For a Californian who isn’t used to experiencing real seasons, spring in the UK is a wonderful time. Six long months of dull, overcast skies and seemingly lifeless trees and bare muddy ground- in the space of two weeks- yield to a sudden explosion of green lush fecundity- this year fueled by the warm and wet weather. Perhaps a result of climate change, it is nevertheless quite welcome after the bone chill of winter. Summer is right around the corner and the time is right for planning adventures and holidays. What’s that you say? Short of cash and concerned about the impact of your getaways on the environment? Don’t just sit home and mope- the time is ripe for bikepacking.
Bikepacking is a term coined by one of my heroes, Ken Kifer, a prolific writer and bikepacker based in Alabama. It’s a kind of a hybrid between backpacking and cycling, a particular breed of cycle touring where the rider is self sufficient, and independent of RV (caravan) parks, motels, and campgrounds. Find a field, or a spot in a forest, pitch your tent, prepare your evening meal, and enjoy. Of course, bikepacking requires a basic set of equipment, but once you have it, you are ready to go! There’s something so rewarding about cycling along the open road with everything you need, able to stop when you get tired, go to sleep when the sun sets, and rise when it does- as Sustrans says- bypass the bypass!
Last Friday, having finally submitted my dissertation, I needed to get out of the city, get some exercise and fresh air, and get back on my bike. I also wanted to see friends back in Bristol, so I decided to ride along the Kennet and Avon canal between Reading and Bristol, about 110 miles pedaled over three days, following this beautiful waterway through town centres, rural farming communities, tree lined banks with swans swimming gracefully, and the colorful narrowboats that are so quintessentially English. I camped in fields and forests, picnicked on benches along the way, drank pints of local ale in sunny pub gardens fronting the water, and followed the entire length of the canal, even when the official cycle route 4 diverted onto roads. I wasn’t going to be put off by directional signs based more on deals made with British Waterways, than on the actual suitability of the route. From my years working at Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, I can smell political compromise a mile away. The anglers and walkers didn’t seem to mind me cycling, though, as long as I was polite and used my bell.
The canal is a rare find, a state of mind far from the motorway grind and laughing in the face of the speed imperative of industrial society. Ironic then, that the canal network was the first transport system of the industrial revolution, built in the 1810’s to transport coal and other goods. On the canal, you can go as fast or as slow as you want- you can stop when you like, and if you have a houseboat or an equipped bikepack, your house is always with you. The towpaths make this kind of travel accessible to practically everyone- the ultimate way out of the city into the countryside. On the level, the bicycle- pure of heart and healthy for the lungs- reigns supreme.
The ultimate populist travel mode, independent of petrol prices and road congestion- no wonder Sustrans has had notable successes in their project of building a national cycle network- it’s the dream and the growing desire for continuous, safe, and enjoyable routes for human beings- what could be a more basic need, and yet one that has been sadly neglected by our growing addiction to cars.
The Kennet and Avon, though well surfaced in many sections, in parts is muddy, rocky, and difficult (though not impossible) to pedal. For the cost of a few metres of motorway, the whole 120 miles of canal between London and Bristol could be surfaced with all weather crushed stone, easy and pleasant for even your grandmother to pedal. Put in a campground every twenty miles with basic facilities of water and pit toilets, and suddenly you have a carbon neutral, healthy, and equitable means for urbanites to holiday away from the pollution and danger, and experience a bit of nature, a connection that has been denied to so many these days.
Though Ken Kifer was tragically killed by a drunk driver in a pickup in Alabama several years back, his website is still active and is, though cheesy at times, is a great resource for bikepackers. His murder by petrol and cheap beer should not depress us but inspire the spread of bikepacking to the masses, and make it one element of our transport related carbon reduction policies. It’s great that Sustrans is focusing on urban cycling routes, but they should not neglect the potential of a true national cycle network, following canals, and active and abandoned railways, to connect cities and towns throughout the UK, a quality network that is safe for young children and old people, a role that on-road routes will never fill, as long as there is the threat of Jeremy Clarkson rounding the bend at 80mph. We need to finish what we started and remember the original vision of CYCLEBAG- a continuous off road pathway network. Cycling is worth it!
At a time when most of the alternative methods of holidaying involve further damage to our climate, the time is ripe for packing up the saddlebags, calling in sick to your desk job, and pedaling into a better future where transport adds to community and quality of life, not detracts from it.