York is a cycling city but it also has the benefit of being admirably close to the countryside, meaning there are some excellent cycle routes of varying lengths. But if you’re looking for a family cycle ride with a difference, the York Solar System route should be on your radar.
This beautiful 6.4-mile trail (one-way) from York to Riccall follows the old East Coast mainline, which was diverted in the early 1980s and then bought by Sustrans for just £1. Built over six months in 1999, the trail (managed by the University of York’s Astrocampus) is a scale model of the solar system – every 100m corresponds to 35 million miles in space. As you cycle you can spot the planets, each with their own scale model, as well as the space probes Voyager 1 and 2.
It’s as enjoyable for adults as children: parents love getting out of the city and kids get excited searching for the next planet or landmark on the way. The added bonus? There’s a lovely café at Brunswick Nursery en route, with the promise of an ice cream providing ample motivation for little ones.
Start: York Racecourse. There’s ample free parking.
1. At York Racecourse, you’ll see National Cycle Network (NCN) Route 65 signposted. Cycle straight ahead on the pathway, past the Terry’s clock and Bustardthorpe Allotments on your left.
2. Follow the pathway downhill and onwards, then turn right following the edge of the racecourse and Knavesmire Woods. Stay on the main curved pathway until you see another 65 waymarker, then turn left passing the motorway on to a pathway overlooking York College in the distance (this is where the trail is a little bumpy).
3. At the end, you’ll reach the official start of the solar system route: a huge gold ball, representing the Sun. The giant globe was constructed from two fibreglass semi-spheres, originally manufactured for a septic tank, and then filled with 10 tonnes of concrete. Next to it is a blue 65 waymarker sign to Selby; take this left turn past the colourful graffiti on your right.
4. After a few hundred yards, you’ll come to the first cluster of planets: Mercury is on the left, shortly followed by Venus, Earth and Mars. The bases are made from concrete sewer pipes, with the planets screwed in place.
5. Continue straight ahead for a short distance, and just after passing under Appleton Road you’ll come to Jupiter, with the planet on your left. Shortly afterwards, you’ll cross the River Ouse on the Naburn Bridge, with its famous Fisher of Dreams sculpture overhead – a wire fisherman or woman, dangling a fishing rod with a model of the Flying Scotsman on the end. The sculpture was created by local artist Pete Rogers as part of York’s ‘Creative Communities 2000’ scheme. From the bridge, there are wonderful views of Naburn Lock to the south as you cross the River Ouse.
6. Continuing south, you’ll soon spy the space probes Voyager 1 and 2 en route before you hit Saturn – the only ringed planet on the route. Cross the B122 bridge and on your left is the old signal station at Naburn – a fabulous viewpoint for the famed Minster view spot and a good place for a drink if you fancy a break. There are some pretty country views here, but you’re still only a few miles from York.
7. It’s a longer ride to Uranus and Neptune, which are some 2 miles apart – but this just goes to illustrate the vast size of the solar system. The path ventures deeper into the countryside here, with plenty of peace and solitude along the route.
8. Finally, 1½ miles from Neptune and just off track to the left, is the final planet, Pluto (although technically it is a dwarf planet, having been downgraded in 2006). You’ve done it! Now you just have to cycle back, but that’s the easy part, isn’t it? (Note: The official solar system ride ends here in Riccall but you can continue along the NCN65 to Selby, which is another 4 miles away.)
Need to know
Check Astrocampus for the route map, or for further information contact the tourism office at Visit York. For bike hire, try Cycle Heaven or Get Cycling. If you have your own bikes, there’s also parking available at Askham Bar Park and Ride, which is very close to the start point. If you are with very young children, start here instead. For refreshments, Brunswick Organic Nursery, York Marina or The Blacksmiths all make excellent stopping points.
For more on walking and cycling in York, check out Bradt’s guide to the North York Moors.