Cycling from Guildford

Cycling routes throughout the South East, accessible from Guildford in a day

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Weather at Start:

Route 9: Reading to Bristol along the Kennet and Avon Canal Cycle Route

Weather at Finish:

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Summary Starting from Reading station, this route follows the Kennet and Avon Cycle Route across England to Bristol. As its name suggests, it primarily uses the towpath of the Kennet and Avon Canal which meanders through picturesque scenery. The towpath ends at Bath, where you join an excellent path (the Bristol to Bath Railway Path) following the trackbed of a disused railway along the Avon Valley right into the heart of Bristol. All in all, this makes a pleasing trip, with plenty of interest along the canal (eg the Caen Hill flight of locks near Devizes and the Avoncliff and Dundas Aqueducts), country towns (Pewsey, Hungerford, Devizes) and architectural gems (Bradford on Avon, Bath). The K&A Cycle Route is designated as part of Route 4 of the National Cycle Network.

Distance/time: Approx 100 miles. Unless you ride like a maniac, it is recommended to divide the trip into two days, with an overnight somewhere around the mid point (Pewsey).
Start: Reading Station
Finish: Bristol Temple Meads Station
Transport: To reach the start, take the train from Guildford direct to Reading (around 3 trains per hour, journey time about 30-40 minutes).

On day 2, if you start from Pewsey at around 9am, you should arrive in Bristol late afternoon. To return, get the First Great Western (FGW) train from Bristol Temple Meads to Reading (around 2 trains per hour, journey time about 90 minutes) - bikes are carried in a separate compartment at the end of a carriage - then Reading to Guildford. The FGW web site recommends that you reserve a bike space. I bought an advanced ticket over the web, then checked with the FGW call centre; they gave me a bike reservation number and told me to collect my ticket at the in-station ticket machine, then go to the booking office to get my bike reservation pass. This I did, but the booking office had no record of the bike reservation. After about 15 minutes on the phone, with a growing and angry rush hour queue behind me, the clerk just gave up and told me to get on the train anyway. In the event there was plenty of space and there seemed to be no problem with just turning up, but it may be wise to check with FGW. You may get a much cheaper fare if you book in advance.
Conditions under the tyre: Long stretches of the Kennet and Avon Canal towpath have been improved to provide a good cycling surface, but where it is unimproved it is narrow and bumpy, so take care. In some stretches where apparently (I haven’t tried it) the towpath is unsuitable for cycling, the official NCR4 takes to adjoining roads, principally a short stretch in Thatcham/Newbury, where a traffic-calmed route is followed, and a longer stretch between Marsh Benham and Devizes, which follows quiet country lanes.

The Bristol to Bath Railway Path is almost like a motorway for cyclists, with a tarmac surface, slip roads and on-ramps.

I did this route on a conventional bike, but it’s quite bumpy in parts and you can expect some mud on the towpath after rain, so a mountain bike would not come amiss.

There are no significant hills (so far as I can recall), but the countryside on the ‘on road’ stretch between Marsh Benham and Devizes is gently rolling.
Reverse route: It should be possible to reverse this route by getting an early train from Guildford to Bristol changing at Reading, and cycling back to Reading. However, be sure to check bike carriage restrictions on the FGW service from Reading to Bristol, and it is likely to mean a late start to the ride from Bristol.

Route variations: You could cut the journey short, or do the route in two separate chunks, by making use of the train line from Pewsey to Reading (though trains are rather infrequent), or by returning from Bath on the main line.

I believe it is allowed and possible to stay on the towpath the whole way from Reading to Bath, but where the NCR4 is routed away from the canal, the towpath is said to be narrow and not well suited to cycling. Arguably, the Marsh Benham to Devizes on-road ‘diversion’ adds some variety to the route.

Route description:

British Waterways and other route stakeholders have produced an excellent, free downloadable pdf descriptive leaflet including maps, which is an essential companion for this route.

Day 1: Reading to Pewsey

On exiting from Reading station, head straight down Station Road, left onto Friar Street which leads into High Street, Market Place and finally Duke Street which crosses the canal, where you take the far (southern) bank before crossing back at the next bridge (Bridge Street). From here you follow the canal towpath out of Reading and beyond. The route crosses back and forth between the banks many times, and these points are well signed and/or fairly obvious.

At Woolhampton, between Froudes Lock and Wickham Knight Footbridge, there is a 600m stretch where cycling is not allowed, and you must get off and push.

The NCR4 is signed away from the canal several times where the towpath is deemed unsuitable for cycling. These are principally at

  • Thatcham where a largely traffic calmed, but uninspiring, loop is taken to the north through the town, rejoining at Hambridge road bridge

  • Newbury, where at the Town Bridge the route follows Northcroft Lane north of the Canal, turning left at Northcroft Leisure Centre to rejoin at Northcroft footbridge.

  • Hamstead Lock, Marsh Benham where the route follows a somewhat meandering route via lanes, often close to the canal, through Kintbury, Hungerford, the Bedwyns and Burbage to arrive in Pewsey.

  • Day 2: Pewsey to Bristol

    Head north out of Pewsey along North Street and turn left (West) onto Wilcot Road, then make your way on country lanes to rejoin the Canal on the outskirts of Devizes. Just outside Devizes, you encounter the remarkable flight of locks at Caen Hill, and have the unusual phenomenon of cycling down a sloping tow path.

    As you progress westwards the towpath opens out and the canal is raised above the surrounding countryside, giving good views. It is well worthwhile making the short diversion into the attractive town of Bradford on Avon. Continuing, you cross first the Avoncliff Viaduct then the Dundas Viaduct and arrive in Bath. Here, the NCR4 leaves the canal for the final time at the A36 Beckford Road bridge, and crosses the city via the Pulteney Bridge over the Avon. If you have time, stop off to explore the elegant Georgian streets, otherwise follow the NCR4 across town to join the River Avon towpath at Nelson Villas which takes you after a small stretch of road to the Bristol to Bath Railway Path.

    This path will take you along the Avon Valley, then via an arc through the suburbs of north Bristol into the centre of the city, finally emerging via a specially constructed bridge at Bristol Temple Meads Station.

    The start and end points (Reading and Bristol) are well endowed with eateries of all kinds.

    The route takes you through several towns (Newbury, Hungerford, Pewsey, Devizes, Bradford, Bath) with pubs, cafes etc close to the route.

    There are snack bars or cafes at Aldermaston Lock, the Caen Hill lock flight, and on the Bristol to Bath Railway Path at Bitton Station on the restored Avon Valley Railway, and at the disused station at Warmley.

    Points of Interest The Kennet and Avon Canal was built to transport goods between Bristol and London. It comprises three waterways, the Avon Navigation from Bristol to Bath (opened 1727), the Kennet Navigation from Newbury to Reading (opened 1723), and the ‘Western Canal’ linking the two, which was not opened until 1810, after considerable prevarication about the route (2010 is thus its bicentennial). The steam pumping station at Crofton was built to pump water from the reservoir created at Wilton Water to the summit pound. There are 214 bridges and 107 locks and a tunnel, the Bruce Tunnel, near Crofton. After the opening of the Great Western Railway in 1841 an inevitable decline set in. Bizarrely the canal was taken over by the GWR. A trickle of commercial traffic continued well into the twentieth century, and it was not closed until the 1950s. After several decades of fundraising and hard work by the Kennet and Avon Canal Trust, the Kennet and Avon was eventually re-opened by Her Majesty The Queen in August 1990.

    The Crofton Pumping Station was built in 1807 to pump water to the summit of the canal to ensure there was adequate water in the canal in both directions. The beam engines have been restored and ‘steam’ at certain weekends – see website.

    The flight of 16 locks at Caen Hill west of Devizes, were built by the canal’s engineer John Rennie to climb the steep hill up to Devizes. The short distance required each lock to have a side pond to provide enough water to operate the locks. The Caen Hill Locks are part of the two-mile 29-lock flight at Devizes.

    The Avoncliff Aqueduct and Dundas Aqueduct between Bradford and Bath are another fine piece of engineering by Rennie, to carry the canal across the Avon river and to maintain the steady gradient. The canal hereabouts dramatically contours the valley sides.

    The route passes through several attractive market towns: Hungerford, Pewsey and Devizes. Bradford on Avon is a gem of a town. Officially it is regarded as being the most southerly Cotswold town, and has many streets of honey coloured stone buildings, including rows of weavers cottages in the narrow lanes winding up and along the hillside. The church of St Laurence is believed to date from the eighth century and still retains the characteristics of an Anglo Saxon church. In meadows by the canal, just off the route, is the medieval Tithe Barn with its hammer beam roof.

    It is well worth taking some time to wander round the main sights of beautiful Bath, including Bath Abbey, the Assembly Rooms, Pulteney Bridge, the Circus and the Royal Crescent.

    The Bristol to Bath Railway Path, was constructed on the bed of the former Midland Railway by cycling charity Sustrans between 1979 and 1986 indeed it was their first dedicated route. At the ‘top’ of the northern arc of the path, it passes through the 0.3 mile long Staple Hill tunnel. The Avon Valley Railway operates steam strains on a short stretch of restored line between Bitton station and a newly constructed station at Avon Riverside, which gives access to the country park.

    Bristol Temple Meads formed the western terminus of Brunel’s Great Western Railway. The original station opened in 1840. The building you enter now was actually built in the 1870s. The original Brunel buildings flank the main approach and include Brunel's Company Offices, Boardroom and Trainshed on the northwestern side of the present station forecourt, and his Bristol and Exeter Offices on the opposite side of the forecourt. They have been submitted for Unesco World Heritage status as part of a general submission of historic GWR infrastructure.

    There are many other sights in Bristol, including the renovated harbourside, Brunel’s SS Great Britain and the Clifton Suspension Bridge.

    Finding your way

    The route is reasonably well signed as National Cycle Route 4, although I found the signing to be patchy on the middle stretch around Pewsey.

    British Waterways and other route stakeholders have produced an excellent, free downloadable pdf descriptive leaflet including maps, which is an essential companion for this route.

    This leaflet would just about be adequate on its own, but for reassurance you may wish to pack some Ordnance Survey maps as well, ie Landranger 1:50K maps 175 (Reading and Windsor) and 174 (Newbury and Wantage) 173 (Swindon and Devizes) 172 (Bristol & Bath) and/or Explorer 1:25K maps 155 to 159 inclusive. The mapping will be most useful on the Marsh-Benham to Devizes stretch ie Landrangers 173 and 174, or Explorers 157 and 158.

    A print out of street maps of the centres of Reading, Bradford on Avon, Bath and Bristol might come in handy, too.