Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Leek Cycling Club in the Edwardian Age

Some time ago the BBC repeated Alan Bennett's 1972 play “ A Day Out”. It concerns a group going on a cycling trip to the Yorkshire Dales in 1911. The piece is elegiac, funny and concludes poignantly. At the end of the play there is a reunion of the club in 1920 who stop before a First World War memorial to honour the memory of members of the club who did not return from the trenches.

I was thinking of the programme after an afternoon spent in Leek Library turning the pages of local newspapers of the Edwardian Era. A report of Leek Cycling Club's tour of the Isle of Man in May 1904 caught my attention. The anonymous writer of the article detailed evocatively an escapade that a group of friends made ten years before the outbreak of war, and I am sure that as in the Bennett play, some of the cyclists would have died in the war.

After a rough crossing from Liverpool the men meet up with old friends in the Smoke Room of the Talbot Hotel, kept by a Staffordshire man Mr Weston. They refreshed themselves and set out for a tour of the island. The camp-site is at the Union Mills near Peel. The weather conditions are poor( so much for the Golden Edwardian summer) and the camp site waterlogged . The party were forced to seek refuge in a laundry room where they make the best of it. The conversations are boisterous and good natured joshing occurs. It is obvious the men delight in each others company. Engaging fragments of comment illuminate the article- the erratic chiming of Douglas Town Clock, the novelty of an early telephone box, the Whit Sunday parade with children dressed in white and a military band playing Strauss.

Cycling by 1904 was a major leisure activity. It was made easier by a number of innovations in the design of the bike. By the 1880s springs were added to seats ( not for nothing were early bikes called bone shakers), later pneumatic tyres was invented. In 1891 Eduard Michelin had patented the inner tube making the speedy repair of the tyre far more easier. ( The intrepid adventurers of the Leek Club repaired punctured tyres at Rainhill on the way back). By the last years of the century Cycling Clubs were being created . Leek now is one of the longest surviving clubs in the country.

An early problem which Clubs tried to exert an influence over was the lamentable state of the roads. A particularly egregious example were the roads of North Staffordshire. According to the 1874 'Book for Riders' “ Liverpool to Prescott 8 miles of good road, then within 6 miles of Newcastle under Lyme a very bad bit full of holes”... plus ├ža change