There’s a long, long trail a-winding…

A  simple  question:  Which  is  the  UK’s  longest  traffic-free  cycle  path?

The UK has quite a collection of traffic-free cycle paths. Some are better known than others, and some are far longer than others. Some have smooth tarred surfaces, while others have unsealed, and often muddy surfaces. Some are simply obviously better than others, but the purpose of this post is to try and determine which is the longest.

For our purposes, we need to be clear about what we’ll accept into this quest. I’m a big fan of canal cycling – see my rides of the Kennet and Avon Canal, the Grand Union Canal and the Grand Western Canal – but let’s not fool ourselves here: for the most part, towpaths aren’t cycle paths, even though you may cycle on most of them.  Also, we’ll exclude “off-road” paths that ideally requires a mountain bike or a gravel bike, and limit ourselves to cycle paths that an average person can ride with a road bike.

The forerunner certainly is the gorgeous Tarka Trail, which offers just over 30 miles of true traffic-free cycling, from Braunton to Meeth. Sustrans calls this “one of the longest” traffic-free routes, but the Tarka Trail site itself is more blunt, and simply states it’s the longest traffic-free cycle path in the UK. But is that true?

Well, the Camel Trail, just across the county border, in Cornwall, is only 18 miles, so clearly far shorter. The Cinder Path, linking Scarborough and Whitby is longer, at 21 miles (though the surface isn’t nearly as good) but that’s still not near enough to challenge the Tarka Trail. Between Stockton and Sunderland, there’s a 25 mile traffic-free path, which still falls short. But hang on – nearby, linking Gateshead with Bishop Auckland, there’s a traffic-free path that’s 35 miles long!

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So, the leaderboard’s just changed, and the Tarka Trail has been relegated to second-longest. Is that the final picture? Let’s do some more digging…

Now I said earlier that most towpaths aren’t cycle paths, even though you’re allowed to cycle on them. The Grand Union Canal stretches for over 140 miles between London and Birmingham, but I’d be a fool to claim that was the longest traffic-free route to cycle. For starters, not all of it is traffic-free – around a few tunnels you’re diverted onto roads. More importantly, though it makes for a great adventure to cycle it, especially the part in the middle is atrociously poor, and there’s simply no way most of it can be considered a cycle path.

So does that rule towpaths out altogether? Well, that would depend on the towpath, and it seems we do have an undisputed winner for the UK’s longest traffic-free cycle path: the combined Union Canal and the Forth & Clyde Canal has tarred towpaths, suitable for year-round cycling (excluding icy weather, obviously) and is 62 miles long – more than double the distance of the Tarka Trail.

Now, the league table looks like this:
1. The Union and Forth & Clyde canals combined, 62 miles
2. Still in Scotland, the Formartine and Buchan Way, at 53 miles
3. Another Scottish entry, the Deeside Way, at 41 miles
4. The Gateshead to Bishop Auckland route, at 35 miles
5. The Tarka Trail, 30 miles

Here’s where YOU come into this: do you know of any other UK-based traffic-free routes that would unseat any of the current top five? Remember, other than road crossings, they must be traffic-free, so no “just a short bit on quiet lanes” routes. Just tell us in the comments, will you?

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