I am a Road; a good Road, fair and smooth and broad;
And I link with my beautiful tether Town and Country together
Like a ribbon rolled on the earth from the reel of God.
Oh, great the Life of a Road.
I am a Road; a long Road, leading on and on;
And I cry to the world to follow, past meadow and hill and hollow,
Through desolate night, to the open gates of dawn.
Oh, bold the life of a Road.
-from the West Midlands and Wales Cyclists’ Touring Club Preface, 1931.
Carefully, slowly, squinting at the screens of our mobile phones, we sit hunched over dusty tomes of handwritten diaries describing bicycle tours across the UK and Europe in the 1890s, capturing each page in 5 mb of data. After two days in the Modern Record Centre’s cycling archives at the University of Warwick, we’ve taken about 850 pictures of journal entries, cycle touring guides, maps, and photographs for Christine to peruse in greater detail for her doctoral research upon our return home.
One young woman organized her cycle touring diary into columns: place; date; mileage; weather; and comments. She diligently recorded even the shortest rides, mostly through her hometown, with occasional longer tours throughout the UK. Over the years, the column labeled “weather” expanded to include not whether the day featured rain or sunshine, but instead her focus turned toward recording the quality of the roads on which she cycled. This preoccupation repeats itself in other journals, and in our own experience as well.
Weather is weather. It comes and goes, more or less beyond our control. Roads, however, are of human design. When a road degrades, it has been neglected. If a road is weak, it was badly made. Perched on our bicycles, the nature of the road is transmitted to us, physically, wherever we go, and a rough day in the saddle often leads to a rough impression of the place.
The road tethers us to Town and Country, but also to the past–to the experiences of cycle tourists that complain about the dusty road, and to the labor and/or neglect of those who are left to maintain it. The infrastructure and the archive: this is what occupied our thougths throughout this week of narrow gates, bumpy roads, and visits with family and an archive rich with cycle touring history.
Day 15: June 22, Pencaitland, Scotland to Holy Island, England, 66.48 miles
Stories of Ian’s family occupied our thoughts as we rode away from Paul’s home. Particularly amusing is comparing the stories we’ve heard on our side of ‘the pond’ to those Paul shared: some were identical, and others totally different. Clearly, history is often sculpted by the teller. Such deep thoughts were quickly washed away, however, as we rode south.
The wind was fierce, and fortuitously behind us. As others rode by us north gritting their teeth, we spun along, warm in our weatherproofs, with a grin on our faces. Cresting one hill as we approached the border, a grizzled man appeared out of the fog, beard askew and radiating glee. “WHAT FOR!!” he bellowed in a distinctly English accent into the wind as he ground past. We aren’t in Scotland any more.
Day 16: June 23, Holy Island to North Shields, 80.9 miles
The road treated us well as we continued south and into cities. Smooth tarmac and ocean-side pathways brightened a cold and cloudy day. Regardless, it was a long day, and we were relieved to step into the warm, storied house of Roy in North Shields.
Day 17: June 24, North Shields to Commondale, 66 miles
We began our day with a tour of Roy’s garden. He had convinced the town to let him transform a vacant lot into a prize-winning apple orchard, bursting with plants of all kinds and its own chicken coop. Roy’s appreciation for the space, and the effect he had on it struck us, and it’s his pride, hard work, and hospitality that frame our memories of his city.
Our day was sandwiched by generosity. Unfortunately, the middle was rough. Heading south through Sunderland, eager to escape the Town and head to the Country, our Road really dragged us over the coals. Austensibly our route through town would follow bike lanes, but these lanes were capped by gates too narrow for our tandem, demanding either olympian lifts or a lengthy deconstruction process. In town, we got lost, hungry, and hassled. Despite good intentions we could find neither maps nor directions, and it was well after lunch that we emerged south of the city with a bitter aftertaste in our mouths.
Back in the countryside we looked forward to smoother trails and finer scenery, but instead were presented with a rather sad story: we were on an established bike lane, complete with signs about the area’s history of coal mining and cycling at the turn of the 20th century, however time had not been kind. The signs were vandalized and worn, as was the path, and we slowly ground our way south, tense and a little wary. (Later, at the archives at the University of Warwick, we were surprised to find similar accounts of ‘coal country’ in the north that advised against riding there.)
Class featured heavily in both the histories we read and our time in coal country. The cities, bereft of their industry, are poorer. We tourists, priviliged with our free time and gear, rode through a very different world there, and the contrast of leisure and labor was as uncomfortable as the bumpy roads. This rift between those that are active to make a living, and those that are active in their free time, reaches all the way back to the bicycle boom of the 1890s, when a bicycle was a sign of the elite.
Primarily imagined as a pastime for the wealthy, early cycling routes gravitated toward well-to-do areas. Then, as now, the wealthier the area, the more it tends to support a cycle tourist out for a weekend ride. Illustrating the point, in 1897 a Harrod department store advertisement read: “The More Prosperity, the More of Calm…”
Chewing (and choking) on this dose of reality, we were relieved to find ourselves back among picturesque country towns and old estates, but our day was not finished. Eager for country lanes and a quick ride to our campsite, we had chosen an alternative route into the woods. This was not, however, a ribbon rolled from the reel of God. It was a mountain bike trail. Halfway up the ridge already, we resolved to push through, literally. Together we took our tandem for a little hike. Cleats sliding through mud, we hoisted our steel steed over rocks, roots, and up steep inclines. Not a graceful moment in the Golden Tandem’s career.
Almost at the top, catching our breath, we heard a thud, followed by moans. Around the corner we met Liam, a young local with blood pouring from his nose and mouth, helmet cracked on the ground beside him. He was as horrified as we were to discover each other on top of a moor, but grateful for the full first aid kit we carried. We mopped the poor guy up, made sure he could walk and had all his teeth (he could and he did), and said our goodbyes. Strange meetings in strange places.
Perhaps as a reward for our good deeds, instead of a similarly treacherous descent, we emerged from woods into heather and grassland atop the Yorkshire moors, with hills sweeping away into the distance around us. We descended a (relatively) smooth road, soaking in the evening sun and majestic views.
One killer descent, lots of sheep, and a 25% grade climb later, we found ourselves at an abandoned and locked campground, with no water and no other options. Desperate, Christine entered the local pub in the tiny town of Commondale, the only public establishment in a cluster of four or five buildings. From the dark backroom emerged a grizzled one-eyed barkeep, who turned out to be named Brian. Kindly and generous, over a pint he told us the story of his town, one of diminishing farms, and offered his sheep field outside the pub to sleep.
Grateful and gratified after such a day of lows and highs, we sleepily and rather drunkenly swept aside sheep shit, pitched our tent, and collapsed.
Day 18: June 25, Commondale to outside of Bridlington, 65.37 miles
We stiffly rolled out of bed, flicked sheep-shit away from our food bag, and set off as early as possible for Whitby, a beautiful town on the coast. Our morning was a series of life-affirming, yes-you-have-lungs-and-they-can-barely-do-this climbs, followed by breathtaking views of hamlets and fields stretching away to the next hill.
We rounded a valley to find Whitby nestled on the coast. A village long supported by an industry of mining and working jet, Whitby has easily adapted to the tourist industry, and we spent a fine morning wandering its quaint, ancient cobble lanes.
We staggered up a steep, steep cobble road with the GT to an old Abbey, characteristically burnt-out, probably by Cromwellian forces, and headed south. The coast in this area is truly beautiful; old towns that have preserved their characters, steep cliffs, and a strong ocean culture.
That night, history exercised itself in a slightly different way. South of Whitby is the start of the 2014 Tour de France. The countryside was full of memorabilia from the event, from new tarmac on the roads to painted blue and yellow cycles (blue for Yorkshire, yellow for the Tour) suspended from fences, trees, signposts… We also found that the campsite we were aiming for was one of many that no longer existed. Many campsites popped up during the Tour to serve the crowds, and although most of them are gone, they remain on Google. We spent a frustrating evening trying to find a place to sleep, and it was late when we finally succeeded.
Day 19: June 26, Bridlington to Binbrook, 86 miles
We awoke at 4:30am with the dawn, eager to make it to Ian’s relatives Gillian and Jamie, in Binbrook in the Lincolnshire Wolds. We spent a glorious, long day surging south through rain squalls and bursts of sunshine. At 4:30pm we were already there, descending through a downpour while squinting against the glare of the sun. In this magnificent setting we found our family awaiting us with dinner and tea.
Ian’s relatives, Gillian and Jamie, took us in with open arms and a warm meal. We spent a lovely evening tuning the bike and pouring over old family photographs, hearing stories about Ian’s great-grandfather we had never heard before. We also learned that Gillian’s father was a member of a cycle-brigade before WWI. Family history, often obscured by memory, came to life in the old photographs and family trees Jamie carefully presented.
Ian’s family stretches as far as the British Empire once did, with relatives in Australia, Canada, Trinidad, and Malaysia. His south-asian transplant great-grandmother, affectionately called Nanny Jackdaw came to life in the stories we were told, along with his charasmatic and “gorgeous” great-grandfather Harry.
Jamie was not only a keeper of family history; he is also an avid builder of antique bikes. He has an impressive 1970s racer in his shed, and brought out a 1932 Raleigh he had built. Ian took some seriously out-of focus photos of Jamie and the bike, but some nice detail-shots survived.
We were sorry to leave Gillian and Jamie so soon. It is a great feeling to know that there is family to come back and visit as soon as we can.
Day 20: June 27, Binbrook to Shelford (outside Nottingham), 66.7 miles
After a lovely (and deliciously fed!) morning with family, we rolled away thinking of personal histories. The landscape lent itself to historical musings- lunch in Lincoln by a cathedral and Tudor houses in the sunshine was a picturesque affair. We descended from the hill-side city by the national cycling course in a sunny mood thinking of European races on cobblestones.
We rode through Wind in the Willows country, over narrow canals and through patchwork fields of cattle and sheep lined by lush hedges dotted with wildflowers.
Day 21: June 28, Shelford to Kenilworth, 69.7 miles
Eager for days off and time spent researching in the archive, we left early to cruise through Nottingham and head to Coventry, where Christine would do work at the University of Warwick archives.
Coventry has a long history of car and bicycle engineering and manufacturing, but much like coal country, the city’s heyday has passed. Leaving the pastoral beauty of the countryside, we were jarred by the environment. Cycling infrastructure does not seem high on the list in this area, and we struggled along rutted canal paths.
The National Cycle Network we were following stopped at the edge of the city, and began at the other side. It was up to us to find a suitable way through (with a lot of help from Google). Left to our own devices, we found a lane that seemed to lead south through industrial estates and farmland out of the city.
Again, we felt like intruders in neon. The road we followed narrowed, bordered by run down houses and ending abruptly with a locked fence next to a pile of smoldering trash. Ian approached the only person we could find for directions, and was hastily shaken off. A dog began to bark behind a derelict barn, and we truly felt like trespassing. Of course, we were. But we had gone too far, and there was no easy workaround. Shaking, we unloaded our bike’s bags, hopped the fence with the GT, and reloaded as quickly as possible. The track was overgrown and muddy, but passable. We startled a heron, which matched our moods. Relaxing into what was hopefully a country lane, we were then confronted by another padlocked gate, this time wrapped in barbed wire. We managed to bushwack around it through a horse field, and were soon at yet another gate, this time an amalgamate of old, ruined gates wired together with chain. Someone did NOT want us there. Rattled, we hastily loaded and unloaded yet again, twisting through the makeshift barrier. As we road away alongside a caravan park, we were chased by a group of children, yelling “You’re not supposed to be here!” We have never been so afraid of 8-year-olds in our life.
Any feeling of unease ebbed away as we once again found the National Cycle Route on a long boulevard of trees, as Coventry, like many British cities, abruptly ended, and countryside began.
We ended our day outside the city in Kenilworth, where we met our gracious hosts for the next two days, Rob and Kerry. The idea of spending three nights with complete strangers might sound a little crazy, but with Rob and Kerry, as with many other cyclists we’ve met along the way, we found fast friends and gracious hosts.
Day 22-23, June 29-30, Kenilworth, 12.3 miles
Our days off were spent eating Rob and Kerry out of house and home, researching at the University all day, and sharing stories all evening. Christine’s first foray into bicycle archives proved an enormous success. The archive there is massive, and we spent our time reading through old diaries and pouring over maps from the 1890s. The parallels were startling, and Christine looks forward to a deeper reading when we get home.
In addition to feeding and housing us, our hosts helped us clean and tune up a very dirty and cranky Golden Tandem. So cranky, in fact, we discovered one of the cranks was barely attached to the frame.
We owe Mike Vaughan Cycles a very special thank you. They were happy to drop what they were doing, brew us tea (tea! In a bike shop!), and fix our battered bike on the spot. We spent an enjoyable hour drooling over fancy bikes and other gear. Thanks, Brian, Tom, Ray and co!
Phew! It was almost as exhausting to write this as it was to bike it. We kept falling asleep late at night, arguing over wording and grammar. We’re bound for London town, and then the coast, and then… on to la France!!! Cheers!