Blazing the Trail

This article was published in 2019, in Magazine 142.

All images in this feature: Greater Cambridge Partnership
Image as described adjacent

Campaigning on The Chisholm Trail, a transformative north-south route for cycling and walking, started in 1998. Planning commenced in 2005 and 2019 will see the start of construction. We talk to trail originator Jim Chisholm about the history of the project.

How did you come up with the idea for the Chisholm Trail?

I’d been converted to the issues of climate change, and the unsustainability of ever-increasing car use, some ten years before I came to Cambridge in 1985. It was wonderful to move to a city where cycling was ‘normal’, but I also enjoyed travel by train (I haven’t flown by plane for over ten years and very little previously). I wouldn’t read a book but looked out of the train window, often armed with maps. It was very clear to
me that:

  • Regular cycle-commuting from dwellings north of Cambridge to Addenbrooke’s hospital, or from south of Cambridge to the Science Park was not for those without determination.
  • There was lots of underused land in the rail corridor, and even ‘spare’ arches beneath a couple of the main road bridges over the railway.
  • Making a route that could be seen as safe and pleasant would encourage use by all, be they on cycles or on foot, and could reduce the need for short trips by car.
  • Having been involved in traffic studies and computer modelling, I could see how such a route could be economically justified.

Other things have occurred since then without which my dream would have remained just a dream.

What changed to help you bring the dream to reality?

The path alongside the Busway has been a great boon, but initially some sections were at risk. I appeared for Cambridge Cycling Campaign as ‘an objector’ at the public enquiry. The route could have been at risk because of the need for Compulsory Purchase powers to enable a continuous ‘maintenance track’ in addition to the original rail land. Even with those powers, extra money was required as originally the path would not have had a tarmac surface!

The then Cycling and Walking Officer, Clare Rankin, must be thanked as the city council helped get much of the route through the city into the Local Plan, and in 2005 some money from the sadly-missed ‘Cycling England’ funded a feasibility study.

Finally, S106 funds from developers and DfT funding via the City Deal (now Greater Cambridge Partnership) enabled Sustrans-founder John Grimshaw’s project plan for the Trail. This included many innovative ideas, but especially for the section between Coldham’s Common and Ditton Meadows.

Image as described adjacent

With much of the route along the railway, has it been easy for the County Council to acquire land from Network Rail?

In 1998 I’d rather optimistically thought that one of the quick wins for the Trail would be the use of spare arches beneath Mill Road bridge, but that getting under Hills Road bridge would be difficult.

Of course much of the ‘Outer Reaches’ of the route, as described in Camcycle Newsletter 19 were an early achievement courtesy of the Cambridge Busway route, as was Hills Road Bridge.

Until very recently the route over Network Rail land on the east side seemed ‘at risk’, but ironically it is the delivery of a much changed and enlarged depot for Thameslink and Greater Anglia trains, that should give us that route later this year.

The Chisholm Trail is a historic cattle-droving route in America so more associated with walking than cycling. When did your cycleway concept acquire the name?

Mark Irving, who was the Newsletter Editor in 1998, is to blame for the name ‘Chisholm Trail’. I never proposed the name but it has stuck, so I’m now even blamed for any deficiencies…

I should also note that although my April 1998 article used the word ‘Supercycleway’ I’ve always made
it clear that this will also be an important route for those on foot. Space and other restrictions mean that most sections will be shared, although almost without exception the width will be at least 3.5 metres.

So what is being built now, what can you see on the ground, and what is still to come?

Clearly, the big ticket items are the Abbey-Chesterton cycle and walking bridge over the River Cam and the underpass beneath Newmarket Road, and there are already signs of ‘preparatory works’ at both sites, but a huge amount of work has been done behind the scenes on other parts of the Trail. The bridge is actually under construction, in sections in Sheffield.

Protecting the ecology of the area during development of the Trail is key: workers search for sleeping bats and prepare a vole mitigation scheme.
Image as described adjacent
Image as described adjacent

Between the bridge and the underpass there is valuable land for both flora and fauna, even if the corner of Ditton Meadows and Barnwell Wood is, currently, desecrated by rough sleepers, and paraphernalia from drug abuse. Compensation and mitigation for flood, flora and fauna has been a huge complication here, with some planning conditions yet to be signed off. There have also been delays here as a high pressure gas main needs a concrete protection slab before heavy vehicles can access the location for the eastern abutment of the new river bridge.

The Newmarket Road underpass will hopefully be ‘installed’ over the August Bank Holiday weekend

There will be a link along the old Barnwell oil sidings that will be the main access for construction traffic from site offices off Ditton Walk, and this will be ‘restored’ as the cycle and walking route. The route here will also use land on a long lease from Cambridge Past Present and Future. Their land, ‘Ditton Pastures’, has been on an ‘agricultural lease’ and used for grazing by ponies and horses. The county has taken a 200-year lease on a strip adjacent to Coldham’s Brook for the Trail with a hedge and fence segregating it from the adjacent fields, which will be restored to a more sympathetic use.

The underpass will be ‘installed’ over a long weekend, hopefully over August Bank Holiday. If the Mill Road bridge closure runs into late August this will not be possible. There will also be ‘step free’ access to the Leper Chapel, and eventually we expect a cafĂ© to be constructed adjacent to Barnwell Lake as it now has planning permission. This should make a good meeting point.

Across Coldham’s Common the existing path will be widened to 3.5m. This width should enable two friends to be able to walk side by side and a cycle to pass without invading their space, or a parent to cycle alongside a young child yet pass a pedestrian in safety. Because this is a registered common, a submission for the improvements was required to be sent to the National Planning Inspectorate, and there were objections. A real, and continuing problem will be the under-bridge beneath the Newmarket railway line. This is both narrow and low. Some minor changes will be made, but major changes should be achievable when this section of rail line is upgraded as part of the East-West proposals, the timescale being similar to that for the Cambridge South station.

These sections from Coldham’s Lane to the new Cambridge North station will not only enable improved cycle commuting from Romsey, Abbey and elsewhere to the new station and the Science Park etc., but will enable much better routes for leisure walking to and within the valuable green spaces of Coldham’s Common, Ditton Meadows and Stourbridge Common.

South of Coldham’s Lane either Brampton Road or Cromwell Road will lead to routes past the agreed dwellings on the old Ridgeons site to the Rail Corridor. Despite construction not projected to start until Autumn, it is hoped that some temporary route can be provided in advance of completion of the developments here. {In my original vision, I had hoped for a route using a spare arch beneath Coldham’s Lane bridge, but this was before the development of the fitness centre, and at a time when I’d thought the ‘rail traction’ maintenance facility would be redundant.}

We now have the early prospect of an east side route all the way from the north end of Cavendish Road to Clifton Road with a width of 4m, the exception being at Mill Road. There should be connections at Mill Road bridge, with possibilities of other connections via public highway for Argyll Street and William Smith Close (to Carter Bridge). There is currently a ‘disused’ dead end road to the rear of Rustat Avenue, which will complete the link from beneath the Carter Bridge to Clifton Road, and there is an existing footpath link to Davy Road.

So will we have this route before 2020?

There have been many frustrations for those in the County Cycling Team and others, even since funding was assured. Leases have been negotiated with a number of landowners and Carillion went bust shortly before contracts were signed (fortunately…). In addition, given the huge benefits this project will have to the wider environment, there have been some determined ‘environmental’ objections. A number of threats of Judicial Reviews were made, and around 40 freedom of information (FOI) requests raised. However, there is now a good prospect that much of the route could be available before the end of next year.