A bright early spring day in London’s Battersea Park. Amid the joggers and the dog walkers a child was learning to ride a bike, a parent jogging behind ready to catch him. The boy was wearing an electric blue helmet so oversized that he had to tilt his head backwards to see. He wobbled as he pedalled but his confidence grew with every yard. His happiness was infectious.
Britain has enjoyed a cycling boom over the past decade, with Tour de France and Olympic successes accompanying soaring participation rates. But it isn’t the first cycling craze to seize the nation — in 1895 London’s high society was gripped with bicycling enthusiasm and Battersea Park was the focal point. The penny-farthing of the 1880s had given way to the chain-driven “safety” — essentially a modern bike — and the aristocracy flocked to Battersea Park to learn to ride. The same species of young man that would one day spend gap years teaching kiteboarding or rock climbing was able to make a handy living teaching them.
Few of the dukes and duchesses ever rode in the streets. Instead they would have their bicycle brought to the park by carriage to spend a morning promenading on the half-mile path by the river. They rode simply to show off that they could — like small children.
The sun was out so I kept riding west, out into Surrey along roads with a long, though largely forgotten, cycling history. In the 19th century, riders from the south-west side of town usually came this way, following the Portsmouth Road. Since the coming of the railways many of Britain’s non-urban roads had been left to deteriorate but the route to Portsmouth was an exception, linking the Empire’s capital with its main naval base.
Today the transition to countryside, when you finally get to it, is abrupt. I turned off a busy shopping street in Cobham and within a few hundred yards I was in a land of daffodils, fields and villages. The surviving red phone boxes looked like they had simply grown there. It was as English as you could imagine. The traffic faded away, and I could sink into the peace of the narrow lanes.
In Ockham I came to the Hautboy Hotel. Recently converted into apartments, this looming pile of red bricks was a popular stop for cyclists and had an unexpected role in early feminism. In 1898, Lady Harberton, a middle-aged viscountess, arrived here on her bicycle wearing a pair of scandalous tweed knickerbockers instead of a full-length skirt.
She was refused service because the landlady didn’t hold with liberal women in trousers. It was a set up — Harberton was a provocateur who went to the Hautboy because she knew she’d be turned away. The publicity she created was a huge boost to the cause of “rational” dress and female freedom.
A few miles on I came to Ripley, a small village that in 1887 was, according to tricycle devotee Lord Bury, the “Mecca of all good cyclists”. The reason was simple: the eight or nine miles of the Portsmouth Road running from Ditton to Ripley was flat and straight and had the smoothest surface in Britain. Cyclists thronged to it just to feel their tyres singing over the fine macadam — on Whitsunday 1894 there were estimated to be more than 20,000 on the road. Riders loved it so much they organised charitable “road-menders’ feeds” to support the workers who maintained it.
The other attraction of Ripley was that cyclists could take refreshments at The Anchor — the most cherished of the cyclists’ inns, and one of the few whose landlady, Mrs Dibble, had welcomed cyclists from the very beginning. The inn still thrives and is proud of its place in cycling history. “A few weeks ago we got sent someone’s great-uncle’s cycling diary, which mentions riding to Ripley in 1889,” I was told when I stopped in. It stages an annual lunch for a veteran cycle club, attended by riders with period machines and dress.
The café down the road from The Anchor had a dozen carbon-fibre bikes outside. Ripley is once again very much cyclists’ territory — the current boom has brought affluent riders from London who have found Ripley just as attractive a destination as their forebears, whether or not they are aware of them.
I took a final turn through Ripley then headed for home. As I picked up the pace and pointed my bike back the way I’d come, it pleased me greatly to note that the road out of Ripley is still very, very smooth.
Michael Hutchinson is a British cyclist who has won numerous national time-trial championships and competed at the Commonwealth Games. His latest book is ‘Re:Cyclists, 200 Years on Two Wheels’ (Bloomsbury)
Illustration by Matthew Cook
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