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Getting back in the saddle; Wendy Johnson on the joys of cycling slowly

17th June 2015
Getting back in the saddle; Wendy Johnson on the joys of cycling slowly

I vividly remember taking my cycling proficiency test back in primary school. Wobbling between cones and classmates in the playground, probably with my tongue poking out in concentration, I arrived victoriously back at the policeman’s side only to be told that I was a master of precision, but so slow I may as well ditch the bike and walk.

What my ten-year-old self didn’t point out was that there’s something to be said for a slow and steady approach to travelling, that the lingering pleasure of the journey can far outweigh the joys of the destination and that a ponderous cycle ride can reveal far more interesting people, places and experiences than a desperate dash to the end.

Instead, crestfallen, I allowed cycling to become something I never quite got the hang of, letting my teenage years and twenties pass by without getting on a bike again.

It was only on turning thirty that my husband encouraged me back onto a bike and I rediscovered my love for cycling. So much so that I eventually turned it from a pleasurable pastime into a joyful job, cycling routes across Britain then writing magazine and newspaper features about my journeys.

Last year I spent four sunny summer months almost entirely in the saddle, pedalling across moorland, woodland, countryside and coastlines for Sustrans’ new official guidebook to the National Cycle Network.

The book that evolved from my travels – Sustrans’ Traffic-free Cycle Rides: 150 Great Days Out was launched in March to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Network and, hopefully, to inspire people to tackle some of the country’s most scenic and memorable bike rides.

Each of the 150 rides in the book is best enjoyed at a steady pace (are you listening, 1980s policeman?) ideally with a picnic, family, friends, and no pressing need to be somewhere else by teatime.

I rode thousands of miles last summer and can honestly say no mile was ever the same, each ride had its own unique appeal. I did pick a few favourites though, and here are just a handful that are perfect for serene summer cycling.

Best for…stunning scenery
If pressed, I’ll confess that the 9.5-mile Mawddach Trail in north Wales is my favourite ride of all, following the estuary between the Victorian seaside resort of Barmouth and Dolgellau. Crossing the old wooden railway bridge in the opening mile is a highlight and a great place to pause for views over the estuary and Snowdonia Mountains.

Best for…open-air artworks
If ever a ride was made for taking slowly it’s the 26-mile Consett and Sunderland Railway Path in the north east of England, simply for the many fascinating artworks along the way. The twisting ‘Jolly Drovers Maze’ and the giant ‘King Coal’ sculpture are particular favourites, and Gateshead’s famous Angel of the North is visible on the horizon as you reach Chester-le-Street.

A great arty alternative is the 7-mile Sefton Coastal Path from Crosby to Formby in Merseyside, where you’ll spot Anthony Gormley’s haunting iron figures across the foreshore.

Best for…families
The 8.5-mile Monsal Trail through the Peak District is incredibly popular with children. It follows a former railway path between Blackwell Mill cycle hire and Bakewell, with six dim and atmospheric railway tunnels along the way that are especially enticing to young adventurers.

Alternatively, try the five-mile Two Tunnels Greenway from Bath to Midford, which passes through the UK’s longest cycling tunnel.

Photo credits: Karen Frenkel

Wendy Johnson is a Bristol-based cyclist and travel writer, check out her cycling musings at wendysjohnson.co.uk, or drop her a tweet at @Wendy_S_Johnson.

Sustrans’ Traffic-free Cycle Rides: 150 Great Days Out (£15.99) is available from sustrans.org.uk/shop.

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