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The countryside by bike

Staffordshire Manifold Way cycle path Staffordshire Manifold Way cycle path

How rural lanes offer a route into the heart of England.

Like a bird in flight
cyclist country laneFreewheeling down a country lane in the warm sunshine of a late spring day is such an elemental, joyful experience that it’s difficult to describe in words. The breeze in my hair, the peripheral blur of hedgerows bursting with blossom and wildflowers, the peculiar feeling of weightlessness as gravity takes hold, and the thrill as my wheels spin faster and my eyes begin to water from the wind. Gently leaning the bicycle one way then the other, I feel a swooping sensation, a unique kind of exhilaration that I can only liken to being a bird in flight.

Discover the countryside
Even people who never ride a bike now will know what I’m talking about. It may conjure happy memories of childhood, for it is as children that most of us first discover the delights of the bicycle. For anyone who’s lost the cycling habit (the statistics tell us it’s most of the population), a gentle bike ride in the countryside is a bit like being a kid again, a sure-fire way to bring back the uncomplicated, carefree pleasures of youth. Within minutes of setting off, the mundane concerns of day-to-day life are swept away by a flood of sights, sounds and smells, as well as the fleeting, intangible sensations of movement.

As a way of discovering the countryside, travelling by bicycle is unequalled. Walking will always have its place, but cycling allows us to cover a surprising amount of distance in comfort and ease. Even the most sedate ride can cover distances of 20 miles or more in just a few hours: far enough to encounter real changes in the landscape while still appreciating all the fine-grained details that are missed when driving a car. As Ernest Hemingway put it, ‘It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them’, (though there’s absolutely no shame in walking up the hills).

Be free to stop and explore
Our countryside is blessed with a capillary network of quiet lanes that are perfect for cycling. Byways and bridleways multiply the possibilities, though wider tyres – and mudguards – are sensible choices when venturing off-road. On a bike there are no problems of finding a place to park, so it’s easy to stop en route, to investigate a point of interest, to enjoy a picnic lunch under a spreading oak tree or a quick dip in a river or the sea. Unlike an unlovely clot of parked cars, a few bicycles leaned up against an old wall or a tree positively enhance the village scene.

For planning a route, the Ordnance Survey Landranger Maps are best, and the narrow roads coloured yellow denote lanes less than four metres in width, which are ideal for tranquil cycling. Good maps are the starting point for discovering the most interesting destinations en route: from ancient hill forts, Saxon churches and village greens to wildlife reserves, ancient woodlands, rivers, lakes and beaches.Beneath the thin veneer of tarmac, country lanes tell the story of Britain’s history and I feel a real frisson when riding along the course of an ancient Roman road, drovers’ road or path of pilgrimage. Depending on the season, there may be fruits and flowers worth foraging: and not just blackberries, look out for wild garlic and elderflowers in spring and early summer; sloes and chestnuts in autumn.

Finding tranquillity on quiet lanes
On the wildest and most remote of lanes, on sunken holloways lined with banks of gnarled roots below a towering canopy of trees, or in high country with infinite views to a far-flung horizon, it feels like time travelling to a bygone era of peace and tranquillity; of harmony with the natural world. Sadly, such reveries are easily broken by a sudden encounter with a busy and noisy A-road. These roads, which invariably follow the best and most direct routes, are effectively no-go zones for anyone on a bike or on foot. It is alarming that many B-roads – once the bread-and-butter routes of touring cyclists – have been progressively widened and straightened and are heading the same way. It’s all too common to find villages blighted by fast, busy roads that effectively cut them off from the surrounding area. Residents have no choice but to drive, even for very short distances, and this only adds to the problem.

How you help make roads for cyclists safer
CPRE argues for tackling speeding and reducing traffic volumes on rural roads, and to preserve the tranquil character of country lanes. On major roads, segregated space for cycling is badly needed, but rarely provided; 40mph ought to be the default speed limit on rural minor roads, while measures to protect quiet lanes and places where people live from intimidating motor traffic are a priority. Removing centre lines on minor roads promotes more sensible driving and prevents cyclists and walkers being pressed onto the verge. CPRE’s Transport Toolkit website is packed with more ideas and advice for parish councils and local community groups who want to take back their roads and streets.

Venture out into the countryside
Cheshire Congleton heritage signWithout doubt, the inexorable rise of the car has made many of our roads worse places for cycling, but this should not deter anyone from venturing out into the countryside for a leisurely spin. With a map and a bit of planning, it’s almost always possible to work out a safe and pleasurable journey on roads that are almost as quiet as they were a century ago. Many local cycling groups organise easy rides on a turn-up-and-go basis, which is a great way to discover the best routes in an area and experience the conviviality and extra visibility of riding in a small group, and for new riders to build confidence. The bicycle may not be the quickest or most direct way of travelling around the countryside, but as John Ruskin reminds us, ‘No changing of place at a hundred miles an hour will make us one whit stronger, or happier, or wiser’.


Find out more

Internet link Transport Toolkit website

Ralph Smyth, CPRE's transport campaigner, talks about what we are doing to improve condtions for cycling in the countryside.
Internet link Listen: cycling and the countryside

This article is an extract from CPRE's Countryside Voice magazine, summer 2014. Join CPRE to get the full magazine.

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Our countryside is blessed with a capillary network of quiet lanes that are perfect for cycling.

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