Friday, 28 March 2014

Family Cycling mini break: from Bristol into the Somerset Levels

With the spring in the air and the Somerset Levels recovering from this winter’s flooding misery, we thought it might be nice to show you how our London-Land’s End CycleRoute Book can serve you with an easy-pace Dutch-style family-friendly three-day cycling itinerary from Bristol; ideal for those upcoming Easter holidays and bank holiday weekends!

Bristol is a great place to start your minibreak, as more and more locals join Bristol’s cycling vibe. Various bike hires have opened in the city in recent years, so it is now easier than ever before to rock up and rent a bike for a couple of days. It is also possible to bring your own bike by train to Bristol Temple Meads station and join our route from there. 

Those bringing their own bike by car should park at Mud Dock, with its cycling cafĂ© probably the grooviest starting point for a bike ride in town.  Whatever your means of transport to Bristol is, remember to ride bicycles with luggage racks and to bring some pannier bags with you, so you are able to carry your own luggage for a couple of days at a maximum comfort; leave those sweaty rucksacks at home!

Our journey starts with an exploration of Bristol’s Floating Harbour. This is where a rundown dock area has been reshaped into a place where people live, work, dine, drink and enjoy! Most of the quays are now traffic-free and it is a pleasure to cycle to the M-Shed, Bristol’s City Museum with its four iconic heritage cranes . The harbour is also home to the first ever iron ship of the world, the SS Great Britain. This ship is docked on a stone’s throw from the Aardman Studios, famous for its Wallace and Gromit animations. 

We leave Bristol entirely traffic-free via the cycle path through Avon Gorge, the treacherous waterway that connects Bristol with the sea.  We cycle under the amazing Clifton Suspension Bridge, a masterpiece of the famous engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The bridge is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. 

It is amazing how Avon Gorge takes you out of the city into a green lush valley where you can truly feel away from it all. It takes just over an hour of cycling at very easy pace to reach the charming village of Pill, where we enjoy a riverside lunch at one of its cafes.

The afternoon pushes us very quickly and traffic-free through the industrial Royal Portbury Docks where young riders are always amazed by the sheer number of new cars stacked up on enormous parking lots. We manage to keep them cycling and get them onto a specially selected quiet country lane in the beautiful Gordano Valley, which takes us all the way to the seaside town of Clevedon.

Enjoy some great views over the Bristol Channel from a bench on the cliff or watch the sunset from the Victorian Grand Pier, by many regarded as England’s most elegant seaside pier. Note accommodation in Clevedon is limited, so ensure to make reservations in advance. 

As the children are keen on camping, we head for Bullock Farm just out of town to pitch our tents on the meadows of Phil & Jude Simmons. Phil & Jude have been enjoying a new stream of Dutch cycling visitors since we published our Dutch language Cycle Route Guide in 2011 and hope that our London-Land’s End Cycle Route Book will bring them even more custom this summer!

On the start of our second day the guidebook brings us easily to Yatton Station where Tobias and his team provide us with a tasty breakfast in their community-managed Strawberry Line Cafe. This is where the Strawberry Line starts, a great cycle path on a former railway line. The original railway was named after the many strawberries it carried from nearby farms until it closed in 1963. Today, the route truly allows you to cycle through the heart of fruit orchard country. When stopping for lunch in Winscombe we try some locally produced apple cider!

After lunch, the children have a great adventure cycling in the spooky Shute Shelve Tunnel, which takes us under one of the high ridges of the Mendip Hills without having to take in any serious hill climbing! We have a break once again at a picnic bench beyond the tunnel, as the views are just amazing! It is so quiet and peaceful here that we can’t help ourselves to get our towels out of our panniers for a short siesta under the leafy trees!

The last section of the Strawberry Line takes us via pleasant Axbridge into Cheddar, famous for its cheese and its gorge.  We check in early at the local youth hostel and park our bikes in the locked shed, as the Cheddar Gorge with its caves and limestone cliffs are best to be explored on foot. By doing this in the early evening, we have the place nearly entirely for ourselves, as the crowds have long gone…

The next morning, we are in for a pleasant surprise. Just when we are ready to start our third and final cycling day, a cyclist arrives in Cheddar’s High Street, carrying a very familiar guidebook on his handlebars. It is Dutch cyclist Rens van Driel, using the Dutch language version of our guidebook. Of course he is very pleased to meet the author of his “cycling passe-partout” in person and we take a picture to mark the occasion.

Leaving Cheddar, we are now truly entering the Somerset Levels. My guidebook literally says “as this region was historically subject to winter flooding, it remains remarkably thinly populated”. I wrote these words in autumn 2012, not knowing that the flooding in the 2014 winter would break all records! The 2014 devastation left most of our cycle route unaffected though, so it is easy for us to take in the normal Somerset Levels scene: views dominated by cattle grazing and flat, empty country lanes; ideal for cycling!

Rughill and Polden Hills rise steeply from the plain though and our cycling youngsters enjoy putting their gears at work on these modest climbs, giving them the feeling they are climbing a Tour de France mountain! Also exciting is a herd of cows heading towards us on the road, forcing us to stop in the verge to allow the “friendly ladies” to pass by. Such events naturally can’t be planned, but add a lot of favour to a ride. Out on your bike there will always be such an event at some stage of the journey and what a joy to experience these things if you are not in a car!

Cossington’s park common provides a good spot to have an early packed lunch before cycling our last stretch to Bridgwater. Cycling on the embankments of the River Parrett, we make our way to the Somerset Brick and Tile Museum. This small museum is a good place to spend some time while waiting for our train that will take us back to Bristol Temple Meads station. When we arrive back in Bristol by 5 pm we still have plenty of time to head back home. Three enjoyable easy-going cycling days have come to an end! Now it is your turn! 


Day 1: Bristol – Clevedon:  30 km (18.5 miles): 2 x 1.5 hours at easy sight-seeing pace
Day 2: Clevedon – Cheddar: 30 km (18.5 miles): 2 x 1.5 hours at easy sight-seeing pace
Day 3: Cheddar – Bridgwater: 40 km (24.5 miles): 2 x 2 hours at easy sight-seeing pace

Sections of the route as described above are signposted through Sustran’s National Cycle Network, but it is only the London-Land’s End Cycle Route Book which connects it all together to one enjoyable continuous traffic-calmed route, allowing you to take in all the famous landmarks. The book features full route directions, maps, cyclists-focused visitor information and listings of conveniently located accommodations, (bike) shops and pubs. 

This guidebook is not just about Bristol and Somerset; the book of 164 pages in convenient handlebars-pocket size provides the same level of local knowledge for another 880 miles of cycle routes in southern England, allowing you to cycle Dutch-style from either Dover, Harwich or London all the way to either Land’s End or Plymouth! If you order your copy via the designated website you also receive GPS-tracks of all routes, which you can upload to your Outdoors App or navigation device.

Other popular blog articles by The Cycling Dutchman:

Explaining Dutch cycling infrastructure:

Explaining Dutch cycling culture:

A Dutch School Run

Dutch bike rides:

Dutch-style bike rides in the United Kingdom:

Friday, 14 February 2014

Cycle paths, cycle lanes…; what about a network?

I recently got approached by a BBC-journalist, asking my opinion on “my perspective on the introduction on Dutch-style segregated cycle lanes in Bristol”.

Wow; I felt things going wrong straight away!

Let’s get this right; we have cycle lanes and cycle paths and we must not mix them up! Also, the British versions of both are really something completely different in comparison to their Dutch counterparts. In this article you'll find all pictures taken in The Netherlands on the left and pictures taken in Britain on the right. Cycle lanes and cycle paths: these are their stories!

Cycle lanes:

A cycle lane is a reserved space for cycling on the road (possibly marked in red, green or blue colour). The problem with cycle lanes in the UK is that they are often far too narrow. Often, the handlebars of the bike don’t even fit in the cycle lane, as shown in the picture on the right. This is not an isolated example. You can take this type of pictures all over the country, sadly. Be careful if you want to do a "selfie", while posing with your bike!

UK highway officials love to implement cycle lanes of a width of about 1 meter or less. The Department for Transport doesn't seem to understand that these lanes are lethal. Now, Dutch cycle lanes will be generally at least 1.5 m wide and those of just about 1.5 m wide will be found on roads with a 30 km/h (20 mph) speed limit only, not on roads with speed limits of 50 km/h (30 mph) or more. 

However, UK highway officials happily implement narrow cycle lanes on roads with 30, 40 or even 50 mph speed limits. This leaves cyclists very exposed to a large margin of driver’s judgement errors, as we have seen in the recent increase of fatalities in London on the so called Cycling Super Highways. In the picture on the right, traffic is allowed to go 50 mph and we even see a driver undertaking a lorry on the cycle lane here; nice! 

The faster the motorised traffic is allowed to go, the wider Dutch cycle lanes are. On roads with a 50 km/h speed limit (30 mph), Dutch cycle lanes will often be at about 2 m wide, even if this results in giving up two lanes for motorised traffic.
In that case, you’ll see two wide red coloured cycle lanes on either side of the road, and only one lane for motorised traffic in the middle. Of course, if cars come either way, these will straddle the cycle lanes, but this won't be an option of there was a cyclist in the cycle lane. In that case, the driver coming from behind the cyclist will have to wait with overtaking, until the opposite flow has cleared. Thus the wide Dutch cycle lane protects the cyclist of being overtaken too close.

You'll generally only find cycle lanes in The Netherlands on roads with speed limits up to 60 km/h (so 37 mph). Also, they are generally only implemented on secondary roads, so talking "UK-language", on roads without the A- or B-road number classification. This is again where it goes wrong in the UK, as on-road cycle lanes are used on main through roads, where in The Netherlands, you'll find cycle paths away from the main carriageway on these routes; no cycle lanes!  

Another factor to take into account when thinking of on-road cycle lanes is that Dutch drivers are all trained to be on the lookout for cyclists all the time, making cycle lanes (in the Dutch set up) much safer to use. In Britain, it is the opposite. Cyclists have to watch drivers' behaviours all the time and have to check in which way it is going to affect them. 

The risk of being hit by side road traffic (minor roads and driveways) is extremely high in the UK. This is why the Department for Transport has adopted the Bikeability cycle training as a National Standard. Bikeability recommends cyclists to take at least one meter distance from the kerb or road side and even move to the middle of their side of the road when approaching and passing side roads. 

This primary position, (in the middle of where a car would be driving) puts the cyclist in a position where they will definitely be seen by side road traffic. On top of that, Bikeability also recommends cyclists to establish eye contact with drivers in side roads and driveways, as "if they have seen you, they won't run you over". The problem with on-road cycle lanes is that these put cyclists in exactly the vulnerable position close to the kerb-side, where they'll be overlooked by side road traffic. 

In summary, the “Cycling Dutchman” is completely against on-road cycle lanes in the UK in the current established formats as:

- cycle lanes are consequently drawn too narrow 
- cycle lanes are implemented in high-speed or heavy traffic intensity surroundings, whilst in The Netherlands, you'll generally only see them in low-speed and medium traffic intensity surroundings
- cycle lanes expose cyclists to high risks regarding side road traffic with drivers overlooking and overshooting their minor roads/driveways
- cycle lanes create a mental pressure to cyclists to use the cycle lanes, even if these are not safe to use
- the general attitude of the British driver is not ready for safe use of this type of infrastructure, just as general speed limits, which are often too generous for the roads in question 

In this respect, a road without any line drawings (so also without the center road line) is much better, as this forces drivers truly to think about their vehicle width. This results into speeds that do more justice to limited road widths and other traffic on the road, including usage of the road by non-motorised traffic.   

Cycle paths:

A Cycle path is an off-road cycling facility, away from the road. In Britain, these are always shared paths, often pavements, to be shared with pedestrians. Sometimes, these are also called "segregated shared paths" if a white line on the tarmac has been put in to separate cyclists from pedestrians. Have you ever seen this work? No! Pedestrians are all over the place and so are the cyclists.

So, that is why UK highway officials also came up with the rule that on their cycle paths, cyclists always have to give way to pedestrians. I don't intend to infringe on the rights of pedestrians, but the fact is that these "British Style" paths cannot be classed as true cycle paths "Dutch" sense. On a UK cycle path you can often only cycle at walking speed, so is it really a cycle path then? I don't think so. 

On Dutch cycle paths, you can indeed cycle at cycling speed, as the cycle path is generally separated from the pedestrian pavement by a kerb or vegetation area. If a pedestrian needs to cross the cycle path, they’ll do so as if the cycle path were a road. Note in urban places with limited space, like Amsterdam City Centre, you'll also find footpaths and cycle paths on the same level, but always with different pavement/colour styles to distinguish them from each other. 

This is where the classic tourist-Amsterdam cyclist-clash comes from; the tourists are not used to such infrastructure. Non-Dutch people don't understand that they are supposed to give way to cyclists when crossing a cycle path. Away from Amsterdam City Centre, you'll find cycle paths and footpaths nearly always clearly segregated from each other by either a kerb or vegetation area. Once you are used to it, the Dutch system makes for both happy cycling AND happy walking

In rural areas you'll see that pedestrians will also walk on cycle paths. In this case Dutch pedestrians are always aware of cyclists, meaning they keep a straight line on either side of the path and look over their shoulders before making any change of direction. Having been in the UK for 7 years, I recently slowed down for a pedestrian when cycling on such a path. "What is wrong with you? Just keep going!", the Dutch pedestrian said, clearly completely happy with cyclists riding past him every minute or two... 

The point I am trying to make here is that Dutch cycle paths keep the cyclists going, rather than making them slow down all the time. The British paths can be just a laugh, especially when all those crazy barriers come into the story; is this supposed to be a cycle path or what? Beyond the pedestrian and barriers issues, there are some other important factors which make Dutch cycle paths much faster and inviting to use than their British counterparts:

1. A general priority for cyclists on cycle paths above any turning traffic in and out of side roads and driveways, with clear priority markings on the crossings. Note Dutch cycle paths are always at the same level as the road, rather than coming down from a dropped kerb. Some isolated experiments show it is possible to introduce this priority in the UK, but you can see in the examples how it has been an uphill battle for the keen local authorities to stay within the official DfT-guideline.

2. At junctions with lights, one press on the button by a cyclist is enough to cross the whole road. In Britain you often have to press twice, only able to cross one direction of traffic per time. You often get stuck on a refuge island, forced to press another button to get across the next carriageway.

3. The surface of Dutch cycle paths is often just as smooth as the surface of the main carriageway. British cycle paths are often created by "recycled" road tarmac; being on your bike you feel the difference with every pedal push! Having this said, many cycle paths in The Netherlands are paved, also because of cost-implications. These are not always as smooth as the on-road tarmac, but at least they will be maintained, something that also gets often forgotten when talking UK cycling infrastructure.

4.  Cycle paths in The Netherlands together form a fully connected network, where there is never the need to cycle in between heavy or fast moving motorised traffic. End of route signs, as you see so often in the UK (see picture on right), do not exist in The Netherlands.  You can read about the overall-continuity of the Dutch cycle network in one of my previous blogs about a typical Dutch bike journey.

All reasons together make that in The Netherlands even racing cyclists are happy to use cycle paths; they are quick, easy to use and reliable.

In summary, in The Netherlands:

* For any road with a considerable motorised traffic flow and speed limits above 60 km/h (37 mph), you’ll find a cycle path separated from the main carriageway.

* On any other road, where there is no cycle path available, the road will be traffic-calmed, with limited speeds and sometimes cycle lanes in Dutch styles as pictured on the left.

Back to the original question of  the BBC-journalist about “my perspective on the introduction on segregated cycle lanes”, I prefer British-style cycle paths very much above British-style cycle lanes

British-style “shared path” cycle paths, with all their shortcomings, at least give people of all ages and abilities the opportunity to cycle safely and without having to fear for motorised traffic. To “speed” these cycle paths up to Dutch style is a matter of evolution. We must not forget that the Dutch system is a result of a 40 years design evolution, forced by public pressure in the 1970s. In Britain, we see now the same public pressure building up as in The Netherlands in the 1970s.

It is impossible to “correct” five decades of true neglect in a short time. Fixing Britain’s "car only" road network back into a more cycle-friendly world is a mammoth task, but in my opinion it can be done easily and within current highway budgets if two principals were applied:

PRINCIPAL ONE: Make cycling a fully integrated part of transport policies. This can easily be interpreted as a hollow phrase, but its reality is simple. For every road being resurfaced, for every junction being re-designed, for every hole being dug in the ground; the question should be asked: How does this bit of infrastructure relate to cycling and what can we do now to make it better? 

After resurfacing a local road, do we blindly re-install that out-of-date center road line of the 1960s, or do we keep it out (saving money on paint!) and do we make the road a 20 mph zone, so it is becomes visually more a shared road for different modes of transport?

If we dig up a road to replace the mains and this road is normally pretty busy, can we perhaps come up with a different design for it and can we even create space for a cycle path after the digging is completed? Can we create a new car park nearby to be able to use the space now used for on-road parking for a cycle path? It is this kind of continuous thinking and action what gradually transformed The Netherlands into the cycle-friendly place as we know it now. 

In the UK, I see too often how new housing developments get plunged in somewhere without even thinking how it affects the traffic intensity on existing roads. It is nice to build a cycle path on a new housing estate, but if the only way in and out of the estate is via a road as pictured on the right, what is the point? The connecting cycle route to the places where the new residents work, study and shop should be an integrated part of the development plan!

Every building project should be examined by a sustainable transport body seeing the bigger picture. A powerful cycling infrastructure commissioner, as suggested by the Times Cities Fit for Cycling Campaign, is needed in every area to oversee any (re)construction projects affecting use of public space.  

PRINCIPAL TWO: We need local cycling networks which truly connects local destinations (public facilities as schools, shopping areas, offices, industrial estates and housing). These network often already exists on urban cycle maps and on on-line cycle route planners (I worked on several of them myself), but these are not very visible for the public.

Extensive signage (as is omni-present in The Netherlands) can make this network visible. Note this type of signage is nowhere present in the UK and is a relatively low-cost investment. This signage should show a network with a continuous quality of routes. It needs to represent a trustworthy brand, so something stronger than the British National Cycle Network, on which you never know what is going to happen next.

So, where this network is on- road, this road must have a reasonably low-traffic density with strict 20 mph speed limits and limitation of on-road car parking with clear lines of vision for cyclists. Where roads are busier, cycle paths are essential to make the links, even if they are of the British “shared path” type (we can work on “speeding them up” later).

Again, continuity is the magic word. If a compulsory purchase order is required to create a short, but essential cycle path link, so be it. UK authorities pamper private land owners far too much. UK cycle paths are cluttered with signs as pictured on the right and what is the point of it? Britain has probably the largest number of public footpaths of Europe, but when it comes down to cycle paths, the country depends on the willingness of some bloke in a big villa.  It is not right that the personal interests of a few can block some simple and essential infrastructure for decades. Note; we are not talking a new high-speed railway here; it is just a path where people can ride their bikes!

Only if this local network becomes visible for the public and is trustworthy (so no missing gaps and with reasonably direct routes), cycling in the UK will become a true and safe alternative for driving. A new range of signage, as displayed on the right, may well be the way to go. It is essential though the signage is not isolated to a few locations, but continuous over the full route, until the signed destination is reached. 

I am currently putting these principals into action by producing a vision for Barnstaple Town Centre with my friends of the North Devon Cycling Forum

Have a look at these two maps. The first map shows the current situation with a town centre isolated from its surrounding areas, the second map shows a preview of our plan, in which the town centre could link to its surrounding areas for just over £ 800.000. 

If this cost is spread over five years, the cost per head of the local population would be just over £ 5 per yearThe recommendation by the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group is to raise cycling infrastructure expenditure to £ 10 per citizen per year, so this project would be half of the recommended expense; much better value for money than spending two million pounds on upgrading a local roundabout which only serves motorised traffic! More on this Barnstaple case study in a next blog...

What about getting on your bicycle yourself with one of my "Cycling Dutchman" guidebooks?

Cycling in The Netherlands - The very best routes in a cyclist's paradise makes you travel beyond Dutch cliches like clogs, windmills and the Amsterdam red light district, allowing you to truly explore the lowlands. The book features over 700 kms of routes and has special chapters explaining the unique Dutch cycling-minded traffic rules and its cycle route signage systems; 164 pages, colour, wiro bound, fits in standard handlebar bag, £ 13,99, see also

The London - Land's End Cycle Route Book is designed for those who LOVE cycling, but don't like traffic. The book takes you onto the most beautiful cycle routes of southern England, including the Camel Trail, Devon Coast to Coast Route, Bristol and Bath Railway path, Thames Valley route and many more! What makes the book unique is that the route is completely continuous, including detailed directions and local knowledge all the way. Get inspired; choose your favourite route sections or go for a full summer holiday adventure; 164 pages, colour, wiro bound, fits in standard handlebar bag, £ 15.99, see also