gates, grassy lanes and sweeping trails across the warm green landscape.
A few hours later we reach the trails in the Slake forest, where long, sandy tracks slice back and forth among the trees. It’s some of the most enjoyable trails we’ve ridden, and the fast and sinuous dirt tracks interspersed with water splashes and jumps have us whooping and laughing like kids for mile after mile. Man, trail riding is good!
Newcastle on the horizon
Come mid-afternoon and the trails are becoming less challenging and more grassy and overgrown as we drop down from the moors. We opt for a meal deal lunch at a petrol station in Stocksfield and Chris does a passable impression of an old giffer by producing a bag of battered Lidl chocolate bars from his rucksack.
The road signs are now showing Newcastle as little more than 20 miles away, and although it’s where we’ve been heading for the whole journey, you can see that none of us wants the trails to end.
The final section of the journey takes us through the outer suburbs of Newcastle and then follows the Tyne all the way into the centre of the city. The TET linesman has wound the route around the city streets and it’s hard not to feel like conquering Dakar heroes as we cut through the traffic on our muddy dirt bikes.
Although not on the official route, we head for the waterfront between the two landmark bridges across the Tyne. The end of the trail in the UK actually comes a few miles later at the ferry port further down the river, but for us this feels so much better. The sense of achievement is wonderful. We might have only travelled just over 450 miles in nothing but perfect weather, but if feels like we’ve just completed an epic journey.
We’ve travelled right the way across the north of England on everything from slippery, overgrown lanes and rock-strewn climbs, to glorious trails over achingly beautiful moorland, and along sweeping fast A roads slicing through incredible scenery. Stood on the banks of the River Tyne between its two iconic bridges, I’m feeling on top of the world. This has been a hell of a trip and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
So, what is the TET?
The Trans European Trail stretches almost 32,000 miles across most of Europe from the top of Scandinavia, within the Arctic circle, and right down almost to the top of Africa. Put together by a group of motorcyclists with nothing more than a love of riding rather than any commercial motivation, it’s a truly outstanding achievement and an incredible gift to bikers across the world.
Simply by going to the website, you can pick the country you want to ride in and, with the click of a mouse, download a GPX trail of the route. Each country has its own band of linesmen that have drawn together their knowledge and experience to create a route combining both road and off-road sections, linking together with the rest of the TET in other countries.
You can do as much or as little as you want, safe in the knowledge that the routes will be legal, enjoyable and thoroughly rewarding. If there are sections that look set to defeat you, simply look at your Sat Nav or phone GPX reader, and find a route to miss them out.
What bike is best for the TET?
OK, so if you wanted to open a can of worms, this is possibly one of the biggest you could pick. Dare to go online and suggest that one bike is more or less suitable for the task will have a torrent of abuse and derision that is hard to believe. So, for the removal of doubt, let’s just quote the TET website on the matter:
‘The Trans Euro Trail is aimed at small and medium capacity trail bikes – bikes such as Yamaha’s WR250R and XT600 and XT660Z Ténéré, CCM’s GP450, KTM’s 690 and Suzuki’s DRZ400. Larger bikes can tackle it, but riders need to be more experienced and competent. Soft luggage, travelling light is the ethos – leave those panniers and armchairs at home. This is overlanding in its purest form.’
Clear enough? For our part, we’ve ridden most of the UK TET on a range of bikes from a Yamaha Ténéré 660, to a KTM 250 EXC and a KTM 690 Enduro R, with other riders on everything from a Honda CRF250X, a KTM 450 EXC and a BMW G 650 GS, to a Honda CB500X.
Although the Ténéré and the BMW did the job, they were far harder work in some sections than the lighter bikes, and the CB500X was largely unsuitable for much of the route save the tarmac.