Motorists who park their cars near Sandy Lane on Wolviston Road, Billingham, might be excused for thinking the strip of wide asphalt in front of the 1930s houses is a service road. But should they attempt to drive along on this strip, they would soon find themselves on a route to nowhere for motorists.

This 10-foot wide, one-mile-long kerb-protected 'service road' is, in fact, an 85-year-old Dutch-inspired cycleway.

It's one of more than 100 such hidden-in-plain-sight cycleways that I uncovered as I travelled around the UK during a seven-year project to research and rescue these largely forgotten stretches of government-funded infrastructure.

The cycleways - known as 'cycle tracks' at the time - paint a vivid picture of an era when cycling was as popular here as it is in the Netherlands today, as described on my project's new interactive website.

The best of these long-neglected cycle tracks could be brought back to life.

One of them - in Leicester - is being revamped after my research helped the local council win £1million in refurbishment funding

Our current love-in with cars obscures the fact we were once just as dotty about bicycles. In fact, bicycling was a key part of the war effort, as British as black-out curtains and the Blitz spirit.

'Here come the workers, in hurrying ranks - to build us our battleships, bombers and tanks,' boomed the received pronunciation narrator over footage of commuter cyclists in one wartime instructional film issued by the Ministry of Information

Many of the period cycle tracks were built with the war effort in mind, speeding cyclists to munitions factories, military bases, and more.

Plenty of post-war movies portrayed a wartime bucolic England of warm beer and winding country lanes.

The warm beer might have been true but, in the real world, many RAF stations and the like were reached by dual carriageways, often fitted with cycle tracks.

The Royal Navy Propellant Factory at Caerwent was sited close to the A448 Caerwent bypass, which opened in 1932. Its retrofitted cycle track - installed in 1939 at the same time as the factory - was camouflaged.

According to Admiralty plans marked 'Secret', a double-sided cycle track on the road next to the base was to be painted to look like the surrounding fields

The Royal Ordnance Force factory of ROF Chorley in Lancashire was reached by cycle tracks installed on Euxton Lane in anticipation of the influx of thousands of workers.

The new factory employed over 1,000 production workers by the outbreak of WWII, rising to 40,000 at the height of the war.

Euxton Lane was widened - with footways and cycle tracks included - in January 1937 at roughly the same time as the building of the munitions factory.

ROF Chorley was used to fill the 'bouncing bombs' used in the famous Dambusters raid of May 1943

During WWII, almost all of the 400 or so factories on Trafford Park in Manchester - today's Trafford Centre - were devoted to the war effort.

By 1945, 75,000 workers were commuting to the estate daily, many on bicycles, including on the cycle tracks on Barton Dock Road, completed in 1942. 

Rolls-Royce Merlin engines - used to power both the Spitfire fighter and the Lancaster bomber - were built under licence by Ford at Trafford Park.

The 17,316 workers employed at the Ford factory, opened in 1941, had produced 34,000 engines by the end of the war.

Rolls-Royce also had a factory on Pyms Lane in Crewe, opened in 1938. At its peak in 1943, 10,000 people were employed at the factory. Many would have cycled to work and might have therefore used the superlative cycle track installed speedily on Pyms Lane at the same time as the factory building. 

The Chester Road cycle tracks in Erdington, Birmingham, opened 1936-7, would have been used by workers cycling to the Castle Bromwich aircraft factory. This was the largest purpose-built aircraft factory of the war. 

A few of the historic cycle tracks are long gone, subsumed by later road-widening. Many still exist, covered by grass or, as with the Billingham example mentioned above, are wrongly thought to be service roads for motorists.

Most of the tracks are hidden in plain sight, with few people - or local authorities - realising the infrastructure is quite so old or meant for the use of cyclists.

From 1934 until a little after the outbreak of WWII, the Ministry of Transport (MoT) grant-aided the creation of these kerb-protected tracks. Many of them were 9ft-wide, with an adjoining six-foot-wide footway. They were modelled on Dutch protected cycle infrastructure of the same period.

Britain's first protected cycle track was built - rapidly and shoddily - in London in 1934. The two-and-a-quarter-mile stretch of uneven concrete from Hangar Lane to Greenford Road in Ealing was retrofitted to the new arterial Western Avenue. Some of it still remains, but most of it has been chipped away over the years.

While the first cycle track was shoddy, most subsequent ones built over the next six or seven years were of higher quality. One in Manchester was made with pink concrete; the cycle tracks beside the Formby bypass were capped with green asphalt. 

Most of the cycle tracks were two to four miles long, although the one from Romford to Southend was more than 15 miles long.

The 1930s cycle tracks were initially well used by cyclists, but from 1949 to 1972, the number of people riding bicycles fell off the proverbial cliff.

And with the steep fall in cyclists, there was a knock-on reduced demand for the period cycle tracks.

Even the best of them began to ossify, and with a reduction in use came a decrease in maintenance, a vicious circle of neglect.

Some tracks were all but abandoned just 20 years after their installation - dirt accumulated, grass grew over the detritus, and some of the innovative-for-the-time cycle tracks disappeared from view and then from memory. Other tracks remained in full view, unused, hidden in plain sight.

People were desperate to drive rather than cycle. Riding a bike was seen as a tell-tale sign of poverty of aspiration and means.

Bicycles and cloth caps were - literally and figuratively - thrown on the scrap heap. By the 1960s, a Raleigh worker in Nottingham would arrive at work not on a bicycle but in a car.

This is progress, many might say, but when everybody is in cars, the inescapable result is congestion when nobody moves very fast.

Cyclists, though, bimble along at the same steady speed they've always been able to average, so perhaps it's time we looked again at these innovative-for-the-time cycle tracks?

Carlton can be found tweeting at @carltonreid and his videos can be found at www.youtube.com/@cyclingnews

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2024-02-20T16:51:20Z dg43tfdfdgfd