Cycle paths across Britain are expanding as more people use their bikes to discover the countryside. Originally the Strawberry Line ran from coast to Cranmore. Only part of it is used a viable cycleway and path. Harry Mottram asks could it really run all the way from Wales to Wiltshire? This article was written in 2014.
Imagine being able to cycle from Winscombe to Wales and back in a day. It’s not an impossible dream. If the Severn Barrage gets the green light in the next few years then a road complete with cycle and walkway would cross the estuary from Lavernock near Penarth and to Brean Down linking up with the M5, A38 and of course the Strawberry Line at Shute Shelve. It’s one possiblity for the future development of the line following the decision by Welsh MP Peter Haine to back the Corlan Hafren consortium last year who plan to construct a barrage across the sea to harness energy from the tidal surges. They have suggested the scheme would include transport links allowing a new crossing across the Bristol Channel.
That’s one possible direction. The other more likely expansion is the completion of the missing links to the original railway line. Namely the Yatton to Clevedon section which currently runs along lanes across Kenn Moor, and the sections from Cheddar to Wells and from Wells to Shepton Mallet and on to Cranmore where the East Somerset Railway occupies the remainder of the line. Another possible route for the future is the opening up of the old branch line to Wrington and Blagdon from near Congresbury. There are still sections of the embankment left which could be incorporated into a Mendip gateway cyclepath. Those sections are partly in place but are owned by a variety of individuals making access fraught with delicate negotiations.
A small number of individuals and organisations from the Strawberry Line Association to North Somerset Council are involved in these talks. Apart from the technical issue of who owns which bit of land there’s also a shortage of public money to buy real estate. It’s a question of those involved exploring ways to gain consent and access without resorting to the more obvious but remote possibility of purchasing land. From my experience local politicians and representatives have little or no interest in the project as a whole. They will offer verbal support to activists, but district, county and national government has little cash earmarked for expanding cycle networks and the Strawberry Line in particular. It is a short sighted attitude as tourism along the line has increased in the few short years it has been established.
If you cycle from Cheddar to Yatton of a summer’s Sunday afternoon you’ll realise just how popular the route has become. Literally hundreds of cyclists, families, dog walkers and groups of people jam some of the busiest sections with large numbers of cyclists sitting outside pubs such as the Lamb Inn in Axbridge and the Woodborough in Winscombe. And yet while billions of tax payers’ cash is spent on roads – very little goes on the National Cycle Network – of which the Strawberry Line is part. The Strawberry Line however is not just the one-time railway. In this magazine’s definition the line refers to a broad corridor of land including the Cheddar, Axe and Yeo Valleys, the Mendips and much of the levels and coastline. Those using the line can branch off in all directions at all points of the route – with the most attractive being the most level.
In the Cheddar valley you can head off across the moors towards the Isle of Wedmore along lanes and droves. Beyond the isle the levels stretch away for miles to Glastonbury and Huntspill – hour after hour of hill free cycling. There’s the circular route around Cheddar Reservoir and from Axbridge you can cycle along the foot of the Mendips at Cross all the way to Bleadon and Uphill on the coast and in either direction along level lanes to Burnham-on-Sea and Weston-super-Mare. Northwards and there are more possible routes for cyclists and walkers. The Mendip Way for those on foot leads off at Shute Shelve in either direction for miles of hill walking while for those on bikes there’s more level cycling along the lanes at Kenn – or up the valleys to Wrington or to Blagdon. The National Cycle Network links the Strawberry Line to Bristol, Bath and beyond – but don’t be fooled. The routes may be well marked, but much of the routes are on roads, main roads at that with often no pavements or cycle path marked. Plus they follow routes that will take you up hills that will test the fittest riders.
One day the National Cycle Network will feature only routes that have designated cycle lanes or paths so you can enjoy traffic free cycling as is mostly possible on the Strawberry Line. Until that happens then a good map is often a better option that slavishly following the network’s suggested routes. The other option for the the Strawberry Line is simply to upgrade the pathways. Much has already been done with signage and improved surfacing but with miles of hedges and copses to maintain there’s plenty of scope for more picnic spots, benches and even rain shelters for those sudden downpours. And when it rains those who use the paths on wet days know it can become very muddy in some sections with a tendency to flood in others.
Clearly a lot of money could be spent on simply improving the current route to make it more attractive to the visitor and tourist. Information about the route has been added on neat boards but there is room for signs suggesting places that lie a mile or three off the path which would make for an easy excursion. Many cyclists miss the short path to the reservoir in Cheddar, others can pass through Winscombe and Yatton without realising the amount of shops, cafes and pubs just a few yards from the line – and Congresbury, Sandford and Banwell can be missed completely if you don’t have an ordnance survery map on you. It’s come a long way since the 1980s when spirited individuals pioneered the route from Shute Shelve to Winscombe and on to Sandford. With your help, eventually the line could go all the way from coast to Cranmore and make the line one of the most popular tourist trails in Somerset.
To help with the line and its continued restoration visit http://www.thestrawberryline.org.uk/index.php
More news and stories from Harry at www.harrymottram.co.uk
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