One of the original National Cycle Network routes established for the Millennium, this tour of the southern Midlands takes in some great tourist landmarks – Oxford, Blenheim Palace, Stratford-upon-Avon, and Birmingham’s canalside.
But the real joy is in the country lanes, railway paths and canal towpaths that connect them all together. From the Oxfordshire countryside to Birmingham’s Lickey Hills, this is an unhurried route through the real heart of England. It’s sometimes called the Shakespeare Cycleway, and though you won’t see that much of old Bill, this route is a classic in its own right.
At just over 100 miles, it’s a good two/three-day route.
It’s perhaps a little too hilly for the absolute first-timer. The lanes either side of Banbury can be taxing, and the climb out of Bromsgrove is inevitably a challenge. But there’s nothing too steep, and the urban riding is on quietish roads, so we’d class it as a moderate route.
Most of it is suitable for any bike, from road bike to MTB. The tracks after Banbury are too rough for narrow-tyred bikes, but you can detour along country roads via Shutford. The first half-mile out of Woodstock is also slightly rough. But the canal towpaths and Stratford railway path, although gravelly, should be fine on any bike.
South of Oxford, NCN 5 continues to Reading, from where NCN 4 takes you to London. We’ve covered these in our Thames Valley guide.
North of Birmingham, it goes all the way to Holyhead via Stoke-on-Trent and Chester. There’s a route gap around Cannock Chase, but from Stafford onwards, the route is complete.
Sustrans has begun to promote its London–Stratford route, i.e. this and the Thames Valley from London to Oxford, as the Shakespeare Cycleway; it was also once known as its South Midlands route. Individual sections have their own names – the Stratford Greenway, or the Rea Valley Route in Birmingham. But mostly it’s just known as “route 5”, and signposted accordingly.
Yes: between Redditch and King’s Norton in south Birmingham, there’s an alternative country lane route (Regional Route 55). This provides a more gentle ascent to the Birmingham plateau than the main route’s short climb out of Bromsgrove.
There’s one particularly enjoyable circular tour. Follow this route, NCN 5, from Oxford through Banbury and Shipston to Ilmington. Then after two miles, turn left to Hidcote Bartrim. Continue along here until you reach NCN 442, the Cotswold Line route. This takes you back to Oxford via Moreton-in-Marsh and the north Cotswolds. It’s 100 miles all in, and a delightful exploration of this picturesque corner of England.
Oxford and Birmingham both have excellent railway connections. If you’re travelling from London or the south-east, we’d recommend getting the Chiltern Railways services from Marylebone. They go to Oxford and Birmingham at a reduced price, the trains are comfortable, and you don’t need to book your bike. The GWR services to Oxford, Virgin services to Birmingham, and CrossCountry trains between the two all have limited bike accommodation for which booking is compulsory.