Railways and Cycleways No. 1 – A Top Ten?

The headline article in the Guardian Travel supplement on Saturday 31st August 2019 was entitled “Railway Lines Recycled.”

It highlighted 10 former railway routes in different parts of the UK which offer the opportunity for off-road cycling:

1. The Camel Trail, Cornwall: the Guardian asserts that this is the nation’s best-known former railway cyclepath. It is the best part of 20 miles long. It starts at the south-western edge of Bodmin Moor and follows the River Camel through Wadebridge to the coast at Padstow, and us almost entirely off-road.

2. The Callander to Killin Cycle Route, The Trossachs: a challenging route through the Loch Lomond and Trossachs national park following the path of the Callander and Oban Railway through the narrow valley of the River Garbh Uisge, the East bank of the River Balvaig and over the summit before setting down towards Killin.

3. The Bristol and Bath Railway Path, Somerset: A delightful route between Bristol and Bath with splendid views of rural Somerset and Gloucestershire.

4. The Cinder Track, Yorkshire: This route needs a mountain bike. The track is, as it claims, a cinder path.

5. Marriott’s Way, Norfolk: This trail runs between Norwich and Aylsham. It is named for the innovative railway engineer, William Marriot.

William Marriott built and went on to run the Midland & Great Northern Joint Railway (M&GN) for 40 years. Marriott has often been called the “Father of the M&GN”, with just cause, and the Railway gained the title of “Marriott’s Tramway” in some quarters. [2]

6. The Deeside Way, Aberdeenshire: does not always follow an abandoned railway. The old Royal Deeside Railway takes cyclists out of Aberdeen to Banchory. After a section away from old railway, the route returns to railway formation once again for the journey to Ballater in the Cairngorms national park.

7. The Ystwyth Trail, Ceredigion: once upon a time there was a desire among the ‘great and the good’ to promote a railway from Manchester to Milford Haven – the M&MR. It was to link the Cotton Mills of North West England with the Welsh Port. The ambitious scheme failed and only managed to link Milford Haven to Aberystwyth.

Despite its title, the railway planned to connect to other railways at Llanidloes and Pencader, near Carmarthen, and so to achieve the object in its name by connections with other lines, most of which were only planned.

The M&MR had continuous difficulty in raising capital and also in operating profitably, but thanks to a wealthy supporter it opened from Pencader to Lampeter in 1866. Realising that its originally intended route to Llanidloes would be unprofitable, it diverted the course at the north end to Aberystwyth, which it reached in 1867.[3]

The trail links Aberystwyth and Tregaron. It does not always follow the route of the old railway. [4] The cycle path leaves Aberystwyth following the banks of the Afon Ystwyth before dropping south along the Teifi to Tregaron.

8. The High Peak Trail, Derbyshire: follows the line of the old Cromford and High Peak Railway. [5] which linked the Cromford Canal with the Peak Forest Canal at Whalley Bridge

9. The Lanchester Valley Railway Path, Co. Durham: provides fantastic views over rural Co. Durham and the River Browney.

10. The Forest Way, West/East Sussex: is a designated linear country park as well as a cycleway. Leaving East Grinstead, the trail passes through Forest Row, Hartfield and Withyham to reach Groombridge.

The Guardian’s method of selection of these 10 trails is not outlined. There is no doubt that these are beautiful trails with much to be said in their favour. But, are they the best 10 old railway cyclepaths? Or are others better?

Countryfile provided a similar list in 2017. [6] A number of the same routes feature in the Countryfile list. The order is different and there are alternative suggestions for routes to explore. Countryfile’s list includes the following trails in the order shown (using the names from the more recent Guardian article where appropriate):

1. The Camel Trail

2. The Cinder Track

3. The Ystwyth Trail

4. Marriott’s Way

5. The Hornsea Rail Trail, East Riding of Yorkshire: starts in Hull and us mostly flat and is traffic free. [9]

6. The Downs Link, Surrey/ West Sussex: is over 36 miles long, and runs between St. Martha’s Hill, near Guildford, to the coast at Shoreham-by-Sea. The route largely follows the course of the Cranleigh and Steyning Lines, which, like many others on this list, were closed due to the infamous Beeching cuts of the 1960s. A small part of the route includes a main road. [11]

7. The Deeside Way, Aberdeenshire

8. The Formantine & Buchan Way, Aberdeenshire: Like the Deeside Way, The Formartine & Buchan Way starts from Aberdeen. [10] It connects Dyce, in the north of the city, to the coastal fishing ports of Fraserburgh and Peterhead, the latter via a branch line from the village of Maud. The trail was opened in the early 1990s after the railway closed in 1979, and takes in a patchwork of farmland and countryside. It’s very easy to follow, but isn’t completely tarmacked so some sections tend to get very muddy. Horse riders may need a permit for some parts of the trail.

9. The Devon Coast to Coast: At just over half the length of the Tarka Trail, the Devon Coast to Coast route sounds easy. It is still nigh on 100 miles long, and squiggles across Devon from Ilfracombe in the north, to Plymouth in the south. 70% of the route is traffic free, and the trail includes the 31-mile section of the Tarka Trail listed below. The Coast-to-Coast trail takes in the beautiful beaches and estuaries of the north of the county, and passes through luscious green valleys and the western edge of Dartmoor. [12]

10. The Tarka Trail, Devon: At nearly two hundred miles long, the Tarka Trail [8] is by far and away the longest rail-to-trail path in the UK. It is made up of quite a few sections of dismantled railway, and winds its way around Barnstaple and North Devon. One of the sections is an unbroken stretch of 31 miles between Braunton and Meeth, which is free of vehicles, mostly tarmacked and a lovely smooth, flat ride. The trail name comes from the route taken in the ‘Tarka the Otter’ book, and there are a number of audio posts along the trail giving information.

Many of these, and other, routes are owned or maintained by local authorities, Railway Paths Ltd.[13] or Sustrans. [14]

Interestingly, Edinburgh boasts a huge range of continuous, traffic-free cycle paths, many following old railway lines.  These are all outlined on the Bike Station’s Innertube map.[15]

Neither of the lists above includes the Forest of Dean, an area that I love. The offer to cyclists and walkers in that Forest of Dean is superb. Most of the designated cycleways are on the formation of the extensive network of former railway lines which served the various former heavy industries of the Forest. A number of website highlight what is available. [16][17][18]

Cycling or walking along abandoned railways is a wonderful way to access the countryside in the UK. There are also usually elements of the old railway infrastructure and industrial archeology from areas served by the railways which provide additional interest.

I have provided introductions to both railway and industrial archeology in the Forest in a series of posts on this blog. [19]


1. https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2019/aug/31/top-10-former-railway-cycle-tracks-uk, accessed on 13th September 2019.

2. https://www.visitnorfolk.co.uk/Holt-William-Marriott-Museum/details/?dms=3&venue=0727364, accessed on 13th September 2019.

3. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manchester_and_Milford_Railway, accessed on 13th September 2019.

4. http://www.discoverceredigion.co.uk/English/what/cycling/Pages/Ystwyth-Trail.aspx, accessed on 13th September 2019.

5. http://www.pittdixon.go-plus.net/c+hpr/c+hpr.htm, accessed on 13th September 2019.

6. https://www.countryfile.com/go-outdoors/days-out/britains-best-rail-to-trail-cycling-and-hiking-routes, accessed on 13th September 2019

7. http://www.sustrans.org.uk/ncn/map/route/devon-coast-to-coast, accessed on 13th September 2013.

8. http://www.devon.gov.uk/tarkatrail, accessed on 13th September 2019.

9. http://www.sustrans.org.uk/ncn/map/route/hornsea-rail-trail, accessed on 13th September 2019.

10. http://www.walkhighlands.co.uk/aberdeenshire/formartine-buchan-way.shtml, accessed on 13th September 2019.

11. https://www.westsussex.gov.uk/leisure-recreation-and-community/walking-horse-riding-and-cycling-routes/downs-link, accessed on 13th September 2019.

12. http://www.sustrans.org.uk/ncn/map/route/devon-coast-to-coast, accessed on 13th September 2019.

13. http://www.railwaypaths.org.uk, accessed on 13th September 2019.

14. https://www.sustrans.org.uk/find-a-route-on-the-national-cycle-network, accessed o 13th September 2019.

15. https://thebikestation.org.uk/about/projects/innertube-map, accessed on 13th September 2019.

16. https://www.routeyou.com/en-gb/location/bike/47411951/cycling-in-forest-of-dean-overview-of-all-cycle-routes, accessed on 13th September 2019.

17. http://www.wyedeantourism.co.uk/fct, accessed on 13th September 2019.

18. https://pedalabikeaway.co.uk/trails/familyleisure-cycling,accessed on 13th September 2019.

19. A series of detailed introductions to both railway and industrial archeology in the Forest can be found by following this link: https://rogerfarnworth.wordpress.com/wp-admin/edit.php?s&post_status=all&post_type=post&action=-1&m=0&cat=3177062&filter_action=Filter&paged=1&action2=-1


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