Making tracks

The recent announcement that the Government is investing £12 million to support cycling in National Parks is good news indeed.  All too often over the years, politicians have said how important walking and cycling are, yet have consistently failed to back the fine words with hard cash.

This increased investment comes at a time when there has been a resurgence in cycling over a number of years, but which has really taken off with the success of Bradley Wiggins and our other Olympians last summer.  Not only will it be good for public health and the environment, investing in cycling in the National Parks will be good for the local economy too.

Already in the South Downs National Park, there are a number of initiatives looking at the feasibility of improving cycling.  One of these is SHORTcut (Sussex and Hampshire Off Road Road Track) which is a local registered charity which has been established to promote and develop a new Greenway track for walkers, cyclists and horse riders.

It’s looking at a route along the old railway line from Petersfield Train station to Midhurst.  The track would be almost completely off road and ideal for children and families to use.

Further east, Brighton & Hove City Council is looking to improve links to Stanmer Park and ultimately to Ditchling Beacon along Ditchling Road.

While all of these projects are in their early stages, they offer a real opportunity to significantly increase access to and within the National Park for families wanting to leave their cars at home.  They can also become attractions in their own right as can be seen by the success of the Monsal Trail in the Peak District.  Closer to home the popularity of Centurion Way and the Cuckoo Trail highlight the demand that there is for better cycle facilities.  Hopefully, these are just the beginning.

We must seize this opportunity with both hands.  At the moment cycle provision is ad-hoc and fragmented.  Getting a few projects off the ground to show hows things could be might be the catalyst that is needed to inspire further improvements.  The more these can be linked up, the more popular and viable they will become.  Let’s hope the Park Authority is both bold and ambitious in helping to take this forward.

Down Your Way

This year has seen the 40th anniversary of the South Downs Way.  It is one of only 13 National Trails which exist in some of England’s finest countryside and the only trail to be wholly within a National Park.  Over the years it has been a great success, with many thousands of people using it every year on foot, bike or horseback.  Indeed it is one of the most popular National Trails, being easily accessible and running along the spine of the South Downs from Eastbourne to Winchester with great views along its whole length.  At weekends it can became particularly busy and is popular with charities and events organisers.

The official South Downs Way National Trail guide was written by Paul Millmore, one of the first people in modern times to call for a National Park, and a key member of the South Downs Network.  He’d just completed his latest revision before his untimely death earlier this year.  The guide provides a wealth of information about the area, its history and local contacts and facilities.

As to what the future holds for the South Downs Way is uncertain.  It undoubtedly is popular and is good for people’s health and well-being, but it also supports the local economy.  It draws people to the area who then spend money in shops, pubs, on campsites, farms, B&Bs, hotels, etc.  Yet with a number of pubs and other local community assets under threat from property speculators, will the trail remain the attractive proposition it is now if these are lost?  That’s not to say things are perfect and cannot change, but the future viability of the South Downs Way and community facilities nearby are somewhat interlinked.  Therefore it is imperative that both are taken seriously and properly supported at all levels.

At a national level, there appears to be uncertainty over the future of Natural England, the champions, if you like, of National Trails at present.  At the same time, Natural England is looking at devolving the responsibility of National Trails to local authorities.  With the South Downs Way being wholly within the South Downs National Park that may be less of an issue, but funding could still be a problem.  Overall funding levels may reduce and unless the National Park Authority is given the money directly, money spent on maintaining and promoting the trail may fall considerably.

While the future is uncertain, with the advent of the National Park and the current popularity of the South Downs Way, this National Trail, at least, is likely to be around for us all to enjoy for some considerable time yet.