Emily's blog

The National Byway: the UK's leisure cycling route

Alan Rushton brought the Tour de France to Britain in the 80s and has spent 25 years developing a continuous leisure cycle route around Britain.

Over two decades ago, cycling enthusiast Alan Rushton had a brilliant idea – a continuous cycle route around Britain’s countryside. Emily Horton gets up to speed on the National Byway

Alan Rushton is a man on a mission to get us out of our cars and onto a bicycle.

It’s all thanks to his National Byway project, a 3,250 milelong continuous signposted touring trail that takes in everywhere from Ayrshire to Dorset via Yorkshire, Suffolk and the East Midlands.

It also includes 61 individual day-long circuits, too.

“It’s a network of leisure cycle byways aimed at all abilities, to hopefully encourage as many people as possible to share in the enjoyment of being out on a bike,” Alan tells me from his home in East Molesey.

Since the project began 21 years ago, Alan and his team have sought out roads across the country that attract minimal amounts of traffic, cycling every inch of their carefully planned routes twice to check safety and traffic levels.

“We avoid the major arterial roads and find an alternative routes so cyclists don’t have to fight it out with the traffic. In terms of cycling, it’s all very gentle stuff.”

Unlike its counterpart, the National Cycle Network with its familiar blue signposts, the network caters for leisure cyclists rather than commuters.

“Where the National Cycle Network has seen a 20-25% reduction due to increase of traffic levels on its roads, we hope that the scheme is encouraging more people to get out cycling in other parts of the country, helping general mental well-being and physical fitness, plus providing a boost to local economies by bringing visitors to lesser visited areas.”

A passionate cyclist and cycling fan himself, Alan knows a thing or two about the benefits of peddling away a few hours a week.

Born in Dublin in 1948, he moved to London for school and soon acquired a bicycle, undertaking his first big ride – a 120-mile round trip to Oxford and back when he was 14.

"It was the massive freedom it gave you, particularly as a young person. I was hooked,” he reflects.

That passion for adventure and exploring the countryside is something Alan is keen to pass on.

“There is so much to discover on even the most gentle of bike rides,” he enthuses. “We call the network ‘Britain’s Heritage Cycling Route’ as riders pass through places of historical interest about every five miles.”

Many of the routes take in Civil War battlefields, but one of his favourite trips is to Newark-upon-Trent in the East Midlands – home of the wartime oilfields.

“It’s a surprisingly beautiful tour and one of the attractions is the Oil Patch Warrior statue. It depicts the oil workers who were brought over in secret during the 1940s from the US to excavate the oil in the area. They helped keep the vital supply to the front line going.”

There are many such historical snippets about each of the areas on the reverse of the National Byway maps.

With some half a million cyclists coming into the UK each year for bicycle touring purposes, he believes the potential uptake of such leisure routes is enormous. He would like to see many more of Britain’s roads mapped under the scheme, but that requires cooperation from local governance.

Those in the South East have been a particular sticking point.

“To establish the National Byway in a county, we have to get funding and negotiate with every local authority – of which there are 42 in England and Wales alone,” Alan explains.

This can be a long and challenging process – it has taken him 21 years to get this far and routes out of London, across Surrey, Sussex and Kent remain out of reach, for now.

“I’d love to get funding to create a route to bring cyclists out of London into Kent across the famous Pilgrim’s Way to Canterbury, for example.”

The Kent section remains incomplete because like many other counties, Kent lost its dedicated cycling officer.

In Surrey, he is hopeful the network will establish a route soon. It’s not an expensive undertaking, but with the government’s focus currently on expanding cycle lanes in cities, it is slow work getting support.

However, this 73-year-old semi-retiree is well-matched for the challenge. His company, Sport For Television, brought two stages of the world’s largest annual sporting event – the Tour de France – over to Britain in 1994.

He went on to organise 10 editions of the Tour of Britain, plus 11 Tours of Ireland and several more in Asia.

“It was a battle when cycling was such a minor sport back in 80s Britain. The Tour de France wasn’t broadcast on British TV when we started and so cycling didn’t have the popular support that it does now.

“The enormity of the event required extensive negotiation with the government and led to the establishment of the Special Events Act to provide the necessary legal framework required to stage the Tour.

"Unbelievably, British law only permitted a maximum of 40 riders on the roads at any one time compared to 120-200 in Europe.

"We not only had to get local and regional authorities working together, but the police and Civil Aviation Authority.

"We even had to train special police motorbike teams so they could accompany the cyclists without affecting the race.”

Alan and his team overcame the obstacles and the Tour of Britain soon became a much-anticipated event in the national calendar, heralding in a new era of Olympic success.

Of course, Britain still has a long way to go to match the cycling culture of Europe, but Alan is hopeful.

“I’d like to see Britain following Belgium and the Netherlands’ examples and becoming more bicycle friendly to the wider public. I hope our National Byway is helping towards achieving that.”

Chapeau to that!

First published by Sheengate Publishing, January 2022.