Local cycling route set to extend as council votes to fund it to the tune of £200,000
By Daniel Mumby - Local Democracy Reporter
14th Aug 2022 | Local News
Two new sections of a traffic-free route across Somerset could be in place by Christmas after district councillors voted to grant additional funding.
Mendip District Council has been working since June 2020 to reinstate and upgrade 14 "missing links" across the district, encouraging people across the district to walk or cycle to work or school, thereby reducing congestion and pollution.
Progress since then has concentrated on the five most deliverable of these routes, including the extension of the Strawberry Line – which will eventually run uninterrupted for 30 miles between Clevedon and Evercreech.
The council's cabinet has now agreed to provide £200,000 to fund new sections near Shepton Mallet and Wells, which could be open to pedestrians and cyclists within a matter of months.
The Strawberry Line is intended to provide a car-free travel route between Clevedon and Evercreech, with different sections being added over time.
The longest completed section to date is the ten-mile stretch between Yatton railway station and the A371 Station Road in Cheddar, with smaller sections being in place between Draycott and Rodney Stoke and between Wells and Dulcote.
The route takes it name from a section of the Great Western Railway which was famous for transporting strawberries and dairy produce to London markets, which closed in 1965 as part of the infamous Beeching cuts.
The Strawberry Line is intended to form part of the larger Somerset Circle, a 76-mile traffic-free circuit which would link the north Somerset coast (including Weston-super-Mare and Clevedon), Bristol, Bath, the Mendip Hills and Cheddar.
The circle is currently around two-thirds completed, with around 50 miles linked up, and most of the outstanding sections lie in the Mendip or Sedgemoor districts.
The funding agreed by Mendip's cabinet on Monday evening (August 8) will allow two short sections of the Strawberry Line to be delivered at opposite ends of the district.
The western section, covering at least 0.8 kilometres (just under half a mile) lies between Station Road and Erlon Lane in Westbury-sub-Mendip, taking traffic away from the busy A371 north-west of Wells.
The eastern section, in Shepton Mallet, runs from the West Shepton Playing Fields on the B3136 West Shepton to Summerhill Lane via Ridge Road – a distance of at least 1.5 kilometres, or 0.9 miles.
This section – which runs near Shepton Mallet AFC and the proposed site of 15 new low-cost homes – is intended to eventually link up with both the recently-completed Dulcote stretch and a separate section through the council's own car park, which was granted planning permission in December 2021.
Both sections of the old Strawberry Line trackbed have been secured under 50-year permissive path leases with the respective landowners – meaning they will be open to the public until at least 2072.
The new sections will be constructed with a 'dust' surface, like the Wells to Dulcote stretch, rather than Tarmac or a similar substance, which allows for a speedy delivery at a relatively low cost.
Councillor Liz Leyshon, portfolio holder for corporate services and projects, said: "This is particularly good value. The way we're working in the countryside is, in my view, much more appropriate both for the countryside and the users.
"We're not talking acres of Tarmac – we're talking about a surface which I believe is much more appropriate, and the cost is much more appropriate too for off-road travel, which of course is much safer. It's staggering how many people are actually cycling down on the Moors and Levels.
"Children have to have somewhere to learn to ride their bike that's safe. Even if it means, as some will do, taking a short car ride to get there, it is a great bonus for children to be able to learn to ride safely – including uphill and downhill, which is a very different skill on a bike."
Both sections of the Strawberry Line have been identified as projects within a £19.3M to the government's levelling up fund – along with a third stretch between Station Road and Old Bridge Lane in Cheddar.
Councillor Barry O'Leary, portfolio holder for enterprise and finance, welcomed the decision – and wondered whether further sections of the route could have been delivered if the council were to continue existing after April 2023.
He said: "We have to consider our great luck that we have such beautiful countryside – it is our 'natural health service'.
"Pathways and active travel have been a priority of this administration. I'm pleased that we've had the financial ability and prudence to free up this money and have it available.
"I am left wondering: if there was no unitary and we had continued has a district council, being so need to the decision-making, what more could we have delivered?"
Council leader Ros Wyke – whose Rodney and Westbury ward includes one of the new stretches – said she expected the paths to become very popular.
She said: "To anyone who hasn't walked to Dulcote on the latest opening of the Strawberry Line, it is a real pleasure. It is a very different vista of Wells Cathedral, and it is well-used from early in the morning to late at night.
"I'm astounded at how rapidly the word-of-mouth has spread since we opened this route."
The cabinet voted unanimously to approve the £200,000, which will enable officers and the landowners to deliver the new paths over the next three to five months.