‘Go slowly – and enjoy the scenery!’ by Rob Fairbanks
This article was first published in the winter 2020-21 issue of our magazine Surrey Voice.
Since the pandemic the London-based explorer and campaigner Dan Raven Ellison has developed an idea called ‘Slow Ways’. It’s an ambitious project to create a network of walking routes between the country’s towns and cities, as well as linking thousands of villages. The idea is to get people walking between locations and promoting slower types of travel.
“Historically, footpaths were created for walking to work, visiting relatives or trading, but many routes have been forgotten. We want to reimagine them for use today,” Dan explains. “We have fantastic national trails and long-distance paths, and walking is important for so many reasons. There’s a climate, ecological, health and financial emergency, and walking can help reduce personal emissions, save money and bring joy. Life has slowed down in lockdown. Now people are reconnecting with their surroundings and discovering new things about the country. I hope Slow Ways will help them to continue to do this.”
Whilst most readers will welcome the growth in walking, the extensive footpath network is limited. There has been little investment in surfacing, maintenance or promotion and they are very much the poor relation compared with roads. Our footpaths also do not provide a resource for wheelchairs, equestrians or cyclists.
The Bicycle Association reported that Britons bought 60% more bikes in April as the nation turned to two-wheeled transport during the coronavirus lockdown. Steve Garidis, of the Bicycle Association, said: “It’s brilliant that the UK has been out buying and repairing their bikes under lockdown and E-bikes have the potential to make even longer or more hilly cycling commutes practical and enjoyable.” It’s reasonable to assume that less traffic on the roads has been a boon for cyclists. Research from the charity Cycling UK identified that the biggest barrier to people cycling is unsurprisingly road traffic and that the quieter roads has largely responsible for this growth in cycling. But how sustainable is this growth in cycling now we are seeing higher levels of car use returning to our roads?
In countries like Holland and Belgium where cycling has become a national pastime, they benefit from an extensive and well-maintained network of cycle routes away from roads. This is the ambition of Greenways. It’s a Cycling UK proposal that was presented to the Surrey Hills AONB Board this summer to create a network of multi-access routes for walking, family cycling, wheelchairs and equestrians.
Greenways are not about attracting more road cyclists. Road cyclists will always keep to roads. It is not about encouraging renegade mountain bikers who create trails over our woodlands, commons and heaths. Greenways are about getting cyclists off our busy Surrey roads onto a network of well- maintained gravel trails that can be shared with walkers, wheelchairs and horses, where appropriate, and to reduce conflict on the wider footpaths and bridleways.
Walking and cycling infrastructure investment in Surrey is still heavily focused on heavily engineered town centre schemes where there is limited opportunity to provide traffic free environments or links into the countryside and villages. The opportunity to invest in the surfacing, maintenance and promotion of a discreet network of bridleways, quiet (green) lanes and creating new permissive access could transform how residents and visitors access the Surrey Hills that would benefit their health and wellbeing. Such a network should also be part of the green economy, providing sustainable access to train stations, pubs and village shops.
The Surrey Hills team is working with Surrey County Council, Cycling UK and partners to demonstrate how this could work with the new Leith Hill Greenway. This is creating a 7 mile trail that includes new permissive access through Denbies Wine Estate and National Trust land, including accessing a tunnel under Ranmore Common Road. The next stage will be planning how Greenways can be rolled out across the Surrey Hills and connect with wider Surrey, London and the South Downs National Park.
Having better access to the countryside is only the start. Greenways should be the backbone of green corridors that also connect habitats as we embark on our slow journey to nature recovery.
Rob Fairbanks is Director of Surrey Hills AONB