Our favourite cycle routes in England

05/03/2019 13:00

Written by Bradt Travel Guides

Cycling is an ideal method of Slow travel. Leave the car behind and explore Britain's highways, byways and coastal pathways on two wheels, and you'll get so much more out of your journey. 

Exe Estuary Trail, East Devon

Exe Estuary Trail East Devon UK by Tony Cobley Heart of Devon Images© Tony Cobley, Heart of Devon Images

From Exeter, this terrific 26-mile cycling and walking trail stretches to Exmouth along the eastern bank of the Exe Estuary, including Topsham, Starcross and Cockwood, and as far as Dawlish on the western bank. Mostly flat and mostly off-road, it offers far-reaching views over the estuary, which is one of the most important birdlife habitats in Europe.

Tissington Trail, Peak District

Tissington Cycle Trail Peak District UK David Hughes, ShutterstockAs the trails drops towards Ashbourne, the landscape softens to leafy valleys and grassy farmlands © David Hughes, Shutterstock

‘Dream of noise and wheels and coal and steam’ says the metal plaque screwed to one of the many bridges on the Tissington Trail, a 13-mile route for cyclists, horseriders and walkers from Parsley Hay to Ashbourne along a former railway line. The trail joins the High Peak Trail just south of Parsley Hay. You can start your ride from Ashbourne, or at the Parsley Hay end (just a few miles south of Buxton). The lively market town of Ashbourne is a great mid-point with plenty of lunch options before returning to Parsley Hay. Bikes can be hired at either end and you can do a there-and-back route along the dismantled railway. For a more varied circular cycle, you can ride cross-country over to the High Peak Trail – but beware of the greater gradients once off the dismantled railways. In the uplands there are wideopen views that spread out for tens of miles towards Staffordshire. 

The Marriott’s Way, Norfolk 

Marriott's Way Norfolk UK by Michael Button, Flickr© Michael Button, Flickr

The Marriott’s Way is an excellent off-road path along a disused railway track running between Norwich and Aylsham along a curving route that takes in Reepham and Cawston. The Way, one of the country’s longest paths along a stretch of disused railway track, follows the River Wensum west out of Norwich before curving northwards at Lenwade. It’s not exclusively meant for cyclists: it’s used by all sorts – leisure cyclists, Norwich commuters, dog walkers and so on – and you really don’t need a mountain bike as the surface is mostly pretty smooth, compacted sand or gravel, although it does get rougher after Whitwell.

The Camel Trail, Cornwall 

Camel Trail Cornwall UK Britain by Matt Jessop, Visit Cornwall© Matt Jessop, Visit Cornwall

Padstow is the start – or finish – of a 17-mile level track that follows the route of an old railway, from the South Quay at Padstow along the estuary to Wadebridge (five miles), and on to Dunmere Halt (six miles) through deep, leafy cuttings beside a very picturesque stretch of the Camel. There’s a family-friendly pub by the parking space at Dunmere, and from here you can take the mile-long route into Bodmin, or swing north, following the young river upstream to Wenfordbridge (six miles), just a short hop from the very pretty moorland village of Blisland.

The Cuckoo Trail, Sussex 

Cuckoo Trail Sussex UK by Ron Strutt, Wikimedia Commons© Ron Strutt, Wikimedia Commons

You pretty much always see cyclists along this hugely popular walkers’/cyclists’/horseriders’ trail which runs for 11 mostly traffic-free miles between Heathfield and Polegate, with an extension to Eastbourne, along a defunct railway (apart from the odd, well signposted diversion through quiet streets), which saw its last train in 1968 and which was named after the Sussex legend that the first cuckoo of spring was always heard at Heathfield Fair. The trail slopes downhill very gently from north to south, but is easy in either direction. Part of the National Cycle Network and opened in 1990, it’s ornamented with carved benches and chunky sculptures made from recycled materials. 

Tarka Trail, North Devon 

Tarka Trail North Devon UK davidelliotphotos, Shutterstock© davidelliotphotos, Shutterstock

This 180-mile, traffic-free recreational route runs along a disused railway line from Braunton to Meeth. Families who pedal happily in the sunshine have reason to bless Dr Beeching who closed this unprofitable branch line in 1965. Probably the most popular section for cyclists is Barnstaple to Instow and back or, for the more energetic, to Great Torrington, but some bike hire companies may collect you and your bike from your end point, thus allowing you to ride a longer distance.

South Tyne Trail, Northumberland

South Tyne Trail Northumberland UK by geograph.org.uk, Wikimedia Commons© geograph.org.uk, Wikimedia Commons

The mixed-use waymarked South Tyne Trail is an ideal way to discover the Tyne Valley and some of the best river, woodland and hill country in the North Pennines. For the most part it follows the railway path (as far as Alston). If you continue from Alston to Garrigill and on to the source of the Tyne, walkers stay close to the riverside; cyclists take a quiet hilly lane via Leadgate.

Dalby Forest, North York Moors

Dalby Forest by RJB Photographic, NYMNP© RJB Photographic, NYMNP  

Dalby Forest is possibly the best area in the country for the cyclist, especially off-road. It is absolute two-wheel heaven, so much so that it was selected for staging the World Mountain Bike Championships in 2011. In the last ten years the Forestry Commission has spent over a million pounds developing biking facilities in the forest culminating in a series of six colour-coded and waymarked trails ranging from the two-mile Ellerburn green trail (easy), a perfect gentle intro for young families, to the black trail (severe), which is a challenge for even expert mountain bikers. The most popular route, and it can get very busy, is the 23-mile red route (difficult) which is possibly the best of its kind in the country. Maps of all the trails are available free in the visitor centre at Low Dalby.

Drake’s Trail, South Devon and Dartmoor

Drake's Trail, Dartmoor, South Devon, Wikimedia Commons, Martin BodmanCycle Drake's Trail to see the very best of South Devon © Martin Bodman, Wikimedia Commons

For cyclists, the Tamar valley offers great possibilities, from moorland on Dartmoor’s fringes to the deep lanes near the river. The largely traffic-free Plym Valley Cycle Trail has been joined with Drake’s Trail to provide a scenic cycling route between Plymouth and Tavistock (21 miles). Now generally known just as Drake’s Trail, it’s one of the best cycle routes in the county.

Chilterns Cycleway, The Chilterns

Chilterns Cycleway Chilterns by chilternsaonb.comThis circular bike route round the region offers plenty of interest and challenge © chilternsaonb.com

The Chilterns Cycleway is an 170-mile circular route round the region. Several ‘gateway towns’, including Wendover, Henley-on-Thames and Wallingford, offer excellent facilities for cyclists. The Chilterns’ excellent rail links with London, Birmingham and elsewhere are a boon for cyclists, who can carry bikes on trains outside rush hour (10.00–16.00) and at any time on Bank Holidays or at weekends. Over 95% of the cycleway is on-road and the undulating route, with some steep climbs and descents, offers plenty of interest and challenge.

Tour de Yorkshire, Yorkshire Dales

Tour de Yorkshire Pateley Bridge Yorkshire Dales by Nidderdale Chamber of Trade/Kirsty ShepherdThe ‘Tour de Yorkshire’ zooms along different Yorkshire routes every year © Nidderdale Chamber of Trade/Kirsty Shepherd

Since a two-day leg of the Tour de France took place in Yorkshire in July 2014, there has been somewhat of a cycling revolution in the county. The first day of the original route was an 110-mile pedal that traversed most of Wharfedale and Wensleydale, and many die-hard amateur cyclists have ridden the whole thing. However, the ‘Cycle the Dales’ people at the national park have come up with a great 80-mile circular route from Grassington, called Tour de France in the Dales, which includes the best of the original without its long ‘A’ road sections, and we think it's well worth hopping on the saddle and taking on the challenge. Welcome to Yorkshire were so inspired by the Tour de France’s visit to the Dales that they decided to recreate it year on year. For the more competitive amongst you, you can enter the aptly named ‘Tour de Yorkshire’, which zooms along different Yorkshire routes every year.

Want to explore more of Britain on two wheels? Get 10% off our Slow Travel guides: 

Slow Travel Chilterns & the Thames Valley Slow Travel Cornwall Slow Travel East Devon and the Jurassic Coast the Bradt Guide Slow Travel Norfolk the Bradt Guide  Bradt guide to the North York Moors and Yorkshire Wolds by Mike Bagshaw Slow Northumberland 2 cover Peak District 2nd edition cover Slow Travel Sussex  Slow Travel South Devon and Dartmoor the Bradt Guide by Hilary Bradt and Janice Booth Slow Travel Yorkshire Dales

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