I wish to claim the forum record for the longest time gap between one post and a reply.
I've had this report in note form for six years and I've only now got round to writing it up. Even now my purpose is to supply something for the Hounslow & District's Quarter Wheeler magazine, but I'll post it here since not many forum members will see the QW.
Some photos will follow - I'm not clever enough to insert them into the text on here.
I just hope this is not so old as to have lost all interest.
A Search for Lost Time
In late August 1957 I had just passed my twelfth birthday, acquired a new bike and was keen to go youth hostelling with my Dad, who was a cyclist, but not of a type we are familiar with today. He was not primarily an enthusiast for cycling itself – he just used a bike as a means of getting to places which interested him, but as these places were often far away this would sometimes involve some fairly strenuous riding. He was no clubman and was pretty much the opposite of a modern mamil; I’m pretty certain that even at that time some of his riding kit was still pre-war. His interest in bikes was limited and his appetite for bike related gadgets was zero.
I remember his bike with the clarity that a child’s eye has for early experiences. It was originally a ‘Silver’ Sunbeam and in this context Silver meant inferior to the so called ‘Golden’ models. Purchased in 1940 it was some way from its original spec, but the changes were generally not improvements, just replacements; no one today would think it suitable for riding any further than the nearest corner shop. One alteration which he saw as an intentional improvement was to increase the gear (single free) from 66” to 74” (46 x16, 26” wheels). Dad was no twiddler – his style was to plod along, often with pipe in mouth, but in spite of appearing to do almost everything wrong he was capable of covering fairly big distances each day. His knowledge of the countryside, architecture and the Youth Hostel system in addition to competence at map reading (Bart’s half inch) made him an excellent companion for a novice cycle tourist. I rode many miles on his wheel, although at the time I was unaware of the expression or that I was letting him do most of the work.
Dad kept a diary, still in my possession, which included brief outlines of cycling expeditions, so that summer’s route can be retraced (insert pic. here)
Places underlined are overnight stops – Edlesborough and Blockley were relatives’ homes, not hostels – money was not plentiful. It can be seen that our route was mostly cross country with a minimum of main road riding, but a certain amount of climbing. My new bike was not really suitable for this job (on reflection, it was only suitable for being sold by an unscrupulous cycle dealer). Aside from being too big for me, its 56.5” bottom gear was far too high for tackling the Cotswolds and the Welsh Marches, especially with a heavy saddlebag which made honking next to impossible. Dad’s eccentric choice of gearing was helpful here – he needed to dismount before I did. My memory of the actual riding is a little hazy now, but two things that stand out are that then, even as little as forty miles from London, regional accents were noticeable, and that some towns smelt of their trades – Kidderminster stank of wool being cured for the carpets which were made there. These are features which have virtually disappeared from English touring.
My strongest impression of the whole trip was our stop at Wilderhope Youth Hostel.
This is a Tudor manor house which had opened shortly before the second war after some restoration to bring it to the limited standard required by hostellers of that era. I don’t think it had changed much by 1957 – there was no electricity and lighting was by Tilley lamps which was pretty exciting for a twelve year old. Everything else was equally primitive, but the stone built structure itself, which owed much to the architecture of mediaeval castles, gave the whole experience the feeling of a time warp. In the common room I scored my first chess victory against an adult, and so (wrongly) began to think of myself as a promising contender in that field.
Let us now skip fifty seven years to 2014. My undistinguished racing career had clearly come to an end but my interest in riding remained; touring seemed a natural way to continue, but I needed a suitable bike. Having had a loan of the ex Marcel Planes (Winner Cycling’s Century Competition, 1911) BSA Light Roadster of 1913 which proved to be an excellent mount, I set out to build a copy (at this point you will doubtless be thinking: ‘and this bloke had the nerve to call his Dad eccentric!’). This project proved more difficult than I expected since I could not find a suitable frame – it then occurred to me that I still had my Dad’s Sunbeam frame which would serve a similar purpose, although it proved to be inferior to the much older BSA. I only had the frame and forks, but it could be re equipped with components I had lying about which were roughly contemporary with the original bike, but of rather superior quality. Brief spec: wheels 26x1.25” with ali rims, chainset Williams B100 with 7” steel cranks, gearing 48 x 20 with Sturmey AW giving gears 62.4” direct, top 83.2” and bottom 46.8”.
(insert pic. of machine)
Where to go? Given the bike and the diary, Wilderhope was an unmissable choice. The original trip had taken seven days, but the complexities of adult life only allowed me four and I was confident I could cope with this, so I booked Stow on the Wold and Wilderhope hostels with my sister in Oxford for the third night.
How did the ride go for this old man on an ancient bike?
Day one, Willesden to Stow (April 8th)
Although I started before 10am with less than eighty miles to cover before dark, the day was much more of a rush than was desirable. This was mainly caused by a persistent all day headwind - almost the only point where there was shelter was the long climb from West Wycombe towards Stokenchurch which I crawled up using my just adequate bottom gear. Lunch at the top of the climb (Chris’s Café) was a relief, but I felt obliged to ride the remaining 50 miles non stop to beat the onset of dusk. The day felt like a solo training run – but in slow motion.
The hostel at Stow was excellent: an elegant eighteenth century building which proved to be comfortable, well run and provided good company, although I did come to wonder whether the YHA should rename itself ‘The Pensioners’ Hostel Association’. Note the epilogue below for a sad note on this accommodation.
Day two, Stow to Wilderhope.
This began as a pleasant spring morning but with a similar wind to the previous day, although this did ease by the afternoon. After about twenty miles I broke a spoke which put the front wheel worryingly out of true; break another now overstressed spoke and the wheel could collapse bringing the whole venture to an untimely end. Miraculously, I found Echelon Cycles in Pershore who were most helpful and repaired the damage while I had lunch, but the time lost here combined with the nagging wind caused me to feel guilty about taking 10 minutes off to look at Worcester cathedral.
After this city I ran off the edge of my good map, which caused me some difficulty and led to a stretch of unpleasant main road work; I particularly do not recommend the Bridgnorth by-pass. Luckily by this point I was nearly into the lanes which took me to Wilderhope Manor where I arrived just in time for dinner having covered another 77 miles.
This hostel was the main objective of the trip and it proved good value and much was as I had remembered. As many of you know, my main hobby is living in the past so naturally I would have preferred to find that no modernisation had been done, but I accept it was too much to hope that electricity had still not penetrated that corner of Shropshire. However much of the fabric of the building remains undisturbed and I think the photographs give a better description than I can provide in words.
Day three, Wilderhope to Oxford.
At last I could feel I was touring. I had an easy ride into Ludlow, an attractive and still fairly prosperous place where I was able to look around without the pressure of the previous days. From there I had an idyllic ride to Tenbury Wells (pic. of bike on bridge by county boundary) and then another 20 hilly miles to Worcester where I reluctantly decided to take the train to Oxford. I did not wish to abuse my sister’s hospitality by arriving late and too tired to hold a conversation. As it happened, because of decorating work in her house, I found myself booked into a guest room at Worcester College (no discernable connection with the city). This was an experience in itself, particularly having breakfast in the beautifully decorated eighteenth century dining hall which was similar in concept to the dining room at Wilderhope, but the older one looked rustic compared with the elegance of the college.
Day four, Home.
The final leg back to London on familiar roads was uneventful, but I was certainly pleased to put my key into the front door. I was happy to have achieved an old style YHA tour which had started by getting astride my bike outside my home, rather than driving (or flying) and hiring. As to equipment, I don’t believe I would have been significantly better off with modern kit.
One other point I certainly did establish was that four days was too short a time for this trip, which would have been more enjoyable at the leisurely 1957 pace.
Stow on the Wold Hostel was under threat when I visited it and has now closed. It was busy and well run, but I guess the value of the property was just too tempting for the YHA; I would certainly be interested to know on what terms that organisation originally acquired the building. It would now be impossible to do this journey without using non-YHA accommodation.
Below can be seen the idealistic cast iron plaque that was on the front wall of the hostel, and next to it the witness mark where it has been removed: clearly it would not have been appropriate for the building’s new occupier ‘The Stag at Stow’, which charges £95 for a single night’s bed and breakfast.