Best family cycle routes in the UK

Four great rides that the children will enjoy too

Family bike rides are a great way to explore the countryside, or even an urban environment if there are traffic-free cycle routes. It's a simple pleasure you can all do together as a family, it costs practically nothing (once you have the bikes, of course), plus it's a fun way to exercise. Here are some of the best places to cycle with all the family.

Bewl Water, Kent

Bewl water features some lovely sights, such as an old oast house:
Bewl water features some lovely sights, such as an old oast house:

  • How to get there: Bewl Water is just off the A21 near Lamberhurst in Kent. The nearest train station is Wadhurst, six miles away.
  • Length: 12.5 miles (three hours)
  • Gradient: There are a few very steep stretches
  • Terrain: Mostly off-road, with some sections on quiet country roads
  • Suitability: If you want to complete the full circuit, this ride is best suited to older children
  • Points of interest: Part of Bewl Water is a nature reserve so there’s lots of birdlife. Look out for windsurfers and sail boats on the water too. A pleasure boat runs daily, except in winter
  • Bike hire: Bewl Bike Hire

A map of the bewl water route:
A map of the bewl water route:

Despite the relatively short mileage, there are some tough sections on this circuit of Bewl Water, a reservoir on the border between Kent and East Sussex. With really young children, it might be best to tackle just a short section, but for adventurous older kids it is ideal. Depending on the weather, the path around the outside is generally open to cyclists from April to early November. Much of the path is muddy in bad weather and is suited to mountain bikes or robust hybrids.

1. Start your ride from the Bewl Water Visitor Centre; you can hire bikes if you need to. Head anti-clockwise and you’ll get the more difficult parts of the ride out of the way first. As you leave the car park the climbing starts and the surface is rough in places. A left turn takes you back down to the water’s edge. It’s tempting to pause here for a moment or two to enjoy the view over Bramble Bay.

2. The trail continues along the north shore of Bewl Water in the shade of Great Hook Wood. Although it stays close to the reservoir, it’s a lot more up and down than you might expect.

3. From Combewell Wood the track loops around to head east. There’s a surprise in store as the trail takes a sharp turn to the right and climbs steeply. All but the fittest may have to get off and walk this section – hats off to anyone who rides to the top. It doesn’t last long though, and soon the route joins the road. There are some short, sharp climbs, but the downs on the other side are worth it.

4. A left turn onto Burnt Lodge Lane brings the hardest part of the ride to an end. From here, you can freewheel downhill to the reservoir. This part of Bewl Water is a nature reserve so the birdlife is undisturbed by boats and windsurfers. You’ll be closing in on the eastern edge of the reservoir now, although the trail takes a winding route to get there. After a short stretch on the road, a left turn at Rosemary Farm starts the return leg, with great views over the water towards an oast house on the far side. The shade of Polecat Wood lasts as far as the dam on the north shore. Cyclists must take the path behind it, leading back to the visitor’s centre.

The Tarka Trail, Devon

The tarka trail begins just north of dartmoor:
The tarka trail begins just north of dartmoor:

  • Length: 31 miles (four to five hours)
  • Gradient: Mostly level
  • Terrain: Smoothly surfaced most of the way, but rougher south of Torrington 
  • Suitability: If you're doing the whole route, it's best suited to older children, if you're only riding sections of it, it's suitable for all ages
  • Points of Interest: Stop off at the Bideford Railway Heritage Centre
  • Bike hire: Bike Trail Cycle Hire

The tarka trail route:
The tarka trail route:

Devon is a wonderful place to ride a bike, but the county’s many hills make most routes tough going. The Tarka Trail solves this problem, largely following disused railways. The Tarka Trail runs through the countryside described in Henry Williamson’s book Tarka the Otter, published in 1927. Children don’t have to be fans of the novel to enjoy this ride, but the more they appreciate wildlife the more they will enjoy it. You’ll be lucky to spot an otter, but there should be no shortage of flora and fauna to see as you make your way inland along the River Taw.

1. The trail runs from Braunton on the North Devon coast to Meeth, just north of Dartmoor. Ride the whole way and you cover over 30 miles, but it’s easy to trim the route to suit. Braunton to Barnstaple and back is a 12-mile round trip, which is far enough for young kids. From Braunton, the Tarka Trail heads towards the River Taw, passing Chivenor airfield, now operated by the Royal Marines. Watch out for Sea King helicopters flying near here.

2. Soon after passing the airfield, the trail meets up with the River Taw, and continues to follow the northern banks of the river all the way to Barnstaple. With plenty of cafes and restaurants, the town is a good stop for a quick bite to top up energy levels. There’s a choice of bike shops, so it’s also the place to buy any spares you may need.

3. The trail heads south just before Instow, now following the River Torridge inland to the port town of Bideford. It’s well worth taking another breather here, especially if you have time to visit the Bideford Railway Heritage Centre. From Bideford the Tarka Trail makes its way inland, becoming less well surfaced once past Great Torrington before the trail ends in Meeth.

4. For older children with a sense of adventure, it’s possible to continue south on the Devon Coast-to-Coast route all the way to Plymouth. However, for most families it’s the northern part of the ride, with its meandering river, which is the best part of the Tarka Trail.

Blackpool to Fleetwood, Lancashire

Fancy a cycle along the beach? head to blackpool:
Fancy a cycle along the beach? head to blackpool:

  • Length: 12 miles (90 minutes to two hours, but leave plenty of time to stop off)
  • Gradient: Flat
  • Terrain: An easy ride along the seafront
  • Suitability: Riding all the way to Fleetwood and back will be too much for some children, but anyone who can cycle should be comfortable riding the first few miles past Blackpool’s most famous landmarks.
  • Points of Interest: For a short ride, this coastal spin packs in a lot, mostly of the manmade variety. There’s the Tower, Blackpool Pleasure Beach, the piers, the Jubilee Gardens at Cleveleys, a boating lake and crazy golf at Fleetwood, plus a sandy beach and more.

From blackpool to fleetwood:
From blackpool to fleetwood:

There’s no more iconic seaside destination in Britain than Blackpool, and what better way for the whole family to enjoy it than from the saddle of a bicycle? This ride heads north from the gaudy delights of Blackpool along the Lancashire coast to Fleetwood, 12 miles of kiss-me-quick hats, candyfloss and bracing sea air (and maybe some hen and stag parties to dodge).

Lancashire County Council is proud to claim the ride along the promenade as the UK’s longest seafront cycle route. Going the distance should be easy enough – the ride hugs the beach so there are no hills to tire out little legs. The hard part could be keeping the kids on their bikes when there’s so much to see and do along the way.

1. The famous Blackpool Pleasure Beach will make an early bid to distract the children from riding. The country’s most visited amusement park is a must for fans of white-knuckle thrill rides. Even if you pedal on past, it’s hard not to be impressed by the Pleasure Beach’s famous rollercoasters. Perhaps promise the kids you’ll come back to the Pleasure Beach another day, as there’s plenty more to see as you ride north. There are three piers along Blackpool’s Golden Mile. The oldest and longest, the North Pier, celebrates its 150th anniversary this year. Blackpool Tower has to be even more famous than the three piers, and one of the North West’s most recognisable landmarks. Inspired by the Eiffel Tower in Paris, this Grade 1 listed building opened to the public in 1894, more than 30 years after the first of the piers was completed. Head up to the top and take the SkyWalk with its see-through floor – if you feel brave enough. You’ll probably be glad to get back on two wheels, but if you’re looking for more distractions try the pitch-and-putt golf course at Anchorsholme Park.

2. Anyone with smaller children may want to break the ride at Jubilee Park in Cleveleys, where there’s a children’s playground and gardens. Or you could pedal on, enjoying the views over Morecambe Bay towards the Lake District, a striking contrast to the noise, bustle and bright lights of Blackpool.

3. Press on all the way to Fleetwood seafront and there’s a boating lake and crazy golf. Head inland to the town centre and you’ll find a tramway and plenty of shops. Fleetwood’s sandy beach is perfect for a picnic, before turning around to ride back south to Blackpool.

The First and Last Trail, Cornwall

Cornwall's  first and last trail is some 25 miles long:
Cornwall's first and last trail is some 25 miles long:

  • Length: For younger children we would recommend the seven-mile section from Mousehole to Marazion (one to two hours). The whole trail is 25 miles from Land’s End to Hayle
  • Gradient: Ride the Mousehole to Marazion section and the route is flat; the rest of the trail is hillier
  • Terrain: Easy riding along the coast, with a mixture of well-surfaced off-road and on-road sections
  • Suitability: All ages and all abilities, although you’ll need to be fit to attempt the full-length route
  • Points of interest: There’s plenty to explore along the way, with lots of pretty shops and galleries in Mousehole, the fishing port of Newlyn, and the majestic St Michael’s Mount being particular highlights of this stretch of the southern Cornish coastline

The first and last trail in cornwall:
The first and last trail in cornwall:

Take on the full length of the First and Last Trail and you’ll have really earned that pastie. It’s 25 miles long, running from Land’s End to Hayle on the north coast near St Ives. The hardest sections include gradients of 1:7 or steeper. For anyone with younger children, a slimmed down First and Last Trail seems more sensible. You could start at Land’s End, ride through Sennen and criss-cross the narrow lanes of Penwith to Mousehole, but if you begin the route in Mousehole (pronounced ‘Mowzel’), you’ll avoid all that huffing and puffing and will ride by the sea almost the whole way to Marazion.

1. Before you start, it’s worth lingering for a while in Mousehole. This pretty fishing village has long been popular with writers and artists – the poet Dylan Thomas spent his honeymoon here, and it’s not hard to see why. The narrow roads are much better suited to bikes than cars. From Mousehole, follow the route north up the coast on one of the trail’s off-road sections. Don’t miss the views over Mount’s Bay towards St Michael’s Mount on the far side.

2. The trail rejoins the road at Newlyn. Despite the general decline of the fishing industry, Newlyn is still busy – in fact, it’s now the largest fishing port in England. Newlyn also has a strong association with the arts, and it’s worth taking a break at Newlyn Art Gallery if you have time. Admission is free all year.

3. The route continues on road to Penzance, Britain’s most south-westerly town. If you need to break up the ride, there are plenty of cafes to choose from here. From the train station, the trail once again heads off road, with helicopters from the nearby airport buzzing overhead on their way to the Scilly Isles.

4. The route follows the coast east towards St Michael’s Mount. This tidal island is one of Cornwall’s most recognisable landmarks. At low tide it can be reached on foot across a manmade causeway of granite stones. Lock up the bikes and head over to visit the sub-tropical gardens and tour St Michael’s Mount Castle, or stay on the mainland and head into the village of Marazion in search of that pasty – you’ll deserve it.

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