Many of us daydream about escaping into an imaginary parallel universe. The good news is that Britain has its own genuine, and literally parallel, universe that we can escape into at any moment. It’s the National Cycle Network that threads its way quietly and meanderingly over, under and alongside our gridlocked main roads and our daily lives.
Once you try it, you’ll fall in love with supposedly ‘broken Britain’ all over again. You’ll be reminded that it’s a country of dog-walkers, rivers, farms and front gardens. And you don’t have to wear Lycra to do this. You just need ordinary clothes, plus KitKats, Thermos and sandwiches, and off you trundle at 8 mph.
You might have seen the National Cycle Network signs, red on blue, beckoning you off the road on to a smaller lane. Once you notice one, you’ll start spotting them everywhere, discreetly glued on to lampposts all over the country. Route 1 meanders from Dover to the Highlands; Route 2 from Dover to St Austell; Route 3 from Land’s End to Bristol; Route 4 from Greenwich to Fishguard. Route 61 happens to go from St Albans to Windsor, and there are many others. The long ones would take years to complete at my rate of 25 miles per day, but completing them is not the point. Pedalling through Britain at its most gentle, from settlement to settlement, is the point.
The routes were designed by the charity Sustrans, which might put you off. I hate the name Sustrans, which sounds vaguely like a Latin gerundive but is in fact an unattractive copulation of two words. And I don’t like being made to feel I’m doing a bike ride in order to pursue a sustainable mode of transport. I do it for the pure joy of it. The designers, though, are in every other way kindred spirits to me. Like the best eccentric schoolmaster who deviates from the official subject and goes off on a much more interesting tangent to do with his own enthusiasms, the designers of the National Cycle Network are always veering off, taking you on the romantic route through the orchard, never mind if it takes longer, and they educate and inspire you in the process. In the era of satnavs programmed always to calculate the quickest course, this is the much-needed antidote.
‘What are they going to throw at us next?’ I’ve often wondered, as I’ve drifted through un-famous bits of Kent, Berkshire and Essex following the ever-reassuring ‘1’ or ‘4’ signs, which make me feel some guardian angel is steering me into undreamed-of corners of the country. How, without these route designers and their ‘Slow Britain’ agenda, would I ever have discovered the disused railway line that goes eastwards from Hadleigh in Suffolk? Or the suburban charms of California on the outskirts of Ipswich? Or the fields to the west of Maidenhead through which, magically, there are cyclable paths?
It feels like a very old Britain, one of lanes and drovers’ roads; much more meandering than Roman Britain. Settlements grow outwards, but on a bike you approach them in the other direction, along their small back roads, through allotments, playing fields and housing estates. You see, and briefly experience, thousands of other lives you could happily have lived: parallel lives in a parallel universe.
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