Catha's Seat

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Catha's Seat (previously Mum's Bike Bench) Progress Update Mid Feb

Apologies that there hasn't been an update on this for a while however, I am pleased to report that, after a few hiccups, we are firmly on track. After the last post, the rest of January and early February were quite quiet until Sheila managed to secure a site meeting with Colin, the cycle route project leader from Kent County Council. Since then we have been on a rollercoaster!

By the time the meeting day arrived, in mid February, the resurfacing works were fully underway on the northern stretch on the Old Wye Lane from Pope Street up to Mystole Farm - the section on which the seat is proposed. The contractors, EOS Civil Engineering, were scraping away to give a continuous 2.5m path, leveling the ground and clearing any protruding foliage.

The aim of the meeting was to confirm who owns the land and if possible seek their permission, agreeing the location. In our conversations with Colin leading up to the meeting I had the impression that he was confident that obtaining permission would just be a formality, considering he had maintained a good relationship with the landowner and previous engagements had been positive.

Chris and Phil from ARC also kindly gave their time to come down to have a look, see and move forward with the design process. 

Sheila and I had come armed with biscuits and we all munched away while making our introductions. Colin was very enthusiastic about the project and the spot we had identified, as it was also the place he had envisioned a seat on the route. He introduced us to Steve and Phil, the directors at EOS, who were marking out the 3 metre line, required by the landowner for farm vehicle access, with blue spray paint. 

Phil from EOS left and Colin from Kent County Council on the right.

We all agreed on the location, Colin and EOS kindly offered to clear and surface the area for the seat and they went off to find the landowner. 

Sometimes I get an idea in my head and I just want to get on with it, get it done. I had become fixed on the concept of just copying Sheila's seat in our location. Easy, quick and tidy - bish, bash, bosh. Dad, the great visionary, however, had grander plans. He wanted the design to give the feeling of elevation, being thrown over a balcony into the rolling valley; he was thinking of cantilevered platforms or a steep landscaped drop at the front. His vision was a bigger space, such that the area became a destination of folklore - Catha's Seat  - like Sleepy Hollow, the Devil's Kneeding Trough or the House at Pooh Corner! This I thoroughly agree with - we want people to take a day out to Catha's Seat, bring a picnic, a bottle of wine - a beautiful place accessible for cyclists, walkers, families, the disabled... everyone should be able to enjoy this beautiful spot.  

On the west side of the cycle path there is around 5 metres of relatively flat grass before a steep bank up and then a deep ditch. Past this is a low fence marking out the ploughed fields. Assuming the ditch was for drainage or irrigation we started discussing how to bridge it - steel platforms or landscaped with a pipe set in. I strongly disagreed with the use of steel preferring natural looking materials as were encompassed in the surroundings, such as timber and flint. Wooden platforms wouldn't take the weight without seriously large beams so it looked like landscaping was the way forwards. Chris started sketching out ideas on his iPad. One seat turned to two love seats, with tables for resting your drink and a low flint bank at the back with timber on top to form further spots for resting tired legs.

Steve from EOS rolls his wheelie measure past while the design visionaries look on!

At this point a Land Rover started coming towards us on the track from the North. Pulling up slowly a gentleman rolled down his window and stopped by Sheila. I could see she recognised him - it was Jim Smith, the landowner - he didn't look very impressed. It became apparent quickly that he did not want a seat in the location we had identified. Quite rightly he expressed his dissatisfaction with how it looked like we had already decided to build on his land without his permission. Pointing at the blue line EOS had used to mark out the 3m point he exclaimed "It looks like you've got it all planned out, without even asking me. Well you won't be putting anything there". 

My face dropped to the floor.... through the floor..... possibly as far as Australia! The team could feel it slipping away but Sheila kept talking to Jim bringing us all into the conversation when she could - discussing local issues and Jim's concerns. It turned out that the ditch was, contrary to our hypothesis, there to block "off road" motoring enthusiasts from getting into the fields and spoiling the crops. Any surfacing work there for a seat could jeopardise the effectiveness of the barrier.

Colin came back past with EOS and asked how it was going - "not good" was my reply. Luckily Sheila hailed us at that point - "Jim's had a good idea" - "he's suggested we could try the other side of the path on Mr. Swire's land."

To give you a picture the East side of the path is 15 metres or so deep with hedgerow and trees. It looked like a bit of a challenge but it restored a bit of hope. Colin left us saying he would get in touch with Mr. Swire and check any planning issues with clearing the hedgerows. We continued talking to Jim Smith for a while and eventually we all parted, somewhat deflated. As Dad and I got home and put the kettle on I was ruined - this had been one of the only projects I had got going since I had returned from the cycle trip, still unemployed at the time.

Barnaby Swire is one of the heros of this section of Route 18; in order to solve the difficult link problem he bought up the house at Pope Street where the previous owners had blocked the development. He also agreed to the change in right of way such that the route could go along the bottom of the field rather than right past the house. Even though Mr. Swire is director of many companies - and I would expect a very busy man - he replied to Colin almost immediately saying that he had "no issues" with the seat being on his land, providing the farm manager was happy. Colin kindly let me know at 6pm that evening. Although heavily caveat-ed that we needed to confirm there were no planning issues in the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and that we wouldn't interfere with nesting bird regulations, the hope was back on and I could launch myself into pancake night with a smile on my face! Many thanks to Colin for making that happen so quickly.

As he promised, Colin got back to us two days later confirming that there were no issues with planning. There were a few rules - don't take down any large standing trees, don't go too far in such that you form a route through to the fields behind and make sure there is a good amount of continuous hedgerow behind the clearing to minimise any disturbances to wildlife. We also had to get a move on and confirm with EOS what we wanted clearing, as it has to be done before 1st March when the nesting bird restrictions come in. We would have to wait until winter if we missed that and also manage our own clearance / surfacing works.

It was Thursday lunchtime. Dad was off to the Alps on Saturday morning and I was due to start a new job the next week. There was only one thing for it - get down there asap and mark out the spot.

Phil at EOS kindly agreed to meet us on the Friday at incredibly short notice. He made it sound like it was "no sweat" for him - it meant a huge amount to me and made my day. Dad, Sheila and I met Phil and Slim from EOS. Slim is the man in charge on site and we had met him a few times working in his digger. When it comes to destruction and construction he's done the lot - city projects, the channel tunnel.... but he's now happy out in the fresh air and rolling countryside. 

Slim and his machine

We came a bit further south - from the originally proposed seat spot - so that we could ensure the whole panorama was available. We identified a location between a couple of large standing trees giving us around 6.5m depth by 8m width. Phil and Slim said it would be no problem and they would clear the area before March, leveling out and putting some of the top surface stone down. EOS are absolute Saints for helping us get this going so quickly.

This is where it's going to be. See the tree behind where I'm standing (I'm in the green jacket). The 8 metres or so to the left of that tree will be cleared and surfaced to 6.5 metres from the path.

They will get more thanks as the project goes on but I just wanted to put a heartfelt thanks out at this point to Colin, Phil, Steve and Slim at EOS, Mr. Swire and Mr. Smith. This was a tough part of the ride but with their support we are on the right track - we're on Route 18!

The before shot - the team in front of the view - with Slim (second from left) and Phil (centre) from EOS.

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