Cycling is all the rage at the moment. We have just seen the Tour de Yorkshire and the roads round here are a flash of colourful lycra every weekend. So, the day some friends of mine were leaving on a cycling trip from Shepperton to Cornwall, complete with modern road bikes and padded lycra shorts, I went to visit local bell ringer Dennis Brock. Dennis had told me about his days of cycling when he was young when he explored far and wide on his trusty old Raleigh and I wanted to understand what cycling of old was all about.
Dennis had found an interest in bell ringing when he was only 12. He had been a delicate child and his parents were told not to let Dennis do anything too strenuous. But Dennis had other ideas. He started cycling further than just Staines, by taking up an invite at the age of 14 to ring bells in Lambeth. With the attitude of “why not” and a limited explanation to his parents, off he rode on his little school bike and an hour and a quarter later he was at his destination in London. He never looked back. He realised that cycling gave him the freedom he craved and opened up the possibility to ring bells anywhere.
He upgraded his bike in 1935 when he was 17, buying a new Raleigh touring bicycle for the princely sum of £5. This was half a weeks wages at the time, so with a down payment of £2 he paid the rest off at half a crown a week (that’s 25p to you young folk). It came complete with oil lamp (see photo).
It was a friend and fellow bell ringer, Reg, who suggested going to North Wales for their annual summer holiday. (At the time, you only had a week off a year remember). After spending a few weeks sorting out a route and accommodation, the day of departure arrived. They left at 5am, stopping at Witney, west of Oxford for a break at 8am, arriving at Worcester at lunchtime and Ludlow by late afternoon. Yes, that is right…140 miles on day one! It is worth pointing out that those were the days when bikes didn’t have gears and when cyclists wore plus fours and a cap!
Their trip that week took them around North Wales and down the West coast, with a break to climb Mount Snowdon (!) and to do some bell ringing. In his beautifully written journal on the holiday, Dennis throws up some facts at the end of the journey. They covered 700 miles in 9 days, rode through 15 counties, rang bells in 6 churches and wore out one pair of shoes! They reported no mechanical failures and not a single puncture. The trip bonded friendships and provided lasting memories of the glorious British countryside. The following three summers the boys extended their group to include other bell ringers and did trips around south Wales, Dorset and Devon until after the summer holiday of 1939 Dennis was called up at the start of WW2 so further cycling adventures had to wait.