Cycling enthusiast Norman shares his joy of discovering the National Cycle Network later in life and explains why he’s chosen to support Sustrans.
Norman plans his next trip on the National Cycle Network.
I lived in California for 32 years, and have only been back in the UK for just over three.
California is a beautiful place with lovely scenery and great walks, but it’s not great by bike.
If anyone has any doubts, cycling in the USA doesn’t hold a candle up to the outstanding riding available in this country.
Here, we can ride lanes and canal paths, through woods and across farmland, on city cycling superhighways, across all kinds of parks, along the back of beaches.
I've been entirely blown away with the cycling routes I’ve returned to, and so I’ve made it my mission to cover as many miles of the National Cycle Network (the Network) as I can.
Getting out with e-bike power
I first got an e-bike - a Moustache Samedi FS 7, for those interested - so that I didn’t have to keep getting off on the inclines around home.
I live in the Surrey Hills AONB, which is great on the eyes but not on the legs.
Alongside the hill support, my e-bike means I can cover three to four times more distance than without, and still get an adequate workout and have an absolute blast in the process.
Now with my trusty e-bike at my side, I’ve been taking trains to explore the Network, using local hotels as a base.
From these bases, I set out on day-rides to cover as much of the National Cycle Network as I can.
Since October 2020, I’ve managed to ride pretty much every mile of the Network in England and Wales below a line from Lancaster to Alnmouth.
Last trip, I managed to cover 700 miles of the North East in 10 days, which I was pleased with.
I was still ready for more, but thought my legs might appreciate a rest.
The National Cycle Network and my health
I’m now 72 and my physical health seems in pretty good shape, and I find myself in great spirits most of the time.
There can be no doubt that riding is good for mental health.
Every one of my trips is in new territory, and it’s quite a challenge, a puzzle even, to plan them and ride unfamiliar routes.
Because of the number of unknowns on a day-ride, and what I will or won’t be able to achieve, I only plan a ride on the eve.
I usually ride alone, which I find the best way to take everything in, distraction-free.
What makes a ride for me is not just the scenery, the towns and villages I pass through.
It’s the people I come across and engage in a greeting or a conversation, especially if I need a tip for a café or am utterly disorientated (which is not infrequent).
Every day on a trip I get approached by strangers and asked about my bike, typically from older folks who are “thinking about getting an e-bike”.
Needless to say I’m a strong and enthusiastic advocate, and end up getting some very positive feedback indeed.
Padstow sits at the western end of the Camel Trail, a largely traffic-free route from the north coast of Cornwall. Credit: Wendy Johnson.
My highlights from the Network
I’ve loved far too many routes to name all of them, but the ones which stand out are the Camel Trail from Bodmin to Padstow, the clifftop path between Folkestone and Dover (Chalk and Channel Way), and riding the Dartmoor Way.
Last summer, I visited Barnstaple in North Devon.
This latter route took me within sight of the family-run Hocking’s Ice Cream in Appledore, a real reward for my miles that day.
These cycle trips leave me feeling like a massive dose of good cheer has been injected into my soul.
I’ve returned from some rides overwhelmed with the utter beauty I've experienced.
Possibly my funniest anecdote from the Network occurred on National Cycle Network Route 6 where it uses the towpath of the Grand Union Canal.
A fisherman had set himself up for a peaceful day on a stool on the path about two feet from where I had to pass.
To get through, I decided to tiptoe the bike along.
As I passed alongside this poor soul, I tried to plant a foot to steady myself, but there was nothing there.
I keeled over right on top of him.
We found ourselves with this heavy e-bike on top of us, and were pinned together in an unintended embrace for more than a few seconds.
Between us, we eventually got ourselves and the bike back into vertical orientation.
Fortunately, my fisherman friend took the whole escapade well, and we parted company on happy enough notes.
About 200 yards later I started laughing, and always do when recalling the scene.
I can only hope that when he returned home, he had the chance to regale someone with the story of what he’d caught that day.
Norman prefers using physical maps rather than electronic devices when navigating the Network.
Navigating the National Cycle Network
I do my best to stick to the Network where possible because of the off-road or quiet on-road routes it’s made up of.
Long stretches of off-road can be a bit hairy during the rainier, darker months.
But this is rarely a problem for me - I have never completed a ride and not felt thoroughly satisfied for having done it.
This is even if I’ve taken a bath in a quagmire or oversized puddle that a route has had me plunging into.
Three so far, and counting.
Call me old school, but I don’t carry a mobile or GPS device to find my way around.
I rely on Sustrans maps, a £4 compass, and the sun - if it’s out.
However, signposting on the National Cycle Network is at times dismal; I can find myself off-track 10 times on a long day-ride.
Thankfully though, the kindness of strangers usually pulls through and a quick chat with a local will usually put me back on track.
Choosing to support Sustrans
This exploration has helped me to rediscover my country, rain or shine, and even hail.
It wouldn’t have been quite so easy without the National Cycle Network, which is why I’ve become a donor to Sustrans.
I’m grateful for the work they do to look after these many, many paths I’ve enjoyed, and I hope my support goes towards further improvements in signage!