In search of the lost railways
In 1963, the Government published a report entitled The Reshaping of British Railways, written by a certain Dr Beeching. It recommended the closure of around 5000 miles of railway line and over 2000 stations that had ceased to be profitable in the New Age of the Motor Car, and over the subsequent years these railway lines were duly closed.
One such railway was the Cheddar Valley line, running from Yatton railway station near Clevedon to Cheddar and Wells, and known as the Strawberry Line because of the volume of locally grown strawberries it carried to the markets at London.
Another nearby line was the Colliers Way, a tram line that carried coal from the Somerset collieries, built to replace the Somerset Coal Canal which had originally transported the coal but soon fell prey to the more profitable and convenient tram line.
The Colliers Way eventually became part of the Somerset and Dorset railway which ran from Bath and Bridgwater to Poole. Like many railways established in the late 1800s, much of this network was built for the transportation of industry, but soon became more commonly used as a passenger line for the workers who would travel to the coast on their days off.
This, too, was the case with the Midland railway which once rolled between Bath and Bristol, an amalgamation of many smaller lines along which horses had once pulled coal carts. When the route closed as a result of the Beeching Axe, a group of Sustrans volunteers began work to convert the trail to a shared-use path for cyclists and walkers – the very first route on what was to become the National Cycle Network.
Now all of these railways are part of that network, having been resurfaced and way-marked as leisure and commuter routes. From the short section of the Strawberry Line at Wells, to the sweeping Colliers Way that glides along the hillside while the neighbouring roads struggle up and down the gradients, to the Two Tunnels Greenway where the bed of the Somerset and Dorset railway disappears under the huge hills at Combe Down and Lyncombe, these Sustrans routes mean that, for nearly 30 miles, I barely encountered motor traffic. The approach to the Combe Down tunnel was daunting to say the least (at over a mile long I would be underground for at least 10 minutes) but the engineers had done a terrific job: well-surfaced and well-lit, with music to accompany the ride.
The conclusion of this section was the Bristol & Bath railway path, a well trodden and familiar route, and I freewheeled into the City of Cycling on a beautifully hazy morning, surrounded by ordinary people riding ordinary bikes. Thank you, Sustrans, for that memorable section – and keep up the good work.