Cycling Plus - - CONTENTS - Words Paul Rob­son | Pho­tog­ra­phy Adam Gas­son

We stride out with dandy horse en­thu­si­asts to cel­e­brate 200 years of the fore­run­ner to the mod­ern bi­cy­cle

in the only ap­pro­pri­ate man­ner – re­vis­it­ing Karl von Drais’ orig­i­nal in­ven­tion by strid­ing a dandy horse around the grounds of an old manor house with the glo­ri­ous folk of the Dandy Charg­ers!

Never couldn’t see, no point in ’is­tory, I weren’t there, so I don’t care,” so goes the re­frain of the clas­sic Don’t Tell I, Tell ’Ee by west coun­try won­ders The Wurzels. Well, Cycling Plus has an A-Level (at least) in the sub­ject, so for once we’re go­ing to have to dis­agree with our il­lus­tri­ous neigh­bours. And as 2017 marks the 200th an­niver­sary of the in­ven­tion of the first ma­chine that could be said to truly re­sem­ble the mod­ern bi­cy­cle, what bet­ter ex­cuse to take a trip into the past with the men and women who reg­u­larly take to the by­ways of Bri­tain on what are – at heart – adult-sized bal­ance bikes with iron tyres?

At the pub on the edges of Berk­shire’s Maple­durham Es­tate we meet the Dandy Charg­ers, al­ready in cos­tume, as pre-ride re­fresh­ment is or­dered and con­sumed. Sev­eral of their num­ber have re­cently re­turned from Ger­many, where they took part in cel­e­bra­tions to mark the birth of what would be­come the bi­cy­cle in Karl­sruhe 200 years ago this year.

It was in the cap­i­tal of the Baden re­gion of Ger­many that Karl von Drais was born in 1785, and it was he who in­vented the first two-wheeled in­line per­sonal trans­port de­vice, known then as the Lauf­s­mas­chine, but later nick­named the hobby or dandy horse.

The Dandy Charg­ers’ ‘Cor­po­ral’ Dave Jones takes up the story: “Von Drais in­vented the ma­chine in 1817, it got to Lon­don at the end of 1818, and dur­ing 1819 was when they had the ab­so­lute craze for these things.

“At that point there were rid­ing schools set up in Lon­don and many pop­u­lar prints were made to il­lus­trate the craze. Those didn’t nec­es­sar­ily paint the hobby horse rid­ers in the best light. They were seen as a men­ace and a bit of a laugh­ing stock to be hon­est, a crazy thing that stupid rich peo­ple do. The Prince Re­gent was a con­vert and bought four, which he had shipped down to his place in Brighton. Again, though, it was used as an­other ex­cuse to make fun of him.

“But for six months or so it was a re­ally big thing in Lon­don, and the big Lon­don maker was a chap called De­nis John­son, a coach maker who had ac­cess to all the crafts­men in the fields of wood­work, met­al­work, wheel build­ing. He turned his pro­duc­tion process over to this new fad and took ad­van­tage of it while it lasted. His machines were all num­bered and there are 20-30 that still sur­vive – all in mu­se­ums, they can’t be played with – but some of those sur­vivors have num­bers over 300. So, he was churn­ing these things out, mass-pro­duc­ing them if you will, in a short win­dow of time.”

‘Cap­tain’ Roger Street takes up the theme: “There will be even more cel­e­bra­tions next year as it will be, if you like, the cel­e­bra­tion of 200 years of the two-wheeler in Eng­land. John­son was based in Long Acre in Covent Gar­den [his premises, rather ap­pro­pri­ately, now house Lon­don’s Bromp­ton shop – ed] and he got his patent on 22 De­cem­ber 1818. The very first ride in Eng­land was from Lon­don to Wind­sor and back, by two of John­son’s men, on Christ­mas Day. We might have a Dandy Charg­ers event in Lon­don to cel­e­brate, but we won’t be rid­ing to Wind­sor that’s for sure.”

Af­ter­noon stride

With lunch be­hind us we leave the pub and make for Maple­durham House and it’s work­ing me­dieval water­mill. The grounds of the pri­vate es­tate make

“The big Lon­don maker was a chap called De­nis John­son. He was churn­ing these things out, mass-pro­duc­ing them if you will, in a short win­dow of time” DaveJones

for ex­cel­lent strid­ing ter­rain, and with Cycling Plus tag­ging along at the back try­ing to get a han­dle on our horse we num­ber seven, with six machines be­tween us.

As we rat­tle our way around the main house’s cir­cu­lar driveway we be­gin to get the hang of things, length­en­ing our strides and gain­ing con­fi­dence. We are put in our place by the site of Dave, hav­ing smoothly built up an im­pres­sive speed, sat with his feet up on the pegs ei­ther side of the front wheel cruis­ing with mo­men­tum and a fine sense of bal­ance on his twin al­lies.

“They are there to al­low you to rest your feet when you’re up to speed,” ex­plains Dave, “but they must have given peo­ple an idea of what they were miss­ing… The machines are re­mark­ably sim­i­lar to a mod­ern bi­cy­cle in some ways, though, such as the size of the wheel­base, although the steer­ing is a bit up­right. For the speeds you do it’s not too much of an is­sue.” Per­haps not for you, Dave!

Fol­low­ing the fiz­zling out of the hobby horse craze by 1820, it would be an­other 40 years be­fore any­one im­proved on the de­sign. And yet the Drais ma­chine was nowhere to be seen in the in­ter­ven­ing years.

“It was the early 1860s be­fore the pedal bi­cy­cle came along,” agrees Dave, “but the dandy horse didn’t sur­vive the in­terim pe­riod. That said, there were some crazy ideas that it might some­how be the fu­ture… there were images of six peo­ple teth­ered to­gether pulling a stage­coach, when two horses would do a much bet­ter job!

“Why did it take so long? Per­haps peo­ple were still wary of the idea of bal­anc­ing on two wheels in line; with a leg ei­ther side you could steady your­self but per­haps peo­ple didn’t have the con­fi­dence to be­lieve they could con­tin­u­ously stay bal­anced.

“Once they did in­vent the pedal cy­cle it was very much like the hobby horse but with ped­als, and in­cred­i­bly low geared with those size wheels. So, then they started to make the wheel big­ger and big­ger to get a de­cent gear ra­tio, and that led to the or­di­nary, or penny-farthing.”

Lead­ing the Charge

With the his­tory of the hobby horse laid out for us, what of the Dandy Charg­ers them­selves?

“Roger started The Dandy Charg­ers in 2000,” ex­plains Dave over af­ter­noon tea (so much more ap­pro­pri­ate than a ‘cof­fee stop’). “He has a cy­cle mu­seum and has al­ways been in­ter­ested in the very early

“The pegs are there to al­low you to rest your feet when you’re up to speed, but they must have given peo­ple an idea of what they were miss­ing …” DaveJones

machines, and it was him and some fel­low mem­bers of the So­lent Vet­er­ans Cy­cle Club that de­cided it would be a good idea to get some replica hobby horses made up – you sim­ply can’t source orig­i­nals in the way you can source orig­i­nal ve­loci­pedes from the 1860s.”

“I made four horses to start the group,” ex­plains for­mer Navy man ‘Lieu­tenant’ Rod Safe, “and a wheel­wright made the wheels for us, and they are all still go­ing. The worst thing that’s hap­pened is we lost a ta­per piece on Roger’s horse some­where in Ox­ford and the han­dle­bar stopped work­ing.”

The largest ma­chine on dis­play at Map­ple­durham is a ladies’ model be­long­ing to Roger and his wife, Tr­ish. “There is only one sur­viv­ing orig­i­nal in the Shut­tle­worth Col­lec­tion,” ex­plains Dave. “There are con­tem­po­rary pic­tures of women rid­ing these things, although I sus­pect that might be down to ad­ver­tis­ing by John­son, but they were made. It’s about seven feet long, be­cause it’s got a step-through frame so a dress could be worn. It’s fine for go­ing around a lawn but not re­ally for any­thing else. It’s got a round seat like a pi­ano stool, which is not ideal for push­ing, but if feels com­fort­able to just sit on.

“We are hop­ing to get an­other one our­selves, be­cause Roger’s is the only ladies’ one we have: it was one of three made and he bought it at cost for £6000, so we can’t re­ally stretch to that!”

There can’t be many £6000 bikes out there that weigh as much, mea­sure as long, or pro­vide such a ‘prim­i­tive’ rid­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, but in small doses, at least, these dandy horses are ca­pa­ble of de­liv­er­ing just as much fun.

Karl Drais and De­nis John­son may have seen their work burn bright and die young as a short-lived fad – a Re­gency pe­riod fid­get­spin­ner, if you will – but as we look back from 200 years into the fu­ture we can clearly see that the in­ven­tion of this ma­chine was the birth of the bi­cy­cle as we know it. And for that we can all be grate­ful.

“I made four horses to start the group, and a wheel wright made the wheels for us, and they are all still go­ing” RodSafe

Dave is an ex­pert at the dandy horse track stand

The Dandy Charg­ers have fully em­braced the two-wheeled ‘craze’

A very pleas­ant and civilised way to spend an af­ter­noon

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