Clearing a pathway to Arcady

Cycle way volunteer camps provide a cheap and soul-satisfying way to spend a couple of weeks in idyllic surroundings.
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The Independent Culture
It was a midsummer day's dream. Cycling in the early morning sunshine past hedgerows sprinkled with delicate pink dog roses and bold red poppies, we were in a strange, Enid Blyton-like twilight zone - fresh-faced and ready to enjoy the day. As I freewheeled on a long downhill stretch, memories of perfect childhood summers came flooding back - the ones that lasted for ever and were never spoilt by anything so mundane as rain.

The dream had in fact started the night before, which was spent supping beer outside the Red Lion on Church End village green, Haddenham, in the heart of Buckinghamshire. Picture-postcard perfect, it was a scene that Americans and the English Tourist Board would croon over: a carpet of thick grass, an ancient church, thatched cottages, and a small pond full of ducks and ducklings flipping their bottoms upwards every few minutes, diving for food.

At the end of the evening, in true summer holiday form, we cycled en masse back to the farm where we were staying, between Thame and Princes Risborough. No frilly curtains and matching towels for us; we were sleeping in a barn - although Karimats and a hot power shower brought us into the Nineties.

But there was one problem with our rural idyll. Although some of our journey that evening had been along quiet country lanes, we also had to hold our own on busy roads, hugging the kerb as lorries thundered past and cars took advantage of the long stretches of open road.

And that was why we were here. Sixteen of us - some local, some from farther afield - were volunteers spending two weeks building a new cycle path that will allow the cars and lorries to have the roads to themselves, while cyclists, horse-riders and walkers ride and stroll undisturbed along an alternative route.

At the moment more than 1,100 miles of cycle ways have been built in the UK - a mixture of traffic-free paths along disused railways, canals and rivers, forest tracks, and increasingly, traffic-calmed urban roads.

But in order for Sustrans (the organisation that is building and promoting the network) to reach its proposed 6,500 miles by the millennium, more person-power is needed. As the routes are in some of the most beautiful areas of Britain and there is no cost to volunteers except a pounds 15 registration fee and food, it is not proving hard to get willing victims.

Six of our group had worked on the Sustrans Trailblazer camps last year and returned this year as volunteer co-ordinators. "It was one of the best summers I've ever had," says Pip A'ness, a 26-year-old lecturer from Hull. "We worked in Derby and South Wales - both really beautiful areas - and we had a fantastic time. Most people go and lie on a Spanish beach for a couple of weeks, but after working on the camps I've realised there's so much of the UK I want to see. Cycling around a place also means you see much more, and living in a community for a couple of weeks getting to know everyone is great."

Everyone has a different story of how they came to be here. For Ted from Colchester, this camp is just one of a series of jaunts he has made since retirement, including a cycling trip to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. For Laura, a student in Bolton, it is a cheap and different holiday.

For Andy, a 34-year-old ex-environmental health officer, it is a chance to gain more skills in conservation - something he wants to move into, having been burnt out by city life. "I worked seven days a week, commuting into London and getting thoroughly stressed, so I got out. But I decided not to travel overseas - not to run away from things - but to do the things I was interested in in my own country: working outdoors in conservation."

I was just there for the weekend, and on the Sunday morning - the summer solstice - we cycled from the farm to the end of the railway track we were to be clearing. This is less than three miles as the crow flies, and as the cycle route will go, but seven miles by road, which is why so many local people want it. The route was suggested by a local cabinet- maker, John Francis, who was eager to cut down his cycle ride to work, and have a safe route to cycle on with his children.

Cecilia Fry, an accountant from Thame, is also a supporter. "When I can cycle to Princes Risborough it'll be a great day. My pet hate is having to drive such short distances."

We set to work. Our half of the group was assigned to clearing vegetation off the track. After a training session on tool safety, we started digging, sawing, lopping and hacking. In the heat of the sun, three brave workers broke up the ground with mattocks. The rest took the cooler option of working in the undergrowth.

Our task was to divert the track through the vegetation of the railway siding for a few hundred yards so that it did not go too close to the old station house, whose occupants wanted to maintain their privacy. The bushes in the way had been chopped down earlier, so we cut up the branches and arranged them into natural screens and small "habitat piles" for wildlife.

As I left on Sunday afternoon the group were planning their week's work - making bunds (short "sleeping policemen" that force cyclists to slow down at footpath crossing-points), painting signs and helping lay the track.

The evening's entertainment was also being planned. Cycle rides round the local area and trampolining were two activities being mooted. But I got the feeling that the Red Lion and that idyllic village green had already claimed the hearts of most.

This summer's Sustrans Trailblazer camps include: converting a disused railway in Northampton (11-25 July); completing an existing coastal route in Swansea (18 July-1 August); building a new cycle path linking two existing forest tracks near Callander, Stirling (1-15 August); building a new bridge and path to reach the dramatic Heligan Gardens in Cornwall (8-22 August); constructing a new woodland path in the Lake District (22 August- 5 September), and upgrading an existing path in Okehampton, Devon (29 August-12 September).

Contact: Sustrans, 143 High Street, Lewes BN7 1XT (01273 488190).

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