West Berkshire Council arranged a special meeting of the Cycle Forum to discuss the situation with the Kennet and Avon towpath. We were delighted to be joined by Mark Evans from the Canal and River Trust and Peter Challis of Sustrans. We highlighted what a valued resource the towpath is and how well-used it is by cyclists, not just for leisure trips, but also to get to places, particularly within Newbury. However, the current condition of the towpath has deteriorated to such an extent in places that it is now hazardous for cyclists.
Mark Evans acknowledged the problems and admitted that the focus until now had largely been on maintaining the canal for boaters. He also recognised that wash from passing boats was causing erosion and that mooring pegs could cause splits in the bank, leading to localised issues. All parties recognised the scale of the problems facing the towpath, which are further complicated by environmental constraints, including the desire to maintain the historic feel of the canal and protect endangered wildlife that lives in the canal banks, such as water voles.
The good news is that the Trust is in the process of restructuring and will be placing a much greater emphasis on promotion of health and well-being in future. As a consequence, there will be a much greater focus on the towpath and its users.
There was some discussion about what standard we would like to achieve for the towpath, including widths and surfacing materials. The original Sustrans construction was a crushed limestone surface, but it was recognised that this does not hold up well and needs regular maintenance. Alternatives are available, such as resin-bound surfacing, which can last up to 25 years, but this is much more expensive. What quickly became clear is that it will cost millions of pounds to achieve the ideal facility and that some degree of prioritisation will be required.
Key actions from the meeting were:
- To complete the work on the local audit including the eastern section from Woolhampton to Calcot
- Identify safety-critical points where there is a particular risk due to holes/bank erosion
- Identify the top three priority sections where the path surface should be upgraded
Another meeting has been arranged for 20 February in order to maintain momentum.
The minutes for the January meeting of the Cycle Forum (and minutes of previous meetings) can be found on the About Us section of the Spokes website.