Traffic-free cycling in Oxfordshire

Traffic-free cycling in Oxfordshire
Photo by Chip Vincent / Unsplash

Now the sun is finally making an appearance, why not get out on your bike with the kids this half-term?

Cycling for leisure has been a Clarion tradition since 1895, so here’s our guide to the best places to cycle without traffic in (and near) Oxfordshire. These are fun rides in themselves, but also a good way to build up your kids’ confidence on a bike.

The Phoenix Trail

Photo by Bill Boaden at, licensed CC-BY-SA.

Unlike other counties, Oxfordshire doesn’t have many cycle routes on old railway trackbeds. So cherish the one we do have – the six-mile Phoenix Trail from Thame to Princes Risborough. Entirely traffic-free, flat as a pancake, and dotted with interesting art installations, it’s a genuinely lovely ride for kids and any summer weekend will see pelotons of little people making their wavy way along the path.

There are no cafés en route, but you can stop off at Towersey village to visit the kid- (and dog-) friendly Three Horsehoes with outdoor seating and good pub grub. Or just bring a picnic.

Getting to the Phoenix Trail used to require a car, and for the youngest kids it probably still does – park at Thame Leisure Centre. Now that there’s a regular Chiltern service from Oxford (and Parkway), you can take the train to Princes Risborough. The trail starts a mile from the station: the first half-mile isn’t really suitable for younger kids, but once you’ve crossed back over the railway there’s virtually no traffic.

Map © OpenStreetMap contributors.

Didcot to Wantage

Photo by Des Blenkinsopp at, licensed CC-BY-SA.

This is a delightful cycle route – varied, scenic, and mostly traffic-free. For kids of 7 and up this makes an ideal half-term adventure. It’s 11 miles each way, and you can get there by train.

Arrive at Didcot Parkway station, turn left out of the building, and follow the wide roadside path for half a mile alongside the railway until you reach a roundabout. Follow the signs marked 544 around the edge to a cycleway ramp at the far side.

This is the start of another railway path, once the old line across the Downs to Newbury and Southampton. A few sections have been reclaimed for cycle tracks, including these 2.5 miles to the pretty village of Upton.

After Upton, a road has recently been closed to through traffic to it safer for cyclists. There’s a steady climb here up to Hagbourne Hill, after which you pass the Harwell Campus – tell your kids this is where astronauts work (it’s true!). There’s a café and newsagent here, but bear in mind they may not open at weekends.

At the crossroads near East Hendred, don’t follow signs left to Wantage, but follow the new Icknield Greenway straight on. This is a recently upgraded traffic-free path to another attractive village, Ardington, and the fabulous Grocer Chef café. Its homemade cakes and ice-cream sundaes will refresh any weary limbs, young or old.

For under-10s we’d suggest turning back here, but older kids will want to carry on for the last 2.5 miles to Wantage. Though decidedly off the tourist trail for all apart from fans of King Alfred, it might be Oxford’s most charming market town, its square lined with timber-framed buildings.

Map © OpenStreetMap contributors.

Oxford to Abingdon

It’s only eight miles from Oxford to Abingdon, three-quarters of which is traffic-free. Start by riding along the Thames path south from the city, continuing past the Isis Farmhouse, Iffley Lock and under the bypass bridge.

Just after the Cowley railway bridge, the path swings away from the river for an enjoyable mile running alongside the railway past Kennington. The path ends at Sandford Lane, and for younger kids, this is a good place to turn back. Proof Social Bakehouse’s café is here, in the industrial estate on the left: it’s open Thursday–Sunday until 3pm. Or enjoy a brief detour down to the river for a picnic by Sandford Lock.

Pic by Proof Social Bakehouse.

The route from here is a little scrappy at the moment, with several upgrades underway. It’s a combination of roadside paths and on-road cycling through to Radley, though there’s always a pavement and no one will mind if your kids ride on it.

Follow the blue cycle signs (marked 5) through Radley village – you can get the train back from here. But better to keep riding on to Abingdon, where the traffic-free path returns past Radley Lakes and the Thameside meadows. It emerges in the town by Abbey Meadows, where the playground and splash park will gladden the hearts of any exhausted young cyclist.

Map © OpenStreetMap contributors.

Thames and canal paths

From the city centre to Iffley is the best part of the Thames Path for cycling. But riding north along the river is a classic Oxford experience, to the Medley outdoor bar, the Perch and the Trout at Wolvercote.

The Oxford Canal towpath is also cyclable within the city limits, and recent surface upgrades make it a pleasant experience – though perhaps not ideal for kids at weekends when there are so many people out on the narrow path, in the centre at least. (It gets quieter past Jericho.)

You can continue all the way to the road bridge at Yarnton, from where a roadside path takes you to Woodstock (see below). Staying on the canal, the path gets a little bumpier and narrower from here. But you can ride on through Kidlington to the picture-postcard canalside hamlet of Thrupp (7 miles from Oxford) for Annie’s tea-room – ice-creams, cream teas and a full kids’ menu.

Don’t let these easy waterside paths mislead you into thinking that the rest of the Thames and the Oxford Canal are like that. They really aren’t. Most of the Thames Path is not legal for cycling, while riding alongside the rural stretches of the Oxford Canal will result in punctures, ripped clothes and the occasional dunking. Trust us on this one.

Woodstock and beyond

Blenheim Palace. dreilly at Wikimedia Commons, licensed CC-BY-SA.

Turning off the canal at Yarnton, following the blue 5 signs, takes you onto a safe if not exactly glamorous path beside the A44 all the way to Woodstock. It’s four miles from Oxford to Yarnton and a further four to Woodstock.

Blenheim Palace is the main draw in Woodstock, and kids are allowed to ride bikes on the tarmaced paths across the park. (Adults aren’t, so be prepared to chase!) The town itself has all the cafés you’d expect.

If your kids are keen to get still more miles in their legs, the cycle route signs continue north of Woodstock with four more miles of traffic-free path. It’s a bit untamed (don’t try it after rain), but nonetheless an enjoyable rural ride where you might see red kites, muntjac, hares and more.

Oxford to Woodstock and beyond (in red), with the canal path to Thrupp (in orange). Map © OpenStreetMap contributors.

Cycle tracks in Oxford

Oxford itself has a small number of traffic-free paths where your kids can ride safely. These are generally fairly short and, as such, best suited for younger kids with limited stamina.

Willow Walk from Osney Mead to North Hinksey, the University Parks path from South Parks towards New Marston, the Boundary Brook path past Florence Park, and Barracks Lane parallel to the Cowley Road are some of the most popular. Cutteslowe Park is another place for children to try their cycling legs. You can see an encyclopaedic collection of them on the newly collated Oxford Cycle Map.

Further afield

Stratford Greenway. Photo by David P Howard at, licensed CC-BY-SA.

For those in the north of the county, the Stratford-on-Avon Greenway is in easy reach – a five-mile railway path with bike hire and two cafés housed in old carriages. Most people drive to the car park by its start in Stratford, though you can also get the train to Honeybourne and ride five miles on flat(tish) quiet(ish) roads.

Looking for a longer cycling adventure for older kids? Put your bikes on the train and head for Reading. This is the start of the Kennet & Avon Canal towpath, which you can ride all the way to Bath. (The middle section from Hungerford to Devizes is a bit bumpy, though, and the signs will direct you along quiet lanes on this section.) From Bath, a busy railway path continues to Bristol.

Finding your way about

Many of these routes are looked after by the national cycling charity Sustrans and their volunteers. Their website contains a wealth of information and more suggestions for traffic-free rides. Each of their routes is given a number, which appears in red on a blue sign at key turns.

Online mapping apps enable parents to pronounce authoritatively that “this is the way to go!” when in fact you’re just as lost as your kids are. Google Maps is famously bad for cycling: popular alternatives include Komoot and Oxfordshire’s own

We haven’t chronicled the many quiet lane routes around the county, but when you get outside Oxford’s commuter belt, it’s easy to piece together a route suitable for older kids. Try to avoid A and B roads and anything that looks like the main route into a large village. The Sustrans routes are usually a safe bet: again, a mapping app will help you here.

Taking your bikes on the train

If you’re travelling to the ride by train, here’s what you need to know:

  • Chiltern trains (Oxford, Oxford Parkway, Bicester Village, Princes Risborough): no bikes at rush hour but ok at other times. No booking required.
  • GWR intercity trains (fast services to Didcot, Reading and Paddington, plus trains to the Cotswolds): booking encouraged but no longer compulsory, despite what notices may say. Bikes must go in the hanging spaces. These should be marked by a bike symbol by the door, but not all are. On a 5-coach train these are in carriages B and D (at the ends closest to carriage C); on a 9-coach train, carriages B (end closest to carriage C), D (closest to carriage G), J (closest to carriage H) and K (closest to carriage J).
  • GWR local trains (stopping services to Didcot and Banbury, local services from Didcot to Reading): no booking required.
  • CrossCountry trains (fast services to Banbury): three hanging spaces in carriage D (four-car trains) or C (five-car trains), marked by an external symbol. Booking strongly encouraged but not compulsory. There are luggage spaces just beyond the bike racks where you can sometimes get away with stashing a bike, especially a small one.

In practice, kids’ bikes tend to be tolerated despite what the rules might say. If you have a folding bike, you can take it on any train at any time.

Any more?

What have we missed? Let us know your favourite places to cycle away from the traffic, and we’ll update this article with the best suggestions received. You can tweet us at @OxfordClarion as always.