When it isn’t an inaccessible muddy mess, I’m a regular user of the section of NCN 51 linking St Neots to Huntingdon, and if you follow my blog you’ll probably know I’m quite critical of it. My wider experience of local NCN routes is more limited. I have ridden the on road sections, but none of the other off road routes. South of St Neots the NCN 51 heads to Bedford. From town centre to town centre is 14miles, 5.5miles of which are off-road. As I had a couple of hours free, I decided it was time to ride it.
The first observation to make is that unlike to St Neots to Huntingdon, this is a direct route between the town centres.
I started this ride in Bedford and joined the NCN by the A6 town bridge on the south bank of the River Ouse. This is convenient for the town centre, although the centre itself has little dedicated cycling infrastructure. I headed east on the NCN, but if you want to head west you need to cross the A6. You can go underneath the bridge, but you’ll need to be either small, flexible or on a recumbent, as the archway is too low for most users. Cyclists and pedestrians must therefore cross the A6, a busy four lane road lacking any crossing facility. If I am honest, this reinforced my expectations that NCN infrastructure is often just a bit crap.
Heading west you are on traffic free shared use paths. The route has street lighting and the tarmaced surface is smooth and in good repair. The shared use path is wide enough for cyclists and pedestrians to pass comfortably, although you’ll need to be vigilant of dogs off the lead. As always, the shared use path could be improved by segregation.
It is a pretty route passing through parkland alongside the River Ouse and Priory Country Park, so you hardly notice the transition from urban Bedford into rural Bedfordshire. The surface continues to be good and tarmaced. The one road crossing is sensitively designed with the road surface raised to the cycle path. However, at the crossings with other paths and farm tracks there are elaborate gate and chicane systems. They are inconvenient, but all appeared to be navigable with panniers or a child trailer.
After Priory Park, the A421 is crossed by a purpose built bridge. Indeed, whereas the path through Bedford and the country park appears to be improved existing infrastructure, this section looks and feels like a purpose built cycle path.
Entering Willington Woods the surface changes to crushed and compacted limestone. No doubt this was a deliberate decision to make the path in keeping with the woodland surroundings. However, it is a surface I don’t like and an argument I disagree with. As a surface, it can be slippery when wet, it does not wear well and is rough to ride on. Loose stones increase puncture risk and, if used regularly, the grit accelerates wear on the drivetrain and brake pads. The aesthetic argument is, I think, invalid. If there is genuine concern about the visual impact of a small cycle path blending into a Bedfordshire woodland, you would imagine there would be a concerted effort to convert roads through our National Parks to natural materials, or at least camouflage them.
Once out of the woods the tarmaced surface resumes, however, I noticed several places where shallow tree roots traversing the path, had lifted the surface into steep and narrow humps 3-5 cm high. These could easily bring down a rider at moderate speed (not an unrealistic expectation given the quietness of the route) and had to be taken with caution.
After Willington there is a 260m section that is footpath only. It is narrow and has two blind bends. It is a frustrating and disappointing interruption to another wise continuous 5.5 miles of traffic free cycle path.
After the footpath the tarmaced surface resumes, only now it is narrower, no more than a metre wide and, although it has no potholes, the surface is rough and uneven; not especially comfortable if you’re on skinny tyres.
The rough tarmac surface continues until you reach an underpass at Barford Road, connecting Willington to Great Barford. Here you take the left path to St Neots. Straight on takes you to Sandy and from what I could see of it, the Sandy path looked to be good quality and purpose built.
To follow the St Neots route you have to cross over the road you have just ridden under. There is a sign warning you the road is busy. It is not, it is very quiet and marks the start of the on the road section to Great Barford.
You enter Great Barford by crossing a narrow medieval bridge with traffic lights used to control the flow. Immediately after the bridge is a right turn, on to New Road, which takes you to the Roxton Road and the NCN. It is a quiet road and the lights mean the right turn is protected from oncoming traffic. The NCN does not follow this route to the Roxton road, instead it takes you further into the village, turning right just after a bend with poor forward vision. The signage comes late and is easy to miss (it was the only place I felt the signage to be inadequate). Given the position of the right turn relative to the bend and that you must be aware of oncoming traffic, this arguably a less safe turn.
Once on the Roxton road Sustrans instructs you to follow a path alongside the road. The path is narrow and frequently rough and uneven; you are better off using the road. The Roxton road was once a main route into Bedford, but has since been by-passed by the A421. So, today it is a broad, well surfaced and quiet local road.
From Roxton the route follows quiet country roads to St Neots and the town’s own cycle network. The road surfaces are generally good, although like most roads it has its share of potholes, otherwise there is not much more to add. Well not quite. Looking at the Sustrans route map, there is a proposal to take the route through Wyboston, then run alongside the A1 and use the A428 flyover to take you into St Neots. Although the proposed route is slightly more direct, I’m not sure I see the benefit. First it would take the route from a pleasant country road to the noisy A1 and some busy crossings. Second, new infrastructure would need to be built. For example there is currently no path on the A428 flyover. If Sustrans have the money, locally, I think they would be better off using it to improve the off road section between St Neots and Grafham Water turning it from an mtb trail into a usable cycle path.
Overall I was pleasantly surprised by the off-road sections, they were generally well surfaced and while some were narrow and rough, they were not the potholed mud and gravel tracks found to the north of St Neots. So, compared to what I am used to, the ride was a revelation, but perhaps that is also a reflection on our low expectations of cycling infrastructure in the UK. Show this route to a Dutch cyclist and I can’t help wondering: would they see the work of well-intentioned amateurs or disjointed and naive planning authorities?