Herons dip in and out of the calm waters as you follow peaceful towpaths; trails lead through green scenery tracing decades of railway history; ancient inns in coaching towns tempt you to stop for a break and enjoy a traditional pub lunch. All this and more is waiting for you to discover by bike in the South Midlands.
This Collection guides you through the heart of England in seven stages. Ranging in length from 20.1 (32.4 km) to 32.7 miles (52.6 km) and with no more than 1,200 feet (370 m) of climbing in a single day, this route is perfect for all abilities.
Almost half of the South Midlands Cycleway follows traffic-free routes such as canal towpaths, cycle lanes, and former railway lines. Not only are these sections a relaxing way to explore the scenery, but they also reveal a fascinating insight into the South Midland’s industrial heritage. Most of the paths are well-surfaced but you will encounter some gravel and mud so you might need to push for some sections. A solid touring bike or gravel bike is the perfect choice for this adventure.
One of the birthplaces of the Industrial Revolution, the South Midlands has wonderful landscapes that have been reclaimed by nature. You will ride through undulating farmland, along winding rivers, and through shaded forests blanketed with wildflowers. Keep your eyes peeled for rare wildlife such as kingfishers as you cycle along the canals and through nature reserves.
Several of the region’s major cities also lie en route. Derby, Leicester, Milton Keynes, Northampton, Nottingham, and Oxford will tempt you to stay an extra day or two. You can learn more about the South Midlands and the wider world at the many museums such as the National Space Centre in Leicester and the Pitts Rivers Museum in Oxford.
The South Midlands may surprise you with its diversity and each day brings new highlights. On this ride, you have the chance to visit: Blenheim Palace, a UNESCO designated house considered to be one of the finest in the UK; Althorp House which was once home to Princess Diana; the historic honey-coloured university colleges of Oxford, and more.
Thanks to these cities and towns, you are always close to a shop, a hot meal, and a comfy bed. You can easily pack light with just essential tools, clothes, a first aid kit, and toiletries. Food can be bought on the go. Don’t forget to pack lights too; there are two dark tunnels between Northampton and Market Harborough.
The region is well-connected by rail so you can flexibly plan your adventure. All of the end stages have a train station so you can choose if you want to ride the Collection in one go or just do an individual stage or two.
Both Nottingham and Oxford, the start and endpoint, have good train links. Check if you need to reserve a space for your bike before travelling and enjoy the ride!
With beautiful nature reserves, canal heritage, magnificent castles and historic cities, stage 1 introduces you to the diverse history, culture and landscapes of the South Midlands. Today you can enjoy a flat 20.1 mile (32.4 km) ride, mostly along cycle paths, from Nottingham to Derby. Setting off from Nottingham centre, you soon meet the Nottingham Canal to leave the city. The leafy towpath takes you through the wildlife-rich Attenborough Nature Reserve, where you join quiet roads through Long Eaton. On the edge of Breaston, a rural village, a bridleway leads you through wide fields. The surface is unpaved so take care, especially if it has recently rained.Next, a short stretch on a cycle path along Derby Road takes you over the River Derwent. Here, you can take a break to visit the stunning Elvaston Castle before continuing on a riverside path, following the River Derwent. Tracing the river’s twists and turns, you skirt around Alvaston, a thriving village on the edge of Derby which grew rapidly during the Industrial Revolution. The village has plenty of pubs and cafes to pause for a break. The River Derwent takes you into the heart of Derby, marking the end of stage 1. Having been settled by the Romans, Saxons and Vikings, Derby has a rich history with plenty of sites to explore. It also was one of the birthplaces of the Industrial Revolution, a legacy which is still visible in the buildings and museums. You’ll find everything you need in the city to rest up for the following day.
Stage 2 is another great ride connecting two historic cities – Derby and Leicester. With 32.7 miles (52.6 km) and 1,200 feet (370 m) to pedal, today is your longest day in the saddle. From Derby’s interesting centre, a cycle path along the River Derwent winds through the city suburbs where you join the Derby Canal. At Swarkestone Lock, you switch onto the Trent & Mersey Canal as it flows through quiet countryside. Just before Weston-on-Trent, the path splits. Take a right to cross the River Trent where you meet the Cloud Trail Greenway. This traffic-free path, which follows a former railway line, starts off a bit gravely before smoothing out.Next, cross the A42 and continue along the trail past Worthington Quarry, where you join a rural lane into Osgathorpe. There’s a pub in this small village for refreshments.The road continues to gently ascend through the countryside, passing the ruins of Grace Dieu Priory dating to the 13th century. You can enjoy a lovely trail through the woods here. Back on minor roads, you cycle around Whitwick and Hermitage Lake on your way to Coalville. As the name suggests, Coalville was an important industrial town known for its mining. There’s plenty of places to stop for a bite to eat in the town. The route flattens out from here as you ride through green landscapes, cutting through Elltown, Thornton and Bagworth. In between, you are met with rural scenes, woodland, and the glistening Thornton Reservoir.A bridleway takes you through the green woods and into Ratby, the last stop before Leicester, your final destination. Leicester is a thriving city which is worth taking the time to explore. The city has a huge range of accommodation and places to eat as well as good rail connections.
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Your third day exploring the South Midlands takes you 29.6 miles (47.7 km) from Leicester to Market Harborough with plenty of beautiful nature on the way. I’ve included a small detour at the start to ride through Abbey Park to the National Space Centre, a striking semi-transparent museum. To leave the city, follow the National Cycle Route 6 along a traffic-free path, crossing the Grand Union Canal and joining the Great Central Way. Skirt around Blaby and Countesthorpe, small villages to the south of Leicester, and ride along a quiet country lane. The landscape is lovely here, interspersed with the occasional ancient church and sleepy village. Shortly after Saddlington, you ride around Saddington Reservoir and pedal a short climb into Gumley. Here, you could make a small detour to the Foxton Locks where there is a pub on the water’s edge. Next, you follow the Grand Union Canal towpath again as it twists through the countryside into Market Harborough, your final stop. Look out for wildlife along this quiet section of canal. If you’re lucky you may spot otters, herons and even kingfishers here.A pretty market town with an historic centre, Market Harborough has a variety of restaurants and accommodation options. It is also well-connected to the railway network.
With magnificent country estates and wild landscapes, stage 4 is another wonderful ride. Today, you will once again follow cycle paths for the majority of the way, clocking up 29.8 miles (48 km) and finishing in Northampton. From Market Harborough, head south along the Brampton Valley Way, a 14-mile (23 km) traffic-free stretch along the former Northampton to Market Harborough Railway. You pass historical traces of the old railway such as former passenger bridges. There are also two dark tunnels so don’t forget to dig your lights out of your panniers. After just under 11 miles (17.6 km), take an optional small detour into Brixworth, a great place to stop for refreshments, where you can visit Brixworth Country Park. Leave the Brampton Valley way and cross the River Nene to head through Chapel Brampton and Church Brampton villages. Next, a network of trails takes you through the lovely Harlestone Heath which backs onto the Brampton Valley Way. This section is especially beautiful in spring when the bluebells and snowdrops bloom.Another small detour takes you to Althorp House, famous as the residence of the Spencer family and formerly Princess Diana, before riding through Northampton’s suburbs and into the town centre. Established in the Middle Ages, this historic town has many interesting sites such as Northampton Castle, which hosted the Parliament of England in the past. In the town, there’s plenty of pubs, cafes, and places to stay to rest your legs for stage 5.
Stage 5 is an easy 22.7 mile (36.5 km) ride from Northampton to Milton Keynes. You cycle along traffic-free paths and quiet rural lanes, allowing you to sit back and enjoy the wonderful scenery. To leave Northampton, follow the River Nene past Delapre Lake before crossing the Nene Valley Way, passing through Brackmills and joining a cycle path through Brackmills Country Park. Here, you will be surrounded by countryside scenes as you follow a hedge-lined lane through fields of crops. You gradually climb but the gradients are so gentle that you may not notice. Ride through Preston Deanery, a hamlet with a lovely old church, before continuing through Quinton village. There aren’t too many shops in the first half of the route, so take a small detour to Wootton if you need to refuel.Next, you head into the shaded trees of Salcey Forest, a former medieval hunting forest now managed by the Forestry Commission. It’s worth stopping to explore the trails here if you have time.Cross over the M1 into Hartwell, a small village with a pub, and pedal through fields interspersed with the occasional farm and village. On the outskirts of Castlethorpe, the route joins a cycle path along the train line which leads into the wildlife-rich Ouse Valley Country Park. The lakes here are a lovely place to stop for a picnic. Shortly after the park, you meet the Grand Union Canal again, before joining busier roads into the centre of Milton Keynes. There are bike lanes marked on the roads, but take care in the city centre. Behind the town’s 1960s high-rise buildings and urban feel, Milton Keynes has a thriving arts and cultural scene and great museums. You’ll find everything here for a pleasant stay.
Your penultimate day exploring the South Midlands is a 27.1 mile (43.7 km) cycle from Milton Keynes to Bicester. With just 590 feet (180 m) in elevation gain, stage 6 goes easy on your legs. It will take you 5 miles (8 km) to reach the edges of Milton Keynes, passing Furton Lake, where green countryside reappears. The route follows country lanes as it traces the National Cycle Network 1, past Salden Woods and into Winslow. Look out for the half-timbered 16th-century hotel and Winslow Hall in the village. A few miles out of the village, you pass Claydon House, a 18th-century country house managed by the National Trust, which is worth visiting. Afterwards, you ride through Steeple Claydon village and around Calvert Jubilee Nature Reserve, known for its two large lakes and bird watching. Pass through Twyford, the next village en route with a good pub, and drop down into Bicester on bike paths and lanes. Bicester marks your final stop for stage 6. Dating back to the Saxons, this historic town has thrived and has many restaurants, bars, and shops and excellent rail connections. There’s also a range of accommodation ranging from swanky hotels to friendly B&Bs.
Your final day is a varied ride from Bicester to Oxford passing some of the UK’s most iconic sites such as one of the finest English houses, Blenheim Palace. The first leg takes you to sleepy Wendlebury village and on a lane that crosses under the M40, running adjacent to the A41 and A43. Compared to the previous stages, the first few miles of stage 7 may seem hectic. However, with your arrival in Weston On The Green, the traffic dissipates, making way for more glorious countryside scenes. You carve through this green landscape, visiting Bletchingdon and Hampton Poyle villages, before crossing the River Cherwell and riding into Kidlington. This large village has lots of interesting historic buildings such as picturesque 17th-century almshouses and a Grade I listed tower with eight bells. From Kidlington, you can choose to take a detour to the magnificent UNESCO world heritage site, Blenheim Palace. The detour adds an additional X miles (20 km) onto your ride. The first section runs along the busy A44 past Oxford Airport, before joining wonderful trails and lanes through Blenheim Palace and the surrounding area. The detour brings you back to the original route the same place where you left it in Kidlington. The final stretch of the route is quite built-up as you ride through the outskirts of Oxford and into the city centre. Oxford marks the end of the South Midlands Cycleway. This honey-coloured city, known for its university, is steeped in history. It’s worth adding on a day or two to explore the city. When it’s time to return home, you can hop on a train: Oxford has direct links across the UK.