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Snake Pass closure proves case for car-free days on Peak District roads

If you’d hoped to join everyone else taking a spin on the Peak District’s most epic new traffic-free greenway, it appears you’ve missed your chance. As of today, the Snake Pass has reopened to motor traffic with what Derbyshire County Council laughably calls a “safety first approach”. But has this month of tranquility proved the case for regular, or even very occasional, advertised, motor-free days on Peak District roads?

In case you’ve been in one of the Hope Valley’s many caves, a recap: the A57 Snake Pass was closed in late February following a series of land slips in winter storms. This normally frighteningly hostile road was quickly taken over by people on bikes, relishing the opportunity to finally ride it in peace.

Suddenly, Derbyshire County Council announced that the full 12 or so miles between Glossop and Ladybower/Ashopton was now closed to cyclists and walkers too, citing concerns about safety on the, err, basically deserted road.

Yet, unfortunately for the absolute bloody cycle-hating killjoy who made this decision, the official closure notice only covered the actual landslips, meaning many more traffic-free miles could still legally be enjoyed by everyone.

Anyway, now it’s open again, so that’s that. Or is it? I don’t think it should be — not just because I spent half of March blindsided by Covid so didn’t get to ride the damn thing, but because plenty of other people (who might have followed the council’s miserable advice) might’ve also missed out.

And because, more than anything, the huge outpouring of delight from those who did get to cycle (and walk) the road made a very clear point: not everyone wants cars 365 days a year. In fact, rather a lot of people do not want that.

The reality of the Snake

While I’ve seen a few fellow cyclists suggesting (perhaps not entirely seriously) that the Snake Pass should be “closed every weekend”, right now it feels like it’d be a victory to get Derbyshire County Council to ever consider reserving it for cycling and walking, just for a single day. They haven’t, technically, during any of this. And to be fair, there is the small fact that, whether Snake Pass fans like it or not, this is still a major A road connecting two city regions.

Yes, the A628 Woodhead Pass should be the primary route, but for journeys between the south of Manchester and Sheffield, the Snake Pass closure will have undoubtedly pushed even more traffic through the Hope Valley villages of Bamford, Hope and Castleton instead, on some completely unsuitable roads (which also begs the question, why exactly is Winnats Pass allowed to be a major route across the Peak and shouldn’t we also be talking about that?).

The 20 mph limit covers just two short sections of 500 and 700 metres. Derbyshire County Council proudly announces this twisting, 50 mph road without any pavements or cycle facilities is now “open” to cyclists and pedestrians.

Even as a rare cyclist in the minority who doesn’t also drive a car, I couldn’t seriously suggest regular weekend closures of the Snake Pass right now. Such a move would at least require the nearby Hope Valley railway line to see a major increase in services, special weekend ticket prices, longer trains and better cycle carriage (all of which should happen anyway). And even then, is it actually what Peak District cycling really needs? Would the novelty wear off?

Meanwhile, the idea of an off-road cycle route alongside the A57 is sadly a complete non-starter. Besides the small issue of landslips, it’s an undulating, twisting and rather narrow slither of a valley. Even if a cycle path could be engineered in, it’d be incredibly disruptive and eye-wateringly expensive, for what?

Ok, yes — to have a safe route into the Peak District from Glossop, but alongside the din of cars (one major upside of the closure was the peace bestowed on the valley). And then is it the best thing to be spending money on, when the High Peak is currently at near zero kilometres of road cycling facilities?

As seemingly everyone wanted to talk about the Snake Pass and whether it was or wasn’t legal to ride, I had to wonder why the absolute lack of safe cycle routes into the Peak District National Park wasn’t the key message being focused on.

Traffic-free Sundays?

But I do, absolutely, support the cause. Why should people be deprived entirely of cycling this glorious route in peace and safety? Given that the Snake Pass with normal traffic is basically uncycleable, to anyone but the most confidently unfazed close-pass enthusiast, making it car-free just one weekend a year would absolutely be worth fighting for and would seem absolutely fair.

Looking at how many people decided to ride it when the council explicitly told them not to, imagine how many would visit to give it a go if it were a legitimate event. The pictures speak for themselves: the case for a Sunday “closure” of this road once a year, once a quarter or even once a month has been made.

But then why stop at the Snake? The Peak District and Derbyshire have plenty of other magnificent roads which are even less vital as motor traffic arteries but just as nerve-wracking to cycle on a regular weekend. Why not imagine a whole season of traffic-free rides, scheduled through the summer, spreading the joy and the message, with a different road across the National Park reserved for non-motorised traffic on each weekend?

One weekend: the Snake Pass; the next: A5004 Long Hill. Winnats Pass without Sunday traffic once a year? Yes please. There must be many more possibilities.

And if those are a little challenging, how about the A6 from the centre of Buxton to Topley Pike, linking into the Monsal Trail? A horrible racetrack of a road which seems to be closed every other week for flooding or roadworks anyway. Imagine it full of families on bikes for one weekend a year and the case that would set for better cycling provision.

These traffic-free days would become local events, drawing people in just like the Snake Pass closure did, contributing to tourism and local businesses. With a bit of coordination the council could use them for lighter maintenance works, thus actually reducing the need for other closures.

Not a finish line win but a novelty statement

Of course, there’s something a bit objectionable about all this. The idea that people wanting to cycle a certain road have to wait until it’s “closed” to feel safe enough to do so.

Any call for traffic-free days on this or other Peak District roads should therefore not be seen as a finish line win but a novelty statement. Merely one stage along a very necessary journey this council and this National Park needs to take, to push forward into a new era. A chance to let people see “what could be”, just for one weekend, and build the support for better cycling conditions year-round across the Peak District.

To anyone riding a beautiful, quiet, closed road, the case is made immediately and profoundly: not that we need to close every A road, but that cycling should feel this safe, this enjoyable, this accessible to all comers, all the time.

The case also that usable, safe and enjoyable new cycle routes connecting key hubs and landmarks must take the same priority as major A roads, if we are ever going to move away from such stifling car dependency. And that the movement of private motor vehicles into, across and around a National Park should not continue to take precedence, constantly, all the time, over seemingly everything and everyone else.

That’s what a real “safety first approach” would look like.

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About Peaks & Puddles

Hello, I'm Anthony. I started Peaks & Puddles to chart the ups and downs of cycling and walking the edges of the Peak District around Buxton, Macclesfield and Stockport, and to help more people explore this brilliant landscape between town and country. Find out more about me and Peaks & Puddles here.