London to Bristol - National Cycle Route 4

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.

Getting There

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 guard is 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 the recommended route, but that did not stop us finding our way out of the capital.

The Route

This route is that taken by National Cycle Route No. 4. It has been designed, and its installation managed, by Sustrans, and is complete throughout.
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 alongside 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.

Goodish Path

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 finish.

Green Towpath

This stretch is not on the official route and is seriously uncomfortable to ride along for any meaningful distance, not recommended!

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 on the minor roads that the route does follow.

Wiltshire Lane


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.

Coal Canal

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 Park to 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 http://www.waterscape.com/cycling/permit.html

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) have 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 are a 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 cycling agreement 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.

Devizes Locks

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 before making the trip.

Oxford Blue Hotel

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

Bristol

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: -

  1. Cycling through the London parks - almost traffic free, fabulous!
  2. Since congestion charging was introduced, London traffic is whole lot more cycle friendly, it was a lot better than we had thought.
  3. The quieter on road sections - we saw and heard a lark ascend, a personal first.
  4. The Thames path through Teddington etc., mega houses with gardens backing on to the river.
  5. The canal tow path between Bradford on Avon and Bath - lovely scenery,  very interesting canal architecture and mellow stone buildings.
  6. It's very largely off road or on quiet roads
  7. Sustrans sign posting is much improved in recent years - but see below!
  8. Interesting towns and cities, e.g. Windsor, Bath etc.
  9. The incredible flight of canal locks at Devizes
  10. Very little litter or broken glass on the paths - we saw one broken bottle in 180 miles!
  11. 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.
Ruston Loco

That's a good enough excuse to include a photo of a railway loco!

What did we not like about the route:-
  1. Accommodation is hard to find and relatively expensive (minimum £24 B&B per person) - you MUST book in advance.
  2. 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 Severn and 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 them!
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
Carol and Bryan Attewell

15/5/2004

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

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