Day my family headed for the stars

The sun never sets in Bishopthorpe. It's forever suspended over an old railway line. Mercury and Venus lie the other side of a bridge under the York bypass and Pluto is in the far reaches of outer space near Riccall.

No, this is not some localised alternative version of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy but a description of York's solar system cycle route. Models of planets provide landmarks on an off-road cycle track at appropriately scaled down intervals. The ride follows the track bed of the east coast mainline before it was re-routed further west due to concerns over subsidence from the development of the Selby coalfield in the 1970s. Sustrans, the sustainable transport charity, adopted the old route and by 1987, four years after its closure, turned it into an early section of what was to become the National Cycle Network.

Cycling along the track – or should that be shooting through space – provides a gentle, enjoyable and educational family afternoon out as I found out on an excursion with my two children.

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The first thing that strikes you about the planets is their respective sizes. My only real prior knowledge of them was based on a poster in my brother's bedroom back in the days of the Apollo programme which showed the planets at roughly the same size. The solar system cycle ride soon put me right.

Suspended among the trees, the sun is a giant ball, the height of a room and weighing 14 tonnes. Jupiter is a volleyball, Neptune is a cricket ball and Pluto is a mere pea and so small, in fact, that it's extraordinary it was ever discovered even at full scale.

After the sun each planet model and its moons – all made from stainless steel – is displayed beside the track on top of a metal plinth with a few facts etched into its base. The distances between planets on the ride – indicated on signs in terms of kilometres in space as well as the scaled-down cycle route equivalent – are equally enlightening. Mercury and Venus are just yards from the sun. It's as only a little further before you reach Earth and Mars but soon after Jupiter the stellar staging posts become less frequent.

The journey from Saturn to Uranus is about one-and-a-haf miles and it's the same distance again out to Neptune and finally Pluto. Initially, we sped straight past Pluto and even deeper into the galaxy (on a trajectory towards Selby and beyond) not because of the furthest planet's size but since it is located on a spur from the cycle track, hidden within trees up its own little slope. Well, every trip into space has to involve some exploration.

Feeling a sense of achievement and well rested after sandwiches in a shelter beside the track it was time to come down to Earth.

The total length of the trail in each direction is just over six miles (equivalent to 3.7 billion miles in real terms). None of it is arduous, though, even for my son, Bertie, six, who was on his first solo cycle ride. There are very few ups and downs and we never had to get off to push. The cycle path is traffic free – other than a short section through a housing estate at Bishopthorpe – but it's very popular so you do need to be vigilant for your children.

A giant wire sculpture called the Fisher of Dreams perches precariously on the former rail bridge over the River Ouse at Naburn and is just as intriguing as the planet models and even quirkier. Added to the route two years after it opened, the sculpture consists of an angler, a dog and bicycle and with a miniature Flying Scotsman dangling from his rod as bait.

The Naburn Station Tea Rooms with its playground looked tempting but, on our return route, we opted instead to follow the signs that took us away from the cycle track on a five-minute diversion to the Blacksmiths Arms in Naburn village.

The pub is very welcoming to families. It serves ice creams and was even happy to pour a glass of milk for Bertie, a drink that's not normally part of my round. We had our break sitting outside in the sunshine and then walked the few yards down the lane to the slipway which is home to the Yorkshire Ouse Sailing Club.

There was barely a puff of wind but somehow the gaily coloured sails propelled the dinghies gently across and up and down the river.

It was like a picture from a 1950s guidebook to York.

Refreshed we set off to compete the rest of our return and splash down where we started – in the car park at Askham Bar. Mission accomplished.


Parking: Park and ride car park, Askham Bar, York.

Directions: Leave the car park to head down a signed cycle track on the near (west) side of the main road (A1036). Pass York College and the traffic lights then follow the signs for Route 65 which initially lead you down and round a big bend and onto the old railway line. From there simply keep following the signs for Route 65. The only navigational point to note is when you enter Bishopthorpe. After a section of cycle track you emerge at the backs of houses, in a small, modern estate. Turn left then immediately bear right down Appleton Court. At the end you will soon spot and pass under a bridge after which the track resumes and is again clear to follow.

Cycle hire: 10 a day from Europcar at York station.

Distance: About 16 miles (including detour to Naburn).

Time: Allow half a day.

Weblink:, which includes a map although you barely need one.