One of Britain's longest cycle routes, NCN 6 runs all the way from London to the Lake District, via the East Midlands and Manchester.
At almost 500 miles it's certainly not the most direct route, but a varied patchwork of railway trails, colliery paths, towpaths and minor roads, taking in several cities and large towns. Leicester, Derby, Nottingham, Sheffield and Manchester are all en route.
London to Northampton
You’ll leave London on the towpath of the Grand Union Canal’s Paddington Arm. It’s not signposted at first, but trivial to follow. From here it roughly follows the main line of the Grand Union up to Milton Keynes, but darting off on minor roads and occasional rail trails here and there. There’s an optional, more direct alternative alongside the guided busway in Luton (NCN 606).
Country lanes lead from MK to Northampton, where the excellent traffic-free Brampton Valley Way begins – bring your lights for the two tunnels! This 14-mile rail trail takes you to Market Harborough.
The East Midlands
A short section of canal towpath takes you to Foxton Locks, one of the busiest day-tripper locations on the waterway network: look out for the remains of the short-lived inclined plane.
It’s quiet lanes again to Leicester, where the old Great Central railway trackbed speeds you through the city suburbs towards the River Soar towpath. The route from here to Loughborough follows the old A6 and is pretty uninspiring for a while.
The Cloud Trail railway path in rural north Leicestershire and Derbyshire skirts the lovely little town of Melbourne before depositing you on a canal towpath. It’s traffic-free all the way from here to the outskirts of Derby, where the route takes an abrupt easterly turn to head to Nottingham on a bitty route of towpaths and backstreets.
The former mining areas north of Nottingham have gifted us some enjoyable (if short) trails, which NCN 6 joins together as it brushes past Sherwood Forest. These eventually lead to Rotherham and the towpath of the Sheffield & South Yorkshire Navigation into Sheffield itself. The latter is famously a hilly city for cycling, but NCN 6 takes a very achievable course right through the city centre.
The Peak District and Manchester
The climb into the Peak District eventually reaches Ladybower Reservoir, Hope and Castleton – the scenic highlights of the route so far. It’s unsignposted for a short while after this, but the collapsed road at Mam Tor (passable by cyclists) is a memorable passage.
At the attractively preserved Bugsworth Basin, join the Peak Forest Canal towpath all the way to Marple, down the steep flight of locks and over the aqueduct. Soon after, you can cut across onto NCN routes 55 and 62 for a mostly traffic-free route along surprisingly wooded valleys until NCN 6 restarts again on the urban outskirts of Manchester. After a while on the Fallowfield Loop, a busy urban rail trail, NCN 6 heads north via Alexandra Park to the city centre.
Lancashire and the Lakes
After Manchester, the route up the Irwell Valley is mostly traffic-free on old railways and parkland paths. These eventually lead to Blackburn, where NCN 6 signage ends for now: in the absence of a through-route after Feniscowles, we’d suggest heading north to the Ribble Valley for your approach to Preston.
The lovely lanes of Lancashire provide a relaxing alternative to the A6 and M6 running close by, until eventually you start to see the coast just short of Lancaster – first at the Lune estuary by Glasson Dock, then Morecambe Bay from Hest Bank. It’s a brief glimpse, because soon comes Kendal and the Lake District – and more than a few hills. There’s a functional roadside path to Windermere, after which you cross the lake on the ferry to a pretty lakeside track, gravelly and not really suited for road bikes. The Lakeland scenery is every bit as spectacular as you expect, continuing on gravel tracks and lanes through Ambleside to Rydal Water and Grasmere.
Unfortunately the much needed cycleway past Dunmail Raise still hasn’t been built, so you have to jostle with traffic on the busy A591 for a couple of miles. The minor road along the west bank of Thirlmere is a great reward. (Note that this is currently  closed due to a rockfall.)
From here, the climbing gets easier for the last section on country lanes to Carlisle.