Cheshire is a beautiful and fascinating county – classic rolling English countryside, charming market towns, the well preserved Roman walled city of Chester and an intriguing industrial past, present and future. Brooding in the east is the famous Jodrell Bank radio telescope, not far from the flanks of the Peak District. In the west, the Welsh mountains loom over the now silted up estuary of the river Dee. For the not-so-fit cyclist, though, it is predominantly flat, with hundreds of miles of quiet country lanes to explore.
The Cheshire Cycle Way
The Cheshire Cycle Way (CCW) is a 176-mile circular route that takes in all the best bits of Cheshire. Sustrans (who record it as being 182 miles) reckon you could cycle it in 15 hours straight … which rather misses the point. This would result in (a) total exhaustion for most people and (b) flying straight past most of the best bits without stopping. The author has completed a much more laid-back circumnavigation – taking from October 2020 to May 2022 to complete the whole loop – with plenty of opportunity for admiring the view, studying points of interest and taking terrible selfies.
The point is that rides of any length can easily be accomplished … pop your bike into the car (or train) and head for your chosen starting point. Cycle for 2 miles, 10 miles, 20 miles – whatever you can easily accomplish while still being able to get back to your starting point. Repeat until you’ve done the whole circuit.
On the way
The route is generally well signposted, but the signposts are small and easily missed leading to unnecessary expenditure of effort, which is something to be avoided. On parts of the route that overlay onto other National Cycle Network routes, some of the “Cheshire Cycleway” signs have been replaced (so you might find yourself following route 45 instead of 70 through Chester for example), so again, you do have to pay attention and a back-up Ordnance Survey (OS) map is essential.
Of course, it’s occasionally essential to cross major roads, or even cycle along them for short sections, but mostly the route is very quiet and safe for timid cyclists (wobbly ones must take care on canal towpath sections though). Cheshire is a large county and the great majority of it is rural and unspoilt.
While the great majority of the route is flat(tish), this is decidedly not true of the section east of Macclesfield, which climbs steeply to the hills on the edge of the Peak District. You can use the shortcut to the west side of Macclesfield, which avoids the exertion completely at the cost of some stunning views from the moors down across the Cheshire Plain.
The glories of Cheshire
Every round trip must start somewhere, and in our case it’s the sleepy North Cheshire village of Comberbach (bach=stream or brook), south of Warrington. Heading west, over the navigable River Weaver that for hundreds of years was used to ship salt from mid Cheshire, it’s not far to the one-time hunting grounds of the Norman Earls of Chester – Delamere Forest. Through the forest that is criss-crossed with walking trails, the route drops down from the central sandstone ridge to cross the north Cheshire plain and follows the Shropshire Union Canal towpath to Ellesmere Port. Past the retail cathedrals of Cheshire Oaks, we reach the string of industrial facilities on the South side of the Mersey. Hundreds of years of history in a few miles.
Looping back across the Wirral, views open over the Dee Estuary to Wales and the stately wind turbines offshore. Once an important river for trade up to Chester, the Dee is now largely silted up, and maritime traffic heads to Liverpool up the Mersey. A visit to Ness Gardens (run by the University of Liverpool) is rewarding at all times of the year.
The CCW picks up the towpath of the Shropshire Union canal again in a very flat section that gives an unusual perspective on the city of Chester, which has a complete set of Roman walls.
The CCW regularly intersects and sometimes follows one of the many canals in Cheshire – Shropshire Union, Llangollen, Trent and Mersey and the Macclesfield. It’s great to see these once-important trading routes now providing opportunities for leisure – and they form part of the Cheshire Ring, the famous 96 miles of connected canals that provide another way to see the county.
Wales and then heading East
Somewhat surprisingly, in the deep southwest, the trail takes you briefly across the border into Wales at Threapwood (a reminder of the bizarre times when there was uncertainty about crossing into Wales because of Covid restrictions).
Then the route heads east, through the largely unspoilt south, via a succession of small, historic market towns such as Malpas and Audlem. These villages appear in the Domesday book, and the former has the remains of one of the chain of castles built to keep out the marauding Welsh.
From Audlem, we head northeast, crossing and recrossing the modern transport equivalent of the Shropshire Union – the M6 motorway – and skirting the town of Alsager. This boasts a lovely mere, which the author thought might make an ideal picnic stop, only to find it is almost completely fenced off.
Not flat any more
As you approach Macclesfield, you become increasingly aware of the looming presence of the Peak District in the distance. Clearly the rolling hills and easy slopes are not going to continue for ever. Progress slows as the road climbs steeply and keeps on going up – to 417m (1350’) – as the road reaches and crosses the main road to the Cat and Fiddle, beloved by motorcyclists. Don’t be ashamed to get off and push at any time – the views are more than worthwhile. And eventually you’re over the top and the issue becomes descending safely.
From the natural riches of the Peak District there’s a smooth transition to Manchester footballer’s favourite village of Prestbury and its sought-after houses. Cheshire has one more spectacular feature in the beautiful and aptly named Alderley Edge, where a short diversion through the woods affords delightful prospects. Then across the plains once more, passing Mobberley at the end of Manchester Airport’s second runway, Tatton Park with its mere and great house and Arley, which features as the home of Thomas “Tommy” Shelby in Peaky Blinders before reaching the end and a well-earned ice cream in Comberbach.