Natural character

What is ‘natural’?

The word, formally, means something that is not made, or caused, by humans. But this strict definition is very rarely employed. We use the word ‘natural’ to describe all kinds of things that are not ‘natural’ at all. Indeed, Britain has a very mpnfused sense of what is actually genuine ‘nature’; very little of the landscape of this country is ‘natural’ at all.

Places like the Lake District – perhaps the archetype of ‘natural beauty’ – really aren’t very natural, in the conventional sense of the word. The Newlands Valley, pictured below, was extensively mined from Elizabethan times until the 19th century, and the current landscape is essentially the product of sheep grazing; human intervention writ large.

Stunningly beautiful, but there are no trees here. Hardly 'natural'.

Stunningly beautiful, but there are no trees here. Hardly ‘natural’.

And our impressions of the value of ‘natural’ have changed over time. Genuine wilderness was seen as something terrible; scary and forbidding. Upland areas like the Lake District were not valued at all by societies that relied upon productive land. It was only with the advent of the Romantic movement, arising in response to growing industrialisation, that the British public began to value landscapes that had little apparent sign of human intervention, although in truth these were landscapes largely created by humans. The Romantic movement attached value to the pre-industrial, in the context of their concerns about the spread of industry and urbanisation across Britain, and we are still living with this attitude to ‘nature’ today.

So we have a confused, and evolving, sense of what is ‘natural’. What this word really means, in practice, is a landscape that has been formed by human activity, but human activity of a certain kind. Implicitly, this is human activity that is ‘rural’, not involving features associated with the urban environment, or industry.

This has particular pertinence for cycling infrastructure, and the forms of it we are seemingly prepared to tolerate in ‘rural’ areas. Muddy paths, or tracks formed of rough or loose stone, are acceptable. They look ‘natural’, despite the fact they are clearly a human intervention on the landscape.

A 'natural' path in the New Forest - yet clearly a distinct and obvious human-made intervention in the landscape

A ‘natural’ path in the New Forest – yet clearly a distinct and obvious human-made intervention in the landscape

But providing tarmac paths, properly surfaced with good drainage, is something that is still anathema in many parts of Britain, almost certainly because it falls under the description of something that is not ‘natural’. This is the legacy of the early 19th century Romantic movement, and its revolt against industrialisation – that only certain forms of human activity are acceptable in an ill-defined ‘countryside’. Muddy paths – while as obviously anthropogenic as tarmac ones – fit into our ‘natural’ template, while tarmac paths don’t.

For whatever reason, these attitudes do not seem to bedevil the Netherlands. To speculate, this might be because so much of their country is engineered, and reclaimed – a selfmade land, built by humans, for humans. But even in areas that look, to British eyes, ‘natural’, smooth tarmac paths are always provided. If it is a route that serves a useful transport function, then the surfacing reflects that, rather than preconceived ideas about fitting it in with a hypothetical ‘natural’ character.

Earlier this year, I cycled from west to east across the country, predominantly through rural areas, and not once was I ever cycling on anything other than tarmac or concrete.

A Dutch path in a rural location. A smooth, well-drained surface means it is suitable for use by anyone, in ordinary clothes.

A Dutch path in a rural location. A smooth, well-drained surface means it is suitable for use by anyone, in ordinary clothes, all year round.

Another 'rural' path. This woman has stopped to take pictures of wildlife.

Another ‘rural’ path. This woman has stopped to take pictures of wildlife.

Yet in most parts of Britain I suspect this kind of provision would be met with resistance. This is especially true in West Sussex, which I think has a particular problem, probably worse than other parts of the country.

To glimpse why, we need only look at the Downs Link. This is the former railway line, that used to run between Guildford and the English channel, at Shoreham, until the railways running on it – the Cranleigh Line between Guildford and Horsham, and the Steyning Line, between Horsham and Steyning – were closed in the late 1960s following ‘the Beeching Axe’. In hindsight, this was obviously a huge mistake, as a railway link between Horsham and Guildford in particular would be tremendously valuable today.

But even without the railway returning, the Downs Link has great potential as a transport link between the villages and towns it connects. With shallow gradients and direct routes into the centres of these places, it’s an open goal to open up mobility in these rural areas, blighted by dwindling public transport. Even as it stands today, it’s tremendously popular as a leisure route, mainly because it’s one of the few areas where families can easily cycle long distances in West Sussex without being menaced by motor traffic.

A typical summer scene on the Downs Link.

A typical summer scene on the Downs Link.

But there is – of course – a problem here, namely that the Downs Link does not have a suitable surface. It is mostly composed of mud, interspersed with large chunks of gravel (at best!); just about acceptable in summer, but come the autumn, it becomes very muddy, and unsuitable for use by anyone who does not have a mountain bike, or who is not willing to get covered in mud.

That means that it does not form part of the National Cycle Network, despite being a direct, traffic-free link between some pretty major towns and villages. On the Sustrans’ website, it even comes with a health warning.


‘Recommended only for Mountain bikes. Very poor surface in wet’

This is because West Sussex County Council refuse to provide a tarmac surface on the Downs Link. Which – let’s remember – was a railway line until 1966, so hardly ‘rural’ in origin. It passes through cuttings and tunnels, and along embankments, and in form is plainly a human intervention in the landscape, albeit one that West Sussex County Council continue to insist should have a mud and gravel surface, rather than one of tarmac.

Below is an excerpt from an email sent by a West Sussex County Council Transport Planner, in response to requests to provide tarmac surfacing on this route.

tarmac creates an urbanising effect for recreational walkers and creates more surface water run-off and drainage issues. Many off-road leisure cyclists with mountain bikes (myself included) also prefer non-tarmac surfaces. Cyclists with road bikes do, of course , have alternatives to the Downslink… It is therefore, unlikely that WSCC will be seeking a tarmac surface for the Downslink, except where it crosses any new roads [my emphasis]

New roads (of which there are many now being built around Horsham) will, of course, have tarmac surfaces, so where the Downslink crosses these new roads – hey, you’ll get some tarmac! For free! Because that’s a new road! Enjoy that tarmac as you momentarily cross it!

Elsewhere, you’ll just have to carry on with the mud and gravel, because laying tarmac ‘creates an urbanising effect’. Which is fine if we’re building lots of new roads through the countryside, but plainly not for cycling, which West Sussex County Council persist in seeing as some kind of leisure pursuit, a ‘keep fit’ activity for mountain bikers, rather than as a viable mode of transport. Witness the implication that the preferences of ‘off-road leisure cyclists’ should be considered ahead of people who don’t want to get covered in mud, or people with pushchairs, or people using wheelchairs, or mobility scooters.

Indeed, this isn’t really just about ‘cycling’, at all. The refusal to provide high quality surfaces on these kinds of paths means that they are a no-go area for many people with mobility problems. This was an issue picked up (believe it or not) by Prince Charles when he guest-edited the BBC CountryFile programme last year. Muddy paths and tracks, in combination with poorly-designed gates, mean that these routes are not usable by these groups, as well as by anyone who wants to use a bike for practical, utility purposes, not just for leisure, or mucking around. This is to say nothing of the relative attractiveness of these routes as an alternative to the car if they are surfaced in mud and gravel, compared to the tarmac you will obviously find on the equivalent route for motor traffic.

By contrast a properly surfaced route is something anyone can enjoy.

A former railway line in Weymouth that has been properly surface.

A former railway line in Weymouth, with a tarmac surface.

This refusal to upgrade bridleways and footpaths in allegedly ‘rural’ areas on the grounds of having an ‘urbanising effect’ is sometimes ridiculously myopic, and counterproductive in policy terms.

To take an example. The large village to the west of Horsham, Broadbridge Heath, is currently being greatly expanded by a new housing and shopping development, adding many thousands of people to the area. You can see the scale of this development in the satellite view on Google.

The yellow areas are the new (greenfield) development, approximately doubling the size of the village above it.

The yellow areas are the new (greenfield) development, approximately doubling the size of the village above it.

A new dual carriageway is being built through this development (you can just about see the route on the view above), running east west and connecting with the existing bypass of Horsham (running north-south) at a gigantic new grade-separated junction, near the bottom of the image above.

This is what it looked like during construction in October.

Image via A24 Horsham

Image via A24 Horsham

And then being surfaced (with tarmac, naturally) in November.

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of Pictures from Above.

Plainly, this is a large, ‘urban’ (if you like) intervention in the landscape.

The Horsham Cycling Forum had spotted – in the context of all this development – that there was some potential for this new area (and indeed the village of Broadbridge Heath as a whole) to be connected up to Christs Hospital railway station, which sits on a main line into London Victoria, which also carries trains to the south coast, including Portsmouth and Southampton. From Christs Hospital you can be at Victoria in around an hour.

In context. The railway station is exactly 1 mile, as the crow flies, from the centre of Broadbridge Heath, and only 1000m from the edge of the new development.

In context. The railway station is roughly 1 mile, as the crow flies, from the centre of Broadbridge Heath, and only 1000m from the edge of the new development.

Such a route would have significant distance advantage over the driving route, which is circuitous, and involves country lanes as well as A-roads.

Screen Shot 2014-12-16 at 23.19.08
There is an existing path that runs approximately along the line of the red arrow; but (unsurprisingly) it is not suitable for anyone who doesn’t have a mountain bike, or a pair of wellies. The picture below was taken in June.

Not good enough as a transport link, but sufficiently 'rural' to resist being upgraded.

Not good enough as a transport link, but sufficiently ‘rural’ to resist being upgraded.

At Christs’ Hospital station itself, this path uses a pre-existing bridge under the railway line, which hints at a slightly more functional route, at some point in the past, than the current muddy bog would suggest.


Closer to the new development, to the north, the path skirts around the edge of these fields.

DSCN0788This could quite easily be a beautiful, safe and attractive walking and cycling route to a mainline railway station, reducing the current amount of driving to the station, and future demand created by the development. In the context of the amount of money being spent on the development here, it would cost peanuts, and in the context of the intrusion into the landscape of the whole development, a 2-3m tarmac path running through this landscape would pale into insignificance.

But this is West Sussex, and of course our suggestions have been rejected, due to – guess what – such a surface having an ‘urbanising effect.’

So sadly many more people will be driving this short distance to Christ’s Hospital station, needlessly clogging up local roads, and exacerbating the existing parking problems at the station itself.

If there's a spare bit of verge near Christs Hospital station, someone will be parking on it. This is 200m from the station.

If there’s a spare bit of verge near Christs Hospital station, someone will be parking on it. This is 200m from the station.

More motor traffic on the roads; more pollution, more noise, more queues, and (probably) a much bigger car park required here. Ironically, all because tarmac is ‘urban’ rather than ‘rural’.

The final example also involves Horsham and a different satellite village, this one a couple of miles to the south – Southwater. Below is the current state of Horsham District Council’s official designated ‘Cycling Route’ – grandly entitled ‘Pedlars Way’ – between these two large settlements, of around 55,000 and 10,000 people, respectively.

I had to wear wellies to even take this picture.

I had to wear wellies to even take this picture.

As you can see, it is effectively unusable for anyone who does not want to get muddy between September and April, and pretty uncomfortable for the remaining part of the year. Once again, this official ‘route’ is nothing more than a muddy track, composed mostly of slippery clay and leaves, as well as bog.

Yet with a little bit of willingness and imagination, it could be transformed into a really attractive link between the two settlements, suitable for use all year round, by anyone. With some clearing of foliage and minor excavation at points, the path is easily wide enough to accommodate both a 2m wide tarmac strip and a muddy track alongside, for use by horse riders or mountain bikes.

There's plenty of width here.

There’s plenty of width here that could be used more effectively.

Perhaps something like this.

Screen Shot 2014-12-16 at 23.35.53

Is this really so unacceptable? Does mud have to be retained everywhere?

The issue of a safe and attractive route between Horsham and Southwater was brought into sharp focus by the death last week of a man cycling on the road (which naturally has a tarmac surface) which runs parallel to the official muddy ‘Pedlars Way’ route – killed in what appears to be a head-on collision with a motor vehicle.

Kerves Lane – where the collision occurred – lies only a few hundred metres to the east of this track, but if you have not got a bike capable of handling mud, or you simply don’t fancy getting muddy yourself, it is (currently) the best available option for cycling between Horsham and Southwater. (The most direct route – the main road south out of Horsham – carries tens of thousands of motor vehicles a day, and also involves negotiating an insanely dangerous 70mph roundabout on a bike).

In context, again. The blue line is the 'road' route, with the collision site circled in red. The 'muddy' route is outlined by the red arrows.

In context, again. The blue line is the ‘road’ route on Kerves Lane, with the collision site circled in red. The ‘muddy’ route is indicated by the red arrows.

Despite being a rural road, Kerves Lane carries a significant volume of motor traffic, principally because it is a much more direct route to Southwater for drivers travelling from the east side of Horsham than the main A24, and also because it avoids the need to negotiate the aforementioned large roundabout on the bypass that passes between Horsham and Southwater. It is unattractive, so much so that I have stopped using it myself, opting instead for a lane even further east (just visible on the map above).

How many people are cycling on Kerves Lane (which is clearly less direct), because of the conditions on the muddy ‘Pedlars Way’ route? In principle, it should be much more attractive, because it is more direct, and also traffic-free, but I suspect many are opting for the road because of the poor conditions on the official route.

I think these examples (doubtless there are many, many more, across Britain) point to the desperately poor outcomes that result from a refusal to consider high quality surfaces in an allegedly rural context. Our strange ideas about what is apparently ‘natural’, and therefore valuable – informed by a centuries-old Romantic movement – are actually inhibiting good policy outcomes, in terms of transport, health and environment. It is more than likely that the refusal to tarmac the kinds of routes outlined in the post here is, at a national level, creating huge environmental problems in terms of car dependence, and needless car use for short trips. Ironically, it is this, if anything, that is doing most to erode what we perceive as ‘natural’ – not good surfaces for walking and cycling in rural areas.

To summarise, this obsession with ‘natural character’

  •  restricts the use of functional routes to the fit, and those willing to get muddy, and prevents access by other groups, particularly those who rely on mobility aids;
  • results in bad policy at several levels, particularly in the way it needlessly creates extra car trips;
  • and, finally, exposes people to danger on busy country roads and lanes, where they have to mix with high levels of motor traffic (often travelling at speed), because the alternatives are not suitably surfaced.

For all these reasons, isn’t it time we jumped forward two hundred years to 2014, and engaged seriously with the benefits of properly designed infrastructure for walking and cycling, wherever it happens to be, and wherever it needs to go?

This entry was posted in Absurd transport solutions, Car dependence, Dual network, Horsham, Horsham District Council, Infrastructure, Mobility, Natural character, Safety, Southwater, Sustrans, The Netherlands, Town planning, Transport policy. Bookmark the permalink.

100 Responses to Natural character

  1. Andy techie says:

    Interesting post, thanks! I personally suspect the answer is more along the lines of lack of funding / political will, “urbanisation” used as some kind of weak excuse.

    “In the context of the amount of money being spent on the development here, it would cost peanuts, and in the context of the intrusion into the landscape of the whole development, a 2-3m tarmac path running through this landscape would pale into insignificance.”

    “With some clearing of foliage and minor excavation at points, the path is easily wide enough to accommodate both a 2m wide tarmac strip and a muddy track alongside”

    For a two-way cycle track with any traffic 3.0m is really a minimum. I use a 2.0m wide cycle track many times a week and when even just one person cycling comes from the opposite direction, it’s not comfortable moving right to the edge and there’s not much room for error. If you expect moderate cycle traffic along this route, (and you would on the main route between two towns of 50,000 and 100,000 people each or to/from a main line train station) overtaking and social side-by-side cycling becomes impossible in such a narrow space. Two-way Dutch cycle tracks are usually 3.5m wide (see Markenlei aka BICYCLE DUTCH). I would request this by default, all your arguments are still valid.

    If there are obstructions to achieving this width in some places, the path could narrow for only that section and resume 3-4m width elsewhere throughout.

    • Mark Hewitt says:

      Isn’t it the usual thing with UK infrastructure. That if you ask for 3.5m minimum you end up with nothing. Ask for 3m you stand a better chance of it being considered.

      • fonant says:

        NO!!! Please don’t negotiate by dropping the width requirement below what is physically required. That’s why the UK has so many crap cycle lanes that are too narrow: campaigners have given in and accepted sub-standard outcomes. If they can’t make it wide enough to be usable it shouldn’t have money wasted on it at all.

        Most of the cost is in providing manpower and machinery, and in doing fiddly things like drainage and lighting. The cost of the raw materials is relatively small, so a wide path need not cost much more than a narrow one. In fact a wider path may be cheaper to lay, as you could use a machine designed for laying motor roads instead of needing a specialist narrow machine or hand-laid surfaces.

        Remember, they’re spending millions on building roads and huge junctions. A few hundred thousand is pocket change for a scheme to build an entire village as big as this. The developers should be doing this as a matter of course, to offset the traffic impact of the new development. But WSCC like traffic jams and motor pollution, it seems.

  2. nonny says:

    Perhaps the typo in the first line will get noticed when you awake refreshed…

    I’m sure any excuse will do where not spending money is concerned. (Other than on roads).

    Departures from the Romantic conception of the landscape will doubtless be resisted with just the same dogged john-bull ignorance and determination that nearly saw Coleridge arrested as a French spy.

  3. Paulc says:

    pretty obvious you’ve got a “mountain biker” there who doesn’t want to lose his favourite muddy tracks and find himself contesting with hordes of road bikes… who he thinks will be togged up in lycra and flashing through as pelotons at 25 mph plus…

    Probably heard tales of the Birstol to Bath track that they’re having problems with a few cyclists going too fast on…

    • Paul says:

      Lots of roads have problems with drivers going too fast. No one is suggesting removing the tarmac surface.

    • Tim says:

      My sister-in-law lives in Oz, and earlier in the year I joked with her about Australia being “unfinished” ie lots of unsealed roads. She took offence and politely explained that the roads are like that on purpose to stop the plebs (my word) from clogging up the great outdoors in their little noddy cars.

      Of course she and her husband are card holding members of the exclusive 4×4 owners club. Most of the time they only use their beaten up and very thirsty old toyota land cruiser to drive the 400m to the bottle-o (off-licence) near their flat in central Darwin, but they justify it by the odd trip to the National Park of Kakadu.

      Mr “leisure cyclists with mountain bikes (myself included) also prefer non-tarmac surfaces” reminded me of the land cruiser. “I’m alright Jack, so we’ll just save the money and keep it as is shall we?”

      • meltdblog says:

        Australia has a growing collection of repurposed railway corridors, an example I have used is here:

        Entirely focused on recreational dog walkers and equestrian users it has kissing gates at several points with bypasses for the horses but no room to fit bikes through. Victoria is unusual among the states of Australia as it permits greater access to path and trails for horses than it does for cyclists.

        The surface on the above path rapidly changes between anything from soft sand to large roots and rocks, making it challenging to ride even with a well equipped mountain bike. Finding out the conditions or even surface finishes of these tracks before departing is almost impossible and every time I have tried one I have returned in disgust.

  4. geoffrone says:

    Through a CTC colleague I have heard about a little known piece legislation called the Public Sector Equality Duty It would be interesting to learn how W Sussex has fulfilled it’s duty regarding people with disabilities and access issues in coming to it’s decision on the Downslink path.

  5. Mark Hewitt says:

    Oh you’ve hit upon one of my primary bugbears with cycling infrastructure in the UK!

    I too have heard the attitude of “cyclists prefer loose surfaces” well I’ve no doubt mountain bikers do; but there are forests and the likes if you want to go mountain biking.

    In County Durham, Gateshead and surroundings we have a large legacy of ex-railway routes from our industrial past. Many of these routes have been turned into bridleways, but with few exceptions they don’t have a tarmac surface. For many of them at best you need a CX bike to be able to tackle them.

    For the most part the hard part of the building of the route has already been done, the track bed is in place, the bridges are in place, the road crossings are in pace. All that needs to be done to open up long distance cross country routes for *everyone* is to put down a tarmac surface; considering how much tarmac there is in the UK that cost must be tiny indeed.

    There is a section of NCN7 near me, which has been tarmacced by Sustrans and it’s glorious I regularly use it on my road bike when I want a leisurely ride out but I have to turn back all too soon as it degenerates into mud (at Beamish for those who know it).

    I’ve brought the issue up with both Gateshead and Sunderland council for sections I think should be tarmacced, and they both responded that horse riders use the route, and that a ‘stone path’ permits everyone whereas tarmac would exclude horses. I don’t know how big an effect that is.

  6. Caroline says:

    The Netherlands arrangement shown in your last photo – cycles and feet get a surfaced path, motor vehicles get a rough track – was one of the most pleasant surprises (there were several) that we got when we toured in the Netherlands. They have a massive amount of surfaced tracks in rural areas through fields, forests and heathland, all of which are a joy to cycle and fit for leisure and utility purposes.

  7. Many recreational cycle paths are surfaced with crushed shells, perhaps a more acceptable ‘natural’ alternative for tarmac in certain situations. I also beieve it has the practical advantage of being self-repairing in woodland where growing tree roots would frequently break up tarmac. See

    • bicycledutch says:

      Well, they *were* made of crushed shells, but not anymore. Crushed shells are not considered environmentally friendly anymore. (Getting them disturbs the sea and they are calcareous, something you don’t want in fragile nature areas.) Today another material is used in highly sensitive areas: “greywacke” (see my later post). That might be an alternative, but I agree with Mark that a cycle path with a surface of smooth asphalt would not be damaging to most areas at all.

  8. I loose all patience now with the Local Authorities in the UK. This is a good, well put arguement. It’s the same across East Anglia, where land owners refuse access to even walking along the cam from Ely to Cambridge. This adds to the list of reasons off road more direct routes between places for use by non motorised vehicles is refused unless you’ve parked up with your mountain bikes or wellies.
    It breaks my heart that in the UK it’s the normal thing to to to drive somewhere in order to go for a bike ride or a walk. Utterly insane behaviour.

  9. As somebody who has tried to work with the Canal and River Trust which specifically resists tarmac on the grounds that it encourages ‘speeding’ cyclists, there is one specific request that they have to comply with. If you request that it is made a 4 season path to improve accessibility then they always default to bitmac with spray and chip.

    A similar approach can be taken with Local Authorities. A request to deliver a 4 season path suitable for disabled users absolutely requires at a minimum a bitmac surface.

    • The usual problem with bridleways is that there is no “obligation to do anything to facilitate the use of the bridleway by cyclists” (Wildlife and Countryside Act 1968).
      However, encouragingly, I found this snippet in the Institute of Public Rights of Way Good Practice Guide:
      “The issue of maintenance comes down to the Highway Authority’s basic duty to maintain highways to a standard commensurate with their ordinary use. If the majority of use is by horse riders, the surface should be suitable for them, and if by cyclists then an alternative surface may be required”

      Of course, the question of tarmacking Pedlar’s Way would not arise if just one of the roads between Horsham and Southwater was genuinely safe and convenient. The direct route is horribly dangerous. The much longer routes on the ‘lanes’ can be very pleasant but, if your child was hit when riding there, the police and social services would probably be more interested in why you exposed them to the speeding traffic than in the negligent driver.

  10. Kie says:

    Great article, spot on, these paths are not for mountain biking, *mountains* are for mountain biking.

  11. Andrea says:

    This epitomizes British nastiness and class structure: “If you cycle, you must be of a lower class, and therefore, rot in shit”

  12. Alex says:

    Couple of similar situations locally to me. I was delighted to see Sustrans (who’s work I am usually deeply cynical of) convinced local people of the benefits of a proper sealed path through woodland in Hadley Wood, Enfield (see here: It’s really quite a nice bit of work and threads through the woodland in a very sympathetic manner. Though I’m not sure how useful it is for practical journeys.

    Similarly a new path through Alexandra Palace park in Haringey has been constructed with a sealed, all-weather surface (ostensibly on accessibility grounds for the less able bodied). However, in presumably a sop to the naysayers (‘others regret that there has to be a hard-surfaced path at all’ it has been constructed absurdly narrow, 1.25m. Which means when meeting someone coming the other way, one of you has to get off the path. Obviously not ideal for the people who are now using it to walk/bike their children to school. Clearly the naysayers are opposed to the entire concept of sealed surfaces, so once you’ve quite rightly decided to use a proper surface to open a path to all users, a bit of extra width hardly matters!

  13. This is of course a problem in London and other cities as well. The Woodland Walk in Haringey, along a stretch of disused railway connecting Finsbury Park to Highgate, has huge potential as a proper cycle path, but is prevented from getting a proper surface by the insistence of (often dog-walking) locals that it retain a ‘nature reserve’ quality, which means a muddy gravel path. One of the craziest examples I came across recently was a brand new path put in by Harrow Council connecting between roads and another muddy disused railway path between Wealdstone and Belmont, part of a ‘greenway’ cycle route promoted by Sustrans and funded by TfL. Despite being in the middle of an urban area, surrounded by tarmac roads and flagstone footpaths, this new path, because it was supposedly part of a ‘greenway’ , was finished in hoggin, a sandy substance that turns to orange mud when wet. It was also obstructed by thick wooden posts for extra rustic effect. Needless to say, the few local cyclists have continued to use the parallel footpath. Again, as you say, a completely counterproductive concept. Another example was seen on Hampstead Heath a few years ago, when, following a ‘review’ of the cycle provision, the tarmac surface on one of the cycle paths was actually removed to ‘slow cyclists down’. I wrote on this subject three years ago, covering the Hampstead debate, amongst others.

  14. rdrf says:

    When working at LB Ealing many years ago we had to resurface High Lane which runs through Brent Valley Golf Course in Hanwell. It was just a sandy surface and got churned up. Initially we replaced it with the same kind of surface because of lack of money and the “need to keep it natural looking” – and it got churned up again. Impassable for wheelchairs and cyclists going at least up the steep hilly part.

    Eventually it was replaced by a tarmac surface with reddish chips which give some kind of rural/rustic impression, and can be used with ease by cyclists and wheelchair users. There is a problem raised by some pedestrians of cyclists going too fast down the steep section round a “blind” corner, but apart from that – which might require a hump and certainly notices for cyclists to slow down for pedestrians – it works OK. So it’s quite possible.

    Contact LB Ealing if you want information on how this was done.

  15. Cyclestrian says:

    Pleased to say that the cycle route into Winchester via the Hockley viaduct is dencently wide and smooth tarmac / hard surface for its entire length. Great, but no-one sweeps it. So we’re back to square one.

  16. labrat says:

    My word, as an experienced cyclist, cycle campaigner and member of a local access forum I couldn’t disagree with you more if I tried!

    Firstly, cycling as an activity significantly predates the widespread the modern bitumen-aggregate surface dressing that we know today, I have no interest in seeing the countryside paved over with more of it than is already there.

    Secondly, you may swoon over its simplicity for access for disabled users in wheelchars, but that is merely a reflection on the unsuitability of many wheelchairs for use in the countryside, ones better adapted for ‘off road’ use are certainly available, and in my area we are already discussing a trial project to make them more widely available through purchase and lending out, you may not believe it but many disabled people relish the challenge of achieving something.

    Thirdly, far from being ‘multi user’, increases tarmacadam surfacing is incredibly poor for horses, and resurfacing is widely opposed by both horse riders and walkers, thats before we get to the issue of higher user interface speeds increasing conflict between users, or the method and mode of injuries caused in crashes (including rider only accidents)

    Fourthly, at the moment between a third and fifty percent of all recreational cycling activity in this part of the world utilises off road trails and tracks (DFT and NE data, along with surrey cycling survey) – I would also throw about the fact that 70% plus of all cycling is recreational rather than utility, which undermines your ‘link’ theory – people don’t want more routes to get from one place to another (most of the great number we already have are woefully underused) they want more recreational traffic free routes to go and enjoy and explore. You state above ‘I cycled from west to east across the country, predominantly through rural areas, and not once was I ever cycling on anything other than tarmac or concrete.’ – well, woop de flipping doo! Frankly the thought horrifies me! I can already do that, theres tarmac vehicular paths commonly referred to as roads criss crossing the whole bloody country from coast to coast already, some of them with lots of cars, many of them with very few – what I can’t do is link up a ten or twenty mile ride around my local area, let alone across the whole country, without having to buzz along with the drone of tarmac.

    This biggest strength of your whole argument is the issue of mud – but thats an issue of surface and drainage, not an excuse for more bloody tarmac – there are huge numbers of well surfaced metalled paths all over our country that are not covered in mud, because they have been built and maintained well over the years – we need more of THEM opened up to cyclists, the hundreds of miles of miles of forest roads in the new forest, the thousands of miles of ancient cartroads and bridleways that are incorrectly recorded as footpaths on the definitive maps – put your effort into getting them opened up for bikes instead of paving even more of our precious countryside with frigging ashphalt!

    finally, a comment regards the transport planner – I’m sending a pack of chocolate biscuits to his office for him to enjoy with hid morning coffee, to thank him for standing up for the rest of us who don’t want to see the countryside turned into a pleasant urban fringe covered in tarmac to make it nice and easy for the townies, I want it left alone, and I’m glad that we’ve got people like him protecting it and us from those who would pave paradise!

    • WHOOOSH as the point goes straight over your head- unless you are, as well, vehemently campaigning against massive extensions to villages and huge road building projects?

    • Jitensha Oni says:

      So, how do you suggest non-recreational riders, including the elderly, safely (and cleanly) negotiate the route between the end points in the Horsham area that Mark is primarily writing about.

      • labrat says:

        Well, if they want to use tarmac, I believe theres a perfectly serviceable route already, called the road
        Do you really think that the answer to roads not being safe is for cyclists to stop using them, or should they be made safer? speed limits, traffic calming, less cars even?

        • In this case the cyclists on the perfectly serviceable direct road make up probably less than 0.1% of the traffic, but account for 33% of all injury accidents, 100% of which were the motorists’ fault. I don’t send my kids riding across a 70mph dual carriageway roundabout.
          Like it or not, we get the new houses eating into the countryside. We get the new roads; they are wider and faster than before; they actively prevent people cycling and huge swathes of countryside are dug up to build them. There is zero money being spent on cycle-proofing these roads. There is no reduction of traffic speeds or volumes on the table. Is it so admirable that the point we manage to call a halt to ‘urbanisation’ is always at exactly the point where it means providing a safe, direct or mud-free cycle route to the station, shops or superstore?

          • labrat says:

            “providing a safe, direct or mud-free cycle route to the station, shops or superstore?”

            As stated above – you can do all those things without tarmac!

          • johdi says:

            I am new here, but do you say you can bike in the UK across a 70mph dual carriageway roundabout? And no police? In my country (the Netherlands) you can get a hefty fine when biking at such roads! Drivers just call the police to get you from the road.

            • ryancurle says:

              Believe it or not sometimes they are the only direct route that doesn’t involve miles of detours.

            • Other than special cases, the only roads where cycling is banned by default are Motorways (autosnelweg).

              Of course, I’d presume that in the Netherlands there would never be any reason to cycle on a dual carriageway as there would be a cycleway… we of course lack those. Putting them in along the route of a dual carriageway (or motorway…) would of course be “urbanising”.

            • Simon Still says:

              Covered best here – you really can’t begin to imagine just how bad UK cycle infrastructure can be.


            • This is the roundabout under discussion.

              As you can see, there are no cycle facilities at all; the only option is to cycle on the roundabout, with all the motor traffic.

              It is legal to do this in Britain, and a few people (those who are brave and confident) do this. I myself have cycled across this roundabout, but only a handful of times. I try to avoid doing so, if I can.

              The reason it is legal is because there is often simply no alternative, and when these kinds of roads were built, cycling simply wasn’t considered. (Indeed, this is still happening even today!)

              • johdi says:

                Oh that is just awful. Nobody here would try to use it. And indeed, because there would be a cycle path along it or nearby. In the sixties and seventies that were very narrow paths with tiles, just about 2 feet or so separated from the road, you could just cycle two abreast.

              • Har Davids says:

                So, legalizing is cheaper than providing a safer environment for pedestrians and cyclists, and if you’re killed, you were either not visible enough, or you weren’t wearing a helmet.

                It sounds like a daily running with the bulls.

        • Terry says:

          There used to be perfectly serviceable routes called roads. They have become too unsafe and hostile for almost everyone who might want to cycle or walk. Motor vehicles have driven them off. There is no way to make the roads acceptable to those people, you are dreaming if you think there is. The answer is indeed for cyclists and walkers to be provided with a viable all-season off-road alternative. There is no other way to increase cycling in this country.

    • Wow. So much nonsense here it’s hard to know where to start.

      “cycling as an activity significantly predates the widespread the modern bitumen-aggregate surface dressing”

      Meaningless. “Walking as an activity significantly predates paving slabs”. “Flying as an activity significantly predates runways”. So what? What does that tells us? Nothing.

      “you may swoon over its simplicity for access for disabled users in wheelchars, but that is merely a reflection on the unsuitability of many wheelchairs for use in the countryside”

      So every disabled person has to get off-road versions of their existing wheelchairs and mobility aids to get about, simply because you don’t like the idea of tarmac in your version of the countryside? Are you seriously making that argument?

      “I would also throw about the fact that 70% plus of all cycling is recreational rather than utility”

      You seem to be assuming this is a confirmation of existing preferences; more properly, it is a damning indictment of the dire conditions for utility cycling in Britain.

      “standing up for the rest of us who don’t want to see the countryside turned into a pleasant urban fringe covered in tarmac to make it nice and easy for the townies, I want it left alone, and I’m glad that we’ve got people like him protecting it and us from those who would pave paradise!”

      This appears to be the crux of your argument – that muddy tracks are ‘rural’, while tarmac is ‘urban’, and that only muddy tracks are acceptable in what you define as ‘rural’ areas. But you haven’t actually given a reason why tarmac in your ‘countryside’ is so unacceptable. This is mere prejudice – a neat crystallisation of the attitudes I’ve set out in the post here.

      • labrat says:

        “that muddy tracks are ‘rural’, while tarmac is ‘urban’, and that only muddy tracks are acceptable in what you define as ‘rural’ areas.”

        No, read what I said again – there are huge numbers of well surfaced metalled paths all over our country that are not covered in mud, because they have been built and maintained well over the years – well surfaced and well maintained is not synonymous with Tarmac. I could take you to miles and miles of countryside tracks that are heavily used by bikes throughout the four seasons without an ounce of mud on them, and without an inch of Tarmac!

        • So well-surfaced metalled paths are okay, but tarmac isn’t? This is an extraordinarily fine distinction.

          • labrat says:

            There are thousands and thousands of miles of metalled tracks (well surfaced and without an ounce of mud) in Britain that bikes could use tomorrow without a problem – why not put your effort into getting them opened up so that people can use them instead of laying tarmac over the few paths we already have access to.

            • This post has focused on a number of useful, direct routes in the area where I live. If people want to cycle in and out of town, or between settlements, they will use these routes. This is true for many, many other areas in Britain. Paths should go where they need to go, and they should have good surfaces. They should connect new settlements with railway stations, for instance.

              The fact there are plenty of paths elsewhere in Britain is neither here nor there, frankly. I’m boggled by your attitude.

              • labrat says:

                I don’t disagree with the objective – but theres a whole world of difference between ‘well surfaced’ and tarmac – the two are far, far from being synonymous – your original post called quite clearly for the tarmacing of a bridleway, a beautiful old lane that has likely been there for hundreds of years and weathered hundreds of thousands of passers by without needing to be surfaced with tarmac – at the same time theres a beautiful network of roads through Denne park that you could use tomorrow, if only you started thinking outside the box and campaigned for greater access rights rather than trashing what you can already use.

              • Could you explain what, exactly, you mean by ‘well surfaced’, and why a tarmac surface would be so radically different.

                BTW the routes through Denne Park, and to Southwater, are not surfaced. Precisely the same issue would be faced here as on Pedlars Way.

              • I notice on the Singletrack forum you describe ‘well surfaced’ as consisting of a variety of hard-standing treatments. I’m still not clear why these are less appropriate in what you choose to define as ‘rural’ areas than tarmac; to say nothing of the fact that the Downslink is a former railway.

              • Tim says:

                “Could you explain what, exactly, you mean by ‘well surfaced’, and why a tarmac surface would be so radically different.”

                I was wondering about this. I’ve always understood metalled to basically mean tarmacced (or asphalted if you prefer). Wikipedia suggests that “A road of such material [ie tarmac] is called a “metalled road” in Britain, a “paved road” in Canada and the US, or a “sealed road” in Australia and New Zealand.”. It also explains that in other contexts metalled can mean various kinds of gravel. Maybe labrat prefers riding on gravel to the “drone” of tarmac (curse that noisy buzzy old tarmac), but it’s not for me.

    • Many disabled people have financial difficulties. Many of them would have serious difficulties even with a loaned “off road” wheelchair. Many would like to be able to enjoy the countryside without it having to be a “challenge”. Your attitude to them is ridiculous and patronising.

      Your attitude to “utility cycling” appears to be that of someone who refuses to bridge a river as no-one is swimming across.

      Who are you? Where do you campaign? I fear for access and cycling provision in your area if you’re influential. With people like you campaigning we can’t hope for “normal” cycling beyond a fringe leisure activity.

      • labrat says:

        “Many disabled people have financial difficulties. Many of them would have serious difficulties even with a loaned “off road” wheelchair. Many would like to be able to enjoy the countryside without it having to be a “challenge”.

        And many the exact opposite…I’m afraid it is your attitude to them which is ridiculous and patronising,

        where does it stop? should every footpath be tarmaced over so that all wheelchairs can use all of them as well? Nobody in the field is demanding that, nor that all cycle tracks are tarmac dressed to allow wheelchairs because its patently ridiculous, and the disability campaigners I have worked with on access campaigns think the same too, its just that some patent idiot is trying the bleeding heart ‘oh, think of the poor disabled’ as justification for their desire to tarmac perfectly useable cycle paths (largely because they bought the wrong bike)

        • Labrat, It would be great to use the paths through Denne Park. Unfortunately some of the residents there decided that they would no longer tolerate walkers, let alone cyclists on their road, they put up big new gates and took the case all the way to the High Court and won. Even residents of the estate have been known to get jittery about using the road because of being challenged by other residents. If you can persuade the residents there to create a permissive path, then that would be wonderful. Likewise, it would be great to have traffic reduction and speed reduction for the so-called ‘lanes’ or parallel cycle tracks for the main roads -people are trying, it’s not happening.
          As for off-road, of course it is possible to make good surfaces without tarmac, and in some locations tarmac is the wrong solution but as the population grows and the roads get wider, faster and busier, there is no logical reason why we should happily concrete over hectare after hectare for houses and roads, yet insist that existing direct paths must be the only thing to stay ‘non-urbanised’, even when surrounded by houses and dual carriageways. Ironically, some of them are the remains of the thoroughly ‘urbanised’ main roads and railways of the past.
          Locally the standard surface used for urban and semi-urban bridlepaths and cycle/footpaths starts off well below the standard of the surface you are describing. Experience then shows that there is no reason to expect proper maintenance.
          Bridlepaths are managed separately from roads; there is far less money and anything that is still passable by a horse is likely to be a long, long way from the top of the priority list, regardless of whether its predominant use is by horses or by locals who want to walk or cycle to get to the town or railway station. Tarmac lasts longer and is cleaner and drier and is eminently suitable for utility paths. Also, whatever they say beforehand, given the choice dog walkers and local people on mountain bikes also choose tarmac paths: the ‘soft’ side of the only local dual use paths is unblemished grass, because everyone walks and cycles on the tarmac.

          • Labrat says:

            ” If you can persuade the residents there to create a permissive path, then that would be wonderful”

            You don’t need to persuade the residents of anything, local authorities have extensive powers to create rights of way and cycle tracks where they add to the convenience or enjoyment of a substantial section of the public, or to the convenience of persons resident in the area.

            Which is exactly what you are saying tarmacing an already existing bridleway at huge expense would do, just by making it legal to ride the tracks that already exist…

            • Are you familiar with the case? As far as I understand, they have established a right to keep their road private. Are you really saying you think that the Local Authority could/would exercise some power to force them to allow walkers and cyclists on their road?

              • Labrat says:

                Of course they could. Section 26 highways act 1980. Go and have a look at what the council did regards emperors way in Fishbourne when the Archeological Soc. tried to close it. These powers are well established in law and regularly used, you just need to persuade the council that there is a benefit to doing so.

                The footpath court case was different, they were trying to say that there was evidence of years of uninterrupted use justifying the recording of a footpath on the track, it was entirely about what had happened in the past, not what was needed for the future.

    • BOY+BIKE says:

      My mam’s a wheelchair user, and we both think your attitude to disabled access is not actually particularly helpful. Off-road wheelchairs may indeed exist. But you’d be hardpressed to find a wheelchair user who would buy another wheelchair simply to enjoy the countryside – normal wheelchairs are often expensive as-is. And poor paths are also exclusive for disabled people who don’t use wheelchairs – people who use crutches, canes etc.

      Not only that, but I grew up in rural Wales and can I tell you we would have /died/ for a decent interurban path. My friend’s brother was hit by a car trying to walk home from the nearest town one night and was killed. The only existing paths away from roads were across fields and absolutely unusable, because – get this – they weren’t tarmac. Or ‘metalled’, take your pick. The point is that even if the ‘urbanising effect’ were a problem, it would have been worth it. Maybe if we had a bit of tarmac to make it ‘nice and easy’, Nathan wouldn’t be nice and dead.

      • labrat says:

        Right, where would you like to draw a line?

        By that, which paths do we tarmac to facilitate wheelchair access, and which ones do we leave alone? cycletracks, bridleways? public footpaths? all of them? Do we tarmac a path to the top of Snowdon because some people want to go there, or is that being ridiculous?

        Where would you like to draw the line?

        • BOY+BIKE says:

          Ignoring your use of reductio ad absurdum, I think that there should be interurban paths that are accessible to wheelchair users because, shockingly, they have the same transport desires as most people. I think my mother should be able to join the youth group she volunteers at on their outdoors activities without being left behind at the first stile for the kids to come back. I think people should be able to walk home without being killed by a motor vehicle. I think that as an intrusive road network already crosses much of the countryside, some unobtrusive paths would hardly be too much to ask for. Perhaps a path is impractical to build, but more likely it is being dismissed without proper thought. It would be nice, I think, if disabled people could want to go somewhere without being told that they are ridiculous for wanting the same as everyone else. (Also,Snowdon is already strewn with paths, and also a railway and several large buildings, least of all at the summit. It’s a tourist site that should endeavour to be inclusive, and beautiful as it is, it’s hardly unspoilt. So maybe there should. It’s not going to be as much of a blight as, say, the A470.)

          • Labrat says:

            Well, you really didn’t answer the question did you? Where would you draw a line?

            • BOY+BIKE says:

              Interurban footpaths should be tarmacked, and so should cycleways. It’s beneficial for cyclists and means that where there is only a shared use route, it’s still usable for non-cyclists. Bridleways should not be tarmacked because an un-tarmacked surface is better for horses. (Bridleways should also be treated as routes for equestrians only, as opposed to a footpath on which equestrians can ride.) Usable paths should exist where they are needed, save where to retrofit then would be impractical; this is the same standard for accessibility in shops, public transport, government buildings, etc. (Although often the standards for impractical are very low; those should be raised.) For example, a mountain path could be tarmacked unless the gradient would make it unusable by wheelchair/cycle anyway. And a universally applicable line shouldn’t be drawn, ideally – it would be better to assess cases on a case-by-case basis. A path that may be impractical in area A may be equally impractical but vitally needed in area B.

              • Labrat says:

                “Bridleways should not be tarmacked because an un-tarmacked surface is better for horses. (Bridleways should also be treated as routes for equestrians only, as opposed to a footpath on which equestrians can ride.)”

                Right, I take it that you’re aware that ‘pedlars way’, featured in the photos above, the exact route route that the article is calling to be tarmaced over, and the exact route that I’m saying shouldn’t be…is a Bridleway?

            • plien says:

              Where would you draw it? Ah, we know allready, a Britain ruled by cars. So friendly.

              Have you ever even been to the Netherlands? Go on, take a holiday, to the Veluwe perhaps.

              You’ll see that there are loads of paths left that are *only* for walking, which have no tarmac & no bikes (well, almost none, we dutchies have our share of arsehole mountainbikers as well). But there are also paths with bikable surface for, you guessed it, bikes!

              I’ve even been on paths that were made specifically for wheelchairusers, no bikes alowed, so with tarmac, verrrry smooth tarmac, pretty flat but with hilly surroundings & the beginning & end were near trainstation/carpark. Maybe you would recoil in horror, but do the elderly really need to stay indoors indefinitely because you prefer to keep your muddy path for mountainbiking?

              Please read & watch this;
              This is, in my opinion, Marks best post ever. The end of the video brought tears to my eyes. I biked like that with my uni classmate. She was hit by a car & had to use a wheelchair. It was so simple to move together.

              Since the above video i’ve been watching. Please do that yourself. Really, count how many children you see play on the streets, how many elderly people move around under their own steam, how many handicapped people do you see who are not on a bus, but have agency over their own movement.

              I never questioned the Dutch system, wasn’t aware that is so unique. But time has proven its validity. The happiest children, the least amount of accidents. Why are there still people falling for that unscientific VC crap?

    • michael says:

      I actually have some sympathy for the anti-tarmac position. I’m not at all sure what I think of this particular argument.

      But your superior reference to ‘townies’ at the end gets my hackles up. Its not as if there’s any shortage of you rustics driving your cars into my city! I’ll stay out of your countryside with my bike if you lot stop coming into my city with your cars. And if you want to use such epithets, maybe we should reconsider all the cross-subsidies rural types get for all the services that are so much more costly to provide in rural areas?

      As far as rural bike routes go, is it naive to want to see decent, surfaced, segregated bike routes right alongside the larger roads, as far as possible? Why is it necessary to have entirely separate tarmacked routes?

    • Rangjan says:

      “the fact that 70% plus of all cycling is recreational rather than utility” – well that’s not going to change if we follow you! Basically you are for preserving the status quo.

  17. rdrf says:

    labrat, I think you’re missing out on the fact that cycling has to be a viable form of transport, not just for recreation. And very often the road in rural areas will have problems of danger from motor traffic which require high quality alternative routes.

    You may have a point about tarmac involving high speed conflicts between pedestrians and cyclists (see my example above, where there is a steep hill and tight corner) . But you don’t resolve that by having an impassable surface for everyday cyclists wearing normal clothes.

    You have to have a passable surface (not necessarily very wide) .

  18. rdrf says:

    Another couple of points:

    1. When mountain bikes appeared on off-road paths, there were plenty of complaints about them churning up the trail (as if walking and horse riding did not). There may well be issues about respecting other users (in fact there definitely are) but it does show that either way cyclists will get blamed by some who just don’t want cyclists there at all.

    2. None of this should detract from reducing danger from motor vehicles on rural roads – but there should also be space for cyclists on off-road routes which are properly usable for everyday cyclists.

  19. labrat says:

    i) The answer to road safety is to make roads safer – not to push bikes off the roads and tarmac over the rest of the countryside to compensate for it!

    ii) there are plenty of perfectly passable surfaces on off road routes that do not involve the use of more bloody tarmac.

    • “make roads safer”: how do you propose to do this?

      • labrat says:

        speed limits (and enforcement) traffic calming, hell, less cars even?

        tell you what, tear up the bloody tarmac and you watch the cars slow down!

        • Simon says:

          I don’t want to cycle on the roads. But I want to cycle to get places. With my child. Your solutions appear to be:

          -wait until the roads are safe
          -man-up and use the roads
          -get a mountain bike

          None of these pleases me.

          • labrat says:

            You dont want to cycle on the roads, but you want to ride a road bike? I’m not surprised that none of the alternatives please you!

            • michael says:

              Oh come on, that’s just playing silly games with words. Its almost certainly not ‘the roads’ the poster wants to avoid, its the motorised traffic. Its a road bike, not a motorised traffic bike.

        • Mark Williams says:

          The above two sentences are the first (and only) sensible suggestions you have made in this post. They also solve virtually all of the other problems you have posited.

          Tear up the `tarmac’ on those roads which have been laid (and laid out) almost entirely for the benefit of motor cars and they can be very readily turned (returned?) into a replacement for your beloved `countryside’ which is currently being buried under a load of new houses (notwithstanding your failure to prevent this). Indeed, they will all be more than 7.5m wide and generally longer than they need to be, so you are actually getting a lot more `countryside’ than you had before.

          We can put you in charge of making a surface ideal for horses (all three of them, nationally) and `walkers’ (the vast majority of whom will only want to use it as a local-but-not-too-local dog toilet), those wheelchair users who like being `challenged’ up to their shins in mud, cross-country cyclists who just want some `recreation’ without actually getting anywhere, etc.

          In return, we will have the narrower and more direct ROW and a small fraction of the discarded `tarmac’. We can even colour the binder to look so similar to the local mud that you will hardly even know it is there…

  20. Mike P-J says:

    It’s not just cycling, either – here’s another example of “rural character” thinking. My parents attend a church in a rural village in Hampshire. The access to the main door is down a long path alongside the church, which was laid with loose gravel. This branches off the main driveway through the churchyard, which is tarmaced to allow access for funeral and wedding vehicles. A number of elderly members of the congregation complained about the gravel path – it was awkward to walk on, frequently acquired muddy puddles in the winter, and unsuited for users of wheelchairs or wheeled walking frames. The local church council agreed that it should be replaced, and got a quote for a smooth tarmac path. However, the diocesan authorities objected, arguing that a tarmac path was “entirely out of character for a rural church location” – despite the presence of the tarmac driveway in the churchyard! This objection apparently could not be challenged, and the compromise was to lay the path in resin-bonded gravel instead. This appears to have satisfied everyone…

  21. One of the more ridiculous outcomes of this attitude is the “Genome Path” south of Cambridge. This is supposedly “Mile 10,000” of the NCN.

    It’s a really useful link- even more so with the addition of the link to the busway path. It joins the southern villages directly north to Cambridge, by a shorter route than the busy roads.

    But, to “protect the green space” it is about 2m wide. It is busy with pedestrians and cyclists. Quite a lot of people going both ways at peak times. So no overtaking and conflict between modes.

    It is right next to a twin track railway with overhead electrification.

  22. Marc says:

    You mention the path for access to Christs Hospital Station from Broadbridge Heath, but there is the bridleway from Broadbridge Heath to Westons Hill which goes through the new development. HDC would never agree to tarmac that path, a better bet would be to lobby for improvements to the bridleway, to make it an all weather surface (as has been done to some extent at the development end). Yes, you still have to use road to access the station, but it is a fairly quiet and decent surface on Westons Hill and CH Road. The only problem with that bridleway and all year round use is the tendancy for flooding at the junction with the bottom of Old Wickhurst Lane.

    I was out on the Downs Link to Slinfold, Pedlars Way & the bridleway to BBH on Tuesday night so know all too well the conditions at the moment and during autumn/winter.

    I agree with your sentiment in places. I’d quite like the Downs Link to be surfaced, but can’t see it happening in reality. What I REALLY think needs to be built is a decent all weather cycleway between Southwater & Horsham.

    • Marc, As you say, the Mill Lane bridleway has been improved. It passes through housing estates, so pedestrians and cyclists will outnumber horses here by orders of magnitude. There was space for a more durable tarmac path plus a soft track for horses alongside but, in line with WSCC policy on bridleways, there is no tarmac. Presumably, like the Downs Link, it will become muddy and bumpy as I doubt there will be regular maintenance.
      Overall West of Horsham has been a huge missed opportunity for cycling. The other new foot/cycle paths have very rough surfaces (perhaps they have been given a finer top layer since I last went?); the signage is inconsistent and refers to ‘footpaths’ only and the geometry is definitely more suited to pedestrians than cyclists.
      The opportunity to develop more direct routes has been lost: Old Wickhurst Lane footpath is actually a tarmac road but, despite many requests from residents over many years, it is still illegal to cycle along it. There were also opportunities for completely new routes eg parallel to the A24 from Tesco via the sewage works to Christ’s Hospital and using an existing underpass to link with the eastern half of the housing development. The re-routed dual carriageway A264 has no cycle provision along it and the ‘cycle crossings’ on the junction in the aerial photos above will just be places where you dash across in between the traffic.
      The good news is that you will no longer have to use the road section you mentioned as WSCC has recently got agreement to complete the ‘missing link’ of the Downslink at Christ’s Hospital.

  23. platinum says:

    Reminds me of the arguments against a cycle path alongside the brand-new dualling of the A9 because it would damage the environment…

    My brothers are into rallying, nothing they like better than watching cars flinging themselves along as fast as possible on gravel roads in the middle of a forest – but they’re not suggesting that because rallying exists we shouldn’t have tarmacked roads to drive our cars on to the shops and to granny’s.

    So why is that what mountain bikers seem to be suggesting?

    I live only 5 miles away from town, should be an incredibly easy distance to cover every day. But last summer the ‘cycle path’ I follow to avoid the A-roads was so muddy for so long that it had frog spawn in it…

    There is also more psychology going here as well: laying tarmac is more than just the physical ease of not having to trudge through mud, and coming out clean on the other side. Tarmac sends the message that this is a SERIOUS route, we take cycling seriously and we’re going to invest in it.

  24. Richard Truscott says:

    Not just in rural areas; in London too, former railway track cycle routes like the “Parkland Walk” from Findbury Park to Highgate & Muswell Hill is also rough mud & gravel surfaced to maintain a “rural” feel & prevent it being too attractive for cyclist wanting to avoid busy roads AND steep hills in the area. Another significant lobby group campaigning against Tarmac is the large number of dogwalkers.

  25. cyclestrian says:

    Someone needs to invent a low-cost surface that has the smoothness of tarmac yet is aesthetically appealing to those with a strong opinion of what is appropriate on non-motor routes.

    • There are already lots of options available. What people call ‘tarmac’ includes quite a range of treatments that technically go by other names; some of these can be colour matched to the local geology and can look quite rustic. Similarly, there are big differences between unsealed surfaces and they can be pretty smooth and fairly durable. I know very little about it (Labrat might know more), but here’s a useful starting point:
      We need our decision makers to consider riding quality and durability/maintenance as well as cost and aesthetics.

      • Labrat says:

        I’d agree there are all sorts of surfaces that make very suitable cycle paths, certainly up in Durham on routes like the Waskerley way, Dolomite based whinstone grit is commonly used and sustains four season use in the worst of weather by all sort of bikes. In other areas crushed a similar granite or basalt grit is used, and there are a lot of very good sandstone trails, though limestone tends to get slippy and messy, even Flint slag has been used to good effect – the key lesson would be that material is often less important than constitution and size of stone, a high fines content wet laid (water bound macadam) for example – perhaps even more important is the lesson of effective drainage, and more often than not the reason for degradation of any establishedsurface is lack of drain maintenance.

        • cyclestrian says:

          Forgot to say, as well as not appearing too “urban”, the surface must allow mechanical sweeping. Even if the bridleway above linking the station could be surfaced properly, with all those trees around, it would quickly become treacherous in Autumn without regular sweeping. Not sure all of Labrat’s suggestions would stand up to regular machine sweepers.

          • Labrat says:

            IME it’s generally the Tarmac that needs sweeping more than the alternatives, because you get a nice slick wet mulch sitting on an impervious surface, treacherous in the winter and one of the reasons horseriders are so opposed to Tarmac on bridleways.

          • Terry says:

            Cyclestrian – it’s not just that they get treacherous. We have stretches of shared use track that get buried in leaves to the point that you can’t even tell they are there unless you know the route well.

  26. Sorry -you need to cut and paste, including the .pdf at the end!

  27. joe says:

    I wish the woods were paved, sadi no one, ever.

  28. cyclestrian says:

    One useful right of way in Southampton, currently really only passable with MTB, connects Lordswood and Chilworth. It links dense housing area in the city to a busy out-of-town science park complex about 1 mile away. The alternate routes are much longer via very hostile roads.

    The right of way follows a wide forest track, deeply rutted and muddy for most of the year. It would only take a 1m-wide smooth surface to civilize cycling here. The cycle track would need to be protected from forest machinery somehow though.

    Employers and landlord at the science park always complain about poor public transport links for employees. What do the local authority plan? A new forest park with Go Ape and trees felled for visitor parking – so people can come by car at weekends to bike around Lordswood (incidentally already the hottest Strava hotspot in Hampshire for illicit recreational MTB).

  29. michael says:

    I have to admit I’m not 100% out of sympathy with Labrat’s position (apart from the ‘townie’ comment).

    Ideally I’d rather see the rolling back of motorist capture of existing routes, than have a kind of route-surface-inflation set in with unsurfaced bridleways becoming minor ‘roads’ (maybe later to allow motorbikes, and then, one day, cars?).

  30. BOY+BIKE says:

    Labrat, if you read the OP’s post you’ll note that it suggests tarmac AND a muddy path, and provides an example of this. And I said that bridleways should be treated separately, not as all-in-one paths for pedestrians, cyclists and equestrians. They could be side-by-side, as in the Netherlands.

    • labrat says:

      What is the legal width of the bridleway? They’re not all the same.

      such a suggestion is pointless without important details like this, rights of way law is complex and with a huge amount of established caselaw on what can and cannot be done – which means its not as simple as just putting down two surfaces side by side where you think its suitable,

      as for your suggestion that they should be treated separately… you’re now asking for a complete revamp of the rights of way law, a process through which you would have to find moratorium with both other user groups and landowners, you might just get it achieved by the time you retire (they’re still dealing with the anomalies in the system created in the 1950’s FFS)

      • Mark Williams says:

        The law and all these `processes’ are only as difficult as we (or more specifically, TPTB) choose to make them. Alternatively, it could all be done with a very few strokes of the pen. Just look at `fracking’ or any of the new MOATs currently being built across the green belt by the tories, etc. Of course, it is pretty clear from your replies in this post exactly which end of the `complexity’ spectrum is your prefered/ `natural’ habitat!

  31. Great article, you are right of course, it is so frustrating that really obvious routes are often impassable merely for want of a decent riding surface. My recent trips to the Netherlands and Denmark were reliably surfaced in all rural areas I visited. Lots of sport cyclists out training on the wide tracks, along with families and people commuting–no problems, no conflicts! And towards Assen, crowds going from rural areas to the edge of town to see the football by bike, unthinkable in the UK.

    Meanwhile, in the New Forest impassable gravelled asphalt shared use paths, where there could be proper cycle tracks “usable by pedestrians” (reversing the priority forces cyclised design and the case for investment is stronger due to higher levels of use) makes cycling on them seem so difficult that I’d rather stick to the 60mph road.

  32. Pingback: The role for surfacing in rural areas | As Easy As Riding A Bike

  33. Pingback: Singletrack Magazine | Some Blue Signs

  34. Adam Lea says:

    Regarding the Downs link, is a possible barrier to a hard surface that it would be worse for horses? The Downs link is a bridleway, not exclusively for pedestrians and cyclists, and maybe horse riders prefer riding on soft surfaces than tarmac.

    The Downs link is poor for utility purposes anyway, even if you did tarmac it. It is just like most other cycle facilities, loads of pedestrians wandering all over the place or walking six abreast taking up the entire width of the path, or dog walkers with the extended leads similarly taking up the full width, or having to get off and walk carefully around horse riders to avoid spooking the horse. It takes ages to get anywhere, to the point where you might as well get off the bike and walk. The roads are far superior for utility cycling, ands no they are not dangerous (perception does not equal reality).

    There is also the cost-benefit argument. A tarmaced surface requires regular maintenance, othewise it turns into the narrow Surrey unclassified roads that look like they have been through a magnitue 8 earthquake. It is questionable whether the construction and maintenance costs are worth the benefit, given it is by no means certain that the main barrier to cycling is the perception of danger. I theorise that even if you had perfect cycle facilities in the UK, you wouldn’t get many more people cycling, because the root issue is that people simply are not interested in riding a bike (that is hard to comprehend for cycling enthusiasts). If they don’t have the interest, it is trivial to come up with a reason for not cycling, time, effort and exposure to poor weather being the obvious ones.

    • Tim says:

      I have no experience of the Downs link specifically (sorry) but I just wanted to respond to a couple of points with reference to my experience of a “cycleway” I often use in South Manchester for comparison. The Fallowfield Loop is also a former railway which does now have a tarmac surface.

      It’s primarily used by cyclists – sometimes referred to as the cycleway – dog walkers, runners and other pedestrians, etc. We have all the usual walking six-abreast, dog-leads-across-the-path and so on. There is some conflict, but for the most part it’s fine, and personally I will ABSOLUTELY take the car-free option every time, despite the pedestrians. This includes occasions when it’s considerably less direct and even after sunset despite it not being lit. Often the busy commuter times don’t clash with popular dog-walking times. And if the kids are with me the roads just aren’t an option at all; it’s either the shared-use path or no cycling.

      Cost/maintenance. It seems to me that the vast majority of damage done to tarmac roads is by the (increasingly) heavy motorised vehicles. People on bikes don’t weigh much more than people without bikes. The Fallowfield Loop seems to require remarkably little maintenance to the actual surface that I have noticed. Mainly just cutting back the undergrowth.

      “it is by no means certain that the main barrier to cycling is the perception of danger”
      HA! Please google any survey ever of why people choose not to cycle. And then look at the new cycleways in London, and the numbers and types of people who are using them.

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