When the canal entrepreneurs built their monuments to horizontality to open up the countryside to industry and commerce, their plans were quickly wrecked when the railways arrived. Why tow your goods by horse in a barge when you could put them on a train?
The canals fell into disuse in many parts of the country and it was only dedicated volunteers (heroes in anoraks in my opinion) who kept the physical manifestation of all that work alive; they cleared out bramble weed and shopping trolleys from the canals, they met and exchanged oral history and they built canalboats to traditional designs. The infrastructure was there and finally in the 1980s the use arrived: leisure for local residents, natural bio-diversity corridors and specialist holidays for families and others.
The same sort of process happened a bit later with the railways. The Victorians built them everywhere, Beecham closed many of them down in the 60s but now they are becoming a vital resource for local communities up and down the country again.
Bristol was an early leader in this field with the Bristol to Bath Cyclepath. Big love to Sustrans and its predecessor Saddlebag- hats off to John Grimshaw, George Ferguson (yes-he was involved) and the other leading lights.
I thought about all this as I was peddling merrily along the Tarka Trail last weekend. 40 odd miles of off-road paradise on the North Devon coast near Barnstaple; a heaven for cyclists, hard-core twitchers and kids on tricycles. A great asset and a true pleasure!
This is what it looks like from the track…