The North Cotswold Cycling Club
I like to jump upon a bike and pedal around the countryside
From the earliest days of club cycling there has always been two sides to it: namely social riding and competitive riding. And within every club it was important, and remains so, to strike the right balance between the two aspects. Not everyone who joins a club is interested in racing, and if too much emphasis is placed upon the competitive side it risks alienating those who see cycling as chiefly or solely a social activity. Those charged with the responsibility of managing clubs need to handle this potential conflict of interest with sensitivity, and doubtless most of them do so.
Throughout the years the unifying element, so to speak, has been the Club Run, which brings together all members, and serves as a combination of social outing and, for those of a more competitive spirit, an informal training session. In the 1930’s these runs were held almost exclusively on a Sunday; Saturday morning being part of the regular working week for most employed men, and the day therefore unavailable for club riding.
The NCCC, like other clubs, had a full calendar of rides throughout the year, covering every Sunday with the sole exception of Christmas Day if that happened to fall on the Sabbath. Members would assemble at 2.00 p.m. each Sunday outside Tommy Kemp’s shop in the Broadway High Street, or at an earlier time of day if a longer run had been arranged. They would then depart five minutes later. Latecomers, - and there were frequently a few, - were obliged to follow on, and to catch up as best they could. Since all of the members knew the intended destination for the ride, and the designated tea stop, there was a good chance that the tardy would eventually manage to rendezvous with the main group.
In addition to the Sunday runs there was a regular mid-week Wednesday evening ride departing at 7 p.m., again from the assembly point outside Kemp’s shop. The keener souls, especially those in race training, would also venture out at other times, and on other days, for impromptu fitness sessions. Club members who lived in Broadway had a twenty-three mile training circuit which took them out of the village along the A44 into Evesham to the Workman Bridge, then left along Waterside, parallel to the River Avon, and left again at the New Bridge out towards Cheltenham on the A46 as far as the Teddington Cross Hands. Another left turn at Teddington would take them to Toddington, with a final left turn at Toddington for a return to Broadway and, as likely as not, a final sprint when they came in sight of the Cheltenham Road entrance to the village: no less than seven club members lived in Cheltenham Road. A slighter shorter version of the circuit involved turning off the A46 at Sedgeberrow, and taking the B4078 to Toddington, omitting the Teddington leg of the journey.
By a combination of club and training runs, and competitive events - not forgetting that many also used their bicycles to get to and from their daily work - it was not unusual for a member to clock up five or six thousand miles in a year. One North Cotswold rider who kept a careful log found that he had ridden more than ten thousand miles during the year: the equivalent of journeying from Land’s End to John o’Groats and back five times over...and back to John o’Groats again…plus a bit further.
The Sunday runs normally covered forty or fifty miles, with a break for refreshments at a designated tea stop. The rides were mainly to those parts of Worcestershire, Warwickshire and Gloucestershire that are within striking distance of Broadway, with just occasional trips further afield into Oxfordshire and Shropshire. Sometimes, two or three of the keener sort would turn the scheduled afternoon ride into a day run, setting off earlier and taking a circuitous route of their own choosing to the tea stop, where they would rendezvous with the remainder of their compatriots for the journey home.
The Wednesday evening run was normally of about ten or twenty miles, to nearby towns and villages such as Tewkesbury, Blockley and Mickleton, usually involving a pause for refreshments at a convenient hostelry. Unlike the Sunday outings, the mid-weeks were, as one member described it, ‘more of a pub run, than a club run’. But these too were held throughout the year, and were considered part of official club activity. Rule ten stated that ‘to qualify for any prize, racing members must attend at least one third of the runs…including mid-week runs’.
The most ambitious of the Sunday runs was the one hundred and twenty mile round trip to the Welsh border town of Monmouth, normally breaking for dinner at the Red Lion Inn at Huntley in the Forest of Dean. This required an 8.30 am start. Given that fifteen to eighteen miles an hour was a good average speed on a club run, the Monmouth outing was most certainly a full day’s ride, and was only undertaken once or twice a year. Extended runs were also made to the Teme Valley and to the Earlswood lakes south of Birmingham. Listed among the early runs is a seventy mile round trip to Stroud, via Gloucester, in March 1933.
The longer runs, although popular, could on occasion prove too ambitious a challenge, especially for those who were less than fully fit. A case in point was a winter ride to Woodstock in Oxfordshire in February 1938, which took a winding and hilly course from Broadway through Snowshill, Taddington, and Guiting to Stow-on-the-Wold. By the time that the group reached Chipping Norton several of the riders had already begun to flag. After a brief rest to gather their collective breath they struggled on valiantly the remaining ten miles to the tea place at Woodstock. But one rider, whose identity is only hinted at in the report of the run, was too exhausted to attempt the return journey, and was carried back to Broadway in an accompanying car.
Although the NCCC members had ostensibly a large area of countryside in which to roam, in actual fact there were only a limited number of convenient places to visit within a twenty or thirty mile radius of Broadway. Certain destinations therefore appear regularly on the Runs List; the pretty Cotswold towns of Burford and Bourton-on-the-Water being frequent ports of call. The occasional inclusion on the list of rather vague objectives such as ‘Ramble Round’, ‘Mystery Run’, ‘Mud Larking Tour’, and ‘Any-bodies Run’, provides a clue that it was not an easy matter to compile a varied schedule without falling into some repetition.
A mystery destination, where only the leader for the day knew the intended route –assuming that he or she had decided upon one before setting out - did not necessarily detract from the appeal of a run. One documented ride, in January 1938, where ‘Colonel’ Harry Bennett was the nominated leader, proved to be very well attended, with ten men and three women departing from Broadway for what transpired to be a gentle Cotswold ramble.
Any divergence of interest between the racing members and the social riders appears to have been reconciled with decent good humour. A report on the first run of the 1937 season shows that whilst maybe not everyone had quite the same degree of dedication to the art of cycling, even the more committed riders were not inclined to take themselves too seriously. Nine eventually departed from Broadway on a ride to Upton-upon-Severn.
As might be expected from a gang of energetic youngsters, there was a certain amount of larking about during club runs, which included some informal competition between the better riders. Although unable to compete officially on the highway, because, as remarked, the only permitted races were time-trials, the Sunday runs did allow the opportunity for a little unofficial road racing, in the continental style.
When out on a run, members rode in pairs, with the designated leader for the run riding in the front pair on the outside. On one occasion, my father, Norman Parsons, happened to notice that his fellow rider had adopted the bad practice of riding a wheel or so ahead: riders were not supposed to habitually overlap one another. He therefore decided to draw level, and pushed on his pedals a bit to catch up, only to find that within a few seconds his companion had moved ahead of him again. He therefore sharpened his pace, at which the other rider pressed forward once more. There swiftly developed a subtle game of nip and tuck between the two riders, though with the guilty party seemingly oblivious to the fact. Steadily they began to gather speed, until they were fairly flying along the road. After a short time travelling at an increasingly breakneck pace the other rider looked across at my father, who was proving the fitter man, and gasped, “Christ, Par! What are we goin’ so fast for?”
On another occasion the club was heading in formation towards Rugby, with brothers Theo and John Parsons leading the group. The route that day was unfamiliar to them, and as they approached a fork in a country road they called for instructions to Sid Nash, who was some distance behind and who knew the way. Sid, mischievously, shouted to them “Left”, and then “No, Right”, and then, “Left”. In the confusion, the two front riders, who were travelling at some speed, rode straight into the central clump of grass. In the nick of time, Theo managed to release himself from his toe clips. He went straight over the handlebars, and landed safely on his feet.
There were undoubtedly a number of fair-weather riders in the club. Illness and injury also rather more justifiably rendered members unable to join the run on occasions. And, of course, not everyone was minded to put their entire leisure-time efforts into the club. Many had interests that stretched beyond cycling, and obligations that clashed with club runs and club events. The weather, however, was always something of a determining factor. When it was wretched, as it so often is, there was always a temptation to cry off.
On a truly miserable Sunday afternoon in February 1937, just three others were stirred to accompany the Parsons brothers on the regular run. It was, though, an interesting line-up as the report book records, the others comprising club regular Dorothy Wilcox, Cheltenham & County’s star rider Sid Nash, and Sid’s friend and guest visitor Charles Holland.
“Holland” as he was referred to in cycling circles, was at this time one of Britain’s most famous riders: Cycling magazine had dubbed him ‘the best all-round cyclist in England today’. In 1932 he had been part of the British cycling squad at the Los Angeles Olympics, and in 1936 captained the British team at the Berlin Olympics. Just a couple of months after his visit to the North Cotswold, he and Bill Burl, together with a French Canadian named Pierre Gachon, became the first ‘British’ team ever to enter the Tour de France. Sadly, their lack of road racing experience quickly showed and the Tour did not prove a happy one. Gachon was eliminated by time on the first stage, whilst Burl abandoned the race after crashing twice on the second. Despite becoming a favourite with the French crowd for his sheer grit in continuing alone and without a support team, Charley Holland was finally obliged to quit the Tour after completing 2000 miles.
Feb 7. Teeming rain greeted the members that turned out. They set out with the intention of going to Brailes. But, owing to the driving rain, after reaching Campden, the Club decided to return to Weston-Subedge for tea. After tea, donning oilskins they returned to their respectful homes, with easy minds, for, had they not kept up the traditions of the old Club? Although they did not reach their destination, they had turned out.
I’m very much afraid she’s showing the fair weather riders up a little, even the so-called tough men of the Club. The racers seem timid of a little cold and rain.
A more typical Sunday run was the one held on a cold January afternoon in 1937, to the Club’s customary watering-hole at the Old New Inn, Bourton-on-the-Water. The nominated leader that day was Dorothy, and ten members eventually undertook the ride after what proved to be a stumbling start, as the club scribe noted:
There were four members at Kemp’s Cycle Shop when the clock said 2pm, also four when same said 2.05pm, so we decided to start. After sweating and swearing (behind the leader’s back) up Fish Hill, we mounted and rode as far as the Cross Hands. Here the Captain [Bill Tustin] left the Club to proceed to Bourton, via Stow-on-the-Wold, while he dropped down to Campden to see what had happened to the stalwart [Harry Bennett] from that picturesque little town. He was sorry to find him down with the flu. Getting back onto the London Road again, the Captain picked up the stragglers who informed him that they were only twenty minutes late. We got as far as Stow without any mishap. But there a tyre burst and, while its owner took it off three or four times, the other members found it was quite true about ‘The Wold and the Cold’. We arrived at Bourton where the leader “chided us for mooning” [i.e. slacking]. After an excellent tea, provided by Mrs Morris, we retired to the Club-room for darts and shooting. Unfortunately someone jammed the gun, and the Club had to leave several members behind, as they were undecided as to which one should apologise. Fortunately, Mrs Morris was ‘quite nice about it’. The Club returned home the same route as the outward journey.
With many thousands of miles covered during a year, much of it at speed, and in all weathers, it was inevitable that there would be the occasional incident or accident. In the early days there was a salutary lesson for one member of the folly of failing to maintain his machine in full and proper working order. Whilst descending the precipitous Sunrise Hill near Banbury he found that he was unable to negotiate the sharp bend at the bottom, the reason being that his brakes blocks were badly worn and the replacements were still in his pocket. He went straight through a hedge at the bottom, denting his bicycle and his pride, though fortunately causing himself no lasting injury.
Mechanical failure, in its various forms, was a familiar problem to riders. What a day! Three punctures, rough winds and ‘sags’, [fatigue] said a report of a run to Woodstock. One of the punctures that day proved to be of a peculiar and memorable kind, the victim being Theo Parsons. We went through Snowshill and Taddington, Guiting etc., on to the main Cheltenham – Stow road, through Salperton Park, where an explosion jarred the ‘even tenor of our way’! One member was thrown and it was found that the vice-captain’s tyre had burst, and the tube had protruded stopping him dead. But it did not burst the tube! Such is quality? Theo’s brother, Norman, sent a photograph of Theo repairing the puncture to The Bicycle magazine, where it was published, and for which they paid him five shillings. This sum neatly reimbursed him for the cost of the recently acquired second-hand camera that he had used to take the picture.
This was not the only reference to ‘that fiend, puncture’. As the Secretary noted on another occasion: We are keeping a good average, one each Sunday. Other common obstacles to efficient propulsion were broken brake cables and toe-clips, and the occasional buckled wheel caused by striking some obstruction in the road or from a tangle with another cyclist. Riders had to be constantly on the alert to hazards such as large stones, rough ground and animals, both wild and domestic. On one occasion, for instance, a new recruit to the club inadvertently ran over a snake in the road; ‘thinking it was a pedestrian’, someone dryly suggested.
Fatigue was also a common problem, even during the supposedly leisurely Sunday runs. Novices often suffered until their fitness levels reached that of the other riders, though new members normally found someone to nurse them along. Among experienced riders the more usual causes of fatigue included venturing out when not fully recovered from illness, failing to pace oneself properly, overindulging at the tea stop and, perhaps most foolish of all, challenging the better men to a ‘tear-up’.
On a day run by three riders to Long Compton, there was an early setback in the proceedings:
Setting off with every intention of making Northleach for dinner, we proceeded through the lovely villages of Stanton and Stanway to the foot of Stanway Hill. Here the tougher members of the trio had to wait for [blank] who thought he was dying. But I think myself that he was suffering from too early immersion into the Cotswold air…
In the 1930’s the motor car started to become a growing hazard to cyclists, due to the rapid rise in the number of private vehicles on the road. As the highway filled with Austin 7’s, Morris 8’s, Standard Flying 9’s, and suchlike, there was increasing tension between drivers and cyclists. This friction was remarked upon during the course of an address by Jack Chesterman, Chairman of the Cheltenham & County Cycling Club, at the Club’s Annual Dinner in 1935. Chesterman noted that he had observed a distinct deterioration in the manners of the road since he had first begun cycling forty years earlier. He laid the blame for this squarely on the intolerance of motorists towards other road users, and referred to the unwarranted anger frequently vented by drivers upon cyclists who selfishly occupied, as drivers saw it, more of the carriageway than was necessary by riding side-by-side.
Chesterman was right to be concerned. The 1930’s proved a low point in road safety. Although there was only a tenth of the number of vehicles on the road compared to today, there were almost as many accidents and injuries, and twice the number of fatalities. The majority of these deaths were of motorists and their passengers, many of whom would doubtless have escaped with injuries in modern vehicles. But with an estimated ten million cyclists of the road, it is not surprising that more than a quarter of all reported road accidents – around 65,000 a year in all – were reckoned to involve pedal cyclists in some capacity, often coming into collision with vehicles.
In addition to stricter conditions for motorists, such as the introduction of a compulsory driving test, the situation prompted the Government to consider tighter controls on cyclists. In 1937 the Traffic Advisory Committee recommended to the Ministry of Transport that all cycles should be registered, and that because many of the casualties were children, a minimum age limit should be set for riders on the highway. It also recommended that cyclists should be required to take out compulsory third-party insurance, and that they should be confined to special cycle tracks. None of these measures was in fact adopted, perhaps because more pressing concerns about war began to preoccupy Parliament. However, it must surely have alarmed regular cyclists, and club riders especially, to learn that their gentle hobby had been earmarked for such draconian regulation.
Club riders were naturally very conscious about road safety, and generally rode in a responsible manner, making due allowance for other road users. But, as Chesterman had noted, it seems that the opposite did not always apply. Cocooned within their vehicles, drivers were often oblivious to other types of traffic. They were especially unmindful of the speeds that club riders could reach, and did not always take this into account when overtaking.
This failing was the cause of an accident involving Club Captain Bill Tustin. In February 1938 a dozen members were out on a full day’s run, which took them on a meandering course through Willersey and Mickleton to Stratford-upon-Avon, with a pause for dinner at the Dun Cow, followed by a ‘tear-up’ on the way to the tea stop at Droitwich. It was dark by the time they had demolished tea and started for home. Being leader that day, Bill was at the front on the outside. During the journey home a car overtook the riders, who had become rather strung out along the road. Misjudging the speed and distance of the front men, the driver cut in too soon, knocking Bill from his bicycle. The man immediately applied his brakes and got out of his car, while several of the trailing riders quickly abandoned their bicycles and rushed to Bill’s aid. The news was better than it might have been. Bill had suffered several lacerations to his elbow and shoulder, and had received other knocks from his fall. But he was conscious, and still in one piece. Finding that his pal, though shaken, was not too badly injured, my father began searching for something on the ground with his torch. “What are you looking for, Par?”, someone enquired. “Bill’s eye!” he replied, to the consternation of the driver who was naturally unaware that Bill had an artificial one. Whether his eye had, in fact, been dislodged, or whether this was an attempt at humour, can only be guessed at. ‘The Worthy Captain”, as Bill was affectionately described in the report of the incident, had had a close call, and was out of commission for more than a month.
Fortunately, this was the worst accident suffered by a North Cotswold rider, although there were numerous other spills. Tragically, the Cheltenham & County lost one of its members in 1935 when Cheltenham Greengrocer, Ken Powell, was pitched off the tandem that he and his cycling partner, Victor ‘Tozzer’ Townsend, were riding, after striking an object, thought to be a rabbit, on the Newent to Gloucester road. Conveyed to Gloucester Royal Infirmary by a passing motorist, Ken died from a fractured skull the following day, aged just thirty three. As a mark of respect a contingent of North Cotswold members attended his funeral. And the following year, the C&C introduced the Ken Powell Memorial Cup.
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