My way: country vs city

This article was published in 2010, in Newsletter 91.

In September 2009, after nearly five years of cycling out to work in the village of Swaffham Bulbeck from my home in Chesterton, I started a new job in the south of the city. Delighted to have nearly halved my daily commute, I waved goodbye to Fenland winds, unlit nights, rampant summer vegetation and depressing road kill, expecting a new routine of easy year-round urban cycling which would whisk me to work in no time. Nine months on (perhaps, unsurprisingly!) the reality is not so simple: there are many things I miss about my old ride and many frustrations with the new one; here I look at some of the difference between the two.

The joys: cycling alongside a wheat field in midsummer.
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Route 51 revisited

The number one thing I miss about country cycling is the speed. My old commute was exactly eight miles, a distance I usually covered in 35-40 minutes, or less than half an hour on particularly enthusiastic days. The first section was the most congested, although the traffic was hardly heavy in city terms; aside from queues of cars on Ditton Lane and Church Road in Stow-cum-Quy, the most likely hold-up was a herd of cows on the path on Stourbridge Common.

Of the two routes I used to travel out to Quy, the first follows National Cycle Route 51, which leaves Cambridge by way of the Jubilee Cycleway, opened in 2002. From the Green Dragon bridge, the Cycleway runs alongside the river to the railway bridge, then cuts across the open meadow to Howard Road and a small path to Ditton Lane. After crossing at the pedestrian crossing, the route continues a short distance along Fison Road and left up Tiptree Close, where a path by a field behind Marshall’s car showrooms leads out to the Newmarket Road Park & Ride. From here, it’s an easy ride out to the Quy tunnel under the A14, passing a few houses on the way.

Traffic was hardly heavy in city terms – the most likely hold-up was a herd of cows on the path

A few areas were potential accident zones: the wooden riverside boardwalk under the railway bridge is quite narrow with poor visibility, and the end of the path between Stourbridge Common and Ditton Lane has a blind corner at each end, both made worse in early summer by fast-growing vegetation. Much of the Cycleway requires careful consideration of pedestrians, with the Common and path behind Marshall’s particular favourites with dog walkers. Traversing the Park & Ride site could also be hazardous; cyclists passing the front section of the car park must give way to both cars driving in and pedestrians walking to the bus stop. In addition to this, on exiting the P&R site and heading left to the Quy path, a blind corner sandwiched between large bushes and metal safety barriers is perfectly set up for a head-on collision and I frequently found myself almost handlebar to handlebar with an oncoming cyclist as we both squealed to a sudden stop.

The existence of these hazards led me to explore an alternative route to Quy: a short-cut through Fen Ditton accessed by taking the left fork after leaving Stourbridge Common and turning right at the end, bringing me higher up Ditton Lane. It was often slow to cross here, especially in school term-time, but after that, it was a nice fast ride out along High Ditch Road, crossing the old railway bridge and passing between verdant bramble bushes – great for picking blackberries on the way home in late summer.

The highs and lows of rural rides

Aside from the different types of free food on bushes, there were also various points on my ride where I could buy fresh strawberries, homegrown flowers and vegetables. This sums up another thing I miss – seeing (and tasting!) the changing of the seasons as reflected in the landscape – cow parsley, hawthorn or poppies in the verges and the ploughing, growing and harvesting of the cornfields. Seasonal variation wasn’t always a good thing though – the onset of ‘roadkill season’ was never pleasant and cycling through clouds of combine harvester dust was best done as quickly as possible.

Best of country

Worst of country

Long, quiet sections – great for speed Windy days
The changing seasonal countryside Dark nights
Wildlife – rabbits, ponies, pheasants, stoats and mice Fast country roads with drivers who may be unused to cyclists
Friendly cyclists Roadkill
Fruit picking Overgrown vegetation blocking cycle paths

At the end of High Ditch Road, it’s a short ride to the Quy tunnel and up the other side to Church Road. At dusk, the area before the tunnel is overrun with wild rabbits; most would dive for their holes at the sound of my oncoming bicycle, but a few always panicked and changed direction mid-path so I’d drop my speed to avoid a nasty accident with a baby bunny. Coming out of the tunnel, I’d also drop my speed, but this time to avoid an accident with an oncoming car. Motorists wouldn’t always be expecting cyclists to emerge onto this access road to the Quy Mill hotel and the road itself was narrow in places with an uneven surface.

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At the top of the hill I’d come to my number-one bugbear: the slow-changing Pelican crossing over Church Road. It was difficult to work out whether the crossing was timer or sensor-controlled, but it certainly seemed to be heavily biased towards road-users. Frequently, by the time the lights had changed, waiting cyclists like me had already judged it safe to cross and were half a mile up the opposite cycle path, with no cars to be seen on the road. The long wait was frustrating, as the next section was the fastest of the route: a great, but underused, off-road path alongside the A1303 and, barring the crossing of Albert Road, a few driveways and occasional overgrown vegetation, usually completely free of hazards.

At the end of this long flat stretch (often enjoyable for the speed, but totally dispiriting when the wind was against me), I turned left into Bell Road and up the shared-use path into Bottisham.

And the frustrations: potential accident zones at the exit from the Park & Ride site, the riverside boardwalk and the end of the Quy tunnel under the A14..
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If I had been racing the 10A bus since crossing in front of it on Church Road, this is where I’d hope to meet it again, waving to my colleague through the window as I sped off down Tunbridge Lane in a last-ditch effort to beat him to the door of our office. This part of the route is marked by Sustrans as an on-road section, but the adjoining pavement is also shared-use with a short footbridge where cyclists are asked to dismount (a couple of years ago, a disgruntled cyclist had added the graffito ‘motorists get out and push’, but this has, sadly, since been removed). In reality, if using this path, it’s usually necessary to switch to the road at some point anyway in order to give way to pedestrians, as it’s fairly narrow all the way along, and often overgrown in summer.

Once into Swaffham Bulbeck, I’d cycle along the High Street, past the school and church, then left onto Station Road and left again into Downing Park and the converted barn where I worked. Only a handful of employees in this group of converted barns rode to work, but it did seem to be growing, even if some of them just lived in the village. A few Bottisham College students cycled out this way from Cambridge too, and a set of regulars commuted into the city from the villages, usually very friendly as the small number of cyclists using the route made it easy to recognise faces.

City cycling

The new journey of just over 4 miles normally takes 20-25 minutes, because of heavy traffic

Waving at fellow cyclists is of course completely impractical in a city like Cambridge, where around 25% of residents cycle to work, although I do occasionally recognise a few people who share sections of my new journey. I no longer enjoy the beauty of Stourbridge Common, but instead head straight for the Riverside cycle bridge by way of Chesterton High Street, Church Street and St Andrew’s Road. Turning left to cycle up River Lane, I cross Newmarket Road to Coldham’s Lane, then wait in the traffic to turn right into New Street. It’s rare for oncoming motorists to stop and let me through here, but then even rarer for those turning left from Newmarket Road with me not to try and overtake even though I am clearly signalling to move to the middle of the road and positioning myself assertively away from the kerb.

Best for speed: the cycle paths by the A1303 and along Hills Road.
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New Street always requires patience and careful judgement as the road is narrowed by its two long margins of parked cars and oncoming motorists are usually reluctant to slow down. The following two mini-roundabouts are better though; I go straight on at the first one and left at the second, and most of those entering the roundabout to the left of me considerately give way as expected. Now on Sturton Street, one of the quieter bits of the route, I enjoy seeing families with young children cycling to school, but find some sections are definitely due for resurfacing.

Cutting through to Kingston Street at the end of the road, I used to continue straight on and try to cross into Devonshire Road, but finding this often a frustrating process, have recently switched to the Hooper Street/Gwydir Street/St Barnabas Road alternative. The traffic lights here make the crossing a lot more civilised and less of a battle between cyclists, motorists and pedestrians all trying to head in different directions. St Barnabas Road is also a traffic-free haven compared to Devonshire Road, perhaps the reason why it’s another route popular with cycling families.

A lack of space on New Street.
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At the end of Tenison Road, I turn left into Station Road and am endlessly irritated at this point by the many left-turning taxis who hug the kerb 5 or 10 cars back in the queue, blocking cyclists from reaching the junction until each car has pulled out first. A quick right turn from Station Road takes me down Warren Close, a pleasant cut-through before the hurly-burly of Hills Road and its railway bridge. I avoided this route when I first started my new job because of concerns about the traffic and number of buses, but I prefer it now as it’s mostly a fast downhill and I’m used to the vagaries of the different, jostling road-users, although I still think each is much less respectful of the others than they ought to be. When the lights turn green at the bottom of the bridge it sometimes feels like the start of the Tour de France, with each member of the peloton reluctant to concede their advantage and the support vehicles also joining in the scramble. I await to see if things improve when the new cycle-friendly improvements are complete (see Your Streets This Month).

Best of city

Worst of city

Multiple routes to choose from Inconsiderate road-users
Well lit at all times of day Stop-start cycling
Better cycle infrastructure Heavy traffic
Shorter commute (for me anyway) Large lorries and buses
Wide variety of cyclists Narrow streets with too many parked cars

Claiming my place on the road

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There are a few things that irritate me about Hills Road: cars sticking too far out of side streets into the cycle lane is one legitimate complaint and slower cyclists in front of me are something I just have to learn to be patient with (although in an ideal world double-width cycle paths would be heaven!). However, the Addenbrooke’s roundabout at the end is much worse, living up to its nasty reputation with a high incidence of inconsiderate driver behaviour ranging from waiting in (or even ahead of) the red advance stop lines for cyclists to (my worst experience yet) a white van cutting across the roundabout by driving round it the wrong way. It’s always important to be aware of hazards, but a white van suddenly turning right onto the roundabout is certainly not one that can be predicted. Occasionally too, I have been shouted at to ‘get off the roundabout and use the cycle lane’ which is particularly annoying as there are actually several sections of cycle lane clearly painted on the roundabout itself.

Having safely navigated the roundabout, I continue straight on and turn right into Red Cross Lane, my final destination. Usually, if the traffic behind me is not too heavy, I wait in the middle of the road to turn, a practice which has been referred to as ‘brave’ by some of my colleagues who prefer to use the pedestrian crossing up here. Generally though, it’s just quicker and, as you’ll know by now, I like a fast journey (added to which, I am often running late!). This new journey of just over 4 miles normally takes 20-25 minutes, much more than half my old journey time (for a distance around twice as long), but then the frequent direction changes, heavy traffic and number of traffic lights (12 on this route) tend to have that effect. I did get to work in under 19 minutes on one occasion, but that was a Bank Holiday with joyfully quiet roads.

Routes home

For speed again, and variety, I use a different route home, turning right from the Addenbrooke’s roundabout and using the cycle lanes on Fendon, Mowbray and Perne Roads. In the mornings the pedestrian crossings are in frequent use, creating a very stop-start journey, but on the way home the stops are fewer and I prefer it to the Hills Road alternative. Most days, I turn left up Radegund Road and on to cross the Carter Bridge, bringing me back to Devonshire Road and Kingston Street, but sometimes I carry on to Sainsbury’s and cycle up Coldham’s Lane instead. The latter is definitely slightly quicker, but I find getting onto the railway bridge cycle lane quite awkward and woe betide any cyclist who dares to use the road (expect more shouting and beeping of horns).

This though, is the great advantage of urban cycling: when travelling such a distance there are multiple variations of route available, easily adjusted to a cyclist’s personal preference. Plus, I now cycle every day, all year round, something I didn’t do in the country because of the intimidating nature of the (mostly unlit) route on a winter’s night and the fact that sometimes, especially on windy days, eight miles felt less of a pleasure than a chore. So even though I do miss the speed, the friendly people and the beautiful countryside, I’m pretty happy with the way things are now. After all, I’m cycling more, saving money (on winter bus fares) and have a steady year-round level of fitness too.

Anna Williams