I caught up with Willow Mitchell and found out all about how she went from pootling around the country lanes on her bike as a kid to working on exciting behaviour change projects with Sustrans. Via Brighton and Berlin of course. Although we both live and work in Colchester our paths crossed in Chelmsford, which is how we found ourselves chatting over a table in the atrium of County Hall…
How did you first start cycling?
It was the classic story really, I grew up in a village so cycling was a great way to get around on the quiet lanes and as a family we often went camping in the New Forest and I’d always take my bike. Being the youngest of four I always got the hand-me-down bikes though, the first bike I rode myself was covered in Frosties stickers! Eventually though I got my own bike, I don’t remember much about it except it was bright blue and… it had gears! I remember how I used to scoot around the coop car park after hours to get my balance while riding one handed.
In my teenage years my cycling petered out as it tends to do when you reach that age. I’d just always associated cycling with recreation rather than transport, and I didn’t get back into cycling for a long time after that. I moved to Brighton for university and it’s such a small city it’s easy to get around so I didn’t really need a bike. After that I moved to London for work and lived a very long way from the office and with no cycle storage so cycling wasn’t an option there either. I don’t drive so I had just become used to public transport and walking and that had felt good enough, until recently when I was living in Berlin. It’s such a fantastic place to cycle! It was enough to give me a taste of what cycling could (and should) be like.
I’ve been based back in Colchester for three months now and starting my new job at Sustrans has finally enabled me to return to cycling. I’ve retrieved my bike from the back of the shed, pumped the tyres up and I’m starting to explore the local network.
What kind of cycling do you do?
I’ve found that cycling has been a really good way to get around, particularly for work. I live in town, but as part of my role I visit Stanway very regularly. I’ve really started to discover great off road and quiet paths going to and from town, it’s like a constellation all tied together. I used to rely on the bus, so my short commutes have really given me a different understanding of the layout of the town.
Tell us a little bit about your work with Sustrans
I’m Engagement Officer for an exciting new project called Winstree Road Community Led Street Design. The project combines behaviour change and temporary infrastructure trials, entirely driven by community engagement and feedback. There are three schools on Winstree Road and another is opening soon, so there are real challenges around balancing the needs of school users, street users and local residents. We’re engaging the community to understand the challenges and aspirations they have for the street and surrounding area, with a focus on reducing the vehicle usage at peak times of day and we’ll be trialling a lot of their ideas along the way. Through connecting with the community I really feel like I’m sharing the journey with them!
Luckily, I’m also going to be spending a lot more time exploring local NCN routes in the coming months. I’ll be popping up around the town with info and activities to promote local routes and support more people get on their bikes and enjoy the local paths.
How do you find Colchester as a place to cycle?
Surprising! I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the routes I’ve found that I didn’t know previously existed like the path that runs through Lexden Park and the quiet roads around there. However I’ve also found there can be a lot of uncertainty with routes. You’ll suddenly go from being on a quiet, segregated path to being thrown straight out into a busy road. It sort of undermines the hard work of putting in the quiet routes as people aren’t sure if they’ll be able to travel safely and confidently the whole length of their journey.
What’s the best thing about cycling?
It’s empowering and liberating, especially as a non-driver. It gives me more freedom than I can get from just public transport and walking. Buses can only take you so far, and you’re reliant on a timetable. When they work buses are great, but you’re stuck with a rigid timeframe out of your control; the thing I love most about cycling is it’s not a passive travel experience. I’ve had some cycling adventures in the past like getting the train to Snowdonia and taking my bike camping off the beaten track, but I get that same feeling of empowerment just on a practical level commuting to work, and that sense of freedom is what I love.
And with that I had to dash off to catch my train! Thank you to Willow for taking the time to talk about her cycling CV, and if you’d like to find out more about the Winstree Road project or get involved yourself, you can see updates on their facebook page