When I was in the House of Commons, I would initiate debates on cycling – I think the first was in 1974, asking for better facilities for cyclists who wanted to put bikes on the train. We made some progress, but then British Rail removed the guardsvans from trains and we had to start all over again.
Another early demand was for a cycle lane through Hyde Park, initially resisted on the grounds that we would mow down all the nannies. But we got there in the end.
With a small inner London constituency – Ealing Acton – it was easier to cycle round it than drive. And, in a marginal seat where visibility was important, people would know I was there. And I could stop, get off and talk to folk, which you can’t do if you are in a car. And later, as a Minister in the Commons, I would try to cycle whenever I could to minimise my carbon footprint.
When I got to the Lords, I started as I had in the Commons, with a debate. (I graduated from being known as the bicycling baronet to being the peddling peer.) And to my surprise, I met considerable headwind. In the Commons, nearly every MP from whatever Party wanted better facilities for cyclists. We would gather every summer for a ceremonial bike ride at an eating-place for breakfast, and then cycle to the Houses of Parliament. We started a bike pool in New Palace Yard to get MPs back on their bikes. But in the Lords, perhaps because of the age differential, there are fewer cyclists and more motorists. My first debate there generated criticism of the new cycle lanes along the Embankment and, sadly, a number of Noble Lords had had unfortunate encounters with ill-mannered cyclists, one of whom was rightly handbagged by a Peeress. I ended up with a draw at the end of the debate with as many pro as were anti.
That debate underlined the need for more understanding between the motorist and the cyclist. It shouldn’t be impossible because most motorists will have cycled at some point, and may well have regular cyclists in their family. But there is a job to be done in dealing with the irresponsible cyclists who give us all a bad name. Do I jump the lights? Certainly not; I am relieved when they turn red because it gives me a chance to get my breath back.
But perhaps more enjoyable than cycling round London is cycling in the countryside, whether in my final constituency in Hampshire or now at home in Cookham.
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About fifty years ago, my wife bought a tandem. She had discovered that, when we cycled together on our own bikes, I would go at a faster pace. She correctly deduced that, on a tandem, this disparity would be eliminated. And so we potter around country lanes together, and will be doing so again now that the better weather has arrived. Living in the Thames Valley, there are plenty of routes which are relatively flat. My wife’s view is not all that it might be; I am six foot four, so my saddle is quite high. But that is the price to be paid for my close company. As we both mature, the radius we travel within gets smaller. But there are many good eating houses along the Thames so we never have to go too far.
I have just taught a granddaughter to cycle, and had forgotten how tiring it can be, sprinting behind a wobbling four year old, shouting at her to brake.
Cycling has always been part of my life; I have been really lucky so far never to have come off, and only had one bicycle and one front wheel stolen in about 60 years. Fingers crossed.