Access and Active Leisure in a Time of Pandemic: Tales of Two Cities

For many urbanites, the pandemic revealed how accessible – or inaccessible – many urban spaces can be. But different national responses to the pandemic led to radically different experiences of access to active leisure and the outdoors

In 2021, we ran a project under the Brigstow Institute Collaborative Fellowship scheme, that explored the experiences of Bristol and its twin city Bordeaux through the eyes of community organisations who promote running, walking or cycling and individuals who tried to stay active throughout the pandemic and different forms of lockdown.

The team of researchers wondered: how people experienced the decline in road traffic and air pollution in both cities; how urban spaces were re-purposed through leisure activities and what benefits this brought people; how community organisations advocating for greater access to active leisure were impacted by restrictions; and what the legacy of the pandemic might be for active leisure in both cities.

In collaboration with Knowle West Media Centre, our team asked:


  • How have people experienced access to the cities’ streets, thoroughfares, and green spaces during the pandemic?
  • What were the benefits for their mental and physical wellbeing?
  • What’s different between Bristol and Bordeaux? What commonalities are there? And how were different forms of lockdown experienced?
  • What lessons have been learned and what needs to change in a post-pandemic world?

Dr Melanie Chalder and Dr Polly Gallis interviewed runners, cyclists and walkers from both cities alongside those advocating for active leisure. Through these  interviews, they were able to capture personal reflections on the leisure experience in pandemic-stricken cities.

The result is a collection of four fifteen-minute podcasts, produced in partnership with Knowle West Media Centre, incorporating voices and perspectives from Bristol and Bordeaux during and after periods of lockdown. These podcasts are in English and French and are currently available with English subtitles on our YouTube channel.

You can skip to the project’s playlist here.

Alternatively, select an episode from the menu below:

Our first podcast, Ways and Means, we start by discussing the immediate impact of the first national lockdowns in March 2020.

Podcast 2, Space and Place, explores the contrasting experiences of lockdown, what this meant in terms of the types of exercise permitted, where people could exercise and how far from home.

The third episode, Healthy and Happy Communities?, explores the impact lockdowns in Bristol and Bordeaux had upon exercise habits, the extent to which individuals were able to stay healthy (physically and mentally) and the role that community plays in good physical and mental health.

And, in our last episode, Tomorrow’s World, we ask: As we enter the third year of the pandemic, what are the lessons both cities have or haven’t learned? What are the challenges for maintaining and increasing uptake in active leisure and transport as we learn to live with the pandemic and perhaps begin to imagine a world beyond it?

Writing the Ride: Cycling and the Written Word

Cycling and writing share a long history, from the newspapers that sponsored the first road races (such as Paris-Brest-Paris, the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia) to pro riders’ biographies that fill every cyclists’ Christmas stocking (whether they ask for them or not). Writing about cycling has long been a way of selling bikes and the sport of cycling. But it’s also become a way of challenging and changing the sport; it was, after all, two investigative journalists (Pierre Ballester and David Walsh) who first exposed the Armstrong Affair.

On the 8 November, we discussed why they ride and why they write about riding with four cycling authors:

Isabel Best, a freelance cycling journalist who has written for Procycling, Rouleur and, amongst others, and author of Queens of Pain: Legends and Rebels of Cycling.

Paul Jones, author of Corinthian Endeavour: The Story of the National Hill Climb Championship, I Like Alf – 14 Lessons from the life of Alf Engers, and the forthcoming End to End: A tale of Obsession, Hallucination and Happiness.

Marlon Moncrieffe, an interdisciplinary researcher and lead investigator on the project ‘Made in Britain: Uncovering the life-histories of Black-British Champions in Cycling’, who has written extensively on black British cycling champions and issues of race in cycling more broadly.

Ian Walker, a psychologist and champion ultradistance athlete who holds the world record for the fastest bicycle crossing of Europe, author of Endless Perfect Circles.

Access and download the discussion for free here.

Launch of the Physical Cultures research cluster

On the 16th June, we launched our new research cluster.

Physical Cultures brings together researchers from the Arts and Humanities, Population Health, Behavioural Medicine, Sociology, Social Policy and Sports Science. It aims to explore and promote the benefits of physical activity, exercise and sport for a twenty-first-century population through a better understanding of the factors that inhibit the adoption of physically active lifestyles. We are looking to fuse approaches and methodologies grounded in the study of cultures (including issues of age, gender, ethnicity, race, religion, nationality, disability and sexual orientation and the ways in which these inform attitudes towards physical activity) with those grounded in the health sciences and social sciences, seeking to establish a new methodology that draws upon and reflects this rich interdisciplinarity. From this, and in close partnership with a range of practitioners, we hope to develop practical measures for promoting positive behaviour change.

Our launch workshop included presentations from: James Nobles (University of Bristol) who discussed the ripple-effects of community-based physical activity interventions; Nathan Cardon (University of Birmingham) who explored issues of race, technology and mobility in cycling in late 19th and early 20th century America; and Fiona Spotswood (University of Bristol) who examined how the demands of motherhood shape dispositions towards and practices of physical activity.

Rather than try to summarise the three papers and the rich discussion that followed (which explored the potential benefits of a truly interdisciplinary understanding of and approach to physical activity),  we asked graphic artist Camille Aubry to capture the key points in an image.

Please take the time to peruse this and if our work is of any interest, please get in touch.

Riding down Memory Lane

Welcome to the first in what we hope will be a series of posts, stories, writings and musings stimulated by cycling under lockdown. I’m kicking things off with an attempt at a photo essay ‘Riding down Memory Lane’ which follows a recent day spend cycling in the Cotswolds

I grew up in Gloucestershire in the 1970s and early 80s and had been promising myself that one day I would cycle around all the houses I had lived in across the county. We moved around a lot depending on my dad’s job, finances, and his dislike of ‘being overlooked’ (not that he ever did anything more embarrassing in the back garden than fall asleep in a sun lounger and snore).

It took my dad’s death last year and lockdown (with its brief glimpse of 80s-level road traffic) for this vague idea to become a real urge. So this week, on the hottest day of the year so far, I set out from Cheltenham, a place I hadn’t properly visited since the early 90s when my parents moved out of the county. I started out from GCHQ, where my uncle worked, through Whaddon, where my dad grew up and my grandparents lived, and then north to Tewkesbury.

Twynning, 1974-75?

My dad, mum, my brother and I moved here from the London suburbs in the early or mid-70s. I could ask my mum  the exact date, but in many ways that doesn’t matter and so the question mark reflects the vagueness and the fact that, at 6 (or was I 7?), such markers don’t really register or matter. For me, the time is marked by just a few scattered memories aided by photos like this one. This is me, my brother, our dog Mick outside the same two-bed bungalow with a  couple of knock-off Wombles from Tewkesbury market. I’m the one with my mum’s arm across my face.

Cycling out of the village, I pass the primary school and remember the jaundiced boy I tried to befriend in my first week. Ian died of leukemia a few months later. I realise now that he simply didn’t have the energy or possibly the time to make new friends. I’m not sure why this is now my abiding memory of our time here, which was a happy one, otherwise associated with exploring the local countryside and the River Avon.

Alstone, 1975-1978

I pass my second primary school at Ashchurch, opposite the army base, as I head out on the busy A-road to Teddington and Alstone. I always thought of the former as a big village, but it turns out to be tiny. The larger properties here and in Alstone indicate we’re moving up in the world in the mid-70s. Now we’re living in a four-bed detached place backing onto a farm and overlooking the countryside. There was even more exploring to be done here, a fact that constantly played on my risk-averse dad’s mind and occasionally got me into trouble. Cycling rapidly became the means of seeing friends on the other side of the village and heading off for the day. This is me test-riding my new bike Christmas Day 1975.

Charlton Kings, 1978-82

I head out through Winchcombe over the Cotswold Hills and descend into Cheltenham after a couple of hours of undulating, narrow, pot-holed, gravel-strewn roads. I can see now that moving back to Cheltenham in the late 70s was both a victory and defeat for my dad. He’d left very much aiming to make something of himself, joining the Metropolitan Police in London. Pensioned out of the force through ill health, he’d returned to Gloucestershire, but by choosing Tewkesbury over Cheltenham had maintained some distance from his parents and older brothers. Charlton Kings is one of the smarter areas of Cheltenham, so it offered some kind of statement. But what’s interesting as a cycle down the road is that our house is no longer there. The slightly dilapidated bungalow that my parents spent years working on has either been demolished or buried beneath this swanky pad. The fact that I failed to get myself in the picture is coincidental, but looking at it now it suggests a lack of fit, that something isn’t right or is missing. Or that one of us (me or the house in the picture) was out of place. So let’s put our old house back in the picture.

Longway Avenue, 1982-85

By now I’m realising that my cycle trip is becoming a short history of Thatcher’s Britain. My dad was unemployed for two long years in the early 80s. Like many I suspect, we downsized to free up cash. Longway Avenue was where I spent my exam years. I’m an academic, so of course they were some of the happiest years of my life. I mainly remember spending this time in my bedroom reading or listening to my LPs. It’s here I progressed from synth pop to The Smiths. I would cycle from here into the hills above Cheltenham on a 5-speed Dawes that probably weighed a ton, always being dropped by my friends on their superior (and far more expensive) road bikes.

Everest Road, 1985

This is almost literally just around the corner in Leckhampton. But I never really lived here. We moved here after my A levels and I left a few weeks later to go to university. This is the place I stayed when I spent my  summer holidays working in catering or in office jobs and my evenings out drinking with old school friends. The photo below is me and the car I’d just bought off my dad (the only car I have ever loved – a Citroen GSA) parked on the drive. It signals a pause in my relationship with cycling as my Dawes was confined to the shed and eventually unceremoniously chucked on the local tip.

Like a lot of men my age, I simply forgot about cycling when I bought my first car, but have since come back to it. Perhaps this is partly nostalgia. But lockdown has shown us a glimpse of a way of life beyond motoring. I still have a car, but for the last three months I have cycled far further than I have driven. I also see far more cyclists out on our roads than I have ever seen in this country. Cycling during lockdown has reminded me of the relative quiet of road cycling in my childhood and adolescence, but it has also shown all of us that there is an alternative to locking ourselves away in our metal boxes.


Remembering Why We Ride

Before Channel 5 aired their broadcast Cyclists: Scourge of the Roads?, described by The Guardian’s Peter Walker as ‘the worst, most scaremongering, inaccurate, downright irresponsible programme on cycling’, I’d already conducted a brief analysis of tabloid coverage of cycling to confirm what I and many other cyclists have felt for a long time: that we get a lot of bad press. A search of Metro’s online edition between January 2018 and June 2019, for example, shows that non-competitive cycling is associated not only with danger (nearly half of all cycling stories relate to road traffic accidents), but also crimes and misdemeanours committed by cyclists (making up a quarter of cycling-related coverage).

Why, given such negative connotations, does anyone want to cycle? This is one of the questions that Positive Spin sets out to answer. We recently started by working with a group of riders who challenge the cyclist depicted in the anti-cycling press: men and (mostly) women of Life Cycle UK’s over 55 group, the vast majority of whom are past retirement age. This group also defy another set of stereotypes that associate old age with a sedentary lifestyle, ever-declining health and restricted mobility.

On a sunny day in May, we managed to lure them off their bikes to take part in a workshop designed with Lily Green of No Bindings. The aim was to capture their stories and memories of cycling. Through these we hoped to gain a sense of the feelings and emotions these riders, some of whom have returned to cycling only recently, associate with the activity.

Riders experimented with different forms of creative writing and drawing, talking about the things they’d seen and experienced while cycling. These included the everyday (old, forgotten fingerpost signs), nature (from herons to brown bears), and the incongruous (naked ramblers).


They were also asked to talk about an object that they’d brought along and that they associated with cycling and we’ve included excerpts from some of the recordings below. The most common theme to emerge from the interviews was community. Several riders spoke of the benefits that a programme of peer-supported rides such as those initiated by Life Cycle offers. These benefits related to both physical and mental well-being, especially that which comes from friendship. Cycling was associated with specific friends and journeys undertaken together, but also with making new friends and, in at least two cases, meeting future partners. Being able to support others in their return to cycling was also valued by members of the group.

Happy memories of family and, in some cases, of a lifetime spent cycling also emerged in the course of the day, but, in several cases, riders also recalled losses and absences.

Through this sense of community, cycling offered these riders continuity and connection: to riders’ childhood, family, friends, but also places. Returning to cycling was experienced as a way of reconnecting, not only with the past, but with new people. It was also a way of gaining a unique perspective on the city of Bristol and the surrounding area.

The inability to cycle (because of bike theft or injury) was experienced as a form of deprivation; the return to cycling was seen as liberating allowing the rider to explore and roam once more.

The joy of being mobile was clear in one rider’s story of how cycling enabled her to remain active despite a serious condition which would have otherwise condemned her to a sedentary lifestyle.

Cycling was celebrated by several riders as a form of personal as well as physical achievement. Pleasure could be taken in everything from small victories (just being able to return to cycling after a prolonged absence) to endurance rides, but in both cases riders clearly enjoyed feeling that they were pushing the limits of the aging body and discovering that together they could do more than they’d first expected.

These cyclists offer a very different story of older age, but also of cycling. Listening to them reveals a host of feelings and emotions bound up with a sense of community and place. Questions of safety, risk, infrastructure, and equipment are all low on their agenda. They don’t all wear Lycra, but they do love their bikes. For some, cycling has always been a part of their life while others have returned to it through the mentorship and support offered by Life Cycle’s over 55 riding group.

What tentative lessons might be drawn from this? Creating a welcoming community (as opposed to the tribalism many associate with cycling) appears crucial to the recruitment of returning riders. A sense of belonging and of shared achievement is also key to ensuring that returnees become regulars. These stories also tell us that, through regular participation in group rides, riders can push their own physical limits and challenge preconceived ideas about older age. They also indicate that the principal reasons for persisting with cycling (in what the tabloid press portray as a hostile environment) are emotional. While creating good infrastructure for cycling is part of the solution to the environmental and health challenges facing the UK, we also need to learn lessons from the positive stories those who already cycle can tell us and to find ways to foster these in those who can be tempted back onto their bikes.

Written by Martin Hurcombe

Artwork by Camille Aubry 

Creative activities run by Lucy Condon. Interviews conducted and recorded by Lily Green and edited by Eloise Stevens at the Pervasive Media Studios, the Watershed, Bristol. 



Welcome to Putting a Positive Spin on the Story of Cycling

As the project’s title suggests, our work highlights the many positives of cycling. These range from health to environmental benefits, but we also explore the emotions that cyclists experience when they think, talk, and do cycling as it’s often these that explain a commitment to an activity that can at times be challenging. Our project is therefore first and foremost about the stories that cyclists tell about themselves and how the positives that emerge in these stories might help others to come back to or take up cycling as part of their routine.

Click here to read more about our project.