10 of the UK's best railway cycle paths

Former railway lines up and down the country now offer great, family-friendly off-road cycle trails – and some even go up and down a bit

Camel Trail, Cornwall

Start/finish Wenfordbridge/Padstow (with a short spur to Bodmin)
Distance 18 miles
Getting there/away From Bodmin Parkway station it’s a short ride to the trail at Boscarne Junction, north-west of Bodmin town. Alternatively, pop your bike on one of Bodmin and Wenford Railway’s steam trains from Bodmin Parkway to the junction. Head north-east along the trail to reach Wenfordbridge or north-west for Padstow. Alternatively, from Bodmin Parkway take the 11A bus (plymouthcitybus.co.uk) to Padstow and hire bikes there
Bike hire In Bodmin at Bodmin Bikes and Trail Munki; in Wenfordbridge at Snail’s Pace Cafe; in Wadebridge at Camel Trail Cycle Hire; and in Padstow at Trail Bike Hire
Potential stopovers Bodmin, Wadebridge and Padstow
Top tips Check out the Camel River Festival or the Cornwall Folk Festival, both in Wadebridge each August

The nation’s best-known former railway cycle path is also one of the loveliest. Coursing for the best part of 20 miles around north Cornwall, it starts at the south-western edge of Bodmin Moor and follows the River Camel down into Wadebridge before heading along the estuary to the popular seaside foodie resort of Padstow. It’s mainly off-road, and combines most of the Bodmin and Wadebridge Railway with a section of the North Cornwall Railway.

Callander to Killin Cycle Route, Trossachs

Railway viaduct in Glen Ogle, Stirlingshire, Scotland.

Start/finish Callander/Killin
Distance 24 miles
Getting there/away Travel to Stirling by rail and hop on the no 1 or 59 or bus to Callander and hire a bike
Bike hire From Wheels Cycling Centre just outside Callander
Potential stopovers Callander, Killin
Top tips In Killin, visit the little-known island of Inchbuie in the middle of the River Dochart. Hidden among the conifers is a most unusual ancient burial ground, for chieftains of the Clan Macnab. Keys to the island’s entrance gate can be obtained from the local library

It’s not often a disused railway cycleway is described as “challenging” but this is Scotland, where the mountainous landscape often posed problems for Victorian civil engineers. This trail through the Loch Lomond and Trossachs national park largely follows the defunct Callander and Oban Railway. It shares the narrow valley carved by the River Garbh Uisge with an old military road before heading along the shore of Loch Lubnaig and the east bank of the River Balvaig. Passing high above the head of Loch Earn, it storms up Glen Ogle, over a magnificent viaduct (pictured), and down at last to Killin, at the southern end of Loch Tay. Thankfully, the licensed Broch Café at Strathyre provides a homely little place to stop mid-ride for a light meal or an Italian coffee and a traybake.

Bristol and Bath Railway Path, Somerset

A couple cycling on the Bristol and Bath Railway Path in spring.

Start/finish Bristol harbour/Bath city centre
Distance 16 miles
Getting there/away Bristol Temple Meads and Bath Spa railway stations are handily placed at either end of the trail (on the same line)
Bike hire Pick up a Brompton folding bicycle at Bristol Temple Meads station or a more conventional bike nearby at Cycle the City. In Bath from Green Park Bike Station
Potential stopovers Bristol, Bath
Top tip To do a circular trip, returning along the Kennet and Avon Canal towpath

While this path is by no means the shortest route between Bristol and Bath – it describes a kind of seahorse-shaped curve – it’s by far and away the most pleasant way of travelling between the two. Running along the former track of the confusingly named Midland Railway, the smooth, wide path is lined with trees much of the way, giving it the feel of a secret tunnel burrowing from the heart of one grand old city to the other. Some of the former stations remain intact and the waiting room at Warmley has been turned into a cafe serving tea and cake on the old platform. There’s another cafe at Bitton station, home of the Avon Valley Railway and its three miles of restored track (the cycle path runs alongside). There are some splendid views of rural Somerset and Gloucestershire when the trees part, and the company of the River Avon to enjoy at the Bath end.

The Cinder Track, North Yorkshire

Robin Hood's Bay

Start/finish Whitby/Scarborough
Distance 21 miles
Getting there/away The start and finish are close to Whitby and Scarborough railway stations respectively
Bike hire At the former Hawsker railway station near Whitby (trailways.info)
Potential stopovers Whitby, Robin Hood’s Bay, Scarborough
Top tips Although winningly authentic, the trail’s cinder track is unsuitable for thin road tyres, so you’ll need a hybrid or mountain bike. The 18th-century coaching inn at Hayburn Wyke is a great place for some lunch and a pint of Black Sheep ale
The railway line joining Whitby and Scarborough was in operation for 80 years from 1885, ferrying passengers and goods along the coast up the eastern edge the North York Moors. Named after the track ballast that still surfaces the route (somewhat unevenly in parts), the Cinder Track now forms a long off-road section of National Cycle Network Route 1. The 37-metre-high Larpool viaduct, high above the River Esk, makes a fittingly grand exit from Whitby. Along the way, Maw Wyke Hole and Cloughton Wyke are two of several cracking little bays if you fancy taking a picnic to eat by the sea. Robin Hood’s Bay (pictured), famous as the eastern end of Wainwright’s coast-to-coast walking route, is a delightful fishing village whose maze of narrow streets were beloved of smugglers. You can explore (for free) the ruins of the 16th-century Peak Alum Works at Ravenscar – one of Britain’s first chemical works. And Scarborough, with its promontory castle, makes for a dramatic destination.

Marriott’s Way, Norfolk

A view of Marriott’s Way from the car park at Attlebridge

Start/finish Norwich/Aylsham
Distance 26 miles
Getting there/away It’s a short distance from Norwich station to the start. At the end, it’s a six-mile ride to the nearest stations at North Walsham or Worstead. Alternatively, since the route ends at Aylsham station, pop your bike on the minimum-gauge Bure Valley Railway to Wroxham & Hoveton and change to a more conventional train there, or simply ride the nine-mile cycle path alongside the restored railway line
Bike hire In Norwich at social enterprise Bicycle Links or the Bike & Go membership scheme from the station
Potential stopovers Norwich, Aylsham
Top tips Every August sees the Reepham 19 music festival and the annual agricultural Aylsham Show

Named after innovative railway engineer William Marriott, this path cleverly combines two late-Victorian railway lines to create a pleasingly eccentric jaunt across the Norfolk countryside. One line belonged to the Eastern and Midland Railway (which became the Midland and Great Northern and was cruelly nicknamed “Muddle and Go Nowhere”) and ran north-west across Norfolk from Norwich. The other was built by the East Norfolk Railway and meandered south-westwards out of Aylsham. Together they offer a bucolic ride from the outskirts of Norwich along the vale of the River Wensum to Whitwell and Reepham station, where there’s a cafe, cycle hire and campsite. It then loops around to strike east through Reepham and arrive at Aylsham and its medieval half-timbered houses. There are railway-inspired sculptures to spot along the trail and the Foxley Wood nature reserve in which to take a breather.

Deeside Way, Aberdeenshire

Cyclists using the Deeside way

Start/finish Aberdeen/Ballater
Distance 41 miles
Getting there/away The start is easily reached from Aberdeen station
Bike hire In Ballater at Cycle Highlands and Bike Station
Potential stopovers Aberdeen, Banchory, Aboyne and Ballater
Top tip Visit deesideway.org for mapping and information on planning your ride

Though the Deeside Way doesn’t always follow a defunct railway line – there’s a 13-mile road-and-forest-track section in the middle – it heads through such magnificent countryside that one can quite forgive it. The former Royal Deeside Railway once ferried monarchs out to Balmoral on the royal train: now it takes cyclists out of the Granite City south-west to Banchory. After a largely sylvan stretch to Aboyne, the trail rejoins the old railway for the journey into the Cairngorms national park, finishing at Ballater. Along the way, there’s a good deal of railway infrastructure still in evidence, including the ghost stations of Pitfodels, Cults and Bieldside. The path crosses a couple of historic drove roads, passes close by medieval Drum Castle and through Kincardine O’Neil, the oldest village on the Dee. Look up and you might see red kites, ospreys and even the odd white-tailed eagle, if you’re lucky. And for an idea of how the line once looked, have a ride on the small heritage Royal Deeside Railway at Milton of Crathes.

Ystwyth Trail, Ceredigion

A beautiful sunset reflecting over a lake along the Ystwyth trail

Start/finish Aberystwyth/Tregaron
Distance 21 miles
Getting there/away There are direct rail services to Aberystwyth from Birmingham New Street (three hours). Tregaron is a bit in the wilds but if you hire your bike from Crys Melin Cycling (see below), after you’ve dropped it off you can catch the 585 bus back to Aberystwyth
Bike hire Crys Melyn Cycling has a free pick up/drop off service for the Ystwyth Trail so you can collect your bike or drop it off at Aberystwyth, Trawsgoed, Pontrhydygroes or Tregaron
Potential stopovers Aberystwyth, Pontrhydfendigaid, Tregaron
Top tips The 2019 Ceredigion Art Trail brings a host of artists and performers to the county until 5 September, or curate your own art trail around Aberystwyth by visiting ceredigionarttrail.org.uk

In the 1860s, the dream of the owners of the Manchester and Milford Railway was to link the cotton mills of Lancashire with the port of Milford Haven. Their ambitious plans were knocked off course by the mighty Cors Caron peat bog and the Cambrian mountains beyond. In the end, they succeeded merely in connecting Milford with Aberystwyth. The Ystwyth Trail follows the northern end of this sidetracked venture, which eventually closed in 1965. The creators of the cycle path have similarly been derailed at the southern end, where the trail is pushed off the track bed and on to roads from time to time. However, it still makes for a cracking ride: leaving the coastal resort of Aberystwyth, the path follows the banks of the Afon Ystwyth before dropping south along the Teifi to Tregaron.

High Peak Trail, Derbyshire

Tandem on High Peak Trail nr Gotham, National Route 54

Start/finish Dowlow Farm near Pomeroy/Cromford
Distance 17 miles
Getting there/away From Buxton railway station pick up NCN Route 68, which takes back roads to the start of the trail. The end is about a mile from Cromford station on the line between Derby and Matlock
Bike hire There’s a Bike & Go membership scheme hub at Buxton station. The council-run Middleton Top Cycle Hire centre at Middleton by Wirksworth is near the southern end of the trail
Potential stopovers Buxton, Wirksworth, Cromford and Matlock
Top tips 2019 marks the 25th anniversary of the Wirksworth Festival (6-15 Sept), which will celebrate the work of around 150 artists

In 1831, the Cromford and High Peak Railway carried its first minerals between the Cromford Canal and the Peak Forest Canal at Whaley Bridge. For such an unusual canal-to-canal line, it did well to survive until Beeching did for it in 1967. The trail it now hosts rises to 386 metres at Ladmanlow, affording great views over the White Peak area of the Peak District national park. Other highlights include the neolithic henge monument of Arbor Low and the picturesque market town of Wirksworth.

Lanchester Valley Railway Path, Co Durham

Terris Novalisscultprues, Consett

Start/finish Just west of Durham/Just south of Consett
Distance 12 miles
Getting there/away The start can be easily reached from Durham railway station on NCN Route 14. There are no stations close to the end, so the best course is either to buy a house in Consett or cycle back to Durham
Bike hire None near the route
Potential stopovers Durham, Lanchester and Consett
Top tips There are excellent downloadable leaflets with maps and information on a whole stack of County Durham railway cycle paths at durham.gov.uk

In 1862, the Lanchester Valley Railway began thrumming to the sound of locomotives hauling iron ore to the steelworks at Consett and coal from the mine at Langley Park. The last one chugged along the line around a century later, to be replaced by this scenic cycling route. Starting at Broompark, just outside Durham, the trail soon arrives at Bearpark’s 13th-century Beaurepaire Priory. Lanchester provides not only a bustling market town with cafes and restaurants but also the remains of a Roman fort, Longovicium, which once guarded a major thoroughfare between York and Hadrian’s Wall. The trail commands fantastic views over rural County Durham and the River Browney, and there’s plenty for nature lovers, who can look out for roe deer, great butterfly orchids and, when winter comes, redwings and fieldfares. Near the trail’s end there are also some startling sculptures of mammoth surveying instruments (pictured) to enjoy.

Forest Way, West/East Sussex

The Poohsticks Bridge in Ashdown Forest, East Sussex

Start/finish East Grinstead/Groombridge
Distance 11 miles
Getting there/away There are railway stations at both ends of the trail
Bike hire In East Grinstead at On Your Bike; Deers Leap at Saint Hill Green; in Forest Row via a community app-based scheme; and in Groombridge, Hartfield and Forest Row with Countrybike
Potential stopovers East Grinstead, Forest Row, Groombridge
Top tip Time your trip to coincide with the Forest Row Festival , with music, arts and workshops from 18 to 22 September

When Richard Beeching axed most of the Three Bridges to Tunbridge Wells line in the 1960s, one of the villages affected was Forest Row, where the good doctor lived. Thenceforth, he and his fellow villagers would have to travel four miles to East Grinstead to catch a train. The upside is that the Forest Way is not just a cycle path on the former railway line but a designated linear country park. The green corridor runs through the High Weald area of outstanding natural beauty just north of the Ashdown Forest and provides an important habitat for wildlife. Leaving East Grinstead, the trail passes through the attractive villages of Forest Row, Hartfield and Withyham to arrive at the small town of Groombridge. The old line crosses a Roman road and passes close by Pooh Bridge (pictured) near Hartfield, where folk still play Poohsticks.

Looking for a holiday with a difference? Browse Guardian Holidays to see a range of fantastic trips


Dixe Wills

The GuardianTramp

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