A flashback to the empty roads of the 1940s, when these guides were first published
Batsford, 9781849940382, 9781849940399, 978184994045, small paperback 160pp £9.99
I suspect that I am part of the last generation who routinely cycled long distances on trunk routes. Looking at UK road map today, it seems scarcely believable that in the last 1970s and early 1980s I pedalled most of the length of the A5, the A55, the A59, the A65, the A47 and even the A74 from Carlisle to Glasgow (now rechristened the M74). And that is not an exhaustive list.
The roads were by no means car-free then – but they were a lot less clogged than they are today. Indeed, figures from the Department for Transport show that in the years since 1977, when I first rode from West Yorkshire to the Lake District up the A65, the number of miles covered by cars in Great Britain has doubled.
Understandably, today’s cyclists plot their routes via tiny back roads, byways, dedicated bicycle tracks (some reclaimed from railway routes), and ‘B roads’. Much pleasure there is to be had from that – but occasionally it would be nice to travel reasonably directly, and by a route that has been in use by long-distance travellers for millennia.
This thought came to me as I flicked through republished editions of Harold Briercliffe’s series of guides to cycling in Britain. Published between 1947 and 1950 they were written at the last point where more miles were covered on Britian’s roads by bike than by car. For that reason, the author had no hesitation in recommending ‘A roads’ to cyclists. Why wouldn’t he – they are good, direct roads, and they are punctuated with towns at distances that owed much to the pre-railway stopping points of stage coaches.
The Briercliffe books have been republished to satisfy a perceived need after they formed the basis for a television series. They certainly have a period quality, although the author was not a particularly evocative writer. And the ‘updates’ to these books are single inserted pages between chapters, generally suggesting that readers look at the Sustrans website to find some helpful alternatives. They can’t be recommended today for anything other than nostalgic purposes – but they did leave me thinking about what we have lost since Briercliffe hung up his wheels.
The pleasure of passing through places is something that most road travellers have lost, as roads have improved and our expectations of speedy travel have increased. By doing so, however, we have lost the enriching experience of travelling routes that have been in use for millennia and taking in the stopping off points that have been in use for a similar length of time.
The A4, Great West Road, Kings Road or the Bath Road as it has been variously known, takes a route from the City of London through Slough, Maidenhead, Reading, Newbury, Marlborough and Chippenham before arriving in Bath and then Bristol. What better way to make your progress westward, than riding from town to town, perhaps partaking of tea where the horses used to water? Yet it goes without saying that only a masochist would cycle the length of a trunk road today. But does it have to be that way? Could we campaign for one day a year when one major route in the UK is open only to cyclists, walkers and horses. Imagine what an enormous procession of cyclists might ride up and down the A65 through the Yorkshire dales were it car free, one sunny Sunday.
After a few minutes turning over this prospect, I started to wonder about my own sanity. The closure of a tiny single-track road in Scotland for half a day, so that the Etape Caledonian can pass by, causes seemingly endless consternation from some who live along the route. How could I begin to imagine that motorists would forsake an entire ‘A road’ for a day?
And then I read that the National Trust is considering special ‘cycle-only’ days on Box Hill, in Surrey. To date, it is just a possibility that is being considered, and there would clearly have to be numerous ‘consultations’ with the various agencies involved. If it did happen, however, it would open up the possibility of roads occasionally being open to non-mechanised travellers.
We are never going back to the world Harold Briercliffe knew – which for many other reasons is a jolly good thing. But if enough of us pressed the idea, maybe, just maybe, we might, every now and then, be able to experience the roads as he did.
TD Sep 12