New and improved North Downs Way Riders’ Route released

An updated Riders’ Route has been released for the North Downs Way National Trail, with improvements to make it more accessible for cyclists and horse riders

The route builds on one proposed by Cycling UK and the British Horse Society in 2018. Over the past few years it has been improved thanks to funding from the European Regional Development Fund EXPERIENCE project.

The Kent Downs EXPERIENCE project team, in partnership with Kent County Council and Surrey County Council, has carried out enhancement works to make some sections more accessible for cycling. They have also worked with landowners to refine the line of the Riders’ Route.

Thousands of people love to walk and run along the North Downs Way every month, and we wanted to make it much easier for all the cycling enthusiasts out there too

Pete Morris, North Downs Way trail manager

Pete Morris, the trail manager for the North Downs Way, says: "Thousands of people love to walk and run along the North Downs Way every month, and we wanted to make it much easier for all the cycling enthusiasts out there too.

"We recognise the increasing demand for cycling on the North Downs Way and previously, cyclists had to create their own routes, stitching together sections and filling in the gaps between. Now we can point them towards the new Riders' Route, which we will continue to develop and improve as funding allows. Work began on creating the Riders’ Route in 2018 with the support of Cycling UK and the British Horse Society as the North Downs Way celebrated its 40th anniversary. Since then, the EXPERIENCE team has worked on improving the route, making it more suitable for generations of riders to come.

"We developed better routes suited to different needs for those travelling on two wheels, along with creating more routes and itineraries to encourage people to explore more of the trail. Whether you want to challenge yourself across the full trail or want a fun day out on a family friendly section, our Riders’ Route is ready for you."

Pete emphasises that their work is not done: the trail still isn’t perfect, and the Kent Downs team are keen to continue improving it for all users to enjoy. It's about more than just the trail itself - new artworks have also been commissioned to enhance the experience.

Kathryn Hearnden, communications and marketing manager for the EXPERIENCE project explains: "There really is something for everyone with the North Downs Way Riders’ Route; as well as nature and history, we’ve also been working hard on bringing in the arts too. We’ve been developing the North Downs Way art trail which has seen the team commissioning and installing eight new artworks along the route. Surrey's art trail is now complete, and Kent's will be complete by winter 2023.

"We are so lucky in Kent to have such beautiful green spaces right on our doorstep, and we want as many people as possible to be able to connect with nature and get outdoors. The purpose of the improvements to the North Downs Way is to encourage people to head out this winter to discover the beautiful Southeast for themselves on two wheels."

The North Downs Way stretches for 153 miles through the Surrey Hills and Kent Downs, from Farnham in Surrey to Dover on the Kent coast. It takes in beautiful rolling hills and woodlands, castles and cathedrals, vineyards and breweries. The trail also travels along part of the ancient Via Francigena pilgrimage route.

The original National Trail route could not be cycled from end to end, because sections were on footpaths. Cycling UK worked with the British Horse Society and North Downs Way trail manager to propose an alternative rideable route. It links together bridleways, byways and quiet roads to detour from the footpath sections and create a continuous trail.

It’s wonderful to see a long-distance National Trail being improved and updated to allow cyclists the opportunity to enjoy and explore this beautiful and varied part of the country

Max Darkins, Rough Ride Guide

In 2018, Cycling UK led a group of cycling journalists to test out the original proposed riders’ route. Max Darkins from Rough Ride Guide was one of them. He is thrilled to see the recent investment in the trail.

“It’s wonderful to see a long-distance National Trail being improved and updated to allow cyclists the opportunity to enjoy and explore this beautiful and varied part of the country, from the Surrey Hills to the coastline of Kent. It will no doubt provide some great, sustainable adventures for a lot of people and revenue for local businesses.”

National Trails for everyone

Of the 16 National Trails in England and Wales, the North Downs Way is only the third that can be cycled from end to end. (The others are the South Downs Way and the Pennine Bridleway.)

The original 1947 vision for National Trails was that they should be “long distance paths and bridleways in and between National Parks and Conservation Areas. There should be continuous routes which will enable walkers and riders to travel the length and breadth of the Parks, moving as little as possible on the motor roads."

However, for most of our National Trails, the “and riders” part seems to have been forgotten.

As Cycling UK’s off-road advisor Kieran Foster points out, the idea of long-distance trails only being open to walkers would have puzzled our ancestors.

"Several National Trails such as the North Downs Way began as popular pilgrim routes, which would have been travelled on horseback," says Kieran. "Obviously many of the routes they would have used are now driven on, but there’s some irony that horses, and therefore bikes, can’t access much of them." 

Cycling UK would love to see rideable alternative routes for all of the National Trails, and is making the case that new National Trails created should be multi-use as per the original legislation.

This applies to the popular Wainwright Coast to Coast route, which is set to become a new National Trail. Cycling UK and the British Horse Society threatened legal action after the UK government published plans for walkers only, ignoring its duty to consider potential multi-use routes. In a win for cyclists and horse riders, the government has now committed to consult with the two organisations about a potential braided parallel version for riders.

We can only take bold steps like this with help from our supporters. If you want to ensure that more people can enjoy our incredible National Trails, donate to our Cyclists’ Defence Fund.