And I would ride 1000 miles…

I’ve just passed the 1000-mile marker on my Tern GSD, my beautiful, bright orange, e-cargo bike. I know 1000 miles isn’t much for a seasoned cyclist, used to 100-mile rides every weekend, but it’s quite a milestone for me – I even managed to coordinate passing it with a Christmas social cycle with friends, festooned with lights, and with my daughter on the back.

I’ve almost always owned a bike, and I’ve cycled in most of the different stages of my life, but if you’d suggested to me, say, before covid struck, that I’d be riding this much, and that cycling would be my primary form of transport I’d have been surprised. It’s been a fairly rapid transformation, if one that already had foundations.

I cycled as a child (as I reflect in this blog) and at university; in sixth form and at university, in Birmingham and in Newcastle, bikes were my primary form of transport (though I have almost no recollection of what my bikes were then, what they looked like). I’d cycle daily to campus, and cycle home in the dark, with a strong sense that this was safer than walking. And in Birmingham, I cycled a lot with friends on long(ish) rides to the south of the city, to pubs mostly, as you do in your 20s. I bought my first car in about 1998 and that probably marked a significant shift in my cycling habits.

I don’t think I owned a bike when I moved back to Newcastle (in 2003) but bought one in around 2008 from Edinburgh Cycles and started cycling into work, from Heaton, for a couple of years. I cycled a bit on the waggonways then too, but I never cycled to the shops or to friends’ houses. Then I got pregnant and moved to North Shields and stopped cycling routinely. My then partner cycled to work quite regularly and did quite a lot of weekend bike rides too, some of which I joined him on, but it always seemed like I was juggling too much (childcare, work, shopping, etc.) to manage to cycle too – given what I know now about cargo bikes, perhaps I’d have made a different decision. I do remember one friend getting a box bike for the nursery run, but couldn’t quite imagine doing it myself. I still cycled quite a lot on holidays; we always took our bikes on family holidays to Ireland and I regularly cycled there, exploring quiet lanes on my own, with my partner, and often with my daughter on the back of my bike.

I’ve never particularly liked driving and I certainly don’t love cars. My current car is an 18-year-old Fiesta which somehow manages to pass its MOT each year without costly repairs. But, for years, especially those with a young child, we defaulted to driving for most journeys (though never the school run).

Fast forward to March 2020, to home working, remote schooling, and the quieter streets of lockdown. My daughter and I took to cycling around the residential streets of North Shields, mostly feeling safe with the low levels of traffic. We started regularly cycling to her dad’s and did a few longer journeys, to see the piles of stones near St Mary’s Lighthouse and to the marina at Royal Quays, for example.

In July 2020, North Tyneside Council created a pop-up cycleway all along our seafront, from Tynemouth to Whitley Bay, a cycleway that became popularly known as the Sunrise Cycleway. This 3-mile route opened up so much, as we managed the first summer of covid and the ongoing need for social distancing. My daughter and I used the route a lot, sometimes with friends, cycling to Whitley Bay for an ice cream, or just getting about, shopping, visiting friends. And I used it even more on my own, probably 3 or 4 times a week, to get to friends’ houses, to shop on the temporarily-closed-to-motor-vehicles Park View, and just to get some exercise and fresh air, a break from working at home.

My old Edinburgh Cycles bike started to fall apart – the seat snapped off as I rode home one day on the Sunrise Cycleway, and then the gears went and it seemed to make more sense to buy a new bike than fork out for expensive new parts. So I bought a lovely and long-coveted Dutch-style bike and rode that around the coast, on errands, for fun, often when I’d otherwise have driven.

I was beginning to imagine that cycling could be a bigger part of my life, and that it could become my primary means of transport for the first time since my 20s.

I’d started idly investigating ebikes over the summer of 2020, partly because I was cycling so much more but also because, as I engaged in more and more campaigning around the Sunrise Cycleway and other temporary walking and cycling interventions, more people were talking about ebikes in my social (media) circles. The geography of my everyday life had shrunk during the pandemic, as it did for many; most of my journeys were very local, but some of them involved carrying a load of stuff (mostly signs and kit for the play streets I support through PlayMeetStreet North Tyneside; it had always felt wrong to deliver kit to play streets by car, when at their heart play streets promote car-free spaces), but also, of course, shopping and my 10 year old daughter. If I was going to cycle more and drive less, I had to think about longer distances and heavier loads. I knew that I’d be unlikely to commute the 16-mile round trip to work, when we returned to the office, on an acoustic bike as I hadn’t for over 10 years. I knew, especially, that I would rarely be able to face the homeward trip in bad weather and in the dark, at the end of a long working day. I also knew from experience that I often ‘trip chained’ on my journeys to work, either by car or by metro, to fit in other errands and other destinations. I figured an e-cargo bike might be the solution for my needs.

So I hired an bike (just a Raleigh Motus at this stage) from Tynemouth’s Ride Electric for a month and I used it a lot – to travel to work occasionally, to shop, to take things to the dry cleaners, to go on little adventures, exploring Tyneside, travelling further by bike than I had for years. I loved the roaming distance it gave me, that I could just keep going (as long as my battery did).

These experiences convinced me that I’d use an ebike, that I’d enjoy it, and that an ebike would open up spaces and activities for me. I’d been eyeing up Tern GSD and other long-tail e-cargo bikes, wondering if, as well as moving me, I might use a bike like this to move my daughter and other ‘cargo’.

Tern GSD have some impressive promo films, imagining a seamless life of childcare, shopping and fun (not much work!) and I was tentatively persuaded – but any ebike is a big purchase and the Tern GSD all the more so (though much less than a car, as I always tell curious passers-by).

In late January, Craig from Ride Electric rang me to tell me he could get me a GSD the following week. I was slightly freaked out; I’d imagined taking months to make the decision carefully and cautiously. But I looked at the finances, talked to a lot of people, and said yes.

On 3rd February, I became the proud owner of a ‘tabasco’ (orange) Tern GSD.

I loved it immediately. Even on a cold, wet February day, cycling felt like a breeze and I was confident that I’d manage – and enjoy – longer and longer distances. I had the Captain’s Chair installed for my daughter (which can be swapped out for a crate for cargo) and my Tern GSD adventures began.

I’ve used it for everything I expected and much more. My 1000 miles have been racked up by cargo trips – carrying weekly shops, pet food, charity collections, plants, bulk purchases of pavement chalk, a toilet seat and a bin, and many, many sets of Road Closed signs and kit for play streets.

By trips with my daughter, sometimes getting her places which were too far (or too dangerous) for her to ride her own bike, trips we’d otherwise have driven – to friends, to her dad’s, to and from after-school activities – and sometimes just for fun, to explore the streets around us, to see the sea, to experience the joy of the Tyne Pedestrian and Cycle Tunnel.

By longer rides, on my own and with friends, to explore more and more of Tyneside (and Northumberland and Wearside), to get some exercise, to enjoy the pleasure and thrill of cycling (sometimes despite our ropey cycling infrastructure). I’ve been to Sunderland, Washington, Killingworth, up and down the North Tyneside coast hundreds of times, into Newcastle and around, racking up the local miles.

And, with a friend, I did my longest ever cycling trip and my first ever cycle-camping trip, taking in over 80 miles on a round trip up the Derwent valley to the north Pennines, back to the Tyne, and home to North Shields, loading all we needed onto my GSD (and stopping occasionally to recharge my battery – I’ve since invested in a second battery – nothing stops me now).

And, since September, I’ve been commuting, to the centre of Newcastle, at least twice a week, a 16-mile round trip that’s quicker and more reliable than the metro, and probably the car. It takes me 38 minutes, door-to-door, give or take a minute or two. I’ve done it all weathers, and have just got winter tyres fitted so that I can carry on. On the one occasion I had to take the metro to work (as Storm Barra approached), I got colder standing on the metro platform and wetter walking between work and the metro than I ever have on the GSD – waterproofs do their job. I love the commute – I love that it’s predictable, but also that I’m in the world. I witness the seasons change, I see sunsets, I meet other cyclists, I enjoy the movement. I don’t love the Coast Road cycle path, the primary route from North Tyneside to Newcastle, but that’s another story.

Oh, and I brought my Christmas tree home by bike, because I could and because it was fun.

So that’s 1000 miles. Interestingly, it took me seven months to do the first 500 and just 3 to do the second 500, mostly as I’ve been racking up the miles on my commute. I wonder how many miles I’ll have done by the first anniversary of my bike purchase in February. I’m tempted to say I’ll aim for 1500 miles by then, but it’s winter and it’s Christmas, so I make no promises.

I’ve done everything I expected to by bike, and more. I didn’t know how I’d find cycling in miserable weather, but it’s genuinely OK. And I never feel too tired to cycle home at the end of a working day; I just boost the power up to turbo. Even on turbo, I’m getting more exercise and more fresh air, and more contact with the world around me, than I have for years. I’m much more profoundly connected to my neighbourhood, town and region than I was before (and being a geographer, this has always been something I have striven for).

There are real frustrations around infrastructure – some of it is not only dreadful but dangerous – and my experiences have reinforced my commitment to campaigning, and I’m holding on to a slightly forlorn hope that things will get better. But I’ve loved planning routes, using maps and street view, and get a surprising amount of joy in finding the cut-throughs, alleyways and short-cuts that I’ve spotted on a map – and through which cars can never travel.

The plan is to give up my car altogether at the end of January, perhaps to mark my GSD anniversary. I use it maybe one or twice a fortnight at the moment; the rest of the time it’s parked up, taking up space on my overcrowded road. I’ve joined a car club and I’ll still use a car occasionally, but mostly I’ll make do, either with my bike, or with public transport, or the occasional taxi.

Like I said at the beginning, it’s been a fairly rapid ‘modal shift’ for me, albeit one with long foundations. What have been the key ingredients? Certainly, being encouraged to cycle as a child and keeping that up through early adulthood. After that, hmm, believing that streets are for people and getting involved in movements that campaigned around this, and consequently getting to know more people who made these choices. But beyond these quite abstract ideas, perhaps the most important factors were the quiet streets of lockdown and North Tyneside’s Sunset Cycleway, which reminded me how much I enjoyed cycling and how enabling it is, and the rise of ebikes, which are still more enabling, for longer distances and heavier loads. (This is what I said in answer to this question on Twitter; the other answers in the thread are fascinating.)

So, that’s it. That’s the story of my 1000 miles. And the moral – ride a bike, ride it more, fork out for the fancy one if it’ll help you do what you need (it’s always going to be considerably cheaper than a car) – you’ll save money, be healthier, and get to know your world more. What’s not to like?

A Local Lockdown

At the end of December, I decided that I would make a commitment to going out, into my neighbourhood, everyday, on foot or bike (and, as it turned out, scooter). This was before the third lockdown was announced and schools were closed, but I still knew that I was in for an intense and indoor January. The combination of a heavy workload and wintry weather meant that I could easily imagine days when I wouldn’t leave the house.

There’s a lot I like about the hyperlocal life that’s been enforced upon us. I have long valued the proximate spaces and relationships of my everyday life, but I know that my privileges mean that a hyperlocal life is both possible and comfortable, despite the pandemic. I spent much of 2020 exploring the places around me in depth and detail, documenting those experiences on social media and in blog posts (here and here, for example).

So this commitment to move around and document my everyday journeys built on all this, encouraged me to get out and to notice and connect to the places I moved through. Many of these trips were taken with my nine year old daughter, and gave us time together away from our desks, and some with a friend. Others I took alone.

I noticed signs, surfaces, skies, seas, nature, colours, routes, patterns, art, people, ships, stairs, paths, shadows, sounds, histories, and much more.

These are my tweets, from 31 days.


I am going to walk, run or cycle in and around my neighbourhood every day in January, in all weathers and moods, with purpose and without. If I enjoy it, I’ll carry on. I’ll record each trip with at least one photo. I started early so here are pics from the last two days of Dec.

Of course, this builds on one of the good things from 2020, lots of time spent out and about locally, getting to know more of the places around me, which has been a reminder of how important this kind of place making and marking is to me.

1st January: I forgot to include scooting, and that was today’s mode with my daughter, a meandering route to and through the local cemetery where we spotted some early blossom 1/31

2nd January: Day 2/31, scooting again, around and through the Tyne Tunnels, passed this old modal filter and a piece of port-related public art in East Howdon. Any additional info about the art gratefully received.

3rd January: Day 3/31, we stayed very local under the threat of hail and had a brief wander around North Shields town centre, where we found this sea scene complete with cat-fish

4th January: Days like today (too much work, very cold, threatening sleet) are why I made my “resolution”, so that I fight the urge to stay in. A biting bike ride along the mouth of the Tyne, past the Black Middens, where there were people surfing 🏄‍♂️ (and I thought I was cold and wet!) 4/31

And a quick PS – I _really_ miss @SunriseCycleway. I was buffeted about along the seafront and barely felt safe on the road, yet the “shared path” was packed with people walking even in today’s miserable weather.

5th January: Despite (or because?) being home all day “homeschooling” we didn’t get out till it was dark, but these neighbourhood outings will be all the more important in #Lockdown3, as they were in #Lockdown1 5/31

6th January: For day 6/31 my first run of 2021, and indeed for a long time. I didn’t run far or for long but I ran, and experienced my streets as a runner, more observant of uneven pavements, varied surfaces and inclines, and recognising the different kinds of space my running body takes up.

Talking of surfaces, on my recent scoot (2/31) with my daughter we experienced lots of different tactile paving, which I was trying to explain to my daughter and that reminded me of this thread by @BlondeHistorian which explains how these tactile cues work

We noticed the vertical and horizontal corduroy paving to demarcate the cycle and pedestrian sides of a shared path (a bit like this) – both sides are fun on a scooter!

And there’s a @RantyHighwayman blog post about tactile paving here with loads more info/context (from 2015)

7th January: On day 7/31, a brief late afternoon walk through North Shields to explore this archway which leads to Field House, an impressive Georgian building dating to 1800, a reminder of what Shields once was (now flats)

8th January: Another late, dark, brief, icy, local walk (determined to get out in daylight tomorrow) – back to Pearson Park to see the slightly peculiar characters on the playground railings. Not all fishy, but all looking shocked and/or disgruntled – maybe just their pandemic look? 8/31

9th January: A daytime walk! Longer, sunny, but still local, down to the mouth of the Tyne and a view across to Knotts Flats, completed in 1938 to house seafaring families, with fire-resistant materials & air raid shelters in anticipation of war, with a 12ft clock 9/31

10th January: Finally a bike ride (no ice, no low sun), sort of on a mission to find a piece of public art, sort of just getting some exercise. I was looking for Dudes by Permindar Kaur (2002) at the entrance to the DFDS ferry terminal – first glimpse through railings, then I found them 10/31

More here

11th January: A very short walk today to my allotment to see signs of spring 🌱amongst the uncleared winter debris 11/31

12th January: Very small-scale walk today with a smartphone microscope (a Christmas present) – I give you local walls, pavement-crack weeds, and moss – extraordinary! 12/31

And a mini beast (with a commentary!)

13th January: A fairly functional walk today back from Tynemouth after finally dropping off my @rideelectricgo hire bike 😢 but a stop for takeaway coffee (and the chance to extol the virtue of ebikes to the cafe person!) and some truly beautiful blossom 13/31

14th January: A wet and blustery walk along the mouth of the Tyne, and got to see the Nordic Ace, a Bahamas-registered vehicle carrier, arriving in the Port of Tyne (I saw no need to use the cannons) 14/21

15th January: Timed today’s walk to watch the arrival of the cruise ship Azura, berthing at Northumbrian Quay for a couple of months. It was both amazing and slightly ridiculous 15/31

16th January: A meandering walk round the streets of North Shields for day 16/31, too late for all but the last remnants of snow, but spotted some snowdrops and this dude, whoever he might be…

17th January: A short walk around the corner to my allotment (where exercise is digging and running around [we have no real garden at home]) and spotted an aconite 17/31

18th January: A dusk scoot today, with my 9yo leading me back to a smooth downhill path she remembered from the first lockdown – apparently I even said exactly same thing as last time (to not go so fast she’d go flying!) – for local folk it was Beach Rd cycle path, a great scoot! 18/31

19th January: Making the most of Storm Christoph to jump in muddy puddles for a quick, dark and very wet bit of local fresh air tonight 19/31

20th January: Today I walked as I participated in a departmental meeting with my colleagues in my ears. I got very wet but it was a different way to Zoom with the landscapes of Shields, including the Ropery Stairs, around me. No squirrels though, @thelrm! 20/31

21st January: A bike ride to the sea and back on my old (new) analog bike which has been much neglected whilst I’ve been experimenting with ebikes. I missed the e-assist in the seafront winds but it was good to be back 21/31

22nd January: A cold and sunny walk around Cullercoats with a Cullercoats Coffee to the beautiful sea and back past the old fishermen’s cottages; happy to see so many children playing on the beach and in the seafront playground 22/31

23rd January: Beautifully sunny walk through North Shields to explore the places a friend’s mum lived in mid C20th, redeveloped many times, travelling up and down many of Shields’ stairs to make our way around 23/31

24th January: Wintry walk through Preston Cemetery, meandering round paths I’ve not walked before. No snow here but ice and snowdrops 24/31

25th January: A short scoot, despite the sign, to a tiny playground we used to go to often when my daughter was a toddler, to slide on some ice and see if we could fit into any of the play equipment. Yay for playgrounds! 25/31

26th January: A soundscape today; came to the allotment to do an art lesson for my daughter (go outside and make a picture from loose parts – yay!) and blown away by the birds. The allotments are a tiny wild oasis in a very urban area 26/31

27th January: A brief beach walk before what threatens to be a horrendous work day; the sea view was extraordinary as usual, light changing every few minutes but I focused paying attention to detail on and around the beach 27/31

But, just in case you need it

28th January: A short walk in drizzle in the middle of a Zoom day, so not much to spot but I did pass my daughter’s school where the children were playing happily in the playground – a useful reminder that children at home need to be able to play out safely and confidently too #oktoplay 28/31

29th January: I almost didn’t go out today – too much work and horrible weather – but I did. With my 9yo, we used the dérive app to lead us round the streets. We had trouble finding the sun and a crowd, avoided public transport, but found a one-way street, some graffiti & lots of puddles 29/31

30th January: Another day, another dérive – we found something out of place, headed north, took a photo of something old, and documented our shadows. Lots of improvisation with tricky cues, but lots of noticing, of sounds, directions, the changing light… 30/31

31st January: Day 31/31 – the end of my January challenge – and we took inspiration from @Attention2place’s #GeographyDrift prompt from yesterday to notice red in our neighbourhood.

Originally tweeted by Alison Stenning 💙 #2metres #givespace (@alisonstenning) on January 1, 2021.

Finding My Way

I think I know quite a lot of North Tyneside, where I live, very well, especially the parts east of Wallsend. The geographer in me (which, to be fair, is most of me) insists on learning, getting to know and mapping the places I visit, let alone the places I live. Mostly I know these streets and roads for driving and, closer to my North Shields home, for walking. I got to know many of local streets and roads pretty quickly when I first moved here (in 2011) as I had a newborn daughter who I walked and drove endlessly, to get her to sleep and to give me some time out of the house.

I drove west and north and round in circles, through Seaton Delaval, Seaton Sluice, Blyth, north to Northumberland (Cramlington, Morpeth) and south again through Killingworth and Forest Hall. Tha A19 and A1058 were my axes (the green lines on the map above) but I found other signed routes and used my instincts to always return a different way to my outward journey, making connections between places I was getting to know.

More often, I walked – up streets, through back alleys, finding snickets, new landmarks, with friends, on my way somewhere, or just to fill time. On these walks, I found the street we later moved to and the ‘secret garden’ where I now have an allotment. These walks created so many the ties I now have with my neighbourhood, brought me closer – step by step – to feeling at home here, marking my territory by beating the bounds.

From 2015, when we started to play out on my street, I started to make connections with other streets doing the same, with whom we had to share signs, passing them on from doorstep to doorstep on the morning of our street play sessions. And in 2017, I started to develop and coordinate playing out across the borough and got to know another layer of North Tyneside’s geography – working out whether streets could be closed, looking on Google Maps at terraces and semis, cross-streets, back alleys, and cul de sacs to see how easy and safe it would be to stop through traffic for a few hours a week, then delivering letters, notices and Road Closed signs to the growing number of streets that got involved, and finally beginning to see the patchwork of play streets connect across the borough.

So, I like to think I’m pretty well connected to North Tyneside, that I know its geography at a number of scales, that I think about where I’m going and make connections to the places I pass and travel to.

Yet, during successive lockdowns and the pandemic months, my connection to North Tyneside has grown, extending to new places and new perspectives, and deepened, as I’ve seen more in the places I know. I wrote here about how walking and scooting with my daughter in our closest streets fed an increasingly granular feeling of recognition and attachment, but as lockdown lifted, we filled the summer months with cycling and, for the first time, kayaking in and around the North Tyneside coast.

With and without my daughter, I’ve been cycling more and more – for fun and to visit friends along the Sunrise Cycleway, a 3-mile pop-up cycle lane created by North Tyneside Council in July (and ripped up in November), but also all around the coast, on all sorts of roads and paths, to shop and just to get around. My old bike died, I bought a new one, and now I’ve hired an ebike, to try it for a month. I’ve filled my ageing car up with petrol just 3 times in 9 months.

I was inspired to write this blog after my recent 23-mile bike ride, a carefully-planned round trip from North Shields to Battle Hill, Forest Hall, Killingworth, Backworth, Shiremoor, Wellfield, Monkseaton, Whitley Bay, Tynemouth and home to Shields. I spent a lot of time working out the route, asking advice, poring over Google Maps and Street View, weighing up the benefits of traffic-free routes against a fear of feeling scared. I was already developing a granular geography – seeing where there were alleyways to cut off a corner (or a few more metres on a busy road), spotting landmarks that would reassure me I was on track (primary schools, street names, the metro line, a pub or pizza takeway), and identifying places – roads, bridges, parks, paths – that I wasn’t sure I’d feel safe in. And, of course, I was connecting it to the places I already knew, from car and foot.

Heading out on Saturday morning marked the translation of this cartography of the mind and screen to a geography of body and bike, moving through these places I’d marked and memorised. At times, this meant realising that the short-cuts I’d planned on a screen took me up steep hills with sharp bends, or on narrow paths filled with families walking, or along rutted tracks and coarse gravel, or through an underpass in the earshot of the revving engines of micro bikes, that the physical, tangible geography of the real route was felt through my body – in exertion, in vibration, in anticipation and in fear. But it also meant that those bright, two-dimensional routes on screen translated into a short wooded path with a glorious soundtrack of birds and rustling leaves, a lakeside stretch fringed with reeds and new town houses, and a surprise level crossing with a warning to Stop Look Listen.

I was alert to the route, the traffic, and those with whom I shared my journey, for moments more or less brief. I observed and felt the surfaces, the potholes, the loose paving, the kerbs of different heights, the mud and the debris. I was grateful for smooth tarmac, alert to unavoidable ruts, looking ahead to see how I could navigate a turn or a crossing with the gentlest path for me and my bike. I noticed the speeds of cars, and roundels to warn me; I kept a constant eye on car doors and bends in the road, to expect the unexpected; and I looked for ways to avoid traffic if it came too fast and too close. I looked down and over my shoulder to be sure I could pull out, around a parked car or a pothole, if I needed to. I scanned ahead – and to the sides – for pedestrians, for children playing, and for dogs, tuning in for moments to witness their play, overhear their conversations, predict their next moves, at times ringing my bell, shouting a “thanks” or sharing an acknowledgement. And, at times, I listened to the voice on Google Maps telling me turn left, go straight ahead, make a u-turn.

I kept an eye out for those landmarks I’d recorded, to mark my progress and feel confident in my navigation, breathing a sigh of relief when the right path appeared or as I passed the school or shop I’d expected, and I tagged all these places on the maps in my head, to populate and animate my personal geography, and for the next time I travelled these routes. I also responded to the sites and sights that caught my attention, taking detours onto a path closer to the lake, or a road adjacent to the East Coast mainline and a speeding Pendolino, to check a noticeable street name, or take in a new housing development, to follow a path I suspected would lead me in the right direction. And I added all of these to those maps in my head.

And, of course, there were the wrong turns too, the bad choices, the moments of fear, a retracing of my steps, wasted time, a quick decision to get off and walk, or to move onto the pavement, to cross the road for more space or a better path. And each of these was accompanied by a calculation, a moment of self-criticism, of doubt and anxiety, of hesitation, felt in my body on a bike. And each was added to the maps in my head.

Some of this was bad infrastructure, a common theme in cycling narratives. There’s of course a sense of disappointment and frustration when a cycle lane appears and disappears within metres, or a painted bike directs you along a useless or impossible path, but bad infrastructure is also felt in the stops and starts, the dismounts, the endless decisions, and the continuous attention to the kerbs, the surfaces, the camber, the bends, the micro-topography of the streets and roads.

And, of course, there were the places I wanted to see – the Ryder and Yates 1967 British Gas Engineering Research Station, now North Tyneside Council’s Killingworth Site, the new town estates of Killingworth – its East and West Bailey and ‘garths’, the new-build estates of Backworth and Northumberland Park, the 1930s cycleway on Whitley Bay’s Links, and St Mary’s Lighthouse – a fairly eclectic mix of sights but ones which help me map and get to know North Tyneside’s many faces.

This is how you learn a route and a landscape. On a bike, you can’t progress without paying real attention to the details of the route, from the road names, to the landmarks, to the potholes and kerbs; this attention is essential, but it is also valuable. You have to see, listen, feel, and because you have to, you connect more. In contrast to travel by car, or even on foot, the route becomes richer, denser – more granular – every sense is invoked by the nature of your contact with the road and the route, a body on two wheels, propelling itself, in an in-between place between car and foot, between road and pavement, moving from one to the other.

These were mostly new places and new routes, but through their inscription in my head they’re mapped for the next time, not just these actual places – where to go, where to find something, how to get from A to B – but also a more general sense of what feels right when I’m riding my bike, and what I need to pay attention to.

These uneven surfaces, on one of my most common routes, demand my attention

The attention to place, at every scale, which I reflected on and recorded in this one trip plays out in more mundane ways in my everyday geographies. On those routes I travel regularly – to the shops, to friends, to the beach – I have mapped the breadth of the roads, the choice of paths, the pinch points, the steepness and camber, the changing surfaces, the worst potholes, the joyous stretches, the viewpoints, and I have felt them, in mind and body. As a ride, I map and re-map the spaces of my everyday life, making connections, feeling the places I move through, adding layers to my mental maps. I see what is possible and what is restricted. These inscribed geographies embed me in my everyday worlds and they ready me for my next trip, allowing me to see where to go and how to move as each day I find my way in North Tyneside.

“Home grown alligator, see you later, gotta hit the road, gotta hit the road”

George Ezra grew up in Bengeo, Hertfordshire. And so did I.

In recent weeks, I’ve seen a few articles remembering and celebrating the glory of riding bikes as a child. The children’s author Steven Herrick wrote

“There’s nothing quite like the relationship of a child to their bicycle, the endless adventures two wheels and a pair of strong legs offers”

and just a few days later Jools Walker, co-founder of the Women of Colour Cycling Group, echoed this:

“Some of my happiest childhood memories are on my BMX Burner, the bike I inherited as a seven-year-old from my big sister. It wasn’t new or flashy like other kids’ bikes at school, nor was it the bike that I secretly desired, but that didn’t matter. That red and yellow beauty sparked friendships – and an obsession with life on two wheels.

After school and on weekends, I’d meet up with my friends, a mix of kids from my class and new friends I’d made cycling around my housing estate. Our favourite time for bike adventures was the summer holidays: six glorious weeks of long, bright days, with no school to interrupt our time. Parks, other housing estates and even building sites (definitely a place where you need reliable tyres) became our adventure playgrounds to explore.”

Which brings us back to George Ezra and Bengeo. I didn’t know George (he’s a tiny bit younger than me), but I like to think he was inspired by his Bengeo childhood and that we shared some of the same adventures and pleasures around Bengeo’s streets.

I moved to Bengeo when I was 7 and a half. My parents had just divorced, so I was living with my mum and my brother, then 9 and a half. I was already at school in Bengeo, but we’d been driving to school by car 9 miles along the A10 from Wormley. We had a big house and a big garden in Wormley but the only, vague, memories I have of cycling there are of my brother and I trundling up and down this back lane (the van was probably there then too). The road we lived on had been the A10, and even though a new dual carriageway had been built, traffic was still heavy.

That all seemed to change when we moved to Bengeo. We were now living on a quiet residential street in what was basically a suburb of Hertford. We were about a mile from Hertford town centre, surrounded only by other residential streets, in an interwining and connected pattern. Beyond this built up area, there were vast expanses of country lanes and green fields, many of which turned yellow in the rapeseed season. This all became my roaming zone. Our bikes weren’t cool – we each had a folding bike, mine red, my brother’s light blue; they were new and I guess we got them as it was easy to move them between my mum’s house and my dad’s. It had three Sturmey Archer gears, I think my first bike with gears.

My bike looked a bit like this

We kind of had two modes of riding, and I mean, mostly, my brother and I. We rode from our back gate around the neighbouring streets, through alleyways, to local shops, making the most of the endless loops you could ride through crescents, closes, and pedestrian cut-throughs.

We loved riding to these shops, on The Avenue, where we’d buy sweets, fizzy drinks, or comics, post letters for our mum, and make prank phone calls form the phone boxes that used to sit behind these parked cars (on the right). We could cut through a little path that you can just make out beyond the cars, where, now I think about it, I remember a cherry tree and a small patch of grass, where we’d often stop, maybe to eat those sweets.

It was about half a mile from our house to the shops, but we could cycle miles on these streets, just going round in circles. We were on the top of a hill (Upper Bengeo, apparently) which meant that much of this riding was level, but we could easily find some good hills for thrills if we wanted.

Bengeo is divided by one main-ish road, the B158, so much of our riding was on “our” side, to the west of this road. The other side didn’t feel as familiar, but we did still seek out corner shops there – I had the vaguest memory of this one, and took a trip down Google Streeview memory lane to find it. And it was this side that led down to Hartham Common, a big green space on the edge of Hertford town centre, that gave us space to play and a safe route into the town centre, via the Norman church of St Leonards.

We’d also head further west, down a steep unpaved track or along unassuming alleyways, to Mole Wood (Great and Little) where we could paddle, catch tadpoles, and head through the woods to loop back into Bengeo.

These trips to Mole Wood led us into our second mode, which was to take the lanes out of Bengeo to the countryside and small villages to the north. I don’t know if we stayed mainly on the local streets for a bit after we moved to Bengeo and then progressed to these longer journeys. My mum’s recollection is that we cycled pretty freely from the moment we moved there. My mum remembers that she used to give us instructions:

“First left, second right, third right and so on until it brought you back home.”

I don’t remember this, but I do remember her packing us picnics and my brother and me riding off down Sacombe Road to Waterford or Bulls Mill. These roads were single-track lanes, with passing places. They were steep in places, which meant you could get a good speed up and surf round gentle bends. We would meet cars but I don’t have any recollection of feeling at risk.

I had a friend at Bulls Mill, so sometimes we’d cycle there. Sometimes we’d ride to Waterford Marsh, a place I’d all but forgotten but memories of picnics, wading, cow-pat dodging, and sitting in the sun came flooding back when I saw these photos. We’d stop and play pooh sticks as Vicarage Road crossed the River Beane in Waterford. The River Beane, after which Bengeo was named, featured quite heavily in our journeys. Our roaming-riding distances increased and we’d get as far as Stapleford (3 miles) and Watton-at-Stone (5 miles). These longer distances would mean we’d be back on bigger roads, including the A119 from Hertford to Stevenage. I’m guessing we didn’t cycle these till we were a bit older and maybe stuck to the pavements. We’d be out cycling for a good few hours, often the best part of the day.

These were increasingly holiday bike rides, because within a year both my brother and I were at boarding schools, so the ordinary, everyday cycling wasn’t possible. But these adventures, longer and shorter, were a major feature of our school holidays through our early teens.

I moved back to a school in Hertford for sixth form, and suddenly all those streets I’d been riding round became animated by local friends. I cycled to school most days, down a big hill and up another, with two new friends whose houses I would have passed hundreds of times on my earlier bike rides. We cycled to each other’s houses at evenings and weekends, as teenagers do, and then started cycling to pubs, before we could drive. I skived school one day (I don’t recall why!) and skidded on wet leaves under a horse chestnut tree as I rounded the corner onto my street. I fell off my bike and smashed my front tooth – a crown in my mouth, 30 years later, tells this tale. I always imagined somehow the accident was punishment for skiving school. I don’t even remember the bike I had then. We all learnt to drive, but our bikes were still important to us. One of my friends had an old postman’s bike that he was inordinately proud of, superseded only by his red VW Beetle a few years later.

Where I skidded off; there are still wet leaves

I kept cycling. I’ve always had a bike, through university and beyond. It’s always been one of my modes of transport and sources of pleasure. When I was 19, I inherited a car from a family friend. Determined not to become dependent on the car, I set out to cycle to Hertford Library during the holidays to do some university work. God knows why, but I took my work in a plastic bag on my handlebars. You remember I mentioned the steep hill?

I cycled down this with a plastic bag on my handlebars. I crashed into one of these houses (the cars clearly weren’t there!). Almost 30 years later, I remember losing control, I remember being about to crash, and I remember lying on the pavement waiting for someone to help me. They did, I went in an ambulance for the first and only time in my life, and I was fine. No major injuries, but I ripped my favourite shirt (a white collarless one from Carnaby Street).

But none of this put me off. I kept cycling. A few years later, living in Birmingham, I had friends who cycled more seriously and I rode with them. For the first time since childhood, I’d spend whole days cycling, getting to know the places around me, building relationships, having fun.

Why am I telling you all this? Partly, because those memories of freely cycling for hours on end, through my neighbourhood and beyond, have come back to me in recent weeks and months, as my nine year old daughter has been able to cycle round her neighbourhood and as I’ve been cycling more and more too, most recently on my brand new bike. I wanted to remember and record the details, material, sensual and emotional, of those times.

But mostly because all these experiences of childhood cycling gave me something, or a few things.

They enabled me to explore, learn about, map, imagine, inhabit and connect to my home, street and neighbourhood, to feel attached to it. When we started, we’d just moved to Bengeo and my parents had just divorced so maybe this was especially important to me, and doing it all with my brother all the more so. That I went away to school probably sharpened this need for connection, both that when I came home it felt important to reconnect, to re-map and to feel like I belonged again, but also that I could hold on to these stories, images and attachments when I wasn’t at home. I loved knowing my neighbourhood, where all the streets and alleys led, what the lanes felt like (and have loved recalling all these places here). That I then got a chance to ride these streets and lanes with friends, on the way to school, as I grew older, reinforced and extended my connections to this place. Only a couple of months ago, driving through some Hertfordshire lanes (not the same ones I cycled, but not far away), I felt that thrill of recognition, memories of freedom and of joy. And I still take pleasure in knowing the ins-and-outs of my neighbourhood, now in North Shields, of mapping the streets and animating them with friendships, landmarks, senses.

These bike rides also gave me a growing sense of ‘independent’ mobility. My mum trusted us – and the environment – and we carried that trust with us. We had no doubt that we could ride these streets and be safe. There were certainly fewer cars, and we were often on quiet streets, but we went further and onto busier roads as our confidence, skills, and knowledge grew, such that by our teenage years we happily cycled all around Hertford and well beyond, for fun, for school, for errands, to meet friends.

But our mobility wasn’t really independent – for years, my brother and I were together on these trips, and later we were with friends; as I got older I cycled more by myself, but a lot of my childhood cycling was accompanied, just not by an adult.

All of these experiences gave me a sense that I have a right to the road, on my bike, but also the skills and the confidence to ride on the roads that I carry with me now. I hate close passes, busy junctions and impatient drivers as much as any cyclist, but I can cope with them. Growing up as a cyclist has also made me, I think, a better driver.

And, of course, all these bike rides gave me a delight in the immense joys of cycling, despite the smashed tooth and the ripped shirt. I loved those bike rides with my brother, to the shops and to lanes beyond; I loved the speed, the lightness, the curves, the wind in my hair. I loved the friendships formed on bike rides to school and more slowly home, stopping at shops and friends’ houses. I loved cycling home from campus as a student – I remember cycling back one night, after seeing Keanu Reeves’ Point Break, and feeling like I was surfing on my bike. I felt like that again yesterday on my new bike, riding along our seafront. And just as cycling supported my teenage friendships, I still love bumping into friends and stopping to chat whilst cycling, in a way that just doesn’t happen in a car. Everyone should be able to enjoy the many exquisite pleasures of cycling.

I’ve had a good few years when I’ve barely cycled and even now, I don’t go out for long bike rides. I increasingly cycle to the shops, to friends, and will cycle to work, when I’m not working at home, and I cycle for fun, with my daughter and with friends, when I can. So I do cycle, quite a lot.

I’m now a geographer and an activist with a profound commitment to creating spaces for children, their families and communities to explore, play in, and connect with. I have no doubt that what I do now comes from these childhood experiences (and others). I loved all these bike rides because I’m a geographer (I think I always have been) and I’m a geographer because of all these bike rides (and much more).

Not everyone needs to be a geographer, but everyone should have the chance to enjoy cycling, from a young age, so that they too might explore and connect to their neighbourhoods, develop the confidence to move where they want to with others and by themselves, and experience the joy of spinning along, of getting tired, of being outside, and taking notice.

That all these personal pleasures also translate into social goods makes enabling children to cycle from an early age all the more powerful. Enjoying cycling and being given the chance, and the confidence, to explore and connect to the people and places in our communities through cycling will help us to build a healthier, safer, livelier, and happier world.