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From Montecatini to the Marsh Land of Fucecchio (MTB tour day two)

From Montecatini to the Marsh Land of Fucecchio (MTB tour day two)

For the second day of our MTB tour (day one here) we were heading out from Montecatini into the Marsh Land of Fucecchio or the Padule di Fucecchio, known since ancient times as “an insalubrious and dangerous area”. These days the Fucecchio Marshes cover an area of about 1,800 hectares, however these ancient lake-marshes were considerably larger in the past and once covered most of the southern Valdinievole. In 217 BC, Hannibal took four days and three nights to cross these marshes, loosing along the way most of his elephants (well the ones that had survived crossing the Alps), a large chunk of his army and an eye (due to an infection). Or at least that is the story Livy tells us in his History of Rome.

By the Middle Ages there was increasing interest in draining the marshes, with the great Leonardo da Vinci studying their hydrology and the Medici and Lorena families putting up the money and then taking the profits from the system of grand-ducal farms which were created. However, even after all the changes over the last few centuries, the charm of these wetlands remains intact today. The traditional way to get about the Padule was by barchino (a form of punt) or navicello (a flat-bottomed sailboat). These days, as a result of the drainage, the marshes are criss-crossed with strade bianche (gravel roads), and so the mountain bikes make an ideal way to see some of the area in a shorter time than it took Hannibal.

Our day started by threading our way out of Montecatini Terme (where we were staying at the Hotel Arnolfo) through the rush hour traffic. Once again I was surprised by the patience and tolerance of Italian drivers, only once on a roundabout did we get tooted at by a driver who also made a rude gesture which I had only previously seen on TV Inspector Montalbano on BBC 4.

Leaving the town behind, we were guided along the bank of a canalised river, which I had expected to lead us into the Padule proper, but to my surprise we then turned back on to the road again. Taking a right turn into what at first looked like a side road, there was a barrier to keep out motor vehicles and a ribbon of super-smooth tarmac appeared beyond. Once we rode onto it, we realised that this was a bike racing circuit. Riding round, our mountain bikes felt a little like riding Hannibal’s elephants especially when overtaken by a light cavalry charge of kids from a local cycling club on road bikes.

Road circuit

Riders on the road circuit

Realising that I am getting too old to lead the chase, I sat up and decided to ride the rest of the circuit hands free, which was great fun, especial on the hairpin bends. Play time over, it was back to the strade bianche and exploring the marshes, which are rich with wild life. Today the Padule are a strange mix of reed beds, maize and tobacco crops, and plantations of poplar and alder trees. Our local bike guide, Massimo, told us how during the winter these plantations would flood and how he liked to to kayaking between the trees.

Trees in the Marsh Land of Fucecchio

The area is popular with both bird watchers and hunters, it is not uncommon to see spent shotgun cartilages lining the side of the tracks. Of the 1,800 hectares of the Padule di Fucecchio only about 230 hectares are protected nature reserve, and the first people we were to meet were a couple of hunters and a wildlife photographer at Casin del Lillo. The hunters were very hospitable and had set up a gazebo with a table of refreshments for us. Well it was the right time for a mid morning snack, and just the three bottles of wine. Casin del Lillo is one of the many “ports” of the Padule, where the hunters set out on their barchino to stalk game, or just take tourists on sightseeing trips. We were taken out in groups of four for a short taster ride in a barchino, while the others tasted the local specialities which had been laid on for us.

Refreshments at Casin del Lillo

Barchino taster ride

Seeing the drainage canals close up, you really get an idea of the level of eutrophication from the local agriculture. This isn’t the only environmental problem the Padule suffer from. There are also invasive species such as the red swamp crayfish (Procambarus clarkii) which are undermining the dykes which contain the drainage ditches. Now you might think that the solution to the crayfish problem would be to trap and eat them, but this would be ill advised as the crayfish are subject to heavy uptake of lead from the lead shot used by the hunters. Not that we let any of this spoil out visit, of course.

The next stop on our itinerary was a nature reserve, established by the Provincial Administration of Pistoia (207 hectares) and Florence (25 hectares). The area we were to visit is the oldest protected area in the marshes, which is managed by the Centro di Ricerca, Documentazione e Promozione del Padule di Fucecchio (the Centre for Research, Documentation and Promotion of the Fucecchio Marshes).

Along the way I had been hearing the calls of a bird of prey which I hadn’t manage to spot and wasn’t sure what it was. So I was pleased when our guide from the research centre pointed to a couple of birds zooming overhead and told us that they were a family of Lodolaio with the adults teaching the young how to hunt. There was just one problem, what were Lodolaio? He dug out his field guide to show us a picture and gave us the scientific name Falco subbuteo, now at one time this would have meant people looking at the picture to find out what they were, but not now. There was a flurry of phones pulled from pockets, a quick Google search, and we knew that they were called Lodolaio in Italian, Hobby in English, Baumfalke in German, and Boomvalk in Flemish.

We were then taken to a bird watchign hide overlooking part of the restored marsh. There were a wide range of water fowl to be seen, but the highlight for all of us was a Spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia, or Spatola, Löffler, or Lepelaar, as you please). I was cursing not having brought my camera with the big lens, having left in the car with the film crew who had been following us around. Then I noticed that Ulli was trying to take a photo through the eye piece of the spotting scope which our guide had brought, so I decided to try the same with my phone camera. The (cropped) image below is the result of a OnePlus 3T phone camera taken via a Swarovski lens, which I am rather pleased with.

photo of Spoonbill

The nature break over, we headed off for lunch, according to the itinerary this was to be a light lunch. At one point I stopped to take a photo, as nothing quite says “cycle touring in Tuscany” as well as a picture of a far off hilltop village and the sight of your companions dispersing into the distance at the prospect of a “light lunch”. The chosen place for lunch was the Grotta Giusti Spa, and let’s just say the food was not the highlight of this stop.

The highlight of our visit was the thermal caves, apparently the largest in Europe, where you can “enjoy the detoxifying steam”. These caves have had an illustrious stream of visitor over the years: Giuseppe Verdi called them the eighth wonder of the world, Garibaldi came and had his photo taken. However, sadly, there is no record of Hannibal (or his elephants) ever having visited. The caves are divided into three distinct areas called Heaven, Purgatory and Hell. The other curiosity of these caves is that the stalactites have a strangely cauliflorous appearance with bobbles all over their surfaces.

Grotta Giusti

Before entering the caves you have to put on special robes, which make the wearers look rather like Benedictine monks as they shuffle into the caves. When reaching the area known as Purgatory, the path divides into two, with most people turning left and going straight to Hell. It turns out that Hell is a broad low ceilinged cavern with people sitting around in deckchairs, in 36°C heat with near 100% humidity. No wailing and gnashing of teeth here, just signs saying “Il silenzio aiuta il relax, Silence helps relaxation”. On leaving Hell, after a restful doze, I decided to pass through Purgatory and visit Heaven, which turned out to be a smaller cavern with a small pool of water. The temperature in this section is a constant 28°C, which did feel blissfully cool after a period in Hell, although the place was strangely empty. It was not somewhere people seemed to linger, unlike Inferno.

After leaving the caves and returning to the surface, we spent some time hanging out at the spa’s outdoor swimming pool before heading off on the bikes once more. The final stop on our itinerary was the Terme Tettuccio spa at the heart of Montecatini town. Getting there did require riding through the heavily congested traffic, which makes me wonder why they don’t put in some proper cycle infrastructure and reduce the level of congestion? After all if places like Ferrara and Bolzano can do it, why not in towns in Tuscany? Hey, even Milan manages better than this.

Thankfully, as I have said before, Italians seem to be very tolerant of cyclists and we did finally make it to the Terme Tettuccio, a place which in many ways defines the town. The thermal springs were a site for votive offerings in Roman time, although the Romans were noted for making such offerings at water courses generally. The first written evidence of the use of thermal baths dates back to 1201 AD when a merchant from Prato, Francesco Datini, wrote to his doctor to ask about the waters. However, the spa really took off around 1400 AD when another doctor, Ugolino Simoni da Montecatini, wrote a treatise on the therapeutic use of the waters by the local peasants.

The spa as we know it today is as a result of work started by Grand Duke Pietro Leopoldo of Lorena, who initiated the construction of the Bagno Regio (1773), Leopoldine Baths (1779) and Tattoo (1779), which form the core of the modern Spa town. The current Art Nouveau buildings date from 1928 when water from four thermal springs were all piped into one place for the serious purpose of parting the rich worried well from their money.

The four springs that feed the spa are given different names: Leopoldina, Regina, Tettuccio and Refreshment. Each contains a range of mineral salts which give them a characteristic salty flavour, all the waters are diuretic, but have no fear of being caught short: there are 1000 toilets arranged over two floors, ground floor for the Ladies and first floor for the Gentlemen. I kid you not! However, to give Terme Tettuccio its due, the place is stunning, the floors, the walls, the ceilings, just art everywhere.

Terme di Montecatini

Taps and frescos

Escher floor

Building at Terme Tettuccio

But where’s the cycling angle? I hear you ask. Well, apparently the great Eddy Merckx tried the waters here, before winning the Giro d’Italia five times. I think that is good enough.

 


Thanks to the lovely people at Italia Slow Tour for organising this trip and to our local bike guides Massimo and Graziano of Bike Experience Tuscany for showing us around. If you would like to follow our route it is here:

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Tuscany calling, an MTB tour (day one)

Tuscany calling, an MTB tour (day one)

When arriving in a new place, there is often a moment of disconnection when you see something you think is familiar and then find it is not. For me, one such moment came as we circled waiting to land at Pisa, looking out of the window at a forest canopy below, there were bulbous, lollipop shaped tree tops sitting above the canopy, looking like broadleaf but with the colour of pines. These were maritime pines (Pinus pinaster), native of the western Mediterranean, and a reminder that it had been a long time since I last visited the Mediterranean.

When you mention Pisa, most people’s first thoughts are of social media images of tourists pretending to prop up/push over a medieval stone tower, thereby (mostly) subconsciously celebrating one of the great inventions of the Italian Renaissance, the use of perspective in art.

In some way this can be seen as part of the modern pattern of fast tourism, rather like fast food: turn up, Instagram the experience and hop back on the bus to the next iconic site without appreciation of the space in-between or time for refection. However, we weren’t here for quick-snap tourism, but as guests of Italia Slow Tour to explore the Valdinievole area, in the heart of Tuscany, by mountain bike. There were seven of us, Dries and Nele from Belgium, Bastian and Natalie from Germany, Mara from Milan, plus Ulli and me, with our local bike guides Massimo and Graziano of Bike Experience Tuscany (Oh and we were also followed round by small film crew).

Our first day out started with a short ride from the hotel to the station, learning to ride The Italian Way. Apparently in Italy it is perfectly acceptable to cycle the opposite way up a one way street, certainly we got no hassle from motorists coming the other way, as we all agreed would have happened at home. Similarly to my Slow Tour trip to Milan last year I was surprised how tolerant Italian drivers are of cyclists generally. All 9 of us took a train to the nearby town of Pescia. Here again it was interesting to contrast with the situation at home in the UK, where the rail companies are trying to keep bikes off trains, here (as with other parts of mainland Europe) getting the whole group with all nine bikes onto a train is not an issue, which makes cycle tourism much easier.

The town of Pescia was once famous for silk production, but now more so for its flower market. However, in September the carnations are out of season, and as we cycled out of the town along high river banks, we looked down on rows of empty polytunnels, and nurseries with rows of trees in pots destined to be planted out in parks and gardens across Europe. The riding was easy under a bright blue sky, those of us from the more northern latitudes, the Belgians and the Scots enjoying the unaccustomed warmth. However, those from southern Germany and Italy, like the polytunnels, were preparing for winter.

After waving to the film crew on the far bank and crossing a bridge, we headed away from the river towards Montecarlo. No, not THAT Monte Carlo, this one is a Medieval Borgo, the term Borgo has the same roots as borough in English or Burg in German, meaning that it was a self governing settlement. The name Montecarlo actually just means Charles’ Mountain. The Charles in this case was the elected King of Bohemia (1347) who also owned a wee place called Luxembourg and went on to become King of the Romans (1349), King of Italy (1349) and King of Burgundy in 1365, which made him the the ruler of all the kingdoms of the Holy Roman Empire. Yes, he was also the Holy Roman Emperor… Keep up at the back there!

Now as the name suggests, Montecarlo is on top of a hill, so there was a bit of a climb to get there, but it is worth it. Along the way you pass though olive groves and vineyards, Montecarlo is famous for its wines and has an annual festival to celebrate them (which sadly was the week before we got there). The borgo was one of our refreshment stops where we were treated to generous serving of antipasto accompanied by several bottles of wine (this was just elevenses, you understand).

Suitably refreshed, we had a wee stroll about the town and were taken to see the Teatro dei Rassicurati which from the outside looks much like the other buildings around it, but inside is an amazing pocket theatre. It is the second smallest theatre in Europe, with the smallest being in Budapest. Sheds used as venues in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival don’t count apparently. Built in 1795, it was was extensively restored in 1894. In the inter-war period, it fell into disuse and by 1966 it was at risk of demolition, however, it was rescued and restored again in 1973 and is now in regular use. The oval auditorium seats 140 and is surrounded by 22 tiny boxes spread over two levels above, and an impressive painted ceiling. One of the theatre goers in the late nineteenth century was young Giacomo Puccini, who went on to become one of the greatest composer of Italian opera. One wonders how much this experience influenced his later work.

We set off once again, riding though the Tuscan countryside, occasionally stopping for photos and to watch the olive trees being pruned, well I stopped to take a photo, the others just went on…

Pruning the olives

Our next scheduled stop was the Quercia delle Streghe or the Witches Oak. An amazing oak tree (Quercus pubescens), estimated to be up to 600 years old with a girth of ~4.5m and a canopy circumference of ~40m. Legend has it that a group of witches held their sabbatical rites right on the branches of the tree, creating the broad lateral grow we see today. Personally, I think it much more likely that the tree was pollarded and the branches trained out laterally, probably originally to increase acorn masting for pigs.

Quercia delle Streghe or the Witches Oak

There is also another story this tree is famous for, it is where Pinocchio was hanged by the assassins who wanted to steal his four gold coins. In Carlo Collodi’s original story (first published in 1881) the tale ended at this tree, with Pinocchio dying at the end of chapter 15. However, Collodi’s publisher didn’t like this ending, as the story was serialized and proving very popular, so he persuaded Collodi to allow Pinocchio be rescued by the the Fairy with Turquoise Hair (or “Blue Fairy” in the Disney version), and then to write another 21 chapters. The full story was published in 1883 as the The Adventures of Pinocchio, and later became an international best seller and was turned into a sanitised Disney film.

Photo and cultural/nature stop over, there was a glorious dirt road descent, ideal for testing the bike’s front suspension and tyre traction. The next stop was San Gennaro, and of course, this being Tuscany, the hamlet is on top of a hill. To get there, we rode single track Strade Bianche through the woods, olive groves and vineyards, arriving back on tarmac just below the village.

Strade Bianche

We stopped by a traditional drinking fountain with a stone trough to fill our water bottles, the day was getting very warm (from a Scottish perspective). Although it was nearing lunchtime, culture comes before food, with a visit to “the old Roman Pieve”. Yeah, I had to look up Pieve too, according to Wikipedia it is a rural church. Being one of the oldest buildings in the village (dating from 980 AD) it was near the top of the hill. To get there, there was a winding cobbled street, with a final ramp of 18%!

San Gennaro

Was it worth it? Yes. The sign board outside said that it retained “its original Romanesque characteristics”, while also noting that the capitals at the tops of the columns were decorated in “Pre-Romanesque style”, basically recycled from earlier buildings. The sign also says “Of particular interest inside the ambo [Catholic term for pulpit] dating back to 1162 … ”. However, oddly, the sign board neglects to mention this wee church’s greatest treasure, a polychrome painted angel statue, is the only known statue made by Leonardo Da Vinci himself (confirmed by Carlo Pedretti).

Da Vinci's angel

The thing about visiting all this cultural stuff is that it does make you rather peckish, fortunately it was just a short distance down the hill to lunch at Ristoro Il Corno, just a simple four course affair, you understand. I can highly recommend the Pecorino Toscano with honey.

pecorino with honey

With a few calories to burn off, we set out for Collodi, a name you might recognise from above. Carlo Collodi is actually the pseudonym of Carlo Lorenzini, who took the name Collodi from the village where his mother came from, and it was that village we where aiming for. On seeing it for the first time, I was struck by the way it appears to tumble down the hillside and is then terminated by the seemingly overblown Villa Garzoni at the bottom. What I couldn’t see from that angle was the water gardens attached to the villa, nor for that matter could I see the Parco di Pinocchio (a theme park dedicated to a wooden puppet). For the record, the Villa Garzoni was on sale for a mere €19,000,000 a couple of years ago, just in case you happen to find a winning Euro Millions lottery ticket down the back of the sofa.

A view of Collodi, Tuscany, Italy

We visited the lower part of Villa Garzoni’s water gardens and the Butterfly House. Collodi is on the list of places I would like to visit again, I would like to have the time to explore the village itself and also see more of the water gardens. Not sure I would go to Parco di Pinocchio, although we were told that it isn’t just for kids, there is stuff for adults there too, with the original tale far darker than the Disney version many of us are familiar with.

Villa Garzoni’s water gardens

Via delle Fiabe (the path of the fairy tales)

Leaving Collodi, we followed the Via delle Fiabe (the path of the fairy tales) back to Pescia, which partly follows an ancient mule track paved with flag stones. While this may sound like straight forward riding, it was highly technical in parts, in particular the 15% descent with stone cross drains on the path followed by a narrow bridge and a hairpin turn. Walking this section is highly recommended (which we all did). The path is great fun and takes you through some lovely scenery before eventually bringing you out onto black top on a ridge overlooking Pescia, with the final part of the route all downhill, which was also a lot of fun. Then it was train back to Montecatini Terme where we were staying (at the bike Hotel Arnolfo), a spa treatment, and an amazing five course dinner of Tuscan specialities at the restaurant Arnolfo.

If you’d like a different view of the same trip, you can read Dries’ travel diary here and Nele’s travel diary here. Oh and that film crew that was following us, here’s the film they made, hope you enjoy it 🙂

If you’d like to follow the route it is here:

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The Edinburgh Festival of Cycling 2016 is coming

The Edinburgh Festival of Cycling 2016 is coming

With the fourth outing of the Edinburgh Festival of Cycling just under two weeks away there is a lot to look froward to, here is a very brief snap shot:

There is cycling journalist Laurence McJannet who will be talking about his Bikepacking adventures along some of Britain’s most beautiful off-road trails and ancient trackways.

Fraser Cartmell, Pro Triathlete and Scotland’s most successful Iron Man competitor.

Ed Shoote, writer and photographer, who will be talking about his adventures riding through central Asia.

Journalist Scot Whitlock chose to pedal the ‘Way of St James’ or the Camino de Santiago to commemorate the love for his father.

Jet McDonald who will be offering an enlightening, multi-layered talk that applies philosophy to modern life conundrums, using the experience of a bicycle journey and the components of a bicycle as metaphors to help us understand philosophy – and therefore ourselves.

Cycle style blogger Jools Walker (aka Lady Velo), who will be helping to www.hayamix.com launch the Women’s Cycle Forum Scotland. The organisers of the Women’s Cycle Forum, Sally Hinchcliff and Susanne Forup (both based in Scotland) are also well worth talking to.

There is also Dave Cornthwaite, a record-breaking adventurer, who will be giving a workshop on how to make a living from your passions and a talk about his adventures. Which include 25 different non-motorised journeys each at least 1000 miles in distance, such as riding a tricycle from Germany to the UK, skateboarding across Australia and Stand Up Paddleboarding the Mississippi.

Edinburgh based Jenny Tough will be talking about cycling around www.garida.net the Baltic Sea, and Genevieve Whitson about her one woman’s journey to the top in the world of professional cycling.

The final talk is from Julian Sayarer will be talking about his record breaking circumnavigation by bicycle, and the differences between pedalling the globe by bicycle, and pedalling the city of London as a cycle courier.

This is just a snapshot of what is happening at the Edinburgh Festival of Cycling this year. There is loads more!

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The Edinburgh Cycle Challenge

The Edinburgh Cycle Challenge

The Edinburgh Cycle Challenge will run from 1st – 21st March and is completely free to all organisations and individuals in the city. The Challenge is a bespoke behaviour change project to get more people cycling, led by Love to Ride who are working in partnership with the City of Edinburgh Council, Grontmij and The Bike Station. The Challenge was announced at a well-attended stakeholder meeting at the Council in mid-January with representatives from the city’s vibrant cycling scene – including the CTC, SPOKES, Edinburgh Festival of Cycling, Sustrans and Hart’s Cyclery – and from the Council, SESTrans and several large employers.

The Edinburgh Cycle Challenge is an inclusive, fun, free competition between organisations to see which can get the highest proportion of their staff to try riding a bike. The website is designed to appeal to regular cyclists and people new to riding. There are integrations with popular apps like Strava, Moves and MapMyRide so regular riders’ activity can be automatically uploaded to their profiles. New riders can access tips, advice and information on where to ride and Dr Bike and skills training events and are able to create goals to help them track their progress.

The Challenge model incentivises new riders to join in and existing riders to encourage their colleagues: there are a hundred cinema tickets up for grabs which will be awarded to people who ride for the first time in a year and to those who encourage them to take part. There are also lots of great prizes to encourage everyone to join in, whether they ride every day or haven’t been on a bike in years.

Over the coming weeks there will be more organisations signing up and more prizes added to the website. It only takes a minute to sign up and join or register your workplace. Claire Connachan, the Challenge Manager, would love to hear from anyone who has any questions about the Challenge, would like to sponsor a prize or wants to help out in any other way. Please drop her a line at claire.c@lovetoride.org

Some stats about Love to Ride:
Edinburgh Cycle Challenge stats

A guest post from Claire Connachan.

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Let Scotland lead the rest of the UK by moving to presumed liability for vulnerable road users

Let Scotland lead the rest of the UK by moving to presumed liability for vulnerable road users

The UK was first country in the world to require drivers of motor vehicles to have insurance. When the Road Traffic Act (1930) introduced compulsory third-party insurance, it was intended to provide a means of assured compensation for the injured victims of road traffic collisions (then, as now, mostly pedestrians and cyclists).
“However, since then we have created a David v Goliath culture, where the odds are frequently stacked against the vulnerable, who have had the misfortune to have been hit by the driver of a motor vehicle. In many cases, it is impossible for them to claim compensation (to which are fairly and reasonably entitled) without resorting to litigation. This only adds to the distress for those who have been injured through no fault of their own.

We at Road Share think it is right for Scotland to lead the rest of the UK by changing its Civil Law to respect and protect the vulnerable in society by moving to a system of presumed liability. This change will support pedestrians and cyclists injured in road traffic collisions.

All political parties who care about social justice should incorporate the Road Share proposals for presumed liability in their 2016 manifestos. We can no longer sit back and watch our legal system fail the Nation’s pedestrians and cyclists. We need to ensure that fairness hdflive.com to the individual sits at the very heart of our civil legal system. At present, the process for obtaining compensation is heavily weighted against the injured individual who has to take on the might of the driver’s insurance company.
“Presumed Liability would encourage insurance companies to re-evaluate their prospects of success in showing that the injured party has been negligent in some way. This would mean that vulnerable road users would be compensated quickly and fairly, without resort to expensive Court actions. These Court actions affect everyone in terms of cost, time, money and, often for the injured party, a great deal of stress.

The Road Share campaign was initiated to highlight the shortcomings in civil law road traffic liability cases where there seems to be little recognition of the sheer disparity between a motorised vehicle, and walking or cycling regarding the ability to cause serious harm to others. Presumed liability allows for a recognition of who brings most harm to a collision and, thereby, shifts the burden of proof from the vulnerable to those with the potential to cause greater harm. If liability for a collision between a cyclist and motorist falls equally on both parties, or on one party more than the other, this can be accounted for within the framework of Presumed Liability. realrecipe.net It is not intended to unfairly blame the party with the greater potential to do harm. Therefore, Presumed Liability offers a fairer and more responsible approach to compensating vulnerable road users while, at the same time, ensuring that reckless cyclists and pedestrians, who are entirely “the author of their own misfortunes” are not compensated. At present, injured vulnerable road users very often face a David v Goliath battle against an insurance company. This must change.

Please show your support for Presumed Liability by signing our online petition.

Kim Harding is a member of the steering group of the Road Share campaign.

The post first appeared in Holyrood, Scotland’s fortnightly political and current affairs magazine that keeps people informed.

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