Northampton

Will a £50 bike repair voucher get Wellingborough cycling?

Wellingborough
Image caption Joey Woodage: "I'm not sure it's enough to get people active"

The government is to introduce £50 bike repair vouchers to encourage cycling. But what difference will it make in places where people don't already cycle?

When it comes to cycling, Wellingborough doesn't exactly lay out the red Tarmac.

"I can't actually think of where the places to lock up your bikes are in town," says mental health nurse Joey Woodage.

She has just driven to the outskirts - then walked the rest of the way.

"It's really over-populated in terms of car traffic here," she adds.

"But there's also a complicated one-way system which is just not designed to facilitate cyclists. From where I live I can't cycle - it would be down a dual carriageway."

According to government statistics, the Northamptonshire town is bottom of the England league team when it comes to walking and cycling.

Hot on the heels of its obesity strategy, the government is trying to coax England back on two feet - and two wheels.

An initial 50,000 vouchers will be made available online on a first-come, first-served basis. Bikes will also be made available on the NHS.

Across the land, families are dusting off fossilised frames, pumping up tyres and testing brakes in earnest.

Not so much in Wellingborough. But is there a way forward?

Image caption Unloved: Wellingborough's cycle racks don't see much action

Chris Francis, who works in insurance and lives within five miles of the town, is already a convert to pedal power.

He gets on his bike every day "for the fitness, but also because it's just easier to get around."

But he says it is not a pleasant experience.

"Wellingborough is horrendous for cyclists," says Mr Francis. "Drivers are not vigilant towards us, and the council's cycle paths are half-hearted, stopping in certain places altogether."

He believes the voucher scheme has "potential", but only for existing cyclists.

"Wellingborough is a low-income town. Where's the support? Even with £800 you can't source a good bike. You have to make it affordable.

"The voucher is nice - but only if you have a bike in the first place."

Mr Francis says he feels "lucky" that he was able to get a bike through the government's cycle-to-work scheme, which allows him to get around quicker.

"The amount of dirty looks and people who judge you for cycling is quite bad. But we need to break down the stigma here."

Image caption Chris Francis: "The voucher is nice but you need a bike first"

Wellingborough is known as a medieval market town steeped in Anglo-Saxon history, with a church dating from 1160. It's also name-checked in the Domesday Book.

But it's also a town with sporting pedigree.

It's the birthplace of snooker world champion Peter Ebdon - as well as fellow snooker stars Rory McLeod and Jamie O'Neill.

It has football teams, a rugby team and one of the UK's biggest basketball clubs, Wellingborough Phoenix.

On top of that, it is home to the annual International Waendel Walk, which has seen thousands of ramblers snaking through the borough every May for more than 40 years.

However, there was little evidence of cycling in the streets on the day of the government's announcement.

Wellingborough is typical of small towns throughout England, with its brick tiled market - in the shadow of All Hallows' Church - beyond its heyday.

Despite the draw of out-of-town shopping parks like Rushden Lakes, The Swansgate is the county's second biggest shopping centre.

Image caption Wellingborough is not known for its cycling heritage
Image caption The town has an annual walk - but doesn't actively seem to encourage cycling

Cycling UK, which has a five-year strategy to get more people on their bikes, says cycling levels in most parts of the country remain "stubbornly low". Only 2% of people regularly make trips by bike, according to the charity.

The biggest barrier to cycling and walking for people in the UK, it says, is "the feeling that it's not safe and easy".

You may also like:

Wellingborough - with a population of 50,000 - has 2,500 registered businesses. But only one independent cycle shop.

Cycling, it appears, is not a thing here.

Image caption The centre of Wellingborough is pedestrianised - but not cycle-friendly
Image caption Chris Airby and Holly: "There's not a lot of provision for cyclists"

Chris Airby, 65, loves nothing more than taking border collie Holly on a daily walk around the town.

"I don't cycle, not at all, not at my age," he says.

"It's a decent idea to get people more active, but maybe a better thing would be some kind of sugar tax to nudge people in the right direction to eat more healthily.

"There's not an awful lot of provision for cyclists round here, like cycle lanes or places for kids to cycle safely."

Derek Balmer, 83, has chosen to cycle in to town for a spot of shopping because "you can get closer to the shops, it's easier". But it was not without its perils.

"There's too much traffic, it's dangerous," he says.

"The potholes are terrible. It's very frightening sometimes."

Image caption Derek Balmer: "There used to be more people on bikes here - and a cycling club"

But there may be good news ahead for the town's cycling prowess, with a possible gear change imminent.

The borough council says its "network of cycle ways" is "currently being considered for improvement".

And on Friday, the town will stage its first "Critical Mass" ride - a meet-up of enthusiasts that organisers hope will enhance participation locally.

Image caption Wellingborough is steeped in history. The church dates from the 12th century
Image caption Wellingborough Borough Council says it is considering improving its cycle provision

"Wellingborough is not a nice place to cycle," says Samuel Shoesmith, an avid rider.

"There is a worry that local councils won't listen, but this will push forward a radical change to the way people get about.

"For decades there hasn't been any move towards any investment here."

Image caption Samuel Shoesmith: "Wellingborough needs radical change"

Mr Shoesmith, an NHS worker, has organised Friday's event as a direct call to the council to "make cycling and walking better."

"There is still a need to protest," he says.

"This is an opportunity to make everyone realise there is a need for better infrastructure. It'll be a ride around to protest - but more to celebrate - cycling and its wonders.

"This is a call for change."

Image caption The market town lacks the incentive to get locals from four wheels to two

Find BBC News: East of England on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. If you have a story suggestion email eastofenglandnews@bbc.co.uk

More on this story

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites