The Dagley Dilemma

In the past, Surrey County Council would design bicycle and walking infrastructure like an entity that really hated riding a bicycle or walking; bicycle symbols painted on narrow pavements, solid white lines painted on busy roads inviting close passes from motorists, ‘Cyclist Dismount’ signs (the classic rear guard action of a really bad design) and rough surfaces turning a simple trip between two towns into an extreme sport.

All the above listed feature in the ‘Guildford-Godalming Greenway‘ in my home county of Surrey. It is the classic ‘Work in Progress’; at best mediocre, at worst dangerous. I’ll be expanding on the history of this route at a later date but as a quick overview; it’s Active Travel yet again shoveled to the margins, looking in places like it was designed on an Etch-A-Sketch after drinking a litre of Vodka. Thank goodness there isn’t a climate emergency.

However the Pandemic saw a massive surge in cycling and walking along with the Conservatives allocating funding (a drop in the ocean compared to road building) and backing the creation of more Active Travel routes (making it policy, no less). This prompted Surrey County Council to suddenly surprise everyone earlier this year (particularly the local residents who probably assumed that the status quo would carry on for yet more decades). They announced the following scheme focusing on a stretch of the route; Dagley Lane in Shalford.

Surrey County Council (SCC) is seeking the views of households in the vicinity of Dagley Lane in the relation to the proposed active travel scheme for the Dagley Lane National Cycle Network Route 22….

….Currently, Dagley Lane lacks a tarmac surface. As a result, SCC is proposing to construct a 3-metre wide tarmac path to make it more accessible for cyclists as well as walkers. In wetter times of year, it currently can be impassable.

We have been working with the Surrey Wildlife Trust (SWT) to understand the sensitivities on wildlife in the location. SWT have been undertaking a number of wildlife animal surveys including bat surveys and have been guiding us on measures that would need be taken to mitigate impacts during construction, as well as impacts of the scheme’s infrastructure. Construction would only be carried out at certain times of year to minimise ecological impacts and vegetation cut back would be limited to just beyond the width of the proposed path.

The proposed works on Common Land are part of a route section along Dagley Lane, for which Surrey County Council has funding to construct a high quality facility for walkers and cyclists which it says is ‘inclusive, safe, attractive and comfortable’.

There is an alternative route; the Wey Navigation also connects Guildford and Godalming. However, as I’ve written before, this is not particularly appropriate as a safe cycle route with all the potential for conflict between walkers, cyclists, joggers & anglers that a narrow towpath provides. It is also, like Dagley Lane, pretty muddy in places and bumpy going for anyone in a wheelchair, pushchair or a folding bicycle.

Of course, only an idiot would return to Dagley Lane with a camera and a tape measure.

So anyway, there I was with my camera and tape measure to walk the stretch of Dagley Lane. It’s a route I’ve cycled lots of times over the years. I’m going to start us at the railway bridge to the right on the map above and head toward Guildford.

This is the bridge over the North Downs Line. Note the optimistic National Cycle Route sign with it’s typical surface. Just make sure you don’t suffer from arthritis and/or riding a Brompton.

Here the track narrows to about 1.5 metres. A lot of vegetation. From here on in the width varies from 1.5 to about 4.5 metres.

So far, so rustic. If you like shaking children, recreating a ‘Japanese Earthquake Experience’ for anything on wheels or maintaining access to the countryside for only the fit and able then these pictures are for you. The Guildford to Horsham Road (A281) runs parallel just to the east and you can hear the gentle hum of traffic at all times.

Notice that on some pictures there are garden fences on the right where this Lane runs along the back of dwellings.

Looks pleasant doesn’t it? And wide enough to take a hardened surface without too much trouble.

But wait dear reader!! What’s this coming up??

I’m sure that if The Netherlands was not so flat, they’d have steps built into their active travel routes too. Only kidding!! They’re not that tragically stupid. This is the precise moment that the route becomes inaccessible for many and a ridiculous insult for what is supposed to be a ‘National Cycle Network’ route. Thank goodness there are plans afoot from the Council to right this wrong.

However, for every action, there is a reaction. A group has formed called the Dagley Lane Preservation Group. Before we come to them, let’s take another look at what passes for active travel infrastructure in Britain in the 21st century…

Readers that follow me on Twitter may be familiar with these steps. About a week ago the Dagley Lane Preservation Group appeared on the front page of the local newspaper, The Surrey Advertiser.

The photo does a very good job of ‘Angry Residents Looking Particularly Angry’. I particularly like the ‘Token Cyclist’ energy. However, the photo is taken on the very steps that make the route unpleasant or inconvenient for many with no sense of irony whatsoever. However, it does go to show how a vocal minority group can command the front page of a local newspaper and this can’t be understated. To reiterate; this is a short link between a large town and a village immediately to its south.

(People don’t ride horses to Guildford to do the shopping, by the way. You may have your views on Surrey folk but this never happens).

From here it gets narrow again as the path drops down toward a river with just vegetation and small trees that can be removed and replaced. It also has the same rutted, horrible surface that of course is even more of a pleasure in Winter (if anyone is able to use it).

Eventually we end up at a Water Treatment Works. Sorry! I meant ‘Ye Olde Water Treatment Workes’ (this is apparently an ‘ancient route’ after all).

The Dagley Lane Preservation Group article in the Surrey Advertiser is as follows…

I’ve tried to find their alternative route suggestions, but they seem a bit lacking.

The simple fact is that 70 years of pandering to motoring has led us all here. Guildford and Shalford are traffic choked. Guildford is now on its second bypass (the A3) and people now want that widened. We’ve lost a generation to the simple joys and practicality of riding a bicycle in everyday clothing to work, the railway station, to school or the shops. Many people wanting to cycle are put off by unpleasant and potentially lethal road conditions so the vicious circle of car domination continues.

One of the arguments I encountered against the Dagley Road Scheme was that because the rest of the Greenway is not particularly good, it would be a waste of money to do anything here. Whilst it’s certainly true that the current Guildford-Godalming Greenway feels like walking or riding through the soul of Nigel Farage, we have to start somewhere. And this is a very good place to start with a pretty good proposal from Surrey County Council.

Another problem is political will; I do have sympathies with the Dagley Road Preservation Group in that I’d love to see fully kerb protected cycle tracks along the main roads, I really would. But if segregated cycle tracks were run along the roads into Guildford, they would fizzle out at any narrow point or sign of trouble. The solutions to this are available, but would be regarded as radical and…well…European and therefore a bit foreign. Beleaguered local councillors would barracade their homes as Facebook groups went into meltdown claiming the design was signed off by Marxist revolutionaries. The Daily Mail as well as the Jeremy Vine Show would simultaneously explode. Basically, it would be regarded as political suicide which is why the Greenway at large has been a work in progress for 20 years.

What can’t be ignored however is that loads of new housing is being built around Guildford and Godalming putting further strain on transport infrastructure and access to the countryside. There is no escaping that fact and high quality answers need to be found quickly.

We could live in a weird nostalgic miasma where the local population won’t grow, more housing won’t be built and those less able should be kept out of sight and not enjoy the countryside in comfort. Or we could accept that a decent link needs to be upgraded between a town and a village on its doorstep where far more local people could enjoy the countryside (and Shalford’s facilities) for more of the year.

And the countryside will always be there, still looking beautiful, despite the Dagley Lane Preservation Group presenting their case as though the entire area is about to be slashed and burned whilst any mammal found would be punched to death by burly Council workmen live on YouTube.

It would be wrong and disingenuous to dismiss a pressure group’s concerns out of hand. However, it it is sad that yet again different user groups are at each others throats while the cars continue to rumble on in the background and increase in volume as we push out of the pandemic. That a new scheme benefiting the wider community could have any usefulness strangled out of it by the fickle hand of compromise. I understand the concerns about tarmac and personally would prefer to see an alternate hardened surface installed that is just as robust. But even the most extremist of preservation groups would have to accept that steps on an active travel route are a little bit silly, let alone having your photo taken on them. In fact, it should have been me on the steps looking angry in that photo. I’m 48 years old. Angry comes easy to me these days.

As a footnote, if you get drawn in to Facebook ‘discussions’ where the same, tired, hackneyed fallacies about riding a bicycle crop up (such as ‘road tax’ or ‘registration’, I strongly recommend the excellent Cycling Fallacies website, supported by the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain.