[UPDATED – see base] David Hembrow has a very popular blog. He’s the cycling campaigner who worked to improve conditions in Cambridge for 10 years before he moved his family to the Netherlands. He takes potshots at the UK’s dire cycling infrastructure. He’s almost always right: cycling in the UK, especially in cities, can be a fraught experience, especially for ‘nanas and nippers’.
In his latest posting he criticises the cycling conditions prevalent in Wiltshire (specifically Stonehenge) and Northumberland. Now, Stonehenge is a famous disaster area, ringed by busy roads that shame this country, but Northumberland is pristine cycling country and maligning it in the same breath as Stonehenge is wholly unfair.
David quotes a Dutch website which says that “Northumbria has the most beautiful, well marked cycle paths” which “criss-cross through the area and take you to interesting places”. David asks: “I’d like to know where they are.”
Er, pretty much all over this fine county, David.
He agrees that Northumberland is a “lovely area, but when we were on holiday there, all our cycling was on roads…There’s a lot of exaggeration about.”
Exaggeration? If anything, Northumberland is undersold.
Miffed, I left a comment on David’s site:
David, I was with you until your Northumbria comments. We live in Newcastle so we regularly take family cycle trips in Northumberland.
Out in the sticks you’re riding on roads, but you will see maybe just a couple of cars per day. In the College valley, motorists have to pay to get permits to drive through, and there’s a limit of 12 per day.
To get from Tynemouth out into the depths of the countryside, follow the Sustrans Reivers Route. Much of it is traffic-free in Tyneside because of the many former mineral line cycle paths. Once past hot-spots such as Ponteland the motorised traffic drops off massively and Northumberland becomes wonderful cycling country, on or off road. Tourist literature doesn’t do this part of the world justice, and is definitely not exaggerating.
Now, Stonehenge and environs is different, and truly awful, but don’t put ‘Northumbria’ into the same category.
My kids have been cycling quite happily and safely in Northumberland since the age of 6.
Northumberland would be a great destination for Dutch families and their bikes.
There’s separated infrastructure from the ferry to the mineral lines. Some of it is not up to Dutch standards but so long as the cyclists don’t try to reach Newcastle, they’ll be alright.
I’ve written about family cycling in Northumberland for National Geographic Traveller. Extract here.
I’ve also written about the Netherlands for NGT, and waxed lyrical about family cycling there, but you don’t have to go to the Netherlands to experience the perfect cycling holiday: Northumberland is stunning, and very lightly travelled.
The Reid family has been on many day-trips into Northumberland (cycling from home) and three week-long jaunts (again, cycling from home). Here are pix from some of those trips.
Josh on a boardwalk by the North Sea on the Sustrans Coast and Castles route.
Ellie on the traffic-free path near Druridge Bay on the Coast and Castles route.
The hill descent near Ryal, not a car in sight.
On this particular road near Bewcastle I don’t think we saw any more than two cars in about three hours of riding.
Josh seems to be enjoying himself. This is near Clennell Street, on the way to Kielder.
Let’s play “Spot the car”. It’s a long game when you’re in the depths of Northumberland
The cycle path skirting Kielder lake. The biggest danger around here isn’t motorists but midgies.
Well-surfaced, well-signposted cycle route on Tyneside, thanks to a network of former mineral lines.
Lesson learnt: Don’t ever point out flaws in the arguments raised by David Hembrow. Even a little. In the comments section of his blog he says: “There’s no opinion here, just statements of fact” and “this is the truth.” After reading the National Geographic Traveller article about cycle touring in Northumbria (“…pictures on your link which show helmeted cyclists on gravelly paths…”) he wrote:
“You are willing to take risks with your children that other people don’t see as acceptable to take with theirs.”
Risks? By cycling in Northumberland? Apparently so:
“Just like everything else, cycling on “lonely roads” also carries a risk. A large proportion of the total crashes that cyclists have are single party crashes. If you were to have such a crash, or if you were to have a medical emergency in a sufficiently remote place it is possible that you would never be found.”
Such a risk seems to be confined to the UK:
“You are willing to take risks with your children that other people don’t see as acceptable to take with theirs. This doesn’t happen in the Netherlands. No-one sees cycling as a risk…”
Perhaps David will again accuse me of non-contextual editing – “you have quoted back to me half of one of my sentences out of context in order to try to continue a pointless argument” – even though he’s happy to lift partial quotes from my comments:
“However, thank you for proving my point both with your words: “Much of it is traffic-free”, “Once past hot-spots”, “so long as the cyclists don’t try to reach Newcastle”…
When I suggested his comments about my parenting skills (“You are willing to take risks with your children…”) weren’t terribly kind or accurate, he was in no mood for compromise:
“There’s no opinion here, just statements of fact. I’m more going to “retract” this than I am to retract that the grass is green.”
I’m happy to retract stuff. David was upset that, in the bio above, I said he so hated the cycling conditions in Cambridge he moved his family to the Netherlands. I’ve changed that to the description he suggested.
To put all of the quotes here into their full context it’s well worth reading the debate in the round on David’s excellent blog, but don’t expect a happy ending. David ends the discussion thus:
“please stop the bullshit. I’m bored of your arguing, bored of your pretense, bored of your paranoia and simply don’t believe that you can really be this stupid.”
Sadly, David is no longer OKaying my comments on his blog even though two commenters – including ‘Freewheeler’ – have been let through to write comments disagreeing with me. Debate is good: we can’t all agree with each other all of the time. For the record, here’s the comment, written yesterday, that David won’t OK:
Here we go again, folks assuming I’m anti-seperation.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
On my blog, a commenter sides with David and then launches into an attack on the “old guard of cycling advocacy”. He then suggests I read Dr Dave Horton’s work. I replied that I know it well because I published a huge article of Dave’s and promoted it widely.
My original point was to suggest David revise his views of Northumberland. I thought it unfair he lumped it in with the awful busy roads around Stonehenge, and implying that tourist boards exaggerate about their localities. Some might, but Visit Northumberland doesn’t. I said if anything, it undersells the place. 25 miles from Newcastle and you can be on roads where you may see 2-3 cars all day long.
Northumberland really is a wonderful place for family cycling, and Dutch cyclists could ride off the ferry and straight into the depths of Northumberland on traffic-free paths nearly as good as found in the Netherlands. David doesn’t seem to know this and was unwilling to do anything other than to selectively list some of my quotes and turn them back on me.
He wanted to prove that Newcastle has poor cycle infrastructure, a point I would be in full agreement on.
But the first point was about Northumberland.
None of this needed to spiral into the kind of abuse I later got.
I have been civil and respectful in these postings. I also revised some text that David took a dislike to on my blog (I am always ready to admit to my mistakes). What did I get from David? I’m “stupid”, “vain” “boring”; and full of “pretense” “paranoia” and “bullshit”.
Was any of that called for? Is any of that *ever* called for?