Blaz­ing sad­dles

The ar­rival of the bi­cy­cle gave a thrilling free­dom at a time when ac­cess to the coun­try­side was re­stricted, ex­plains Gavin Stamp

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Pho­to­graphs from the COUN­TRY LIFE Archives

ON May 8, 1897, Coun­try Life Il­lus­trated car­ried a col­umn on ‘Cy­cling’. It be­gan: ‘There is lit­tle ques­tion in the minds of those who have had the op­por­tu­nity of try­ing all branches of the sport of cy­cling that leisure tour­ing is, beyond doubt, the best part of it.’ To demon­strate that the pas­time was now fash­ion­able, there was a pho­to­graph of Lady Nor­reys, sit­ting on her bi­cy­cle. The fol­low­ing week, the at­trac­tion was a pho­to­graph of Lady Cholmondeley on her ma­chine.

Soon this was a reg­u­lar col­umn, Cy­cling Notes, writ­ten by The Pil­grim, of­fer­ing use­ful ad­vice on such things as clean­ing a bi­cy­cle and re­count­ing in­stances of the per­se­cu­tion of rid­ers, such as when ‘a Pre­ston cy­clist was fined 5s and costs for fu­ri­ously rid­ing a bi­cy­cle in that town’.

Al­though the eman­ci­pa­tion of the mo­tor car was just be­gin­ning, with the Lo­co­mo­tives on High­ways Act 1896, the world COUN­TRY LIFE en­tered was not that of the in­ter­nal­com­bus­tion en­gine, but that of the steam train—and the bi­cy­cle. The mag­a­zine was founded when the coun­try­side beyond the rail­way was be­gin­ning to be ex­plored by bi­cy­cles and tri­cy­cles, when cy­cling clubs (with their own spe­cial uni­forms) flour­ished.

The Bi­cy­cle Tour­ing Club was founded in Har­ro­gate, North York­shire, in 1878 ‘to form a medium of mu­tual as­sis­tance for tourists, by giv­ing each other in­for­ma­tion as to roads, ho­tels, sights and other mat­ters of com­mon in­ter­est in the pas­time’. It was re­named the Cy­clists’ Tour­ing Club in 1883 to en­com­pass tri­cy­clists and, by 1886, it had more than 22,000 mem­bers.

The bi­cy­cle rep­re­sented lib­er­a­tion, par­tic­u­larly for women. It en­abled in­di­vid­u­als and groups to tour Bri­tain, ad­mir­ing views and visit­ing mon­u­ments, churches and vil­lages that the rail­way had ren­dered re­mote and it helped re­vive old coach­ing inns. In 1898, an ar­ti­cle on ‘Typ­i­cal English Vil­lages’ looked at Broad­way, Worces­ter­shire, which was then al­most in­ac­ces­si­ble: ‘It is not easy to say who was the mod­ern dis­cov­erer, or re­dis­cov­erer, of this beau­ti­ful and in­ter­est­ing old vil­lage. It must have needed some find­ing… We have a sus­pi­cion that the inartis­tic and un­ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal bi­cy­cle may have brought it again into no­tice.’

Even the mag­a­zine’s first fash­ion cor­res pon­dent took to the roads, Mlle Sans-gêne re­count­ing in Septem­ber 1897: ‘We went for a long bi­cy­cle ride this morn­ing, ar­riv­ing dur­ing its progress at a pic­turesque old church, where we wan­dered for half an hour en­deav­our­ing to de­ci­pher the in­scrip­tions on old tombs, from which nearly all the brasses had been filched by the ap­pre­cia­tive.’

The first mass-pro­duced bi­cy­cle, the Or­di­nary, now bet­ter known as the penny-farthing, ar­rived in the 1880s. The steer­able front wheel had grown al­most as high as a man and the back wheel was much smaller. They were un­sta­ble, as the sad­dle was above the high wheel, the ped­als were fixed with­out a free wheel and the brake in­ef­fec­tive, so that the rider was eas­ily flung over the han­dle­bars from a painful height: the Or­di­nar­ies could only re­ally be rid­den by ath­letic men.

The ad­vent of the staid tri­cy­cle, how­ever, en­abled women to ride as well and, be­tween 1885 and 1891, the mod­ern safety bi­cy­cle was de­vel­oped by Bri­tish man­u­fac­tur­ers. These prac­ti­cal, easy-to-ride ma­chines had a chain-driven rear wheel and, even­tu­ally, Dun­lop pneu­matic tyres.

Full skirts pre­sented prob­lems, but these could be over­come, as in Co­nan Doyle’s Ad­ven­ture of the Soli­tary Cy­clist, which deals with a bi­cy­cling mys­tery in ru­ral Sur­rey con­cern­ing ‘the grace­ful girl sit­ting very straight upon her ma­chine’.

Maps and guides were now needed—the last guide to Bri­tain’s roads, Paterson’s Roads, had been pub­lished in 1826 and the ones that the trav­eller and an­ti­quary would use for the next half cen­tury (Mur­ray’s Hand­books or Baedeker) were or­gan­ised ac­cord­ing to rail­way lines. In 1882, a new guide was sup­plied in The Roads of Eng­land and Wales: An Itin­er­ary for Cy­clists, Tourists & Trav­ellers, com­piled by Charles Howard,

‘The bi­cy­cle rep­re­sented lib­er­a­tion, par­tic­u­larly for women’

a mem­ber of Wan­der­ers’ Bi­cy­cle Club and the Cy­clists’ Tour­ing Club.

‘Our roads are in a state of tran­si­tion,’ Howard noted. ‘Af­ter a life of nearly 200 years the turn­pike trust sys­tem is doomed… the care of the roads be­ing now trans­ferred to the newly con­sti­tuted County Coun­cils.’ What may seem sur­pris­ing to­day, now that tar­mac is ubiq­ui­tous, is the ex­tent to which road sur­faces—of­ten ‘macadamised’ with hard­packed small stones—were then de­ter­mined by lo­cal ge­ol­ogy.

Howard recorded that ‘un­doubt­edly the smoothest road sur­face is that made of gravel’, al­though it had ‘a ten­dency to be­come sandy, and in wet weather very heavy’. Flint roads, he thought, were best for wet weather and ‘lime­stone gives a good hard sur­face, but some­what un­even, and, in wet weather, is li­able to be greasy than merely soft or heavy, but is never dan­ger­ously so, like oo­lite’.

Oo­lite, in fact, was worst of all; in dry weather, it ‘makes a hard and tol­er­a­bly good sur­face, but when wet it is al­most im­pos­si­ble to ride upon it with safety’. Such in­for­ma­tion mat­tered to the rov­ing wheel­man perched on top of his penny-farthing.

Howard’s book re­veals how de­cayed and dan­ger­ous many main roads were to­wards the end of Vic­to­ria’s reign. The road from Lewisham to Eltham, for in­stance, ‘is macadam all the way, and very bad and shaky; there is a long and stiff as­cent to Eltham’. River Hill, south of Sevenoaks in Kent, was ‘very steep and wind­ing’ and ‘not safe to ride down with­out a re­li­able brake’. On the west side of Ex­eter, there was ‘a very steep hill, quite im­pos­si­ble to ride up (and dan­ger­ous to ride down)’.

Per­haps most re­veal­ing about the de­cay of the road sys­tem is the de­scrip­tion of the old main road from Lon­don to Glas­gow be­tween Ken­dal and Shap where ‘great care should be taken. The greater part of this stage is very bad, some of it be­ing over­grown with grass and cov­ered with loose stones, so that it is no bet­ter than a mere moun­tain track for miles’.

Some roads were good, how­ever. ‘The road from Esher to Guild­ford is one of the finest

‘The Roads of Eng­land and Wales paints a pic­ture of a now lost world

near Lon­don, not only for the pretty and var­ied views of scenery it is bor­dered with, but also on ac­count of the uni­form good­ness of its sur­face’ and from Belper to Mat­lock in Der­byshire, there was ‘beau­ti­ful scenery all the way… all the roads round Mat­lock have a good sur­face, and af­ford cap­i­tal rid­ing, but be­ing hilly a good brake is re­quired’.

It’s clear from the guide that scenery and land­scape were pre­sumed to be of as much, or more, in­ter­est to the cy­clist than ar­chi­tec­ture. Nev­er­the­less, coun­try houses, churches and an­cient mon­u­ments were listed, as were ho­tels and inns (with a no­ta­tion of whether they had adopted the Cy­clists’ Tour­ing Club tar­iff).

The at­trac­tions of the great in­dus­trial cities were also recorded, not least those of Coven­try, which ‘may be called the head­quar­ters of bi­cy­cle man­u­fac­tur­ing, and a visit to some of the great bi­cy­cle works will prove of in­ter­est to the tourist’.

The Roads of Eng­land and Wales paints a pic­ture of a now lost world into which the pi­o­neer­ing bi­cy­cling tourist could ven­ture. How­ever, there were dan­gers beyond the state of so many roads. Bi­cy­clists could be ap­pre­hended by po­lice­men and fined by mag­is­trates for speed­ing—my wife’s grand­fa­ther was fined six­pence for rid­ing far too fast on a pen­ny­far­thing through Willing­ham in Cam­bridgeshire—and they could pro­voke the vi­o­lent hos­til­ity of other road users, who would do their best to knock them over.

An early Coun­try Life printed an alarm­ing ac­count of ‘gangs of roughs’ who preyed on lady cy­clists: ‘One of their pleas­ant ways is to draw a rope across the cy­clist’s path, to her cer­tain mis­ad­ven­ture, af­ter which they pro­ceed to in­sult, to threats, and, per­haps, to ac­tual vi­o­lence in or­der to make the un­for­tu­nate suf­ferer dis­gorge any­thing in the way of petty cash that she may hap­pen to have about her.’

Even so, with all these vi­cis­si­tudes, it must have been thrilling to be able to ex­plore an en­tic­ing ru­ral Bri­tain beyond the rail­ways, one that had been asleep for about half a cen­tury.

Fac­ing page: Tri­cy­cling in Ire­land: a Vic­to­rian pho­to­graph sent in to a COUN­TRY LIFE com­pe­ti­tion in 1940. No­tice that the bi­cy­cle wheels are wedged with stones to pre­vent move­ment dur­ing ex­po­sure. Right: Miss Dorothy Men­pes as the Fron­tispiece for June 4, 1898. She was the amanu­en­sis of her fa­ther’s cel­e­brated travel books, so her por­trayal with a bi­cy­cle may be no co­in­ci­dence. Far right: Re­lax­ing in a ruin: sight­see­ing by bi­cy­cle

COUN­TRY LIFE ad­ver­tise­ments for bi­cy­cles: speed for men, ele­gance for women

A group of women cy­cling in Hyde Park. Un­til 1895, the ac­tiv­ity was banned in Lon­don parks

Gen­tle­men with their penny-far­things. To those used to rid­ing horses, their height may have seemed less terrifying

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