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On your bike: Our favourite cycle routes in England

The UK has fantastic potential to explore on two wheels

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. From Cornwall to Yorkshire, these are the best cycle routes in England.

Exe Estuary Trail, East Devon

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.

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

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

‘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. You can start your ride from Ashbourne, or at the Parsley Hay end (just a few miles south of Buxton).

Tissington Cycle Trail Peak District UK David Hughes, Shutterstock
© David Hughes, Shutterstock

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.

The Camel Trail, 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.

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

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 

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.

© Ron Strutt, Wikimedia Commons

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 

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.

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

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.

Dalby Forest, North York Moors

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.

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

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.

Chilterns Cycleway, The Chilterns

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.

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

The Chilterns’ excellent rail links with London, Birmingham and elsewhere are a boon for cyclists, who can carry bikes on trains outside rush hour 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.

Want to explore more of Britain on two wheels? Check out our Slow Travel guides.