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Abandoned gravel pits create havens for wildlife and opportunities for watersports.
Minimum time 2h30
Distance 10.75 miles (17.3km)
Suggested map OS Explorer 169 Cirencester & Swindon
Start/finish Keynes Country Park (pay and display car park); grid ref: SU 026958
Trails/tracks gravel cycle tracks
Landscape low-lying countryside speckled with the lakes of abandoned gravel pits
Public toilets at car park
Tourist information Cirencester, tel 01285 654180
Bike hire Go By Cycle, Lake 31, Keynes Country Park, Spratsgate Lane, Shorncote, tel: 07970 419208
Recommended pub Royal Oak, South Cerney
Notes Beware of sleeper barriers and take care on the minor roads and at three main road crossings. Tracks shared with pedestrians and horses and may be muddy after rain
© Automobile Association 2008. © Crown Copyright Licence number 100021153
The Cotswold Water Park lies 4 miles (6.4km) south of Cirencester. From the A419, follow the B4696, continuing ahead at a crossroads north of Ashton Keynes along Spine Road (West). The main car park and visitor centre is then off right along Spratsgate Lane.
1 Leaving the car park past the visitor centre, follow a shore path to a second smaller car park, there emerging onto Spratsgate Lane. Turn left, winding around left again at its end to join Spine Road (West) towards Ashton Keynes. After 1 mile (1.6km) at a crossroads, dismount and cross to continue along Spine Road (East), the busy B4696 to Cirencester. A few yards/metres along, there is a dedicated cycle track beside it on the left, but be careful for it is bounded by drainage ditches and gutters, with gullies intruding into the pathway.
2 Follow that for another 0.5 mile (800m) to the Clayhill car park on the right, again dismounting to reach the entrance. At the back of the car park, a bridlepath leaves to the left, signed to South Cerney. Through a gap in the hedge, carry on ahead at the edge of a field, crossing an access road, which leads to a working gravel pit (watch out for moving wagons). At the far end, swing onto a track beside the workings. At another quarry road go forward to a break in the hedge opposite, cross a track and continue on the contained path between a lake and Fridays Ham Lane, signed 'Waterhay'. It later ends abruptly and you must cross the lane, but be careful, as you are on a blind bend. The ongoing path leads beside a second lake, shortly reaching a junction.
3 The way lies left, marked 'Thames Path', angularly twisting along old field margins that now separate a succession of lakes. The way passes a bird hide and then through gates demarking the Manor Brook Lake fishing area. Over a crossing track the route briefly joins the infant Thames and then passes a small car park. Carry on until you reach the gated pedestrian entrance to Cleveland Lakes (where there is another bird hide) and here, go right over a bridge spanning Shire Ditch.
4 Ride on beside a field to meet a broad track and go left towards South Cerney. Go left again at the next junction but after 250ys (229m) look for a broad unmarked track on the right. It connects with a parallel disused railway track, turn left along it. Tunnelled by trees, the track shortly passes beneath a viaduct carrying the road from Cerney Wick and continues for another 0.75 mile (1.2km) to reach the B4696 at Bridge car park.
5 Cross the road with care. Opposite, the path passes under more arches and resumes its onward course to South Cerney, eventually ending beside the village sailing club. The road leads on into the village. Keep ahead at a junction by the old cross towards Ewen and Ashton Keynes, shortly passing the Royal Oak, a convenient spot to break the journey.
6 Stay with the road as it meanders past playing fields out of the village, before long reaching a crossroads with a busier road. Go forward, signed to Ewen and Kemble, for a little over 0.75 mile (1.2km) then turn off left onto a narrow and, in places, poorly surfaced lane to Shorncote. It winds past Shorncote Manor Farm and its attendant church, shortly emerging onto Spratsgate Lane. The Keynes Country Park Visitor Centre is then less than 0.5 mile (800m) to the left.
Overlying the Oxford clay south of Cirencester is a shallow deposit of gravel, which has been exploited since the 1920s for use in building and construction. As individual workings have been abandoned, they have been flooded to create a landscape peppered with almost 100 lakes, causeways and small islands. Left to nature, many of the fringes have developed as marsh and wetland, and the area has become an important site for both resident and migratory water birds. Two of the hides are passed on the cycle ride, and amongst the birds over-wintering here you can expect to see green sandpiper, golden-eye, great northern diver and teal, and if you are lucky, you might even hear the booming of a bittern. In summer you will glimpse many familiar garden birds, also reed and sedge warblers and perhaps a nightingale. Attracted by the water are oystercatchers, shelduck and several species of grebe, and predatory birds such as merlin, harriers and even ospreys make an appearance. Flower-rich meadows attract a variety of butterflies, and dragonflies and damselflies are found around the shores.
The railway track that takes the ride into South Cerney formed part of the Midland Junction line between Cheltenham and Southampton until its closure during the mid-1960s. Plans are underway to restore part of the line south of Cricklade. Look out for the unusual brick-arched bridges encountered along the way. Their intricate design suggests something more appropriate to the galleries beneath a Roman amphitheatre rather than mere props to carry a road.
Cotswold Water Park encompasses some 14,000 acres (5670ha). This route passes both working and abandoned gravel pits (which provide a haven for wildlife). Vast numbers of water birds can be seen. Areas are set aside for water sports and fishing.