a ride on the Strawberry Line

It’s a sound the former railway tunnel probably hasn’t heard in a while. Somewhere in the dark stands a honking, part owl, part abandoned steam train. My sister Ele has stopped on her bicycle and is blowing determinedly like a whistle over her cupped hands. As she recreates this long-gone sound, I continue to pedal through the cool, moist air. Water drips steadily from the stalactite-covered brickwork as my headlamp illuminates the pedestrians and their dogs emerging from the echoing shadows.

We’re cycling the Strawberry Line, a 17.75-mile, largely off-road cycle and walking route from Yatton to Cheddar in north Somerset, on a sunny spring morning. White blackthorn flowers bloom in the hedgerows and puddles splash us with brick-colored mud. I always like the thought that this rich red soil was formed when Britain basked close to the equator, before moving north along with Europe and North America.


The Strawberry Line is named after the fruit that the former railway line transported from this fertile red soil to London via the Somerset and Dorset Line. It is also part of route 26 of the National Cycle Network (NCN). The railway was decommissioned in the 1960s under Beeching’s axe. It was a blow to local transport, but it gave us many of the most loved NCN routes. Complete with cuttings and tunnels, the Strawberry Line provides a flat and direct, almost completely traffic-free ride.

Between the ax of Beeching and the formation of the NCN in the 1980s, some of the railway land was requisitioned for other purposes, meaning that there are some road sections and tricky junctions on current cycle and walking routes. These are being slowly upgraded by Sustrans – the network’s charity manager – along with volunteers, the council and a pot pourri of others. The Department for Transport could fund improvements to a difficult main road junction at Axbridge in 2025.

The path climbs gently before Axbridge for impressive views over the Somerset Levels towards Brent Knoll and Glastonbury Tor

It is the dream of two NCN founders, John Grimshaw and Caroline Levett – together with their current organisation, Greenways and Cycleroutes – to insert the Strawberry Line into a 76-mile route that encircles the county, passing the famous Bristol and Bath Railway Path, Two Tunnels Greenway and the River Avon Trail. Somerset Circle is already two-thirds complete, with new segments recently opened around Shepton Mallet and a new link connecting Westbury-sub-Mendip and Easton. I volunteered to help rebuild some walls near Shepton during two of Greenways’ annual work camps. There are also tracks under construction to villages and towns along the way.

Before we leave Yatton station, we discover a puncture in Ele’s rear tire. Strawberry Line Cycle Project, which rents bikes for all levels from the station parking lot, lets us use the track pump after replacing a broken patch on the inner tube.

From there we cycle under an arch topped by a huge steel work of art with a steam engine, walkers, cyclists and wildlife. A gravel path leads us to a narrower, mud-red path, past benches and information boards. The elevated track bed gives us wonderful views across the fields, interrupted by rhynes – drainage ditches that help maintain low lying meadows – and of the spire of St Andrew’s church in Congresbury. We cycle through former stations at Congresbury and Winscombe, complete with platforms, and Sandford, where there is a railway heritage centre.

The latest off-road section, completed in November, was purpose-built by National Grid next to a new electricity substation serving Hinkley Point. Masses of newly planted saplings and tree whips, protected by plastic tubing, are lined up behind high fences. A steady stream of walkers and cyclists are already enjoying the spring sun and the quiet, traffic-free path. On one side, the substation hums softly.

The path climbs gently before Axbridge for impressive views over the Somerset Levels towards Brent Knoll and Glastonbury Tor. We eat sandwiches in a café that also serves as an antique and clothing store. It’s one of at least four eateries and pubs with outdoor seating, overlooking Axbridge’s pretty medieval town square and the impressive 15th-century scaffolded building that houses the King John’s Hunting Lodge museum.

Related: In the company of wolves and kings: Suffolk’s new medieval cycle path

Cheddar Reservoir is vast and glistening in the early afternoon sun, set in a radiant green landscape, and Ele exclaims, “It feels like we’re on vacation.” The route winds between galvanized fencing behind a builder’s merchant and returns to the road on an industrial estate on the edge of Cheddar. Hopefully the special bicycle offer will one day extend into the city. This is where we turn around. Although Strawberry Line volunteers have lovingly developed and maintained this route since the 1980s, a plaque states that this section was created after a cycling schoolboy was killed by a motorist in 1990 and his school campaigned for a safe cycle route. It reminds us that cycle and walking paths are more than just leisure routes: they are essential transport infrastructure.

A future spur, the Pier to Pier Way, linking Clevedon’s Grade II listed Pier and Weston-super-Mare’s Grand Pier, is under construction. A major link across the Congresbury Yeo and Oldbridge rivers, the Tutshill Greenway, will open this spring. These and Clevedon’s sea defense trails provide birdwatching opportunities all year round, with redshanks wintering at Tutshill and other rare birds passing through. Unfortunately, a strong campaign paid for a separate two-way cycle route in Clevedon, claiming it would damage the ability of businesses and local motorists to park on the seafront.

North Somerset Council estimates that the Pier to Pier will nevertheless generate 55,000 cycling, walking and leisure-related trips annually, with 15-20% of these taking place between November and February, extending the tourist season and encouraging cycling visitors to spend more time in North Somerset to spend. . This will link up with the Brean Down Way with its existing 100,000 annual users, which runs south from Weston, via Brean Cross Sluices, back to the National Trust headlands of Brean Down, via the natural pier at Sand Point. At the end you have extensive views of the Bristol Channel and a Victorian fort.

The Strawberry Line is already a joy for cycling and walking, with young bikepackers in their early fifties joining the cyclists

Excitingly, for hopeful cyclists and adventure seekers alike, these routes will also form the North Somerset Coastal Towns Cycle Route, passing through urban centers all the way back to Bristol. The Owl in the Oak café and venue in Kingston Seymour, opened to serve the Weston-super-Mare to Clevedon cycle path, has been hailed as evidence of the value of these additional visitors and potential future routes. With motorized transport in North Somerset generating 43% of the area’s CO2 emissions, these routes are also climate interventions.

The Strawberry Line is already a cycling and walking delight, with young bikepackers joining those in their fifties (we greeted the same couple three or four times during our day out) and numerous dog walkers. Not only will Somerset Circle bring a tourism boost to this beautiful rural county, but it will help people of all ages get around on foot and on wheels, under their own power. With or without the sound effects.

Laura Laker’s book, Potholes and Pavements: A Bumpy Ride on Britain’s National Cycle Network, is published by Bloomsbury (£16.99). To support The Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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