Although we may live in an idyllic part of Devon, many of the routes between our towns and villages were, unfortunately, not designed for 21st century traffic. This has not been improved with the number of cars and lorries on our roads doubling in the last 40 years. Vehicles are now bigger, always in a hurry, and meeting a cyclists is often frustrating for all concerned. As a result, cycling has become increasingly dangerous and sadly many parents will no longer encourage children to cycle to school, to friends or for pleasure, in the way they perhaps remember doing themselves.
To provide a safe alternative, the idea of an off-road cycling, walking, multi-use trail between Feniton, Ottery and Sidmouth has raised its head a number of times. So where are we now?
An open meeting was held at The Kings School, in October, to re-launch the idea to those with an interest , either as a landowners, business owners or potential user. Since then, a small group of volunteers have met to investigate the way forward in the Ottery area. They have been working alongside students from The Kings School and members of the Sidmouth Vision Group who are doing likewise in the Sidmouth area.
An important development, in recent years, is the increased commitment by Devon County Council (DCC) to 'sustainable transport'. DCC now has an established Devon Cycle Strategy and in the past 3 years over £13 million has been invested in the cycle network and cycle safety throughout Devon. This has helped to fund schemes like the Exe Estuary Trail, Gem Bridge near Tavistock, the Town Quay Connect 2 bridge in Newton Abbot and connecting paths to Kingsteignton, phase one of the Wray Valley Trail, and a section of the Stop Line Way from Kilmington to Axminster.
DCC are planning to continue investment in cycling over the next five years and have already identified a new route connecting Feniton to Sidmouth as a prime contender. It is clear that with the backing of DCC, a complex project like this is far more likely to succeed, but it's not guaranteed. The 'Otter Trail' will be competing for funding with other similar projects throughout Devon. Nevertheless, the Otter Trail ticks lots of boxes... linking to schools, linking to the main London train line, linking the towns and villages of Sidmouth, Tipton St John, Ottery St Mary and Feniton, which are all growing in population. The potential benefits to local business and tourism are also significant.
There has been no formal agreement over a route, however, the first choice has generally focused around the old railway line between Feniton and Sidmouth. Unfortunately, since the closure of the railway in 1967 most has been returned to local landowners and, although some of the railway route is still visible, and some now a public footpath, many landowners have naturally become accustomed to farming without a right of way intruding in their business. At a time when the farming industry is under great pressure it is clear that the extra intrusion of a new path is not generally popular. It would , no doubt, affect some farms more than others but, of course, in some cases may also bring opportunities. So, it's hoped that landowners will be more supportive when there is more detail about 'where, when and how' it might work. In many places an alternative to the railway route would still have to be found, to get around buildings, gardens and other structures.
These issues are not unique to the Otter Valley. There are a growing number of cycle paths around the country which have all faced similar challenges, and solutions found. Government policy is still looking to develop more of these links around the UK and the charity Sustrans (www.sustrans.org.uk), who are working closely with the Otter Trail Group, have been a key facilitator in many of these projects.
If there is enough local support now there is a better chance of this happening than ever before. Ottery St Mary have a good record of council, school and community cooperation in making things happen. This has been demonstrated following the successful completion of the Coleridge (Connect 2) Bridge, which was recently highlighted as a nationwide example of community led development.
At their stand at the Ottery Food & Families Festival the Otter Trail Group saw overwhelming interest and support for the project, from all ages, interests and abilities. This project will, however, need lots more public support if it's going to succeed.
If you would like to know more or would like to comment on, support or get involved please see the Otter Trail website for more information on what's happening and who to contact. The website address is www.ottertrail.org