I am pleased to report that I am indirectly responsible for a ‘headline’ story in my local newspaper, the West Sussex County Times – although I think this must certainly count as a very slow news week if a story as trivial as the one I am about to recount can feature on the front page and on the entirety of page 3.
Some background. There has always been a public bridleway running northwards out of the old town centre of Horsham. It used to lie along the line of the original North Street, in front of St. Mark’s Church. The road itself was the bridleway, and people rode horses and bicycles, and walked and drove, along it.
Then in the early 1990s the church was almost entirely demolished to make way for an office block, and for a dual carriageway to be run through underneath it. The old North Street simply ceased to exist, and was realigned, running from a vast new signal controlled junction, behind the new office block.
All that remains of the old church is the spire, as seen above. The office block – running across the picture – marks the route of the old North Street.
The architects and designers of this enormous building had two problems, one rather serious, one less so. The first was new Department of Transport requirements on the height of bridges. The whole building sits some distance above ground level, in order to accommodate a huge underpass.
This was obviously a challenge, and meant, at the town centre end of the building, a steep ramp and steps in order to gain the necessary height.
The second challenge was the existence of the bridleway itself, which had to be maintained, by law.
As he was working on a front canopy for the main Sun Alliance building, [architect] Peter Davidson discovered that North Street had been a bridle path and he was obliged to keep it. It meant that anything built, or growing, over it had to be high enough to allow for the passage of a horse with a rider wearing a top hat. ‘Apart from that what worried us was that a cyclist could ride up and down a bridle path and there would be lots and lots of cyclists riding up and down. In fact some do, but it’s never been a serious problem.’
From ‘A Journey Through Horsham’s Changes’ – John Buchanan and Annabelle Hughes, 2008, Horsham Society
I am one of those cyclists who does, occasionally, ride up and down this bridle path. It provides a slightly more attractive route into the town centre than the enormous junction behind the new office block, which looks like this –
The fundamental problem with using this bridle path is that it was not at all clear to anyone on it that cycling was legal upon it. It looks just like a footway.
As I wrote last year, this is a recipe for hostility. I have been shouted at cycling along here by a member of the public. A Horsham cyclist, Greg Collins, recounts here his account of being stopped by PCSOs while legally using this route. You can also find complaints being made to local councillors about cycling on this bridge here (pdf), all parties to the discussion – including the councillors themselves – completely unaware that cycling on Chart Way is perfectly legal.
With this in mind, I got in touch with West Sussex County Council and asked them whether they could erect some small signs making clear that this was a bridleway, and that cycling was permitted. To their credit, they were very helpful, and within a few months two small green signs appeared on existing poles at either end of the path. You can see one in the photograph above.
Amazingly, it is the presence of these signs that have aroused the ire of District Councillor Christian Mitchell, who is quoted at length in the paper, railing against them in extraordinarily overblown language.
The superfluous addition of these two modern signs to the existing cast iron sign posts is wanton architectural vandalism.
I’d like to be generous and hope that these two new signs informing the public that Chart Way is a public bridleway and that one can freely ride a horse into The Carfax from North Street is a belated April Fool’s joke. However, the reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Quite why, after more than 20 years, some jobs-worth felt the need to attach these two ugly signs, I don’t know.
The Carfax and the roads leading to it won national awards and praise for its [sic] design. But it didn’t happen by accident. Much thought and consideration was given to the colour of the stone paving, to the band stand, to the decision to have working gas street lamps and to ensure that the rest of the street furniture, namely the benches, litter bins and street signs all matched and were as unobtrusive as possible.
The eye for detail by the then chief executive, Martin Pearson, and the councillors who worked on the town’s redevelopment was simply incredible.
And not only are the signs brutal, detracting from the heritage signpost that has been designed to blend in with the street scene, they are a waste of taxpayers’ money at a time when we were all having to further tighten our belts. I cannot accept that this was a spending priority after twenty years without them.
The county highways officers should do the right thing and remove them immediately and put them back in the store cupboard from where they came from until a proper use can be found for them such as a public bridleway in the countryside, not one in the town centre.
This is such exceptional guff, on so many levels, it is quite hard to know where to start.
Bridleways aren’t just for horses, Cllr Mitchell – they’re for bikes, too, which is an entirely reasonable mode of transport in a town centre. Did you know that? Dribbling on about people wishing to ride horses into the town centre completely misses the point.
The cost of these signs was £97.64. An absolutely miniscule sum of money when you consider the size of the West Sussex County Council budget in entirety, let alone the Highways budget. (When even the pence are included in the price, you know it’s small). Is this really the only expenditure you see fit to rail against, or indeed the most appropriate target?
And now on to the matter of ‘architectural vandalism’. Setting aside the grim irony that the route in question lies on top of a demolished church, the remaining spire of which nestles, surrounded on three sides, by an office block, it is curious why, precisely, it is the addition of these signs that has provoked Mr Mitchell’s outrage.
The picture in the paper is selective and misleading.
If we stand back and look at this sign, in context, what do we see?
Three larger – and far more garish – signs, that existed long before the addition of a barely visible green sign to a green post. Is Mr Mitchell calling for the large red ‘Emergency Access – Keep Clear’ sign to be removed, or to be rendered more in keeping? Or likewise, the ‘no heavy goods vehicles beyond this point’, or the large and obtrusive sign for West Sussex County Council?
Curiously, he is not. Mr Mitchell’s outrage against ‘brutal’ signs is, apparently, selective. I can and will go on. There are a vast number of signs dotted all over the area, which have existed for many years.
Two signs telling cyclists to stop cycling, a few yards away from the new sign. They have existed since the bridge was built. No comment on these ugly signs from Cllr Mitchell.
‘Beware Uneven Paving’.
‘Danger Falling Hazard’.
‘CAUTION Pathway slippery when wet.’
And attached to the pole of the other sign -
Another CCTV warning, along with a cigarette butt receptacle.
No comment on any of these signs from Cllr Mitchell, all of which have been in place for many years, and all of which are far more obtrusive than a green sign which matches the pole.
Indeed, we don’t have to look very far to find more examples of street furniture that does not blend in with the exemplary Carfax. The whole town centre is dotted with signs for drivers that simply do not match their carefully-designed surroundings.
A garish, illuminated ‘one-way’ sign, just yards from the offending bridleway sign.
Another sign just yards away, with its own pole and illumination, telling drivers not to drive on the pavement. Unnecessary? Who knows!
Elsewhere in the Carfax, we find more ugly signs stuck on attractive lamp posts -
A plethora of unnattractive No Entry signs -
And of course the ubiquitous ‘Cyclists Dismount’ signs.
This is to say nothing of the huge signs and gantries dotted nearby giving motorists directions, which if any sign is to be called ‘brutal’ or ‘ugly’ would certainly qualify ahead of a small green one that you can barely notice.
Seemingly these signs, and all the others, are exempt from the strictures on aesthetics Cllr Mitchell is apparently so keen to dispense.
I have a proposal for the councillor. I’ll pay West Sussex County Council the £96.64 for these two new signs, and also remove – with his approval – all the pointless and redundant ‘cyclist dismount’ signs dotted around Horsham town centre. At no cost! That way the tax payer is no worse off, and plenty of garish signs – which Cllr Mitchell so evidently dislikes – will disappear.
How about it?