Everyday Changemakers: Sally Hinchcliffe, Cycling Dumfries

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Our Story Weaver, Kaska Hempel, talks to Sally Hinchcliffe, a founding member of Cycling Dumfries.

The story is the first in a five-part Dumfries series of Everyday Changemakers.


Interview, recording and sound production: Kaska Hempel


Kaska Hempel (Narration): Hello, it’s Kaska, your story weaver. I can’t quite believe it but today I’m taking you on the fourth of our place-based interview rounds with people behind community climate action. This time we are heading for Dumfries, the home of the nation’s bard Robbie Burns, and apparently, a birthplace of the pedal-powered bicycle. Well, near enough:)

In October last year, Dumfries Climate Kitchen invited me to facilitate a storytelling workshop, hosted by the Stove Network. So I immediately hit the web to search the community network databases for local members that I could visit for a chat. 

The visit started with serious weather drama. As the weekend approached, storm Babet was forecast to hit my area. This was coming on top of torrential downpours from the atmospheric river which soaked and flooded the same places a couple of weeks prior. I was anxiously watching the worsening forecasts – it looked like Dumfries was to be spared but predictions for flooding and winds in central Scotland meant that all the trains were getting cancelled on the day I planned to travel… and beyond.

It was as if the weather was sending a not too subtle message about climate chaos we’re causing, and so highlighting how critical the work of people I was going to talk to is, and that we urgently need much more of it to happen to safeguard the future of our communities. 

I made a last minute decision to hop on the train a day early. I think this was the quickest I’ve ever packed to rush out the door! I also sacrificed my plan of bringing the bike along as I did with my previous recording tours…

As promised, Dumfries was spared by the storm. Every time I looked into the eerily calm waters of the river Nith flowing through the heart of the town, as I wondered between my meetups, it felt quite surreal. I kept thinking of the news from back home – overflowing rivers, extreme flooding in Brechin, power cuts, trees coming down – again, fields getting soaked and crops lost…It felt like I was cheating by enjoying a calm weekend.

It was on the bank of Nith that I met our Everyday Changemaker featured in this episode – Sally from Cycling Dumfries. We found a bench at Whitesands in the heart of the town and sat down facing the river with our backs to the road and the large expanse of a car park. The water frothed merrily over the Whitesands weir spanning the river at this point. The sound was competing with car traffic behind us as you’ll hear in the recording…

The location prompted us to share concerns about the awful flooding happening near my home town. Sally explained how the regular floods of the Whitesands car park from the tidal river recently escalated to cause unprecedented damage, which in turn prompted plans for a controversial flood barrier to be erected in the area. 

It was hard to imagine this space with a wall of up to 3 meters, cutting people off from the river. And I had to wonder about its effectiveness as South Esk at the heart of Brechin overwhelmed a similar flood defence scheme with such ease to damage 400 homes after storm Babet…

After counting our blessings for the Dumfries sunshine, I finally asked Sally to introduce herself… 

Kaska: I’m Sally Hinchcliffe. I’m the convener of Cycling Dumfries, which I founded in 2012. With a few other people, yeah. yeah.

Sally: I live about five or six miles outside Dumfries.

Um, I cycle in when I come in every day.

Kaska: We’ve got a lot of really quiet rural roads around here. So most of it I can do on quiet roads, but there’s about a mile and a half I have to do on a B road, which is a bit, a bit stressful, but the rest of it is pretty quiet and relaxed.

You’re a cyclist, obviously. Yep. can you tell me about your favorite cycling path?

Sally: In Dumfries?

Kaska: In Dumfries, yeah.

Sally: Oh gosh, um, anything that gets me off the road, really.

But, um, the White Sands where we are here, is, is kind of the backbone of the network. Just connects every other part and we really notice it when it’s, when it’s closed. We’ve also got a new one that’s opened up on the new Abbey Road, which is where my parents live, which is, it’s only a hundred and, about a hundred and fifty meters long, but for its length, it’s wonderful.

I try and cycle along that when I can. It’s the first It’s a cycle path that’s properly separated between bikes, pedestrians and cars. So, not only are we away from the traffic, but we’re also not getting in the way of the pedestrians. So, it just means everybody’s got their own space.

And that’s really new for Dumfries. Most of the time the pedestrians and bikes have to fight it out between themselves. Not fight it out. We don’t fight it out. We’re very friendly, but you have to negotiate your way around. And that’s just not great for anyone. So, um, it’s just really nice to have our own space.

Kaska: How did you get involved in this work in supporting cycling? I mean, you’re a writer, career wise. Yeah. So it’s sort of a bit of a left turn?

Sally: Um, well it’s, I suppose, I have always cycled for transport. Um, and I got involved with, um, campaigns nationally. Um, including a group which no longer is really running called the Cycling Embassy, which was trying to bring Dutch style cycling infrastructure to the UK, because at the time, cyclists were very much about, oh, we should just ride on the road, we should just be trained, everyone should be, you know, harden up and just, you know, get out there on the road, and that just wasn’t working.

So, um, I start to look at what they’re doing in the Netherlands, what they’re doing in, uh, Denmark. And we wanted to see some of that here, so… Look around the contrast between what’s happening across the North Sea and what cyclist conditions are there and what you see here, even somewhere like Dumfries, which is not, you know, it’s not a terrible place to cycle, but it could be so much better.

So, um, I. I got involved in that campaign nationally, but then I realised that change happens on the ground. Um, and certainly in Scotland it’s a devolved matter as well. So I I helped found Cycling Dumfries, uh, I also got involved with a group called Pedal On Parliament who do a mass bike ride in Edinburgh to call for better funding for cycling and better conditions for cycling. So, so I don’t really know how I got into it. I just kind of kept going, kept getting, you know, it just seemed to me that at a time when we’re starting to think about how we change, how we become more sustainable, that the bike solves so many problems in so many ways, but people just aren’t gonna ride a bike if they have to just toughen up and get onto the road and deal with timber lorries and deal with Potholes and all that kind of stuff.

It’s just best will in the world. It’s not gonna happen. So just seemed to me like well, it’s if no one else is gonna do it I better I better do it. So got got together with a few people and started Cycling Dumfries

Kaska: And what got you on the bike? Initially, how did you end up cycling so much?

Sally: So I moved up here from London, and I did ride my bike in London a bit, but, , London wasn’t the way it is now so it was kind of a struggle to cycle. But I was used to being able to get a bus or get a train or walk anywhere I needed to do. So to move to a rural area, and we, we live outside Dumfries, so we’re not, you know, if I need to get a pint of milk, I’ve either got to get in the car or ride a bike.

Those are my only choices. We don’t have a bus service that’s near us or anything like that. And it just seemed to me like I didn’t want to live in that way, I didn’t want to get in a car for everything. I mean, we use the car for the things that we need to, but I didn’t want that to be my only means of transport.

That’s not the way I wanted to live.

Kaska: So basically, just practicality of it was just, this is how you wanted to get about, is that right?

Sally: Yes, but I think what they don’t tell you about riding a bike is you start to ride a bike for one reason. So you start to ride a bike for practicality or for the climate or for your health or for exercise.

And then when you, um, ride a bike regularly, you become, it’s basically dependent upon it for your, for your well being and, um, mental health and all that sort of thing.

Kaska: Now, um, we tried to demystify some of the jargon around sort of climate action and all that kind of stuff. Um, I wonder whether you’ve got any, um, jargon you encountered yourself that you’d like to explain to people.

Sally: Oh God, the world of cycle campaigning is so full of jargon and it’s horrible stuff, horrible stuff.

I think the phrase, which is a useful phrase, is active travel. Um, and I understand why people use it, what they’re trying to say is it’s not just about bikes, it’s also about walking, it’s also about wheelchairs and, and, and scooters and all the other things, but it just, it’s just so unlike a word that you’d use in the real time.

So yeah, I think we talk about active travel because we’re trying to be inclusive. Um, but it, it just means basically any means of getting about that’s not purely motorized. Although of course now with e bikes, the e assist thing, you know, the, the, the lines are blurring which in a, in a really, really good way, but yeah, this idea of something that where you’re moving yourself or you’re helping to move yourself, active travel.

Kaska: What’s the biggest challenge your community group has had to overcome and what lessons would you share with other people around Scotland that want to do a similar project?

Sally: Well, I think what we face the whole time is inertia. We are trying to, you know, this is a small ish town, it’s a very rural town.

Over the years, we’ve become very car dependent. Um, and that’s just the way people think. So they’ll, they might think, oh, well, bikes are a nice add on. Or, you know, but basically first we’ve got to think about the car. And to change that when everything else going the other way. It’s really, really hard and it’s really, really, really slow.

So, I think one thing we’ve just learned is that everything takes time and that you don’t know which thing you do will be the thing that makes the difference. So, you can spend hours and hours in meetings and consultations and filling in planning things and, and then you do some, we, we yarn bombed Dumfries because there were chicane barriers on the cycle paths and we yarn bombed them as a, well I say we yarn bombed them, somebody yarn bombed them and uh, that kind of caught the attention and, and those barriers all got removed.

And so who, you never know what’s going to be. You just have to keep trying lots of different things and you never really know which one is going to work. So, just keep trying. And I suppose, if I had to say to somebody who wanted to go, because it is a long hard slog, is do things that are fun. You know, if it’s all just sitting in meetings and feeling, people are just going to give up.

So go for bike rides, do fun things, do little bits of action that are fun and have social occasions. Because otherwise you will not continue. You won’t be able to keep going for the length of time it takes so there.

Kaska: So what do you think is the most powerful thing the community in Dumfries can do to make a change for a better world?

Or your community group? Let’s just say from your community group’s perspective.

Sally: So what we’ve tried to do this year, more than any other year, is to insert ourselves into the life of Dumfries. I think it’s very easy to be the weird cycling people.

It’s easy to feel like, oh well yeah, there’s Sally with her bike again, you know.

So what we’ve done is we took part in Good Neighbors, which is the big parade and the riding of the marches. Um, we’ve been to festivals, we had the UCI here, the Cycling Championships. We had the Paracycling here. We were doing lots of events for that.

So we’ve tried to become much more part of the civic landscape, if that really makes sense. That’s probably horrible jargon. But to, to try and be just another part of Dumfries rather than something separate that’s trying to change Dumfries. We’re just trying to include ourselves in and say hey, you know, we’re also Dumfries.

Kaska: And you’re taking part in wild goose festival?

Sally: Yeah, yeah, that’s the sort of, yeah, we do the wild goose ride. Uh, we do rides all through the summer. We do rides every month, um, to get out. We, you know, we’re involved in some of the local youth groups. Um, so we’re just sort of trying to be part of the wider fabric of the community and not just about transport, not just about, you know, these people who are trying to take our parking spaces away.

What would be the most useful resource you could point people to? Ah, golly, um, there’s, there’s lots. There’s lots of support for cycling in Scotland. Um, we are an affiliate member of Cycling UK, which used to be CTC.

And they’ve got a very good affiliate group program, which gives you insurance and things like that. So that’s a really good place to start. And they’re quite helpful in supporting people in activism. Um, there’s a lot of Cycling Sustrans, you’ve got Cycling Scotland, you’ve got Scottish Cycling. They’ve all got exactly the same name in a slightly different order.

So there is support there. for funding for various measures. Um, but I would probably say Cycling UK would be a good place to start in, in terms of support for a group.

Kaska: What’s the last book you read?

And how did it inspire you?

Sally: I’ve just read a really weird book called When We Were Birds based in Trinidad, which was, it’s like magical realism. I read it, because it was sort of book group selection. So it probably wasn’t the one I would have picked up.

I’m not sure how it inspired me, but um, I guess it would transport me to a different world. So, it’s very nice to read about somewhere like, um, Trinidad when you live in Southwest Scotland in the winter. But um, it, it’s um, yeah, reading is, is, I guess it’s sort of a separate part of my life really because I’m a writer.

Uh, so, so that’s kind of a different part of my brain. Um, I don’t, I don’t put, I, I put a bikes in my last book. I had a, my, one of my characters was riding a bike, which almost. Cycling friends noticed, I feel like they don’t come up that often. So maybe I need more books with bikes in them.

Kaska: Um, do you have a personal motto?

Sally: I suppose the, the thing that I have recently been living by or trying to live by is the phrase, and I can’t remember who said it, but how we spend our days is how we live our lives.

So it’s very easy to just keep going day to day. And think that one day you’ll do the big important thing. But actually it’s, everything that you do day to day adds up to what, how your life is. So I try to, I suppose I try to say I’m doing something every day towards whatever I want to do. Because you can’t turn around and say I’m going to do that in six months time or a year’s time.

Because time just passes and we don’t have time. That’s it.

Kaska: Yeah. Thank you, that’s a great, great motto.

I’d like you to think of a place somewhere in Dumfries, and, then try to imagine it. Ten years from now, and imagining everybody’s done the best possible in their power to make a difference, um, to how we live our lives.

And share one memory from that future with our listeners.

Sally: It’s hard to put it into words, but I know what it sounds like. Or I know what it doesn’t sound like. It doesn’t sound like cars going past all the time. It’s sounds of footsteps and voices. And that we live in a place where people are outside, out of their cars and talking to each other and riding along or cycling along or walking along and that, um, the loudest thing you can hear are the birds, and also this is completely unrelated to. Cycling but more trees. There would just be trees. I mean, it takes a long time for a tree to grow, but there would be ten year old trees.

Kaska: Thank you so much. That’s a great picture. Um, and is there anything you want to add that we haven’t talked about?

When you do something like this, you do find like minded people, you build community, and that’s really important. Um, we’re, all of us, I think, grieving for the way the planet could go, and it’s really hard.

Sally: And having people around who, like-minded people who are common cause and who share stuff with you is what you, you need to keep going. That And fun.

Kaska: And fun. Yeah.

Kaska Hempel (Narration): As Sally cycled away to the nearby cafe and bike shop, The Frothy Bike, I had a small twinge of frustration at having had to leave my bike at home. I missed the freedom and flexibility already. Instead, I hopped on the bus for a visit to Crichton in the South of the town to meet with Tom from Shax. Tune in next week for a listen.

In the meantime, you can check out links to Cycling Dumfries website in our episode notes (not to be confused with Dumfries Cycling which is a very much more energetic and competitive cycling group). I also included some links to stories about Kirkpatrick Macmillan, a Dumfriesshire blacksmith credited with inventing the pedal bike.


Cycling Dumfries https://cyclingdumfries.wordpress.com/

Pedal on Parliament https://pedalonparliament.org/

UK cycling embassy https://www.cycling-embassy.org.uk/

Sustrans https://www.sustrans.org.uk/

Cycling UK https://www.cyclinguk.org/

Sally Hinchcliffe https://sallyhinchcliffe.net/

Atmospheric river event 8-9 Oct 2023 https://www.metoffice.gov.uk/binaries/content/assets/metofficegovuk/pdf/weather/learn-about/uk-past-events/interesting/2023/2023_07_scotland_rain.pdf

Storm Babet 18 – 21 October 2023 https://www.metoffice.gov.uk/binaries/content/assets/metofficegovuk/pdf/weather/learn-about/uk-past-events/interesting/2023/2023_08_storm_babet.pdf

Kirkpatrick McMillan, inventor of the pedal bike

Video story of the bike reconstruction and journey in 2023 https://youtu.be/pfvocT7rfQ4?si=50bFhanJxAstxAGN

Blog on reconstructing the bike in 2023


On Cycling Dumfries website: