Countryside campaigner, Colin Speakman looks at the issues surrounding greater access to cyclists to the Dales and calls for co-operation on all sides.

MEMBERS of the Ramblers Association, not just in Yorkshire, are up in arms about a campaign that the national cycling organisations are pursuing to open more off-road routes in the countryside for cycle use.

Most of the time cyclists and walkers are very much on the same side – fighting to protect the countryside, including National Parks, and for public access. Both are wonderful, health-giving activities which benefit hugely from natural beauty, fresh air and wide open landscapes. The recent spectacular growth in both on-road and off-road cycling – mountain biking – is a phenomenon of our time. Indeed, it might even be argued that for many younger people, cycling now represents a more exciting outdoor activity than hiking over moorland and mountain. Every Sunday morning, Dales roads – to the annoyance of some motorists – are filled with brightly clad groups of cyclists, many of them members of cycling clubs from towns and cities in West Yorkshire and Lancashire, out for a day of fresh air and good company. Just as walkers help local Dales businesses by spending money on accommodation and refreshment, cyclists are now major contributors to the Dales economy.

The problem has come as the main national body representing the interests of cycling in the countryside, Cycling UK, has launched a campaign to increase and improve off-road cycling opportunities. They point out that less than a quarter of the public rights of way in England have a right to cycle along them. These are public bridleways and byways, including many of the historic green lanes and unsurfaced tracks in the Yorkshire Dales.

But what has infuriated the Ramblers is the suggestion that cyclists should be allowed to use many of England’s 146,000 kilometres of public footpath for cycling. To quote Cycle UK “if most English footpaths were opened for cycling, it could more than triple the mileage currently available to cyclists in the countryside.”

This is a suggestion that horrifies many ramblers. Narrow, steep and winding footpaths, often, in the Dales, with dozens of narrow stiles, might, for some cyclists, present an exciting challenge, but would for many walkers, represent conflict and disturbance, especially on steep slopes where walkers can feel threatened by fast moving cyclists. Where this occurs on bridleways or byways, there is usually sufficient space for walkers and cyclists to pass, but walkers claim that a bike can still come behind you swiftly and silently. The very threat of a fast cyclist can spoil the peace and tranquillity many walkers seek in the countryside. There is also the danger of erosion and damage, especially on steeper or less well drained paths.

Naturally Cycling UK suggests such problems can be mitigated by “good design” though how this would apply to historic paths is not clear. They suggest that there should be a series of criteria to follow, including asking cyclists to respect other users. But what has concerned the Ramblers is the presumption that use of footpaths by cyclists should be the norm unless there is a presumption not to do so for reason of ecology or potential conflict. The Ramblers think otherwise.

The situation has escalated to a point when formal resolutions are now being taken from RA Groups and Areas such as West Riding Ramblers, to RA National Council, with Ramblers, no doubt supported by many landowners, farmers and estate managers, resisting any change in the present law that restricts off-road cycling to public bridleways and byways.

Existing highway law does permit the upgrading of public paths to bridleways or even byways for cyclists, horseriders and even motorised users if such ancient rights can be shown to have existed, and landowners can agree to allow cyclists to use a footpath on land in their ownership, but conversely a local authority can restrict such usage by a Traffic Regulation Order, if, for example user conflict or ecological damage is occurring.

Where ramblers and cyclists can agree to work together, however, is in calling for more routes in the countryside to take walkers, horseriders and cyclists away from dangerous roads. The new stretch of cycleway, for example, alongside the A65 between Austwick and Clapham, now forms part of the popular Roses Link cycle route. There are other areas where a short stretch of new cycleway can create through off-road links between existing bridleway routes. The key might be to create what is known as braiding – separate strips for walkers and cyclists/equestrians.

This way, everyone gains – the walker has an additional route, often easier to walk along, especially for those with disabilities, and better drained than nearby field or moorland paths; the cyclist has a new off-road route.

An outstanding example of how this has worked well in the Yorkshire Dales National Park is the new Pennine Bridleway National Trail, where existing routes have been improved and enhanced and new sections of route created, including a fine new bridge across the Ribble near Selside.

This is by far the best way forward – not controversial and divisive changes in legislation, but piecemeal local deals involving all parties – walkers, horseriders, cyclists, farmers, countryside managers or rangers and landowners, basically to thrash out a deal which benefits everyone, in which there are winners, not losers. Naturally this may involve some compromise – maybe even a short stretch of former footpath where cyclists now flash past - but if there is an overall gain, few walkers or cyclists will complain.

It’s about achieving mutual understanding, not confrontation.