Wednesday, 29 February 2012
Cycling in Walberswick Nature Reserve
I was considerably surprised when I read the article in The Times, titled "Britain’s most beautiful cycle ride". I looked at the route, knowing that side of Suffolk very well, and thought "You can't cycle there".
Not that I'd want to detract from the article, it is a beautiful place to ride and, apart from the A12 (and one or two other A-roads!), criss-crossed with delightfully quiet lanes and bridlepaths. Maybe this is enhanced by the tourists to the area who are mostly looking for birds and other quiet relaxing pastimes. Not one for the road racer!
No, I just was quite taken aback by a large part of the route that follows footpaths. Now, as many people may not be aware, cycling along footpaths is not necessarily illegal, although there is no right of cycling. There actually has to be a bylaw stating that cycling is banned along a footpath or area of footpaths. The only definite legal issue is civil tort where the landowner could take a cyclist to court for damage to property, which is highly unlikely. It's not covered by the 1835 and 1888 Highway Acts that specifically ban cycling along footways next to roads (or as we call them now, pavements). This article from the well researched Bike Hub might help clear up the minds of those with eye-brows still raised.
Anyway, I thought I'd explore the Walberswick to Dunwich section, which is where the derelict windmill in The Times article is photographed. I know this area well having spent a good part of 45 years coming here and have family living 5 miles away for the past 15 years. There are few roads and tracks I've not cycled!
The Assistance of Mapping
First, I looked at the maps available online and at the reserve. Just to start with, the three I found are not consistent.
Here's the ordnance survey 1:50k map. This clearly shows the part between Dingle Cottages and Stock Lane End as a public footpath, but sections to the south and north as a public bridleway.
The maps are reproduced from the Ordnance Survey mapping with the permission of Ordnance Survey on behalf of the Controller of Her Majesty's Stationery Office © Crown copyright. Unauthorised reproduction infringes Crown copyright and may lead to prosecution or civil proceedings.
Then, this is the map supplied by Walberswick Nature Reserve on page 7 of their leaflet online. This agrees with the Ordnance Survey map but adds in a curious (and somewhat circuitous) blue-dotted Southwold-Dunwich cycleroute.
Finally, here is the sign that appears in a variety of places around the reserve itself, although not displayed when approaching from Dingle Cottages. This doesn't agree with the above maps about the public bridleway sections.
So, what are cyclists meant to do? As I was there this weekend, I thought I'd take the camera along and record the routes around and through the nature reserve.
Dunwich to Walberswick
I started by cycling from Dunwich up to Walberswick. This is speeded up, so it's not a lengthy chore!
My main thought was that there wasn't a single sign along this route telling me not to ride a bike, and the two signs at either end tell me it's a bridleway. So how would any cyclist know not to ride, if indeed that is the case?
My second thought was that the route was a bit awkward, in that there are several places where a cyclist has to dismount. It wouldn't draw me if I wanted to have a good burn on a bike. I did think I'd like to do it when I wanted to relax on a bike! And, as for the Southwold-Dunwich cycleroute, the left turn required at Dingle Cottages is not signed at all.
I met a few walkers whilst doing the route. Both conversations where about whether it was possible to get through all the way, and one interested in the ability to ride the route!
Walberswick to Dunwich, a Cycleroute?
So, going back. This time, I went to search out the Southwold-Dunwich cycleroute as well as check the access from the north side of the reserve at Hoist Covert where the OS map shows another short bridleway. Travelling into the sun for the first bit of this didn't give a very good picture, but that is made up by the second half views!
The back road, called Sandlings Walk, is well known. I've used it many times, most notably riding to Southwold before dawn on New Year's Day 2000 to watch the sun rise (almost the earliest over the UK) after 3 hours sleep.
The investigation of the Hoist Covert bridleway gave me my first encounter with a "No Horses or Cyclists please" sign on the whole reserve. This matches the OS map bridleway to footpath change of use, and is the route from the north towards the derelict windmill on the marshes. I suspect this is the way the majority of people get onto the marshes. It has the nearest car park.
Luckily, there is a short bridleway route out, allowing cycling back up to Sandlings Walk and the Southwold-Dunwich cycleroute. Mind you, the short route offroad was worth it!
The offroad part of Sandlings Walk, after Westwood Lodge, is fun and well laid out. It is sandy, has large puddles, and has the odd rise and fall, so choosing a line is very important. I lose concentration at one point and have to stop and shift sideways!
Once at Fiveways, the Southwold-Dunwich cycleroute goes back on itself on the south side of the reserve. Well, that's what the map says. There is no indication whatsoever. In fact comparing the map to the reality on the ground, there is no cycleroute. The blue dotted line heads off into the middle of the thick woods of Dunwich Forest. I decide to follow the yellow topped posts. It's still a maze to follow, but when out of the denser woodland, the views are fantastic! The maze proves very difficult towards the end and I make several wrong turns (cut from clip!).
So, there is not a Southwold-Dunwich cycleroute. The trail does get nearest it at either end of this section, but it's not for the easily confused. And, yes, you saw the Exmoor ponies! Thus careful riding very important.
So, what to conclude about cycling around Walberswick Nature Reserve? I suspect things may change over the next few years. I hope this is not for the worse. I suspect a lot of the signage is not around because there has been a fair amount of change in the past few years. Certainly, I've heard reports of (illegal) signs put up by residents saying "no cycling".
I can understand the desire for at least one route (and probably the easiest) being cycle free. I wouldn't complain about that as long as others are permitted.
I'm not sure whether this should be seen as a great speedy offroad route for bikes. It's more of a place of relaxation. If conflict between pedestrians and cyclists arise, it's more likely that cyclist permission (and that is all that exists now) would be rescinded.
And finally, don't expect cyclists to do twice the distance just to get around a pedestrian area! What simply happens is you get no cyclists. That's in no-ones interests.