By Daniel Mumby, Local Democracy Reporter
A NEW section of a popular Somerset walking and cycling route could be open to the public by the end of February.
The Strawberry Line currently runs uninterrupted between Yatton railway station and Station Road in Cheddar, and will eventually stretch all the way to the eastern edge of Shepton Mallet.
Numerous short extensions have recently been delivered over the last 18 months, with Greenway and Cycle Routes working with local contractors and armies of willing volunteers to close the gap between different towns and villages near the Mendip Hills national landscape (formerly area of outstanding natural beauty, or AONB).
Following the opening of a new section between Westbury-sub-Mendip and Easton in September, attention has turned to closing the gap between Wells and Shepton Mallet, focussing on the section near Dulcote household waste recycling centre.
The Strawberry Line Society has now confirmed a further kilometre of the route could open by the end of February after plans to remove hedgerows were approved by Somerset Council.
The stretch from Wells to Dulcote opened in March 2022, providing a safe route from the Strawberry Way roundabout to the Charlie Bigham food campus, avoiding the busy A371.
This latest extension will run from the entrance to Dulcote Quarry, to the north of the recycling centre, and will terminate at Churchill Batch Lane, closely following the route of the former Cheddar Valley railway line.
Volunteers and contractors have been working for months to remove unwanted vegetation, install fencing near the recycling centre and lay the surface of the multi-user path, gradually moving eastwards with the permission of various landowners.
This new stretch will cost £143,000 to complete, with the funding being set aside by Mendip District Council before its abolition in April 2023. Greenways and Cycle Routes engineer John Grimshaw said: “We are on target to complete within that budget. The work actually started over a year ago and was commissioned by Mendip District Council, who instructed us to proceed and allocated the budget.
“The slow rate of progress was dictated partly by the weather, partly because we could only work past the recycling centre on Tuesdays when the facility is closed, and partly because we were waiting for the local farmer to take his cattle off the field.
“We have been dependent upon the real goodwill of landowners, including Charlie Bigham, and we have relied on our Wednesday volunteer fencing team to install much of the fencing without which we could not have kept within budget.”
Greenways and Cycle Routes applied in June 2023 to remove up to 30 metres of hedgerow on the western side of Churchill Batch Lane to allow this new one-kilometre extension to be completed – permission which has now been granted by Somerset Council.
Mr Grimshaw has welcomed this decision, and said new planting along the route would make up for the loss of this section of hedgerow.
Strawberry Line volunteers have been fastidious in their care for both the newly-opened section and the older parts of the route, carrying out regular maintenance and planting whenever weather has permitted.
This new extension will be build up to the same standard as the rest of the route from Wells, with a three-metre-wide path and an all-season dusted limestone surface, making it suitable for all users groups.
As with the Westbury-sub-Mendip to Easton stretch, the gradient on this stretch never goes above a one in 20 rise or fall, making it suitable for mobility scooters as well as walkers, cyclists and wheelchairs.
Mr Grimshaw said: “All being well we will have the route open by the end of February.This section will be particularly attractive to electric bike users as they will be able to cycle over the hill on very minor lanes to the pub at Croscombe if they want.” Once this new extension is open, the gap between Wells and Shepton Mallet will be reduced to a mere three kilometres (around 1.8 miles) as the crow flies.