The route that is ripe for a ride
PUBLISHED: 15:36 02 September 2015 | UPDATED: 15:36 02 September 2015
WENDY JOHNSON celebrates 20 years of the National Cycle Network by taking a gentle summer journey along a fruity Somerset route
I like to imagine that When the Great Western Railway was in its heyday, the sweet scent of ripe Cheddar Valley strawberries would have wafted along in the wake of the trains that shuttled these succulent fruits away from Cheddar and on towards London’s market places.
Nowadays the trains are gone, brought to a stop in the early 1960s when the line closed as part of the famous Beeching cuts. Instead, walkers and cyclists have adopted the scenic 10-mile path from Yatton to Cheddar and, instead of strawberries, it’s the heady tang of apples emanating from Thatchers Cider orchards at Sandford that hangs in the air.
To mark the 20th anniversary of the National Cycle Network this year - a vast UK-wide network of walking and cycling paths dreamed up by Bristol-based charity Sustrans - I’ve decided to saddle up and take a ride into the Mendips along The Strawberry Line. It’s one of the highlights of the entire Network and easily one of the West Country’s most beautiful short rides.
The route’s natural beauty becomes apparent as soon as I set off from the cosy little Strawberry Line community café at Yatton Station, finding myself riding between wildlife-rich meadows and vital nature habitats, including the whispering reeds of the nationally important wetland at Biddle Street. There are information plaques beside the trail that point out the history and highlights of the area, and if you’re a keen wildlife-watcher then these early miles are some of the best for pausing and watching for damselflies, dragonflies and swallows flitting around in summer, or listening for warblers singing in the treetops.
Riding on past the grazing marshes of Congresbury Moor I cross the River Yeo, finding it hard to imagine that just a few miles from now the landscape will have transformed from flat Somerset Levels into the steep Mendip Hills and craggy, vertical cliffs of Cheddar Gorge.
The intoxicating tang of apples and fermentation is unmistakeable at Sandford, around four miles in, and I realise I’ve reached Myrtle Farm, home of the Thatchers Cider orchards.
The route leads me right through several of the farm’s orchards, passing row upon regimented row of trees, each one heavy with ripening apples. Thatchers has been making cider here for more than a hundred years and the popular farm shop is open every day for tastings and buying bottles - or even barrels, depending on the scale of your thirst.
Since it’s still only mid-morning when I get here, I resist the cider and carry on for a more teetotal refreshment at Sandford Station, which appears just moments later. The handsome station building and platform has been restored to its past glory and it is well worth pausing here for tea and an exploration of the free Railway Heritage Centre (open weekends and bank holidays from April to October). This is the halfway point of the ride, so it makes an ideal spot for a mid-ride rest.
Refreshed and back in the saddle I reach Millennium Green at Winscombe Old Station after just a mile and start to notice the landscape taking a more dramatic turn. Ancient woodland covers the hillsides as the path carves its way through the Mendips, with Shute Shelve Tunnel taking me right through the steep limestone slopes. Unlit except for a string of light studs along the path’s centre, the tunnel provides a bit of dark adventure in contrast to the sprawling open scenery that I’ve enjoyed earlier in the ride. However, it’s reasonably short and very straight, so I’m able to fix my eyes on the dot of light at the other end and pop out a minute later among the trees of King’s Wood.
Though much of the route is traffic-free, there are a couple of short sections that join up with the road and the descent into the pretty town of Axbridge is one of them. Axbridge turns out to be one of the highlights of my journey, and the half-timbered buildings of its medieval square make a beautiful backdrop, particularly King John’s Hunting Lodge, a Tudor wool merchant’s house that is now open as a little museum.
There are just two miles remaining as I climb steadily along the road out of town then join a stony trail along the north-east edge of Cheddar Reservoir. Well-positioned benches overlook the water here, but I choose not to linger, pressing on to the path’s end beside Cheddar Cycle Store instead.
It seems a shame to finish my day on the outskirts of the village when I’m just moments from the biggest limestone gorge in Britain, so I join the road and ride a further half-a-mile along Cliff Street to end at the mouth of this deeply impressive gorge. Ice cream seems the only appropriate way to end a gentle summer cycle ride, so I opt for a scoop or two of the West Country’s finest – Marshfield - from Ice Dreams parlour. It offers more than 30 flavours, but there’s really only one on my mind…Succulent Strawberry, naturally.
Wendy Johnson is the author of Sustrans’ Traffic-free Cycle Rides the new official guidebook to the National Cycle Network.
The Strawberry Line is signed as Route 26 of the National Cycle Network, so look out for the blue and red numbered signs as you ride.
Bring lights for riding through Shute Shelve Tunnel and take extra care cycling through.
Hire bikes at Cheddar Cycle Store, Cheddar (01934) 741300 cheddarcyclestore.co.uk
Support the Somerset Circle
Volunteers at the Cheddar Valley Railway Walk Society were behind the reopening of the Strawberry Line in 1983. The society has evolved to become The Strawberry Line Society and is currently campaigning for the route to be extended northwards from Yatton to Clevedon and eastwards from Cheddar to Wells and Shepton Mallet. Eventually they plan to create the Somerset Circle, a traffic-free 85-mile loop. Find out more or support the campaign at thestrawberryline.org.uk