Thursday 23 October 2014

Hobby Horse (1)

Walking or cruising along the canals and rivers is a pleasurable pass time, much enjoyed but with a certain amount of risk attached to it.  A forgetful moment while stepping ashore from a boat can find you stepping into trouble.  Its the same for people walking the towpath the hazards are plentiful and are not limited to mud, hole or even the obligatory dog poo. 

There is one ever increasing danger which is starting to dominate the towpath. Its a danger that is being encouraged and at the same time ignored as an issue by CaRT in the search for ever increasing visitor numbers. This quest is being pursued relentlessly because continued funding is dependent upon reaching target numbers of visitors. To me this does not make any sense as a worthwhile and meaningful target. If the target has been set at reaching a certain level of 'customer satisfaction' then a whole new management ethos would prevail.

The real danger for anyone on foot started a while ago when the requirement to have a permit to cycle on the towpath was removed. Seemingly at the same time any no cycling and cyclists dismount signs were removed as were the few speed limit signs. More recently cyclists have been encouraged to use the towpath by the trust.  The trust boasts that canals and rivers attract over 21 million visits from cyclists. The trust appears to use the name 'greenway' for its designated towpath cycle route and also publishes a 'route of the month' for cyclists.

Gone is the slightly compacted, foot worn, narrow path that joined canal side areas together. Which also provided a pleasant place to meander on a nice sunny day. Partnership with sustrans to bring funding for towpath upgrades also brings with it serious problems. Now the emphasis seems to be on creating all weather high speed cycle routes. Paved area are becoming more common place in towns and cities.  Gravel strips are starting provide rapid transit routes between adjacent areas. The towpath is fast becoming a cycle path where those on foot or fishing are barely tolerated by cyclists. The priority is turning into one for cyclist by cyclists.

Now you can encounter long sections of deep continuous wheel ruts which make excellent tripping hazards. Which in turn with the ever changing weather are rapidly turned into a quagmire of sloppy cloying mud when it rains. Gone is the traditional sit-up and beg cycle. Its been replaced by an 'all terrain' bike complete with a sophisticated suspension system. Which comes complete with tractor tread tyres, multi-geared and even disk braked, but apparently delivered without a bell. Now named 'Mountain Bike' this is the equivalent of a 4 by 4 on the towpath. Specially designed and built for speed and endurance.

Now, I'm not anti-bike we have a folding electric bike on board whenever we go out on on the boat. At 12mph the electrical assistance cuts out. So there is no way that I could keep up with the average speed of the cycling wizz kids along the towpath. The difference is created because these are specially designed and intended for hill climbing. Plus the 4 X 4 bikes need somewhere to go. It looks like the towpath is the designated place for the future. Because mountain bikes have already been banned on some footpath routes in national parks. This is because of the amount damage to the footpaths that this type of bike create. And as if on schedule, mountain bikes are making their way onto the towpath in ever increasing numbers.

I sometimes feel that boaters, walkers and fisher folk are expendable 'collateral damage' for the trust. Which is preoccupied in the headlong rush to worship at the alter of visitor numbers.  The reason for this is that the Canal and River Trust is funded by a combination of Government funding and its own revenue streams. The financial arrangements agreed by Government with CRT guarantee £800 million over a 15 year term. The condition on this funding is based on CRT's performance relating visitor numbers as well as asset condition, towpath condition and flood risk management. With regard to the canal infrastructure. The stand still figure, (no improvement and no  degeneration) as given in a statement to the high court was £130 million a year.  There is a big chasm between income and the much needed expenditure. 

I may have a few answers to the above imponderable and one or two observations of interest. A few days ago, I had a word with a pleasant young fellow who passed me at a good speed. He did not ring a bell. Afterwards I found out that he did not even have one on the bike. He shouted 'coming through' which was less of a warning and more the issuing of an order.  I eventually caught up with him, he was stood a bit further along the towpath consulting a Nicholson's boaters guide. Apparently, as he assures me, they are very good for cyclists as well. 

One of the things I enjoy most of all is to engage people on the towpath in conversation. It provides an endless source for the sort of stuff I write about. I learned a great deal from our short conversation with my new acquaintance. It started when I said with a smile - 'You were going at some speed when you passed me. 'No speed limits on here, no sign - no limit' he says a bit defensively. To which end he was factually correct as there were no signs.  'Why did you not ring your bell when you came up behind me.' I said. 'Bell! There are none of them on a bike now.' Seeing that I was not being hostile he added. 'Bells are for sissies and don't work very well, only add an extra bit of weight.' (The bikes are of amazing light weight construction and he let me try its weight, it was certainly a great deal lighter then the Raleigh blue streak 5 speed I had as a kid in 1960) I said 'Well it would save you shouting if you had a bell.' He says 'If I shout loud and startle people, they move aside and stand still. I'm past before they even know it.'  I said 'Not everyone has good hearing.'  His next comment made me think. He said 'Deaf people are more aware of cyclists, they are always looking round.'  

Continued in part 2 

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