It’s always nice to get a book as a gift. Firstly the giver has assumed you can read which is always very flattering for a start, secondly they know you are not a Kindle type of person because all those repeated viewings of the Terminator films have made you cautious of technology because the world dominating Skynet had to have started somewhere so why not an electronic version of Fifty Shades of Grey so you prefer word on printed page, and thirdly they know you well enough to have a good stab at getting you something on a subject that interests you out of all the areas that people write books about, many of them unbelievably nothing to do with cycling, which means they have put some thought into it, even asked others. To give someone a book and get it right therefore is a beautiful thing and the person who gave me a copy of Harold Briercliffe’s Cycling Touring Guide for Northern England gave the gift not only of the book itself but also of being able to sigh thank f**k for not another self vindicatory waste of woodpulp by or about some doping ex pro.
The cycling world of today seems so much further away than even the sixty or so years seperating us from the one Briercliffe knew. Our consumerist obsession with shiny bling, with possessions as badges of status, is in start contrast to that austere land of post war rationing and the technology available today to someone even of modest means in both bikes and kit would have been beyond the wildest dreams of even the best funded and dedicated outdoor types of that time. In 1947 when this book was written Sputnik I was yet to begin beaming Strava data to cycling earthlings and instead of being merely an ipad posing station bike handlebars still had room for bells, baskets and those extra brake levers we’re not allowed to have any more, many of the rural lanes referred to in the book had only recently seen tarmac for the the first time, and in some cases at it turned out the last time until the Tour de France organisers came and gazed ashen faced at the state of our roads, and only girls and classical actors wore tights.
At first glance you might think that cyclists were a pretty soft bunch back in those days. The author suggests a 113 mile tour of my patch of Yorkshire over four days for example, a distance similar to the annual Etape du Dales (how we pursuaded the french to bring their bike race here when that is the kind of thing we do to their language remains a mystery) bikesportiveride which even your correspondent finished last time around in three and he is forever recommending the reader to abandon their bike and go and see some vista or attraction on foot when the word is that organisers of rides like the Etape position snipers along the course to take out any participants who look like they might be even thinking of getting off to push. What you soon understand though is that this was a generation which grew up riding unmetalled roads through proper hard winters with rudimentry kit and who when the road ran out just picked up their bike and carried it over the fell, a practice known as pass storming. They then went off to fight World War Two for a few years, came home and got straight back on their bikes.
In common with his contemporary and fellow Lancastrian Alfred Wainwright’s guides to the Lakeland fells, what you get from Harold Briercliffe’s guides to the highways and byways of nineteen forties Britain is not a mundane set of directions and maps, but a little sense of the very real freedom and escape that cycling gave folks like you and me back in those days and which maybe some of us lose sight of a touch from time to time, a little reminder for when you’re admiring some grand view that folks in corduroys and cycle clips with thermos flasks and downtube shifters admired it long before you got there on your two wheeled spin off from the space programme, and, perhaps, just a little bit of inspiration.