This year the National Cycle Network is celebrating its 20th birthday. It has quietly grown over the last two decades to become more than 14,000 miles of walking and cycling paths up and down the country, passing within just one mile of half of the UK’s homes. So, if you’ve ever walked or cycled anywhere, even just a short distance from your front door, then there’s a very good chance you’ve been on the Network yourself.
Its vastness can’t fail to impress, but what makes the Network special to me is the fascinating journey it takes me on and the incredible places I can reach because of it. Often it leads me into areas of the country that a car can’t reach, and it’s those moments of peace, enjoying a unique view that can’t be seen from behind a windscreen, dodging semi-wild ponies and picnicking to a soundtrack of twittering skylarks, that makes me love it even more.
Photo: me on my bike!
Traffic-free trails are some of the most remarkable of all, and I was lucky enough to tackle most of them last summer whilst authoring a new official guidebook to the Network. Astride my trusty silver bike, camera swinging from my neck and blessed with one of the driest, warmest summers that I can remember, I spent long days in the saddle and got to know every corner of the country a whole lot better.
There were many small triumphs along the way, from flinging self and bike onto trains with only seconds to spare, to the unbeatable daily joy of rolling into the driveway of a comfy B&B, gelatinous with fatigue. But, having grown up in a family of dedicated nature-lovers and RSPB members, one of the simplest pleasures of all was stumbling upon an RSPB reserve with the time and the energy to have a poke around. If you’re looking for a family-friendly nature ride in Wales this Easter, why not try the rides below? They’re some of the finest for getting close to nature. Or, find more inspiration in the pages of my book Sustrans’ Traffic-free Cycle Rides: 150 Great Days Out, £15.99 from sustrans.org.uk/shop.
I’ll certainly be packing my panniers for an Easter ride or two. When the book was finally finished, after six exhausting months of dragging my bike up and down the country and at least 3,000 miles of cycling, most of my friends said “Bet you’ll be putting your bike in the shed for a while now.” On the contrary, my epic trip has only fuelled my passion for the countryside and awakened me to just how much more there is to see. I suspect though, after 3,000 miles of hard labour, that a new pair of padded shorts might be in order before I set out again.
Mawddach Trail (9.5 miles) Start: Barmouth train station Finish: Marian Mawr car park, Dolgellau It was teatime on a warm June day when I tackled this ride along the banks of the Mawddach Estuary, and I’ve got standout memories of golden sunshine and a gentle breeze nudging me along. Crossing the old wooden railway bridge in the opening mile is a real highlight, and it’s a great place to pause for views over the water and Snowdonia Mountains. Shortly afterwards you’ll enter the RSPB Mawddach Valley nature reserve, where warblers, blackcaps and whitethroats might be spotted in spring. Tip: Pause at the George III Hotel for a drink on the outdoor terrace overlooking the estuary. Elan Valley Trail (8.5 miles) Start: Cwmdauddwr, near Rhayader town centre Finish: Pen y Garreg Reservoir This trail climbs gently for most of the way, but the scenery is spectacular over the ruggedly beautiful Cambrian Mountains and the placid waters of four Elan Valley reservoirs. Keep a lookout for red kites soaring overhead as you ride and watch for the Elan Valley Visitor Centre around three miles in. This is where you can cross over the river and go to RSPB Carngafallt to look for woodland birds like pied flycatchers, redstarts and wood warblers. Tip: If time, visit Gigrin Farm red kite feeding station at Rhayader.
Swansea Bike Path (6 miles) Start: National Waterfront Museum, Swansea Finish: Mumbles Pier This gentle ride along the golden arc of Swansea Bay is beautiful. At the halfway point you’ll reach Blackpill, a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a particularly important overwintering spot for birds. There’s a little wildlife centre here too, or you can cross the road into Clyne Valley Country Park, Swansea city’s only country park. Tip: seek out Joe’s ice cream parlour on Mumbles Road, it’s one of the best-loved ice cream producers in Wales.
Burton Marsh Greenway (14 miles) Start: The Harp Inn, Little Neston Finish: Chester Cross, Chester This route straddles the border between England and Wales, with marvellous views over the Dee Estuary and mountains in the Clwydian Range in North Wales. After around three miles you’ll reach RSPB Burton Mere Wetlands, where you may want to dismount and walk the wooden boardwalks around the wet meadows, looking for black-tailed godwits, lapwings and nesting herons. Tip: In the opening miles, look out across the water to spot the tumbledown remains of Flint Castle on the opposite shore.
Afan Valley Trail (6 miles) Start: Port Talbot Parkway train station Finish: Afan Forest Park visitor centre This route climbs through the steep slopes and Alpine-like forests known locally as ‘Little Switzerland’. The entire ride is lovely, but the highlight for me was after crossing the railway viaduct at Pontrhydyfen when I entered Afan Forest Park. The trees and cycle trails are enchanting (it’s a popular spot among mountain bikers) and you may spot tree creepers, nuthatches and finches within the forest or buzzards circling above the treetops. Tip: Make time for coffee and cake at Trailhead Café in Afan Forest Park visitor centre. It suddenly appears on the hillside like a welcoming Swiss mountain lodge at the end of your ride.