Cycling the Preston Guild Wheel

This year, Preston’s unique Guild Merchant celebrations have been highlighted in several posts. The medieval pageant is held once every 20 years and is the last remaining such commemoration of a royal trading charter in Britain. This year was one of the biggest Guild Celebrations yet, with a year long calendar of events, concerts, processions and parties. The legacy project was the construction of the Guild Wheel – a 21 mile cycling and walking path surrounding the city and connecting a plethora of green spaces. I got to cycle it on Christmas Day and it was fantastic!

Christmas Day for me is usually spent lying down with the only active interludes involving reaching for a box of chocolates or moving to sit at the dining table for a vast Christmas dinner. The intense calorie-induced torpor brings on an afternoon nap followed by an evening nap. It is a perfectly pleasant way to spend the day, and I would recommend it to anyone.

But this year was different. This year I was determined to get active and go for a bike ride before Christmas dinner was served. I set off on a familiar route to Preston town centre, a traffic-free path that follows the trail of an abandoned tram line that connected Preston to the Lancaster Canal.

The path eventually opens out on to the River Ribble and you cross Tram Bridge into Avenham Park. Avenham Park, together with its continuous neighbour Miller Park and slightly separate Winckley Square are Preston’s most glittering crown jewels. They form one of the finest Victorian urban parks in Britain, with the formal gardens, fountains and statues of Miller Park contrasting with the more informal, rolling parkland of Avenham Park.

The parks are framed to the south by the River Ribble, lined with fully mature trees and ornate flower baskets and lamp posts gilded with the city’s arms. Above the tree line, the tops of some of Preston’s finer 19th century buildings (and some of its less fine 20th century additions) can be seen. It is bucolic, well maintained and pretty much perfect.

On reaching the north side of the River Ribble I spotted a sign for the Guild Wheel. I knew about the Guild Wheel from having been an attentive follower and spectator of various Preston Guild events. On a whim I decided to turn right and start following the Wheel. Under two hours later, I had completed the 21 mile circumference elated with my exertion and absolutely delighted by the Guild Wheel.

The path is well surfaced for both cyclists and walkers and is largely flat (with a handful of steep exceptions). It is exceptionally well sign posted, with mile markers, direction signs and interpretation and information stations. Starting in Avenham Park, the route follows the River Ribble eastwards into Fishwick Bottoms. This rolling and slightly wild valley presents a marvellous sight and there is usually an ethereally beautiful mist hugging the riverside.

From there, you head north east, under the M6 motorway and into Brockholes, a nature reserve fashioned from the quarry pits and managed by the Wildlife Trust for Lancashire, Manchester and North Merseyside. Heading north, you climb one of the few steep sections into Boilton and Red Scar Woods. That is it for the picture postcard scenery for a while – the next stage is a grittier trek through the Red Scar industrial estates until you reach Fulwood.

Now north of Preston, you head west to Broughton, down to Cottam, through the University of Central Lancashire’s Sports Grounds, and along the north of Lea to finally descend southwards back to the northern side of the River Ribble. This last section is an interesting ride through the old Preston Dock (now styled Preston Docklands or Riversway), with the river on the right and the old steam railway on the left. Another mile, and you are heading back towards Miller Park and you’ve completed the full 21 mile loop (proof of my cycle is available through my Garmin GPS watch page).

I can’t think of a better way to commemorate the first Guild of the 21st century than the Guild Wheel. It will provide a lasting legacy for Prestonians and visitors, it is sustainable, encourages fitness and exploration, provides transport links to a network of other cycle paths and, perhaps most importantly, lets you see Preston in a brighter, greener and more pleasant light.