‘These roads were not built for bicycles’
A recycled commentary by Cally Callomon
With extracts from the poem ‘Roads’ by Edward Thomas.
The hill road wet with rain
In the sun would not gleam
Like a winding stream
If we trod it not again.
Having smugly voiced my disappointment at a recent new edition of the book In Pursuit Of Spring (Edward Thomas, 1913), which reproduced photos taken by the author on his bicycle ride west from London to Kilve on Somerset’s North Coast, I glibly ended my review with an inadvertent pun about re-cycling the book.
What I suggested was a re-tread of the route taken in 1913 on a bicycle of a similar age, wearing clothes of the period, and guided by maps issued by The Ordnance Survey in 1910. This was a vain attempt at getting closer to the heart of the words, to ride through history, to mark time and note time’s marks.
Journies have a start and an end, yet “journey” is a word now so over-used that it has become a cliché. A word so stagnant, now, that it fails to move. I wanted my adventure to start with the ceremonial packing of the panniers, the bare essentials: tools, change of clothing, toiletries, maps, the book In Pursuit Of Spring, oil for the lamps, and my one concession to safety: a high-visibility yellow waistcoat, to be worn only if needed. With the panniers packed, the trip started with my reluctant delivery of a car, from my home to Watford, as “I was coming that way anyway”. This part of the journey meant an hour-long engine-off stop on the A12 as it was blocked solid, by cars like mine, for over 20 miles. I inched off and took a massive detour, along with a thousand like-minded other clever evacuees. It was a long, painful escape, cursing myself as idiot-boy for not taking the train. I was reconnected to the idiocy of car-travel. Christ, even Thomas wrote about how too-speedy cycling was. I should have taken note. ‘Cycling is inferior to walking in this weather,’ he wrote, ‘because in cycling chiefly ample views are to be seen and mist conceals them. You travel too quickly to notice many small things; you see nothing save the troops of elms on the verge of invisibility’.
Being allowed into Watford, the car dumped, and a subsequent quick train jaunt to Clapham, I was off on my bicycle, relieved to sit on a form of transport that only required leg power and lubrication from time to time. Five of us gathered at the very London address Thomas set out from, a Victorian terrace now proudly wearing a blue plaque. For Thomas it was a maisonette of rented flats. Now it has become a single residence and therein, alone, lies a tale of creeping wealth. We crawled out through the smoke and soot of London, narrowly avoiding a Big Issue seller as I did. Thomas mentions beggars: ‘to give them money was to take mean advantage of the fact that in a half mile or so I could stow them away among the mysteries and miseries of the world’. I felt less easy, less remote, less detached. I retraced my path and gave the beggar-issue seller a shiny two pound coin, knowing that they were only here because of what we did after the war that did for Thomas. The war to start all wars.
Roads go on
While we forget, and are
Forgotten like a star
That shoots and is gone.
Often footsore, never
Yet of the road I weary,
Though long and steep and dreary
As it winds on for ever.
My bicycle, a Royal Enfield sloping top tube roadster, was made in 1910. It was made from British Steel and has a 3-speed Sturmey Archer gearbox in a tin can in the rear wheel. The gears are dated 1910. I doubt they have ever caused a problem. If one knew just what was ticking along inside them this fact would be all the more amazing. I dutifully poured a little elixir of Two-In-One into the filler cap before the off and said a quiet blessing to old-fashioned British engineering.
By 1910 bicycles could be bought on the Never-Never (Hire-Purchase) for a sum suitable to the wage of a working man. As a result he could move his family two or three more miles away from the factory to a cheaper house, and he could commute to work, at which point all housing changed. Houses that Thomas had noted were about to be built along his route were there for us to see: late Edwardian villas, superceded by 1930s Mock Tudor, 1950s Council Estates, 1970s Brutalism and now huge estates of hastily erected posh Bovis houses, ‘in the local vernacular’ — in other words, some have dormer windows.
A 2-mile bicycle commute has changed, today, into one of 50 miles by car, and these very Audis dashed past me without a signal to warn their fellow commuters behind, as I climbed up out of Winchester. Their hurry to work was aided by Breakfast Bars and cans of Red Bull that, when emptied, were duly jettisoned onto the verge. Like a ghost I ploughed through torrential rain, with cars and lorries whizzing past, and I started to count the Red Bull cans. I lost count at 144 (gross) after some 200 meters.
Today was meant to be the hardest, but was the most beautiful. Little has changed on bicycles since 1910. Edward Thomas never mentions his 1913 steed. Perhaps he was loaned it. Perhaps he took it for granted. But the absence of admiration for his machine, then barely 10 years old, appeared to be almost one of contempt. Could he have taken such a revolutionary form of transport so in his stride?
We ploughed ahead. The rain belted down and the wind blasted our faces, just as it did for Thomas. My waxed Carradice cape and spats held up well — I suspect better than they would have in 1910. Calling the sellers of waterproofs ‘the worst of liars’, Thomas set out with ‘sufficient clothes to replace what my waterproof could not protect from rain’.
Bicycles of today are far more sophisticated than my 1910 model, no less so than in brakes that actually stop bikes. My brakes didn’t. I clamp hard on the rod-brakes, blocks heave up against sodden rims, and little happens. On some downhill stretches I dreaded their uselessness more than the previous uphill struggles. This culminated in one block deciding to leave the rear wheel altogether on a particularly steep downhill to Wilsford, from off the Ridgeway. My cycle accelerated in jubilation, towards the busy T-junction. Knuckles white, the bike responded gently and in its own time: it slowed me enough to use a grass verge as a cushion. My heart found a beat.
Crowding the solitude
Of the loops over the downs,
Hushing the roar of towns
And their brief multitude.
Cycling on roads is still free-of-charge-at-point-of-use and I love this fact. As soon as I rely on paid-for transport, my trubs begin. We gladly, woefully underfund our public transport system and unsurprisingly get the results we deserve.
In 1910, there was virtually no long-haul on the roads. Any lengthy transport went by rail, and Thomas mentions the railways a great deal. They had stolen the goods previously transported by canal, and within 50 years of his book, we were stealing the freight off the railways (by ripping up the tracks, by building on the marshaling yards) and putting it onto these very roads. The roads Thomas cycled along, only now widened and wider still. These lorries hurried past me, sending up spray or dust or stones, some narrowly missing me. I was in the wrong place on the wrong road, yet I wanted the roads back. I felt that they had been stolen from me. Stolen by me, even: I drive a car after all.
The noise and fumes were choking. I had decided not to find alternative side roads, as I intended to stick to the 1913 route. The few times we found ourselves off the A-road diversions, we found traffic that had decided likewise, due to the power of their Tom Tom Garmin. Traffic spreads like a stain: forwards and back, over, under, sideways down, backwards, forwards square and round.
From dawn’s twilight
And all the clouds like sheep
On the mountains of sleep
They wind into the night.
On this very website, Emma Warren once wrote of the harvest some London kids made of discarded small silver nitrous oxide bombs — used to whip up cream, amongst other things. Not being a drugs person, I had never noticed these before she made mention of them, and a day’s ride up into Epping Forest once was littered with hundreds of the buggers. I feared meeting a motorist hopped-up on gas, laughing as he ploughed into the back of my bicycle at great speed. None were to be found on my Western Pursuit until I was some 10 miles from Minehead and Butlins and all the excesses contained therein. One solitary silver bomb in the gutter on the most dangerous stretch of speedy, single-carriage bendy A39 imaginable, I prayed the motorist was leagues ahead, far off if not far out.
This was the very stretch from which Thomas declared ‘I had all the road to myself’. Today I was an unwelcome mobile traffic calmer, liable to be in the gutter at any moment. Seaside visitors in 1913 would have trundled along at 20 miles per hour in a 30 seat, solid-tyred Leyland Charabanc, the body having been bolted on after the lorry had served its purpose in the Harvest. Today’s lorries are fast, fierce, and loud, and they join hands with lowered Citroen Saxas, the drivers paying more for their insurance premium than any car they could afford. I tucked in and dug in and made Kilve without a hitch.
Thomas made carefully chiding comments about the recent restoration of the small church at Kilve, and nearly 100 years later the vandals have returned — this time not
to strip off the lead, but to plaster the beautiful stones in hideous white concrete render and to slap cheap Spanish slate tiles onto the roof. Church vandals come in many forms, some wearing hooded cloaks, some wearing vestments.
My relationship with Edward Thomas started with Edward Thomas himself: his grandson, in fact, also an Edward, who lived in my neighbouring village, but sadly no more after his death. He took me to readings with The Edward Thomas Fellowship, and he showed me that his grandfather was far more than a ‘lesser-known war poet’, as I had thought. My relationship with his grandfather changed the more I read his book; the closer I got to his reasons for wanting to make the trip to greet the oncoming Spring. I started to hear the curmudgeon in his voice, the same sort of bitterness Orwell had. Not yet a grumpy old man, but certainly not a happy one.
As his 1913 version of this trip grew closer to the Spring, so his chapters grew shorter and repeated themselves, as if he was weary of the whole affair. He seemed to pad the book with lengthy detours about poets and letters: he seemed distracted from the purpose, yet also generous enough not to slight his contemporary writers too much in criticism. Chiff- Chaffs, Rooks, Telegraph Wires and Linnets make return mentions, almost to the point of the fancy oneupmanship sometimes found in bird-spotters. An entire chapter on three poets made me think that perhaps he retreated to the safety of the suggestion that the only really good poet was a dead one. A poet that can be dissected and examined. This also reminded me that it was only after this book was published did Thomas then write his own poetry.
I began to criticise his laboured, lengthy list of pub names and villages, none of which meant anything to me unless I was planning to recreate the trip. And perhaps that’s why I was. I wanted to experience the delights of Alderbury and Little Wishford for myself, and I am not going to describe these here. It was a trip full of delights, and the only way for the reader of this article — or the book itself — to discover these delights is to pack a set of panniers and set off on two wheels.
Should many try this I fully expect the route to be now named The Thomas Way and for there to be an In Pursuit Of Spring Experience Centre built at Kilve (timed entry ticket £35.00 – closed Sundays).
Near the end of the trip I dismounted above the M5, where traffic raced beneath my legs, smug that I was free of those tin-boxes.
On this earth ’tis sure
We men have not made
Anything that doth fade
So soon, so long endure
My smugness was rewarded by news that my train journey home required two bus-bound sections due to ‘Engineering Works’. Buses that would not take bicycles. Not even folding ones.
I had no choice but to book a return train journey that shortened my trip by a day (Sunday rail works were worse than Saturday) and took me all the way to Ely and Norwich, a roundabout lengthy detour. However, I had to get to Taunton and Thomas was confronted with the same issue. His book hints at the fact that he cycled home, perhaps, but he may also have taken the train.
My first train was drawn by the 1944 Raveningham Hall ex GWR, 4-6-0 Hall Class loco on the West Somerset Railway. Though we tourists may see this active steam line as an ‘attraction’ today, I also saw it as a very necessary, punctual, clean, exciting and reliable form of Public Transport. This beast Thomas would have been in awe of had he lived beyond 1917. It was born in Swindon and very nearly cut up just 20 years later in Barry, Wales. Born during wartime and destined to perish after 20 years life; loco and poet alike.
Now all roads lead to France,
And heavy is the tread,
Of the living; but the dead,
Returning lightly dance
How best to end this ‘journey’, this helter skelter escape west to greet another oncoming Spring? Perhaps we quote a poem by W. H. Davies, the tramp so well fostered and cultivated by Thomas himself. On hearing Edward’s death in Arras, Davies wrote:
Happy the man whose home is still
In Nature’s green and peaceful ways ;
To wake and hear the birds so loud,
That scream for joy to see the sun
Is shouldering past a sullen cloud.
And we have known those days, when we
Would wait to hear the cuckoo first;
When you and I, with thoughtful mind,
Would help a bird to hide her nest,
For fear of other hands less kind.
But thou, my friend, art lying dead,
War, with its hell-born childishness,
Has claimed thy life, with many more :
The man that loved this England well,
And never left it once before.
In Pursuit of Spring is available here in the Caught by the River shop, priced £12.00.