Driving to Gatwick Airport recently, road signs to long-ago places from my childhood like Horley, Reigate and Brighton, zoom by. But one town called Purley brings back just one clear memory. Not of the town itself; in fact, I have no memory of the place at all. What I do remember, is going to one shop with my parents for one reason only: to get my very first bicycle.
I was seven when I got my first bike, a Raleigh with a red frame. I adored it and couldn’t wait to learn how to ride it. I spent hours practicing by pedalling along a narrow walkway between the side of our house and the neighbour’s fence, a hand on each, until I got the perfect balance.
But it wasn’t until we moved to the Suffolk countryside that my cycling days really took off. In the summer, I cycled the couple of miles to school and in the summer holidays, my brother and I cycled down to the tennis courts a few miles away in the nearest small town. The cycling was fun, but not the arguments over who’s turn it was to serve and collect stray balls.
We cycled for hours with our friends from the village. I loved my bike, but I was envious of the boy with the yellow Chopper.
Hands-free meant something different in the 70’s. It meant riding a bike without holding the handlebars. Even better, go down a hill as fast as possible with just your feet on them. Getting my Cycling Proficiency Badge was a thing of pride, but I was more proud that I could pull a stunt like that.
Sadly, for my brother, such a stunt didn’t turn out so well when a stick caught in his front wheel spokes. Close behind him (though younger, he was always faster), I watched in horror as he flew clean over his handle bars and scraped several feet, face down, along the grit-covered road.
We found a nearby house, and knocked on the door to ask for help. The woman, kind and concerned, called our mother. While we waited, she mentioned something about putting iodine on my brother’s knee-bone exposed wound, but thought better of it, mumbling something like, ‘it might send him to the roof’. I found out later what she meant when I asked my mother. A throw back to the war, or something like that. Like beef dripping sandwiches and dried eggs.
But although cycling took up a large part of my younger years, it was my foray into night-time cycling that finished me off.
I was a Girl Guide, briefly. Cycling into town for the weekly meetings was fine when it was light, but returning home in the dark was quite another. One such night, as I cycled out of town and away from the street lights, I realised I was totally alone in the pitch dark on a rural road split between an open field and a wood.
I had recently finished
scaring myself witless reading the ‘Hounds of the Baskervilles’, and as I pedaled furiously, my dynamo lights blazing as much as dynamo lights can, I could have sworn I heard footfall behind me. Like an animal. Like a hound. Like a headless hound with flames of hellfire blazing from its neck, inches from the back of mine.
The speed with which I arrived home that night would have put me in contention for the Tour de France.
Strangely, but perhaps not surprisingly, I have no memory of cycling after that. Nor of attending any more Girl Guide meetings.
It wasn’t until decades later and visiting rural France for the first time in my adult life, that I rediscovered the joy of cycling. And I am today, once more, the proud owner of a bicycle. Hopefully I’ll get the chance to cycle a few trails with hubby soon. But it won’t be in the dark. And it’s safe to say I’ll hold the handle bars this time – with my hands, not my feet.
This post is in response to Irene Water’s Times Past challenge for July. Irene asks that we state our generation and where we grew up as part of her fascinating memoir series, exploring our differing childhood experiences, generationally and geographically. I write as a tail-end baby boomer growing up in 60’s and 70’s rural Britain. (Not wanting to miss Irene’s July deadline – scraping in as usual – my Italy post will follow shortly.)