Dan McCurry: Cycling can help reclaim the Thames Path for us all

Dan McCurry: Cycling can help reclaim the Thames Path for us all

The Thames Path has been a frustration to ramblers and cyclists for decades due to the number of private developments that have walled off the route or been built to the water’s edge. Seeking access from landlords has proved fruitless, while the ways around the obstacles are confusing and joyless. However there is a way to make the path continuous and give the river back to the people.

All along the Thames are timber quays jutting out of the water which were once used for mooring shipping. By erecting quays of a similar design along the stretches of the river where the path is obstructed an unbroken cycling and walking route could be made without damaging the aesthetics of the river or its surrounding architecture.

I took a cycle ride from Island Gardens at the bottom of the Isle of Dogs to St Katherine’s Dock at the west of Tower Hamlets to see if this project would be feasible. The first obstacle was an inlet for Poplar and Limehouse Rowing Club. The route around the back of is short and pleasant and so not much of an interruption. However, continuing along the path I reached Ferry Street, where a large and lengthy development completely blocks the way. A quay along the river would be required for to make this section accessible.

Having boxed around via Westferry Road, I got back onto the river and continued up as far as Limehouse where I was forced to divert again. I once again boxed around and came out at Limehouse Basin where I passed over the existing bridge and entered Wapping. It struck me that the building of quays would be feasible all the way up to the western end of Wapping, where obstacles such as the River Police station and the HMS Prescott reach far out into the river, but it wouldn’t be impossible to move them.

I continued my route into Wapping and found myself on the beautiful cobbled streets. I love the heritage value of these, but with my narrow tyres, cycling over them wasn’t a pleasant experience. I don’t propose losing the cobbles, but I think we can overcome the problem for cyclists by taking an idea from the parks department. “Meadowing” is the term used for mowing the border of a lawn but leaving the centre fallow. It looks more beautiful than a standard lawn, and the same idea could be applied to a cobbled street. A strip of smooth tarmac for cycles but with the exposed cobblestones on either side would look lovely and allow access to cyclists too.

I ended my journey at St Katherine’s Dock convinced that this project is viable, but policy makers would have to be convinced. Ramblers are the traditional lobbyists for a continuous pathway, while cycling attracts resources. The two can surely coexist. An unbroken and accessible Thames Path would attract recreational cyclists, as distinct from the fast commuter type. The commuters would rather use the main road, which allows speed and progress, than the scenic but slow route I’m describing here. In fact, a new road route down the Isle of Dogs is already in the planning, so this would be the natural choice for speed cyclists.

Currently, policy makers are overwhelmingly focused on making large roads accessible for cyclists. This is obviously important for safety reasons, but their stated aim of increasing the number of cyclists is seriously hampered by this approach. The number of people who buy a bicycle but quickly abandon it must be huge. This is because cycling on main roads is very intimidating. However, the alternative of using side roads is problematic too, as they are full of bumps and potholes and therefore incredibly uncomfortable.

Policy makers should actively seek to create routes where cyclists can discover the joy of cycling, with the view that some will progress to regular cycling and move onto the main roads later. The Thames Path idea would be a significant contribution to this and wouldn’t be a hindrance to walkers if well managed to keep cycling speeds down. In my experience, speed bumps don’t work for cyclists in the same way as for motorists. For a cyclist, the discomfort of the bump is not much reduced by slowing down to go over them. I would rather avoid a route altogether than endure bumps, so this is not a good solution. A better way to police aggressive cyclists is to hand out fines.

London was born on the resource of the River Thames. It was once the key to our economy and is now a source for our pleasure. The idea that few private properties can stop the many from enjoying this gift of God is a great injustice and a loss to the wellbeing of all Londoners. A project to reclaim the right to walk from the City to the Estuary is beckoning.

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