A few hundred yards from my house is a disused railway line. I say disused when in fact it's now part of an off-road cycle path that runs from Avebury to Lacock, a section of the national cycle network established by the charity Sustrans. The network extends to over 12,600 miles of traffic-free or traffic light routes, and if you drive anywhere in the countryside you're probably familiar with the small blue way markers.
I have to admit to scepticism when the network was first established. A long time cyclist I held a certain snobbishness towards those who couldn't devise their own journey - and the flagship off-road paths weren't (and still aren't) suitable for the lightweight bikes that 'proper cyclists' rode. It seemed to me an expensive exercise in signage for those who couldn't be bothered to make more effort.
I realise now, that those views - still prevalent in some cyclists - miss the point entirely. Over the last ten years, I've ridden thousands of miles on the network and have come to recognise its positive impact (and that of Sustrans) on our attitudes to cycling. But it's not so much my riding the routes that has changed my opinion, it is three additional observations that I thought I'd share.
The first derives from my cottage in Wales, which happens to be on one of the network's minor routes. Prior to this, the only visitors to our village were either lost or delivering parcels, often both. And yet this summer we had, at a rough estimate, thirty to forty riders passing through every day, ranging from families to elderly couples to groups of young people on their way to Ireland. And talking to some of these it reinforced that the whole attraction is precisely that the network makes things easy: it provides a well marked, scenic route avoiding the worst of the traffic - all with minimal effort. Would these people be cycling were it not for the network? Some certainly would, but many wouldn't.
The second observation is that it's not just cyclists who use the off-road paths. This might seem obvious, but the cumulative effect is impressive. The old railway near us in Wiltshire is used by runners, walkers, farmers, nature watchers, kids, families, schools, dogs, artists and even on occasion shooting parties. The path has become a much valued community asset, giving easy access to countryside that would otherwise be little visited or require a car.
The third is the way these paths create nature corridors. They're the perfect example of that marginal landscape which Richard Mabey writes of in his book, The Unofficial Countryside. For example, there's an off-road path in Pembrokeshire, running from Haverfordwest to Neyland - it too follows a disused railway line. And on it I've seen kingfishers, herons, buzzards, weasels, all manner of wild flowers - again, it's used by many and varied groups, the majority not cyclists.
Back in Wiltshire the path to Avebury is perhaps the longest unbroken hedgerow in the county. There are apple trees, sloes, oaks and hollies, a wild quince or two. It's the best place for birdsong that I know. And to walk there on a January dawn, as I did last winter, is to be taken to a world more remote than it's location would suggest. As the mist cleared that morning I noticed a roe deer wander into a furrowed field; watching too was a buck hare, high on its haunches, ears aloft to the frosting sky. For a few seconds, all three of us were held in a moment of perfect stillness - and all this, a mile from the centre of town.