i b i k e l o n d o n

Ghosts in the water: cycling in the shadow of Roger Deakin


Last year I wrote a glowing endorsement of Jack Thurston's new cycling guidebook "Lost Lanes: 36 Glorious Bike Rides in Southern England".  I loved the wide selection of routes, the philosophy of discovering quiet and car-free rides in our congested corner of the country, and the stunning photographs that illustrate Jack's engaging writing.  What follows is not so much a ride report of one of the routes, and more a musing on all of the thoughts and ideas a ride provoked:

Cycling in the shadow of Roger Deakin; the Waveney Weekender
(Ride no.27)

Start & finish: Diss, Norfolk.  Distance: 48 miles / 77km.  Total ascent: 183m
Terrain:  Country lanes and a short section of B-road.  Moderate.



The river Waveney weaves languidly from Diss to Bungay through a broad-backed valley of Suffolk fields which hummed with combines as I cycled through at the height of last year's harvest.  The air was thick with corn dust as storm clouds built up in to sticky towers on the horizon.

Jack's bike route, dubbed the Waveney Weekender, charts a looping figure of eight around the river valley, starting at the train station in Diss.  A disembodied voice with a sense of humour reminds us that "CCTV operates at diss station".. 




It's a surprising roller coaster to the busy market town of Bungay.  I thought that Suffolk and Norfolk - Britain's 'big sky country' - was mirror-glass flat, but I was wrong.  It's a fun run of ups and downs, with the waters of the Waveney in the valley below periodically appearing at each crest before disappearing again on the descent.

The Waveney was naturalist and author Roger Deakin's local river.  He swam in it time and again, and lived nearby in a moated farm house.  It was here he first conceived of the idea to make a swimming journey across Britain, sloshing through every canal, tarn and river he crossed.  The resulting book, Waterlog, is a modern classic with the late Deakin seemingly awakening the nation's wild swimming conscious by asserting that swimming in the open air - like cycling - had become an outlier activity.

He wrote; "“Most of us live in a world where more and more places and things are signposted, labelled, and officially ‘interpreted’. There is something about all this that is turning the reality of things into virtual reality. It is the reason why walking, cycling and swimming will always be subversive activities. They allow us to regain a sense of what is old and wild in these islands, by getting off the beaten track and breaking free of the official version of things." 




He explored the Waveney by canoe for a BBC radio production, and as I waded in to the cooling peaty waters myself after a hot, dusty ride through the valley I half expected to see his ghost paddling out from between the rushes.  Instead, I came eye to eye with pairs of aqua blue damsel flies dancing on the surface, accentuating the blackness of the water below.  Cows watched suspiciously from the river bank and I feared they might, at any time, make off with my clothes and inform on me to their farmer, leaving me stranded with only the dark enveloping river to spare my blushes.

But the cows grew disinterested, no ghosts or farmers came, and with my bike safely stashed in a hedgerow I was left to swim slowly upstream to picturesque Mendham Mill alone.  There has been a Mill here for nearly a thousand years, but it is no longer a scene of roaring, pounding agricultural industry.  Now it is a picture postcard of rural peace with flowers growing in the gardens, water buttercups blooming in the mill race and otter spraint on the river banks.



I floated back downstream, back to my cows and neatly folded clothes, looking up at the sky as I passed beneath fallen trees that crossed the river and the long hanging strings of willows.  The roads of Norfolk lay off one river bank, the laneways of Suffolk off the other.  London seemed far away, and I thought about Deakin and his connection with water and the landscape, and how alien that connection seemed to my day to day urban life.  Seeking an escape from the city, Deakin has acted as a literary lilly pad for me.  I came to him from Jack's cycling book, and after Waterlog sprang on to Robert Macfarlane and his writing on The Wild Places.  He in turn lead to Olivia Coleman's account, To The River, of hiking and swimming the Sussex Ouse, on the banks of which Virginia Woolf had written A Room of One's Own and in whose clawing, muddy shadows she drowned herself.



Cumulonimbus clouds like great forger's anvils built higher as the sun waned, their towering reflections deepening the dark shallows of the Waveney.  The air felt thick with static heat, like the river itself was dissolving in to atmosphere and hissing about me.  Avoiding the road I pushed my bike along the deserted river bank, thinking about somewhere to sleep.

"Can I help you?" asked a headless voice.

Startled, I looked around, but there was no one to be seen.

"Can I help you?" asked the voice again.  Perhaps I had swallowed too much of the river.  Perhaps Deakin's spirit had returned after all. 

"You should not be here, this is a private reserve"

A door that was not there before opened in front of me, and revealed the interior of an expertly camouflaged bird watching hide.  A disapproving farmer, of whose view of darting kingfishers I had disturbed, looked out at me and repeated;

"You should not be here, this is a private reserve."

Startled by this apparition I spluttered an apology, mumbling excuses that I thought I was on a public footpath.  He looked me up and down, checked my packed bicycle and softened, explaining that he maintained the river bank and adjacent field to ensure it was kept in the best condition to encourage kingfishers.  Britain's most colourful - and illusive - bird is highly sensitive to water quality and the health of fish stocks. I wondered if pesticide run-off from bordering fields had affected the small bird's population at all?  The farmer, warming to his subject, thought the Waveney was improving every day.  Local land owners used GPS to only spray pesticides as a spot treatment instead of blanket coverage, and never where they'd been sprayed before.  The Waveney was burgeoning with the return of otters, trout and kingfishers.  

"King Edmund the Martyr was abducted near here hiding from the Danes beneath a bridge in 870.  Man has been changing the river for over a thousand years since.  It used to an industrial water course.  Nowadays it is the healthiest it has been in decades and I love it.  This is a renaissance river."



As I climbed away towards the village of Hoxne - where the hapless King had been captured - I thought about the farmer's words.  Too often those who keep the land are accused of exploiting it, but many have as deep a love for the country as any landscape-starved city dweller.  The quiet road took me on, past troughs of cows, solitary windmills, and rows of quaint cottages.  

Making my way back up the valley towards Diss, the accompanying Waveney grew narrower and less prominent, a river running in reverse.  Fields picked over by swifts gave way to housing estates and gardens.  Trees began to admit road signs and fences among their number.  The sound of the train line and the main road running through Diss grew louder ahead, as the trickle of the Waveney - the renaissance river - receded behind me in to overgrown channels, its waters disappearing underground, their beauty hidden from view.  In Bungay, at the other end of my ride, the sense of the sea had been palpable just over the horizon.  My bike ride back up the valley had not felt like a ride against the flow of the water, but instead the narrowing river banks and contracting channel had drawn me forwards, funnelling me on to the end of my ride, back in to the roaring real world and reality.  

"CCTV operates at Diss station" welcomed the tannoy as the train for London pulled in.


Jack Thurston's book Lost Lanes; 36 Glorious Bike Rides in Southern England is available in all good bookshops and via the author's website now.  More photos of my ride can be found on Flickr here.

Share |

Friday Throwback: Remembering Goullet the King, the most incredible cycling hero you've never heard of


The inscription on the photo says, simply, "Goullet" and in 1920s America that's all that was needed to identify a national champion. 



Australian Alf Goullet taught himself, building a cycle track on his father's land, using the family horse to flatten the grass in to a course.  Spotted by professional cycling talent scouts, he moved to America aged just 19, and never looked back.  Goullet arrived at the height of America's track cycling boom, with his local 12,500 seat velodrome in Newark selling out twice a week.

He went on to win 15 six day races, more than 600 races over the duration of his career and scalped a host of world records.  To give you an idea of how popular a racer he became, at the peak of his career he earned more than the $20,000 paid to Babe Ruth in the year he hit 54 home runs for the Yankees. 

Every big race would exhaust him, but he'd always want to get back on his bike and do it again.  Writing about his first six day race he said: "My knees were sore, I was suffering from stomach trouble, my hands were so numb I couldn't open them wide enough to button my collar for a month, and my eyes were so irritated I couldn't, for a long time, stand smoke in a room."  And still he cycled.

They called him "Goullet the King" and his name was synonymous with the biggest cycling races at Madison Square Gardens, where he was inducted to the Hall of Fame.  But tastes changed, and as track cycling became less popular and velodromes across America faded and closed, so too did the memories of the stars of those tracks.

But Goullet didn't forget cycling.  In 1982, aged 91, he was lobbying his local city council to build a new cycling track to give the young people of Newark something to do.  

He died in 1995, aged 103 years old. 

This is just one story from our ongoing series of Friday Throwbacks, exploring the best cycling history online.  Be sure never to miss a post from ibikelondon blog; you can follow us on Twitter here or join the conversation our Facebook page.

Share |

Kill a cyclist? Get a slap on the wrist. Just whose side is the Law really on? The statistics are shocking...

The BBC have been making headlines with the revelation that only half of the drivers who kill cyclists go on to face jail sentences. Sadly, this is just the latest demonstration of how the UK’s Courts are failing our most vulnerable road users. 

BBC Radio 1’s Newsbeat obtained Freedom of Information figures that show 109 cyclists were killed on UK roads and more than 3,000 were seriously injured in 2013. 


The scales of the Old Bailey in London, by Steve Calcot on Flickr.

From the figures obtained from 45 Police forces nationwide, the BBC calculate that between 2007 and 2014 there were 276 recorded incidents where a cyclist was killed in a collision involving a motor vehicle. Of those, 148 resulted in the driver of the vehicle being charged with an offence – that’s just 54%. Of the 108 convicted, only 44% - or 47 people - received a prison sentence, with the average spell behind bars less than two years. Just over a quarter of this sample who were convicted for killing a cyclist didn’t receive a driving ban at all. Of those who did, the average length of disqualification was 22 months - or just shy of two years - in return for taking someone’s life.

Currently, the maximum sentence for death by dangerous driving is 14 years, and five years for death by careless driving, with British Cycling, the CTC and Road Peace all pushing for longer convictions for the very worst cases. 

Working with families of the deceased, and dealing with the anger of the cycling community around them, these campaigners are all too often aware of the devastation death on the roads can bring.

In a recent debate on road justice with judges, barristers and professions of law, the CTC recently called on the Justice Minister to end the practice of having claims of dangerous driving dismissed in favour of careless driving convictions, which carry a much lower sentence.  All this is set against a statistical backdrop which shows that contrary to popular opinion, cyclists are usually not at fault when killed.

Martin Porter, QC, commenting on the judicial system said; “These laws.. ..are not deterring bad driving and are not keeping bad drivers off the roads to the extent that they should.”



The CTC's new report on Road Justice highlights countless cases where it could barely be said justice has been delivered; 

  • Martin Boulton pleaded guilty to causing the death of a cyclist by careless driving and causing death by driving whilst uninsured. Boulton had been adjusting his car radio before he hit the cyclist. He was sentenced to a suspended six-month jail term, 200 hours of unpaid work, two consecutive 15-month driving bans and was fined £350 and ordered to pay a £15 victim surcharge.
  • 17-year-old Lee Cahill already had a conviction for speeding when he pleaded guilty to causing the death of Rob Jeffries by careless driving. He was sentenced to a 12-month community order, ordered to do 200 hours of unpaid work, to re-take his driving test and to pay court costs of £85, and was given an 18-month driving ban.
  • Paul Brown was driving at between 55 and 60mph and eating a sandwich when he hit and killed cyclist Joe Wilkinson. He pleaded guilty to causing death by careless driving and was acquitted by a jury of causing death by dangerous driving. He was sentenced to 240 hours of unpaid work and a one-year driving ban. 
In a recent article of my own here on ibikelondon there are even more terrible cases where the “full force of the law” has been found to be seriously wanting: 

  • The lorry driver who ran over and inflicted life altering injuries on Times journalist Mary Bowers was giving directions to a colleague on a phone when he hit her (a fact he later lied about to Police and to Mary’s family. On hearing the screams of a passing cyclist he leapt from his cab to see what was the problem, but forgot to apply the handbrake and watched from the roadside as his truck continued to run over Ms Bowers. A jury of 12 found him not guilty of dangerous driving.
  • Adrianna Skryzpiec was dragged beneath a truck for 140 metres . The driver never stopped, having never even realized he’d run someone over. His legal team argued it would have been impossible for him to have ever seen Adrianna from within his cab – effectively admitting it was impossible for him to safely share the road – and were able to have his case dismissed.

The list of terrible crimes and their lack of punishment is maintained by Martin Porter at his excellent Cycling Silk blog and it goes on and on. Both he and the campaigning organisations like the CTC have highlighted numerous inconsistencies in the statutory framework, and demonstrated that there is a public appetite for more robust sentencing and firmer enforcement of existing laws.




Alongside the terrible deaths, there are a retinue of lesser injuries which have also received scant attention – if a car hits you, breaking both your legs and giving you concussion, your rehabilitation before you can enjoy the same quality of life again may take from 9 months to a year. The driver will likely receive a few penalty points and a fine of a few hundred pounds. Does this seem fair and just?

Too often in Britain death and serious injury on our roads is seen as a “shruggable offence”; just one of those things that just happens as a by-product of society getting round. But cause and effect demonstrates that momentary distractions and seconds of inattention can have very serious implications. Cases where vehicles are willfully driven dangerously are even worse.  Our present situation means cyclists must rely entirely on the idea of "sharing" the road.  This can only be successful if it is underpinned by a vigorous sense of fairness and justice for those who become victims.

Too often our Court system has been found to come down on the side of the perpetrator, not the victim, and has helped to perpetuate the myth that death and injury on our roads is inevitable and to be treated with leniency. The Justice system needs to act decisively to show that they are listening and that they are prepared to change. 

The Metropolitan Police are appealing for witnesses after a 25 year old man was killed on his bicycle following a collision involving a white Honda Accord on Kingston Road in Merton at 00:45 on Saturday morning.

Share 

Friday Throwback: a blast from the past, from the days when pros ate ice cream...




As London swelters in the sun this week, perhaps you're thinking an ice cream might help cool you down, but perhaps you're worried about the calories?  Fear not my over-heating friends, because who knew that ice cream - in all its buttery calorific glory - is the "health food of the nation" according to Australian cycling champion Hubert 'Oppy' Opperman.
 

We've been celebrating the best historic photos of cyclists from archives around the world in our ongoing series of Friday Throwbacks.  Today's is from the State Library of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, and shows Oppy endorsing Peters Ice Cream, which would have been a vital source of revenue for him in the days when competitive cyclists were strictly amateur.

Oppy's career saw him racing in the Tour de France in 1928 - the first time an Australian and New Zealand team were fielded - and he went on to break a series of famous endurance records, including a ride from Lands End to London in just fourteen hours.  He denied doping allegations stating "There is no sporting prize worth the use of drugs or stimulants", though whether he counted ice cream as one of those substances is unclear.  His racing career ended with the outbreak of the second world war, when he joined the Royal Australian Air Force.

He continued cycling in to his 90s, and when he died (exercising on a stationary bike) in 1996 a number of his records were still standing.  In a strange twist ice cream outlived exercise, with the Australian brand Peter's Ice Cream still manufacturing sweet treats today, 107 years after the firm was founded (though it was sold to a European firm earlier this year.)

For a full profile of Oppy see his Wikipedia profile here.  Be sure never to miss a post from ibikelondon blog! You can follow us on Twitter here or join the conversation our Facebook page.

Share 

The City of London is busy tearing up bike lanes in the Barbican tunnel to re-introduce a problem they recently fixed; have they got cycling amnesia?


The City of London are currently busy digging up one of the busiest bike routes in the Square Mile, but not to improve conditions for cyclists.

The Beech Street tunnel runs beneath the Barbican estate, connecting Finsbury Square in the east with Smithfield Market in the west. 



Until recently the westbound cycle lane stopped short of the western junction, when the carriageway split from one lane to two.  This resulted in cyclists being pinched and almost inevitably a considerable number of cyclists mounted the pavement to get ahead of stationary traffic and large vehicles waiting at the lights.  This in turn led to problems between cyclists and local residents on foot, so much so that the City of London spent a considerable sum reconfiguring the western end from two lanes of traffic to one, and creating a wide cycle lane that brings cyclists safely all the way up to the junction, where an Advanced Stop Line allows them to get ahead of traffic pulling away or turning.  (There's a great video on Youtube showing the problem before, and the solution after.)


The improved west bound carriageway, continuous cycle lane and bike box. Problem solved.

The fact that the City spent so much time, money and effort reconfiguring the western end of the tunnel two years ago, makes what they are now doing at the eastern end even more mind boggling.

See the full plans for Beech Street and Silk Street here (Opens in PDF)

The eastbound cycle lane used to run all the way through the tunnel, becoming zig zags just before the pedestrian crossing and junction with Whitecross Street. Motorised traffic often stacks up here - especially at peak times - because the pedestrian crossings are so busy.  The cycle lane got you through this safely, without having to mount the carriageway.

It's worth pointing out that in the cycle census of 2013, there were the same amount of cars and bicycles traveling westbound in the morning peak, and only a few more cars than bicycles in the evening peak (542 private cars, vs 436 bicycles)  This is also a very popular rat run for taxi drivers, with some 2316 of them traveling this route every day (compared to 1305 bicycles in total.)  Clearly, this is a popular and useful bicycle route that could benefit from the space for cyclists being enhanced, but for some inexplicable reason the City are seeking to make it worse.


The cycle lane will follow the new stone curb on the left towards the centre of the carriageway - effectively replicating the problem the City paid to elliminate at the western end of the tunnel.

In order to widen the pavement outside the Barbican cinema and to push the pedestrian crossing further east (to meet the desire line of pedestrians crossing from Whitecross Street) the pavement is being built out in to the carriageway in to the path of the cycle lane.  Cyclists will be expected to "taper" in to the carriageway, and will be expected to take the centre of the lane, from the pedestrian build out all the way past Whitecross St junction.  This may not seem so bad, it is only a few metres after all, but I can't believe money is being spent to replicate the same conditions at the eastern end of the Beech Street tunnel that the City spent money eradicating at the west end.  With traffic so often backed up here, if cyclists take the lane they will be left sitting in stationary traffic sucking on the exhaust pipe of idling taxis going nowhere fast.  In reality this simply will not happen - as was demonstrated at the western junction - cyclists will either squeeze themselves down the artificially induced tight space remaining - in close proximity to queuing traffic - or they will mount the pavement and ride along that instead.  Exactly the sort of outcome the City should be seeking to avoid.

I've written to the City asking them what they think they're playing at, and received a very polite "thank you, but we know best" note.  The project manager argued that there was already a pinch point at Whitecross Street (there is, it is a few feet, and can be navigated by getting ahead of traffic held up at the pedestrian crossing) and that the cycle lane will merge alongside the newly built out taper, which will apparently encourage other traffic to shift right to the side of the carriageway (the current existing central reservation is being removed, meaning the carriageway width will be 4m - in line with the new London Cycling Design Guidance)

I'm not convinced.  I'm not convinced the argument in favour of a few feet of extra paving outside the cinema has been shown to be more important than the needs of hundreds of cyclists who will loose safe space for cycling here.  And if the experience of Cheapside in the City of London has taught us anything, I am not convinced that narrowing the carriageway and expecting cyclists to take up the middle of the lane is anything more than wishful thinking.  And I am not convinced that the City of London is truly thinking "put cyclists first" if this is the way they go about re-designing their streets.  If anything, bicycles seem like a total after thought here.  Update at 11.55AM on 14/7/14: It seems as though the influential residents of the Barbican estate are entirely unhappy with this scheme as well, so just who exactly is it supposed to benefit?

Spot any safe space for cycling in this lot? No, me neither.  You wouldn't believe this is one of the Square Miles' busiest bike routes, the way it is being chopped about. (Pic via @HackneyCyclist on Twitter)

They could have created a simplified system of pedestrian crossings, more space for pedestrians on the south corner of Silk Street and still had enough room to create a really fantastic treatment to get cyclists safely across the Whitecross Street junction.  Instead, they're opting for some fancy paving, tapered out bicycle lanes, crossing their fingers and hoping for the best.  Once the works here are complete, I would not be surprised if cycle rates decrease, perhaps significantly.

The Beech Street / Silk Street upgrade works are just one of many being planned across the Square Mile that will have an impact on cyclists; from the Aldgate gyratory to the introduction of a trial 20mph zone and two-way cycling on key one-way routes.  The Beech Street route is part of my journey to work, but the first I knew of the plans was when they started digging the street up.  It just goes to show how important it is that as many cyclists and campaigners are involved in the street planning process as possible.

The next City of London Cycling Forum is on Thursday 31st July at 6PM in the City Marketing Suite (on the corner of Basinghall Street and the Guildhall Buildings)  An opportunity to talk informally with City Members and officers and comment on future plans will be available; I'd urge you to get involved.

Share |