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HOME AT FIRST'S

ADVENTURE

ENGLAND

H O M E  A T  F I R S T ' s

A 35-mile Bike Ride ALONG THE WESTERN EDGE OF THE COTSWOLDS — through A REGION
NOTABLE FOR ITS History, BEAUTY, AND Tranquility — A RIDE Challenging Enough
for Serious Cyclists, but ESSENTIALLY Flat and with Limited or No Auto Traffic.

THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED AS TWO PARTS IN JUNE–JULY, 2006.                            MOST RECENT UPDATE: 2014.

          Have you heard about Britain’s National Cycle Network? For two decades a comprehensive system approaching 10,000 route miles has been identified, developed, signed and mapped across Britain and Northern Ireland. Most of the miles are on low-traffic byways and motor-traffic free bike paths, many of these reclaimed abandoned railways and improved towpaths tracing 19th century canals and other waterways that crisscross the UK with low profiles.
          With its low-profile, low-traffic route system keeping grades and congestion minimal, the National Cycle Network makes it possible for almost anyone to cycle short — and even long — distances through parts of Britain and Northern Ireland that were unfriendly to cyclists just a few years ago. With an ever-expanding route system and a support infrastructure for information, meals, lodging, and equipment rental and repairs, the National Cycle Network makes such formerly unfriendly cycling territory as the Scottish Highlands or urban England welcoming to cyclists of all ages and abilities.
          Take western England, for example. Long industrialized, this lovely region of low hills and broad valleys is pockmarked with large towns and small cities and crisscrossed with densely trafficked roadways. But tucked among the folds of the hills and the bends of the river valleys are some of England’s most pristine villages, many with histories that extend back into Saxon times. Today, Britain’s National Route 41 lets cyclists — old and young, fit and fat — to ride through 1500 years of English history while barely breaking a sweat, or worrying much about traffic.


Our journey along National Route 41 began at Gloucester Cathedral. Photo © Home At First.
The journey along National Route 41
begins at Gloucester Cathedral.
Photo © Home At First

GETTING STARTED
A Bike Ride through History and Tranquility, Challenging Enough for Serious Cyclists,
but Flat and with Limited or No Auto Traffic.


Use this information — the article is complete with where to rent bikes, where to plan a picnic, and where to stop for food and drinks — to plan a great two-wheeled adventure for the whole family as part of your
next Home at First vacation in the Cotswolds.

        All great journeys begin with a first step. Our first step was climbing out of bed early on Sunday morning, and it was the most difficult step of the day. Saturday night had gone from supper at the pub to drinks at the pub, then a walk under the stars back to our little cottage, where we crawled beneath thick comforters sometime after 11PM.
          It was June in the Cotswolds, and the weather had been superb — sunny, cool days followed by starlit, cooler nights. We hadn’t seen much rain this trip, just a couple of showers on the evening of arrival day. Although we love poking around the backwater villages of England, this time we wouldn’t be doing so much traveling by car. We had decided we would test the National Cycle Network to see if we could combine two loves, poking and cycling.
          Oh yeah…who are we? I’m a 56-year-old Yank taking a week off in the middle of Little League season (I’ve been coaching 13 & 14 year old boys for the last 18+ years) to join my 31-year-old son, Jess, who’s finishing up his MBA year at Oxford by fitting in a week with me between final classes and final exams. Our wives had kindly encouraged us to spend the week together, knowing, of course, that their independent travel adventures would come later that summer.

Leaving our cottage after tea and toast. All great journeys begin with a first step. Photo © Home At First.
Leaving our cottage after tea and toast.
All great journeys begin with a first step.
Photo © Home At First.

        Tea and toast was all we had time for. We had a train to catch shortly after 8AM, and we had a 4-mile ride to the station. We each carried a backpack with extra clothes, first aid supplies, water and high-energy food (mostly chocolate and nuts), a few bike tools, and, importantly, maps of our planned route and a guidebook for the region. We used back roads to get to the station. It was rush hour and the main roads were jammed with traffic little interested in making room for cyclists.
        The rail station was busy, too, but that was no bother. Yesterday we stopped by the station

 

to get our tickets and make bike reservations.

Bicycles are carried free on trains throughout Britain*, but, because carrying space on trains is typically limited to 2-6 bikes, reserving the space for your bike on specific trains is required. Bike reservations are usually free, but some railways charge £1/bike for the booking. Getting to the station at least 10 minutes before train time is also important. Extra time is needed to check you and your bike through to the proper platform. Remember to inquire of station personnel where best to stand along the platform in order to be close to the one train car that has bike space — usually hangers in a larger-than-normal vestibule or a baggage car ("van" in British). Once your train arrives, watch for the bicycle symbol on the designated car. If entry to the car is via regular passenger access to a vestibule, let any exiting passengers off first before attempting to carry your bike into the train. Once in the car look for the bike hooks — like giant fishhooks — suspended from the ceiling in the vestibule or in the baggage van. Loop your front wheel over an available hook and make your way to a nearby coach seat. Usually you have two minutes for this process. (If you run into a problem — you cannot find the bike car, or all the bike space is full — alert train or platform personnel instantly, and they will hold the train and help you get your bike safely aboard.)

  

   Two places where you might store your bikes on First Great Western's trains: the
   vestibules of passenger cars and in the cargo storage section of the power car (locomotive).

          Somehow our train had come in with the bike car at the wrong end of the train. Jess and I scrambled down the platform to the other end of the train. He jumped in the vestibule and I handed up each bike. Jess hooked the bikes on two of the four hangers — there were no other bikes, and we found two seats in the neighboring coach.

          Why were we taking the train? The Cotswolds are about as lovely as England gets, but, with their constant hills and dales, most cycling there requires constant climbing and descending on narrow, winding roads often heavily traveled. The National Cycle Network has developed some routes through the Cotswolds, but many of these trails are short, or hilly, or have sections with significant automobile traffic.

Free cycling maps are available for large portions of the route. Visit the Sustrans web site for information about maps and other publications available for cycling throughout the UK.

          But, along the relatively flat borders of the Cotswolds the Network has developed numerous bike routes using lightly traveled back roads and off-road cycle paths along converted canal towpaths and abandoned railway lines. Our route — National Cycle Route 41 — begins on the western edge of the Cotswolds, in the heart of the historic city of Gloucester, and more-or-less follows the River Severn south to the city of Bristol on the River Avon. Along the way, the route follows mostly paved secondary roads, but also traces some unpaved sections of canal towpath.
        The off-road cycling along this route does not require fat mountain bike tires, but is not ideal for skinny-tired touring or racing bikes. Jess had his mountain bike — the bike he bought in England and used daily to commute back and forth to classes at Oxford. I brought my cross bike over with me from the States, an indulgence, to be sure. I ride almost daily at home in Pennsylvania, and am sure I would be less comfortable on any other bike, especially after hours in the saddle. But, getting the bike over and back was a bit of a hassle, requiring partial disassembly, special boxing, and an extra step at check-in, plus hand carriage on and off two trains and an oversize taxi in England to get me to my Cotswolds cottage. I more easily could have rented a bike** locally in the Cotswolds and had it set up to fit me for the ride. The price would have included insurance, and I could have rented a helmet as part of the package.

Bristol rail commuter with fold-up bike. Sustrans photo by Nick Turner.
Bristol rail commuter with fold-up bike.
Sustrans photo by Nick Turner.

          Edna St. Vincent Millay was writing about me when she wrote, "There isn’t a train I wouldn’t take, no matter where it’s going." Even a short journey across England raises my spirits. It’s not the train, although I admit to being a railfan. No, it’s the sense of impending adventure, of being thrust into someplace new only with imagined possibilities, knowing that the memories will likely be entirely different than the imagined experiences. And out the window those pastoral scenes gliding by are nothing less than a slide show by John Constable.

          From Kemble station near Tetbury, Home At First’s base in the southern Cotswolds, Gloucester is about 40 minutes distance by train. From Honeybourne station near Home At First’s cottages in the northern Cotswolds, Gloucester is about 95 minutes and one change of trains (at Worcester Shrub Hill) — yes, you must take the bike off and put it back on and have reservations for both trains. Fares range from £7.60 to £11 one-way from Kemble to Gloucester, depending upon a number of factors: class of service (2nd or 1st), train selected, advance purchase, and availability. Fares range from £4.40 to £19.50 one-way from Honeybourne to Gloucester, but are available in 2nd class only at this time of day.

  *NOTE: Bikes are not carried on London trains during critical rush hours. For current rules, download the National Rail Guide pamphlet "Cycling by Train", available from National Rail as a .pdf file on-line at: http://www.nationalrail.co.uk/system/galleries/download/misc/cycling-2006.pdf

**NOTE: Bikes may be rented at the following locations:

NORTHERN COTSWOLDS: Cotswold Country Cycles, near Chipping Campden;
Tel: +44 (0)1386 438706;
info@cotswoldcountrycycles.com. Mountain bikes and
hybrid bikes for rent. Rental includes helmets, toolkit, tire pump, even cycle lock.

SOUTHERN COTSWOLDS: Thames & Cotswold Cycles, 21 Church St., Tetbury GL8 8JG;
Tel: +44 (0) 1666 503490. Rental includes helmets, toolkit, tire pump, even cycle lock.

 


Gloucester! When the Romans founded what they named Glevum in 97AD they had in mind protecting the southernmost crossing of the River Severn from the wild Welsh tribes who lived in the hills across the river to the west. Those same Welsh hills would form our western horizon most of this day.
          We were spot on time at Gloucester rail station. Out we jumped with our bikes and gear. We showed our tickets to the guard to get out of the platform area, and were quickly through the station lobby and outside into the brilliant sunshine. Now to

Tudor shops in the heart of Gloucester. Photo © Home At First.
Tudor shops in the heart of Gloucester.
Photo © Home At First.

find the river — we knew our route south to Bristol would parallel the river all the way as the Severn carried the waters of western England and eastern Wales south to the Bristol Channel and the Atlantic. Clearly signed for visitors was a bike route from the station into the town pointing to Gloucester’s two most important attractions: the Cathedral and the Gloucester Docks. Quickly we crossed busy Bruton Way and rode about 100 yards into the busy shopping heart of central Gloucester, where, because shopping here is for pedestrians only, we dismounted and walked down the middle of Northgate and Westgate Streets amidst throngs of shoppers.

Gloucester Cathedral's Gothic Cloisters. Harry Potter was here! Photo © Home At First.
Gloucester Cathedral's Gothic
Cloisters. Harry Potter was here!
Photo © Home At First

          To the right off Westgate Street, College Court led us away from the noisy crush of shoppers to the quiet, cobbled square and lawns surrounding Gloucester Cathedral, one of England’s great Gothic cathedrals, now over 900 years old. We were only the most recent of visitors, and certainly far from the most significant. One king of England was crowned here: the 9-year-old Henry III in 1216. And, 111 years later his grandson, King Edward II, was buried here, the body coming from Berkeley Castle — which we shall pass later today on our bikes — where the king had been murdered by the supporters of his estranged wife, Queen Isabella of Aquitaine. When, later, a cult of sainthood grew up around the murdered Edward II, the medieval pilgrimage to Gloucester became the town’s first tourism.
          More recently a fictional Brit, one Harry Potter, has drawn tourism to the cathedral. Scenes from two of Harry’s movies (The Philosopher Stone and Chamber of Secrets)

were filmed at Gloucester Cathedral, and star struck children beam with recognition the instant they enter the church’s spectacularly gothic Cloisters. Children also like to climb the cathedral’s imposing 269-step-tall tower and easily eavesdrop on conversations in the Whispering Gallery. For us a walk through the glory of gothic Gloucester Cathedral needs neither kings nor movie stars as a draw. This is one of our favorite churches — anywhere.National Bike Route 41 sign pointed our way from Gloucester Cathedral to Bristol.
          In the cathedral’s forecourt we found the first of the day’s route markers for National Route 41. If this convenient placement were to be an indication, finding our way to Bristol would be child’s play.

Gloucester Historic Docks. British Waterways photo from Sustrans.org web site.
Gloucester Historic Docks.
British Waterways photo from Sustrans.org

          We left Gloucester Cathedral via cobbled College Street and re-entered the pedestrians-only Westgate shopping quarter. A Route 41 marker appeared, directing us down Berkeley Street and on to Gloucester’s Historic Docks. Here several spic ’n span brick warehouses straddle the northern terminus of the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal, which has brought shipping inland from the deepwater Severn to the port of Gloucester for 180 years. Its 16-mile route required 30 years to build, finally connecting Sharpness Point on the Severn with Gloucester city under the direction of the great

British engineer Thomas Telford in 1827. Today’s canal traffic is mostly pleasure craft, including canal boats, cabin cruisers, and heritage vessels. The old brick warehouses wear a sunny sandblasted orange coat and no longer play their dreary traditional roles supplying the metal industry, eel market, and agri-business of Gloucester. Today, the warehouses include the Antiques Centre (in the Lock Warehouse) with 70 shops of antiques and collectables filling its five stories, and Britain’s National Waterways Museum (Llanthony Warehouse), which chronicles the inland navigation system of the nation. The docks also quarter a shopping center (Merchants’ Quay), and a canal boat excursion operation (Queen Boadicea II Boat Trips). Our own canal excursion was about to begin, as National Route 41 follows the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal south out of Gloucester for the first part of the ride to Bristol.

†NOTE: Gloucester Cathedral is open most days from 7:30AM–6PM, with tours of the cathedral available from 10:30AM–4PM Mo–Sa and from 11:45AM–2:45PM Su. Admission is free, but donations of £5/person are encouraged — to be put toward the building maintenance fund. If you wish to take photographs, you must purchase a £3 photography permit at the Cathedral Gift Shop. Tower tours are normally available April through October Mo-Tu at 2:30PM, We-Fr at 2:30PM & Sa at 1:30PM & 2:30PM; entry fee: £4/adult, £1/child (buy tickets at the Cathedral Shop).


THE GLOUCESTER & SHARPNESS CANAL
          Among the alleys and parking lots of the Gloucester Docks and National Waterways Museum National Route 41 weaves a crooked path looking for its place next to the Gloucester & Sharpness canal it follows south on the first leg of our ride to Bristol. On the first bridge south of the museum, cross the canal from east to west. Route 41 follows the canal’s unpaved towpath southbound along the west bank.
          The path is flat, of dirt and grass, and barely wide enough for two

National Bike Rt. 41 crossing the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal on the wonderfully named Splatt Bridge south of Frampton on Severn. Photo © Home At First.
National Bike Rt. 41 crossing the Gloucester & Sharpness
Canal on the wonderfully named Splatt Bridge
south of Frampton on Severn.
Photo © Home At First

bikes to pass. Along the canal fishermen sit on upturned buckets, talk with their fellows, some smoking lazily, and stare at the slow moving, muddy watercourse. Their dogs doze beside them, sometimes sprawling onto the towpath. Some of these fishermen have arrived by car — now parked by the nearest bridge crossing — and walked down the path to their fishing spots. Some have arrived by canal boat, now tied up beside their fishing spots. The colorful, long canal boats might be permanent homes for a few British drop-outs, but for most canal travelers the narrow boats provide a rented escaped from the routines of workplace, house and garden, and automobile and traffic. In turn they provide a glimpse of the alternative life of the waterborne vagabond, who moves at the speed of the late 18th century on a network of inland waterways that have survived largely intact while much of the rest of Britain has been paved over. Canal boating, I reckon, is an accepted British form of hoboing and vacationing on the cheap in which travelers and tramps romanticize the countryside of Constable and Turner when Nature was benignly invaded by this first revolutionary transport of the Industrial Age. The tramping and down-market holidaymaking are obvious. The romance of semi-stagnant water, cramped quarters, minimal bathroom facilities and tedious hours hiding from a cold drizzle or fighting off mosquitoes and flies is less apparent. By comparison, cycling along these same waterways at thrice the speed of any canal boat provides some of the best of British scenery with the possibility of escape from the slow miseries of the Age of Romance.

CROSS COUNTRY
           Our canal idyll ends in a mile. The British Waterways folks have closed this part of the towpath of the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal. For the next half-mile-plus National Route 41 must detour to the bike-only shoulder of heavily traveled A38, the Gloucester to Bristol Road. This bit is, flatly, ugly: fast food joints, building supply houses, industrial parks — the miscellaneous flotsam found skirting any English (or American) city, even here in the Cotswolds. Just as quickly, this, too, changes.

The Ship Inn, Framilode. Photo Nick Bird www.cotswoldcanals.net.
The Ship Inn, Framilode.
Photo Nick Bird www.cotswoldcanals.net

          A road signed for Elmore leads west (right) to the next bridge crossing of the canal, between the hamlets of Rea and Lower Rea. Route 41 does not turn south on the towpath, however, which is narrow and unsuitable for bikes. Instead, the cycle route enters the rich, bottom farmland between the canal and the River Severn, the first of several sections of pretty, minor roads we shall encounter today. Quite quickly now, we reach the edge of the Severn, and we briefly trace its ox-bow bend just east of Elmore before veering off to the southwest while the river turns north into a big counterclockwise loop. Route 41 takes the short cut cross-country on a series of rural roads between Elmore and Epney, where we catch up to the Severn again.

Saul Junction, site of the annual Saul Canal Festival. Photo Nick Bird, www.cotswoldcanals.net.
Saul Junction, site of the  confluence of
the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal
with the Stroudwater Canal.
Photo Nick Bird www.cotswoldcanals.net

          Our tangent route brushes another chord of the snaking river at Upper Framilode, the first of several splendid villages suspended in time here along the backwater border of the Cotswolds with the Marches. Framilode is the point where the former Stroudwater Canal entered the River Severn. Remarkably, in 1789 this east-west canal connected tidewater on the Severn at Framilode with the Thames & Severn Canal near Stroud, an important Cotswolds hillside market town, making it possible to move freight and passengers between estuaries of the North Sea and the Atlantic (and between London and Gloucester). Little Framilode was the

entry port of the canal at the River Severn, but only when the tide was in. At other times boatmen tied up at the Ship Inn, Framilode’s one pub, to wait for the tide to arrive. You can stop at the Ship Inn for refreshments — the canal is abandoned, but the pub remains open daily.
          From Upper Framilode the bike route follows roads south to Saul village, ½ mile west of Saul Junction, formerly the important intersection of the Gloucester & Sharpness and the Stroudwater canals.

OLD ENGLAND IN ASPIC
          After Saul Route 41 turns east to cross the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal and then quickly south into the lovely village of Frampton on Severn. Lovely does it. If you’re hunting the mythic English village incorporating thatched cottages, Tudor and Georgian houses, cricket on the village green, and lively-but-civilized pubs, you needn’t go further than Frampton on Severn. The village (pop. approx. 1200) centers on its large village green, which the town’s web site boasts (mildly) may be England’s longest. We passed

Cricket on the village green by the Bell Inn, Frampton on Severn. Photo www.framptononsevern.com.
Cricket on the village green by the
Bell Inn, Frampton on Severn.
Photo www.framptononsevern.com

the green reluctantly. A cricket match was underway, and one table remained unoccupied outside the Bell Inn pub. We were now about ten miles south of Gloucester, and I was sure my thirst already needed slaking. But, we had miles to ride, and, since real ale is not the ideal liquid for active cyclists, we elected to push on past the Bell Inn, past the equally tempting Three Horseshoes pub at the southern end of the village green, past the 800-year-old Parish Church of St. Mary the Virgin (the Rev. Cheeseman is vicar here), and across the wonderfully-named Splatt bridge once more over the G. & S. Canal. Here we passed through a gate onto the southbound canal towpath for two miles of broad, groomed trail southwest through marsh and moor to Shepherd’s Patch.


BIRDERS, BIKERS, & BERKELEY CASTLE

A breeding pair of Lesser Flamingos at the Slimbridge Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust. Photo WWT.
A breeding pair of Lesser Flamingos at the
Slimbridge Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust.
Photo WWT

          At Shepherd’s Patch National Route 41 leaves the canal for good, turning left and crossing the bridge into Shepherd’s Patch hamlet. But, if you have an interest in waterfowl, turn right instead, and ride ½ mile to the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) Slimbridge headquarters. Here amid the Severn marshes is one of Britain’s most important wetlands for migrating waterfowl of all kinds. The center's blinds, observatories, and tower provide excellent opportunities for seeing birdlife, insects, and non-flying animals like otters for whom this preserved corner of the River Severn has been a natural home

for 60 years. (Open daily except Christmas Day, 9:30AM to at least 5PM. Admission: £12/adult, £9/seniors/students, £6.50/kids 4-16; £32/family.)

          My son Jess and I share many interests, but birding is not among them. We crossed the bridge and quickly passed through the hamlet of Shepherd’s Patch heading southeast for the village of Slimbridge. Coming toward us roared a string of antique motorcycles dating from the 1920s to the 1960s, some with sidecars, most with riders in period leathers and helmets, all with the stylized logos of the British AJS and Matchless marks. As I was growing up in the 1960s, my older brother owned an AJS 600cc twin dating from the mid-50s, a bike rarer then in the States than even now in the UK. I’ve seen very few AJ’s in the 40 years since he sold his. But on this day I saw at least a dozen on this lonely back road in far western Gloucestershire. I wished my brother were with Jess and me to see these wonderfully eclectic British bikes with their eccentrically costumed riders.

1931 poster advertisement for AJS motorcycles. The message, apparently, continues to influence AJS owners.
1931 poster advertisement for AJS
motorcycles. The message, apparently,
 continues to influence AJS owners.

   

Berkeley Castle courtyard from a 1845 drawing.
Berkeley Castle courtyard
from a 1845 drawing.

THE VALE OF BERKELEY
          In Slimbridge village — only about 12.5 miles west of
Home At First’s Southern Cotswolds lodgings in Tetbury — Route 41 turns right and heads west into the Vale of Berkeley over little-used rural roads. From this gentle pastorale the mighty Double Gloucester cheese comes — to heighten our ploughman’s pub lunch or be famously, recklessly, chased down slope at the end of May annually at Cooper’s Hill eighteen miles to the northeast.
          For three miles the route meanders among

dairy farms and through some woods before reaching Wanswell hamlet, where the route turns south for a mile before reaching the town of Berkeley. Berkeley claims both fame and notoriety. The slayer of smallpox, Edward Jenner, was born and raised in Berkeley and later practiced medicine there. It was there, too, that he discovered a way to vaccinate against smallpox using a mild form of the disease well known to local milkmaids, cowpox. His former home in Berkeley now houses a small museum in his honor. But it is Berkeley Castle — on the southeastern corner of town — that brings most visitors to the sleepy town in southwestern Gloucestershire.
          Built by the command of Norman King Henry II in 1117 just fifty-one years after the Norman Conquest, the castle has been the residence of the Berkeley family for over 850 years. The castle has witnessed great history: a siege during the Civil War of the 17th century, a meeting of English barons before they signed the Magna Carta in 1215, visits by Richard II and English I, and, most infamously, the 1327 imprisonment and murder of King Edward II. This latter episode continues to bring visitors to Berkeley Castle to see the cell where it happened. Visitors also come to see the castle’s extensive gardens (the roses and wisteria peak in June) and an exotic butterfly house. Some years on summer weekends the castle has held a jousting tournament and festival, welcoming throngs to experience their medieval English heritage.
          Seven miles of rural roads with the day’s first mild hills lead southwest to Oldbury-on-Severn village, remarkable only for its nearby riverside nuclear power plant, just downstream from a similar one at Berkeley, both of which were useful not just for commercial energy production but as producers of plutonium for Britain’s atomic weapons program during the Cold War. The Berkeley plant has already been shut down, and the Oldbury-on-Severn plant is due to be decommissioned in two years. However, as in the United States, environmental and geo-political (imported oil and gas) concerns are forcing the British to take a second look at nuclear energy as a potential component in the future mix of sources of energy production.

          Two miles southwest of Oldbury, Route 41 passes through the village of Littleton-upon-Severn, where, just after passing the tempting White Hart pub, the route makes a sharp left (east) turn and sets off for Elberton and Olveston. Visible at times to the west are the 400-foot-high piers of the M48 Severn Road Bridge. This 1966-opened, mile-long suspension bridge carries a motorway, a bikeway, and a walkway across the Severn to Wales just south of Chepstow at the mouth of the River Wye.

The landmark "old" Severn bridge carries the M48 motorway, a walkway, and a bikeway from England west to the Welsh border near Chepstow.
The landmark "old" Severn bridge carries the M48
motorway, a walkway, and a bikeway from
England west to the Welsh border near Chepstow.

          Chepstow’s romantic castle is one of Britain’s great medieval fortresses. And the Wye is perhaps Britain’s most beautiful river, curving and looping its way north through fine scenery: past Wordsworth’s dreamy Tintern Abbey, before leaving the Welsh border and turning into England at Monmouth. The Wye promises another adventure on foot or on two wheels.


TO BRISTOL (& BRUNEL)

The landmark "new" Severn bridge carries the M4 motorway across the broad estuary.
The landmark "new" Severn bridge carries
the M4 motorway across the broad estuary.

TWO WAYS TO BRISTOL
          From Olveston, two cycle routes numbered 41 lead into Bristol. The western one zigs northwest then zags southwest on the B4055, crossing over the M48 motorway and then, 1.5 miles on, reaching and paralleling the M4 before crossing over it, too, just before the M4 crosses the Severn on its own beautiful bridge (opened 1996) to

South Wales. Once across the M4, this section of Bike Route 41 follows the B4084 southwest to the village of Severn Beach where it picks up a long section of dedicated traffic-free trail southbound to Avonmouth. South of Avonmouth, at Shirehampton, this route arrives at the tidal River Avon, which it follows on a traffic-free promenade east about 5 miles into Bristol city.
          We elected to stay with the eastern version of National Route 41 — a more direct southbound route from Olveston into Bristol — even though we knew we would have some hills to climb and traffic to contend with most of the way. A long, sweeping, gradual climb leads out of Olveston one mile, topping out at overpass crossings of the M48 and the M4 motorways within a few hundred yards of each other. In another two miles the route crosses British Rail’s western main line at Pilning Station. Pilning Station, however, cannot be used as an end point for the day’s ride — it’s a small commuter station with few through services. No, riders need to get to one of Bristol’s two major stations: Bristol Parkway (4.5 miles southeast of Pilning) or, our goal, Bristol Temple Meads, the city’s principal downtown railway terminal.
          From Pilning Station, our Route 41 meanders through the last open farmland of the day, then up Blackhorse Hill (the B4055) past The Fox pub southeast into Easter Compton. Turn right (southwest) onto Bowstreet Lane, which you follow .4mi to its end at at a T-intersection. Turn left (southeast) onto Hollywood Lane which leads up and down through Hollyhill Wood and under the M5 motorway to Cribbs Causeway (the A4018). Turn southwest again and use the dedicated bike path paralleling Cribbs Causeway and then Station Road, which, after 1.5mi, turns south as the B4055. Now you are in Bristol, but your entrance into the city is no cause for elation, for the next hour is the most difficult of the day, with the route becoming difficult to follow, and hilly, heavily trafficked city streets adding to the challenge. We recommend carrying a compass to help get through Bristol.

NAVIGATING BRISTOL
          Continue south on Station Rd (B4055) to the roundabout (traffic circle) intersection with Henbury Rd. Although the B4055 turns left and follows Henbury Rd, you continue cycling south on Station Rd 75 yards beyond the traffic circle to Church Lane. Turn left on Church Lane and ride 100 yards to an entrance to the parkland Blaise Castle Estate. Cycle south across the estate on its scenic, historic drive (watch for pedestrians on this route). At the drive's end, leave the estate through a gate, turn left on The Dingle, which 

Brunel's Clifton Suspension Bridge soars above the Avon Gorge entering Bristol. Photo © Home At First.
Brunel's Clifton Suspension Bridge soars
above the Avon Gorge entering Bristol.
Photo © Home At First

ends in Canford Lane. Turn right, then in 60 yards take the first left onto Coombe Lane. In about 120 yards, turn right onto Bell Barn Rd, which you follow to its end at Shirehampton Road (B4054). Cross Shirehampton Road and continue straight on Sea Mills Lane 1mi until its passes underneath the busy Portway (the A4), the roadway that follows the tidal River Avon southeast into downtown Bristol. After crossing under the Portway turn left onto Hadrian Close, which leads to the broad sidewalk (serves as both a footpath and bike path) southeast into the Avon Gorge, one of Britain’s urban wonders.
          The River Avon somehow chose to get to the Severn estuary the hard way, by carving 250’ through limestone and sandstone. The gorge protected prehistoric Bristol harbor from invaders and bad weather, giving them a unique avenue to the Bristol Channel, making Bristol England’s most important western port during the Industrial Revolution. It was because of the Avon gorge that
Isambard Kingdom Brunel — Britain’s premier engineer — built his Great Western Railway from London to Bristol, and built his great iron ships to sail from Bristol, and, although it opened only after his death, built his still remarkable landmark Clifton Suspension Bridge across the gorge. And, a couple miles down the gorge, there it is, flying across the span, looking vaguely Egyptian up there in the heights above the river canyon, still as much a monument to its creator as it is an inspiration to aspiring engineers throughout the West.

Bristol Harbour with Brunel's restored SS Great Britain moored along the south bank. Photo © Home At First.
Bristol Harbour with Brunel's
restored SS Great Britain
moored along the south bank.

Photo © Home At First

          A half-mile beyond the bridge, the Avon emerges from its gorge and turns east into Bristol harbor. Getting to the harbor is almost as hard by bicycle as it is by boat when the tide is out. Before Brunel, ships operating in and out of Bristol had to be abnormally stout vessels, owing to the river tides that left them unsupported in the mud flats when tide was out. But Bristol’s adopted son, Brunel, solved the problem by designing a "floating harbour" with a constant water level walled in by lock gates. Brunel’s floating harbor is today the core of Bristol’s downtown renaissance, a lively area of pubs, restaurants, clubs, museums, open space, street entertainment, and historic boats, including Brunel’s SS Great Britain, now restored to its former glory when it was launched in 1843 as the world’s first iron-hulled, propeller driven ocean liner and the largest ship afloat.
          The Portway river road becomes Hotwell Road before reaching the bridge. Hotwell turns east with the river and parallels it inland on the way to Bristol Harbour. When it

separates from the river it loses its broad cycle way. Bristol's remarkable harborside redevelopment has thoughtfully included a footpath/cycleway along the water's edge, following the Avon to the harbor area, then the Cumberland Basin, finally, the the Floating Harbour itself, stopping to admire Brunel's SS Great Britain moored across the Floating Harbour from you. Follow the path through Waterfront Square to Millennium Square, and then turn right (east) to reach the water's edge again. Walk your bike across the pedestrians-only Pero's Bridge and continue straight, tracing the southern border of Queen Square. At the southeastern corner of Queen Square cut through the pedestrian walkway leading to The Grove, emerging at a roundabout by another arm of the Floating Harbour. Cross the harbor arm on the bike lane of Redcliffe Way.

GOAL: BRISTOL TEMPLE MEADS
         After crossing the floating harbor on Redcliffe Bridge, follow Redcliffe Way around the wonderfully named but unfriendly for cyclists Temple Circus Gyratory roundabout 270 degrees. When you leave the roundabout (southeast) you will be on Temple Gate. Watch for the entrance to Bristol Temple Meads rail station within 150 yards on the left of Temple Gate. Cycle up the long Station Approach to the station entry, dismount and enter this great station looking like a combination castle and cathedral.


Brunel's original Bristol Temple Meads station's  castellated Victorian opulence appears
at the Station Approach.

          From Bristol Temple Meads, trains depart with almost hourly frequency, sometimes more often. Rail service back to Kemble near Tetbury in the Southern Cotswolds requires 60-90 minutes with a change at Swindon (e.g. depart Bristol Temple Meads at 6:00PM, arrive Kemble at 6:58PM; fares from £15.90 in second class). Rail service back to Honeybourne in the Northern Cotswolds is of similar frequency but takes twice as long, and may require one or two changes en route (e.g. depart Bristol Temple Meads at 5:00PM, arrive Honeybourne at 7:19PM; fares from £11.60 in second class). We recommend always making reservations (no charge for these on First Great Western and Virgin railways) for a specific train — space for bikes is quite limited and the railway can turn you away if the bike space is already in use.
          After 3-4 hours of train riding and 6 hours of bike riding, Jess and I were tired. We had seen parts of Britain that we had not imagined, and done so at a pace that permitted us to savor the experience, like lingering over a meal. And, at the end of the day, lingering over a meal is exactly what we had in mind.


 

FOR MORE EASY CYCLING IN WESTERN ENGLAND, SEE:

THE KENNET & AVON CANAL

THE BRISTOL-BATH RAILWAY PATH

Gloucester and Bristol are easily reached as day trips from
HOME AT FIRSTS lodgings throughout THE COTSWOLDS and in LONDON.

YOUR DREAM TRIP BEGINS BY CONTACTING
— HOME AT FIRST —