Thursday, 2 June 2016

Cycling – part of living

From the age of 4 I have always cycled and I had assumed that it would always be so. The stroke proved that my assumption was misplaced. This blog outlines the extent to which cycling has been a part of my life.

Cla teaches me how to ride
My first bike had outriders. Cla was determined that I should learn to ride without them. He must have been very patient, but his patience was rewarded. Soon I was riding down the hill that was Lawrence Gardens (on the footpath) and promptly falling off.

Where Lawrence Gardens meets Lawrence Street (a big road), there is a short gradient up to the street. At the bottom of the slope, away from the big road, builders had kindly left a concrete mixer.  The game was to ride down the slope and swerve to avoid the concrete mixer. I forgot to swerve. I can still feel the scar left on my forehead from hitting the mixer blades. Rumour has it that my screams could be heard from the top of our road and brought my eldest brother Clabon to investigate.

It didn’t dent my enthusiasm. The children of Lawrence Gardens (there were plenty of us) rampaged noisily on bicycles much to the irritation of more staid neighbours.

First time on the Road
My primary school was about 2 miles distant from home. For most of my school life my route had been to walk to Mill Hill Broadway, then take a bus (240) to the Green Man, Edgware. Then on the way home, to walk from school to Mill Hill Broadway and take a bus (251) to The Rising Sun, Highwood Hill. 

At the end of our penultimate year, we were given the opportunity to take the “Cycling Proficiency” test. To my irritation my classmate Keith (also of Lawrence Gardens), passed with distinction. I merely scraped through, but I was permitted to cycle to school.

Cla insisted that I take a safe route across the dreaded Ai (A41) into London. This meant wriggling round to the underpass between Mill Hill swimming pool and the library in Hartley Avenue. I dutifully took this detour throughout my primary school runs. My more proficient classmate had a minor accident on the Mill Hill roundabout which put him off cycling.

Routes to Secondary Schools
My first secondary school,in West Finchley, was about as awkwardly placed for public transport as it could get.  After my first week I was back on the bicycle. Initially, I took the most obvious route using the almost main roads. Looking for short cuts, was a pastime that I indulged in ad lib. Fortunately none of the routes involved really big or dangerous roads.

After a couple of years of minor route changes, I found Partingdale Lane. I had thought that this would cut the route by nearly a mile. In fact, on looking at Google maps, there was only a marginal saving, but the names of Partingdale Lane, Lullington Garth and Walmington Fold appeared much more exciting and adventurous.

French was the foreign language of choice for UK secondary schools. Rose and Cla duly matched me with an exchange. Pierre Moraillon was from Versailles, but Mill Hill had nothing to compare to the palace. So we were provided with bicycles and took the old roman road (Watling Street) to Verulamium near St Albans. This was one of those times when the travelling was definitely more exciting than the arriving. Fortunately Pierre and I got on well and happily made a mess of each other’s language in order to communicate.

My school was a second rate private school and had no school playing fields of its own. It was, however, good at ensuring that pupils had a full games afternoon. The first fields were at Whetstone on the way to Barnet. I’ve never been a fan of “games” (football, cricket and the like). For me the most exciting part of the afternoon was the trip home along the full length of Totteridge Lane: probably between 4 and 5 miles and certainly not the safest route even in the mid-1960s.

In these school days safety was never paramount. The next school playing fields were between East Finchley and Hampstead, called the Lyttleton Playing Fields. By bicycle, take the Finchley Road to the North Circular, turn left then immediately bare right along the A1 into central London for about half a mile. The journey home was equally interesting. Back to Finchley Road / North Circular junction and go straight over then in 200 yards cross three lanes of busy traffic to the A1 North. I was fearless, but I confess after a cross-country run (up Bishops Avenue, passed the Spaniards pub, around the eastern edge of Hampstead Heath and the Vale of Health, cross at Whitestone Pond to Golders Hill Park, back over N End Road towards the Heath Extension and finally around the residential roads back to Lyttleton Playing Fields) the cycle home (albeit only 5 miles or so) was a bit knackering.

Similarly the cycle route to my 6th Form at Hendon County took many versions. A major obstacle was always the A1 between Five Ways Corner and the North Circular. My routes never involved pedestrian crossings or traffic lights. I must have paid reasonably careful attention because there were no accidents.

I was not a long distance cyclist but in the summer of 1968 a German exchange visit was arranged for me. We cycled from Mill Hill, London NW7 to Wallingford, where my brother Bryden was living. I was riding Bryden’s old fixed wheel racer, with one front brake. Gerhard was on my bike, resplendent with 10 gears and the mod cons that you’d expect from a modern bike. 

All went well until the return journey. There is a long, steep hill out of Marlow heading towards High Wycombe. Gerhard raced ahead. At the Junction with the A40, he was nowhere to be seen. I pressed on over the A40 hoping to catch him. By the time I had reached Stanmore there appeared no hope of finding him.

I resorted to ringing home. Rose responded blithely that Gerhard had just arrived. He had cycled the A40, North Circular Road and A41 back to Mill Hill. Even in the late 1960s this was an extraordinarily dangerous route, but he survived without mishap. There was a certain amount of explaining required of me, but the matter was soon forgotten.

Back in London after a gap
Around 1973, I was living just off the Archway Road. The girl friend of the moment persuaded me that it was a good idea to become an accountant. I found a trainee accountant post at an industrial laundry towards the western end of Coldharbour Lane, Brixton. The less said about this interlude the better, but the commuting cycle route was a joy. 

I chose a route that included from Marble Arch, via Park Lane to Hyde Park Corner (without traffic lights then) taking the exit to Constitution Hill and on towards Parliament Square. After that over Westminster Bridge there was another huge roundabout (or it used to be in those days). At this period in London there were no cycle routes and dodging the traffic certainly got your adrenalin going. Perhaps it was as well that this interlude only lasted a couple of months. I don’t think I’d have lasted much longer without a major crunch. On a bicycle that is never happy.

The Sedentary Civil Servant
Controlling weight is much easier if you smoke and I had succumbed to the habit early. Bryony, also a smoker, had given up (fairly easily) on becoming pregnant with Meredith. I was much more dilatory, but after Meredith was born was clear that my junior civil servant’s salary could not cover the costs of smoking and commuting to work on public transport.

Giving up smoking came first. I promptly put on a stone in weight. What with buying a replacement wardrobe, I had to look for further money savings. I targeted commuting. In fact I invested in bicycles for both Bryony and myself. The intention was that I cycle the route from Plumstead to Horseferry Road (opposite the triple towers of the Department of the Environment building).

This first new bicycle was a commuting nightmare, but I stuck with it. I became sufficiently fit to reduce commuting time from about 1 hour 15 minutes by public transport to about 40 minutes on the bicycle. Also, I took off some weight again and regained some of my old wardrobe. Fortunately the dress code for civil servants was pretty relaxed. The savings allowed me to acquire a decent lightweight racer. In times of stress I could make the trip (which included Blackheath Hill) in less than 35 minutes.

For the next 7 years, I commuted by bicycle almost every day. Icy road conditions usually made it impossible for 2/3 weeks each year. 

This commuting period also included one miserable trip from Plumstead to Eastbourne for a departmental internal audit conference. I say miserable because the trip down was in driving rain against a headwind. On arriving at the outskirts of Eastbourne I stopped for some full sugar fizzy drink. The high you get from concentrated glucose/sucrose is pretty phenomenal. On arriving at the conference hotel, I promptly took myself to bed for an hour or so, before joining the rest of the delegates. In contrast the return journey was in bright sunshine with a tail wind. I averaged about 22 mph and got home without resorting to artificial stimulants.

Inevitably, when cycling this distance (about 11 miles each way) so regularly, accidents were bound to happen. They nearly all involved wet leaves and ice. In the most spectacular my front wheel slide from underneath me and caused me to head-butt the side of a double decker bus. Amazingly, neither I nor my cycle was seriously damaged.

We moved to Norfolk in 1987, to give our four children freedoms that we could not possibly have granted them in Plumstead. I eventually landed a post at HMSO in Norwich. Occasionally I cycled the trip, which was 21 miles each way from Harleston, but this was never a regular event like London.

We took regular family holidays at Walberswick on the Suffolk coast. When the children were young we took all the bicycles. Mostly the children took themselves off on their own, but occasionally I took them on family cycle rides. Children grow up and do their own thing fairly rapidly, but this was not quite the case for my eldest son, Patrick.

Patrick and I have been holidaying on our own in Walberswick since 2001 or 2002, although occasionally Jocelyn joins us to ensure that he gets his share of the inevitable meat fest. I confess that part of the holiday is deliberately geared towards cycle trips.  If nothing else, to ensure that we burn off some of the over indulgence.

Mostly cycle rides were off road, although about 5 years ago we tried a trip to Benacre Broad near Covehithe. It’s not a huge distance (perhaps a 12 mile round trip) but cars travelling fairly quickly along those narrow country lanes are an absolute menace to cyclists. The broad is beautiful and isolated, but I’d recommend a safer mode of travel. There are however plenty of cycle routes to Dunwich and its environs which we have explored extensively.

Readers may appreciate why I miss this part of my life so much. However, the loss of balance associated with with the interference with binocular vision is, for me, a major issue.

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