Twelve days in and we’ve almost reached Taunton, having clocked some 400km. But something doesn’t add up; my road atlas tells me Taunton is only 250km from Lands End. So we’ve been clocking up the miles but going in the wrong direction. I put it down to software failure. I programmed all our route options into our laptop before we left home only to discover on day two of the ride that the software had become irretrievably corrupted. So we resorted to our more traditional route planning techniques, poring for hours over a library of OS maps then deciding it was easiest to follow the Sustrans National Cycle Network (NCN), after all someone went to a lot of trouble to plan those routes just for cyclists.
We were doorstopped by Emily, a Sustrans ‘fundraiser’ on the Tarka Trail just outside Barnstaple. “Do you use the Sustrans network?” she asked with an engaging smile. I explained we were using it to get to John O Groats before realising I’d committed myself to becoming a financial supporter of Sustrans as well as a network user. Not that I mind; it’s a good cause and a great network. Just a shame it’s left to a charity to develop and promote sustainable transport instead of it being at the heart of government policy. At the very least, you’d think the government might fund them properly and save them begging for donations on cycle routes.
Anyway, Emily was very pleased to get me signed up as her first donor of the day and didn’t seem to mind waiting six weeks to contact us to get our bank details for the direct debit mandate. “John O Groats eh?” she said dreamily as she got me to sign her form, “Where’s that then?” She had as much idea of the way to go as we did.
I’ve developed a love hate relationship with NCN3, the Sustrans cycle route which runs from Lands End to Bristol. Riding sections of it on the Camel and Tarka Trails I can imagine another England, where bikes, trikes and tandems rule the road and young and old alike abandon their cars to pedal to school, work and the shops and save the planet. The numbers and diversity of people using these sections of the network is testament to the potential there is for getting people riding on safe, flat, traffic free trails.
But it’s not all so free and easy. Away from these panflat rail trails, while the route follows beautiful, quiet country lanes, it’s the cars that get the flatter routes and the bikes that get the hills. Don’t get me wrong, the scenery and routes are outstanding, but you get much more of a workout than the cars do. And then there’s the gates and barriers; strategically placed to stop cars, scooters and motorbikes using some of the traffic free sections of trail. Trouble is they stop us dead too. You can just about get a bike through the various combinations of offset gates, zig-zagging metal latticework and decorative concrete bollard gardens but there’s no accommodating a tandem and trailer. It’s infuriating, barring access to the very thing that we value the most; safe, quiet traffic free trails. There must be a more elegant solution.
While Britain’s highways are maintained by an army of paid contractors, the Sustrans network is looked after by volunteer Rangers. “I ride the route once a month, checking signage, looking for hazards like fallen trees, reporting problems and trying to keep the route in good order,” explained Ivor Annetts, a volunteer Ranger we met in the Riverbank Restauarant in Tiverton. He was taking coffee and struggling with his Guardian Kakoru when the restauant owner introduced us, hinting we should get some route advice from him. “I was very excited when I heard the route was coming this way,” explained Ivor, a reaction pretty typical amongst those of us who like to use our bikes to get around, “so when I saw a meeting about it advertised, I went along and volunteered to help…… on a flat stretch.” His wishes were granted three years ago when he became Ranger for NCN3 between Tiverton and Taunton, a section including fine, flat, traffic free trails along the great old industrial waterways of the Great Western and Bridgwater and Taunton Canals. These masterpieces of Victorian engineering were part of a bold privately financed vision to create waterway links between the Bristol and English channels, to avoid the need for treacherous journeys around Lands End and the Cornish Coast. It’s a vision which resonates with that of Sustrans, who continue to work tirelessly to create a safe cycle network around the treacherous traffic of 21st century Britain. Hopefully, with the right investment, perseverance and support form government, supporters and volunteers, Sustrans will have more success then the waterway companies who were forced to give up on their vision when the railways made the whole venture unsustainable.
As I talked with Ivor, he chuckled as revealed he was up for a Sustrans award, “I’m not sure what it’s for, either Ranger of the Year or Best Signed Route.” I throttled back my zig-zagged gate fury, grateful for the efforts of people like him and Emily whose efforts as volunteers are helping create a sustainable alternative to our congested roads. OK so it might be a rough, hilly, gated network that’s difficult at times for tandems and trailers, but it is a network that takes you through a different, quieter, greener, less congested Britain.