My great great grandfather, posing on his tricycle. And with his dog.
I think this photograph dates from the 1920s.
If you look closely, you can see that he has no right leg, below the knee. He lost this part of his limb in a railway accident as a teenager; an unsecured hay bale on a passing train caught him while he was standing on a platform, and pulled him under the train. The railway company offered him compensation, or a job for life on the railways. He took the job.
At the time this picture was taken, he would have been working at Ringwood station in Hampshire (a station that no longer exists, along with the line it stood on). His daughter – my great grandmother – lived in the village of Bashley, just over ten miles away; he would frequently come to visit her, cycling the twenty mile round trip on this fantastic contraption.
This can quite easily seem eccentric, or extraordinary, to us now; the fact that someone in the early part of the 20th century regularly cycled seemingly large distances on just one leg. But at the time it would have been deeply ordinary. The bicycle was still a commonplace, everyday, mode of transport, and would have been the way most people would have made a journey between Ringwood and Bashley.
My mum joked – upon seeing my interest in the photograph – that ‘cycling was in the blood’ of the family; that somehow ‘cycling’ had been passed, genetically, down four generations. You could make a case. My grandmother was still cycling around Bashley well into her eighties. (She has now, unfortunately, been frightened off her bicycle, and indeed from walking along the road beside it, and is effectively housebound as a result – about which more in a later post). My mum also cycled regularly from Bashley to Brockenhurst college as a teenager – six miles there, six miles back.
But this is of course where the ‘genetic’ explanation falters, because cycling slipped out of my family with my parents’ generation, as indeed it did with most babyboomers. I don’t remember seeing my parents cycling, beyond some very occasional ‘mountain biking’ with my dad. My own interest in cycling, as a mode of transport and as a leisure pursuit, into adulthood, is fortuitous, a combination of some chance decisions taken, and being in the right place at the right time. Statistically, I am a bit of an oddity. The great majority of my generation are like my parents – non-cyclists.
The laboured point I am making – and the one which I made to my mum – is that decisions to cycle, or not to cycle, are almost entirely a product of environment, not of personal character. When my great great grandfather was cycling to and from Bashley, the roads would have been blissfully quiet. As the twentieth century progressed, however, those very same roads have changed. Thunderous lorries roar past my grandmother’s house; the short trips she used to make up to the post office or to the farm shop – barely half a mile – have become impossible. She wasn’t especially terrified, having cycled for so long, and until so recently. But, pragmatically, she realised she was becoming more and more wobbly, and the margin for error had become paper-thin.
She wants to spend a few more years yet tinkering in her garden and kitchen, and so her bicycle has been abandoned. It now sits, forlornly, in her shed.