What are rail-to-trail paths?
Rail-to-trail paths are former railway lines that have been converted to bridleways and access ways. Many lines were affected by the controversial Beeching closures of the mid-1960s, and are now enjoyed by cyclists, walkers and horse riders. They are dotted around the UK, with varying lengths and difficulties. Feeling daunted by the lengths of these? Many are just a few miles long, and would only take an hour or two to complete.
Here is our pick of the best former railway trail paths for cycling and walking in the UK.
Cornwall’s Camel Trail is very popular, with an estimated 400,000 users each year. Consequently, the trail, which takes in Padstow, Wadebridge, Bodmin and Wenford Bridge, generates up to £3 million a year. Although not all of it is tarmacked, it is suitable for wheelchair users and almost completely flat. Bike hire is available at points throughout the route.
More related content:
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- Beginner’s guide to bikepacking: how to get started, essential gear and best routes for off-road cycling
Scarborough & Whitby Rail Trail, North Yorkshire – 20.5 miles
With some fantastic sea views and intriguing historical sites, the Scarborough & Whitby trail (also known as the Cinder Track) is possibly one of the most beautiful rail trails in this gallery. Sustrans advise that many sections aren’t suitable for road bikes, although it is relatively flat, despite the steep gradients that the railway locomotives reportedly struggled for traction on. Most of the trail avoids traffic, too.
The Ystwyth Trail, Ceredigion – 21 miles
The Ystwyth Trail links Aberystwyth and Tregaron in the Ceredigion region of west Wales. It is broken in places due to objections from farmers and landowners, but the sections are joined up by short stints on public roads. Some are quite narrow and dangerous. The trail links up with the Lon Cambria and Lon Teifi long distance routes, providing excellent unbroken cycling opportunities. Horse riding is only permitted on some sections of the Ystwyth Trail.
Marriott’s Way, Norfolk – 24.6 miles
Named after William Marriott, the former manager of the Midland and Great Northern Joint Railway who held the position for over forty years, Marriott’s Way takes users between the centre of Norwich and the historic market town of Aylsham. The trail is part-tarmacked and part-gravel, but again it is susceptible to mud after a period of rain. It encompasses two former railway lines, neither of which was profitable and both were closed by 1985.
Hornsea Rail Trail, East Riding of Yorkshire – 26 miles
Starting in the busy city of Kingston upon Hull, the Hornsea trail is perfect for those that want to escape the hustle and bustle of the urban sprawl to the seaside at Hornsea. Add to this a trail that’s mostly flat, and one that takes in some beautiful agricultural landscapes, and it’s no wonder this trail is popular. It has also got easy access from Hull Paragon train station and is traffic free.
Downs Link, Surrey/ West Sussex – 36.7 miles
Perhaps the longest almost-unbroken stretch of bridleway on this list, the Downs Link is over 36 miles long, and runs between St. Martha’s Hill, near Guildford, to the coast at Shoreham-by-Sea. The route largely follows the course of the Cranleigh and Steyning Lines, which, like many others on this list, were closed due to the infamous Beeching cuts of the 1960s. A small part of the route includes a main road.
Deeside Way, Aberdeenshire – 41 miles
The Deeside Way starts from Aberdeen, heading west to the town of Ballater, nestled in the Cairngorms. There are four sections of between seven and thirteen miles long, following the route of the Old Royal Deeside Railway. Along the trail are reminders of the trail’s past, and of the infrastructure that used to be so important to this area, while many parts also follow the river and can give some stunning views.
Formantine & Buchan, Aberdeenshire – 53 miles
Like the Deeside Way, The Formartine & Buchan Way starts from Aberdeen. It connects Dyce, in the north of the city, to the coastal fishing ports of Fraserburgh and Peterhead, the latter via a branch line from the village of Maud. The trail was opened in the early 1990s after the railway closed in 1979, and takes in a patchwork of farmland and countryside. It’s very easy to follow, but isn’t completely tarmacked so some sections tend to get very muddy. Horse riders may need a permit for some parts of the trail.
Devon Coast to Coast – 99 miles
At just over half the length of the Tarka Trail, the Devon Coast to Coast route sounds like a breeze, right? It’s still nigh on 100 miles long, and squiggles across Devon from Ilfracombe in the north, to Plymouth in the south. 70% of the route is traffic free, and the trail includes the 31-mile section of the Tarka Trail listed below. The Coast-to-Coast trail takes in the beautiful beaches and estuaries of the north of the county, and passes through luscious green valleys and the western edge of Dartmoor.
Tarka Trail, Devon – 180 miles
At nearly two hundred miles long, the Tarka Trail is by far and away the longest rail-to-trail path in the UK. It’s made up of quite a few sections of dismantled railway, and winds its way around Barnstaple and North Devon. One of the sections is an unbroken stretch of 31 miles between Braunton and Meeth, which is free of vehicles, mostly tarmacked and a lovely smooth, flat ride. The trail name comes from the route taken in the ‘Tarka the Otter’ book, and there are a number of audio posts along the trail giving information.