Make the most of Sustrans Cycle Routes this Autumn

We all know that Sustrans routes are great for getting from A to B safely, healthily and scenically, helping you to keep fit and do your bit for for the environment at the same time. But, they also have other attractions, particularly at this time of year.

This hasn’t been the best of summers, but one of the few benefits of the rain and lack of sun in June and July is that the hedgerows are still heavy with fruit: brambles, rose hips and even elderberries that usually ripen six to eight weeks ago, are still there.

Red Rowan berries in fruit

And as many Sustrans routes run along old railways and canal towpaths – ideal hunting grounds for hedgerow fruit – you’ll be spoilt for choice.  Even when the route runs along a country lane, you’re still in the driving seat, so to speak, as you can cycle further away from the half a mile radius out of the villages and car parks, which is as far as most of the pedestrian and car driving fruit pickers get to.

Normally I find mid to late August as the best time for the blackberry harvest, but walking the West Highland Way (which shares Sustrans Route 7 for parts of the route) in early September I was amazed at how many wild brambles  were still to ripen.

Nearer home, Route 54 between Burton and Lichfield, is (or was until I gathered the elderberries)  ideal hedgerow territory, running parallel to the Trent and Mersey Canal for a few miles and then along some high-hedged lanes.

So, pack some plastic bags in your panniers and see what you can find in the hedgerows, – but hurry because as the sun weakens, any fruit that is left will rot quickly. Blackberries will be past their best, but slows are just beginning to ripen – add sugar and a bottle of vodka/gin, leave in a dark place for as long as you can – and they make a deliciously rich (and potent!) liqueur.

Elderberries make a full-bodied (and equally potent) wine, or can be boiled up with crab apples and rose hips to make a delicious jelly.  (Recipes to follow in next post.) You can even use rowan berries, as well, but do take care and if you’re not too sure of your berries, err on the safe side with those you are familiar with.

So, in a few months time you can indulge in some mouthwatering jellies and agreeable drinks, without guilt, knowing you have picked, delivered and cooked them, all by your own efforts. Bon appetite!

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Wet, Wet, Wet…….

Craighouse, Jura

Until last Friday (the 13th as it happened) the wettest cycle I had ever completed was an eight mile ordeal from Jura’s Feolin ferry to Craighouse, the island’s only settlement. I had been promised that the undulating route enjoyed stupendous views and the steep climbs might be rewarded with a sight of some of Jura’s many red deer. In the event,  the only view I had was of water cascading down my glasses and the visibility was so bad it was only the smell from the eponymous distillery that alerted me to my eventual arrival at the island’s hotel next door.

But Friday 13th July 2012 easily surpassed the worst that Jura had thrown at me. And this time, I wasn’t cycling in the West of Scotland, Wales, the Lake District or any of Britain’s other notable wet spots. My 20 miles return ride was from Barton under Needwood to Lichfield, in the Midlands: until this jet stream summer, generally regarded as one of the drier areas of the country.

Determined to attend a local Sustran’s Volunteer Rangers’ meeting and equally intent on cycling there, I set out, complete with spare gloves and socks wrapped carefully in my panniers. The outward journey wasn’t too bad: although soaked by deceptively soft rain – “wet drizzle” as my granny used to call it – I was pleasantly surprised by the water repellence of my cheapskate Lidl jacket and after a coffee, tea cake and pleasant hour  in the Chapter’s Coffee Shop, set off with renewed vigour, for the return journey.

Now, the wet drizzle had developed into stair rods – another West of Scotland expression used to describe prevailing weather conditions – and by the time  I had crossed Trent Valley railway bridge, Netherstowe Lane had acquired enough water to attract some opportunist ducks, who were amusing themselves watching the trains flash by on the adjacent West Coast Main Line.

Around 75 minutes later – the usual journey time doubled by frequent stops to empty my shoes – I stood dripping for a few moments in the garage before removing my sodden layers. The LEDs were illuminating the dark interior and, although the calendar said lunchtime in mid July, in reality it seemed like late afternoon in November.

But, with that peculiar lack of logic that affects cyclists, I felt happy and pleased with life: happy that I had made it without mishap and I could now justify soaking in a hot bath in the early afternoon, before indulging in some well-earned comfort cakes and coffee. And, while I regularly return from a cycle seething about the idiocy of many drivers, today my faith had been restored in human decency, thanks to the two road workers on the A38 who offered me a cup of tea and the British Gas van driver who tailed me patiently along Dogshead Lane to avoid engulfing me with a tsunami of dirty surface water.

And after all, if this wet summer is a portent of our climate-changed summers of the future, then we may as well get used to it.

What I’ve learned about cycling in a deluged summer:

There is no such thing as a truly waterproof jacket and my expensive Gore-Tex jacket performed worse than my cheapy model (see above), despite assiduous proofing

The fewer layers you can wear, the better, particularly on your legs as your skin always dries out quicker

I do need to invest in some overshoes after having to dry out my shoes for the last 72 hours (and trainers are the worst possible option in the wet)

Spending on expensive Ortlieb panniers has paid off as they have easily resisted all this jet-stream summer has thrown at them

Wet gloves are worse than none at all: the only exception being my woolly fingerless ones bought en route in Arran during my Scottish Island Circuit

You do get wetter in a wet summer, than in the winter: just like walkers get wetter from longer grass in the summer, if you’re riding in country lanes and the hedgerows are of rainforest proportions, then your left arm will get much wetter than your right!


Postscipt: my ride through Jura was part of a Scottish Island Circuit that also included Arran and Islay.  Although it rained on most days, it was a great way to see these three breathtaking islands, and when the clouds cleared, there were views like this:





Lamlash Bay, Arran








Knockangle Point, Islay













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City versus Country: where would you rather live?



Country Lanes


Or City Streets?






Last week’s media was awash with debate about rural vs urban, with Mavis Cheek  fronting a campaign to warn older people about the hazards of retiring to the country, accompanied throughout the week by more angst about the rising cost of fuel. At the weekend cyclist Rob Penn countered for the countryside with a piece for the Observer extolling the delights of rural life in the Black Mountains.

As a resident of what is nominally regarded as a village, but who is seriously considering, for environmental among other reasons, a move back to the city, the debate had special resonance. Looking out at this morning’s sun-bathed, south-facing garden, embroidered by lilac crocuses, lemon daffodils, and plump furry magnolia buds almost ready to reveal the delicate white blossom protected within, the obvious solution would be to stay put. But nothing, as they say, is ever quite what it seems and the rural idyll outside the back door isn’t quite so appealing, ironically enough, when you try to live sustainably.

Perhaps we ought to start by establishing what we mean by living in the  countryside. Most of my fellow residents would regard their location as a village; thatched cottages, handsome church, hanging baskets and a few attractive looking pubs. But its location next to a fast dual carriageway, linking several large cities, has turned it into effectively a commuter settlement, with the population of a small town, but facilities of a small village.

The migration of commuters and second homers to rural areas has, I suspect, made this the case for many residents of what used to be regarded as the countryside and with damaging consequences for their quality of life,  to the extent that many of the traditional pleasures of living a rural existence are rapidly disappearing, if they haven’t already gone.

Listening to the birds, for example, one of Mr Penn’s favourite activities, is becoming much more of a rarity here as the hedgerows are destroyed, or manicured like privet hedges for the benefit of the day trippers to the National Forest walking tracks that criss cross the village.

Cycling for me, like Mr Penn, is an obsession, but unlike Mr Penn’s bucolic idyll in the Black Mountains, riding a bike around here, taking your chances with the 4x4s and agricultural vehicles, is arguably more dangerous than negotiating Highbury Corner alongside Boris’s new buses.  And, if you use your bike as a form of transport, rather than just recreation, then you need the skills of a military logistician to work out how to transport heavy goods, how to reach the shops, or how to arrange supermarket deliveries, always assuming you have and can use the internet.

And as for village community: try walking or cycling in the main road any morning from before 7am and observe the hundreds of cars leaving the village, packed with commuters driving to work with their children en route to the nearest nursery for the next 12 hours. There is little community during the day and not much more in the evening, hence the closure of some of the pubs, and the transformation of most of the others into eateries.

Of course it’s not all bad: it’s safe, most people are friendly and helpful and, as long as you don’t mind being regarded as an odd single female, or potentially subversive because you don’t believe what you read in the Daily Mail, and horror of horrors, take the Guardian instead, then life is generally quite tolerable (we even have a lovely cafe selling decent coffee and Fentiman’s ginger beer now).

Unless, that is, you do not drive a car. This week an appointment at the eye clinic will involve two buses and a journey time of about two hours to travel 20 miles, while next week an early morning taxi will cost about £20 to reach the nearest railway station. And, while  I am lucky in the sense that I possess a car and am able to drive, financially, and in terms of sustainability, a car is by far the biggest drain on my resources. But try living in the countryside without one and your rural dream will dissolve as quickly as your wallet empties.

It was then, encouraging, that another couple of articles published last week highlighted the real problem facing many people, of all ages, predominately but not exclusively in the countryside; that of transport poverty. Last Monday, Sustrans, the sustainable travel charity, reported that half of Wales faces debt from transport costs.  The report, also backed by Age UK, Citizens Advice and Save the Children in Wales, illustrated the real problem facing an increasing number of people is not the increasing price of fuel, but that they cannot afford to a car in the first place, nor pay the costs of public transport.

Later in the week, Left Foot Forward  focused on the same issue to campaign for a change in government priorities; away from the focus on car owning towards investing in public transport and improving facilities for walking and cycling.

Although the subject matter of both reports was depressing, it is at least positive that the real issue of transport poverty is being addressed. Being unable to travel, whether because of high costs, or lack of suitable options, is a real problem with potentially serious consequences for all of society, urban as well as rural.

And to return to the original debate, I suspect that before too long I will be prepared to swap my vegetable plot, garage and hanging baskets, for some regular buses and a station at the end of the road – preferably with a local farmers’ market, some good cafes and a bike shop nearby.













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Improving safety on its own will not change attitudes towards cycling


On your bike

Britain’s cyclists continue to rule the world: well, at least that’s true on the track thanks to the likes of Sir Chris Hoy and company.  But off the track it’s a different story and 2012 has begun with more depressing news for those of us who hazard on to the roads on two wheels.

The Times’ Cities Fit for Cycling Campaign  instigated by the horrific injuries sustained by one of its reporters after she was crushed by a lorry, has spearheaded a string of appalling examples showing the risks cyclists take each time they venture out.  But for every video of a bus swerving into the path of a cyclist, or a length of wire hung across a forest track at neck height, there will be dozens of calls, texts and tweets from infuriated motorists enraged about cyclists jumping lights, or listening to iPods, or riding without lights.  Indeed, a recent phone-in on LBC radio seemed to suggest that most of their contributors consider horrific accidents are no more than cyclists deserve.

Little wonder then, that a Sustrans survey today shows that a majority of people are now put off cycling because it is too dangerous.  Research by the cycling and sustainable travel charity found that 56 per cent of people believe cycling in built up areas is dangerous and 70 per cent seek a 20 mph speed limit in urban areas.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the whole story.  In my experience cycling along rural roads – sometimes even on Sustrans designated routes – is, at times, arguably more dangerous: riding along a quiet, high-hedged, picturesque country lane may seem cycling heaven to the urban rider, but it certainly is not when confronted by a massive 4×4, its driver unaware of its width and unwilling to share any of its god-given road space, or when you are tailed by a filthy agricultural vehicle for miles before it tries overtakes on a blind corner.

And, while more cycle lanes could improve safety in urban areas, they are hardly a feasible proposition across the length and breadth of the country. No, the hard truth is that improving safety for cyclists, will not, on its own, substantially change attitudes towards cycling.

A previous survey into walking and cycling in 2011 found that years of government efforts to promote cycling have had almost no impact on a sceptical population who largely view bikes as either “children’s toys or the preserve of Lycra-clad hobbyists.”

“Many people barely recognise the bicycle as a legitimate mode of transport; it is either a toy for children or a vehicle fit only for the poor and/or strange,” Dave Horton, of Lancaster University, wrote in an interim assessment of the Understanding Walking and Cycling study.

“For them, cycling is a bit embarrassing, they fail to see its purpose, and have no interest in integrating it into their lives, certainly on a regular basis. Depressing reading indeed for anyone hopeful the UK could, one day, have a Dutch-style mass cycling culture.

What is needed is a change in the whole mind set about cycling and indeed walking, so that they are seen as our most natural, obvious and effective means of transport, not just forms of recreation confined to half term at Centre Parks.

The mentality that regards cycling as the preserve of freaks, children and the enemy of the motorist, whose participants deserve any injuries they sustain, is the key factor that must be changed and if it is not, any improvements to safety still will not effect a sizable increase in cycling and walking. Sure, you’re not going to get that mentality to change if safety is not improved, but improvements to safety alone will not lead to mass cycling if we do not change our attitude to those who travel by methods other than by motorised vehicles.

In the UK urban and rural roads are regarded as the territory of the motorist and everyone else – cyclist or pedestrian – is considered an intruder, something that hinders the free flow of motorised traffic. Until that mind set changes, then the needs of cyclists and pedestrians will always take a back seat.

And as we live in Britain, where even sensible initiatives for economic or environmental reasons, like parking restrictions and congestion charges, are regarded as a war on the motorist, don’t hold your breath for a speedy, or a positive outcome.

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Austerity January: How was it for you?

A Winter Dawn

January is never many people’s favourite month and this year, at the onset of  of Austerity 2012, it was forecasted to be even worse than normal for most people.  Indeed, each year we are reminded that the middle Monday in January (this year the experts couldn’t quite agree if Blue Monday would be the 16th or 23rd) is the most depressing day of the year.  So,on this, the last Monday of January, how was the most miserable month for you?

When wishing the days of this, or any other month, away as quickly as possible, I am always reminded of my grandmother’s repeated maxim: “Life isn’t a rehearsal girl; make the most of every day you can because you’re a long time dead.” But, for as long as I can remember, the short, bleak days after New Year, when the decorations come down and the weather usually worsens, have always been a time to endure, not enjoy.

However, this year, having given up the day job and now in a position to determine my own days, I was actually relieved to leave the artificiality of the festive period behind and looked forward to the new year as a new beginning. And I have not been disappointed.

Dawn and Dusk: having foregone the daily commute, I have been able to appreciate the two best periods of a winter day; sunrise and sunset. Most of us miss sunrise in the spring and summer because we are not up and about early enough, but in January, the sun rises around 8am and maybe it’s because of the sun’s low trajectory in the sky, or the lingering morning mists, but there is always a mystical wonder to a winter sunrise. And at the end of the afternoon, the pink pastiche in the south western sky can transform even a Midlands gravel pit into a Turneresque landscape.

Sunset's Pink Pastiche

The Weather: for the traditionally worst month of the year, it actually hasn’t been that bad. Although the mild temperatures have tricked some wildlife into believing it’s spring and the rain has turned fields into quagmires, at least heating bills should benefit.  And the short cold snap towards the middle of the month provided some ideal walking conditions, along with stunning frosty vistas.

January at the Movies: cold, short days provide a great excuse to escape to the cinema and the last three weeks have seen the release of some estimable movies. Warhorse defied the hype, a pocketful of hankies and my misgivings about surviving a sad animal film to at least remind us of the heroic sacrifices of animals in warfare and the enduring relationship between man and beast. The Artist is a gem that only the most miserable curmudgeon could dislike (Uggie the dog for the oscar) and, much to my surprise, I thoroughly enjoyed The Descendants, where George Clooney gives his best performance yet – and despite the greying hair, Hawaiian shirts and flip flops, he’s still worth looking at.

Living on a Budget: yes, even that has had upsides! Having to think about, and justify, what I spend for the first time in over a decade has certainly made me much more financially disciplined. But, it has also encouraged me to be much more inventive. And January is the ideal month to experiment with new recipes for comfort food and more efficient ways to cook them. Waitrose, for example, has introduced a range of ‘forgotten cuts’ of meat like brisket and silverside that can be cooked slowly and more economically, as in this delicious pot roast recipe from Delia: And, as a strange Scot who doesn’t like traditional haggis (or whisky either!) this tasty (and cheap) recipe for vegetarian haggis resulted in a memorable Burns’ Night.

Misty Shadows on a Frosty Dawn

Ditching the Car: no more commuting and not as much money = thinking very carefully about when and if I need to drive. During January my total car mileage was 90 miles and that included one trip to a medical appointment at a location far off a bus route and one journey to transport friends to the cinema. Now the wrist has mended and I’m back on the bike, I can cycle to the market and do the bulk of my food shopping online.

One important task for the next few months is to assess whether I can get rid of the car altogether – not easy living seven miles from a station and without a decent bus service. Maintaining a car is going to be the biggest drain on my resources, and that’s not just because of petrol costs. Pedestrians’ charity Living Streets has highlighted research from the Department of Transport  showing the fixed costs of car ownership are now around £40 per week – about £10 per trip if you only use the car two or three times a week.

Assignments for February and beyond then, now include helping Sustrans maintain and improve the local cycle routes and lobbying for car clubs and neighbourhood car rental schemes in my locality

So, at the end of January, the cold, rosy-fingered dawn of 2012 has opened up some new, exciting possibilities. How has it been for you?

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What If: Britain had historically adopted a more rational policy towards its railways?


This is a question I’ve often considered, most recently on a day out in the Trossachs at the end of August.

One of the greatest assets of the Trossachs is that this unique, beautiful area is located so close to Glasgow, Edinburgh and Scotland’s urban belt.  Certainly, the adaptation of steam power to land and water transport in the nineteenth century, helped with some publicity from, amongst others, Sir Walter Scott and  Queen Victoria,  opened up this spectacular area for the first time so visitors, of all social classes, could experience the fresh air and marvel at the dramatic scenery.

Thunderstorm over Loch Lubnaig

By the beginning of the twentieth century the railway linked Dunblane with Callander, through Balquhidder and Crianlarich en route to Oban.  From Balloch it was possible to travel eastwards to Stirling, with a branch off to Aberfoyle, on a line that also linked Blanefield with the northern suburbs of Glasgow.

So, from then until the 1960s it was possible to travel by train from Glasgow, Edinburgh and the central belt right to the shores of the dazzling lochs Katrine, Voil and Lubnaig, the slopes of Ben Ledi or the heart of Rob Roy country and be able to complete a linear walk, or a cycle and enjoy a full day before a relaxing return in the evening:  similar to what you can still do today using, say, the mountain railways of Switzerland.  shows Scotland’s railway system at its zenith.

 Of course, you can still easily reach these places today, but only if you have a car.

On my recent trip to the Trossachs I had to curtail an ascent of Ben Ledi just short of the summit because I could not risk missing an early evening bus from Callander to Stirling that  linked  with the specific Glasgow train I had a ticket for. Because of confused information about whether buses stop at the bottom of the climb along the A84, I  had to walk the three miles or so  from and to Callander; a frustrating culmination to what should have been an enjoyable day out and one that could only be attempted in the first place after a time-consuming and often frustrating internet search to find compatible trains and buses.

Although the climb would have been easily accomplished with access to a car,  any personal convenience gained by driving would have been overwhelmingly offset by the negative environmental effects of pollution and congestion in an exquisite  but fragile area;  particularly when, as in this case, there was only one person travelling.  And, even for those unaware, or indifferent to their emissions, crawling along narrow, congested roads is hardly the best way to enjoy the stunning scenery and driving to a destination generally makes it difficult to complete a linear walk, unless two vehicles are used.

Although the railways in the Trossachs are long closed, plenty of evidence of them remains and Sustrans, in particular, has performed a valuable service in acquiring  and developing so many of these disused lines for cycle routes.

But, how much better if these tracks, and not just in the Trossachs, but in the Peak District, or Devon, or Galloway – think Ashbourne through to Buxton, all the way along the Tarka Trail, Dumfries to Stranraer along the glorious Galloway coast – still existed as railways? The benefits of enabling everyone, including those with limited mobility,  to enjoy the Tissington Trail, or Glen Ogle viaduct would be sufficient justification, to say nothing of the opportunity to travel right into the heart of these alluring areas without congestion and driving stress – even the most hardened petrol head would be hard pushed to dispute the superiority of the view over Loch Lubnaig from the viaduct, as opposed to that from the busy and dangerous A84.

But, this isn’t going to happen, particularly in a country like Britain that can’t even operate its main line railways efficiently and economically. Even when inventive and valuable initiatives have been introduced, like the Trossachs Trundler (an adapted bus that could transport people and their bikes between various points in the Trossachs), they have invariably failed to break even and have been  scrapped: in effect, the same short sighted, short term economic justifications that did for the railways.

What is needed is the opposite: long term, holistic, out of the box planning. Investment has to given to sustainable transport, combined with a workable system of rewards and penalties.  If this means levying charges on motorists for parking and congestion to raise capital, then so be it; it is  cars, after all, that cause congestion and pollution. And, if more restrictions and charges on cars lead to a more sensible attitude towards, say car sharing, so much the better.

Looking over Loch Lubnaig from the slopes of Ben Ledi

In the meantime, the best we can do is ensure we make the most of the routes that remain, by boot and bike, restrict and share car use as much as possible and continue to lobby for access for those who do not, or choose not to, drive.




The Trossachs Trundler was partially  replaced by the introduction of Demand Response Transport (DRT) by Stirling Council  Taxis and minibuses, operated by provide the transport in specific areas, arranged in advance, and passengers are charged the public transport rate for the journey. However, the vehicles (people carriers) are not adapted for carrying bikes and the requirement to book in advance clearly reduces spontaneity. Also, please note that the phone number used is an 0844 which will be charged at considerably more than standard rate, particularly from mobiles.

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