Somerset by bike: the best way to explore South West England
January 1, 1970
by Hannah Boxall
One of the many things I love about Bristol is how quick and easy it is to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city and find some ‘green and pleasant land’! During my five or so years of living here I have had some FANTASTIC adventures cycling right from my front door to historic towns and beautiful landscapes , along rivers and canals, through gorgeous gorges – spending long weekends just with my bike, my beau and a couple of panniers.
The rolling green hills of Somerset are a haven of their own, and there’s no better way of exploring them than by zipping along the incredible network of old railways. Here are a couple of my favourite experiences of discovering the beauty of Somerset by bike.
Cheddar Gorge and the Mendips
Yatton – Cheddar
About half a year ago, my partner and I embarked on a particularly memorable two-day cycle trip. We cheated a little by taking our bikes on a short train ride out of Bristol to Yatton and cycled down the Strawberry line (yes – it is as glorious as it sounds, but we didn’t find any strawberries…) to Cheddar (where we did find cheese!). Kieran is slightly more fanatical about cheese than me – he is half French – and insisted we tried some of the THIRTY different varieties of cheddars available.
After our quick re-fuel we began the steep ascent through the epic gorge. I stopped and pushed my bike for a while to admire the scenery and numerous climbers clinging off the edges (I could totally have cycled the whole way…I just wanted to take in the view of course). Beyond the gorge we pedalled up and down through the rolling Mendip hills on quiet roads, passing endless stretches of fields. The hills were mildly strenuous, Kieran complained that I was going too slowly on some of the steeper climbs (but it is important to note here that I was carrying all the luggage! Tch, I know, such a gentleman), but they were very much rewarded with beautiful views – vast expanses of greenness and lakes.
We zipped downhill to reach the edge of the largest of these – Chew Valley Lake. That did mean having to go ALL the way back up again to arrive at our lodgings for the night at the rather wonderfully named Temple Cloud. It wasn’t quite as glorious as the name suggests but there was a pretty forest, carpeted with bluebells, that even had a miniature ‘waterfall’.
Temple Cloud – Bristol
Our Airbnb place for the night was amazing – a little eco-home perching on the south-facing side of a hill – designed and built by the hosts! A large greenhouse formed the centre – filled with exotic plants, cacti, and a cosy seating area – which the bedrooms branched off from. It also had an enormous open plan kitchen area, with glass walls at one end overseeing a spectacular view. The furniture and decor was all home-made by the hosts, who were particularly skilled at reclaiming junk and turning them into interesting pieces of art.
The following day we decided to improvise a route back to avoid the main road, which did result in a few wrong turns and scrabbles down dirt tracks, but eventually we made it to Keynsham (childhood town of Bill Bailey, no less [famous British comedian if you haven’t heard of him…you should do]). From there, a beautiful path following the river Avon led us home. (It’s beauty only mildly tainted by the frequent ‘kissing gates’ at the beginning of the path, which we had to lift our bikes over!
Bath, Frome and Longleat
Bath – Frome
More recently we travelled a little further afield and cycled to the charming little town of Frome. Beginning on the classic Bristol to Bath railway path – a popular route for commuters, runners, dog-walkers, you name it – this 13-mile-long reconstructed railway line was the perfect warm-up to our ride. Once in Bath, we made an early exit from the path – before it reached the actual Roman Baths (which I’m sure are worth a visit) – and followed the ‘two tunnels’ path, which did exactly what it says on the tin. The tunnels are pretty long, the second is about a kilometre I think, but you are entertained en-route with lights and spooky music! After the tunnels we continued on yet another picturesque old railway path, the Colliers way, which carried us most of the rest of the route to Frome.
Longleat – Bristol
Longleat Safari park was a mere stone’s throw away from Frome so we just had to poke our noses in the next morning to see what it was like. Unfortunately cyclists aren’t allowed to go through the actual safari park for fear of being mauled by lions or something. But, being cyclists, we did sneakily get in for free to their small animal exhibits – which satisfied my zoological appetite. Better still – we saw a mammal I’d never even heard of before: the binturong – a big, lazy, otter-like creature with long whiskers!
From Longleat we headed north again, winding along small roads, up and down hills, to hit the Avon canal path. This cycle route is a dream; it has some breath-taking views as you pedal over aqueducts, and there are a whole variety of canal boats to observe as you whizz past.
Our second night was spent at yet another extraordinary Airbnb find – a boathouse on a quiet section of the Avon, fully equipped with canoes, a boat you could sleep on (we chickened out…it was too cold), and delicious apples from the surrounding garden. Our host even took us on a leisurely journey up river on his cruiser to get to the pub!
The following morning we pushed the boat out (pun intended) and canoed up-river for a couple of hours to Warleigh Weir for a quick dip. The journey was so serene, and for a large stretch of the river we were following two kingfishers who were piping away and flashing their bright blue feathers.
The boathouse was only a few miles out from Bath along the canal, so from there we neatly completed our circuit by taking the railway path back home to Bristol.
That concludes my brief introduction to cycling in Somerset. The subject of my next travel blog will most likely be further afield than the fields of South West England, as I am planning our next big adventure…!