I resumed my journey from Reading station early on a September Monday in 1999. Unfortunately, the rain began to fall as I left the station and it was to continue for the rest of the morning. The canal towpath, which was to form the link between Reading and Newbury, had yet to open at that time and the advice from Sustrans was that “until a safe route becomes available, we recommend you travel by train”. This seemed to say that the Sustrans route was the only one suitable for cyclists on the Reading-Newbury corridor, which I found hard to believe!
Note: unfortunately the Severn & Thames Cycle Route map is currently out of print (2006). For those with the previous (1998) map, changes which have been made to the route since it was printed can be found here and here.
I headed west along the A4 out of Reading, which was quite tolerable as most of the rush hour traffic was headed the other way. After 2 miles I turned off onto the road to Burghfield. The traffic coming the other way was solid and I took a delight in sailing past it, waving, but the roads were much quieter as I continued through Burghfield Common, Aldermaston, and Brimpton. At Crookham I was only a short way from the canal, so I decided to check out the status of the towpath near Thatcham and, to my delight, found that, contrary to the map which had been sent with my British Waterways cycle permit, the towpath was open from there to Newbury.
Parts of the towpath, both east and west of Newbury, were extremely well-surfaced, but others were little more than a path through the grass, and some were heavily overgrown. However, in the centre of Newbury the canal looked an absolute treat, a credit to those who fought for so long to get it restored. At Hamstead Park the cycle route leaves the canal and continues on quiet lanes through Kintbury. The towpath had been rather slow and hard going in places, and it felt good to be back on a surfaced road and to be making progress again.
Beyond Kintbury I suddenly realised that I was following, but in the other direction, the route we'd taken back from Salisbury on one of our Weekend Tours – through Hungerford and Great Bedwyn. Unfortunately, the weather wasn't quite as good, but at least the rain was easing.
At Great Bedwyn, where the route divided, I had to decide which of the two routes I should take, through Devizes or Avebury. Avebury won, largely because the Devizes route involved another 10 miles of canal towpath, but it was close. (I finally made a return visit in 2004 and tried part of the Devizes route. See the bottom of this page.)
The route divides at the entrance to the Savernake Forest. This is now the only privately-owned forest in Britain, and although it is only a tenth of its former size, it is still magnificent. The Sustrans route follows the 4-mile long Grand Avenue, developed in the 1740s by Capability Brown. I wasn't far into the forest when I saw a deer standing in the road. It waited until I was no more than 50 yards away, then bolted into the undergrowth. A little further on I spotted a red deer stag among the trees. I stopped, and for many minutes we stood eyeing each other, then he let out a roar and darted off through the trees.
At the far end of the forest the idyllic peace is shattered as the route joins the A4 road into Marlborough. A cycle lane has now been provided on the steep hill, then at the start of the town the route branches briefly off onto one of Marlborough's two old railway lines, before winding through the rather run-down looking outskirts. The official route bypasses the town centre (even though the card stamping point is in the High Street) but you will almost certainly not want to miss it, so abandon the official route.
I found a small café just off the High Street for a belated lunch and found that the owner was another keen cyclist. When I told him where I was headed he advised against taking the off-road route over the Downs to Avebury with a loaded bike. It was very rutted and flinty, he said, and after the day's rain the chalk surface was bound to be very slippery.
This was a pity, because I'd been quite looking forward to exploring this historic route. It may have its origins in prehistoric times, was used by the Saxons as a herepæth (a military road) and, until the 17th century, was part of the main London to Bath road. (I finally tried this route in the summer of 2004 – you can read about it by clicking here.)
So, instead, I took the alternative route via West Overton, which was extremely pleasant. It is soon to become part of NCN route 45, from Chester to Salisbury. It also approaches Avebury along the West Kennet Avenue, which is perhaps the most appropriate direction from which to do so. Avebury is spectacular, dare I say it, even more so than Stonehenge, with its massive bank and ditch (the latter still impressive, even though it is now only half its original depth). And somehow the fact that the entire village and a main road is encompassed within its diameter enhances its sheer scale.
As I stood studying the map on the way out of Avebury I was approached by a local resident. Despite living beside the cycle route, he had never heard of it, but was very interested. He, too, advised against using the Sustrans-recommended route, which was extremely rough and muddy in places ahead. The A4 road was broad and not very busy on this stretch, he told me, and was perfectly acceptable for cycling, and gave a much better view of the Downs to the south. (The original route has since been diverted to avoid one of the worst bits but there are still rough spots and a bridge over a gravel quarry conveyor to negotiate.)
The A4 took me into Calne, dominated by a vast amount of redevelopment going on, some of it apparently the subject of local controversy. The route out of the town was along the course of the old branch railway line which once connected it to Chippenham. This was (then) in good condition, and I was sorry to see from the map that it ended after one mile. However, when I arrived at the site of Black Dog Halt, where the remains of the platform, complete with station sign, can still be seen, I found that a spectacular new bridge had been built over the A4 and a further section of the old railway had been newly-opened up on the far side (see photo below). (Since then the site of the halt has been tidied up and enormously enhanced by some superb gates and railings by the artist Laura Lian.) Black Dog Halt was built in 1873 to serve nearby Bowood House; it only became a public station in 1952 and closed with the rest of the line in 1965.
At that time the railway path ended near Studley (it now continues all the way to Chippenham bar a very short section in the middle) and for the final mile I again used the A4 in preference to weaving through housing estates on the Sustrans-approved route. After an overnight stop in Chippenham I walked through the town and out to the far side of the ring road to avoid the busy rush hour traffic.
The intention is to alter the route west of Chippenham, although the current route through Corsham, part of the Wiltshire Cycleway, will be kept as a local link. The new route will follow the towpath of part of the long-derelict Wilts & Berks Canal, which is to be restored, to Lacock, and will then follow the lanes to Melksham and on through Bowerhill to join the Devices branch of route 4, which uses the towpath of the Kennet & Avon Canal to reach Bradford-on-Avon. I like canals, but you can have too much of a good thing.
To be honest, I enjoyed most of the route through Corsham, though parts are a bit long-winded to avoid using short bits of A- and B-roads. It also detours near Great Chalfield, though it's worth it to see the National Trust-owned manor house there. Dating from 1480 it's enhanced by a moat and gatehouse has with beautiful oriel windows and a great hall.
A steep descent brings the route down into Bradford-on-Avon, a delightfully picturesque town built mostly of mellow Bath stone. I gave a miss to the horsehoe loop on the Sustrans route and opted for a very steep White Hill to reach the town centre. After a welcome coffee break I set off out of the town along the towpath of the Kennet & Avon Canal. The canal follows the valley of the River Avon and crosses the river twice on magnificent stone aqueducts, the first at Avoncliff, the second the Dundas Aqueduct. The towpath is in good condition and allows a fairly fast run down to Bath.
At Bath the route leaves the canal towpath and passes through the city centre. It was a very warm afternoon, and the city had something of the look and feel of Paris in the sunshine. The cycle route leaves the city along the riverside, before joining the Bristol & Bath Railway Path on the edge of the city. This took me the 2½ miles to Saltford, where the 250-mile West Country Way begins.
I really enjoyed this stretch of the ride in the form that I rode it, though even then it included quite enough canal towpath for my liking. How I would feel about another 15 miles of towpath between Reading and Newbury, and a further 7 or so between Melksham and Bradford-on-Avon, is another matter. Not only can it get a little monotonous after a while, but progress is distinctly slower and harder work than on the road, and I was glad to be back on tarmac more than once. It worries me that if the cycle route becomes increasingly popular, other users might find their enjoyment of the towpath being spoiled – boaters, walkers, and anglers. I sense a recipe for conflict here.
The towpath route between Reading and Newbury has now opened, but back then I couldn't understand why Sustrans refused to sign an interim road route. The route I used through Burghfield was perfectly acceptable. Granted, it might not have been such fun if I'd been doing it with, as opposed to against the flow of the rush hour traffic, but then that could apply to almost any road.
Signing was generally adequate, though a few places could do with improvement, but the route isn't particularly complicated or difficult to follow from the map. This route seems to avoid town centres much less than the Hull to Harwich route. Only Marlborough was bypassed completely; Calne, Chippenham, Corsham, Bradford-on-Avon and, of course, Bath, were all tackled head-on.
I have real doubts about the section from Marlborough through Avebury to Calne. It needs rethinking. The downland route out of Marlborough, historic though it may be, is really only suitable for fairly-experienced and lightly-laden mountain bikers. So how does this square with Sustrans' mission to provide routes for tourists, novices, children, and local journeys? Dare I suggest that the real reason it's included is that it's off-road, and counts towards Sustrans' aim of having half the network on traffic-free paths?
The same applies to the track heading west from Avebury. This, too, is totally unsuited to anyone but dedicated off-roadriders and I suspect that many people opt to use the parallel A4 instead, as I was advised to do by a local resident. Luckily the main road's not too busy on this stretch. It makes me wonder whether Sustrans isn't defeating its own purpose, and whether it might not have been better to put cycle lanes on the main road in the first place.
The Calne to Chippenham Railway path should be a shining example of what Sustrans is about. It links two sizeable towns between which there is a significant transport need, and at five miles it's ideal for a cycle journey. Three magnificent new bridges have been built, two of them to replace those removed when the railway was demolished. However, this is what a local cyclist had to say about the route in August 2002, asking that it be finished off before more local routes are started – his comments were still valid two years later:
"Any cyclist riding the path from Calne to Chippenham can enjoy the experience as a minor adventure with an ultimate sense of accomplishment. The elaborate bridges are linked by muddy tracks calling for swift steering decisions to avoid the worst floods. Skill is called for to swerve across the central grass to seek the better of the two narrow wheel tracks in the hope that an oncoming rider has not made a similar choice. Desultory maintenance has left brambles to thrash at the legs and luxuriant nettles to imperil those in shorts. Between Calne and Avebury, different challenges abound. The steel stairway up and over the conveyor at the Sands Farm gravel pit adds to the misery of the soft track on each side of it. Before Cherhill, a Route Four sign seems to direct the user up an unrideable bridleway. And so it goes on."
I hardly used enough of the Bristol and Bath Railway Path to give it a fair judgement. It was certainly well-used, even at midday on a September weekday, and it's in excellent condition. It used to be known as the Bristol to Bath Cycle Path, and its renaming was presumably intended to emphasise its broader use, probably to correct any impression that it's a cycle super-highway. You can certainly get up speed on it, but whether this is compatible with other uses, such as ramblers, joggers, and dog-walkers, is open to question.
Unfortunately the Severn & Thames Cycle Route map appears to be out of print at present (2006) – it had become badly out of date. A free leaflet of the Kennet and Avon Cycle Route is available from Sustrans or from tourist information centres in the area. This shows the version of Cycle Route 4 which follows the line of the canal, not the alternative route via Marlborough.
You can either follow through the pages in sequence or go back to pick another route from the list of the NCN routes I’ve used.
Updated: 1 November 2004
Minor update: 15 August 2006