Rolling along the Ridgeway
The Ridgeway really is as old as the hills – well, almost. For over 5000 years, travellers, farmers, soldiers and, more recently, cyclists have followed this 87-mile-long trackway (pictured above) between Avebury in Wiltshire and Ivinghoe Beacon in Buckinghamshire – part of an ancient trading route that once stretched from the Dorset coast all the way to Norfolk. The chalky downland ridge that comprises the Ridgeway’s western half is open to cyclists all year round, and provides a moderately challenging 42-mile ride.
There’s no shortage of visual reminders to tell you just how old this trail is either: Barbury Castle, Liddington Castle and Uffington Castle all display the classic, hilltop-fort attributes that make 10-year-olds (and grown-ups alike) run around with improvised swords, defending the honour of any fair maiden that might be in need of a passing white knight. Uffington also has a uniquely stylized white horse dug out of the chalk hillside, best viewed from the flat-topped Dragon Hill, itself steeped in the legend of St George.
A final word of warning though – be prepared for punctures. The flint stone found in most chalk hillsides can cut rubber tyres in to ribbons.
See www.nationaltrail.co.uk/ridgeway for more details.
Cycling the Camel Trail, Cornwall
Following eighteen miles of blissfully level, mostly traffic-free disused railway track from pretty-as-a-picture Padstow to the foot of Bodmin Moor, Cornwall’s Camel Trail is about as perfect a cycle route for families as it’s possible to imagine. Families flock here because it’s easy-going for little legs, and for even littler passengers in bike seats, trailers or on tag-alongs, all of which are available from cycle hire outlets.
It’s not just the accessibility that’s inviting; this is a stunning trail along which the landscape changes character continuously as you roll from the sandbanks and rocky shores (Betjeman called the route along the spectacular Camel Estuary “the most beautiful train journey I know”), through wooded valley thickets to granite-studded moorland. Peer out to creeks and sandbanks to see egrets, herons and oystercatchers; wow at water skiers on the Camel Estuary; stop for a Cornish ice cream; and take a detour to Camel Valley Vineyard for an award-winning tipple (a perk for parents).
A map and leaflet of the route can be downloaded from www.visitcornwall.com.
Pedalling around the New Forest
The gorgeous pocket of green between Southampton in Hampshire and Christchurch in Dorset is much more than just a forest. Protected as the New Forest National Park since 2005, it also encompasses open, grassy heathlands with waist-high patches of bracken and gorse. Here and there are boggy wetlands, their ponds crammed with frogspawn in spring; to the south, the coastline is visited by rare black-headed gulls and flocks of waders.
As it’s crisscrossed by roads, it’s easy to navigate by car; but by far the most rewarding way to enjoy the beautiful, gently undulating landscape and its appealing sounds and smells is to jump on a bike. It’s easy to leave the roads behind: a network of way-marked off-road cycle routes totalling over a hundred miles in length weave their way through the most scenic spots.
Brockenhurst, in the heart of the forest, makes an ideal base. It has a friendly and helpful local bike shop, Cyclex, which sells everything you could possibly need. If you’re not in the mood for a plain old mountain bike, you could try hiring a variant such as a Yellowbike electric bike – perfect for anyone aged 14 years or over wanting to boost their pedal power a notch or three – or an adult-sized trike or Dawes tandem. There are even some handy extras, such as attachments which allow you to tow babies and children.
Cyclex, Downside Car Park, Brockenhurst Station, Hampshire (www.newforestcyclehire.co.uk.
Finding single-track thrills in the King’s Forest
Coed-y-Brenin is Britain’s original mountain-biking forest, and still hogs poll position as one of the country’s best. Here, amid nine thousand acres of spectacular Snowdonia scenery, you’ll find exhilarating mountain-biking routes ranging from roller-coaster single-track, technical rocky sections to a wide, flowing family trail. There are mellow loops, white-knuckle drop-offs, and steep uphills and thrilling downhills that will have all levels of mountain bikers grinning from ear to ear.
Coed-y-Brenin’s seven routes range from an easy green to difficult reds and severe blacks, six of them demanding a competent level of fitness and ability. The popular Yr Afon is ideal for families and novices. In contrast, the super-technical 30km Dragon’s Back is billed for more accomplished riders with steep ascents and ripping descents. If you’re a true master of your wheels there’s only joy to be had on the burns and rock steps of Temtiwr, the streambeds of the MBR Trail, the single-track racecourse of Tarw, the epic climbs of the Beast of Brenin and the fast-riding Cyflym Coch. Be warned if you’re nowt but an average rider that even the red runs will have you quaking in your cycling shorts.
Cycling the heart of the Scottish Borders
Hauling a bike across Borders country may not be for the faintest of heart but you don’t need to be Tour de France material to tackle the Four Abbeys Route. The region’s flagship circuit, this 55-mile round trip, mainly along minor roads, is the most cultured of cycle jaunts and a gently potted history lesson in its own right. Straddling the rivers Tweed and Teviot, it carves through the heart of the Borders, past the castles, towers and ruined abbeys that tell the stories of this fiercely contested land.
And, with the distinctive, heather-bunched triumvirate of the Eildon Hills as a backcloth, abbeys don’t come much more elegantly ruinous than Melrose. Setting out from the abbey car park, the only incursion you’re likely to face these days is heavy traffic on the busy A68, though the route quickly shears off on a more bucolic course to nearby Dryburgh Abbey. On atmosphere and location alone Dryburgh has a claim as the most compelling historic monument in the Borders, its intimacy heightened by some unexpectedly well-preserved nooks and crannies. Of more starkly practical purpose is Smailholm Tower, mounted in an unlikely rash of crags just off the B6397 as you flank the Tweed on its northeasterly canter to Kelso. While Smailholm was often visited by a young Walter Scott, nearby Floors Castle was the one-time celluloid abode of Lord Greystoke, making up in pepperpot-turreted whimsy what Kelso’s once mighty abbey – abbey no.3 – lost in war.
From here, the route rolls south on a twenty-mile loop, initially tracing the fertile banks of the Teviot before climbing to bisect the old Roman road from York and finally descending into Jedburgh, where the ostentatious Augustinian abbey still holds it church nigh-on intact. This might be the place to beg succour for a final climb back over the Eildons, or at least invoke divine protection against those pesky potholes.
To make the most of the sights, Four Abbeys is best completed over two days, though experienced cyclists could easily do it in one. A full description and route map are available at www.visitscottishborders.com.