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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
And then being surfaced (with tarmac, naturally) in November.
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.
Such a route would have significant distance advantage over the driving route, which is circuitous, and involves country lanes as well as A-roads.
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.
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.
This 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.
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.
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.
Perhaps something like this.
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).
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?