Rob Ainsley visits the British town that inspired Holland
My kind of New Town, Stevenage is. Rob Ainsley celebrates its overlooked cycleways
“Enjoy gliding painlessly through town traffic- and signal-free, as if in a parallel Dutchspeaking universe”
Quiz question. Name Britain’s famously old New Town, which, despite a large segregated bike network, has only UK-average levels of cycling – just 3 per cent. Milton Keynes, right? With the concrete cows and its underused Redways? Where the typical bike-route instruction is ‘Straight on at the next 11 roundabouts’? Nope: Stevenage. With Britain’s tallest street lights and its underused cycleways. Where the typical bike-route instruction is ‘Straight on at the next seven underpasses’.
Because the flatpack Hertfordshire town was assembled in those optimistic post-war years with a pioneering bike system. The 12-foot-wide, smooth, comprehensive, car-free grid of cycle paths enabled baby-boom families to shuttle safely and easily between school, shops, work and affordable home.
Several stretches resemble the Netherlands. You could be in Almere, say, built in the 1970s on reclaimed land, and partly inspired by Stevenage. Yes, they learned from us then. But since, the Dutch have raced on to become the world’s cycling capital, while we’ve done little more than a wobbly track stand.
Stevenage’s cycleways were down to local traffic engineer Eric Claxton. An everyday cyclist, he was keen to empower everyone to get about healthily and happily without using a car as a “shopping basket or an overcoat”. Unfortunately, he also installed a smooth, flowing, signal-free road system, so everyone used their Minis and Austin 1100s as shopping baskets and overcoats instead.
The bike network remains, not always well-lit but fairly smooth. But as the place grew into retailparked science centre cum London dormitory, the cycleways didn’t. Now they simply stop where Old New Town meets New New Town.
So today it’s only half a cycle network. Stay at the Premier Inn and you can ride from the train station without a metre on road; stay at the Novotel and you’re abruptly thrown onto a fast dual carriageway and face an evil roundabout with A1(M) traffic. Similarly, the Wetherspoon pub in the ‘Old Town’ is bikeable traffic-free; the Wetherspoon in the New New Town demands you dismount and walk. That legacy bike matrix can still magic carpet you around from the centre into the agreeable surrounding back lanes and villages. Enjoy a curious, almost unique, experience: gliding painlessly through town traffic – and signal-free, as if in a parallel Dutch-speaking universe, the chaotic lattice of roadways so near yet so far, and then – abruptly, as if flicking a switch – finding yourself in the countryside.
At last Stevenage council is acknowledging the value of its inheritance, if its 2018 cycling strategy is to be believed. It’s like someone who thought their grandparent had bequeathed a worthless daubed stick-man painting in the attic, only to realise it’s a Lowry.
Hindsight is always 20/20, goes the aphorism. Well, the new decade of the 2020s can be one of similarly good vision. Roads will get more congested. Society is ageing and will need communities designed around local shopping with flat, trafficfree access to amenities for our e-bikes, wheelchairs, wheelie cases and so on – as well as child buggies and bikes for young families. Eric could see that, and his rose-tinted specs don’t disqualify the clarity of his vision. Britain’s original New Town had a false biking start; in my view, it was merely ahead of its time. And its time will come. Let Almere inspire us.
Explore Stevenage on two wheels. Glimpse not the past, but the future. Just don’t expect too much of the ‘Old’ Town. One alley, plus a traditional hardware shop with an impressive forecourt display of electric mowers, is about as bygone-era as it gets. But we had a fine time cycling this oldest of New Towns.
Rob wrote the Bluffer’s Guide to Cycling and 50 Quirky Bike Rides. He’s collecting international End to Ends; yorkshireridings. blogspot.com.