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Towpath etiquette tips from Debrett’s

High society manners guru’s tips for how to behave on canal towpaths

The source of high society etiquette wisdom Debrett’s has issued advice to cyclists to encourage safer use of canal towpaths.

Debrett’s polite code of conduct for commuters was produced at the request of British Waterways, the public body that’s responsible for Britain’s network of historic canals, rivers and docks.

British Waterways’ towpath ranger, Joseph Young, said, “In most instances pedestrians and cyclists share the towpath with no problems, but we are seeing an increase in the number of speeding cyclists, who seem to forget, or aren’t aware, that pedestrians do have right of way. Sometimes cyclists can forget how fast and threatening they can be if they are passing you at speed.

“British Waterways, working with Transport for London, is promoting the Two Tings campaign asking cyclists to slow down, and pedestrians to listen out for bikes. It’s all about sharing the route and remembering how your actions could be perceived by others.”

Debrett’s five-point plan for harmonious towpath usage

  • Cyclists must be aware of pedestrians at all times. Remember that pedestrians have priority – ring two tings on your bell to warn them that you are approaching. Pass people carefully and slowly, and never cycle too quickly.
  • Pedestrians should allow cyclists to pass wherever possible. Don’t forget to listen out for the two tings warning you that a cyclist is approaching.
  • Both cyclists and pedestrians should be considerate to each other, as well as both being extra careful at bends and entrances along the towpath. A smile and polite ‘thank you’ is courteous if someone has let you pass.
  • Respect the environment and the waterway’s natural beauty. Never drop any litter.
  • Dog walkers must always clean up after their dog.

To promote more towpath politeness and safety, throughout today (Wednesday 29 September) from 7.30am to 6.30pm stilt walkers, heritage bicycle riders, etiquette experts and towpath rangers will be joining forces on Regent’s Canal towpath in Islington, north London, alongside the Packington Estate.

The guide could be one of British Waterways’ final acts as a quango, as it’s facing the axe as part of next month’s public spending review. The body has expressed the hope that it will survive as a charity.

As you’d expect from such a polite organisation, Debrett’s is perfectly balanced when it comes to dishing out advice to road-users. The Debrett’s guide to driving etiquette includes the following excellent recommendation: “Always give cyclists plenty of leeway, slowing down when you approach them and indicating when it's safe to overtake.”

Lifelong lover of most things cycling-related, from Moulton Mini adventures in the 70s to London bike messengering in the 80s, commuting in the 90s, mountain biking in the noughties and road cycling throughout. Editor of Simpson Magazine ( 

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