In my teens, my liberation from the dull confines of life in NW9 was my bike – a Triumph Palm Beach 3 speed tourer, on which I used to escape to Hertfordfordshire and Buckinghamshire, or to my Auntie Ellen’s place in Kenton and later in Shepperton, or to spend the summer holidays on long distance youth hostelling jaunts.
I think I was fifteen or sixteen when I finally got the bike. For ages I had been lobbying for one, mainly on the reasonable grounds that everyone else had one, but my Dad was adamant, on equally reasonable grounds, that I would not last five minutes on London streets. As a result, when I did get my way, I had missed out on a few years of practice on the road, compared to other kids on the patch. I can’t remember anyone teaching me to ride, so I guess it’s ironic that I successfully taught my own children to ride a bike years later.
My parents could not afford the outlay back then, but I managed to save up at least part of the cost from what I earned in various Saturday jobs in local shops. Looking back I can’t understand why the bike had to be brand new. Perhaps it was because all I had to go on was what other boys at school had and what I could see in the local bike shops. Or did it have something to do with keeping up with my peers, as a working class boy in a grammar school?
I dread to think now how I managed to survive my first forays out into Metroland, but I think I must have become over-confident when I had my one-and-only accident, in a Harrow backstreet, only about five miles from home in Kingsbury. Nobody was around at the time, which was both good and bad news. Good because I felt so stupid – it was totally my own carelessness that made me come off the bike – bad because my foot got entangled with the front wheel. I ended up with a few bruises, a twisted ankle and bike with a bent wheel. I tried pushing the bike home but soon realised that wasn’t going to work, so I stopped at a phone box and called my auntie Ellen who lived in nearby Kenton at the time. Uncle Fred to the rescue! Good job he had a car.
The aftermath was even worse. The humiliation I felt was acute, especially after my Dad’s dire warnings, and the bike was useless now. I can’t recall who paid for the repair or how long it took, but in due course I was back in the saddle, if not wiser at least a little more cautious. Actually I was lucky – no helmets or mobile phones in those days, and no traffic at the time. Many years later my uncle Fred did remember the incident and I finally got to thank him.
Once back on the road, I spent most of my weekends touring alone in Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Berkshire, with only a road map to guide me, a pack-up for sustenance and pocket-money for the occasional Mars bar. No satnav of course, and still no helmet. I rarely travel those roads now, but every now and then I will see a sign pointing to Amersham, Radlett, Princes Risborough or Maidenhead and I have instant recall of home county high streets and tea shops.
The next step in the liberation master plan was to join the Youth Hostels Association, that wonderful self-help organization which did so much for young people (and sometimes not-so-young people) enabling them to roam not just in Britain but around the world. I gather the rules have changed since those days, but the bottom line then was single-sex dormitories, no motorised transport and you always had to work for your keep. There was also a sense of belonging, but without any compulsion to fit into an ethos. I had tried the wolf cubs and the church; I was put off cubs when one of them told me that among the alleged benefits was that you could boil live tadpoles, and as for the church I just found it all hard to believe, though I did quite like singing hymns.
I had become friendly with a curate’s son who also had a bike. His mum used to provide tea and cakes when we bunked off cross country (or rather cross suburb) running once a week. David’s home life was so different from mine – he read music, sang in the church choir, played the organ and piano and was top of the class. Another interest of his was churches in general and cathedrals in particular, and we cooked up a plan to spend our summer holidays going on a bike tour of English cathedral towns, staying in youth hostels. My wife, children and grandchildren all find this difficult to believe, but the fact is we organized the tour and actually pulled it off.
David’s bike had no gears and I think my Palm Beach was really classified as a city bike, but I seem to remember that we planned it so we never had more than thirty miles between overnights – modest compared to today’s mileages made possible by lighter bikes and derailleur gears. We also avoided A roads (no motorways then!) as much as possible and stopped along the way from time to time. It doesn’t sound like much now I suppose, but I can truly say this experience changed my life. Looking back, the hostelling experience alone was an education, and the adventure inspired in me a love of the countryside, an appreciation of fine buildings and the sheer thrill of self-reliance.
Our circular tour took us from NW9 via Winchester, Exeter, Gloucester and Worcester cathedrals, as I remember, but my memory is hazy about other towns and villages we visited on the way. I’m equally unsure of the total mileage, but I think we were on the road for at least a month, so let’s say at least 600 miles come rain or shine, and there was plenty of both. Not bad for a couple of oddballs on unsuitable bikes.
This film from the Huntley Archives conveys the flavour of youth hosteling back in the day, even though it was made in the sixties. Watch out for the shot of the two fine young chaps on their bikes………
(Three cheers for John Huntley, a wonderful film historian; I knew him a little when I worked at BBC South.)
There was sequel to our tour. David studied German at school and belonged to a pen-friend scheme. The trouble was that the exchange pairing was with identical twins from Stuttgart, and rather reluctantly I agreed to accompany him on a visit to stay with them, making up the numbers. When it was their turn to come to England it was decided that Ingo and Bodo would bring along their very impressive bikes and we would do a second cathedral city tour. Long story, but in short, it was a disaster until they were arrested under suspicion of spying on a naval base, and packed of home. We saw them off on the train with a sigh of relief and never saw them again. We finished the tour, but somehow the incident had taken the shine off touring for me at least, and I never did it again.
Finally it seems fitting to shout another three cheers, this time for Triumph bikes and the Sturmey Archer hub gearbox, originally invented by Henry Sturmey in 1902. The rich history of the world’s first 3-speed internal gear hub for bicycles began in Nottingham, when it transformed city bike riding. In 2000, the assets and trademarks of Sturmey-Archer were sold to Sun Race of Taiwan, renamed Sun Race Sturmey-Archer Inc. and production moved to Taiwan. For me the beauty of the hub gearbox was that your drive chain didn’t come off when you least expected it, but if it went wrong you were in for an expensive repair or replacement. Mine never did.
I’m not sure what eventually happened to my beloved tourer. I think my parents may have sold it off after I had left home for university having progressed to a scooter. I like to think someone else got a second life out of her anyway.
Post script: Not long ago I caught sight of one of these marvels of British engineering, chained up to a rack on platform one at Lincoln Central Station. Apparently it belongs to a long serving member of staff there. Built to last!