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Potholes and Pavements: A Bumpy Ride on Britain’s National Cycle Network



Entertaining and informative read that brings focus to some infrastructure that could be of even more benefit to society than it is – given the chance
The best analysis yet of the NCN
Another compelling argument for active travel
No photos
385g Recommends

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In Potholes and Pavements, respected journalist Laura Laker rides along the most significant cycling facility in the country, the National Cycling Network, finding out what works, what doesn't, and why. She also covers the history of this important asset, and gives us hope that it could play an even more important role in a less-motorised future. It should be compulsory reading for anyone making decisions about 'active travel'.

While Potholes and Pavements is a snappy title for this book, I don't think it really does justice to what is on offer. It's not until you get to the subtitle – 'A bumpy ride on Britain's National Cycle Network' – that the cycling-specific focus becomes clear. Even then it doesn't really prepare you for the thorough analysis of the good and bad of the NCN – and so much more.

As Jesse Norman (former Minister of State in the Department for Transport) writes in his foreword, it's a 'travelogue, history, and autobiography all entwined, plus a deep understanding of policy – and a fair dose of polemic to boot'.

Using a physical exploration of the NCN as the basis of the book, along the way Laura looks at how 'millions of Britons are trapped in car ownership', despite the fact that cycling and other modes of self-propelled transport 'could improve a litany of societal woes'.

Laura Laker is well known around these parts, having contributed numerous articles to over the years. She describes herself as 'a freelance journalist specialising in cycling and urban transport', and you may have also come across her in various magazines, newspapers, podcasts and TV shows.

A few years ago I felt that Peter Walker's Bike Nation made sound arguments in favour of 'active travel' but was destined to be largely ignored in the mire of political ideology and culture wars; unfortunately, I am similarly pessimistic about the acceptance of the common-sense views expressed by Laura – but that doesn't stop it from being an entertaining and informative read.

The travelogue element of the book arises from her tour of the NCN, primarily combining bike and train. Ah, the train. Although 'cycling and train travel should be the perfect travel combo', the process is often 'bizarre and frustrating'. Perhaps the forthcoming Great British Railways will help?

Not surprisingly, Laura's experience of the NCN (and some related cycle routes) matches that of many of us, as the many comments and pictures on this website will confirm: badly designed barriers, inappropriate surfaces, blockages of many different types – choose your favourite frustration. However, she concludes that while the NCN is far from perfect, it still provides enough positives to be worth using – and fighting for. 'It's good but it's not a network.'

I found the coverage of the origins of Sustrans and the NCN to be a fascinating reminder of how we got here, including the part that Cyclebag, John Grimshaw, and many others have played. It makes you realise how easily things could have turned out better (or worse) if different decisions had been made. I suspect that sometimes you will find it just as frustrating to read about the development of the network as it can be to actually ride it.

Other luminaries to lend support and make comment include Chris Boardman and Ned Boulting, both featuring in their 'alternative' roles as everyday cyclists.

There are a lot of facts and statistics built into the book, providing just the sort of useful information that could help with any campaigning. I guarantee that you will discover something new. Who knew that the NCN 'actually carries more walking trips' than cycling trips, for example?

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I was disappointed not to see any pictures, as there were times where it would have helped to understand the situation being described – an impressive bridge, for example, or an ill-considered barrier. There is much useful information throughout, and I can see repeat visits being likely (in the style of a reference book), though the lack of an index will make that harder.

I came away being impressed at just how much the NCN has to offer, optimistic at the opportunities that could come from various improvements, and frustrated about hard it can be to do anything with this important facility.


Entertaining and informative read that brings focus to some infrastructure that could be of even more benefit to society than it is – given the chance test report

Make and model: Potholes and Pavements: A Bumpy Ride on Britain's National Cycle Network

Size tested: 234 x 153 mm

Tell us what the product is for and who it's aimed at. What do the manufacturers say about it? How does that compare to your own feelings about it?

From Bloomsbury:

What if we were less reliant on our cars? What if there were safe cycling paths to take us places instead? What if those paths led to the next town, the next village and the countryside beyond?

This was the dream of a group of Bristolian idealists in the 1970s when they founded Britain's National Cycle Network, which now runs to nearly 13,000 miles across the country. Journalist Laura Laker sets off on an odyssey around the UK to see where the NCN began, and where it is now.

What has gone right – and wrong – with this piece of national infrastructure? Why is it run by a charity whose CEO once admitted 'we've had enough of it being crap, we need to fix it'? Laura lifts the lid on this maddening, patchy, and at times dangerous network, and the similarly precarious politics and financing that make it what it is.

She discovers beauty, friendship and adventure along the way, from the Cairngorms to Cornwall, from the Pennines to the South Wales coast. On her mission to pin down what the NCN is and what it means to those who use it, she also meets up with high-profile travelling companions, including Chris Boardman and Ned Boulting.

In a country where 71% of trips are less than five miles, two thirds of Britons say they want to cycle more and doing so could help our climate, health and wellbeing. Laura is on a mission to see if we can make that dream a reality.

Tell us some more about the technical aspects of the product?

Title: Potholes and Pavements

Author: Laura Laker

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Date: 9/5/24

Format: Paperback

Pages: 304

ISBN: 9781399406468

Price: £16.99

Tell us what you particularly liked about the product

There is so much more on offer than initially expected.

Tell us what you particularly disliked about the product

Complete lack of images.

Did you enjoy using the product? Yes

Would you consider buying the product? Yes

Would you recommend the product to a friend? Yes

Use this box to explain your overall score

It over-delivers on its promise, and I suspect that most people will enjoy reading it more than they might expect.

Overall rating: 9/10

About the tester

Age: 60  Height:   Weight:

I usually ride:   My best bike is:

I've been riding for: Over 20 years  I ride: Most days  I would class myself as: Expert

I regularly do the following types of riding: touring, club rides, sportives, general fitness riding,

Add new comment


chrisonabike | 2 months ago
1 like
Richard Peploe wrote:

Who knew that the NCN 'actually carries more walking trips' than cycling trips, for example?

I didn't know it for certain but I would have almost guaranteed it.

Makes logical sense - there are far more trips for "transport" walked than cycled, there are substantially more recreational trips walked than cycled.

Also - lots of these routes are arguably more "walking" routes than cycle ways.  Some - if they're in condition for anyone to use them without e.g. a boat or a tracked vehicle - are definitely more of a prospect off the bike.

Sustrans themselves (at least in the past) seem to have emphasised the phrase "active travel".  Sometimes "walking, wheeling ... " *whispering* "and cycling".  Possibly just me seeking out issues where none but does sometimes seem the idea is to mean "walking" and avoid mentioning the "C" word - presumably in the hope of avoiding triggering a negative reaction.

brooksby | 2 months ago
1 like

Just collected my copy from Waterstone's yes

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