Well, I knew I was back in the land of reality before I’d even got through passport control yesterday: rolling off the ferry, the half-dozen of us on bicycles were held up waiting in the queue while all the very important people in their nice warm comfortable cars went through before us. *sigh*. I suppose I should just be grateful that it wasn’t raining.
Karl McCracken (of Do the Right Thing) was then on hand to lead me and Claire Prospert of the Newcastle Cycling Campaign on an impromptu tour of the best and worst of Gateshead’s cycling provision (it turns out that the Tyne, like the Thames, has a very distinct north-south divide, and Claire had never cycled on its south bank either. She looked a lot happier once we were within sprinting distance of a bridge…) If I hadn’t just been in the Netherlands, I might have thought that some of it wasn’t all that bad: there were a few off road lanes, an underpass bypassing a nasty big roundabout and the millennium bridge with its own special section for bikes. But there were some horrors too: like a large three way junction on a dual carriageway where we needed to turn right without so much as a pedestrian crossing, let alone a bike one. The bike lane we were following (a painted line along the pavement at this point) gave us no clues as to how we were supposed to get across. In the end, we took our lives into our hands and just sprinted when it looked like the traffic was stopped at a red (we couldn’t see – the lights were just for the cars). We survived, but it didn’t exactly seem like an invitation to get on a bike. You wonder whether, really, the powers that be would actually prefer it if you didn’t.
I promise, I really do, not to bang on too much more about cycling infrastructure and return to regular updates about the state of the ford (around 3 ins of water this afternoon), the weather (raining again) and my poor neglected garden (neglected. And the bastard mouse has eaten the rest of my beetroot). But before I do I have to emphasise just how different it is across the North Sea. It’s not just that Dutch bike lanes are nice and wide (and by nice and wide, I mean up to four metres wide …) or that you get the green light first at traffic lights so that you’re out of the way of cars turning, or that there are loops in the cycle lane to detect oncoming bikes so they get a green light as they approach a junction, or that you have your own dedicated lane on roundabouts, or that on some roads bikes have priority over cars, or that it’s cars that go all round the houses on brick paving to make speeding uncomfortable while cyclists go direct on smooth tarmac, or that cyclists get their own bridges and their own multi-story parking and even their own bins – you could probably find examples of that even in the UK, in places. It’s that it’s like that everywhere. Wherever we went, from tiny villages to big cities, every single road seemed to have bikes catered for in some way or another. Every single road. From what I’ve seen, you could drop a novice cyclist – or a child – anywhere in Assen or Groningen and they could cycle safely and comfortably to anywhere else without needing a native guide to get them there. There’s nowhere in the UK where you could say that now. When it comes to cycling, the Dutch travel first class. In the UK we barely make it out of steerage.
And for those of you thinking, well, that’s very nice but really, it’s not very realistic to think we could do it here – well, just watch this video of kicking out time at a primary school in Assen and tell me that life in the UK wouldn’t be 100% better for everyone – but especially the (reportedly) unhappiest children in Europe – if we could have that too.
The holiday snaps are below.