York to Selby A Whole New Universe.

York to Selby – a whole new universe.

“We tried to chalk the planets on the school playground, but that presented all kinds of problems about relative size and distance between planets,” Coulthard says.

“If the Sun was here, then Pluto would be the other side of Tadcaster,” Thompson recalls informing club members.

Faced with this problem, ideas came together like meteorites in the asteroid belt. Coulthard says: “Some of the youngsters actually asked if there wasn’t anywhere that we could go to lay out a model of the solar system, and from that we came up with the idea of using the cycleway.”

Like many school science clubs, Knavesmire’s is a member of the British Association of Young Scientists and received a flyer from the Royal Society announcing Millennium Awards for schemes that brought science to the attention of the general public. There is, however, a clause which forbids working with one’s own employers (York University in this case).

“Having been a supporter of Sustrans, the company which constructs and owns cycleways all over England, I turned to them as our community partner,” says Thompson. The University of York staff members seized upon the cycleway between York and Selby as the best venue for the project. If the village of Bishopthorpe was conceived as the asteroid belt, then Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars, the inner planets, would all fall between there and York. This relegated Pluto to the status of a 1cm marble, 10km down the path near Riccall. Encouraging fitness and environmental awareness through cycling was a part of the original concept, but a cycle path of 13 miles (there and back) was thought to be the maximum distance school and family groups would be able to cover.

“Initially you get a bit of a burst on the bike ride,” Coulthard goes on, “because the first four planets and their accompanying information all occur within the first 400m of the ride. We thought that would be a good incentive to encourage them.”

York to Selby A Whole New Universe.

Thompson and Coulthard roped in neighbour Willy Hoedeman (the university’s mechanical services engineer), to help out with the workload. “Willy had this great idea about making the Sun – which would need to be about eight feet in diameter – from a cracked septic tank he could get hold of. We want the Sun to be suspended in mid-air with little visible sign of support in order to capture people’s attention and imagination.”

The remainder of the planets were to be conceived and constructed by Coulthard, who has had to suffer countless jokes about playing God, with Thompson fulfilling the paperwork and designing the plaques and obelisks upon which each solar unit rests.

“Deciding what information goes on these plaques has caused a lot of heart-searching. What kind of figures and information do young people want to know? I mean, did you know that one planet, Uranus, has 12 moons that are named after Shakespearean characters?”

In addition to their physically exacting labours on the cycle path, the trio are constructing a back-up website for schools in the area who have the possibility of cycling out with their class teacher to inspect the solar system. “We could update a regular quiz for kids on the website and then they could visit it with their parents at a weekend. There are far better websites concerned with the solar system than any we could produce, so we will post their addresses on our site.”