Thinking about cycling in The Netherlands…

As I suggested in my first post-holiday blog, the first mile of our holiday by bike – from our home to the North Shields ferry port – was, by a long margin, the worst. Things could only get better – and the decent, safe cycling infrastructure I’d been fantasising about started within metres of the ferry at the other end, in IJmuiden.

A friend had given me street-by-street directions through IJmuiden, before we picked up the fietsknoopen network we’d be following for longer distances. Her directions even let me know when I’d come across my first “Dutch roundabout”. Dutch roundabouts (I’m sure the Dutch just call them roundabouts) are particularly topical for me and my fellow North Tyneside walking and cycling campaigners, as our council is in the process of attempting to create one of the first in the UK, much to the annoyance of our local Conservatives. More on this later.

For this short route through IJmuiden, we travelled along quiet streets, designated fietstraaten, on separated cycle paths (fietspaden), round “Dutch” roundabouts, across raised, prioritised crossings. At no point, despite not knowing my way and never having cycled in the Netherlands before, and even with a heavily-laden bike, my daughter on board, and another bike being dragged behind, did I ever feel unsafe or at risk.

As my daughter began to foresee a 16-day field course in Dutch cycling infrastructure, I marvelled at the separation, the priority, the safety, the smoothness, and the ease of the paths we were travelling, getting particularly excited at a stretch of path which sailed around a mature tree. I felt sure that at home this tree – and its roots – would have been left as obstacles to navigate on an unbending path.

Within about 15 minutes of leaving the ferry, we reached our first knooppunt, which was to lead us south through the dunes and along the seafront on the Netherlands’ west coast. This stretch is known for its winds and we were lucky that it was quite still, but we’d also been primed to expect a much less flat landscape than the Netherlands is known for. The paths were beautiful, spacious, and high-quality but they were also undulating; the route profile for this ride was markedly more demanding than any other. None of the hills was big or long, but they were many of them. Yet, the paths were busy with tourist and tourers, but also with older people and families, who seemed to simply be getting from one place to another.

Between the long stretches through dunes, we passed through seaside towns reminiscent of those in North Tyneside. Noordwijk reminded me of Whitley Bay, with its long prom, its ice cream parlours, and slightly faded hotels, but its seafront cycle path was wide, separated, direct, and uncontested, and so too were those of all the other coastal communities we passed through. It was a pleasure to cycle, with one eye on the sea, knowing we weren’t going to collide with pedestrians, dogs on long leads, or scooting children.

In the course of the two weeks that followed, we cycled on urban, suburban and rural routes, for distances from a few hundred metres to up to 20 miles, on a range of different bikes. As I explore below, we didn’t feel safe all the time, but the moments of anxiety were more about us than about the infrastructure around us. On cycle paths, quiet streets, rural roads, at roundabouts and junctions, we travelled easily and with a lot of pleasure.

In residential neighbourhoods, we cycled along separated cycle paths, fietstraaten (where “the car is a guest” [auto te gast]), quiet routes with painted paths on each side, through woonerven (living streets) and past not only homes, but also schools, shops, playgrounds and parks. As someone who is particularly engaged in thinking about residential streets and what we do on them, these meandering journeys, often following trails of knooppunten through what seemed like very ordinary streets, were particularly appealing, to see what a different scale and pace of movement could feel like in enabling both everyday mobility and a quietly-animated street life.

At a slightly bigger suburban scale, later in our trip, some of the links between towns closer to Amsterdam that almost merged into each other – Hoofddorp, Haarlem, and back to IJmuiden – showed what’s possible for the kind of everyday infrastructure that seems to allow residents to travel for half an hour or so to work, or a busier high street, or to see friends or family. Less meandering, these suburban routes followed main roads, but with a degree of separation and safety a long way from the arterial routes imagined where I live. The North Tyneside variant are more likely to be shared paths on narrow pavements, with no protected junctions, and few onward connections. The suburban routes we followed in the Netherlands allowed us to make quick, safe progress, as directly as we might if we were in car.

On more rural stretches, we often found ourselves following canals or through polders on dead straight paths, often bidirectional, with or without median markings. Occasionally we were expected to share these with farm vehicles, but we saw just one tractor. Otherwise, our fellow travellers were families, teenagers, older people, and some more middle-aged commuters. On these stretches, we saw a lot of older people, men and women, on ebikes, as well as parents riding ubiquitous Urban Arrows with children on board. We were following knooppunten, but most of those cycling alongside us seemed to know the routes well, suggesting they were making ordinary journeys between everyday places; these were short, but connected, routes between small towns and villages, making travel by bike over short-to-medium distances safe and straightforward.

In the most urban areas, including in the city centre in Utrecht but also in the centres of Haarlem and IJmuiden, the cycling network is perhaps more like a jigsaw, made up of connected pieces but with visible joins. In most places in these contexts, rather than following continuous paths, journeys were made up of short stretches of quiet, often one-way, streets, linked by protected junctions to sections of fietspaden (separated cycle paths) and dedicated infrastructure such as bridges and underpasses. There were also, of course, far more cyclists. And all this meant that these were the most challenging environments for us to cycle in.

It wasn’t that the infrastructure wasn’t good or consistent, but that the nature of cycling in these places was less familiar. We weren’t used to having to respond quickly to different cycling conditions or to negotiating with hundreds of other cyclists heading in all sorts of different directions, and we weren’t used to exercising our priority over cars, especially at junctions where ‘sharks teeth‘ indicated drivers must – and did – give way to us. We hesitated, expecting to have to double-check that drivers would give way, as we have to at home, and frustrated other cyclists and drivers. It took us a while too to learn the road signs and the Dutch word uitgezonderd (‘excepted’), working out when we could and couldn’t cycle the ‘wrong way’ down a one-way street, through a ‘dead end’, or on a pedestrian route, or when to expect cars, taxis and vans on what seemed like a fietstraat, and all these challenges were much more prevalent in the busier urban areas.

As a result, we had a few more close passes and more aggression from other road users as we got used to this kind of cycling, and my anxiety was higher as I tried to keep my daughter safe on her bike.

But, once we started to get to grips with all of this, and find good routes for the journeys we repeated, we revelled in the convenience of cycling quickly to the shops, the station, to cafes and restaurants, and in the sheer pleasure of joining thousands of others cycling on their daily routines. We loved pulling up outside a shop or cafe and just securing our bikes with ‘Dutch’ locks, filling our panniers with our purchases, and heading home.

I’ve already talked a bit about junctions, and I suppose the key thing, in contrast to at home, is that cyclists nearly always have priority at junctions (though usually have to give way to pedestrians, in an appropriate hierarchy of road users). This is true when cycle paths cross roads to head in another direction, or simply to the other side of the carriageway, but also at roundabouts where a cycle path, with priority, takes cyclists round and off the roundabout safely without stopping. My experiences of these roundabouts confirm to me that, despite our local Conservatives fears, North Tyneside’s new roundabout is not Dutch (see this also). In all these instances, it took us some time to feel confident that we could simply just carry on, that drivers would give way to us.

We crossed a good few bridges and underpasses too. The preference seems to be for bridges when crossing bigger roads, canals and railway lines, following perhaps the principles of social safety that ensure that a path feels safe from the perspective of visibilty. After many miles on flat paths, these sometimes-steep paths over bridges felt like hills to my daughter as we approached, but in fact they were never too steep or too long for her untrained legs; the angle and the steepness sometimes got me on my Tern GSD as I lost momentum with a heavy bike and the wrong gear, but I learnt my lesson and prepared my approaches better. We got to see some beautiful bridges and to witness a few open.

The few underpasses we experienced were wide, open and light – and well-used, in marked contrast to the dark, narrow, deserted underpasses I sometimes have to navigate on my regular journeys at home. I never felt unsafe in a Dutch underpass and they served a purpose in keeping us on direct routes.

Junctions, bridges and underpasses serve as key points in dense, consistent, connected and safe networks. And this is the heart of my experience of Dutch cycling infrastructure: you can get where you want to go safely and straightforwardly, whether that’s half a mile to the supermarket, seven miles to the next town, or 35 miles to your next holiday accommodation. It’s a remarkable achievement, and one we know didn’t happen without a fight, even in the Netherlands.

What this kind on infrastructure facilitates, affords, for me, is a shift in pace, scale and rhythm. You can get where you want to go, quickly and directly if you want to, or slowly and sociably, if you prefer. You can travel with encumbrances – children, shopping, surfboards, friends – because you don’t have to worry about the risks of being distracted or unbalanced, and because you’ve been brought up to be able to cycle like this. And because it’s possible – even easier – to get around by bike, you can remove cars from spaces which are filled with people, in city centres and residential neighbourhoods, and these places can feel more human; you can feel more human.

I don’t want to present an idealised account of Dutch life; I got a tiny glimpse, very much viewed through bike-shaped spectacles. Cycling infrastructure is just one part of Dutch society, albeit one connected to so many other spheres. But I liked what I saw and what I felt, and I’d like to explore it some more.

Places to Play, Places for Children

In the last few weeks, with my PlayMeetStreet hat on, I’ve had to deal with more than the usual number of questions, raised by residents on streets that we’re planning to set up a play street on, asking why children can’t play in adjacent parks, green spaces or beaches, or even private gardens.

This might be because we happen to be working at the moment with a number of streets near local green and blue spaces, or I might just be noticing it more. Either way it’s an interesting phenomenon to think through.

Of course, this has been a recurring concern or objection when we’ve been setting up play streets, and in our FAQs circulated as residents consult their neighbours, we clearly state this:

Why can’t children play in local parks or their gardens? Even though there are sometimes other local spaces to play, the idea of street play is for children to be able to play on their own streets, outside their homes, and to meet other local children, like many adults used to do when they were young. Street play is also about community building and neighbours getting to know each other. Children playing together on their street helps to build a sense of community and belonging, which in turn makes your street a safer and friendlier place.

The objections vary – some suggest that the desire for play streets results from parents’ laziness and their reluctance to bother taking them to the park or the beach. Others suggest, as we might imagine, that streets are for cars not for children, and that children’s place is in designated, segregated spaces, a position Tim Gill and others have critiqued. Indeed, doyen of children’s play, Colin Ward argued in his The Child in the City (1978): “One should be able to play everywhere, easily, loosely, and not forced into a ‘playground’ or ‘park’.”

What has been particularly interesting for me in these questions, however, has been the sense from those writing that they see themselves as champions of children’s play and sincerely believe that their suggestion is better for children, particularly the children on their street.

Play on streets is seen very much as a sub-optimal choice.

There are two parts to this.

The first is the idea that parks and beaches are the spaces where children would choose to play, that our abundant local natural spaces, green and blue, offer children a richer environment for play. These natural spaces are contrasted with the apparently hostile landscapes of roads and pavements and the presence of cars. Streets are described as dirty, hard, and risky. Whilst there is no doubt that play in natural spaces can be rich and rewarding, offering opportunities that indeed don’t exist on residential streets, the idea that these are better places to play is much more contested.

The second is that play streets are OK, but not for these pleasant, green neighbourhoods where the children and their families are ‘lucky’ to have access to private gardens and well-tended and attractive public open spaces. Play streets are fine for more urban neighbourhoods, where flats or homes without gardens dominate, and where playable, outdoor space is limited, but not for those ‘lucky’ neighbourhoods. There are clearly class inferences in all of this.

This is an interesting provocation. In one sense, play streets are especially valuable in those places that have limited access to safe, communal spaces for play. The birth of play streets in early twentieth century New York and in mid-twentieth century Britain was very much driven by the idea that poorer children in more disadvantaged neighbourhoods needed space to play, in the absence of private gardens, public parks, or playgrounds.

All of this underlines however the idea that play streets are only for those children who have no other options. Even for the apparently progressive proponents of play streets during the twentieth century, play on streets was very much seen as a poor substitute for “gardens and open spaces”.

From this perspective – echoed in the messages we received – play on streets is fine as a last resort for poor children, but streets are not where children should be playing, unless there is no alternative, and they are not where children would choose to play.

By contrast, decades of play research and playwork – and hundreds of years of experience – suggest that the street is in fact often children’s chosen space for play. As Mike Barclay and Ben Tawil note “the places children value most outside of the home are not formally recognised as spaces for play, but instead are the streets where they live”.

For children, the streets where they live offer other playmates, kerbs, walls, patches of green space, smooth or bumpy pavements to play on, proximity to home, the easy possibility of adult-free play, and much more. Indeed, streets have been the primary space for play for generations, not least for those generations who tend to be the primary complainants.

Of course, other research underlines some of the other particular benefits of play on streets. Children’s streets are at the heart of their explorations of and relationships with the world and the ability to play in them is critical to their sense of belonging to and learning within them. Stuart Lester and Wendy Russell state clearly that “play is the principal way in which children participate within their own communities” and Tim Gill, in a quote cited regularly in support of street play, insists that “the street is the starting point for all journeys.”

Making these arguments to those who complain seems to have little impact. They often just reiterate that other places to play are more pleasant.

All of this leads me to think that what we are confronting here is a longstanding view, one which is undoubtedly overlaid with inferences of class as I have suggested, that children only belong in certain, designated spaces, that, for my correspondents, children simply don’t belong in the public spaces on their streets, and certainly not in nice neighbourhoods. This is still more interesting because play streets, in their current incarnation, are sometimes seen as very middle class interventions, in places where residents have enough social and cultural capital to navigate the necessary bureaucracy and make a claim to their street as a space for play.

All this resonates for me as I’m increasingly drawn to centring class in my ongoing research and practice around play streets, something that I hope to be able to think and write about more.

It is, of course, worth recognising that these objections are still rare – in the vast majority of resident consultations on new play streets, no objections are raised. Many people, in North Tyneside and beyond, do recognise the value of play on streets and of play streets. But it is nevertheless interesting to dwell for a moment on these particular imaginations of places for play and places for children.

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.

“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.

Getting Granular: Covid-19, Streets and Our Everyday ‘Exercise’

“I’ve noticed both kids getting more granular. Thea is taking close-up photos of flowers, rocks, etc. on our walks. Jack wants to explore the alleys.”

Your Maps of Life Under Lockdown

I like to think we know our street pretty well, the people and places on it, the camber of the road, the front gardens and street trees (since she was little my daughter always called one end of the street ‘the tree way’).

We play out on it most months, closing our street to through traffic for a few hours on a Sunday afternoon or after school. For those few, safe hours, we scoot and cycle on it, we run around on it, we chalk on it, and we sit on it. Often right in the middle of the road.

We already have a pretty granular take on it.

Yet, in recent days and weeks, we’ve had more time to spend on our street and its neighbours, and we’ve been able to explore on foot, on scooter and on bike. We’ve not been limited to just three hours a month without the incessant flow of cars (though we still encounter cars, paying little attention to those they now share the roads with and speeding in 20mph zones).

Today, we scooted. We noticed which streets are smoother and which make our hands wobble and our voices tremble when we chat. We try it out and warble to each other. We spotted the places where can move onto and off the pavements easily and without incident. We misjudged this more than once and our scooters whacked our shins, hard. We bumped over or zoomed round the potholes.

We scooted over, over and over again, the drain covers and looked at and felt the different iron patterns, the noises they made, the sensations on our feet.

We scooted down the white lines, to the white lines, noticing the smoothness of the line and we thought about what the white lines do.

We trundled over cobbles, peaking through the tarmac, and talked about what our streets would have been like when they were first built.

We heard the bird in the neighbour’s flowering cherry and we tried to work out what it was.

We spotted six ladybirds on three bollards, and wondered why they liked them so much (the sun, the texture, the warmth? – there weren’t any on the matching bollards at the other end of the street).

And we met some neighbourhood rabbits. And a lot of neighbourhood cats.

And, of course, we talked and waved to neighbours, who we passed on our streets and pavements, with scooters, buggies, Peppa Pig hats, dogs, and bags of shopping, and in their front yards or on their doorsteps, some we knew, some we didn’t.

Who’s that? asked my daughter, everytime I said hello to anyone. Where do they live?

Here, I said. They’re our neighbours, these are our streets.

(And then I tried to explain why I wanted so many pictures of drain covers and white lines.)

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This blog was inspired not only by my time in my neighbourhood, but by regular and wide-ranging conversations, in all sorts of forms, with Wendy Russell, Alice Ferguson and Ingrid Skeels, and by Penny Wilson’s beautiful post on her London street.

It also connects to my ongoing research: as I’ve already explained on here, I’m supposed to be researching play on streets at the moment, a task now both trickier and more fascinating. One of the questions I’m supposed to be exploring is: how regular playing out intensifies children’s and adults’ connection to the objects and materialities of the street itself, through hanging out on and exploration of its kerbs, roads, pavements, trees, walls, and other affordances. Our lockdown experiences of our streets, for me, intensify this very question.

Improving safe access to street space for children’s play and physical activity

This short briefing paper by Professor Alison Stenning and Dr Wendy Russell explores the evidence for families with children to be allowed greater access to very local neighbourhood space, to allow children to play safely within physical distancing rules – through changes to residential streets that might include, for example, speed limits, road-pavement ratios, and user priority. 

Thinking about Play, Neighbours and Streets in a Pandemic

Unlike so many of my hardworking colleagues who are rapidly having to ‘pivot’ to online teaching and support their students online through challenging personal and academic times, I’m currently on a Leverhulme Research Fellowship. This brief blog is my attempt to get my head round this and start to work out, in these new circumstances, what on earth I can do for the next six months (until I’m due back teaching).

With a focus on organised playing out sessions on residential streets, I’m supposed to thinking about the following questions:

  • how play creates a potential space for new and creative relationships between neighbours of all ages
  • how regular playing out intensifies children’s and adults’ connection to the objects and materialities of the street itself, through hanging out on and exploration of its kerbs, roads, pavements, trees, walls, and other affordances
  • how the radical potential of play might open up debates around the place and value of relationships in our everyday lives;
  • how these explorations around play and relationships map on to developing policy debates around community, loneliness, intergenerationality, and belonging.

In short, my work at the moment is focused on thinking about the relationships between play, neighbours and streets.

I received ethical approval for my fieldwork, to be based on observational and participatory research on streets across the UK, just as the coronavirus crisis hit, as universities withdrew support for all travel, and, then as the national lockdown was introduced. I can’t travel around the UK and streets will most likely not be playing out anyway, if they adhere to current guidance. So, I won’t be spending time on streets as they play out this spring and summer.

Yet, the relationships between play, neighbours and streets seem to be both all the more important and all the more complicated. As the coronavirus crisis and the lockdown have enforced new conditions for social contact, for the use of public space, and for the everyday lives of children and adults, my research questions seem both critical and almost impossible.

Of the many emergences in recent weeks, we have seen thousands of examples of neighbours connecting to support each other through notes distributed to letterboxes, through Facebook and WhatsApp groups, and through more formally organised mutual aid groups. This has happened on streets across the country (and of course elsewhere) but it certainly happened rapidly and fairly straightforwardly on streets that were already connected through play, where the intimate social infrastructures of neighbourhood connections already had names and faces attached. Our recent research on streets that play out found that an amazing 95% of respondents felt that they knew more people because of playing out sessions and 86.7% felt that their street felt friendlier and safer. We concluded that these connections support everyday contact and conviviality, friendships between adults and children, the exchange of help of all kinds, and a range of other neighbourhood activities, and we have seen these relationships develop and transform in recent weeks. But we also know, of course, that these connections are uneven and that they can be unwelcome and exclusionary, so there are many critical questions to be asked about this blossoming of neighbourhood support, its value, and its impacts.

At the same time, our streets have been transformed by the restrictions of non-essential movement – car traffic has dropped enormously. The car has been parked, literally and metaphorically, and streets have quietened. In some places, there have been reports of speeding as the awkward few seek to take advantage of the situation, but in many instances, streets have been reclaimed by cyclists, families walking, to the shops or for exercise, runners, old and young, dog walkers, and children on scooters. The empty spaces of the street invite us to facilitate social distancing by using the whole of the street, not just its margins. In some ways, children and their families become paradoxically more visible on our streets, even in a time of lockdown, as they take their approved breaks from home-schooling to get daily fresh air and exercise. As I watch my street from my desk, most of the passers-by are parents with children, walking, running, scooting, cycling and in buggies. It is not like this in more normal times. Yet, the roads do still belong to cars and this remaking is both partial and precarious. Cycling and walking campaigners are increasingly asking that these changes be recognised and valued, as life eventually returns to normal, so that we can secure more permanently safer passage on our streets for pedestrians and cyclists. For those who dwell on streets – and especially children, families and the more vulnerable – we might also push harder the more challenging questions about how we could use street spaces better for all those who live and play on them and those who move through them, questions about who has the possibility and the right to spend time on and occupy our residential streets.

Credit: Karl Jilg/Swedish Road Administration

We also see a proliferation of playful acts between neighbours – from Italian and Spanish apartment residents singing in impromptu balcony choirs, to children’s painted rainbows appearing as signs of hope and developing into #rainbowtrails, to window bear hunts inspired by Michael Rosen, to hopscotch grids and other chalk art on pavements. The desire to connect through play – even at a distance – reflects the critical importance of play, for children and adults. As many play theorists have argued, we often make connections through play that we don’t make as easily otherwise. These acts then can be seen as evidence of our recognition that play facilitates connections and opens up new spaces for contact and for relationships. These acts would seem to be an attempt to remain social, to reach out, in a context where physically that is now extremely difficult. These playful signs, trails, sounds offer ways to hold a connection that is joyful and enlivening and that connects us as humans, even if we can rarely connect physically across the short distances that separate us. Those additional pedestrians, those families making the most of their time outside – who have space and time to linger and dawdle – stop to spot the rainbows or the teddy bears and make a brief, remote connection to their neighbours, perhaps also waving through the windows too. But we can also identify critiques of these acts – they’re superficial, gestural – like the #clapforNHS – and they perhaps do too little to really transform the spaces and relationships of our everyday lives. Their appeal is immediate but their value is as yet unclear.

All these acts are all the more important as the spaces where we might otherwise connect and play are closed to us – schools, libraries, workplaces, each other’s homes, and, of course, playgrounds. Across the UK and beyond, playgrounds were one of the first casualties, as the social distancing guidance tightened, for fear of contact being too close and of contaminated swings and slides, as researchers evidenced the half-life of the coronavirus on different surfaces. The spaces and practices of outdoor play have been the subject of considerable debate amongst play activists since the crisis started, with a recognition that things could not continue as normal. Yet, there is also a recognition that space for outdoor play must somehow be protected, especially for those who do not have gardens, yards, or even balconies. As some municipal parks close for fear that social distancing isn’t being or can’t be maintained in such open, public spaces, others are calling for priority access to parks for children and their families. But what of our streets as spaces for play, especially in the context of falling traffic and their reclaiming by pedestrians and cyclists? Are there safe ways to advocate for outdoor play on our doorsteps that might alleviate some of the very real difficulties that a lockdown creates for families with children? And how might this rethinking challenge us again to reimagine where play takes place?

In all these myriad ways, my research questions are being brought into very sharp – but very different – focus. They are being refracted, reshaped, and challenged everyday, with new developments, new ideas and new practices. I am extraordinarily wary of attempting to capitalise on the covid crisis – but these questions of play, streets and neighbours are my job for the next six months. It would be utterly inappropriate too to ignore the changing circumstances and new challenges. How I refigure these questions in this context is a politically and personally difficult problem, complicated daily by the now more intense work of parenting and by the distractions and obstacles of life in a pandemic.