Family Bicycling Near London
April 10, 2016 10:38 AM   Subscribe

We're staying in London late August/early September. We want to see the Cotswolds and West Sussex. We're thinking overnight trips where we take a train out of London and then get around by bike might be more fun than renting a car and driving around. Is this plausible?

Three of us, one's a twelve-year-old. We bike along an easy canal path most Saturdays, so nothing strenuous.

a. Would we be better off renting bikes in London and taking them on the trains? Will we be able to take full-sized bikes on trains?
b. Or do we want/need folding bikes?
c. Or would we be able to rent bikes at our destination?
d. Are there lots of safe bike paths in the countryside, or are we biking on the side of the road? In which case, probably, no. Can bikes use right-of-ways and walking paths?
e. How often are we going to get heavily rained on?
f. How is London for biking around? In which case we might rent bikes in London for the whole two weeks. Recommendations for where to rent?
posted by musofire to Travel & Transportation around London, England (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
The National Cycle Network (often known as the NCN) is a series of safe, traffic-free paths and quiet on-road cycling and walking routes that connect to every major town and city.
In August it shouldn't be too rainy, but it's a crapshoot. You might get unlucky.

London is very busy and trafficky; you can do it, but you should be confident sharing lanes with buses and traffic jams. Honestly, I wouldn't do it with a twelve-year-old, unless you were sticking to the bike-only paths. You can get absolutely everywhere in London by bus or Tube though, and if you just want to bike for exercise then you can go out to e.g. Richmond and cycle through some very nice parks.

There are lots of places you can rent bikes -- I've done it around Cornwall before, and I'm sure any bike shop in Oxford would do it too. I think that's a good plan!
posted by katrielalex at 11:06 AM on April 10, 2016

Be aware that in some places, the NCN can be something of a bad joke. Do your own research...

a) Yes you can take bikes on *some* trains. Different train operating companies run different train services & they all have different rules. AtoB magazine maintains a page on getting your bike on the train, sorted by train operator which might help a bit.

b) You can rent Bromptons: Points for style in that case, but be aware that they’re not the best off-road!

c) You can probably manage to hire bikes at your destination if you want. Oxford has Bainton Bikes that do everything from self hire to guided tours for instance.

d) Very few cycle paths in the UK are completely off road - if you want that you’re going to have to go looking specifically for those cycle paths, which are usually old railway lines which have been re-purposed as cycle tracks. The NCN paths aim to keep you off the major trunk roads, but you’ll still be on the road most of the time. Sustrans has cycle maps for the major UK cycle routes.

e) Is it going to rain in August in the UK: Who knows? Bring lightweight waterproofs :)

f) I’ve never had much issue cycling round London, but with a 12 year old who’s not used to cycling on-road? I might do it, but I’d be planning my routes beforehand.

(Don’t forget to check out the OpenCycleMap for the area you plan to cycle in!)
posted by pharm at 12:10 PM on April 10, 2016

I'd strongly advise you against cycling in London with a 12 year old. London drivers, especially cabbies, are murderous psychopaths, and you can't fully avoid roads.

Be aware that in some places, the NCN can be something of a bad joke. Do your own research...
Agreed. Paths are not always well signposted (or obvious), so you can end up in some residential middle-of-nowhere with no idea where to go, or on a massive roundabout where apparently there is a cycle path going off it somewhere, but it is nowhere to be found.

Sorry if I don't sound too encouraging... IMO you'd need to be confident on roads to want to attempt something like this, unless you are just going to follow one very obvious route like the Downs Link, which is pretty, but won't take you anywhere interesting (except Bramber Castle).

Will we be able to take full-sized bikes on trains?
If you're coming to Sussex you'll likely use Southern. They allow bikes outside of peak times (and folding bikes any time). You can also rent bikes e.g. at Brighton station (Brighton is East Sussex, but just on the border).

Can bikes use right-of-ways and walking paths?
They can use bridleways, but not footpaths.
posted by ClarissaWAM at 1:03 PM on April 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

d. Are there lots of safe bike paths in the countryside, or are we biking on the side of the road? In which case, probably, no. Can bikes use right-of-ways and walking paths?

I live in the Cotswolds. The answer is that there are safe bike paths (mainly disused railway lines) but they are, at most, stretches of a few miles then you are back on a road or country lane. The roads are busy and dangerous. The country lanes can be very peaceful and quiet but they are narrow, with room for at most two cars, sometimes only one and that is where you will be biking.

There are two ways to see the Cotswolds: driving and walking. The walking paths are numerous, well-signed and a great way to get around. Very few of these are cycle-friendly, assuming cycling is not forbidden, as they are often crossing fields or very uneven dirt. Not hard for walking. Really hard for biking.

All that said, there are spots here and there that I think fit what you are looking for. For example, a bit further West is the 11-mile cycle trail around the Forest of Dean. And I have a pretty nice cycle trail going by my backyard. But, as a means of getting around the Cotswolds, probably not.
posted by vacapinta at 1:05 PM on April 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

The NCN is highly variable - check out the route carefully before cycling it if you aren't 100% up for anything. The roads are normally OK (though can be fairly busy) but you never know when you're going to end up hurtling down a steep, narrow, rocky path with a surprise fence at the bottom.

Cycling is forbidden on footpaths and pavements unless it is explicitly allowed. Please respect that - it's not really safe for anyone involved.

If you aren't tied to the places you're planning on visiting, Cambridge has some lovely cycle paths (even some off-road), it's easy to hire bikes and cycling up the river to Waterbeach for a pub lunch is quite delightful.
posted by kadia_a at 1:09 PM on April 10, 2016

Oh, and since you mentioned canal paths, thats a great option actually. I really love the walking/cycling path from Bath to Bradford-upon-Avon.
posted by vacapinta at 1:19 PM on April 10, 2016

I recently stayed in a lovely hotel in a lovely village in the Cotswolds which had bicycles to hire. They had also mapped out around 10 local scenic rides of various lengths and difficulty. Perhaps consider something like that?

On preview, canal towpaths are a great idea. There's some lovely rides even in London. Where will you be staying?
posted by goo at 1:22 PM on April 10, 2016

As pointed out above, taking bikes on trains is often allowed on off peak trains (although you need to check with each individual carrier) however a family with 3 bikes may find this difficult in practice. Many trains to/from London at most times are fairly crowded, and finding the space for 3 bikes and yourselves might be difficult and generate a lot of dirty looks and grumbling from other passengers (although it's doubtful anyone would be openly rude).

Do not cycle in London with a 12 year old unless it is completely off road. I say this as a daily car driver in London. I see dangerous situations occur daily between cyclists and cars mainly due to cars driving like dicks/idiots. You almost never see children biking in London unless it is 100% off road.

Same as stated above goes for cycling in the countryside. If you are on roads, these are often narrow lanes with very little room for even 2 cars in many spots. This does not stop people driving these roads at 60 mph (their speed limit). Again I wouldn't subject a 12 year old to that, not even for 5 minutes.

So unless you have specific 100% off-road path you want to do, this may not be the best idea, I'm sorry.
posted by peanut butter milkshake at 6:20 PM on April 10, 2016

I grew up in Sussex, spent a year living in Gloucester, and now live in London. I've always cycled.

Do not take your child cycling on the road in London. They will hate it, and you will spend the whole day terrified. The traffic is heavy and the cycling infrastructure is poor. I am quite happy cycling there because I drive as well, I'm very happy taking the lane, I use hand signals and change lanes confidently (a lot of people don't, alarmingly, they just sort of drift across lanes), and I don't mind cycling over multi-lane nightmares like the Elephant and Castle gyratory system. If your twelve year old would not be confident changing lanes on a three-lane road with a 30mph speed limit, surrounded by fast moving double-decker buses and vans that are pissed off that you are holding them up, don't take them on the road. You can't ride on the pavement, so once you set off you are committed.

There are lots of nice off-road places to cycle - through the Royal Parks, along most of the Thames Embankment, along Regent's Canal - so you can still go cycling.

Sussex and the Cotswolds are much safer. I'd happily take a child on the road in either, as long as I picked my route carefully and had a sensible twelve year old. I used to cycle in rural Sussex as a child and always felt pretty safe as long as I stayed off main roads. Do not go on A-roads, and pick your B-roads carefully. Use google maps to check how busy the route looks in advance.

Distances might be more than you think - if you're taking a day trip make sure your child has the stamina for the whole thing, you'll be taking longer routes to stay on back roads. You do need to ride confidently on the roads, and you do need to read the UK Highway Code so you know where you are meant to be in the road and what other road users are likely to do. Give horses an EXTREMELY wide berth and call out so they know you are there - they startle very very easily.

The Cotswolds are pretty hilly, and my recollection of the bridleways is that they could get pretty muddy. The South Downs Way is open to bikes, and the chalk is a bit less claggy than Cotswold clay. Lots of canal towpaths are open to bikes too, including bits of the Thames Path. As people have said, you can't ride bikes on pavements or on footpaths (trails), only on designated cyclepaths and bridleways (which are a different class of trail, often nothing to visibly distinguish them from a footpath except for trail markers giving the legal designation). Do check - there is a good Ordnance Survey app if you want something portable, or the Sustrans website mentioned above is ok.

Finally yes it will definitely rain in August in the UK, take waterproofs out with you regardless of how nice the weather looks in the morning.
posted by tinkletown at 4:34 AM on April 11, 2016

I love cycling in the English countryside, but I'm a strong, confident adult cyclist with plenty of experience dealing with traffic and with cycling and driving on the left. My rides have been mostly on narrow country lanes without cycle paths. There are exceptions, but not many. The NCN is highly variable: to take one example, route 5 sort of disappears at an intersection in Abingdon, unless you are very attentive to your surroundings, while heading north out of Oxford it follows a towpath, which is fine until it gets narrow and rutted with nettles growing alongside.

In theory, the NCN routes are planned so that a reasonable 12-year-old cyclist could use them without much danger. In practice, I'm not sure that's the case, and it often means that they follow meandering paths through the outskirts of cities with lots of turns and substandard facilities.

Finally, I too would be very hesitant to have a 12-year-old cycle in London, except perhaps in places like Hyde Park.

(Oh, and FYI, just because it's been mentioned a few times without clarification, in British English, a "pavement" is what we call a "sidewalk" in the US. Unless it is specifically allowed by signage, you can't ride on a sidewalk in the UK; if there is not a cycle path, you must ride in the road.)
posted by brianogilvie at 12:14 PM on April 12, 2016

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