Bristol to Burnham by bike

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An approximately 65 mile (104km) ride from Ashton in Bristol to Burnham-on-Sea in Somerset. Add 3.5 miles if you’re coming from Temple Meads station: go over Valentine’s Bridge, past Gardiners, under Bond Street, through Castle Park, along Welsh Back, through Queen Square, over Princes Street Bridge and either along the harbourside (interesting old industry) or the riverside (easier, quicker ride) towards the Create Centre, crossing the river on the old railway bridge. Those of you not coming from the station will have to find your own way.

The tour starts beside the Brunel Way bridge over the tidal River Avon, with the classic view down the Avon Gorge to Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge, 245 ft (75 m) above the water. The gorge forms a spectacular defensive gateway to the city and its harbour. A bridge over the gorge was first proposed in the mid-18th century, but was only realised in the 1860s, when a modified version of Brunel’s 1,352 ft (414 m) design was constructed.

Through the gorge we’re on the compacted gravel National Cycle Network route 41 — the Ashton to Pill path. This follows the towpath along the riverside, though years of tree growth and adjustments to the river course would make it unusable for its original purpose. The cycleway shares the narrow section of riverbank with the Portishead Railway, a single track branch of the Great Western Railway. A victim of the Beeching Axe, the line has been reopened for freight traffic from the Royal Portbury Dock, and residents are campaigning for passenger services to return to Portishead itself. Beneath the suspension bridge, where the gorge side is sheer rock, the line has been put in a short tunnel to protect it from rock falls.

On our side of the river there are many paths going off up the side of the gorge into Leigh Woods. The first such path after the suspension bridge is the picturesque Nightingale Valley. Above this, at the top of the gorge, is an iron age hill fort, one of a pair guarding the gorge. The walls of the gorge opposite are more vertical than on this side: this is partly due the quarrying of limestone to build the city. Unfortunately, the A4 Portway road also runs along the opposite bank, disturbing the mood.

Beyond the gorge we emerge onto the flood plains. Another railway, the Severn Beach Line, has joined the Portway, having emerged from a tunnel under The Downs. On the opposite bank is the suburb of Sea Mills, and we pass the mouth of the Trym, used as a harbour since at least Roman times. The river meanders around to Shirehampton and the path meanders past a farm to Ham Green lake, a small fishing lake.

There’s a short easy climb to Ham Green itself, with its little National Cycle Network Tellytubbyland, and a view over the industrial landscape of Avonmouth: docks, power stations, smelting works and grain elevators, topped off with the concrete M5 motorway bridge over the estuary. Beyond Avonmouth is the Bristol Channel and the Second Severn Crossing in the distance. The path drops into the village of Pill, where the Portishead Railway crosses on a low viaduct. There is a village shop in the 1960s precinct the other side of the village green. We’re following NCN41 back down to the river. We’re nearing the mouth of the Avon here — it’s just the other side of the Avonmouth Bridge — and the river is heavily tidal. It is for this reason that the docks of Bristol’s Floating Harbour declined: the Avon Gorge turned out to be too much of a defensive gateway. The narrow and meandering estuary, with its tidal currents and very shallow waters at low tide, is too much for large modern ships. The deep water docks at Avonmouth, to the north of the river, and Portbury, to the south, have therefore replaced the Floating Harbour as a commercial port.

We’re heading towards the Royal Portbury Dock. Just before NCN41 climbs up onto the Avonmouth Bridge, we turn left onto the start of NCN3 (unless you want a short detour to see the view from the bridge) and go under the bridge, alongside the Portishead Railway again. The Portbury dock is particularly used for the import of new cars, and the cycleway meanders past hundreds of acres of car parks before emerging onto the road at Sheepway. This road crosses the Portishead Railway where it is in a far worse state than the previous sections we’ve passed: this is part of the final three miles that have yet to be reopened. An Ordnance Survey map will be of limited help for the next mile or so: Portishead is growing so rapidly that they can not keep up.

There are two detours you might want to take in Portishead. The old dock isn’t far off course, though at the moment it’s a building site. Like the docks in Bristol, the Portishead Dock has lost its industry, and gentrification is turning it into a land of cafes, bars, and luxuary flats, all catering for those who keep their yachts in the marina. The dock was constructed in the 1860s for the new ships that couldn’t make the journey up the Avon, and at its height had a chemical works and a pair of power stations fired by coal from the somerset field or shipped in from south Wales. Above the docks is a wooded hill, beyond which is Battery Point, which has some nice views up and down the channel. Below this is the Marine Lake and the mud and pebble beach. Make sure you pick a sunny day to come here: if it’s windswept and overcast, the view over the boating lake and beach will put you off the region forever.

We take the coast road southwest out of Portishead, up the hill, and past the vile caravan park. The hill above this road is rich in ancient earthworks, though they’ll require a short walk if you wish to inspect them. It’s worth a detour to Clevedon sea front for its 1869 pier, one of Britain’s two grade I listed piers. Part of the pier collapsed in 1970 and it remained derelict for decades while funds were raised for repair, finally reopening in 1998. The pier is still used by the Bristol Channel steamers and its landing stage is tiered to account for the extreme tidal range of the channel — one of the largest in the world. There is also a nice walk around Church Hill at the west end of town, with views over Landford Grounds.

South of Clevedon the land is flat: you will be able to see the hedges either side of the road and nothing beyond. You want to end up on the B3133, though a detour along Lower Strode Road is fine. Don’t be fooled by the footpaths marked on the OS map: the farmers have done a very good job of hiding them and making them impassable. Sticking to the roads is a longer distance, and involves the ‘A’ road, but it’s probably less hastle.

I took a detour through Wick St Lawrence: it’s not really worth it. Had I been paying more attention to the map, and been less in need of refreshment, I would have taken another detour up Collum lane to Woodspring Priory. Since I didn’t, I can not tell you whether it’s worth visiting. Sand Bay is worth it though. As the name suggests, Sand Bay has sand. It is the first on the channel, Portishead and Clevedon having rather uninviting mud and rock shores. Of course, there’s plenty of mud here too, and you won’t find a proper sandy beach further up the channel than West Somerset — Weston-super-Mare is famous for its mud, after all. Sand Bay has a particularly desolate, faded feel. While the big Victorian resorts like Weston have at least remained significant towns, and even had something of a revival as resorts in recent years, Sand Bay never had a town. Pontins have moved out, leaving their caravans and chalets. Marram grass has collonised the dunes beside the road, and spartina grass has taken over the mud flats to the north. Imagine the effect: the tide out, revealing a mile of mud; the wind blowing over the dunes and low rise village (the funfair closed out of season); a container ship heading for Portbury; some smoke rising from the industry on the Welsh coast.

Avoid the suburbs of Weston, take the coast road around Worlebury hill. Trees obscure the view back up Sand Bay or accross the channel, but you emerge at the wonderful Birnbeck pier and island. Birnbeck has evolved over the years, with significant construction taking place in 1867, 1884 and 1932. In 1984 the pier was damaged by a dredging pipe, and in 1987 a fire damaged some buildings. The Victoria Arcade was gutted the following year, damaging other buildings on the island. Yet to be redeveloped or restored, the island’s buildings have been left to the elements for two decades, though the pier itself has been repaired, as the island also hosts a lifeboat station: it is the only place on this stretch of coast that is both close enough to the population centre, and close enough to the water at low tide.[1]

It’s worth dismounting here and taking the promenade past the Marine Lake lido and Knightsone Island, to get the views over Weston bay, along the sea front and over to Brean. Weston’s sea front architecture is entirely Victorian: prior to 1808 — when the Royal Hotel was constructed — it was a collection of small fishing and farming villages. Over the following decades the town was laid out and grand buildings went up. Weston was brought to the masses in 1841 when the Great Western Railway’s Exeter extension opened, and in 1867 with the opening of Birnbeck Pier, which recieved steamers from South Wales. As of 2007, buildings on Knightstone island are being converted to appartments, and building work may restrict access to this area.

In 1904, to tackle the problem of Birnbeck Pier visitors avoiding the town centre, construction of the Grand Pier began. The Grade II listed iron pier is a quarter of a mile in length, but was originally intended to be six times that size, so that the landing stage would not be stranded at low tide.[2] On the seaward platform sits a 1930s art-deco music-hall pavillion. Several other inter-war buildings, including several influenced by art-deco, line the sea-front. Notable is the 1927 Winter Gardens and Pavillion.

Weston is famous for traditional 19th and early-20th century English tourist activities, now much derided. The miniature railway still runs, the crazy golf still entertains, and the donkeys still give rides along the beach. Even the paddle steamers are steaming again. The construction sites would even give the impression of an economic boom. But the transformation is far from complete: the swimming pool is derelict, once proud hotels are now residental B&Bs, and the Grand Pier music-hall is full of amusement arcades and elderly cafe patrons.

Just south of Weston, the limestone Mendip Hills meet the Bristol Channel. Here, they form the one-and-a-half mile long and 320ft (100m) high Brean Down headland, and the island of Steep Holm. Brean Down itself is not our route, and it would be difficult to fit into this journey in a single day, but it worth a separate trip. Our journey goes south from Weston to the suburb of Uphill, and back onto the signed cycle route through the gap between Brean Down and the rest of the Mendip Hills. Here the path passes the limestone quarry, above which stands Uphill church and windmill, surveying the town. Beyond the hills, we are back into flat country, with the Somerset Levels, and once again, the rivers and drains make picking a route difficult. Though maps show tracks across the levels to Brean, these are not passable, and one must head back to the road.

Take the first right after the railway bridge (~1/4 mile). Soon you will have to decide whether to take a detour into Brean or not. Brean has good views along the beach to the headland, and across the channel, though the village itself is of the windswept dunes, caravan parks, and tacky family entertainment variety. Either way, head towards Berrow, where the beach can be acessed at Berrow Manor. If the tide is out, there will be sands firm enough to cycle along into Burnham — but don’t venture out onto the mudflats: with a mile and a half of them, they can very quickly change with the tide. If the tide is in, follow the B3140 instead, and take a detour at the first right after the roadside lighthouse for another path to the beach, this one emerging beside Burnham’s famous lighthouse on the beach.

The lighthouse on legs (officially, the “Low lighthouse”) is a grade II listed mid-19th century structure is one of three lighthouses in the town. The low lighthouse is mostly wooden, though metal reinforcements have been added.

At the end of the seafront, turn left along the cycleway and follow the Brue estuary for Highbridge station.


  1. ^  Weston-super-Mare Pier Company: Birnbeck History
  2. ^  English Heritage Images of England, The Grand Pier

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