Sunday, July 18, 2010

The dry and dusty fens - time to get the Combines out

After using the Cambridge Cycling Super Highway (CCSH) to escape on a longer cycle ride out of Cambridge yesterday my time for cycling is rather more constrained today (Sunday). You might well ask why I call it the CCSH, well there seems to be a lot of fuss about the Barclays Cycle Superhighways in London. Actually in my first Google search I learnt something - it is a "Barclays" Superhighway. I am not quite sure how the sponsorship works in terms of Barclays brand and blue pain on roads - but hey marketing money spent directly on Civic projects is arguably better for society than the same money being spent on TV commercials, unless you count supporting commercial TV stations as Civic spending! I guess it also begs the question as to whether the Civic project has any real benefit. "How super? What cyclists make of superhighways" is a BBC News report on the benefit. The upside is that are supposed to be more direct routes and useful commuting routes into the city of so are likely to be of more value to more potential cycle-commuters. The downside is that they are just painted blue tracks on existing roads. They are advisory cycle lanes and traffic encroaches on them in places where the roads are narrow.

A quick look at a few Blog reports - the London Cyclist and Real Cycling seem more impressed with Boris' performance than the superhighways and this US Blog points out that "slapping down a bit of blue paint doesn't sound as safe as a hard berm...". My take is that the cycling superhighways are anything but in name. However making it easier for cyclists to navigate commuter routes is not a bad thing and getting more cyclists along certain routes and getting motorists attention on the fact that they share the road with cyclists is not a bad thing.

For me the big win is the "directness", too often cycle routes go all around the houses - literally. When I started cycling in London I carried a laminated map with me because I used to get lost. I used the Transport for London route planner, which has all modes of transport as default except for cars and bicycles, not exactly a good start for a city welcoming cyclists (it is still the default when I checked just now). The routes it plotted were quite good for those with a working knowledge of London but for me, more used to subterranean navigation (The Tube) I found my first few journeys to be very slow stop/start affairs as I worked out which back roads I was supposed to be following. This was before I acquired my Garmin Edge GPS for my bicycle and I carried scraps of paper which disintegrated when wet. When you know where you are going it then becomes easier to pay attention to the traffic and yes those double-length buses weren't pleasant. I also found that RLJ cyclists (red-light jumpers) were a nuisance as well. I would overtake a cyclist along the road, they would then jump a red light and go past me, I would overtake them again, they would RLJ when I stopped at the next set of lights. So paradoxically my journeys were slowed by RLJs.

The problem is that cycling is in a chicken and egg situation. People are reluctant to cycle because of the perceived danger, effort, hassle and inertia (and looking foolish?). So politicians are afraid of putting too much investment into cycling and the investment they do make is spread thinly. So small investments are made, some of which make small improvements, some don't - cycling gets a tiny bit more popular and the cycle repeats. The other challenge is that cycling also faces "opposition" from larger well-funded motor vehicle bodies. The opposition is not always direct but there is competition for funds and motorists hate anything that might slow them down - speed limits, safer driving, any "unlicensed" road users.

What this means is that we are light-years behind The Netherlands in terms of cycle-infrastructure and cycle safety (even though they have low cycling helmet usage). If you want to see how the other half live you only have to follow David Hembrow's blog to see what is is like living on there. Cambridge is probably a bit further up the cycle investment spiral, in part because we have quite a few cyclists, for the UK. There are some great steps forward, with a number of shared-path routes being opened up, bridges built and some better cycle parking. I do think that we have missed a trick with the Cambridge Guided Busway though - for a relatively small additional cost a route more akin to a cycle superhighway could have been created.

Cycling is not all about work and commuting though - it is also about pleasure and trips into the countryside and here in the Flatlands we are benefiting from the NT's Wicken Fen Vision and plan to create a "Space to explore on foot, bike, horse and boat". Although not all at the same time.

One of the new routes being opened up is Lodes Way, parts of which are open now. The land is criss-crossed with loads of Lodes (drainage and navigation ditches) and there is a mix of agriculture and wildlife to be seen when cycling around the country lanes and tracks

You also see that it takes active management to keep the place as it is - the land is very low-lying, which is why it requires drainage. The Lodes are above the level of the surrounding land and the Lode banking requires regular attention to keep in on good order. It also requires skill and experience to drive and work with one of these on the banking.


The recent winds have also taken their toll - just along from White Fen a tree had been blown over in the wind.


Near the crossroads of Headlake Drove and Little Fen Drove someone seems to have left his bicycle behind! My guess is that the cyclist had a puncture and carried on with the flat tyre until eventually the tyre also came off and would no longer stay on. (Yes it is something I have done when stuck out in the countryside without any patches and a pump.) If this had been me I would have walked back with the bicycle though or perhaps hidden it behind a hedge if I was going to pick it up later.


For a change I did not cycle around Wicken Fen but carried along a byway/bridleway/byway to Soham. On the map it starts off as Drove Lane (off Drury Lane in Wicken) and ends up along Bracks Drove before reaching Mill Drove, a tarmac road.

I could hear Combines in action around as I cycled along the track - this field looks ready.


At this time of year the track was bone-dry and slightly rutted. I managed to cycle along it without dabbing a foot down. A rabbit hole almost caught me out though.


The track varies between a single track and twin tracks from the passage of vehicles.


There were quite a few bees out gathering nectar from the flowers (Scabious)


I did manage to spot a farmer when cycling back along the byway from Ness Farm to Burwell. To be fair I saw quite a few out, despite it being a Sunday - when the harvesting has to happen it has to happen.


These large fields require several people to work them - in this case a trailer unloads the Combine from time to time.


And then the combining re-starts.


There next few weeks are going to be a busy time for the local farmers.

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