On the towpath
by Martin King


...run softly 'til I end my song...

Water is a real people magnet and I'm no exception. Even better, I can combine the soul-soothing action of watching a river flow by with a good bike ride. Too good to be true? Not always. On a cold winter's day I sometimes get the tow paths of rivers and canals pretty much to myself. A bit of sun and the less hardy turn out too, putting cyclists in the minority and in danger of being considered 'a problem'. Sharing is the answer, of course. Let's keep the public sweet on cyclists. How to coexist with a smile, or nothing worse than a scowl, that's the thing. Please learn from my mistakes.

First up, do pedestrians even know we are there? The answer is often, simply, No. I didn't use a cycle bell for many years. Instead, I shouted "Excuse me, please!" Suitable and polite, surely? It worked sometimes. Occasionally it gave people such a surprise, after I arrived silently behind them, that they jumped about three feet into the air! Laugh? Of course we all laughed, but I think they resented me for it. Riding a fixie with just the one brake lever leaves plenty of space on the bars for a bell. Add kudos by getting a vintage one. Go on, it's not as goofy as you think. Ding, ding.

More hazardous than the day-dreaming walker is the man being led by his dog. Modern technology has given us many advances. How can a pet pooch be on the leash and a blessed nuisance at the same time? Easy, when Fido has an ultra long, extending dog lead. It's not the dog's fault. He doesn't know he's trailing a trip wire between himself and his owner. So far I've managed to avoid testing the ultimate tensile strength of these contraptions, but there've been some close calls. The confrontational challenge I issued to one idiot dog walker, "Do you know you're blocking the whole road?" could have been improved on. How about, "Please keep your dog to one side of the trail". If you fancy something spicier, "Hey, you're risking you're dog's neck", could be a good theme. Just don't go for the jugular.

This is not about taking sides. If you're an inconsiderate rider don't expect me to defend you because I won't. Places signed 'No Cycling' are generally where space is so constrained that walkers and cyclists can't safely pass by. The elegant barrage across the Thames at Richmond has two narrow footways. Why one is permanently closed, forcing everybody together, I don't know. I can feel a letter coming on. Meanwhile, while leisurely pushing your bike over, enjoy the engineering and the eddies in the water.

Take an interest in the tracks and trails near you. Encouragement of cycling is on the agenda. Our money is being spent by authorities who want to be seen to be green. Great. Tell those in a position of influence what matters to you. A letter still seems to be the best way to get a politician to regard your views as serious. Hey, support the Post Office too!

I hope you get as much fun as me from your local waterways. Please remember to share them with all comers. They're one of the best resources for a bit of air and exercise we've got.


Martin King is an ex IT network projects manager looking for another way to earn a living. He can be contacted at his own site -- no bikes, just smooth newts and some British social history.

v1.0 written May 2006

Martin has an article about riding the Wey Navg'n here.

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