Leading through lush countryside scenes and patchwork farmland, over gentle hills where the Romans built historic cities and valleys where the Industrial Revolution spurred world-first engineering, the Mercian Way, aka Route 45, combines the very best of England’s history, landscapes, and culture as you ride from north to south.
This adventure guides you between the historic cities of Chester and Salisbury via miles of wonderful countryside. In this Collection, I’ve split the 302-mile (486 km) route into 9 stages, but you can choose to lengthen or shorten each stage as you wish. There are lots of train stations en route so you can be flexible and even skip out some hills if you want. Although with 11,090 feet (3,380 m) of climbing spread across the 9 stages, the Mercian Way is relatively easy on your legs.
Following rural lanes, quiet backroads, and traffic-free paths where possible, you explore the counties of Cheshire, Shropshire, Worcestershire, Gloucestershire and Wiltshire, each with its own charm, identity, and lovely towns and villages. You can fall in love with the honey-coloured cottages in Cotswold towns like Cirencester and wander the Medieval streets of Shrewsbury on your way.
There are few Sustrans Cycle Routes that offer more diverse historical highlights than the Mercian Way. You will ride by the ancient ruins of Roman cities, explore magnificent country estates, crumbling Cheshire castles, Iron Age hill forts, 12th-century abbeys, spectacular cathedrals, the heartlands of the Industrial Revolution and two UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Stonehenge and Ironbridge.
Even if they slow you down a bit on the road sections, tyres with at least 32mm tread will be the most comfortable on this ride as you follow canal towpaths, gravel trails and farm tracks through the countryside. Your hybrid, adventure, or mountain bike are ideal for the sometimes off-road bumpy roads.
Traffic-free sections make up around 12% of the terrain, however, bear in mind that some busier stretches are unavoidable, especially when entering and leaving cities so it may not be the best option for young families or inexperienced riders.
You can ride this route any time of the year, although riding in the summer increases your chance of sunny days and drier trails. If you get caught in a downpour, there’s plenty of towns, villages and cities dotted along the route where you can dry off, grab a bite to eat, and explore a museum or two.
You can also enjoy spectacular nature as you follow the Mercian Way. The Mid Cheshire Range hills, wild nature reserves, the unusual rocky Hawkstone Park Follies, verdant parklands, the enchanting Wyre Forest, Cotswold Waterpark, the banks of the gushing River Severn and quintessentially English countryside scenes from your saddle.
Chester and Salisbury are great locations to begin and end your adventure as both cities are well-connected by rail. Both cities were once Roman strongholds and boast beautiful historic buildings which paint a picture of their bygone days.
The Mercian Way crosses paths with lots of other great long-distance cycle routes. You can pick up the Severn and Thames Way from Gloucester (komoot.com/collection/889552/cycle-along-historic-waterways-the-severn-and-thames-way), or extend your adventure in either direction on the Cheshire Cycleway from Chester (komoot.com/collection/897566/a-lush-adventure-through-rural-britain-riding-the-cheshire-cycleway) or the Wiltshire Cycleway from Salisbury (komoot.com/collection/910262/cycle-through-5-000-years-of-history-wiltshire-cycleway)
This first stage guides you from the historic city of Chester to Whitchurch via quiet countryside and burbling streams. Chester is a dynamic city that was a major Roman stronghold and one of the last places to succumb to Norman invasion. Take time to explore its rich history and heritage before taking the Shropshire Union Canal towpath out of the city. The route begins fairly flat as you follow the canal, switching to a lane in Waverton village. With fields of black and white cattle to your right and the canal on your left, you ride through the Cheshire landscape, crossing the River Gowy. The pub just outside of Huxley is a great place to stop for a break.Next, veer right and ride back over the Shropshire Union Canal. You have your first small climb here, which takes you up to Beeston Castle and Crag, an impressive historical site with wonderful views stretching across eight counties and into Wales.From the castle, climb gently through the countryside, passing the occasional farm and village, such as Burwardsley and Harthill. To your left, the Bickerton Hill and Bulkeley Hill, part of the Mid Cheshire Ridge hills, rise from the landscape. Formed during the last Ice Age, these rolling sandstone hills played an important role in Cheshire’s history. There are many Iron Age hill forts and castles in the area, such as Maiden Castle, which marks the highest point of stage 1. A downhill stretch through farmland brings you to the magnificent Cholmondeley Castle where you can relax in the sprawling parkland. Next, a network of quiet country lanes leads to Wrenbury, a small village on the Llangollen Canal with plenty of amenities.The final 9.3 miles (15 km) take you past Combermere Abbey on your way to Whitchurch, your final stop. The oldest inhabited town in Shropshire, Whitchurch oozes historical charm. You can find a comfortable place to stay, too.
On your second day of adventure, you ride 39 miles (62.9 km) from Whitchurch to Shrewsbury through the wonderful county of Shropshire. Known for its patchwork countryside and rich history, Shropshire is full of surprises. Follow a cycle path to leave Whitchurch and return to the countryside. The route gradually becomes more and more picturesque as you delve deeper into the rural landscape after Alkington village. Cross over the Llangollen Canal to visit Fenns, Whixall and Bettisfield Mosses Nature Reserve where you can easily whittle away a few hours on the hunt for unusual animals and critters. Continuing along rural lanes, wiggle through grassy fields before joining the busier B5476 for a few hundred metres. When you turn onto the road, you can make a small detour to visit the pub in the other direction if you’re hungry. You pass Prees train station on your way into Prees, a small village with a couple of shops. From the village, the route heads gently uphill towards Hawkstone Park Follies, an unique landscaped park with rocky outcrops, based around the ruins of a Medieval castle. Next, keep south as you ride towards Stanton Upon Hine Heath, a small village on the River Rodden with a local pub. The final section is a rural journey around Haughmond Hill, through colourful green landscapes and hedge-lined fields before reaching Shrewsbury. As the largest town in Shropshire, Shrewsbury is a wonderful place to end your ride. Located on the banks of the River Severn, the town is overflowing with interesting things to do from sweating in a climbing gym to visiting the town’s prison on a guided tour. There’s plenty of places to stay and eat as well.
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Stage 3 is a wonderful ride through thousands of years of history from Roman rule to the Industrial Revolution. Today you ride 22.1 miles (35.6 km) from Shrewsbury to Ironbridge. Leave Shrewsbury via the Old Shrewsbury Canal Path which loosely follows the River Severn as it flows through Uffington. You can enjoy the views around Haughmond hills for the second time as you ride through the Shropshire landscape, through Upton Magna village to Attingham Park, a wonderful country estate with thousands of acres of parkland. Next, head through Atcham, cross the River Tern and roll into Wroxeter. Just outside the village, the ruins of Wroxeter Roman City are an impressive example of Roman rule in Britain. Continue along quiet lanes and through Eyton on Severn, where the route starts climbing into the secluded countryside, past the Wrekin hills, until Little Wenlock. It’s tough going but the views here are lovely. Plus, there’s a pub at the top to cool off after your climb. The remainder of stage 4 heads downhill into the Ironbridge Gorge. Carved by the River Severn, this deep gorge is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site thanks to its integral role in the Industrial Revolution. You can visit a range of former mills, engineering-firsts and historic villages along the valley.Your final stop is Ironbridge, a town in the heart of the Ironbridge Gorge. You’ll find plenty of accommodation, food and drink, and historical sites here.
Today you clock up 31.5 miles (50.8 km) as you cross the county boundaries of Shropshire into Worcestershire. With 1,900 feet (580 m) of climbing, stage 4 is the hilliest of the Mercian Way. But, you loosely follow a railway line for the majority of the way, so you are never far from a train if your legs get tired. After delving into Ironbridge’s history and visiting its iconic bridge, take a traffic-free path along the Severn as it meanders through the industrial heartlands of Jackfield and Coalport. You follow the river for just over 9.3 miles (15 km), when it flows into Bridgenorth. The town is separated into a lower and higher part, connected by Britain’s steepest funicular railway. Once a thriving port, there are lots of tudor mansions which Charles I even once described as “the finest in all my Kingdom.” Next, head into the surrounding countryside where you meet fields of grazing livestock and peaceful rural scenes. You wind your way through sleepy villages and ride around Chelmarsh Reservoir before rejoining the Severn at Hampton Loade. The lanes rise and fall through the countryside on their way to Arley Arboretum on the outskirts of the picturesque Upper Arley village.From here, you have a fair few metres to climb as you cross the river, pass Pound Green Airfield and enter the magical Wyre Forest. A traffic-free track leads through the dense, leafy trees – this is a magical place to cycle. The forest ends on the doorstep of Bewdley, a quaint riverside town which is to be your home for the night. The town, known for its bridge designed by Thomas Telford, has plenty of comfortable accommodation to choose from.
Stage 5 takes you through the county of Worcestershire from Bewdley to Worcester. Known as the birthplace of Elgar, for its sauce, and morris dancing, this county has a lot to offer. J.R.R. Tolkein even found inspiration for his Lord of the Rings Trilogy here, saying Worcester is “'home' to me, as no other part of the world is."With barely any climbing today and 24.8 miles (40 km) to ride, you should have plenty of time to soak up Worcestershire’s wonderful sights. On the edge of Bewdley, follow the Kings Way trail through Burlish Top Nature Reserve and over the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal, where you join the Leapgate Old Railway Line. Take a right turn to visit the wildlife-rich Hartlebury Common and Hartlebury Castle, where you can learn more about Worcestershire’s diverse history at the museum here. A quiet stretch through the countryside is interrupted by your arrival in Droitwich Spa. Known for its natural, salty springs, the town has plenty of charm, as well as all-important eateries and shops where you can stop for lunch. There’s a lido if you fancy a dip, too. A short few miles from Droitwich Spa, you arrive on the outskirts of Worcester, the county’s capital. Follow a cycle path into the heart of the city, where you find a thriving high street lined with historical buildings, plenty of shops, restaurants and cafes. The city also has plenty of accommodation to choose from.
Continuing your journey through Worcestershire, stage 6 brings you into a second of the Three Counties, Gloucester, loosely following the River Severn as it flows through verdant countryside.Quiet countryside scenes soon envelop you as you leave Worcester. Expect bushy hedge-lined lanes, commons blanketed in wild flowers, farms and quaint red-brick rural homes here. Pass through Pirton, a tiny village with a lovely lake. You won’t find a shop or pub though, unfortunately. Keep pedalling through the beautiful countryside and you arrive at Croome Court, a stunning 18th-century mansion run by the National Trust. Set amongst acres of wildflower meadows, woodland, and gardens, this is a wonderful place to explore. Next, the route continues through the green landscapes of Worcestershire, interspersed with charming villages every few miles. Importantly, you’ll find pubs in Kinnersley, Baughton, and Twyning (which also has a supermarket). On the outskirts of Tewkesbury, cross the River Severn and ride through the villages of Budley, Forhampton, Chaceley and Tirley, with quiet stretches of countryside in between.From Ashleworth, a quaint village with history stretching at least as far back as Roman invasion, the route heads up a small hill before dropping down into Maisemore and tracing the River Severn into Gloucester city centre. Having undergone a lot of redevelopment in recent years, Gloucester has everything you need for a comfortable stay.
Honey-coloured stone cottages, rolling hills and farmland, and abundant history – stage 7 is a 37.2 mile (60 km) ride from Gloucester to Cirencester, through the beautiful Cotswolds. Water is never far away today. You meet the River Severn multiple times as you leave Gloucester and ride through the countryside.You have plenty of choices for riverside pubs in this section of the route. In Epney, you can sit on the banks of the Severn at the Anchor Inn or watch canal boats navigate the Gloucester and Sharpness Canals’ lochs on the outdoor terrace at the Stables Cafe. Next, cross the canal via Sandford Bridge and wiggle further through the countryside. The Stroud Navigation leads into Stonehouse, a town with plenty of shops and restaurants, on the edge of the Cotswolds designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Follow a traffic-free path along the Stroud Navigation as it flows through Woodchester Valley, one of the Stroud Valleys, passing the villages of Ebley, North Woodchester and South Woodchester, before arriving in Nailsworth. This Cotswold town, which was once a mill town and centre of brewing, is a popular hangout for hikers thanks to its proximity to the Cotswold Way. As such, there’s loads of places to grab a bite to eat, such as the farmers’ market which happens every fourth Saturday of the month. From the town, a climb takes you to Minchinhampton where you then ride down through beautiful Cotswold scenes. Some of the lanes through the woods here can be really muddy after wet weather, so take care. As is typical in the Cotswolds, you’ll head up and over undulating hills, passing golden-stone manor houses and picturesque villages on your way to Cirencester, your final stop. The largest town in the Cotswolds, Circencester has everything you need to rest your legs for the following day.
Today you ride 35.4 (57 km) from Cirencester to West Overton, entering the diverse county of Wiltshire. The route starts off fairly flat, with a fair bit of climbing in the second half of the day, gaining 1,150 feet (350 m) in total. A few miles outside of Circencester, you reach the Cotswold Water Park, a wonderfully varied collection of lakes. Here, you can follow a trail through the water, looking out for kingfishers and swans as you go. The trail leads all the way to Cricklade, a small village on the banks of the Thames, England’s longest river. Continue along a traffic-free way through the countryside, before joining a lane which heads over Tadpole Bridge, crossing the River Ray. Next, you skirt around the edges of Swindon, a thriving town which grew massively in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. Head through Coate Water Park and Chiseldon, a village on the edge of the Marlborough Downs. For the majority of the rest of stage 8, you can enjoy the peaceful, traffic-free Old Ridge Way through the North Wessex Downs AONB. You cross the Fyfield Down Nature Reserve on a single track through wild meadows and historic standing stones – truly wonderful. Just be aware there are often cows here, including bulls. In Avebury, you can visit the Avebury Manor National Trust property before heading to West Overton, your final stop. Although accommodation is limited in the village, you can find a hot meal and bed at The Bell, in the neighbouring villages, or make a small detour to Marlborough for more options.
Your final day following Route 45 takes you through the North Wessex Downs to Salisbury, taking in more of Wiltshire’s finest sites. With 1,115 feet (340 m) of climbing and 1,500 feet (450 m) of downhill, it’s freewheeling (well, almost) the whole way. Setting off from West Overton, you are immediately immersed in colourful countryside scenes as you pass the iconic Alton Barnes White Horse cut into the hillside. Pass through the village of Honey Street (yes, you read that right) which has a pub on the banks of the Kennet and Avon Canal, before continuing north through the lovely landscape. A small detour takes you to the striking Marden Henge mound before you join the River Avon which you loosely follow for the rest of the day. There are countless villages dotted along the banks of the river such as Upavon, Engford and Haxton, where you can often find food and drinks. Trace the edges of Salisbury Plain until Amesbury. Although this area is marked as a red military zone, it is safe to follow the marked paths unless otherwise stated by signage. From Amesbury, you take another small detour to visit one of the most famous historical sites in the UK, if not the world, Stonehenge. If you don’t want to pay the entrance, you can admire these incredible stones from the road. Rejoin the River Avon as it winds through more picturesque riverside villages and through the Devenish Nature Reserve and Old Sarum Roman ruins on its way into Salisbury. Salisbury is a cathedral city known for its captivating history. With plenty of Roman relics and a stunning cathedral, the city has a lot to offer. You’ll find plenty of shops, restaurants, cafes, and pubs too. You can easily catch a train to return home from your adventure. Salisbury has direct connections to London, Exeter, and Cardiff. More information: thetrainline.com/stations/salisbury