Am I allowed to go for a bike ride in the New Forest?

Older readers may remember that back in the summer I had a bit of a health scare. One of the things I did in response was to buy a mountain bike and get into a regular routine of weekend cycling. I’m afraid I became one of those terrible MAMIL types (Middle Aged Men In Lycra), getting up early on a Sunday and going for a long cycle ride through the New Forest.

So when the latest Lockdown was announced last week, I immediately looked out for the rules regarding exercise. The government website stated this should be done locally wherever possible and that you were permitted to travel a short distance to do so if necessary. But how local is local? And how long a distance is a short distance? The government website left the terms undefined. To fudge matters still further, the rules about exercise and distances were classed as guidance and advice, rather than a legal requirement.

From my home in Salisbury, driving down to the top of the New Forest takes about 25 minutes. Is that local? A short distance? I got one answer last Friday, when it was revealed that Derbyshire Police had fined two women £200 for travelling five miles to go for a walk together, complete with a ‘picnic’ of a drink from Starbucks (Note: never go picnicking with the Derbyshire Police). That decision was supported in TV interviews on Sunday by Priti Patel and Matt Hancock. Maybe I shouldn’t be heading to the New Forest then.

On Monday, Derbyshire Police changed their mind. Recognising the rules were guidance not law, they rescinded the fine and apologised to the women for any concern caused. Boris Johnson, meanwhile, was spotted cycling in London’s Olympic Park, seven miles away from Downing Street, with Number 10 non-committal as to whether he’d cycled or driven there. Maybe I could go to the New Forest after all.

On Tuesday morning, Met Commissioner Cressida Dick told the Today programme that exercising locally meant starting and ending from your front door. I put the bike back in the garage. Then a couple of hours later on, the policing minister Kit Malthouse told Sky News that the definition of ‘local’ is ‘open to interpretation … if you can get there under your own steam and you are not interacting with somebody … then that seems perfectly reasonable to me.’ At which point, I had to go and write this column.

So can I go cycling in the New Forest? At the time of writing, yes. Though by the time you read this, the advice will probably have changed again.