Nostalgia for the open road

W. MacQueen Pope, in ‘Give Me Yesterday’ (Hutchinson, 1957), remembers the transport of his youth before World War One.

cycleCycling ran through several crazes but it never died out. It had come to stay. And it was a very pleasant exercise indeed, in those now seemingly distant, quiet and peaceful days. One skimmed along, almost without effort; one coasted downhill and even on the flat when speed had been attained, and later one free-wheeled. One was carefree, death did not lurk at every corner, at every crossing. There was space, there was room, there was freedom.

You rang your bell, a musical enough little chime, when you went round a corner and only the very careless pedestrian who had not yet got bicycle conscious or a yapping dog who had aversions for bicycles, or who had been taught to attack them, could do you any damage. And very, very seldom could they do it. You got very expert in dodging aged ladies and gentlemen who stepped off the kerb right in front of you and, if only a moderately good rider, you could land that dog a fine kick if he came too near, without dismounting, and send him off howling.

In the country the main danger came from chickens, who never will get traffic conscious…… And in the very unlikely chance of running someone down, well nobody got hurt much and little harm was done. True, you did not cover anything like the distance a car will take you to-day or a motor-bicycle. But you did not want to do it. The country was very near to London then. Places which are now vast teeming suburban towns were little old sleepy villages clustering round the church and a forge and with old inns where beer which was nectar could be obtained. Those who did not know beer before 1914 have not the slightest idea what it was really like.

Cartbridge, Send

The “little old sleepy village” of Send in Surrey, England, with the New Inn at right.

The roads were clear. There were wagons which lumbered along, vast haywains, with a fragrant load aboard which you could smell because petrol fumes did not pollute the air. You got the scent of the fields, the woods, the hedgerows. There was a good deal of dust but nobody minded that.

You got a welcome in an inn; and if you could not get a cocktail or a coca-cola, you could get an honest ale, gin and ginger beer, the ginger beer out of stone bottles and delicious, and any of the old-fashioned drinks you wanted. I don’t remember tonic water being in demand, but maybe it was and I missed it.

You could have a little country run and cycle home in the twilight and the gathering dusk of the pre-Daylight Saving period and really get fresh unpolluted air. You might stop and sit on a gate. There would be peace all around; no noise of grinding machinery, no roar and explosions from motor-bikes, no sound of violent gear changes and rumble of great lorries. Only perhaps in the distance, a train whistle. You would hear the owls, and high overhead the faint screaming of the swifts – who seldom seem to sleep – and you might glimpse a bat weave by. But you would smell the Land; you would get a breath of Nature.

(Retrieved from ‘They Saw It Happen’, Editor, Asa Briggs. Basil Blackwell, 1960).

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