Richard’s Bicycle Book was my bible when I was a teenager. This was a time before cyclists flew round the streets in soulless tinted-goggled packs. As the cover says, this is a manual primarily of enjoyment. There was no need for state of the art gear or comical, overpriced clothing. You just pulled on a pair of jeans and a chunky jumper, and off you’d go. When you felt like it you could stop for a pint or a roll-up 1. Riding a bike was Richard’s way of combatting disaffection with modern life and the alienating effects of cars. “Now look at what happens to you on a bicycle,” he wrote. “It’s immediate and direct. You pedal. You make decisions. You experience the tang of the air and the surge of power as you bite into the road. You’re vitalised. As you hum along, you fully and gloriously experience the day, the sunshine, the clouds, the breezes. You’re alive!” I do sometimes feel that these days the only thing the typical street cyclist experiences is the lycra-clad buttocks of the dude in front of him. But each to their own.
In the summer of 1983 I was 16 and preparing to sit my ‘O’ Levels. Back then there was much talk about the unfairness of five years of work being measured on a single three hour exam, and the Board decided to include additional forms of assessment. For me and my English Language exam, that meant having to give a presentation on a subject of choice to my classmates. I was an idealistic hippie back then, and as my friend Suzie often tells me, I still am. Inspired by Richard and his ecological ideas, my talk was about the building of extensive cycle paths and the banning of cars from city centres, with free bikes available for anyone to borrow.
Fast forward 30 years or so and things haven’t worked out quite how I’d hoped. To be fair though, if you’d asked me in 1983 how I honestly thought we’d be getting round in 2016, I would have said personal jet packs. Nevertheless, there has been quite a bit of progress. In 1984 the Bristol and Bath Railway Path was opened. This is a 15 mile cycle path on a disused railway, and was the first part of what was to become the National Cycle Network. The NCN now comprises around 15000 miles of signed cycle routes. Not a great deal of this is on dedicated cycleways, but the aspiration has been to minimise contact with motor traffic through the use of pedestrian routes, disused railways, minor roads, canal towpaths and traffic-calmed routes in towns and cities. All the routes should be suitable for an unsupervised 12 year old.
As it happens NCN 4 runs right by my front door. A couple of miles down the road road it meets up with the Thames Path, a national trail that runs alongside the Thames, much of which can be cycled. These photos are from a few weeks back and my first cycle ride along it this summer.
A few miles from my house along the Thames Path the tow path peters out. Enter the Shepperton Ferry. There’s been a ferry across the Thames from Shepperton for around 500 years, even being famously mentioned in the 1897 HG Wells novel War of the Worlds. These days it’s operated by this small skiff and crossings are every 15 minutes.
When I got to Hampton Court I took a short detour from the river over to Bushy Park, which I thought would be a good spot to eat my sandwiches. And I ran right in to what turned out to be the annual Chestnut Parade. I’ve still no idea what it’s in aid of, but nevertheless it was very enjoyable.
1. [Thinking about it, I’m not entirely sure that’s in the book. It might have just been me.]↩