London to Bristol - National Cycle
Last Updated 15/5/04
Having just completed (April
2004) the ride from London (Kings-X) to Bristol (Temple Meades) we
thought that it may be of interest to share our experiences with other
cyclists who may be contemplating doing the same.
Both ends of the route are served
by mainline railway stations. We travelled from Newcastle courtesy of
GNER and returned using Virgin.
The GNER electric trains travel from Glasgow, through Edinburgh, down
the east side of England to
London Kings Cross, and have a large luggage van in the driving trailer
car at one end of the train. There is space for several bicycles and
they will also take tandems. There does not appear to be a need to
remove your panniers etc., as there is plenty of space and the train
the only person who can access the luggage area. You must book in
advance, but there is no additional charge for bicycle carriage. These
trains are currently
being re-fitted, and, assuming that they retain the same basic
configuration, should be in service and available in this format for
the next 10 years or so.
The Virgin train that we used was one of a new breed of high speed
multiple unit diesel trains (judging by the noise, with engines below
the carriages), and has limited bicycle accommodation. Ours had
a four bike storage unit at one end of the train; there might have been
another corresponding unit at the other end. The bikes are stowed
hanging vertically from a ceiling hook and restrained by a belt
at the floor. There is no room for the mounted panniers when the bike
is hanging, but we risked leaving ours behind the bikes on the floor.
The luggage compartment is open to people joining or leaving the train.
There are doors, which we shut, but they had been opened before we left
the train.. There does not appear to be room for a tandem. Like
GNER you must book the bikes in advance, and there is no additional
charge for this.
Cycling Through London
Was much easier than we had
anticipated! Ken Livingstone's congestion charge coupled with
some pro bike street planning has helped enormously. You still have to
share the streets with motor vehicles, but there is a network of
suggested routes that are safe enough. There is a series of around 15
free cycling maps - again hats off to
Ken - details below. Despite the maps, we managed to stray off
route, but that did not stop us finding our way out of the capital.
This route is that taken by National Cycle Route No. 4. It has been
designed, and its installation managed, by Sustrans, and is complete
Route 4 follows the river Thames as far as Reading, and then branches
off to the west, following the course of the Kennet and Avon canal as
far as Bath. The last stretch uses the Bristol to Bath ex railway path.
We measured a total distance of about 180
miles, although that included some
snetching about in towns and a number of wrong turnings!
I would recommend that you obtain the free London Cycle Guides
which will direct you from central London to the western outskirts. You
also need Sustrans maps the "Thames Valley Route" and the "Severn and
Thames Cycle Route". Our copies of the London Cycle Guides dated
back to March 2002, but a more recent edition has since been released
which is currently to be accessed at
http://www.tfl.gov.uk/tfl/cycle_guide.shtml The numbering system
may have changed with the new edition, ours were Nos.
9, 10, and 13, make sure you get the right maps.
The nature of the route varies tremendously along its length. At times
you ride along traffic free paths which might be canal tow paths, at
other times you are sharing the space with motorised traffic on minor
roads, while for a relatively few
unpleasant miles, you ride
major roads in safety but exposed to the noise and fumes of dense
traffic. The approved route very largely follows adequately surfaced
paths that are suitable for a touring bike, but there are one or two
spots where the surface leaves something to be desired. We had to
walk on only one occasion, where the canal tow path passed through a
favourite angling haunt, and the surface had been coated with deep
gravel that could not be negotiated safely on two wheels.
This short stretch is OK to cycle, and is a part of the official route.
Most of the way it is far better than this, being appropriately
surfaced. Through the towns and cities the path is often given a tarmac
This stretch is not on the official route and is seriously
uncomfortable to ride along for any meaningful distance, not
The canal tow path is safe and quiet, but through stretches of rural
Wiltshire we found it a tad boring, and we welcomed the chance to ride
the minor roads that the route does follow.
Elsewhere, for example
between Bradford on Avon and Bath, the view from the tow path is really
interesting - one of the high spots of the ride.
This short section of the old Somerset Coal Canal caught my attention!
The parks through
London are also great, I could hardly believe that such beautiful
surroundings existed so close to the capital. The ride through Windsor
Great Park is particularly good, watch out for the famous Long Walk.
There is an amount of climbing involved, in the stretch towards Reading
and shortly before Windsor, where you struggle up through Runnymede
the grounds of Brunel University. It has to be admitted that one member
of our party had to push their heavily laden bike at this point!
Further on the route follows the Wiltshire Cycleway, which neglects the
dead flat towpath in search of highlands to either side of the valley.
It appears that you are allowed to cycle along the towpath, even where
the official route does not follow it, but the quality of the surface
in those areas is very poor, and we would not recommend this practice.
Near to the end of our ride I noticed some small print on my Sustrans
map suggesting that a canal towpath permit was required and that it
should be obtained by ringing a given phone number. At that late stage
we did not do this, as they would not have been able to get the permit
to us, while we could not see anywhere to obtain this document. We were
not challenged by anyone to produce a permit and it was only after we
returned home and searched the British Waterways web site that we found
out more about the permit. It appears that the permit is free of
charge, and can be downloaded as a pdf file. These things do change,
but, at the time of writing (2004), you could access a permit at
We cycled immediately after the Easter holiday and did not encounter
any real problems with anglers or pedestrians along the towpaths, but I
suspect that in the peak holiday season the towpaths will be very busy
in parts, forcing a slow rate of progress, and probably walking along
some stretches. I get the impression that British Waterways (BW)
reluctantly agreed to allow cyclists along their paths, because there
are issues of incompatibility between the various activities. There
is also the danger of falling into the rather deep water! There
number of old bridges over the canal, and the tow path becomes severely
squeezed at these locations. BW
ask you to dismount at these locations, and having experienced them, I
can understand why. Clearly,
in addition to showing common courtesy to others, cyclists need to be
sensitive to all of these issues, as otherwise the towpath
might be rescinded. Do buy and use a bell, be prepared to slow
down, and, where necessary, get off and walk.
This ride should not be an endurance slog, or race against time. If you
want to do that find another journey to make.
Part of the spectacular flight of locks at Devizes.
We did see several other cyclists, but none carrying luggage - were we
the only people making this journey?
Sustrans and local authority cycling sign posting is much improved in
recent years, with large no 4
signs on bollards, large clear cycle pathway signs, and more discreet
arrows stuck onto street furniture. The system is not foolproof
however, and we made a number of wrong turnings. You do need the
appropriate Sustrans maps. If you have never followed a cycle route
before you will quickly learn that there is a definite need to map
read, and to keep a hawk like lookout for the relevant signs. Motorists
have it easy with large clear signs at every junction, cycle routes are
nothing like that!
The area through which the route passes is one of the most wealthy in
the UK, beginning with the west end of London, and then following the
silicon rich valley towards Bristol. It also passes through a number of
tourist hot spots, e.g. Windsor, Bradford upon Avon, Bath etc. This
means that the path is safe to use, while there was commendably little
litter, we saw only one broken bottle! Only in parts of Reading did
we encounter vandalised signs, cycle unfriendly barriers, and our one
example of broken glass.
Staying on the downside, accommodation is very
hard to find and relatively expensive - it is essential that you book
making the trip.
Once upon a time there was a Youth Hostel near Windor, bur that seems
to have closed. We could not locate any domestic house based B&B in
the Windsor area, and eventually settled for the "Oxford Blue" pub and
B&B in Old Windsor. No complaints about the service, although they
don't have anywhere to put bikes under cover, but it was a bit more
expensive than a conventional B&B.
Finally we did wonder how quiet the minor road
sections would be at the height of the holiday season, the tentacles of
the ubiquitous motor car spread everywhere!
We arrived in London at about 13:00 on the Tuesday after Easter and
left Bristol at 16:58 on the Friday, so we had to make three overnight
stops. Our journey looked like this: -
Kings Cross to Old Windsor - 42 miles
Old Windsor to Speen (near Newbury) - 57 miles
Speen to Bradford on Avon - 53 miles
Bradford on Avon to Bristol - 28 miles
The end of the route in Bristol, and the first signs of rain.
Were we to do this again we would have allowed more time for spotching
around some of the towns en-route and less time in Bristol (sorry
Bristol, but it was raining when we got there and we spent a few hours
reading in the station). We ended each day well tired, but happy
enough, a successful adventure.
What did we like about the route: -
- Cycling through the London parks - almost traffic free, fabulous!
- Since congestion charging was introduced, London traffic is whole
lot more cycle friendly, it was a lot better than we had thought.
- The quieter on road sections - we saw and heard a lark ascend, a
- The Thames path through Teddington etc., mega houses with gardens
backing on to the river.
- The canal tow path between Bradford on Avon and Bath - lovely
scenery, very interesting canal architecture and mellow stone
- It's very largely off road or on quiet roads
- Sustrans sign posting is much improved in recent years - but see
- Interesting towns and cities, e.g. Windsor, Bath etc.
- The incredible flight of canal locks at Devizes
- Very little litter or broken glass on the paths - we saw one
broken bottle in 180 miles!
- The Bath to Bristol railway path is a model for all cycle paths -
wide enough for two abreast with room to spare, beautifully surfaced,
and with a heritage railway midway along the route where you can buy
very economically priced refreshments.
That's a good enough excuse to include a photo of a railway loco!
What did we not like about the route:-
Carol and Bryan Attewell
- Accommodation is hard to find and relatively expensive (minimum
£24 B&B per person) - you MUST book in advance.
- Even though the signs have improved, it's still very easy to go
adrift in the towns, while there were no cycling signs at all in
Windsor Park - you do need some of Ken Livingstone's free cycle maps of
London and the
two Sustrans maps (the Thames Valley Cycle Route and the
Thames Cycle Route). There was
evidence that some of the
signs had been vandalised in Reading, and, once you feel that one sign
has been deliberately turned, you tend to lose confidence in all of
- Our copy of the Kennet and Avon canal map (Sustrans) was way out
of date (1999) and stated that there was no safe route between Reading
and Newbury - in fact there is a safe, signposted, route.
- Shortish sections of the route run alongside busy roads - you are
quite safe, but there is a lot of traffic noise. On one of these
sections there were a load of minor roads intersecting, and the cycle
path gave way to all of them. It was noteworthy that the local cyclists
all ignored the path and kept to the main road.
- There are commendably few barriers along the route, but those
leaving Reading, alongside the canal, are amongst the least cycle
friendly we have ever encountered. The clearance was such that we had
to remove the panniers to get through - it would have been very
difficult indeed with a tandem. I suspect that they are the work of
British Waterways, who, presumably, have been troubled by motorcyclists
riding the towpaths.
- You are allowed to cycle along the tow paths along the Kennnet
and Avon canal, but the sections that are not officially part of the
cycle route are pretty rough and we would not advise that you use them.
- The route follows the Wiltshire Cycleway for a part of its
length. This manages to make the most of the hills that lie to either
side of the canal and it meanders in an infuriating fashion. It's so
frustrating when you know that there is a dead level and relatively
direct canal towpath (but with a grotty surface) running in your
direction, but that you are criss crossing the countryside to get from
A to B.
- Having said that, the tow path, although safe and quiet, tends to
become a tad boring along some stretches, and an excursion through the
odd pretty village is welcome enough.
- Travelling in the week after Easter, we did not encounter too
many people, but we got the impression that the tow paths could become
pretty crowded with walkers and fishermen in the summer.
If you would like to ask any questions about this article,
feel free to get in touch with Bryan Attewell
For details of more cycle tours that I have documented, please look here