Friday, 26 September 2008

Blyth Valley Cycle Path

In recent times there have been proposals to revive the narrow gauge Southwold Railway in Suffolk which has been disused since 1929. As a homeowner adjacent to the original route, I have many objections to it. The idea is not without merits but I think it is misguided to attract many more visitors to the area who would use cars to visit what is - despite the claims otherwise - a noisy, diesel powered tourist attraction. Diesel is still oily, sooty, smelly, asthma inducing diesel, regardless of its source being mineral or vegetable. Then the requirements of todays HSE regulations for a huge swath to be set aside along the length of the route is too much of an intrusion into the beauty of the Blyth Valley.

UPDATE: This proposal has been shelved for now, since the Southwold Railway Trust have passed the first hurdle of getting a steam park approved on the site of the scrap yard at Southwold. No doubt they will be devoted to getting this project going for a while but once the track and the engines are running profitably around their park, perhaps there will be renewed efforts (armed with any evidence of viability) to connect the steam park to the rail infrastructure along the old railway line once again. In principle I support the idea of the steam park. Although if successful it would give the SRT some ammunition for their cause, it will also give me some for mine.

I could consider a railway if the trackway was only as wide as the original and the train was powered by wind or solar energy, an idea I think has some merits under the circumstances. If it has been shown that a solar powered taxicab can work in autumnal New York City, given the great motive efficiency of trains, why haven't proposals been made for solar or wind generated electric light rail?

But, given the proposal for yet another tourist attraction in Southwold, I would like to propose an alternative; that the right of way - if it exists - should be developed into a cycle path to link the towns of Halesworth and Southwold and the communities of Holton, Blyford, Wenhaston, Blythburgh and Walberswick in-between with a fast, safe and green transport system separated from the hazards of the B1123 main road. A cycle path east of Blythburgh would also enable access to the natural amenities of the Blyth estuary for recreation with little environmental impact.

The railway supporters said their plans may also include a cycle path and footpath so a win-win, no? I expect those promises will vanish as soon as costs escalate and I'm afraid I can't be bought off with MAY. Also, too many of the cycle paths I ride on at present are not suitable for sustained travel at speed when shared with pedestrians. Most are afterthoughts and have constant interuptions, such as gates and barriers, which render them inefficient except for recreational use. I'm proposing a dedicated cycle only path with 'flyovers' or underpasses at the roads. Now given the plans to abandon flood defences in the Blyth Valley to the forces of nature, it may be the only infrastructure resistant to and remaining viable after flooding ans so be a lifeline to the scattered population living there.

Living in Holton, our family already cycle frequently for local transport such as the school run to Wenhaston and our shopping in Halesworth and I frequently cycle the 15 miles to work at Snape along the terrifying A12 but I am discouraged from riding with my children by the dangers of the twisting and narrow B1123 and even the back roads
can be hazardous and thus it is necessary to ride on the few stretches of pavement and this in turn presents a hazard to pedestrians. The safety of the rider is often cited as the main barrier to the more widespread adoption of cycling so riding on a dedicated path would be a great attraction to a wide range of cyclists.

The former railway line is a more direct route than the B1123 and the distance of nine miles (or eighteen round trip) is manageable and in comparison to the road, it would be a safe, enjoyable and manageable for the recreational user. Several cycling holiday brochures cite 25 miles as a daily itinerary.

Besides the benefits of zero emissions and negligible road congestion, greater use of bicycles would help improve the health of the population, reduce obesity in children and so lower the cost to the National Health Service and so I hope support for such schemes is available from the national Government.

Suffolk¹s popularity for cycling holidays in its quiet country lanes is well established. Building upon that and the national cycle route passing through the area and the bicycle hire facilities at the rail/road interchange at Darsham; the provision of the route to Southwold and cycle hire in Halesworth could establish Halesworth and the Blyth Valley as a leading centre for bicycle tourism. This would add value to the local amenities and provide more custom for accommodation, restaurants and the local shops and services.

Imagine if you would that visitors could come by train to Halesworth and rent bicycles to cycle along the length of the scenic Blyth Valley. There are public houses at Holton, Blyford, Wenhaston, Blythburgh, Walberswick and Southwold to stop at for refreshment, the Wenhaston Doom and the Blythburgh Church and numerous small businesses and artisans to visit, the views of the estuary and its wildlife and the facilities of the major seaside resort of Southwold at the end of the journey. With such a renowned choice of activities and accommodation in the area, a whole variety of routes and itineraries would be possible for cyclists of all ages and interests, ensuring repeat business year after year.

The deliberate attraction of cyclists for holidays in the Blyth Valley would extend the tourist season and would attract more visitors without attracting more cars as, with the support of the railway operating companies, the green-minded tourist can arrive by train. The provision of cycle hire in Halesworth would sustain or provide new employment and position Halesworth as the gateway to the Blyth Valley and a cycle path system integrated with other cycle-tourism facilities in the Suffolk AONB such as those around Dunwich and Minsmere.

But rather than seeing the cycle path for the tourist's benefit, it should be considered - like the railway was - as part of the overall transport infrastructure. A fit cyclist can easily maintain 15 mph so the proposed path could be traversed in 3/4 hour so it would be a viable means for outlying communities to access the facilities of the linked towns without relying on their cars. The route would also serve schoolchildren and commuters linking to the trains and and would be a healthy alternative to using a car that is greener and more convenient than relying on the infrequent rural buses. There is plenty of room for expansion westwards and branches linking other communities using quiet back roads as part of an overall transport strategy.

According to the Southwold Railway Society there are still sections of track visible in various places along the line which is walkable from Blythburgh to Southwold. The conversion of rail tracks to cycle paths is well established and so there is expertise around on the costing and implementation. I would suggest that the feasibility of this proposal is investigated further by those better qualified than I am. Firstly by examining the status of the right of way of the old railway or, lacking that, the adaptation of the existing footpaths. Of course there will be objections from landowners and complaints at the cost from Government but having discussed it informally with many local residents, I have found there is widespread support to the idea in theory and so it is time to make literally concrete proposals.

1 comment:

  1. Having just tried to walk this route today. I think the first thing that needs doing is contacting the Footpath Officer at the County Council and get the existing footpaths reinstated after the floods that happened several years ago!
    Then maybe get some good signage so that folks know a route exists.
    Long term I think opening up the railway line as a footpath/cycleway is an excellent idea.