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A letter to Will Alsop on a cyclist's UK travels

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Letters

I enjoyed your comments on the sort of architecture I might encounter en route from Land's End to John o'Groats (Alsop, AJ 11.10.01). However, you were uncharacteristically mild in your criticisms - the reality is much, much worse. Despite the Lottery, CABE, and the Stirling Prize, Britain, for the most part, is an architectural desert. I travelled in a roughly diagonal line across the country. I did not zigzag off to places of particular interest, so my route may be seen as a true cross section. The stuff that I cycled past was the normal - the ordinary, not the extraordinary.

It provides a more accurate picture of the architectural health of the nation than all the pages of this journal.

Things do not start too well at the 'Land's End Experience' - a noble landmark now covered in funfair attractions with only the faintest connection to the location. They even charge £2.50 to be photographed by the sign which says: '870 miles to John o'Groats' (via the direct route).

I passed only one post-war building of any significant architectural quality - Nick Grimshaw's Warrington industrial units designed some 20 years ago. They were looking grey, rather than their original aluminium finish (they were the first major use of alucobond for cladding, I think), but their pedigree shows through. By contrast, the ordure of volume housebuilders was spread liberally across the land. Hoardings advertising clusters of mocknothing houses claim them to be the 'heritage of today'. Sadly, the claim is only too true.

But it was not all bad. I had expected to discover deteriorating country towns, whose hearts had been cut out by out-of-town shopping parks.While there were some, it was encouraging to find places with busy, lively centres;

not much in the way of individual buildings, but places people clearly enjoy. Places such as Taunton, Warrington, Lancaster and particularly Carlisle, had brought their centres back to life.

According to the Association of Town Centre Management, last year was the first for 20 years that retail take-up in town centres was greater than that in out-of-town locations. And it showed.

What was also evident - and I know this will disappoint you - is that any rumours that England has become a nation of foodies is a travesty of the truth. The cyclist, at the end of an exhausting day, is unwilling to cycle 30 miles to the nearest gourmet establishment.You eat where you stop. The food was, almost without exception, awful. I had some good fish in a village on Scotland's east coast, but that was it. I never want to see another pub lunch as long as I live.

And whatever commitment the government may have to integrated travel policies, facilities for cyclists are virtually non-existent. Cycle lanes suddenly stop and throw you into heavy traffic, or take such a circuitous route that you choose the more dangerous option. Few towns seem to recognise the existence of cyclists and I felt more exposed in Bath, Warrington and Inverness than in London.

'Thank God for the landscape, ' you say - and I agree.

From the agonisingly steep hills of Dartmoor to the colourcoordinated cows of the neat Cheshire fields, from the Somerset Levels to Rannoch Moor, it was a continuous delight. Your suggestion of an exhibition on UK landscape is an excellent idea.Will you design it?

Peter Murray, Wordsearch

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