Hit the high road: five elevated routes for walking and biking
Many of England’s historic viaducts and aqueducts have been given a new lease of life as footpaths and cycleways. Here, writer Jack Thurston selects five of his favorites.
Far more ornate than it needed to be for purely functional purposes, John Rennie’s Dundas Aqueduct takes the Kennet and Avon Canal across the River Avon on the beautiful stretch between Bath and Bradford-on-Avon. The grand neoclassical design, crafted in Bath stone, reflects supreme confidence at the height of Britain’s canal age.
“The canal has a cheerful vibe, with dozens of full-time boaters living happy, car-free outdoor lives. ‘
Adjoining the aqueduct is Brassknocker Basin, used for boat mooring, bike rentals and a cafe, and the canal itself has a cheerful vibe, with dozens of full-time boaters living an outdoor lifestyle happy and without a car. If you cycle from Bath, the Two Tunnels Greenway offers an interesting alternative route via Tucking Mill.
Set amongst the verdant limestone crags of Monsal Dale in the Peak District, the Headstone Viaduct has serious jaw-dropping effect. Formerly part of the Bakewell to Buxton Railway, the Monsal Trail is one of England’s most popular rail-trail routes.
The best view is from Monsal Head and this can be turned into a short but spectacular walk up the steep, wooded slopes, over a footbridge and across meadows beside the clear waters of the River Wye. If you’re biking, the 8.5-mile trail provides a leisurely out-and-back route perfect for kids and new cyclists, or part of a longer loop using local lanes.
The elegant S-shaped curve of the Thornton Viaduct is the high point of the Great Northern Railway Trail, a six-mile walking and cycling route bordering the South Pennines just west of Bradford. The railway was formerly known as the Alpine Line, due to the hilly terrain and the number of viaducts and tunnels.
“The railway was formerly known as the Alpine Line, due to the hilly terrain and the number of viaducts and tunnels.”
The trail itself is still under construction, with some on-road sections for cyclists and trail diversions for walkers. A long-held dream for many is to reopen the 1.4-mile Queensbury Tunnel and extend the trail into a new greenway between Bradford and Halifax. As it stands, Highways England, owners of the tunnel, have asked for it to be filled with concrete. However, the Queensbury Tunnel Society fought to save the tunnel from dereliction until funding could be found to reopen it.
The gently curving Meldon Viaduct rises 46 meters above the West Okement River. Intricately constructed from wrought and cast iron, it has the appearance of a fairground ride. Yet it once carried trains between Exeter and Plymouth, on a rival line to Brunel’s route along the south coast.
Today it forms part of the 12-mile Granite Way, a traffic-free cycling and walking route between Okehampton and Dartmoor’s medieval capital, Lydford. Another three miles further on the road crosses the Lake Viaduct, another glorious span which, being made of dense Dartmoor granite, seems altogether sturdier.
Downstream from Nottingham, bridges over the River Trent are rare. The 59 Fledborough stone arches on either side of the steel girders that span the river were originally built for the railway between Chesterfield and Lincoln. They once ferried Midlanders to the seaside at Cleethorpes and Mablethorpe, and scented high-speed ‘fish trains’ laden with Grimsby’s catch of the day.
“Stone arches once carried scented high-speed fish trains laden with Grimsby’s catch of the day.”
For cyclists, the viaduct is on a long-distance Sustrans route between Clumber Park and Lincoln (and then on to Boston on the largely traffic-free Water Rail Way). For walkers, a walk across the viaduct is part of a seven-mile circular route incorporating both sides of the river, Dunham Bridge and the medieval village church of Fledborough.
Jack Thurston is the author of the Lost Lanes series of guides to cycling in England and Wales.
This article originally appeared in CPRE’s award-winning magazine, Countryside Voices. You’ll get Countryside Voices delivered to your doorstep three times a year, along with access to other benefits including attraction tour discounts and a department store campaign kit when you become a CPRE member. Join us now.