Past the drunk woman reeling
with her bag of provisions
Down through the tunnel
with the stink-fuming bus
On to the bike path
where it's something like freedom
and the wind in my earring whispers
Trust what you must
It's my beatIn my new town
On the occasions Stevenage is mentioned in the media my heart usually sinks. Very often something untoward has happened, but the recent article in The Guardian about the town’s cycleways was certainly interesting.
For those who believe Stevenage to be a mythical place like some sort of East End overspill urban hell version of Brigadoon* may be surprised to know that as the first of the “New Towns” it was designed to separate cyclists, pedestrians and motorists. Obviously it wasn’t really as simple as that but it was the dream of urban planners as this rather wonderful video demonstrates. I love the fact that the whole issue of pubs was seen in a comical light with the husband slurring out that he needs plenty of pubs nearby whilst the Mrs is saying oh no we don't. Very George & Dragon. Still, cycleways were an important part of the development of the town. They even got a few pages dedicated to them in a Ladybird book.
In truth, growing up in the town through the 1960s allowed me the use of these Dutch-style cycleways. In his 1970's Richard's Bicycle Book, Richard Ballantine claimed that: "you can cycle or walk anywhere you wish in Stevenage and never encounter a motor vehicle," which is utter nonsense. I must admit that, certainly in the New Town area (Grace Way for instance), there were so many rabbit-warren like cul-de-sacs that we definitely did encounter motor cars. There were posts to stop you from cycling straight out to cross to the opposite side which I regularly bumped into. At the time you could cycle out of town and off into the countryside for hours. I grew up as an Edgelander on the borders between the Old Town and the building sites of the New Town where they were encroaching on the farmlands and woods, creeping ever-onward towards the villages. As it was pre-mobile phone (pre-landline for my family too!) we were often away most of the day with our parents giving us barely a thought, I'm sure. They were at work. On these jaunts the regular equipment was: cheap plastic binoculars (next to useless), cheap plastic army-style water bottle, iSpy book of birds, biro and a packet of (usually) jam sandwiches if you were lucky. You were less likely to encounter a motor vehicle around the countryside than you were in the town. In later life I used to cycle to work at various factories using the cycle lanes. Somewhere recently I read that some residents claimed there wasn't any parking space for bikes in the New Town. What? There was plenty; I remember padlocking my bike up in town on my youthful forays to The Hobby Shop!
What I find most amusing about the article is the surprised tone and the sheer incredulity that the lead designer, Eric Claxton**, shows that people chose to use cars instead of bikes! Now, I must admit that I am not, and never have been a cycling enthusiast. But it doesn't exactly take a rocket scientist to realise that if you make the roads easy to whizz around because there aren't any pesky cyclists or kids on them then motorists are going to love it!
As an aside here, I must admit that I went to school with Mr Claxton's son. In those days everyone had nicknames but poor Howard had to make do with simply being "Claxton" or occasionally "Clackers". Ideally he should have been "Plug" after the notorious Bash Street Kid from the Beano due to his impressive set of lugholes. However, at our secondary school we actually had a kid who bore the most remarkable resemblance to Plug that there was no competition. Anyway, I vaguely remember his father as bearing a resemblance to a much later comic character, Victorian Dad from Viz. Which suggests to me that he must have been somewhat of a stern gentleman and lacking in humour. I may be wrong.
Evidently, according to the article, despite the safe routes from homes to schools, less children cycle nowadays to school than ever. People preferring to take their little darlings to school by car. Much the same as any other town in Britain. The article claims that Eric was quite prophetic about the way things were moving back in 1992 and he himself was partly to blame for the townsfolk preferring the road to the cycle lane. Build a safer environment for cars and expect people to still choose to cycle. Hmm . . . I know loads of people now that would love to have a fairly safe environment for cyclists - especially around Ipswich. Mind you in our town the council have designated a fair few roads to have cycle lanes with white lines painted along long stretches of main roads. The problem is, people just ignore them and park their cars in them anyway. A fairly pointless exercise it seems.
Just think, had they been manufactured maybe those bike-free roads in Stevenage could have been swamped with queues of little Opperman Stirlings chugging down from nearby Elstree and along to the factories and shops. Perhaps the proud owners of these little marvels would have chosen to take their little darlings to school in them. Mind you, if they were really successful all those empty country lanes might have been full of them choking up the clean air and bumping into all us little townie oiks whizzing around.
* The legend of Brigadoon is the story of a mythical village in the Scottish Highlands. The village became enchanted centuries ago remaining unchanged and invisible to the outside world except for one special day every hundred years when it could be seen and even visited by outsiders. This enchanted day is spent in joy and celebration. Those who happen upon Brigadoon may remain in this beguiling place only if they love another enough to give up the world outside. Not sure how beguiling Stevenage ever was. However, it usually crops up evry blue moon or so with a news story that isn't very complimentary.
** Now that's a name to conjure with.