WE may still be in the year of the rabbit, as far as Chinese new year is concerned – but in Somerset, 2023 has definitely been the year of the strawberry.

The Strawberry Line is one of the county’s most celebrated walking and cycling routes, linking numerous picturesque towns and villages on either side of the Mendip Hills national landscape (formerly area of outstanding natural beauty, or AONB).

It’s been an exciting 12 months for fans and users of this unique active travel route, with new sections opening as a result of grants from local government and hours of labour from both local contractors and armies of willing volunteers.

Further improvements are coming in 2024, with the same volunteers currently negotiating with landowners to close the remaining gaps between Shepton Mallet and the Bristol Channel.

If you’ve never explored the Strawberry Line and are looking for a stunning way to burn off your Christmas dinner, this is the perfect time to get out and take it in.

Here’s your guide to this extraordinary asset:

Yatton to Cheddar

The longest uninterrupted section of the Strawberry Line runs from Yatton railway station to Station Road in Cheddar,  largely following the route of the former Cheddar Valley railway line.

The railway line once transport strawberries from the Cheddar area to markets as far afield as London and Birmingham – but it closed in the mid-1960s as part of the infamous Beeching cuts.

Volunteers have been working hard since the mid-1980s to secure various sections for safe public access, following the former trackbed wherever possible.

This section of the route is largely off-road, running through the Winscombe tunnel and skirting the eastern edge of the picturesque Cheddar Reservoir.

A small section in the village of Sandford was recently upgraded, with National Grid delivering a new off-road section between the A368 Station Road and Drove Way.

Somerset County Gazette: The new Sandford link on the Strawberry Line.The new Sandford link on the Strawberry Line. (Image: Daniel Mumby)

This section – which opened to the public on November 26 – was delivered as part of the construction of a new substation which will handle much of the electricity generated by the new Hinkley Point C nuclear power station.

Councillor Mike Solomon, North Somerset Council’s executive member for culture and leisure, said: “This will have a positive impact on the experience of thousands of people who visit the Strawberry Line every year.

“I urge people to visit and use this fantastic asset, whether to enjoy a cycle, walk, run or wheel and just generally enjoy being out in our beautiful countryside.”

Westbury-sub-Mendip to Easton

The villages of Westbury-sub-Mendip and Easton both lie on the A371 between Cheddar and Wells – a stretch of road with plenty of tight binds and no footpaths.

A new section of the Strawberry Line opened to the public just before Christmas 2022, running from the Lodge Hill business park on Station Road through to Erlon Lane.

This section has been extended to provide a safe walking and cycling route between the two villages, which lie in the shadow of the Mendip Hills.

Work to extend this section got under way in June and concluded in mid-September, with the route carrying on from Erlon Lane up to Easton Village Hall on Ebbor Lane, following an existing public right of way wherever possible.

Mick Flecher, chairman of the Strawberry Line Association, commented in September: “This stunning new section of path is an important step towards realising that vision.

“It makes a vital connection between two communities, gives people a real green alternative to commuting by car for work or shopping, and will form part of the Somerset Circle.”

Wells to Dulcote

Much of the Wells section of the Strawberry Line runs on quieter roads through the city centre, save for a short section between St. Cuthbert’s Paper Mill and the city’s rugby club.

At the eastern edge of the city, it is a very different story, with a lengthy section running off-road towards the Dulcote household waste recycling centre.

The current section runs along the A371 East Somerset Way, bending away from the main road into a heavily wooded stretch and crossing over the River Sheppey.

After crossing over Durston Road, the route bends through further foliage on an extension which opened in March 2022, which currently terminates at the entrance to Charlie Bingham’s Quarry Kitchen.

Shepton Mallet

Two new sections of the Strawberry Line in Shepton Mallet were opened in March, in one of the final actions of Mendip District Council before it was abolished and replaced with Somerset Council.

One section runs from Ridge Road, on the western edge of the town, to the West Shepton Playing Fields, located off the B3136 West Shepton and near the planned site of 15 low-cost homes.

The other section begins at the Townsend Shopping Centre (which includes the town’s Tesco superstore) and runs under the A371 Cannard’s Grave Road past the Shape Mendip campus – which includes the offices of Shepton Mallet Town Council and the former district council.

This latter section then links up with the existing cycle link from Collett Park (also known as the Millennium Way) and runs past the Tadley Acres estate to the Strawberry Line’s eastern terminus at the A37 Whitstone Hill.

This project was made possible by the cooperation of National Highways’ Historial Railways Estate (HRE), which manages former railway arches, bridges and other infrastructure across England.

Hélène Rossiter, National Highways’ head of the HRE programme, stated in March: “We’re proud to have played a part in the creation of this new active travel route.

“This path offers a safe passage for people crossing the bridge while connecting walkers and cyclists to other active travel routes in Shepton Mallet.

“We care about our structures, the history they represent, and connections people have with them.

“By preserving and enhancing the unique Cannard’s Grave Road bridge, we can maintain it for future generations to enjoy.”

The future’s bright, the future’s… strawberry red

While the Strawberry Line is currently incomplete, it may not be too much longer for the remaining gaps to be filled in to create “a continuous, traffic-free path from Shepton Mallet to the sea at Clevedon”.

The Strawberry Line Association is currently prioritising closing the gap between Shepton Mallet and Wells via the neighbouring parish of Croscrombe.

At the Shepton Mallet end, volunteers have cleared the land on the raised embankment between the B3136 and The Sidings – though a new bridge will be needed to cross the main road and fill the gap between the two sections which opened in March.

On the western edge of the town, the charity is working with National Highways to reopen one of the former railway arches under Stump Cross Bridge on Ridge Road.

At the Wells end, work is currently under way on a short extension near Dulcote recycling centre, which is expected to open some time in early-2024.

A new short section along West Street will also be provided as part of the city’s new Lidl supermarket, which is currently being constructed after plans were approved in July.

Once these sections have moved forward, the charity will turn its attention to the gaps between Wells and Cheddar, working with landowners to secure land along the former trackbed and enhancing the existing cycle route near Kings of Wessex Academy.

The land behind Easton Village Hall has already been secured, meaning that extending this section towards the Haybridge area of Wells will be much more straightforward when further funding becomes available.

Ultimately, each of these missing links will be delivered as and when funding becomes available – whether it’s provided by the council, housing developers, central government or other bodies.

North Somerset Council was recently awarded £417,650 from Active Travel England – part of which is being used to deliver the ‘Duck Lane Link’ north of Yatton, which will eventually be extended all the way to Clevedon.

This section will join up with the Pier to Pier route, which links Clevedon to Weston-super-Mare.

Councillor Hannah Young, executive member for highways and transport, stated in July: “This funding is great news for North Somerset.

“It will help local families by improving road crossings and routes to school and open a new section of our much-loved Strawberry Line for all to enjoy.

“I hope these changes will help people to make fewer car journeys, which is better for everyone’s health and well-being, helps to protect our environment and makes the area safer too.”

The bigger picture

In addition to providing a stunning cycle route in its own right, the Strawberry Line is intended to form part of the ‘Somerset Circle’, a 76-mile traffic-free circuit linking Bristol, Bath, the Mendip Hills and the Somerset Levels.

The circle is currently around two-thirds completed, with around 50 miles linked up, and most of the outstanding sections lie in the former Mendip and Sedgemoor districts.

Somerset Council approved plans in September for the new Windsor Hill active travel route, which will run from the A37 Kilver Street Hill over two historic former viaducts and through the Windsor Hill tunnel to the north-west of the town.

This route could subsequently be extended in both directions, stretching towards the village of Emborough to the north and over the former Charlton viaduct to the south, linking up with the A361 Charlton Road.

Elsewhere, the Frome Missing Links project has been working for a number of years to fill in the gaps in the town’s cycle network, focussing on two ‘missing links’ at the north and the south.

The southern missing link proposals are still at a relatively early stage, and would run from the Edmund Park housing development to the Longleat safari park, connecting up with National Cycle Network route 24 while avoiding the busy A361.

The northern sections have seen much better progress, with a lengthy section running from Welshmill Lane to the railway line after an extension was completed in September.

Once completed, these missing links will connect up with the Colliers Way active travel route, which runs all the way to Radstock – and could be enhanced in the years to come as a result of new housing developments in the town.

For more information on the Strawberry Line – including how to get involved as a volunteer – visit www.thestrawberryline.org.uk.