The working part of my short trip to the UK this week has been based around the East Yorkshire town of Beverley where a European Project has been holding meetings and workshops.
The work part has been great, lots of energy and collaboration in our multinational consortium. It has also been interesting for me because it has by chance thrown me into places and conversations that I haven’t been part of for a long time.
Firstly Beverley, which is a charming market town with an impressive “Minster” or grand church around which medieval life developed, through pilgrimage, monastic life and trade. It was really nice to be back there, because Beverley was a milestone in my cycling career.
The first time (and indeed the last time) I came to Beverley was in 1998. I was the freshly minted new Director of the Cyclists’ Touring Club and I was told that part of my duties was to turn up at the Birthday Rides, CTC’s summer cycle touring week which is always held across the date of the organisation’s founding in 1878, hence the “Birthday”.
OMG. Twenty-one years ago. How much water has flown under this bridge since then? If I recall there were more than a few people at that time who thought I was just taking a sabbatical from corporate life and I would soon disappear back.
Little did they know that it was events like the Birthday Rides in Beverley that made the transition from corporate life so much easier for me and probably for many of the members. Because I was the corporate guy brought in to modernise the head office it was obvious to many that I was probably an ogre of some kind. But its very hard for that image to stick when members discover that the ogre is riding among them incognito, and when discovered the ogre is a cycle tourist in spirit and in deed, cycling around with them and bringing his family to share in the events.
A lot of bridges were built in that week in Beverley and it remains a fond memory, so it was really nice to ride back into town on Tuesday morning, even in these rainy days of September.
My second time travel of the meeting was not so uplifting.
I my last post I wrote about my big surprise at finding great bike lanes all the way to the ferry port in Rotterdam on Monday night. Ah, but of course that means I had to ride from Hull ferry port to Beverley on Tuesday morning.
The pleasant past was come company, because I was riding with colleagues from Antwerp who had arrived on the ferry from Zeebrugge and we were escorted by some enthusiastic cyclists from the East Riding Council who promote cycling as part of their work.
The infrastructure was pretty patchy, disconnected and non-existent in many places. I tweeted “bingo” when I came across my first “Cyclists Dismount” sign in the suburbs of Hull, the classic symbol in UK cycling that means the highway engineer has effectively given up any pretence of attempting to support cycling at that point.
And then it rained, a lot. So we often felt the need to stop talking and ride in soggy single file on what could have been nice roads because they were forming a rat run for cars, vans and trucks.
I was thinking “is it me” because I was surprised how uncomfortable I was with the riding environment. Brussels and Wallonia are not exactly bike friendly in many places where I ride, so maybe it was just unfamiliarity and the soggy conditions? Was I even a bit embarrassed for being English when riding with our Belgian colleagues, the narrow bike lanes on pavements in Hull were not exactly Antwerp standard?
But later I got time to listen to discussions among English local authority staff from across the region and I hear them talk about the challenges of trying to support cycling with no money and little political support. I heard about effective teams that I knew were doing great work around 2010 or 2011 and discovered how much they had been decimated by local government cutbacks, with programmes and road safety going backwards in some cases. Of course I know it from reading the media and previous visits, but I have been protected because I haven’t been back into groups of local government staff working on cycling in the UK since I left in 2012.
I realise now that for many cycling officers, road safety officers and transport planners they have been sent back to 1998 as well. There are some brilliant and inspirational people working to promote active travel, quality of life and sustainability in their communities. On paper there is much greater awareness that climate change or air quality or obesity, poverty and mental health are challenges for all of society. But today they probably have less resources than in 1998, when I and many others in the environment, transport and health lobbies were still trying to wake up political and press awareness of these topics.
The frustration is different now, because so many more people understand what should be done and we know that briefly resources started to flow, at least in some places. But the British Tories have dismantled local government’s resources by through 10 years of austerity measures and provided as big a roadblock as the lack of awareness in the 1990s. (The national government has cut local government funding by 50% since 2010)
Big cities like London may have enough scale to move money around the choices of their mayors, but small authorities are having to make incredibly difficult choices about priorities when the proportion of people going to food banks just to feed their families is growing. Indeed, that isn’t back to the 1990s, that is the 1890s.
I have to salute the people I talking about their need to innovate and improvise to get things done, because they cannot give up on what they are trying to achieve for their towns and cities.
I will always enjoy the nostalgia of cycle touring back to 1998 but that is a big difference to people I meet who are almost trapped by a time warp that is not of their making.
Margaret Mead the US anthropologist said
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
.I can only hope so.