Bicycle History, Bicycle Future


There were a few silver linings around the dark cloud of disappointment that had gathered after it became clear that my right knee didn’t share my ambitious tramping plans. One was my discovery of the Museum of Bicycle History in Camelford, an eccentric and wonderful collection of bicycles and memorabilia, housed in a former railway station, a fascinating example of rail infrastructure recycled into contemporary bicycle use.

I was on the Western Greyhound bus to Tintagel, where locals claim that the nearby castle ruins are those of Arthurian legend (though which now are used to lure tourists and sell cheap plastic swords in stones). After making a turn at the crossroads, I noticed several signs along the road: “Bicycle History Museum,” “Museum of Bicycle History,” and “ BICYCLE MUSEUM.”

Ding ding ding DING DING DING!!!! I rang the stop request bell and begged the driver to stop and let me out, and he obliged. The existence of this museum was a complete surprise to me, and I was thrilled that I had stumbled upon it. The museum is run by a older couple, John and Sue Middleton, who opened their collection of over 400 bicycles to the public in 1992 in the old railway depot at Camelford, a station left rail-less by the Beeching cuts in the 1960’s when the UK’s rail network was slashed mercilessly by shortsighted bureaucrats and the auto lobby.

Like a kid in a candy store, I spent the whole morning looking around the museum, and chatting with Sue about their amazing collection, and going through their library of cycling manuals, bicycles, and cycle clothing catalogs.


There are some remarkable bikes in the museum, including a von Drais velocipede hobby-horse from 1816- the precursor to the modern bicycle. A vast collection of accessories, oil lamps, clothing, books, signs and posters gives a real flavour of the history of the bicycle in Britain. In the background, historic bicycle songs played on a loop, like “a bicycle built for two” and Queen’s anthem “Bicycle race.”

There was something sad about the museum too. I was one of only three visitors the whole morning, even though hundreds of cars drove by the entrance. The whole place smelled of mildew, and it was obvious that a good part of the collection was threatened by leaks in the roof. Many of the items are irreplaceable- a critical cultural link to a past where quality was valued over quantity- where enjoyment of the journey was a superior aspiration than arriving in the shortest time possible.

Though Sue and John have kept the museum alive with a love of bicycle culture and history, as well as a good amount of their own money and time, this is a resource that ultimately needs to be supported by the government or foundations, or it will wither as surely as the railway network that has provided its home.

Compared with the gleaming brand new glitzy Transport Museum in London, the Bicycle Museum was run down, neglected, and almost forgotten, despite the best efforts of its owners. A reflection of current transport policy and how cycling has been rejected by successive governments influenced by the road lobby, the museum now requires an influx of cash to preserve the collection and ensure its future. This is a jewel in the rough whose time has come to be polished and promoted. If you know anyone with a large trust fund who is enamoured of bicycle culture, there is a great opportunity here. They could also use a volunteer web designer and webmaster, and a marketing specialist (at the very least to sort out a consistent name and logo).

A beautiful and lush garden has been planted where the platforms and the rails once stood- where, prior to the vicious Beeching cuts, travellers said their tearful goodbyes and young Cornish men departed for two world wars, some of them for the last time. The right of way has been largely lost, which is unfortunate for all of us- but particularly a loss for the local community who could now be benefiting from the visitors that the nearby Camel Trail (built on the same abandoned branch line) attracts.

Continuous and integral
rights-of-way are so crucial to transport systems- they are like humpty dumpty- once one building has been erected the whole line loses value. Thanks to the railbanking law in the states, there is a framework to preserve abandoned rail lines for non-motorised or future rail use. In sixties Britain, there was no such law and often valuable and irreplaceable level, direct rights-of-way became part of adjacent gardens, new housing developments or- god forbid- car parks.

Like the train, the bicycle has been neglected by the dominance of the automobile. However, while the main rail lines in the UK have been recording increasing ridership as frustrated drivers flee the congested roads, the increase in cars has intimidated all but the bravest souls from cycling for transport, a habit that has been decreasing in most places outside of London.

The museum was like a phantom, an eerie reminder of the historic partnership between rail and pedal. While I ate lunch, a future vision hovered over the sunny garden: tourists coming from all over the UK by train and by bike using a revitalised national cycle/rail network- as complete and maintained as the roads, a rebirth of community and good health, and a departure from corporate dominance of transport policy and addiction to vehicles that make you fat, weak, and unhappy.

Like faithful friends who watch over you knowingly as you throw your life away on cheap excesses, the bicycle and the train wait patiently in the wings for humanity to re-discover what we have forsaken in the rush to mufflers, asphalt, broken glass and petrol. In the crisis to come, there will be a second bicycle renaissance, and then we’ll be glad for the Middletons and their glorious obsession with all things bicycle.

Next Post: in which Josh discovers the Bicycle History Museum’s Gift Shop, cruises to the Camelford ATM on a borrowed Schwinn girl’s bike with ape bars, and rapes his bank account to fund his own obsession with bicycle history….

Photos courtesy http://kimbofo.typepad.com/ and http://www.bbc.co.uk/cornwall/uncovered/bikegallery.shtml

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13 responses to “Bicycle History, Bicycle Future

  1. Inspiring post.

    Thank you.

  2. I guess one of the problems that the Bicycle Museum has is the same as that of the former railway station which is now its home – its remoteness (1.5 miles) from Camelford itself and from other tourist attractions in the area (e.g. Tintagel, Boscastle). It’s basically in the middle of nowhere. Now if it was in Padstow , Wadebridge or even Bodmin with direct access from the Camel Trail then I think its fortunes might be very different.

    Unfortunately the old railway line from Wadebridge to Camelford (and on to Launceston) is too remote and ownership too fragmented to justify creating a Railway Path along it.

  3. onthelevelblog

    Thanks for the comment Chris, though I disagree that it’s not worth creating a path between Wadebridge and Launceston. I believe we need a TRUE national cycle network that uses all active and disused railways and canals in the country to create a seamless network. Sustrans’ policy of choosing only selected sections of rail line to convert to pathways has created an “attraction” out of these traffic-free paths rather than incorporating them into everyday life all over the country, resulting in more people using cars to access facilities that are unique because of their lack of cars….hmmm..

    Having level, direct well paved cycle paths will be critical in the future to move people and goods when motor transport is no longer economical, feasible, or practical for everyday transport.

  4. I’m as reluctant as anyone to say that a particular disused railway is not worth converting to a cycling/walking route, but we have to be a little pragmatic.

    I actually carried out a survey (for North Cornwall Council) of the Wadebridge to Delabole (near Camelford) section of that line about 20 years ago. Firstly the line doesn’t connect with any significant population centres (other than Wadebridge) nor any significant tourist attractions (as mentioned above). Secondly several important structures (bridges over major roads, embankments, cuttings) have been removed. Thirdly that section of the line was in about 36 different ownerships, most of whom would be local farmers and residents who could be expected to resist public access. A similar situation would exist on from Delabole to Launceston.

    It would be a major project (including unpopular compulsory purchase orders) to recreate a continuous route with only marginal benefits, given how sparsely populated the catchment area is. How could such an investment of resources be justified when the same resources could be used to achieve so much more elsewhere?

  5. An interesting discussion that I’ve come to a bit late.

    Wadebridge and Launceston each have populations of over 6000 and over 7000 respectively. I find it hard to believe that the Dutch would not provide a decent quality cycle route between two places so large as this.

    I took a photo a few months back of a cycle path near here which goes to Loon, a village of just 280 people. It’s wide, smooth, direct and a pleasure to use. The photo is here:

    http://www.camcycle.org.uk/map/location/13742/

    This is, of course, exactly what is required to make cycling an easy choice of transport for the majority. You’ve got to be able to easily get to any location. The network needs to be complete and also easy and pleasant to use. This needs to apply wherever you’re heading for, including to small villages.

    The outcome of the British way of simply not bothering to provide such links is that the cycling rate in the UK is amongst the lowest in the world.

  6. It’s never too late, David. I had a look at the helpful link you provided, especially the satellite views of the map. It’s clear that the path in question is provided as an integral part of the highway corridor, parallel to the motor road, rather than being a stand alone path which is what we are talking about in Cornwall. It’s chalk and cheese I’m afraid.

    Besides which it’s interesting to note that the separate cycle path disappears when it reaches the actual built-up village, where the provision of a separate path would be almost as problematical as in the UK, only to reappear at the other side when open countryside and a broad highway corridor (between drainage ditches) is reached.

    So I for one remain unconvinced that the Dutch are routinely tackling the kind of difficult situations, where spare land is not readily available within the highway, that we have almost everywhere in the UK. In the village of Loon cyclists appear to share the road but presumably with a lower speed limit (30 kph?), which is a more pragmatic approach for us to take too.

    I’m also curious to know what it might cost, per head of population, to provide such a path over several kilometres to a village of just 280 people. I can’t believe it would be cost effective unless almost everyone routinely cycled, which I dare say they do in the Netherlands, but not here, by a long chalk (just to mention chalk again!).

  7. Yes, this particular path is next to the road, but there are also many examples here of paths which go through the countryside far from the road. e.g. this one, which is much longer than what you’re talking about and doesn’t even link two places by any particularly obvious means:

    http://www.camcycle.org.uk/map/location/13383/

    In fact in this case it’s paralleled by two other perfectly decent wide and smooth paths within a few hundred metres, but that doesn’t mean this one isn’t provided as well.

    As for disappearing within the village. Loon, like all villages, has a 30 km/h speed limit throughout. Unless there is a lot of traffic you usually ride on the road with the cars where the speed limit is just 30 km/h. However, outside the village motorists are allowed to drive somewhat faster (probably 60 km/h – I’ve not checked) and that is why there’s a path there.

    There is already a decent route provided here by bike to _every_ location. No exceptions at all. That includes small villages like Loon. It’s not just a few disconnected paths but a very comprehensive network. As a result, riding a bike is always an acceptable way for anyone to get to any location.

    They’ve not only done the easy things. If you want to see a more difficult location transformed for cycling, take a look here:

    http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=VDSmfhpV3no

    Until last year this was one of the main roads into the city centre for drivers. When we were looking for somewhere to live, this road looked “too busy” for us. It’s now been transformed into a “bicycle road” where cyclists have priority at all times. Residents are still allowed access for their cars, but they no longer have a through route and are not allowed to park on the road. Where this road meets the dual carriageway ring-road of the city, there used to be a crossing with traffic lights but that’s gone.

    This provides an important direct route from a new housing estate on the edge of the city to the centre and people must be given no excuses not to cycle. The solution which they came up with, for maximum comfort for cyclists, was to build a bridge to carry the dual carriageway over the cycle path so that the cycle path could continue on the level. That is just one of 5 new bridges built for this route. The driving route has a few sets of traffic lights on it, the cycling route is shorter and has none.

    This is how you encourage people living in the 6000 new homes in the new estate to cycle to the centre instead of drive.

    It was built specifically to benefit a similar number of people as we’re discussing near Launceston.

    Land is no easier to come across here. Remember that the Netherlands is a crowded country with double the population density of the UK and cities here are just as old and have just as narrow roads. There are just as many “difficult situations”, but they’re dealing with them. Ditches can be moved very easily.

    I can’t easily tell you what any individual path cost. However, the overall cost is 27 Euros per person per year (+ a fair bit extra from developers). That’s what is spent on new infrastructure here. It is seen as cost effective and the Dutch occasionally refer to their cycling infrastructure as having an overall positive fiscal benefit.

    The only thing that is truly chalk and cheese is the difference in attention to cyclists needs being given by the governments in the two countries.

    Come and see it for yourself. I’d be very happy to show you around and I very much doubt you’d still be unconvinced when you returned home. It works very well here, and the evidence of this is all around in the numbers of people choosing to cycle.

    I understand that there is an element of “Catch-22″, in that choosing to spend on cycling may not seem worthwhile when few people cycle. However, unfortunately the UK is still not yet doing even the easy stuff in those few locations where there a relatively high amount of cycling (e.g. Cambridge where I lived for most of the past 20 years).

  8. Launceston and Wadebridge are almost 50 kms apart. The old railway meanders through remote and exposed hills, climbing to a summit of around 260 metres. Even from the Launceston direction that’s a 200 metre climb, so although the old railway gradients are moderate (1 in 40 ish) the climbs go on and on for many miles.

    With respect I don’t think the Netherlands have anything to compare with that. It’s hardly the sort of cycle trip you might undertake for utilitarian purposes. A return trip of 100 kms with a total of almost 500 metres of climb would be a major expedition for most people, only to be undertaken in good weather.

    Even if the whole railway formation remained in public ownership one might doubt the cost effectiveness of creating a cycle path, but with the line sold off piecemeal to perhaps 100 individual landowners it really is one for the back burner if not the long grass.

  9. Back in the 70s and 80s I lived in New Zealand. Many minor roads were gravel and tarmac was reserved for those roads where it was “cost effective”.

    On returning to the UK (I left at the age of seven, returned at the age of 15) I was amazed that the roads in the UK were all asphalted, even to small villages. It seemed like a very expensive thing to have done to benefit just a few people.

    In reality, of course, it was simply providing a decent level of road surface for all car journeys. Something which is generally thought to be worth doing.

    The Netherlands has taken the further step of making every village accessible in comfort by bike. It’s the same thing in principle, and there is absolutely no reason why the UK shouldn’t also do this.

    50 km does not seem like a long distance to me. Besides, in the case you are talking about there are other places along the route which would also benefit. Many children here do 40 km round trips to school by bike every day, and this path could provide a suitable route for British children to do the same thing.

    Back in 2006 I cycled from Land’s End to John o’Groats. There is some quite good competition for “worst road of the journey”, but one of the least pleasant roads that I cycled on was definitely the A30 NE from Bodmin. After a few near-misses with trucks we left the main road and took a very indirect and difficult to navigate route on minor roads which went directly up and down hills with alarming gradients, anything up to 1 in 4. Nice and scenic, but progress was somewhat slowed by the dire conditions for cycling.

    A properly constructed Launceston to Wadebridge cycle path would have provided a very good alternative – especially with those easy gradients you refer to.

    By avoiding both the hills and the traffic, it could prove to be quite popular. Cornwall is hard work to cycle in. I would have thought this to be just the sort of shot in the arm that is needed.

    In practice, between one end of the country and the other I found there were only a very few short sections of cycle path which were even slightly useful. That’s the standard of cycling provision in the UK now. However, it doesn’t have to be like that.

    I’m currently planning a ride all around the circumference of the Netherlands. This ride will be almost entirely on cycle paths because I know in advance that even those I’ve not been near before will meet the standards and be suitable for use.

    Perhaps this particular route isn’t the sort of easy thing to do that Britain ought to do first on a limited budget. However, if serious efforts had been started 30 years ago, I suspect this would by now have reached the top of the list. Sadly, it seems that even the easy things aren’t happening there yet.

    The Netherlands did start seriously 30 years ago and has already done _all_ the easy stuff. Also many of the more difficult (politically or due to extensive infrastructure being required) things are done too.

    There is a will that this should be the case. That’s the difference.

  10. “Besides, in the case you are talking about there are other places along the route which would also benefit.”

    Well actually no there aren’t. With the exception of Delabole the few villages along the route are remote from the old railway, both horizontally and vertically (e.g. Camelford as discussed above). That’s why the route failed as a railway. Competing bus services gave much better access to the towns and villages.

    There are already other possibilities for cycling between Wadebridge and Launceston apart from the A30(T). I haven’t got time to check out the detail but one can be quite confident that a good route on quiet country lanes can be devised (although surprisingly Sustrans don’t seem to have bothered to do so, although their NCN3 runs from Wadebridge to Bude).

    The grades on country lanes will be steeper but scenically they tend to be much more attractive than old railway paths, which often tend to become monotonous green tunnels beyond which it’s difficult to see.

    In remote areas like North Cornwall traffic levels will be very low and speeds could be managed to make such lanes extremely attractive for cycling. That’s a far more cost effective approach than building long distance fully segregated cycle paths.

  11. I also don’t have time to work out exactly what is where in Cornwall along this route. However, between these two places there are about a dozen villages which the route must get somewhere close to. IMO, it’s the principle of routes like this which is more important.

    It’s true that traffic levels in North Cornwall are low, but it’s also true that the cycling rate is very low. You can try to manage speeds, but how successful will you be and how much of a difference will this make to perceptions ?

    It’s the same old story. You get the first 1% of cyclists – those cyclists that Britain already has – without doing anything. They’re so keen they’ll put up with any conditions.

    However, as you wish to grow the percentage of people cycling, it has to be made progressively more easy to navigate, more convenient and subjective safety has to improve sharply.

    When route planning is difficult, the gradients are large and traffic is either bad or a bit of an unknown then you have a number of reasons why people won’t be queuing up to make journeys by bike themselves. They won’t be encouraging their kids or other loved ones to make journeys by bike either.

    This, on the other hand, would offer a very convenient route for at least some journeys. It may not be the most scenic route, but it doesn’t have to be. In general, people select routes for convenience, not scenery. If they didn’t, the motorways would be empty.

    I did quite a bit of paid cycle campaigning work right across the country a few years back and the two top reasons people would give for not cycling were that were scared off by the traffic or concerned about hills. The hills excuse is often a bit of a red herring in that many parts of the UK are quite flat. However, in Cornwall the hills are genuinely a problem.

    This type of path makes a good stab at solving both those problems at once, and dealing with easy of navigation at the same time. This usefully removes excuses not to cycle.

    If you don’t provide routes like this then you risk preserving the conditions which cause cycling to be an activity for just a small minority of the population.

  12. OK, this is definitely my last comment on this thread, ‘cos I said just about everything at least once – except this…..

    Suppose you are the head honcho of North Cornwall Council or whatever it’s called these days. You have £1 million to spend on cycling. Do you –

    (a) blow it on 10 kilometres of remote railway path somewhere between Wadebridge and Launceston,

    (b) spend it on 100 kilometres of rural cycle route based on country lanes with new links where required to avoid major roads and other hazards,

    (c) or invest it wisely on key links within the population centres to create safe, attractive routes to the shops, schools, colleges and work places?

  13. They say that money is the root of all evil…

    I know you’re only guessing here, and you don’t specify a time-frame, but if they really do have a million pounds a year to spend on infrastructure, they’re actually doing very much better than average in the UK.

    There are 86000 people in North Cornwall so £1M would work out as £11 per person. That’s about half the Dutch rate for infrastructure and enough to make a good start at getting things done.

    If funding was really at that level then all the easy hits that you talk about in options (c) and (b) could be could be sorted out in a few years and the (a) style infrastructure might also start looking attractive to fund.

    However, I suspect that in reality North Cornwall doesn’t actually have anything like that amount of money budgeted for cycling infrastructure.

    A few years ago it was revealed in Cambridge that Cambridgeshire had allocated just 0.6% of the budget for “cycleways, footpaths, safer routes to school”. ( http://www.camcycle.org.uk/newsletters/63/article9.html )

    That’s just £4M to be stretched over 5 years. Given Cambridgeshire’s population of around 760000, this works out as a mere £1 per person per year. And remember that not all of that is for cycling. Given that it’s spread between things other than cycling, cycling is probably lucky to get any more than 50 pence per person per year.

    A Mars bar size budget.

    That’s the problem. With such a budget you can never progress beyond doing minor works and you probably can’t do a very good job of those either.

    The result of this lack of funds is that we’re stuck with an environment which isn’t attractive enough ever to result in mass cycling and have no means to do anything about it. That’s really what this discussion has been about. If the funding was already adequate you would have no reason to be asking for the lesser things to be done instead of “blowing it” on one project.

    It’s fixable if we really want it to be. There isn’t really a lack of money as the transport budgets are huge. However, there is a lack of political will to put enough of that money into cycling to make a difference.

    At the moment they’re still getting away with fooling people with announcements of relatively small amounts.

    This continues with the Cycling England funding of £140M for three years. Divide the initially impressive sounding figure by 3 years and again by the population of the country and you’ve another Mars bar budget.

    Go back up to the top and you read that “the increase in cars has intimidated all but the bravest souls from cycling for transport”. Quite true – and it’ll continue while cycling isn’t valued.

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