On a chilly Monday evening at the end of January I took a ride to meet Jo and Jay, founders of Wivenhoe Bike Kitchen. I leant my bike against the fence outside their workshop in the Canoe Store at the old Cook’s Shipyard in Wivenhoe, knocked on the door, and was greeted by Jo – and the offer of a hot cup of tea. How could I say no…
When did you first start riding a bike?
Jay: Probably when I was quite small. I used to cycle to school as it was nice and close, I must have been about 6 or so. Back when cycling wasn’t seen as so weird or terrifying!
Jo: I started on roller-skates, then a scooter and then a bike. I was about 8 or 9 and it gave me the complete freedom to go off for the whole day.
Do you remember your first bike?
Jo: Honestly, no. The first bike I do remember I had as a teenager, it was a 3-speed classic bike and I toured it round France with my friend, drying our clothes on our handlebars as we went. I didn’t really think about it at the time but looking back it was kind of mad that we did it! We were full of enthusiasm which probably got us a long way.
Jay: I had a mini safety bike with solid tyres that I inherited from my sister, not particularly comfortable…
What kind of riding do you do?
Both: Getting from A to B!
Jo: I use my bike for everything, so I don’t really think about it as a “kind of” riding. I use it for transport and commuting, and everything else as I don’t have a car. I’ve never done sports cycling or anything like that, it’s just my everyday wheels.
Jay: I’m the same really, I don’t do sport, and I just use my bike for getting around, normal stuff really.
(after some prodding from Jo we learn a bit more…)
Jay: Well, I suppose I’ve done a few things. I rode the Dunwich Dynamo, and in 2009 I rode to Copenhagen to the UN Conference of the Parties… on a tandem. You have to really get on with someone to ride a tandem that far – we’re not together anymore! The trip was to take part in the climate change demonstrations around the conference.
Jo: Cycling needs to be normal in this country. The Olympic Legacy stuff might have had a boost on sports cycling but it’s not helped everyday riders or made cycling any more normal. Compared to cycling in Europe, especially in Denmark or Holland, cycling in the UK isn’t just something everyone does. That needs to change if we’re going to reclaim towns and cities for people.
Together you founded Wivenhoe Bike Kitchen, how did that come about?
Jo: We started with Transition Town Wivenhoe in 2012, just doing bicycle checks at the local farmers market. Jay has always tinkered with bikes so we’d bring along his basic kit and do some tune ups. We then started hiring the local hall to run beginners classes.
Jay: We did the Dr. Bike for a while and realised that there’s about 3 or 4 things that are most commonly wrong with a bike, and all of them are really simple to fix, like pumping up tyres, teaching people what barrel adjusters do. Once you get those few things right the bike feels great!
In 2014 we put forward a proposal to Wivenhoe Town Council (WTC) to use their storage/workshop space at Cooks Shipyard on peppercorn rent on a meanwhile lease, and they accepted our proposal. After 3 or 4 months we were able to secure funding from Essex County Council to pay a proper rent and formalised our agreement with WTC and we’ve been here ever since!
Jo: We’re up to about 6 volunteers now with people dipping in and out when they have the time, along with students who come along on an ad-hoc basis. We’ve found people will come along to learn things themselves, then keep coming back to pass that knowledge on to others.
It’s about giving people the confidence to work on their own bikes in an environment where it’s ok to make mistakes. We’re not looking to rush people in and out the door just to get it done – it’s most important that they learn in the process. We love doing it too, even in rubbish weather we’re always here, it’s just so nice to interact with people of all ages, make connections and see people feel empowered by what they’ve learned. We also do a lot of signposting to other services like Re~Cycle, and we’ve built up a good network of people and resources.
How do you find Colchester and Wivenhoe as a place to get around by bike?
Jo: Pretty awful, except by the Wivenhoe Trail. Traffic speeds in Wivenhoe are quite high which makes it an unattractive place to cycle, it would change everything if the whole of Wivenhoe was a 20mph limit. Colchester is a pretty mixed bag – a lot of it is about knowing your way around what cycle paths there are so you can avoid the roads. If you don’t, then it can be quite confusing and intimidating.
Jay: The worst thing are the shared spaces (they both groan). The problem is with unsegregated paths you end up conflicting with pedestrians as there’s such a big speed difference – they just don’t work as a utility cycling route. It comes from a study that said they were the perfect solution… in very specific circumstances, and certainly not for utility cycling. Unfortunately this got misinterpreted and we’ve ended up with loads of them.
Jo: They are the worst of both worlds, they aren’t good for any mode of travel, but especially bicycles.
Compared to cycling in Holland it feels like cycling is a big deal – you spend so much time thinking about how to avoid roads or the best route to take, it can be quite nerve-wracking. Over there (in the towns and cities at least) there’s nothing really to worry about, you just get on your bike and go.
What’s the best thing about riding your bike?
Jo: There’s something about the sense of freedom it gives you. Over my lifetime that’s changed slightly – when I was a kid it was the sense of freedom to explore and take on adventures, but now it’s the freedom I have from not relying on my car and the positive and political change riding my bike can make on the world. It’s a good thing for society, for my health, for the environment and for my happiness. There’s just something very right about it.
Jay: When I was hit by a car I lost a bit of that sense of freedom, I’m a bit more nervous about riding, especially on the road. But I still love being outside, amongst other human beings, interacting with each other. In European cities you have that feeling, even though you’re not physically interacting with everyone, just being with them makes you feel good. I love riding in the countryside, but cities can feel joyful too without motor vehicles – Colchester could be that.
Jo: I love being in the natural world, enjoying the sunrises and sunsets, stopping on the spur of the moment to just take it in or look at something – It’s much harder to do that by car.
I want to say thankyou to whoever invented the bicycle!
And with that I finished the last gulp of my tea to steel myself for the ride home, and Jo and Jay opened the doors of Wivenhoe Bike Kitchen ready to help the residents of Wivenhoe fix their bikes. Thank you both for taking the time to meet me.
If you’re interested in learning to fix your own bike or would just like to find out a bit more, Wivenhoe Bike Kitchen are open every Monday from 7-9pm and Sundays from 2-4pm
You can also find them on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/wivenhoebikekitchen/