The National Byway is Britain’s secret cycle-touring network – a meandering signposted route following the quietest lanes through the sleepiest villages. It’s been going for over 20 years now, with hundreds of signposts across the country, yet this delightful touring curio is known to only a few.
Its rambling route stretches to Wiltshire in the south and Dumfries & Galloway in the north, Powys in the west and Cambridgeshire in the east. Some of the route was erected as early as 1999; other parts have been freshly signposted in 2021. You could call it a labour of love, perhaps, but its main characteristic is that it’s aimed squarely at the cycle tourist.
For this guide, we’ve zeroed in on the east-west route across the southern Midlands, Cotswolds and Marches. Starting in Cambridge, you won’t see another city in 270 miles: the great metropolises of Burford, Ledbury and Leominster are about as busy as it gets. Rarely challenging but often endearing, this is old-fashioned rural riding – the sort that can’t fail to bring a smile to your face every time you round a corner to another bucolic view.
This route would take the experienced cycle tourist around five days at 55 miles a day, but a more relaxed pace would allow you to fulfil the route designers’ intention of stopping off at historic sites along the way.
Between Cambridge and Oxfordshire, the route is rarely hilly, though traffic levels mean we wouldn’t recommend it for a novice cyclist. From the Cotswolds to Wales, the roads are quieter but the hills fiercer!
The National Byway is almost entirely on-road, so any road or touring bike will suit. There’s a short bumpy section after the village of Kirtlington in Oxfordshire, but you can push along there if your bike isn’t up to it.
You’ll be able to plan a tour staying at campsites or B&Bs easily; the market towns of the National Byway are ideal for this sort of unhurried touring. Note though that recent years have not been kind to village shops and country pubs, so you shouldn’t rely on being able to find a midday meal in the more remote areas.
Yes – mostly. The National Byway has distinctive brown signs, with a logo that owes much to that of Hovis, the route’s original sponsors.
On this route across central England, there are only a couple of sections (Otmoor in Oxfordshire, and the crossing of the Severn) which haven’t been signposted. That said, since the National Byway doesn’t have the legions of volunteers that keep the National Cycle Network in good order, some of the original signposts will have gone missing over the years. Keep a watchful eye on your map or GPS to make sure you stay on track.
The National Byway was conceived not just to be one trunk route, but also a series of local loops. You’ll see two such loops on this ride. One is in the ancient Bernwood Forest (between Waddesdon and Bicester), while the second, around Ledbury, dovetails with a second signposted loop set up by local cyclists. If you have the time, these offer pleasant diversions.
More by accident than design, the brown signs of the National Byway often coincide with the blue signs of the National Cycle Network. Between Cambridge and Oxfordshire, this route provides a more rural alternative to NCN route 51; while in the Cotswolds, you can draw up some delightful loops with the local NCN routes (45, 48 and 442).
Then there’s the continuation of the National Byway itself. In Cambridgeshire it peters out half-heartedly near Saffron Walden, but in the Marches, it’s designed to continue as the Six Castles Cycleway to Shrewsbury, then the Mercian Way on to Chester.
It’s generally a well-chosen route. Some of the roads in Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire are rather busier than we’d ideally like, but that’s not through any fault of the route designers – there simply aren’t as many quiet roads there as in the Cotswolds or Herefordshire.
The Byway does often meander in long loops to take in a historic site or two, so if you’re pressed for time, you may want to cut out some of the more extravagant detours.
The railway lines radiating out from London cross the National Byway at regular intervals between Cambridge and Charlbury, making transport easy. There are fewer railway stations in the Cotswolds and the borders, but you can pick up a train at Ashchurch (near Tewkesbury), Ledbury or Leominster.
Presteigne, the end of the route, has no station: you’ll need to ride a few miles along the Radnor Ring to Knighton instead. (Fun fact: Presteigne’s old station, which closed in 1951, was the only station in Britain that required three changes to reach London.)