Paving the way for green future

Gary Jefferies

A SPORTING and environment pioneer is selling his Penshurst Off Road Cycling (PORC) mountain bike course after 25 years.

Mike Westphal has run the popular attraction for a quarter of a century as part of his campaign to ‘save the planet’ – by encouraging people to leave their cars behind and get on their bikes.

Now he will concentrate on his groundbreaking work opening up cycle paths linking Tunbridge Wells and Tonbridge to the surrounding villages.

And true to his rather eccentric way of life, he is also planning to convert a camper van into a medieval hall house complete with open fire.

He already drives around in a ‘recumbent trike’, a tricyle where the rider is virtually lying down.

Mike had previously led a varied life, having worked as a flight simulator designer, miner, PA to a stockbroker and shopfitter in Tel Aviv.

His interest in life on two wheels began when he used to ride as a time triallist with the Southborough and District Wheelers.

His parents used to own the Penshurst Vineyard adjacent to the PORC site – which was well known for its population of wallabies as much as its wine.

“I first took it on 25 years ago,” he said. “It was completely inaccessible because of all the trees that had come down in the hurricane in ’87.

“So I cleared the site. I’ve done it all myself with the help of volunteers. It’s taken the full 25 years, in fact I only really finished it a few weeks ago, clearing all the rhododendrons that were put in by the Governor of India 150 years ago.”

Sevenoaks District Council approved the project all those years ago but the village’s Parish Council were ‘dead against it’. Mike recalls: “One local said, ‘they should do it by a motorway where they wouldn’t mind the noise.”

WHEEL DEAL Mike Westphal with Kaddy Lee-Preston at the launch of the Tonbridge to Penshurst Route

“I was trying to develop cycling so that people would stop using cars, and cyclists could ride safely and not get run over all the time.”

But he admits his revolutionary fervour didn’t quite work because ‘everyone arrived at PORC in their cars with their bikes strapped to the roof’.

Cycling has become a hugely popular pursuit in the UK, following on from British success on the Olympic track and in the Tour de France.

One of Mike’s ambitions was to host the mountain bike competition for the London Olympics in 2012, though that dream was thwarted by setbacks in his negotiations with various authorities.

But his ecological vision has been partly fulfilled by his consultancy work for Sustrans, a charity that builds bicycle routes across the UK, and he was instrumental in getting the Penshurst to Tonbridge cycle path up and running.

“Through the offices of Ian Scott, the estate manager at Penshurst Place, we approached Lord De L’Isle [the stately home’s owner], and Sevenoaks District Council donated £14,000 to the project.

“It took 11 years to get it installed but there were immediately 60,000 cyclists using it. That was about five years ago, there are many more now.”

He is now involved in a project to turn the route into a circuit which incorporates Tunbridge Wells, to be known as the Kent Spa and Castle Ride.

“Kent County Council is building a link on the A21 from Vauxhall in Tonbridge to Pembury. The route from Pembury to Tunbridge Wells is already in place. Then we will put in a route from Langton Green to Poundsbridge and back to Penshurst.”

There will also be routes from Penshurst up the old coach road to Chiddingstone Castle, then on to Hever and from there to Edenbridge.

Mike sold off part of the site which is being developed by Kingdom for a road track, and is now letting go of the remaining 34 acres.

Now the 67-year-old is bidding a fond farewell to Shimla, a ‘Hollywood hills’ wooden bungalow he built for the Discovery TV series Treetop Pavilion.

“I’m getting too old to keep all this going,” he concedes. “I’m going to drive around in my camper van and take it easy, but I’ll still be cycling too.

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