In the wheel world

Nicola Swanborough gets a chain reaction to the Camel Trail between Bodmin and Padstow
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The Independent Travel
There's a disused railway track, running along the River Camel from Bodmin to Padstow, which in recent years has become Cornwall's third most popular tourist attraction. The Camel Trail, as the 11-mile track is known, draws 350,000 visitors a year in spite of having none of the usual trappings associated with tourist high spots: there's no visitors' centre, no wet-weather area, no theme. The trail ends at Rick Stein's Seafood Restaurant in Padstow, but this is more a coincidence than a plan.

The trail offers a rusty old iron bridge, a near-river of unavoidable muddy puddles, a mean wind when the tide's on the turn, and some wonderful views across the flat bed of the Camel. But its trump card is that for 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, the trail is completely free of cars, making it a haven for cyclists and walkers. It is a virtually flat track, meandering gently through shaded countryside, with the promise of crabbing in Padstow at the end of it.

There are no car fumes, no congestion, no thundering lorries, no road rage and, unusually, no hurry. It's pure poetry: the chance to ride off into the sunset at your own pace, to battle against the winds and feel the mud splatter up your back as you freewheel through puddles.

Bikes are available for hire at competitive rates and there is a range for any combination of people, including trailers for children and babies, tandems, tricycles and mountain bikes. Booking is advisable in high season.

The Camel Trail follows the track of the old Atlantic Coast Express, which, prior to the Beeching cuts of 1967, carried thousands of holiday- makers into the West Country. Ironically, part of the trail which runs inland from Bodmin may be reopened as a freight line, although local opposition is high.

The visitors

Nicola Swanborough took to the trail with her husband, David, and children, Grace, 10, Tom, seven, Florence, five, and Samuel, three.

Nicola: It is humiliating being overtaken by tiny children on mountain bikes; it's wretched rediscovering hamstrings whose only exercise is usually pumping the clutch; and a saddle-sore bottom is a nightmare. However, such trivialities are a price worth paying to experience the pleasure of pedalling into Padstow with the sea breeze in your hair and an ache in your limbs that says you deserve a slap-up fish-and-chip lunch.

Not being a family of proficient cyclists, we joined the trail at Wadebridge and did the 11-mile round trip to Padstow and back, hiring virtually the full range of bikes available. Samuel rode in a waterproof trailer attached to my bike; Florence was on a trailer bike attached to my husband's bike, with no input to the cycling, and Grace and Tom both had mountain bikes. Roads are a nightmare these days, so the Camel Trail offers an untold freedom. It's a great feeling to be able to cycle safely, allowing the children to whiz off ahead without worrying.

In theory the track is flat, but it feels pretty mountainous if you've not been on a bike in 11 years, particularly when the wind is against you. It was great to take on a physical challenge as a family, though.

Grace: The trail is really good fun, especially as it's so safe. It was nice to have the chance to look around without being in a stuffy car, and to feel that we weren't adding to the pollution of the environment. After the first couple of miles, the cycling is quite tiring and your legs really begin to ache, but you can stop wherever you like. I really enjoyed looking around the gift shops in Padstow once we arrived.

Tom: The trail is long and straight and easy to cycle. I had a bike with a lot of gears. At one point I got so carried away looking around that I smashed straight into a bench and nearly came off my bike.

I loved crabbing in Padstow. We caught some whoppers, and we saw where Rick Stein does his cooking. I hope we can cycle the trail again - I really enjoyed it.

Florence: I was on the back of Dad's bike and half the time I didn't even have to hold on - I just sailed along with my arms and legs stretched out into the air and Dad did all the work. I loved it.

The deal

Location: The trail runs from Bodmin to Padstow, with bikes available for hire at Wadebridge. By car, follow A39(T). By train and bus, take the mainline rail service from Paddington to Bodmin Parkway and Bodmin & Wenford Railway (Easter to October) to Bodmin, then bus service 55 to Wadebridge.

Price: the trail is free; bike hire costs pounds 5-pounds 8 a day. Bridge Bike Hire (01208 813050), Bridge Cycle Hire (01208 814545), Camel Trail Cycle Hire (01208 814104).

Facilities: There are seasonal tea rooms en route and the trail ends in Padstow, a stone's throw from Rick Stein's Seafood Restaurant. Surprisingly, he doesn't do cartoon-shaped fish fingers or Alphabites, so hungry families would do best to hang on to their appetites and head for Walker's Fish and Chips Cafe on the waterfront, where cod 'n' chips and a good cup of char won't cost you the sea.

Access: being practically flat, the trail is suitable for wheelchair users.

Pit stop ...

In the first of a series on pubs that positively welcome children, we highlight one at the end of the ride.

Old Custom House, South Quay, Padstow, Cornwall (01841 532359)

Refurbished by St Austell Brewery, creating spacious, well decorated public areas, with a conservatory at the front which is a popular spot from which to watch harbour life. Open 11am-11pm. (Sun 12-3pm, 7-10.30pm). Cream teas 3-5pm in summer. Beer: St Austell XXXX Mild, Tinners Ale. Accommodation: 27 bedrooms, all en suite, pounds 80 (single, pounds 61). Children welcome (under-3s free. 3-12 half price), extra bed and cot available. Access, Amex, Diners, Visa.

From Egon Ronay's Guide `... and Children Come Too' (Bookman, pounds 9.99).