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Rides

Every now and then, a tell-tale line of undergrowth cuts across my path. It marks the route of the old railway line. Of the hop pickers who once rode trains into Herefordshire in search of seasonal work, there remains only the slightest trace.

A track through woodland passes the brick pillars of a dismantled railway bridge

It seems the Worcester, Bromyard and Leominster branch line was never a financial success and Beeching’s axe dealt the final blow in 1964. Behind the numbers, though, there were people. The hop pickers. Thousands of racegoers heading to Bromyard. Locals popping into town.

Today, in their place, I see an occasional walker, another cyclist. Do they know about the railway? There’s little of it left to see, aside from a couple of bridges. In one spinney, where the path dives steeply down a hill, vast brick columns of a long-dismantled bridge hide among the trees as if they’re ashamed of what they’ve become.

The bridge pillars stand as a memorial to the railway, but also to the resilience of the natural world. In the 50 years since the rails were ripped up and the bridges pulled down, nature has recolonised the railway’s cuttings and embankments. As humans, we often think we think the things we do to reshape the world will last forever. As I ride, I’m under no such illusion. My tyre tracks will soon be lost to the wind and rain.

32km 570m ascent

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For much of the ride we followed the ghosts of old steam trains – their rails now long gone and their presence a distant memory. In their place: cycle paths and forests tracks.

A child cycles away from the camera up a forest track

By the late nineteenth century, railway companies had stretched their fingers deep into the Forest of Dean – keen to get their hands on revenue from transporting minerals and then, later, passengers. It didn’t last long, however. Less than a century later, the last of these lines fell silent after collieries closed and the railway companies struggled. The forest’s railway boom was over.

Now the waymarked family cycle path uses some of the network, the former trackbed making for a gentle gradient well-suited to young legs. We’d ridden the family trail many times and since G was now six and capable of going further, we branched out.

Taking in loops of forest tracks, we bypassed the busier sections of trail and made up our own route. The wide tracks meant the three of us could ride side by side and we could chat, falling into the steady rhythm of a longer ride. The Severn and Wye Railway and Canal Company’s loss was our gain.

22.37km 280m

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I was on the Ridgeway – again. This time it was to ride a 240km car-free, off-road overnighter using the Kennet & Avon Canal to create a loop.

Signpost points along the Ridgeway National Trail

Two years previously I’d cycled the Ridgeway from Overton Hill in Wiltshire to Streatley on the River Thames in Berkshire. And back. That made for a day packed with 240km of glorious, almost continuous off-road riding. I wanted to repeat the experience, and this time I wanted to do it without any assistance from a car.

On my previous trip, bookending the day with a long drive through heavy traffic had detracted from the feeling of freedom on the trail. Today I had arrived at the Ridgeway via train to Bradford-on-Avon, followed by a ride along the Kennet and Avon Canal to Devizes and up the linking tracks of the Wessex Ridgeway through Avebury. It was mid-summer and this was my birthday present to myself – two days free from my responsibilities to cycle what’s said to be Britain’s oldest road, and to return to Bradford-on-Avon via Reading and the towpaths of the Kennet and Avon.

At home on the border of Worcestershire and Herefordshire, planning long off-road rides involves hours of map-work to string together sections of tracks and bridlepaths into intricate routes that stay clear of tarmac as far as possible. To ride the Ridgeway, all I needed to do was head off in the right direction and follow the signs to Streatley. After an overnight stop at the Youth Hostel, I’d just have to follow some lanes, tracks and bridleways into Reading and then pick up the canal towpath to take me to Bradford-on-Avon. Such ease of route planning is a rare treat, and the chance to ride 240km off-road in the densely populated South of England is even rarer.

Ahead of me, energy-sapping climbs and rolling chalk tracks led through a prehistoric landscape of white horses, fortresses and burial mounds. Later that day, heavy spells of rain would force me to seek shelter and turn the chalk to a tyre-clagging paste that robbed the bike of any grip. I’d be elated as I flew down swooping tracks, and frustrated as I negotiated deep ruts that made pedal strikes impossible to avoid.

But for a moment I paused to take it all in. I was on the Ridgeway again – and there was nowhere I’d rather be.

2017 Overton Hill to Streatley, and back 139.9km | 1,649m ascent

2019 Day 1: Bradford-on-Avon to Streatley via the Ridgeway 108.7km | 1,287m ascent

Day 2: Streatley to Bradford-on-Avon via the Kennet & Avon Canal 128.7km | 560m ascent

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We pedalled away from our hostel – a converted thirteenth century castle – on the bike paths that run through the forest and nature reserve, before parking up in the dunes and heading to the beach.

An adult and child cycle away from the camera along a cycle path in the Dutch dunes

This was a perfect place to explore by bike. This was why we’d come to the Netherlands for our family holiday.

We were in Domburg – a seaside resort in the Walcheren area of Zeeland. A ferry, several trains and two buses had brought us this far, and now, for a precious few days, pedal power would take us anywhere we wanted to go. The cycle paths are ubiquitous, traffic–free and very flat. Perfect for even the youngest of children to cycle independently.

There were other families like us on the beach. Most got there the same way we did – on bikes. Many had brought a lot of stuff with them: windbreaks strapped to top tubes, picnic hampers on rear racks, dogs towed in trailers. They left their bikes in cycle parks in the dunes and carried the equipment the final few hundred metres to the beach.

And what a beach it was. The sand appeared endless – and flawless. There was no litter; showers and toilet blocks were discreetly and handily placed along the beach. With cycling the predominant mode of transport, there is no need for the ugly car parks, traffic congestion and pollution that blight seafronts back home.

An unseasonal heatwave has brought everyone to the beach, but there seems to be room for all. After some sandcastle construction we took to the sea to cool down, the normally frigid waters warmed to such a degree that they felt refreshing rather than icy.

After a while, with the temperature pushing 35C, we decided it was time to head back to the hostel through the shade of the forest. We had hired our bikes to potter around locally, but it was clear from the array of solos and tandems outside the castle that other guests were passing through on tours of the North Sea cycle route, which runs right past the hostel door. We vowed to do that ourselves one day.

Over our few days in Domburg, we explored southwards to Westkapelle and inland – passing back through Oostkapelle to stock up with food at the Jumbo supermarket. We learnt as we went along: mostly about cycle-friendly Dutch culture but also about the history of the area – from Viking incursions to the Second World War battle for Antwerp, which saw the Allies flood Westkapelle to thwart the Germans. Out of the destruction of war, and from the clutches of the North Sea, the Dutch have created a society in which we felt welcome.

Our trip came to an end and all too soon it was time to head to the ferry. As we waited for our train, we watched a fellow passenger make her way to the platform. She was carrying two young children – as well as all the equipment they needed for a day at the beach – on her bike. The lift to the platform easily accommodated them all. When the train arrived, there was plenty of space for her, the bike and the kids.

Goodbye The Netherlands, we’ll miss you.

86km total 132m ascent

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From our viewpoint above Cheddar Gorge, the town stretched out before us and we could see the hostel where we had spent the previous night.

View of Cheddar from above the gorge

I was surprised G had been keen to cycle the extra distance towards the gorge and then climb the paths above it to look down. We still had 20km or so of cycling ahead of us and G was only five years old.

This was our first father-and-son cycle tour – a two-day trip along the Strawberry Line, from Yatton to Cheddar and back. The cycle path, a former railway line used to carry the strawberry harvest, is part of an ambitious project aiming to create a continuous 48-km traffic-free route from the Mendips to the sea. That would be quite a ride.

On this occasion, the existing stretch of path was challenge enough. We’d caught the train from home to Yatton the previous day and ridden from there in deteriorating weather. I’d been impressed with the way G had stuck at his task as the rain worsened. When we’d stopped at a cafe to shelter and refuel (cheddar cheese on toast, of course), I’d offered him the chance to turn back. There might even have been part of me – the cold and wet part – that wanted him to say yes. No way; he wanted to go on.

On day two, G’s determination was rewarded – the weather was set fair and we were both in good spirits. Having ticked the gorge off our sightseeing list, we called in at a bakery to buy provisions for lunch (yes, cheddar cheese sandwiches) before retracing our steps along the path towards Yatton. With plenty of time to reach our train, we stopped often for snacks, to explore side paths and, on reaching Yatton, to try out the local playground. We rode our bikes around the skate park, lost in the fun of it, until it was time to head to the station.

Later, on the slow train ride home, we reflected on our first overnight cycling adventure together. I was proud of G for his determination; he was proud of getting to eat Cheddar cheese for every meal.

Well, when in Cheddar.

41.7km 239m ascent

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As we pedalled along the white gravel towpath we couldn’t believe our luck. It was only Easter but the temperature was nudging 20°C in an unseasonal warm spell. Early in the year, and with local schools not yet on holiday, we had the path almost to ourselves.

A mountain bike stands on the loch side with Ben Nevis in the background

The Caledonian Canal towpath offered a perfect way for us, as a family, to experience the Highlands on our hire bikes. Thanks to the efforts of prolific nineteenth-century Scottish engineer Thomas Telford, we could cycle through the mountains without having to go up them.

Between our rented log cabin in Fort Augustus and the end of the canal at Corpach, near Fort William, there lay around 50km of gloriously gentle off-road cycling. Both National Cycle Network 78 and the Great Glen Way take this route. There was even a floating pub to call at on the way – at Laggan Locks.

Yet the glen is only a narrow lowland corridor through the high country. Beside us as we headed south-west, mountains steepled upwards, their peaks still capped with snow. The sunny weather gave us a clear view of Ben Nevis – better, in fact, than the view I had when I climbed the mountain in mid summer eight years previously.

Undoubtedly this would have been a lesser ride without the scenery. There was also just enough variety under-wheel to keep things interesting. Telford engineered sections of canal to link natural lochs, so not all the route is towpath – it also includes forest trails around the lochs and a stretch on the disused Invergarry and Fort Augustus Railway.

The railway’s loss was our gain, though, and we enjoyed the easy riding along the old track bed. So much so that before we knew it, we were at Laggan Locks. After a canal-side picnic, G and J set off back to Fort Augustus – making a total of nearly 36km for five-year-old G. I pushed on, keen to reach Corpach and the end of the canal. I wanted to go as far as it was possible to go.

After more towpath, then some forest tracks and a very short stretch of minor road, I reached Neptune’s Staircase. I descended alongside the eight locks and then there was no more canal left to ride; I had reached Corpach and the sea.

I lingered just long enough to take a photo before turning back towards Fort Augustus, hoping there would be a cup of tea waiting for me at the cabin.

23.04.2019 | Family 35.67km 135m ascent

25.04.2019 | Solo 98.26km 655m ascent

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“I’ll meet you there,” I said to my family as they headed off to the station. It was the first leg of our holiday in Scotland and they were catching the train out of Glasgow to the Falkirk Wheel. I was keen to do some cycling, so I planned to grab a bike from the city’s Nextbike bike-sharing scheme and ride along the canal to Falkirk.

The first thing I noticed about the Nextbike, once I’d located an available one near our hotel, was the weight. It was very, very heavy. This was going be quite a workout, particularly into the stiff headwind that was blowing. But I was committed, and I slung my rucksack into the front carrier and set off.

Canals rarely offer the most spectacular riding but I enjoy the way their green and blue arteries flow right into the centre of old industrial cities. And – something I was particularly grateful for on this occasion – they’re usually pretty flat. As I pounded into the wind, I got into the heavy rhythm of the towpath, though it felt like I couldn’t be going much faster than the towing horses of the past whose hoofprints my wheels were following.

A brief stop to catch my breath and I was on my way again. There was industrial history all around me but I was intent on getting to a modern wonder of engineering: the Falkirk Wheel. The £84.5 million project is a boat lift, dreamt up in 1998 as a way to re-join the Forth & Clyde and Union canals. Until the 1930s, boats negotiated a series of 11 locks – a task that took nearly a day – to transfer between the canals. Since then there has been no way up or down – until the wheel.

I think the bicycle is pretty much the pinnacle of engineering efficiency. I have to admit, though, that the Falkirk Wheel comes a close second. The only rotating boat lift in the world, it scoops up a narrowboat in either gondola – along with an Olympic swimming pool’s worth of water – and rotates, powered only by the same amount of energy as it takes to boil a kettle. One boat goes up, the other comes down – the two gondolas counterbalancing each other.

It was quite a sight, and I enjoyed the fact that people are attracted to the beauty of watching something so functional, so mechanical do its job so elegantly. Over five million people had been before us, just to watch the wheel. I can see why. We stayed for a few turns, eager to see the wheel in action again. Then, eventually, it was time to head back to Glasgow.

With the wind behind me my return journey was quicker – until the bike picked up a puncture somewhere near Partick Thistle’s stadium. With no pump (I don’t think Nextbike expect people to embark on quite such long trips) I nursed the bike back to its docking station and used the app on my phone to report the problem.

I wasn’t feeling deflated, though. Quite the opposite. My urban adventure was the perfect start to our holiday.

75.68km 66m ascent

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Corum said he had wondered whether to bother opening his shop that morning; it was still term time in Wales and distinctly off-season for surfing and cycling in Porthcawl. Luckily for us, he had decided to show up.

A child on a bike, an adult walking and a dog are silhouetted on the wet sand of Porthcawl at low tide

We hired a couple of Corum’s fatbikes and set off along the beach, the low tide lending us acres of mirror-wet sand to use as our playground. We rejoiced in the freedom it gave us. With the beach largely empty we could head where we liked, turn in looping circles and see where our new, big-tyred buddies wanted to take us.

The bikes were our moon buggies, carrying us over a landscape we’d never before been able to ride. We floated over soft sand, emboldened to experiment and see what terrain we could conquer next: bumping down slipways, splashing through rock pools, and slithering across a dune. The only penalty for a mistake would be getting sandy and wet, but this didn’t happen; the bikes were too stable for that.

Before we knew it, our time was up and we headed back to the shop as fatbiking converts. If we lived here, we decided, we’d do this all the time. Instead, our day trip across the border to the seaside was coming to an end. Carried away by the unseasonal February sunshine, we bought ice creams and watched the tide come in to reclaim the beach.

By the time we left, the sun was going down and the tide had retaken its beach, boiling against the sea wall in the soft evening light. It was a day we’ll remember for a long time.

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“Ha, your bikes are smaller than mine,” chuckled G as J and I retrieved our Bromptons from the lockers outside Bristol Temple Meads Station.

Two Brompton bikes and a child's Islabike lean against a wall on the Bristol-Bath cycle path

He had a point. At five years old he was riding a bike with 20-inch wheels; his parents’ rented folders had 16-inch wheels. He clearly thought we were a bit mad to try and ride these bikes to Bath. We wondered that too.

We’d ridden hire Bromptons before, trying out the system by renting a couple in Birmingham and going on a tour of the canal paths. Now we were putting them to a bigger test: nearly 25km along the traffic-free route to Bath.

The folders enabled us to travel to Bristol unencumbered by adult bikes – we just needed to bring G’s little Islabike. Then, the plan was, we would simply use our booking codes to get the Bromptons from their lockers, pedal to Bath and catch the train back to Bristol. It sounded simple enough. But would it work?

Not surprisingly, since it follows a former railway line, the Bristol-Bath cycle route is pretty flat. Bromptons and Islabike alike coped pretty easily with any gentle inclines. G coped well with distance, thanks to frequent snack stops. But we found the Bromptons unforgiving on our bodies and missed the handling of full-sized bikes.

Yes, we were glad we came – the trip was an adventure, pushing both our cycling horizons as a family and the distance G could ride in a day. We were pleased to have completed our challenge. Yet, as we stood on the platform at Bath Station waiting for our train, we were also pleased our next ride would be on full-size bikes.

24.50km 86m ascent

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We dived into Pizza Express, hungry after a day that had been a bit more adventurous than planned – combining a family ride on the Monsal Trail with a hike back into Buxton.

A child rides along a path in a deep cutting on the Monsal Trail

Never too keen on driving unless we have to, we had decided to take the train up and stay for a couple of nights to do the trail. The tricky thing is that, as with so many cycle paths, the Monsal Trail isn’t actually accessible by train; it starts a few miles outside of Buxton.

So, on the morning of the ride, the three of us – me, J, and G (aged five) – were up early to catch a bus out of town to the start of the trail at Blackwell Mill. After a short walk along the track, we picked up our hire bikes and set off along the trail towards Bakewell.

Passing through cuttings, across bridges and through tunnels, this is a spectacular route. It’s also a busy one during the school holidays. For G this meant, on top of nearly 23km of riding, the added challenge of handling his bike on a busy path. It’s not always easy to remember to look where you’re going when you’re five.

We decided that Hassop Station would be our half-way point and elected to turn back there (after an ice cream, of course). It would be gently uphill on the return journey and we didn’t want to test G’s stamina too much. We needn’t have worried; he made it back without us resorting to pushing, towing or walking. As it turned out, it was just as well he had some energy left.

Back on the A6 where the bus had dropped us, there was no sign of a bus stop as such, no timetable and no mobile phone reception. We thought there would be a bus passing within the hour, but we weren’t sure. What should we do?

We decided to continue the adventure. We didn’t know if and when the bus would come, but we did know that we could walk back to Buxton. It was about four miles and would take us a while, but we’d definitely get there. And so we set off, crossing the road and heading up a path alongside the quarry opposite.

Our route took us through the nature reserve of Deep Dale and its limestone habitat, then along a stretch of the Midshires Way long-distance path into Buxton and, finally, straight into Pizza Express for a well-deserved blow-out.

22.85km 99m ascent

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