By Lunges & Lycra | Published on 15 February 2019
Bike rides are one of our favourite ways to explore the English countryside and by combining bikes and the train, we’ve been able to explore even further afield. This month we’re sharing some of our favourite routes to inspire you to bring your wheels on board too.
The wind in your hair, the mud on your legs and the big downhills that make you go ‘Wheeeee!’ There’s no denying there’s something special about the unadulterated feeling of joy you get when riding a bike.
We like to get out of the city and explore on two wheels whenever we get the chance and with Great Northern trains now connecting some of England’s best cycle routes, it’s easier than ever to enjoy the countryside on two wheels.
Most Great Northern trains allow you to take bikes on board outside of rush hour (you’ll find details listed at the bottom of this article), meaning you not only get to explore and uncover hidden gems on two wheels, you also get time to sit back and enjoy your stash of train snacks.
From Elizabethan houses to critically acclaimed country pubs, transform your weekend into one of active discovery by trying one of our three favourite cycle rides along the Great Northern line.
Three great routes for exploring the Great Northern Line by bike and train
For history lovers: The Great North Way
Distance: 32 miles
Starting train station: Potters Bar
Finishing train station: Letchworth
If you like your houses historic and your museums full of heritage, then The Great North Way is an ideal route. Taking you from Potters Bar to Letchworth, it explores the best of the Hertfordshire countryside, using quiet lanes and some traffic-free paths.
The real beauty of it though, is that it passes some of the area's most iconic landmarks including Hatfield House; country estate dating back to 1611. The Old Palace here was the childhood home of Elizabeth I. It was also used as a location in award-winning film The Favourite – we got a bit over-excited when we spotted the places we’d cycled past on the big screen a few weeks later.
The Stable Yard Coffee Shop in the cobbled courtyard wasn’t in The Favourite but it was a lovely place for a pit stop – cake and a cuppa is the best bit about a day on the bike.
10 miles further along the route from Hatfield, Knebworth House1 and Gardens is another must-see. Knebworth is a turreted, historic property full of antiques, a British Raj exhibition and was once home to a legendary Oasis concert (showing our age there). It’s the stunning gardens that are the big draw though, there is a maze and a dinosaur trail (awesome) and it’s a great spot for a picnic.
Pick a long sunny day and take your time over this cycle ride as it just invites stops. (When we went it was pretty drizzly. Still fun but wetter weather can mean punctures and emergency roadside repairs are still a chore no matter how stunning the backdrop). Mill Green Museum, an 18th-century working watermill in Hatfield, is worth a detour; you can even pick up some flour milled on the premises if it’ll fit in your saddle bag!
Once you’ve finished exploring the Hertfordshire countryside you and your bike can jump on one of the regular Great Northern trains from Letchworth south towards London’s Kings Cross Station or north towards Cambridge.
Further information on the Great North Way route can be found on the Sustrans website.
Top tip: Make sure you check opening times and days of houses and museums as these vary throughout the year. Admission fees may apply.
Make it shorter: If you’re tempted by Hertfordshire’s historic houses but 32 miles is too daunting, start at Hatfield train station and make your way up to Knebworth train station. The 10-mile route is all on well-signposted traffic-free cycle paths and country lanes so is perfect for beginners or cycling with older children.
For country pub critics: Cambridge to The Red Lion, Soham near Ely
Distance: Around 36 miles
Starting train station: Cambridge
Finishing train station: Ely
If post-cycle country pub stops are more your style, we recommend The Red Lion in Soham. After all, food always tastes better when you’ve been exercising outdoors.
To get there you’ll follow the National Cycle Network route 11, with a slight detour onto route 51 to avoid a missing bridge (maps can be downloaded on the link).
The route starts on the River Cam in Cambridge and heads along the traffic-free river path towards the village of Fen Ditton. There’s plenty to look out for on this section with swans, ducks and rowers making their way along the river and beautiful houses with boats moored at the bottom of the garden. If you spot a cyclist clutching a megaphone don’t be alarmed – Emma nearly jumped into the river! – there will be a boat full of renowned Cambridge University rowers not too far away.
You’ll then follow country roads up to Burwell (on route 51) before heading north towards the Wicken Fen Nature Reserve. To visit the pub leave the route at this point and turn right towards the small town of Soham.
It’s just five miles from route 11 and man is it worth it! Recently refurbished with reclaimed materials, the local pub dates back to 1620. Filled with history, it’s all ancient oak beams with a stunning thatched roof and the food - made from local ingredients where possible - is perfect for a refuel.
The menu is unpretentious and hearty, think ham hock and homemade piccalilli, haddock fish pie, blackcurrant Eton mess – ok, our mouths are drooling, again.
After you’ve digested all that goodness, rejoin route 11 and follow ride another off-road section along the River Ouse to the cathedral city of Ely and jump on the train home.
Top tip: Make sure you head up the hill from the train station at Ely to visit the stunning cathedral, which dates back to 1080. The octagonal lantern tower is impressive from both inside and outside the building.
Make it longer or shorter: The national cycle route goes all the way to King’s Lynn in Norfolk following much of the same route as the Great Northern rail line. This means you can jump on or off the train at a number of points. If you’re cycling with younger children you may just want to follow the traffic-free river path from Cambridge North to Waterbeach for around five miles. To extend your ride, stations beyond Ely include Downham Market, Watlington and King’s Lynn.
For long distance riders: London to Cambridge
Distance: 60 miles
Starting train station: N/A
Finishing train station: Cambridge
London to Cambridge is a popular route for cyclists as it presents a real but achievable challenge. The most popular route covers 60 miles starting at Pickett’s Lock in north London and finishing in the centre of Cambridge. There’s an official ride held every summer, which is great fun but if you want to make the most of the beautiful countryside we recommend taking your time and doing the ride at your own pace.
We’ve done it a couple of times now and it’s a good one to invite a few friends along to (especially if you have friends who like baking snacks for long cycle rides). We like to make a day of it, have a laze by the river Cam at the end or find a nice pub that doesn’t mind sweaty cyclists and toast our achievement.
The route, which incorporates the National Cycle Network, follows country roads through Essex, Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire. You’ll pass through idyllic villages and stunning countryside, perfect for a picnic or choosing a quaint pub for a pit stop – apparently Jamie Oliver’s parents pub is in the Essex village of Clavering just off the route, we’re planning on making a detour next time.
Once you get to Cambridge take a punt down the river if it’s a sunny day, explore the ancient streets, pretend you’re a student at the famed university or, if you’re exhausted jump on a Great Northern train. There’s a regular service to London’s Kings Cross Station from the city centre.
Top tip: If you’ve cycled all the way to Cambridge it would be a shame not to explore the colleges, museums and famous riverside. Pack a bike lock so that you can wander around the city unencumbered. Cycling is one of the most popular ways to get around the city so there’s no shortage of places to lock up your bike.
Make it longer: If you’re feeling really sporty, forget the train and cycle back to London for a double whammy of a ride.
It’s free to travel with a folding bike anytime but if you want to take a regular bike on the train, there are a few restrictions you need to know about.
No non-folding bikes:
- At any time between Moorgate and Drayton Park
- On trains south of Stevenage or Hertford North arriving between 07:00 and 09:30 Monday to Friday, except on public holidays
- On trains times to leave London between 16:00 and 19:00 Monday to Friday, except public holidays
- On trains that are timed to arrive at Cambridge station between 07:45 and 08:45 Monday to Friday (except on public holidays) from King's Lynn, Watlington, Downham Market, Littleport, Ely, Waterbeach or Cambridge North
You can find more details on the Great Northern website here.
 Knebworth House is closed for winter and reopens on 23rd March 2019.
Images courtesy of Liz Seabrook