All over the world there are spectacular journeys through canyons and mountains, glaciers and rivers, castles and great cities ... and then there is the ephemeral moment in the gentle English countryside in late spring/early summer when perfection is within reach.
Even England has its lakes and peaks that have their own charm. However it's the curvier landscapes during that sublime day or two on the cusp of May and June that take centre stage in the country's bucolic splendour.
It's not the sort of splendour that can be enjoyed from a speeding car, perhaps not even from a bicycle. It is only possible to absorb the tranquil grandeur on foot or in a suitable wheelchair. This is why England will always have its special place in the hearts of all those who have experienced it at its gentlest.
This is when there is no better value than walking out for that quintessential lunchtime treat of fish and chips at a country pub. In our case the King and Queen at Longcot. This might have been accompanied by a pint or two (ginger beer being an acceptable substitute).
Above: A juxtaposition of buttercups and hawthorn signpost the way to our summer indulgence ...
Of course, all this consumption requires a brisk and stretching walk home. At this time of the year, though, it is less of chore and more an affirmation that 'twas an excellent idea to pop out for a sneaky lunch.
Above: The brisk return atones for over indulgence and reminds us that agriculture has been at the centre of the taming of English countryside for millennia. Even the extravagant tower (dovecote?) near the end signposts past centuries.
Don't get me wrong, there are those doughty types who will walk (and even cycle) all year round. Maybe huddle in a bus shelter for an energy snack. I know this because I am one of them. But let the sun shine in May and it would be a pretty crabby fellow who didn't enjoy tea and a bit of cake in the sunshine and possibly even travel a fair old way to join family and friends in this repast at Cantorist Farm in Childrey.
Above (l to r): Kate and Shelley-ann enjoying the sunshine; Andrew looking pleased with himself having cycled over from Hungerford for brunch.
Time was I'd have cycled there, too, albeit a slightly less challenging ride from Faringdon. Instead, I returned home to undertake a bit of gardening in preparation for a fuller appreciation of the sunset below.
Above: sunset over the Cotswolds as seen from our patio on the edge of Faringdon.
The bike park is integrated with Faringdon's sports park
A vivid account during a discussion this month by two Oxfordshire active travel exponents highlighted the challenge encountered by many diverse communities when attempting to encourage more "ordinary" people to choose bicycles for their everyday needs.
The discussion occurred during this month’s Oxfordshire Active Travel Roundtable, a monthly meeting for those interested in walking, wheeling and cycling across Oxfordshire to share news and debate current issues. Each geographic community had developed its own model and seemed reliant on a strong individual or group to set it up and keep it going; indeed a third exponent entered the fray from Abingdon, too.
Today, Faringdon, Oxfordshire has a shining example of this with the Farcycles Bike Park and Shop. The latest facilities have evolved from an inspired group, but there was one figure who led the charge from a bike "club" to a community facility with a much, much wider appeal.
Lyn Williamson is one of those people who, once she gets hold of an idea, moves mountains to ensure that it comes to fruition. Her vision, born of working as a Rheumatologist, and witnessing the benefits of exercise, was to equip many more individuals with the will and the skills to cycle. It needed a safe place and a group of qualified volunteers to build what has now become a cycle park that attracts aspirant but often nervous people of all ages to new ways of getting about. Nowadays numbers continue to grow with individuals and families descending from further and further afield.
The park also forms the hub for activities that encourage its "graduates" to try their new skills on the roads and paths of the surrounding area, initially on instructor-led group rides before being free to travel confidently alone.
This has resulted in a new cohort of cyclists who require access to a range of sound but inexpensive bicycles, from starter steeds for children to reconditioned machines for adults. The shop evolved to satisfy this need and has diversified into servicing and mending bikes for the locals and, increasingly, not so locals. Like the bike park and training, the shop is staffed by volunteers, which enables it to provide great customer value.
The new shop in central Faringdon provides quality inexpensive bikes and servicing.
In the beginning
A loose bunch of Faringdon people gravitated together in 2007 for casual cycling, eventually showing up in force to hug a wind turbine in the summer of 2009. The unsuspecting turbine was part of a new installation launch at Westmill Farm near Shrivenham; the orchestrator of the hug was Sjoerd Vogt, a popular local figure. Sjoerd came up with the name "Farcycles", which he insisted should be pronounced farcicals.
Things proceeded in that spirit and numbers soon passed the 100 mark (today 400 seems within reach). A spread of rides evolved, catering for cyclists from the relatively timid to those who wished to extend themselves. Social activities extended to twinning rides to France. An annual Sportive followed and was an instant success, ending up with surplus funds for the Farcycle coffers.
That's where Lyn stepped in with her idea for providing foundations for newbies, from toddlers to 80-year-olds and beyond. It started with competency training in the local schools with plans for a dedicated facility going on in the background. Lyn's husband, David, and fellow Farcycles Richard Glazer, Chris Kench and Gavin Hopkins started mapping things out, including acquiring a home at the Faringdon Sports Park. In the process, Farcycles was awarded the Queen's Award for Voluntary Service.
Today Faringdon's bike training facilities continue to be free to all comers looking for confidence and road safety.
Before Lycra - joining the Cyclists' Touring Club (CTC) on top of White Horse Hill for a mince pie on a snowy December morning in 2010. Lyn with a firm grip on the handlebars of the tandem.
Mark Harrison is a founder of the Farcycles, a regional campaign coordinator for Cycling UK, a volunteer in the bike shop and a regular travel blogger at Roaminations.
Above: Starry, Pudders, DJ and Noycey relaxing in West Oxfordshire
There was a definite spring in our step as we set out from Faringdon in search of a country stroll a little further afield. But first we had to obey the rules of Active Travel.
So what is this "Active Travel" malarkey then?
In a short sentence: no private cars allowed. To put it a bit more verbosely: get to the start point and return from the end point using public or self-propelled transport.
Occasionally this can introduce a few extra challenges into the equation. For this escapade we were to get the S6 bus from Faringdon to Oxford train station from where we would intercept the London to Hereford train for a shortish journey to Charlbury. From there we would take the long way around to walk to Finstock and the Plough Inn before stumbling back via a shorter route.
Reaching Oxford was easy enough and it was only when we were equipped with return rail tickets to Charlbury that the wheels started to fall off. There had been a "trackside" fire between London and Maidenhead and our train was going nowhere soon. The inquiries desk was understandably noncommittal about its ETA in Oxford. Maybe an hour late? This was a setback but not a terminal one. We'd still have time to walk from Charlbury to Finstock in time for lunch. A couple of us saw this as an opportunity for a swift half before our departure, requiring a stroll into town. So we meandered severally about only to return to the station to find that the train had now been cancelled.
A sortie to the bus and taxi rank in front of Oxford Station showed that the hourly bus to Charlbury had only just departed.
Should we take a taxi? There were five of us to share the fare, after all, so that wasn't strictly breaking the Active Travel rules. We then noticed that some disappointed rail passengers were being ushered on to what were apparently free taxis. Seemingly surreptitiously, we thought. DJ sprang into action, taking himself off to the inquiries desk with lawyerly panache. He reappeared with a rather disgruntled looking railway official and the promise of a free taxi to Charlbury. Kudos.
All this took a not inconsiderable time so we had to abandon the long way around to Finstock and take the shorter route. Given the slippery state of the footpaths this was, no doubt, fortuitous.
The Plough at Finstock
Above (clockwise from top left): finally settled in front of the fire at the Plough, rather later than expected due to aforementioned hiccoughs and slippery walking terrain, the landlord calls for orders while Pudders deliberates over the desserts; a measure of derision for those who stoop to ordering halves (the orderer was already a pint ahead but tradition is hard to shake); something Baby Boomers and Generation-Z-ers have in common; time to get a move on, chaps.
Jolly good nosh it was in the Plough with some decent beer. We enjoyed a local brew, too, although it was somewhat eclipsed by the excellent Adnams Broadside on tap, which is a hard act to follow anywhere it is to be found in the UK despite its East Suffolk origins.
The return journey to Charlbury was infinitesimally longer than the outward trip but was pretty slippery and interrupted by some hilarity at the name of the lane leaving Finstock. A photograph that seemed appropriate at the time, taken at the entrance to this slippery track was subsequently consigned to the cutting bin. Not, though, before substantial deliberation by the life model. A discussion that continued all the way back to Charlbury and even continuing on the return train to Oxford.
Returning through Cornbury Park
We set off on our return journey through Cornbury Park, braving occasional showers which did little to diminish the splendour of the parkland, which is the annual home to the Wilderness Festival at a warmer and sometimes drier time of the year.
But the trees were shooting and the grass greening - this really is a sublime part of our countryside and a great time to visit it if the weather is halfway reasonable (which it was for the appropriately equipped).
Above (clockwise from top left): estate fencing showing signs of a life well lived but with many decades of life still remaining; a river runs through it - I suspect the one used for bathing au naturel during the Wilderness Festival; Starry giving our DJ some pointers on country ways; while standing on the bridge over the single-track railway that would be our route home.
On our way home
We stopped at the Rose & Crown in central Charlbury and, of course, a fine spread of local beers were on the menu. The pub was heaving in the late afternoon/early evening but, when asked for advice on the various ales, the local punters at the bar were all drinking something else, mainly shorts.
Above (l to r): the Rose & Crown in Charlbury, recommended for diverse local beers; Noycey looking sceptical as DJ seemingly expounds
The sojourn in the Rose & Crown was necessarily a short one given that the trains from Charlbury to Oxford only run once an hour - although, as it turns out, we needn't have worried had we known that our southbound train would be delayed. We sat in Charlbury Station for a fair old while while a northbound train was stuck on the single track line going into Charlbury ... see pictures above.
So we had more time to deliberate on the bottom pic while we waited. Thank goodness for the trusty S6 bus that completed the journey after only a short interval. Ambitions for a stop halfway to Faringdon were abandoned and the quintet returned to base frighteningly unaffected by a day's walking and beering.
Next time we're starting out from Faringdon for brekker ...
Above: One of the magical scenes on Puddleduck Lane beckons travellers on the path to Coleshill.
No matter how often one traverses the rural part of this route, as long as the environment is respected (and it is) it never ceases to give. We've walked it, cycled it, and no doubt many have ridden it on horseback, and always emerge feeling reinvigorated.
Of course, Coleshill being an approximately four-and-a-half mile walk from Faringdon, it is always good to know that the Carpenters Canteen is at the other end (or half-way mark if you intend to walk back afterwards). This lively café serves delicious wholesome food, coffee and sundry other soft drinks (and don't forget the cake). Just be sure, before setting off, that you've checked the web entry (and perhaps also phoned) to ensure the café is open. It can be busy at popular times, too, so be prepared to wait. Or, if you're the impatient sort, nip across to the Radnor Arms.
Deciding on your route
There are probably infinite options for getting there but there are essentially three basic ones. As I favour Active Travel, I'll allow myself a mild rant while laying out the options:
We chose #3
On this day Shelley-ann (Shan) and I set out to walk from Faringdon to Coleshill for lunch. The weather was sublime. Honestly, this route gives; even blizzards add their own dimension.
Above, l to r: going the long way around; where seasonal snowdrops abound; a tyhe barn with brooding looks; and tractors play host to rooks.
Our route took us South of the B4019 and as walkers we had a footpath along the road to Great Coxwell. We are always struck by the soft light at this time of year Everywhere should have a Puddleduck Lane.
Above, l to r: Shan viewing the road ahead; through the tunnels the way led; this last needing a light tread.
The Puddleduck section of this route has recently been acquired by Andy Cato, Wildfarmed co-founder, who is "an award-winning mixed arable and livestock farmer. Once a successful Grammy nominated musician, Andy gave that up after reading about the dire state of modern food production. He went on to spend over a decade trying to find a more restorative and sustainable way of growing food."
It would be good to think that, one day, we could bump into him and hear more of that vision and plans for the future of the area. Local myth has it that a massive tree planting operation is under way. We'd love to hear more about this having always admired the woods surrounding the Coleshill Parkland. There is certainly substantial evidence of recent tree "husbandry" along this route.
Above; Don't'cha just love them? The first one is an icon of Puddleduck and the others are landmarks of the Coleshill Parkland, always needing attention.
Long may it continue.
There is a kind of lumpy ridge that connects Faringdon with Coleshill so that most of the time, whether one walks to the North or the South of the B4019, there are magnificent views to be had. To the North there are the Cotswolds and to the South the Berkshire Downs. For most of our walk on the Southern side we could enjoy these stately views. Some might (or indeed do) argue that the wind turbines on a smaller ridge between our walking path and the Downs are an eyesore. I completely disagree. They are simply elegant. They are part of Westmill Farm which had recent connections to Colleymore. Maybe they still have ...
Looking further towards the ridge in the background, the lifting haze and deployment of my monster zoom in a small package reveal the prehistoric Uffington White Horse that gives its name to the Vale in between us and to a hearty ale produced in Stanford (in-the-Vale).
Above: (top row) the turbines appear closer and closer in all their grandeur; (bottom row) and there is a white horse beyond.
After a sumptuous sandwich each from the Coleshill Canteen, Shan wisely hitched a ride back to Faringdon with friends. I felt the need to drag my aging body back to Faringdon for the exercise. I won't say I regretted it but there was a pair of happy legs that were finally rested with a little over 9 miles under my belt.
One of the aspects of farming that has intrigued me in recent years has been hedge laying. A brilliant, if labour intensive, solution to keeping larger animals in their fields with all the green credentials in the world. Most hedges have long since been slashed over winter by tractor-mounted trimmers, removing their potential for restraining the odd bull, sheep or even donkey. There seems to have been a bit of a laying revival in recent years but the uptake is slow - maybe someone will find a labour-saving way to do it. It will surely be welcome by cyclists. The slashings of hawthorn strewn across country roads are a menace to tyres.
Above l to r: low-lying branches are evidence of early laying; barbed wire now to keep donkeys staying and braying.
More routes, perhaps?
Above: not quite Midwinter any more but near enough, as the soft light testifies. Nearing Longcot with the hills of the Berkshire Downs in the background.
What could be a more delicious thing to do towards the end of the deep midwinter than to take a stroll in the gorgeous Oxfordshire countryside? Especially if the walking is to be punctuated with the refreshments that have traditionally been offered by local and countryside pubs?
There was a time when this landscape was criss-crossed by roads and paths almost entirely devoted to walkers. The occasional horse rider might trot by, often with a cheery wave. Maybe a carriage or wagon would provide some sort of diversion. In the late 19th and early 20th century some bicycles would have emerged. The biggest risk for the walker might have been an angry bull (or cow), although laid hedges would have provided some protection for strolling travellers who stuck to the roads.
This idyll persisted, anecdotally at least, until the mid 1930s when author, Laurie Lee, set out to walk from his village in the Western Cotswolds to London and then across Spain. His recounting of his adventures must have inspired generations to follow in his footsteps, even if only metaphorically. He could even have journeyed through Faringdon in his wanderings.
In this spirit I set out a few days ago to walk a paltry 7 miles from my home to Shrivenham, noted for its military college but also for having a couple of pubs and a handy bus stop for my journey home. Before that, a pub lunch and pukka beer were essential requirements en route. The interim target: The King and Queen at Longcot.
But first a major obstacle
Where once a stroll from Faringdon to Little Coxwell and Longcot beyond might have encountered a little traffic, active travellers have, for many years now, been confronted by the A420 bypass. A bypass that has seen a significant number of fatalities, at least two of them the deaths of pedestrians.
Above: The longest I have waited to cross the A420 at this point (walking or cycling) has been 15 minutes. I would like to be able say there are other, easier places the cross but there aren't.
Once upon a time, Faringdon had its own railway station. The buildings are still there forming part of the Old Station Nursery but the actual railway lines were dismantled some time after finally being decommissioned for freight in 1963. In 1979 the A420 Faringdon bypass was opened. This wasn't necessarily a bad thing but why on earth didn't someone have the foresight for a pedestrian crossing or two. The perfect opportunity existed where it crossed paths with the now dismantled railway line, whose remaining embankments and cuttings provided ideal potential for active travel to Fernham, Little Coxwell and Uffington. It would have been so easy for the A420 to pass over a small tunnel. With that chance missed lobbying has continued in fits and starts during the ensuing 43 years for one or two safe crossings but none has found favour with the Oxfordshire County Council (OCC). Essentially, the Faringdon residents' area to roam safely has been cut in half. Especially as this is the only stretch of single carriageway between Swindon and Oxford where the speed limit increases bizarrely from 50 to 60 mph.
Onwards and outwards
So, having taken my life in my hands at the Fernham "crossing" and stumbled along the impromptu roadside verge for a few hundred yards, it was bliss to enter the footpath network en route to Little Coxwell.
Above (clockwise from top left): lovely path but not the most comfortable barrier for tallish over 70s strollers (or for children on Shetland Ponies for that matter); I'd never seen the Little Coxwell church before; had frequently seen the inside of the Eagle Tavern though but 'twas a little early for lunch; does the repurposing of the phone box say anything about the goings on in the Eagle?; repurposing the order of the day with a welcome seat before the next inter-village section; a bit harsh given the evidence of hoof marks, some of the jiggery pokery with the footpaths and the somewhat arbitrary closure of the lane at the Longcot end.
I was on foot anyway so could veer across country, so merely an academic observation.
Above: Ah, snowdrops! - they were everywhere but not always this easy to photograph.
It is a mightily pleasant stroll from Little Coxwell to Longcot. The surface was a bit of a curate's egg but nothing a decent pair of walking boots couldn't cope with. The pub was beginning to beckon but there were a few more obstacles to overcome before getting there. Especially if rather naïvely following all the rules.
Above (clockwise from top left): The "official" footpath leaves the road here rather unnecessarily I found; thereby forcing you over a stile the the BFG might take in his stride but this geriatric found a bit of a stretch; only to end up having to traverse an ankle-crunching patch of weeds before returning to the road again; after being lulled into a false sense of security for a while, one field was a quagmire after being ploughed up without the path being made good again (as some more diligent landowners do); it was clear that horses had been making the best of even the good bits; a lovely clear run into the Longcot Village.
None of these minor inconveniences would deter me from traversing this walk time and again in the future, especially with the treasure at the the end of this stage. Just wear suitable footwear and be prepared to remove platforms of mud from your soles after leaving the ploughed field. It might seem petty even to mention this stuff but we need to remind ourselves that many of these paths are rights of way that have been around for centuries and need to be respected.
Longcot itself is a fairly unremarkable village but every place has its eccentricities:
Above (l to r): Answers on a postcard?; Just why?; church and flag?
I finally arrived at what I believe to be a jewel in the crown, the King and Queen. I have been there many times in the past 36 years I have lived in the area, mostly by car or by bicycle but I think this was only the second time I had travelled there on foot. The pub hasn't always been perfect as landlords have come and gone but I hope this one tarries awhile. It is just a thoroughly decent pub that serves up simple pub food ... delicious without too many pretensions. A gargantuan piece of fish moist and tasty on the inside, enveloped in the crispiest batter for instance.
But it's the staff that make it special. Friendly and attentive without being smothering. Efficient when it's a replacement pint you're wanting. And the pints are good too, Rather too good in my case. I think I started with a pint of Ramsbury Deerstalker, at 4% ABV a sneaky temptation that ensured I had another ...
I was sad to leave but I had to press on to Shrivenham where I would catch a bus back to Faringdon. Yes, I know it's in completely the opposite direction but the town had two pubs to try and a bus stop.
Above, King and Queen (l to r): it would be rude not to; just a plain and simple quality pub; we once had to get rid of our piano - no-one wanted to buy it so it got donated, I forget to where - this seemed like a happy home for someone's instrument
And so I had to move on. Another town, another pub, another pint. I hit the road with some apprehension. I'd cycled the stretch from Longcot to Shrivenham many times. It would've typically taken me 10-11 minutes. And now recovering (hopefully) from long Covid it was going to take me the best part of an hour. The roadside scenery is beautiful but a little monotonous on a bike. Why was I attempting to walk the same course? There were no handy footpaths to break the monotony or steer me away from the occasional (or not) speeding car. The contemplated pint in the Prince of Wales or Barrington Arms? Seemed a noble goal.
The journey seemed to take ages and then it didn't. I arrived in Shrivenham still undecided as to whether to make for the PoW or the BA. To be honest, I didn't really fancy another pint. A quick check of the bus timetable indicated a voiture along in 5 minutes. I took the gap.
Above: (top row l to r) leaving Longcot on a long and not very winding road; looking back after what seemed like an eternity; looking forward; this fella, dressed in military garb, was a sign of hope that Shrivenham was at hand; (Bottom row, l to r) someone's dream, maybe it won't look quite so bleak one day; semi-duel - do these guys speak to each other?; this pretty brook flows from the Berkshire downs and its water eventually gets to the ocean in the North Sea; are we nearly there yet?
OK so I failed at the last hurdle but it was only beer. I could go home and have some wine. Only I didn't. I was too knackered. But already looking forward to the next expedition.
It is unimaginable that anyone would wish for a dirtier one but, unfortunately, the devil is in the detail and, thanks to CoHSAT, we are able to drill down a little further into what tomorrow's candidates really think.
Essentially, CoHSAT designed a questionnaire that all of the candidates in tomorrow's elections in Oxfordshire were invited to complete. There were only 12 questions, all focused on making our communities more inviting places to live. Happily, all of our candidates for the County Council have answered the questionnaire so the members of our extended "constituency" will be able to see what they said and make their own choices.
So here goes, this is how our candidates responded at the next level of detail:
There is more detail on the CoHSAT site if you wish to explore further. The following is a summary of how many candidates responded by party, which should demonstrate, to some extent, how the political groupings view the subject as a whole. This snapshot was taken today (5/5/2021).
Each blob represents a candidate in tomorrow's election. The blank blobs represent candidates who, for whatever reason, did not respond.
I have indicated in earlier blogs that I don't believe that significant improvements for Faringdon would be particularly difficult or expensive. But we do need to start with a Local Walking and Cycling Infrastructure Plan (LCWIP) if we expect to find extra funding from central government et al.
We have a world class cycle park for teaching children to ride a bicycle, for example, but not too many safe routes to cycle on once they have become proficient.
We started a process in 2009 to try to remedy this with a plan and it received positive responses from the then council but foundered in the bureaucracy. The political landscape has shifted significantly since then and it would be appropriate to try again.
We do need an LCWIP to achieve this, though.
The physical landscape has also changed so we need to start ASAP to consult on a version of a "tube map" to set out our priorities, both for journeys within Faringdon and for those into wider Oxfordshire. Here are a few we prepared earlier together with a first pass at an actual map for implementing the vision.
Good luck to all candidates and voters tomorrow in the County elections.
Active Travel loves 15-minute communities that stimulate Active Travel.
Our town of Faringdon in Oxfordshire is an ideal candidate to become a 15-minute community. We are gregarious, whether we know it or not. Provide the opportunity and the townspeople flock out to take advantage of the social interaction. With a few tweaks it could be a shining light. Most of the ingredients are already there. Most of us like each other. We smile and wave and shout "lovely day" on brisk mornings because the sun is peering out.
What a wonderful gift for our children. Let's not lose it.
We have: a picturesque market place flanked by pubs and restaurants and coffee shops, a quaint Town Hall on stilts at its centre; an annual festival, annual Bonfire display, cycle Sportive of note, a beer festival of brews (of which there are many) from the surrounding area; football, cricket, rugby, tennis, cycling, and running clubs; the Pump House Project for the young and the more venerable to dance the night (and afternoon) away; the Folly Tower itself which opens every month, the last grand folly in England with views across countless counties; eccentric people who do eccentric things, a town crier, a mayor who appears in full regalia at any opportunity; an exemplar training facility for young cyclists; a great bus service to the centres of Oxford and Swindon; a country park with a fishing lake; a choice of supermarkets; schools at all levels including the U3A; turning on of the Christmas lights; a piano to serenade the Folly; and many many more.
Here's a fantasy example to get Faringdonians thinking ...
It doesn't even have to be perfect weather to attract people to the Market Place but a number of tweaks could make it the envy of the region. A proper 15-minute community would be ideal.
There is a way to explain 15-minute communities that makes it the obvious way to proceed. Or is there? More than anything, it needs the will.
The will existed more than 12 years ago with an early attempt at a Local Cycling and Walking Infrastructure Plan (LCWIP). Now that this process has been formalised, other towns are cashing in on funding available for implementation. As the saying goes, success breeds success and more funding is likely to follow. What is certain is that those towns that hesitate will fall even further behind.
What more do we need, you may ask?
Some of the pieces will be easier than others to implement so here are a few ideas ...
There are so many things we CAN do and there is no better time to start. Go for attractive infrastructure first and people will start to use it. Look to the medium to long term.
Bill Bryson OBE, a lover of many things British, returned to live in the USA for a while in the late 1990s. He wrote a series of ironic sketches about his neighbourhood in New England. A passage from one of these has stuck in my memory for more than 20 years ...
"An acquaintance of ours was complaining the other day about the difficulty of finding a place to park outside the local gymnasium. She goes there several times a week to walk on the treadmill. The gymnasium is, at most, a six-minute walk from her front door. I asked her why she didn't walk to the gym and do six minutes less on the treadmill.
"She looked at me as if I were tragically simple-minded and said, 'But I have a programme for the treadmill. It records my distance and speed, and I can adjust it for degree of difficulty.' It had not occurred to me how thoughtlessly deficient nature is in this regard."
He goes on to describe how little is spent on facilities for pedestrians in the United States. He gives an example from a family trip driving across Maine. They had stopped for coffee and he had spotted a bookshop across the street.
"Although the bookshop was no more than 50 or 60 feet away, I discovered that there was no way to get there on foot. There was a traffic crossing for cars, but no provision for pedestrians and no way to cross without digging through three lanes of swiftly turning traffic. I had to get in the car and drive across. At the time it seemed ridiculous and exasperating, but afterwards I realized that I was probably the only person ever even to have entertained the notion of negotiating that intersection on foot."
I have personally had a similar experience, not only in the outer suburbs of Philadelphia, but also on many occasions attempting to get from my home town of Faringdon, Oxfordshire to Fernham. Both on foot and on a bicycle. Imagine attempting that crossing using a mobility device! I've had a few narrow misses but there have been pedestrians who have been less fortunate.
Trouble is, there really is no other sensible way for Active Travellers to get from Faringdon to the villages and towns to the South, including Swindon.
And so we are forced into cars when a short healthy journey could absolutely be possible.
A definition of Active Travel (AT)
Here goes with a personal attempt to define AT:
Any form of travel that requires some degree of self-propulsion, including wheelchair-use, walking and cycling, and not excluding devices that provide some carbon-neutral form of assistance.
My skimpy definition is a precursor to working through more detail of the benefits, together with the components of any plan needed to designate, upgrade or extend the transport infrastructure of our County and of our town.
First the benefits
Think of AT as a vaccine against poor health, climate change and environmental ills ...
The picture above summarises the benefits that accrue to the community from pursuing a vigorous Active Travel policy. These have been assembled from wide-ranging sources and consolidated by Robin Tucker, a Cycling UK Trustee.
The importance of raising these now is that there is a County Council election in Oxfordshire in a few days' time, on Thursday the 6th of May.
I shared in a previous blog how a significant portion of the local County Councillor's responsibility is for Public transport, road works, parking, footpaths, street lighting, pothole repairs and the Environment. These are all essential building blocks for the Active Travel network that will be the significant part of delivering the benefits in the picture above.
Believe it or not, this is not just something I made up. There is a fair old bit of academic thought and research about it and how it can help meet the challenges of the modern world.
Three compelling events have occurred over recent decades that make this particularly relevant now:
There are many others but this triptych sheds a shining light on the opportunity to rethink town and city planning in 2021. Many of the old ways such as bisecting cities with dual carriageways and expediting polluting and expensive trunk road traffic through towns are no longer compelling. In fact, they have become antisocial and the community at large is rapidly gaining an awareness of this.
At the risk of misappropriating what has recently become a cliche, we are currently caught in a perfect storm that is propelling us to view our future differently from what has been seen as best practice in the past.
Re-enter the 15-minute neighbourhood
This is not a new concept, just a fresh encapsulation of what seemed like common sense in the past.
Essentially, it is a neighbourhood in which the majority of the residents' needs are met within a 15-minute "bubble" without using a car or van. The needs would vary depending on the requirements of a specific community but are likely to include Employment, Healthcare, Education, Sport/Leisure, Groceries, Social Interaction and Entertainment.
It would be superb if interested readers would contribute their own views on essential needs. Comments on this blog would be amazing but a tweet to @mark4faringdon would be just as good.
I'll finish off this episode (wouldn't want readers to spend more than 15 minutes reading it, would I) with a plea:
Planners: Please consider Active Travel needs before approving development plans.
Coming soon: The conditions required for a 15-minute neighbourhood/community/town/suburb; how to improve a current neighbourhood; how did we drift so far from this?; devices, including funding, for making this happen; electronically-assisted self-propelled devices.
Imagine that you live in a medium-sized market town. Perhaps there are 9,000-12,000 inhabitants. That means there is a high probability that there are around 6,500-7,000 fossil-fuel-burning vehicles chuffing around in an area of roughly 1.5 square miles.
OK, you'll point out, but they aren't all on the road at once. True enough, but perversely there will be more gas-guzzlers in rural towns than in major urban conurbations. Especially if they are affluent.
And you thought you's escaped the big smoke to live in a bucolic paradise.
There is another way.
The average town of this size will take 20-25 minutes for an average walker to traverse from one extremity to the other. That means 10-15 minutes to walk from an extremity to the centre. If you use a bicycle, that will come down to roughly a third of that for an unfit cyclist.
So we're talking about less than 7 minutes to get anywhere in the town and 3-4 minutes to get to the centre. If you drove it would take a minute or two to park the car and you'd be missing out on the sociability and health benefits of being out there in the open.
For wheelchair users the latent time and effort to get the chair in and out of a vehicle at either end would be pretty off-putting, too. So the benefits of being out and about in the fresh air are lost to many people who most deserve them.
Confirmed car addicts will point at horrible road surfaces and unsafe routes. They will have a point.
Which is why we have to start now to correct those things. It doesn't have to be like that. If we have the will we can make it happen and turn our towns into healthier and nicer places in which to live.
Coming next: How we can achieve this with the 15-minute rule in town planning ...