I don’t think I ever met anyone, outside of a professional cyclist, who had more accidents within a year than I did and most of them were not my fault – hand on heart!
I was about fourteen when I bought my first bicycle and that I’m sure was mainly to save money on tram fares to school. For whatever reason I was allowed to buy a second-hand bike for a pound, not an insubstantial amount when considered against the basic wage, a ‘sit-up-and beg’ bike and characterless. It was probably WW1 vintage. It needed painted, had only one gear -I was enamoured with it. I had it about a month when I decided to go on my first real journey, I would visit an aunt. , some two to three miles away. She was not in, so I thought Crystal Palace is only a little further, I’ll go and look at that – only another three miles. When I had seen the Crystal Palace, perfunctorily, I thought I would go to see an uncle at Orpington – about ten miles. They were out too. It was at that point I saw a signpost which said that Tonbridge Wells, only ten miles more and I was becoming blas?, and once there Hastings beckoned – with no thought for the return journey, just the sea, the pebbles and the glory to come. I had no food, no protective clothing, but enthusiasm. There were some marvellous names of small settlements along the way, but the only one I now recall was Peas Pottage.
Pole Hill and River Hill to a cyclist are like crawling up the side of the Eiger, Hasting was about 55 miles from home, some ride for someone who had only been cycling for a month. When I arrived at about two o’clock, I carefully put the bicycle in the under-promenade car park and sat on the beach for an hour until I knew I had no choice but to leave for London. That return journey towards the end, was torture. As I climbed the last of the two great hills I fell asleep while standing on the pedals going up the hill and found myself in the gutter with the bike on top of me. Ultimately I arrived home close to midnight to find a very worried mother. The following day I stayed in bed, exhausted, but the expedition had given me a taste for long rides and from then on I went to Brighton, Hastings and other seaside resorts, and back, for a day’s outing as a regular occurrence, still on the bone-shaker.
For me, cycling is best as a solitary occupation. Most of my companions wanted to stop for refreshment, couldn’t mend a puncture and did everything to hamper the smooth progress of the day. The whole essence of long distance cycling is rhythm, the rhythm of the pedals, the wheels on the road surface, regular eating, a little at a time and the same with drinking, and above all the rhythm of the mind. I found cycling gave one room to think without distraction, a solitary ride did not have to be a lonely one. With all the time to see the countryside, the clouds, the wild life and to just think about all of that or just anything, it was wonderful and if the war had not come along I am sure I would have pedalled the whole of England.
I have always considered myself accident prone and some say that being so is an indication of laziness. I can’t agree. Take my first cycle accident, nothing could be more bizarre. I was cycling up a steep hill when the handcart in front of me pulled out and started to pass a parked car. I then pulled out to pass the cart and a taxi coming behind pulled out to pass me. There we were, strung out like washing on a line, right across the road, when a cyclist coming down the hill at speed was forced to shoot out into the centre of the road to avoid hitting the cab head on, instead he chose me to hit head on. I flew over my handlebars, his handlebars and landed several feet up the road. My front wheel was a mess. Again, I had been ice-skating and was seated on my bike outside Streatham Ice rink waiting for my friend when it happened. The bike was supported on one pedal on the pavement and I was lounging on the saddle with my feet on the handlebars, my arms across my knees and my chin on my arms when I received a blow which changed all that. An idiot on a racing bike, with his hands on the low grips of his handlebars, cycling head down, ran straight into the back of me. More than my pride was bruised and the rear wheel was twisted out of recognition. I made him give me his name and address but I was never able to persuade his mother to pay for the damage and in those days there was neither Legal Aid nor a Nanny State, it was every man for himself. No 3. It was a wet morning with the rain teeming down. I was stopped in the middle of the main road waiting to turn right, if and when the opportunity presented itself. In the distance was a tram coming towards me. Suddenly I was hit from behind with a resounding thump by a motorcycle and I skated along the tramlines like a stone in the Scottish game of curling, until I was brought up against the cow-catcher device on the front of the tram which was shuddering to a halt. Laziness? I think not.