Winning tip: mystic river, Peak District
My favourite railway walk is along the Manifold Track, a narrow gauge railway in the Peak District that closed in 1934 and was probably one of the first railways to become a footpath, thanks to the foresight of Staffordshire Council. This is limestone country and full of interest. The mysterious River Manifold disappears underground completely in the summer just below the old halt at Wetton Mill and picturesque Thor’s cave overlooks the tiny track bed that winds its way up the valley crossing no fewer than 27 bridges on its way from Waterhouses to Hulme End, where bikes can be hired. Kids love cycling through Swainsley Tunnel and don’t forget to stop for cream tea at Wetton Mill.
New Wye valley trail, for views and ruins
The UK’s newest railway walk (and cycle ride) is the just-opened spectacular Wye Valley Greenway. This five-mile route links the outskirts of Chepstow with Tintern – thanks to the work of determined volunteers. Highlights include the 1km Tidenham Tunnel (closed at night), views of the River Wye and its dramatic cliffs, and crossing the bridge into Tintern, where there are cafes and pubs for refreshment, and the abbey ruins. You can get there on the train – Chepstow railway station is less than a mile from the start.
Victorian rail hub, Merseyside
In the 19th century, Halewood Triangle was a hub of railway activity as two main rail lines converged here. Today it is a honeypot for local people and visitors to ramble around. The former railway track hosts the Trans Pennine Trail, superb for walkers and cyclists alike. Other paths snake through woodland rich in gnarled trees. The Ducky Pond is a particularly pleasant draw for a restful break. Verges filled with wildflowers enhance a summer walk. A mini gym provides entertainment for the children. All around there are reminders of this site’s important railway heritage.
Richmond to Easby Abbey, North Yorkshire
The Station in Richmond is now a lovely arts venue and cinema with a cafe and small shops. Head off down the disused railway line on a circular 3½-mile walk that will take you over the River Swale, said to be England’s fastest-flowing river, and to the enchanting ruins of Easby Abbey, painted by JMW Turner (entry free). Next to the abbey is the little church of Saint Agatha’s. Continue along the path through a field of sheep (keep dogs on a lead) and down into the woods alongside the river. Pass the memorial to the Little Drummer Boy and back over Mercury Bridge to the station.
Idyllic villages and Pooh, East Sussex
Starting from, somewhat ironically, Beeching Way in East Grinstead (Baron Beeching, who axed so many railway lines, was a local resident) walkers and cyclists can take the Forest Way to Groombridge; a 10-mile trail that takes up most of the old train track that connected Tunbridge Wells to East Grinstead. Along the way you can stop off near Forest Row for some of Tablehurst Community Farm’s bio-dynamic sausage rolls, in Hartfield for some “pooh-phernalia” from Pooh Corner before ending up in Groombridge, on the border with Kent and from where the Spa Valley Railway brings the train tracks back to life, offering steam services to Tunbridge Wells (from 22 May). In between you’re treated to some glorious views: dragonflies, damselflies, foxes, newts, birds and badgers all use this green corridor, so even though it’s only a short hop between each of the villages you feel miles away from anywhere.
Woods and water, South Staffordshire/West Midlands
The South Staffordshire Railway Walk runs from Wombourne to Aldersley in Wolverhampton. There are great cafes at either end so if you walk there and back you can refuel at the start, middle and end of your walk. The start and end points also link to canal walks with the prettiest at the historic Bratch Locks, and you can turn it into a circular walk of about nine miles using the canal link. Along the old railway line there’s interesting graffiti art under bridges, and tempting diversions along paths running through woodland alongside the main path. You can also include an amble through Smestow Valley nature reserve (a good location for a picnic).
Arthur’s Seat to the sea, Edinburgh
Edinburgh’s former railway lines offer some of my favourite city walks, which make you feel miles away from the bustle of the town. Starting at Arthur’s Seat, you can follow the Innocent Railway path through a 518-metre tunnel and then all the way down to the beach at Portobello. The old suburban line allows an entire loop of the city, with sections of different lengths depending how far you want to walk, and with regular access points. Look out for the old station platforms along the route – my favourite down near Granton, has been turned into a house. Information boards along the route give information on the history of the areas and the railway line.
History from iron age to D-day, Hampshire
The trackbed of the former Meon Valley Railway, between Wickham and West Meon in Hampshire, should not be missed for walkers, families and train enthusiasts. The route provides a flat and well-managed route straight into the beautiful Meon Valley. In just 10 miles, it packs in a selection of sinuous chalk streams, ancient churches, gently sloping downland and even an iron age hillfort. The beautifully preserved former station at Droxford, meeting place of the Allied Leaders in 1944, should not be missed and demonstrates how former railway infrastructure can quickly take on a new lease of life after closure. Grab a pint at the White Lion in, wait for it, Soberton.
Strawberry fields, Somerset
Walking into the dark entrance of the 165-metre Shute Shelve tunnel of the Strawberry Line in Somerset is like disappearing down a corridor into the past. The 10-mile route takes its name from the former railway which carried strawberries from the fields around Cheddar. Running past the river Yeo and Sandford Orchards cider maker, this rail trail offers amazing views of the rolling countryside. Be sure to start with a coffee at the kiosk in Yatton Village, run by volunteers who helped renovate the walk, and enjoy a stop on the still-intact platforms at Winscombe station.
Follow that bus, Cambridgeshire
The northern stretch of the Cambridge Guided Busway follows the course of the former Cambridge-St Ives railway line. Alongside this is part of the National Cycle Network’s route 51, a smooth asphalt track affording leisurely walks or cycles through hedge-lined farmland. It also bisects the RSPB reserve at Fen Drayton, its glistening lakes the result of former sand and gravel quarrying. Recent highlights include seeing swallows skimming the grassy earthworks of Swavesey Priory and enjoying a skylark song soundtrack. And if weary after walking, you can always catch a bus back.