Best of Bristol Trail Running

After attending university in Bristol, I spent a few years pottering around London, forever trying to escape to find more green spaces. In December, my partner and I made the very exciting move back to Bristol as a half-way space between Dorset (where Fiann fossil hunts) and London (where much of my work is).

One of the major benefits of Bristol is that you’re never far from the countryside. Not only was it voted European Green Capital 2015, it also has the delight of being surrounded by nature. Even in the depths of the city, you’re only a short walk or run from open green spaces. 

Previously, I lived north of the river. When we returned, we moved south, so I’ve had the chance of exploring some lovely new running routes. I’m going to talk primarily about trail runs (with one exception), as these are the hardest to come by in cities! I’d love for you to comment to let me know your local favourites too!

Avon River Path

Long stretches of flat are almost impossible to come by in Bristol. As a city with the steepest street in the UK, it’s great for getting used to hills. However, if you’re after a flat trail run, the Avon River Path is where it’s at. Start at Ashton Ave Bridge and run west. If you keep running to the coast you’ll reach Pill. There’s a pub there, or you can turn back. It’s around 9km in each direction, but makes for a nice half marathon route with under 90m ascent if you add a little at either end.

The river path actually runs all the way from Pill to Bath, but I’ve not tried much of it in the other direction to Bath. The whole route is 37km.

Ashton Court Estate

Ashton Court is one of the best places to run in Bristol. It even has its own (very hilly) Parkrun in the 850 acre green space. Whether you’re looking for a muddy trail run or road run, there are plenty of options around Ashton Court. There are also multiple different species of deer resident , which makes the estate even cooler. End your run at the (dog friendly) manor house café for tea and cakes, or head on over to Abbott’s Pool or Leigh Woods to extend the run. 

The Downs (Clifton/Durdham Downs)

One of my earliest running spots in Bristol was on The Downs, 412 acres (1.7km2) of (almost) flat, open green space conveniently located near to UoB Stoke Bishop halls. Meander around the outside or cut down to Clifton Observatory for the most spectacular views of the Avon Gorge and the Clifton Suspension Bridge. 

Blaise Castle Estate

The 650 acres of Blaise Castle Estate are gorgeous. There are races that take part in the estate each year, but it is also open to the general public every day from 7:30am. My first ever trail race was in Blaise Castle! It was extremely muddy and hilly but also lovely. 

My first cross-country race! In Blaise Estate.

Leigh Woods 

For the most picturesque and wild running spots accessible from the city centre, head to Leigh Woods. Accessible from the Avon River path, Leigh Woods covers 490 acres (2km2) and is blanketed in ancient woodland. Leigh Woods is a national nature reserve and Site of Specific Scientific Interest (SSSI), which explains the extreme beauty found throughout. Head to Paradise Bottom for one of the most beautiful and secluded spots in Bristol. 

Bristol to Bath cycle path

The only non-trail route on this list, the Bristol to Bath cycle path takes the route of the old railway path, meaning that it’s almost flat (although hillier than you might expect of a rail route). It is 13 miles long and completely traffic free (which is why it is on this list). If you fancy doing only one direction, take the train out or back to make it a perfect half marathon route. There are pubs and snack stations along the way for emergency pit stops. 

Troopers Hill

Troopers Hill is a 20.6 acre nature reserve in the St George area of Bristol. It was previously a quarry, which, after being abandoned, recovered well, growing heather and other wild plants and attracting a wide variety of animals. Although it’s relatively small, it’s beautiful, hilly and wild, with a mix of terrain and woodland/open spaces. Connect it up with the Avon River Path to come in and out of the city. 

Conham River Park

Slightly further on from Troopers Hill you find Conham River Park, a stretch of the Avon River trail that heads to Bath. This route can be as hilly as you like – follow the river for a flat run, or run up into the half-pipe woodland above to explore the mountain bike routes. 

Just be warned – if you live south of the river, this is an out and back route, except in summer where there is a sporadic ferry crossing at Beese’s Riverside Bar.

Check out my experience of the river path (and some serious hills) here!

Stoke Park

Situated along the M32 motorway, Stoke Park isn’t perhaps what you’d think of as a secluded spot for trail running, but thanks to its sheer size, there are plenty of places to run away from the sound of traffic. One of the most striking aspects of the park is the bright yellow manor house, visible from the road. Make sure to wear trail shoes – for much of the year parts of the park are extremely muddy. 

Oldbury Court Estate and Snuff Mills

Based in the North East of Bristol in Fishponds, Oldbury Court is a 58 acre riverside park with plenty of tree cover and open fields. There are footpaths either side of the river, so it makes for a good trail loop. Make it as hilly as you like by either staying along the river or cutting up through the woods. Alternatively, cut across the motorway to Stoke Park, or down the river to Eastville Park. 

Eastwood Farm

Eastwood Farm is a nature reserve based in East Bristol (the opposite side of the river to Conham River Park). The route around the outside is only a few kilometres long, but there is plenty of meandering to be done, or connect it up with Nightingale valley. 

Arnos Vale

The 45 acres of Arnos Vale may not be the biggest green space in Bristol, but the space there is is absolutely gorgeous! There are plenty of trails to meander through in the cemetery, up and down steep hills through the trees. Connect up with routes through Victoria Park, Nightingale Valley, Perrett’s Park and other city-centre routes. 

Nightingale Valley

Small but mighty, Nightingale valley packs a punch when it comes to nature in a small space. Best used as part of a route rather than a destination, it follows Brislington Brook through woodland. If you’re a bird-nerd listen out for woodpeckers, jays and the beautiful song thrush. If you’re not, just enjoy the scenery and smells. Follow the woodland through to (or from) St Anne’s Wood, an adjacent small nature reserve. 

What are your favourite trail routes in Bristol? Have you tried any of these?

Sustainable gardening and creating a wildlife haven

Lockdown 2020 saw a rise in gardening around the world – the tighter the restrictions, the greater the increase in gardening. The benefits are multifold: not only is gardening an activity that can take place within the confines of your home borders, it also provides exercise, time outside (perfect during the extremely long 2020 summer), mental health benefits and, for those planting vegetables, the promise of delicious food – meaning fewer stressful trips to the supermarket!

Sales of compost rose by 41% by the end of June 2020 and a report by the UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed that 42% of Britons took to gardening to cope with lockdown – a statistic I enthusiastically contributed to. The trend has continued into 2021, with sales of garden furniture jumping by 308% as early as January this year. By May, many styles had fully sold out, signalling peak garden-mania in the UK and beyond. 

Getting out into nature is one of the best ways of maintaining good mental health, but, when it comes to attracting wildlife, not all gardens are created equal. With an estimated 24 million gardens in the UK covering more area than all our nature reserves combined, making your garden wildlife friendly is a key contributor to the health of the natural world in this country, especially in and around cities. Wildlife isn’t the only factor to take into consideration, however. The way you garden and the materials you use also will affect the overall impact of your outdoor space both during construction and long after you’re done. 

Landscaping

Heavy landscaping if often done using machinery such as diggers, but for smaller spaces, hand digging is not only effective but also cheaper, less hassle and of course uses no fuel. It’s a great form of exercise too and extremely rewarding! We’ve hand-dug tonnes and tonnes of soil (which we are re-using!) and I swear my shoulders are a different shape to when we started.

Resource conservation

When you’re planning your garden, consider how many new materials you’ll have to bring in, and how many you’ll have to throw out. Choose a plan that maximises the amount you can reuse in different areas. 

For example, when we moved in we decided to re-terrace our garden and re-pave. The soil from each terrace would usually be thrown in a skip (potentially heading for landfill, releasing methane), but instead we are re-structuring the soil so none goes to waste. The old paving may have been chucked, but we are smashing it up to use as hardcore (the solid structure used under paving). We had a sandpit covered in bark for the previous owners’ children, which we will be removing, but instead of throwing out the sand and bark, we reused the sand for mortar and the bark for mulching around the trees (see fern pic below) – great for preserving moisture! Gravel was used in concrete and all the plants have been dug up and potted to be replanted elsewhere. So far only 1 bag has gone to waste. 

If you don’t have lots of random building materials in your garden, take a look at Gumtree and Facebook marketplace, and in your local skips. Chances are people will be desperate to get rid of large quantities of items such as sand, hardcore, bark, soil, pallets etc – usually for free – which can be invaluable in your garden. Save money and resources by choosing to reuse as much as possible. 

Green waste

If you are able to, compost your green waste. This recycled the nutrients into high-quality compost, which will be able to help your new garden grow within a few years. Composting is preferable to green waste bins, as these are sometimes incinerated for cheap energy (which releases significant amounts of greenhouse gases). If you don’t have a compost bin, speak to your neighbours or any local allotments, who may be happy to take your green waste. 

Our homemade compost heap made using wood found in a skip

Planting

Native plants are the preferred plants for both wildlife gardening and sustainable gardening. Native plants are those that grow naturally in your region without additional water or special growing conditions. They’re not only cheaper, but also much easier to grow and maintain, and are loved by local wildlife, which have co-evolved to live in symbiosis with many of these plants. Even if you would like some exotic plants in your garden, make sure to mix in native plants to benefits the birds and insects in your area. Entirely non-native gardens may look beautiful, but can effectively be green deserts for local wildlife, providing no benefit whatsoever.

Planting that mimics natural UK habitats will attract more wildlife – like these Hart’s Tongue ferns!

Watering 

Planting helps retain moisture in the soil, which is beneficial during hotter summer days, meaning less watering (and lower water bills!). By having a variety of plants, and not simply a barren lawn, you’ll be less likely to have to water frequently, and also provide greater habitats for birds and other wildlife. When you do water, do so extensively. Light watering will encourage roots to grow shallow, reducing water retention and making your plants more thirsty in the long run.

If you do have to water, invest in a water butt/rain barrel to capture rainwater from your roof guttering. This helps save water and is better for your plants, as rainwater tends to have more nutrients in that help plants grow.

If you have a lawn, consider letting it go dormant over the summer months. If may not look pretty, but grasses are extremely hardy and designed to bounce back after dry periods.

Lawns

Lawns may be the preferred ‘low maintenance’ garden for many, but they’re neither particularly low maintenance, nor much of a garden (at least not for wildlife). Standard turf lawns require regular regular mowing, feeding and watering. 

If you can, incorporate a variety of plants into your garden, and consider leaving sections of your lawn un-mown. Longer grasses can produce habitats for animals such as frogs and hedgehogs, and if left, can produce flowers such as daises, buttercups and clovers, which are great food sources for many native animals. 

Don’t use treatments to get rid of moss. Not only is moss great as it is low maintenance and will grow almost anywhere, it also provides food and nesting materials for birds. 

Pest control 

If your garden is prone to weeds and pests, it can be tempting to try weed killer or pesticide, but both of these will have unintended effects on local wildlife too. For weeds, maintain a regular weeding schedule to keep them at bay – it’s not only better for the wildlife but also better exercise for you! Also remember – there is no official definition of a weed, other than a plant growing where you don’t want it’. So if you choose to keep something, it is no longer a weed!

Bio-control can be a good method of keeping pests at bay. Introduce ladybirds to keep aphid numbers under control and attract birds to eat snails and slugs. If you have a vegetable patch, consider covering it to reduce the impact of invertebrates. Nature lives in equilibrium, so while herbicides and pesticides methods may be quicker than bio control, they can be extremely harmful in the long run – not just in your garden but further afield too. 

Feeders and bird nests

One of the biggest delights of having a garden is watching garden birds enjoy it. By providing feeders with a wide variety of food sources, you’re more likely to attract birds to your garden. Place feeders in trees or next to shrubs – most birds won’t enjoy exposed feeders in the centre of a barren lawn. If you have kids (or are interested in birds!), consider starting a ‘bird list’, adding which species you see in your garden. 

If you have a suitable environment, add a nest box or two to your garden – in the UK there is a shortage of nesting sites leading to the decline of several species. Different species prefer different types of boxes placed in different areas – do research according to the species you’d like to see. We have a blue-tit nesting box in our crab-apple tree and another at the opposite corner of our garden, and a couple of birds nesting in there already! 

Seeing the results of your efforts in the form of adorable garden birds is extremely rewarding, and a great way of getting the whole family involved. 

Goldfinch hanging out next to some of our feeders – aren’t they beautiful?
A blue tit checking out one of our nest boxes within a few days of putting it up

Other habitats

Many things that are considered a ‘mess’ in most gardens may also be considered a home for many animals. If you’re cleaning up your garden, consider making it hedgehog friendly by building them a hedgehog home. Piling wood and leaf litter also provides homes for invertebrates, which in turn attract birds and other wildlife. 

It’s easy to build insect hotels to provide shelter for some of our key garden pollinators.

Foxes aren’t rare in Bristol, but do enjoy an undisturbed garden
Natural stone walls provide habitats for solitary bees and other invertebrates.

Water features

Water features are not only beautiful, but they also provide great habitats for invertebrates and amphibians, whose population numbers have declined considerably in recent years. Make sure to build a wildlife pond with access and escape points to prevent drowning. 

If you don’t have space for a full wildlife pond, even just adding a small water feature can act as a bird bath and water hole for local wildlife. You can add a solar powered water pump to add some movement and interest to the water feature. 

There are so many ways in which we can improve our gardens for wildlife whilst also improving quality of life for ourselves too. No matter the size of your outdoor space, there will always be some way in which you can make it better for local wildlife, whether by providing much needed shelter, food or a breeding place for birds, butterflies and more. 

If you enjoyed this post please do share on Instagram and don’t forget to tag @foodfitnessflora and @backtobristol! Happy gardening!