Walks on old railway lines

Viaduct on the Monsal Trail in Derbyshire

Thousands of miles of former railway line are open to the public, running through cities, towns and spectacular areas of countryside. Why not try a walk with a difference, says Sarah Brealey.

Most of us enjoy walking off-road. But did you know there are disused railway lines all over the country where you can enjoy a walk that is flat, traffic-free and often suitable for bikes, pushchairs and wheelchairs too?

A railway walk is the perfect way to get moving whatever the time of year. You can look out for wildlife that often flourishes along former railway lines, and many are surfaced so there's less worry about mud.

About disused railway lines

There are more than 4,000 miles of former railway lines across the country that are open to walkers and cyclists. For the most part they are the legacy of the rail line closures in the wake of the Beeching report of 1963. The first steps towards reclaiming them for public use came in the early 1970s, and more have been added ever since.

"If you need something gentle to get you started, railway lines are ideal"

Jeff Vinter, 58, is chairman of Railway Ramblers. He says: “I was 10 years old when the Beeching report was published. Even at that age I thought the closures were strange and ill-advised. I developed a keen interest in salvaging something from them.”

He started exploring the lines as a teenager and is now one of the country’s leading authorities on railway rambling, and the author of Vinter's Railway Gazetteer: A guide to Britain’s old railways that you can walk or cycle.

He says: “If you need something gentle to get you started, railway lines are ideal. It gives people with less mobility an opportunity to go out, kids can go on their bikes, it gives people who are older and need an easier walk somewhere to go.”

Something for all the family

Cycling on a former railway lineThey are ideal for all the family – many are suitable for pushchairs too. Jeff estimates that about 80 per cent of the routes across the country are accessible by wheelchairs and bikes.

He says: “I taught my two daughters to ride a bike on the Chichester to Medhurst cycle trail. My mum had polio and was dependent on a wheelchair in later life. Having a former railway line nearby gave her somewhere to go out.”

Walking is great exercise and can be as intense as you choose to make it. If you are recovering from a heart event you will want to take it easy at first. Otherwise, a brisk walk will bring you the benefits of moderate-intensity exercise.

Or if you prefer cycling, this is also aerobic activity which helps to improve heart health. Cycling can be better for people with sore joints who find walking difficult.

Exercise is a great stress reliever and you will feel the benefits of being out in the fresh air.

What do I need?

  • You don’t need any special equipment– just comfortable shoes or boots.
  • Most railway line walks are easy to navigate, so you won’t always need a map. But do consider taking an Ordnance Survey or Sustrans map if you think you may need help finding the start of the route, or to help you work out where the nearest café, or other destination, might be.
  • Take a bottle of water with you. If you’re going on a longer walk, you may also want a snack such as a banana or some sandwiches.
  • Choose a rucksack with padded straps, which is easier to carry than a carrier bag or handbag.
  • Wear layers that you can take off if you get too warm, and take a hat and gloves and a waterproof jacket just in case.

Walk and learn

Many walks on old railway lines will also have added historical interest. You might find signs along the way explaining the history of the line and the area. You can also look out for other signs of the past.

As Jeff says: “You see the bridges, viaducts, tunnels, cuttings and embankments. You might come across the remains of an old signal, old mile posts or the gradient posts with arms pointing up or down to show the gradient. The railway was a keen fence-builder especially with concrete, so if you are on a path and see old concrete fence posts every so often it is often a sign that you are on an old railway.”

For history, scenery and something a bit different, you could do a lot worse than try the Coast to Coast trail in Cornwall (despite the dramatic-sounding name, just 11 miles from Portreath to Devoran). This one is actually a former tramway, used to transport ore and supplies to and from the area's many tin and copper mines. Former mine buildings throw dramatic silhouettes across the landscape, and the piles of mining spoil give it a look of a lunar landscape in places, brightened with gorse and heather.

But where engines once rolled, there are now only cycle wheels and footsteps.

Find out more

Just Walk all over heart disease

3 people walking on a cliff path by the sea

Just Walk is your chance to raise money and fight heart disease the way you want – wherever that way may take you… 

Taking part is as easy as putting one foot in front of the other – you simply pick your route choose your date and just walk! And with every step you take, every pound you raise, you’ll help bring our research closer to that next life saving breakthrough. 

So tell heart disease to take a hike. Sign up to Just Walk now.

Related publications

More useful information