And now, for ten days, I have the wish. Ten whole days in which to exercise ‘this freedom’, in which I own no master, no allegiance to anyone, even be he the king; in which my mood will take me where it will – as it will; my bicycle to take me – some money (not too much of that !), and ten days of absolute, untrammelled freedom – why, I was the wealthiest man in the whole world ! So I packed up my kit; on a cycling tour the secret lies in knowing not what to carry, but what not to carry. The ‘tenderfoot’ tourist, even if he has studied the problem, always takes too much luggage with him; only experience can teach him what constitute ‘necessities’ and ‘luxuries’. So, modestly enough, claiming to have some idea of the hang of it, I took the following to pull me through ten days.
A spare shirt, a pair of stockings and handkerchiefs were my touring extras, to which might be added nearly a dozen maps Bartholomew’s CTC half inch to a mile, and that golden key to touring, the CTC Handbook. My cape of course is my regular kit. I was clothed to the best advantage, though perhaps not very conventionally, wearing light cycling shoes and stockings, flannel ‘shorts’, sports shirt and alpaca jacket – which is about as thick as a piece of tissue paper. Thus I combined coolness with a maximum amount of freedom of limb. To conclude, the only knowledge of where I was going was a hazy notion of the South coast, Sussex, Dorset or Devon – and even that would depend on my mood. The only thing I had promised was to meet a motorcycling uncle at Llanberis on the return Friday evening, with a view to climbing Snowdon. But till then I had seven days, and much can be seen and done in seven days.
I had decided to get away at 5am on the great morning, for my first day was to get me somewhere about Gloucester, but as is my habit I was late, and what with messing about cooking breakfast and other things, it was 6.30 when I banged the door; then, as I mounted I felt that I was free at last – my holiday had started. How sweet were those rural by-lanes, the pretty, winding lanes of the ‘old, familiar road’, those little cottages and quiet villages by which I sped ere I reached my Southward road at Beeston. My Southward road was the great highway that runs from end to end of the British wonderland, from Lands End to John-o-Groats, and for many miles this was to carry me. To Whitchurch the scenery was typical Cheshire – and remained so when I had crossed the border into Shropshire. I crossed a corner of Prees Heath, the scene of a big military encampment during the War, then I rode through pleasantly scented pasture country and drew into the Hawkestone Hills, similar to Peckforton Hills in formation and very beautiful. With very little climbing the road wormed its way through the range to picturesque Lee Brockhurst. Hadnall introduced me to long, straight stretches of road that would be uninteresting were it not for the distant views of the border mountains and the nearer Wrekin, and that this is the plain on which was fought the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403. There is a village called Battlefield and a memorial church three miles from Shrewsbury.
Stifling a strong desire to make a slight detour to Wroxeter, where is the Roman Uriconium, I ran into Salop, where I had a lunch of strawberries and cream with other delicacies, for which I was charged a formidable price. Heeding not the various attractions of Shrewsbury, I crossed the English bridge which was being widened, and took the Ludlow road. The scenery was nothing to write about, being flat and monotonous and motorised, and as I faced a stiff breeze and unaccountably became saddle-sore, I was not sorry when I came up against the hill-country, and entered the narrow vale between Caer Caradoc and the Long Mynd, in which lies the residential town of Church Stretton. I searched high and low here for maps of the Dorset and Devon coasts without avail.
The hill-country became splendid, and the villages were glorious pictures in ‘black and white’ and flowery gardens, whilst the wind turned and sided me now, so I easily ticked back the miles, having the good fortune to run into a heavy rainstorm, which was luxuriously cooling. Unhappily, it soon passed off. Just after Craven Arms I turned to view quaint little Stokesay Castle, and becoming enamoured of it, went inside. Though not a ruin, the castle interior is barren of equipment, except for one room, which has been turned into a tiny museum, in which are various local relics and documents relevant to Stokesay. I know nothing of its history, except that it dates from the 13th century, the timber work that gives it such a picturesque appearance being added in the Elizabethan period, thus converting it into a kind of fortified mansion. I fancy that the ornamental fireplace and beautiful plaster work also belong to these latter times. I was sorry to see that the main hall has been converted into a refreshment hall.
Whilst I had been pottering about the castle, another rainstorm had come, but just as I made a dash to get in it, it passed away, and soon the merciless sun was beating down in approved heat-wave fashion. A wide, perfect road carried me through a rich haymaking country to Ludlow, which is situated above the River Teme. There is an old bridge over the river, leading into the steep main street, and from this bridge one gets an imposing view of the castle, a ruined fortress similar in style, I thought, to Kenilworth. In Ludlow are some ancient little ‘bits’, the best being old inns, a notable example of which is the ‘Feathers’. I had another exhaustive search here for maps but met with the same rebuffs as at Church Stretton.
My lot was now the type of country that often lies in view of a main road, just ‘country’ – nothing else, whilst the main road itself suffered for a time from the usual complaint, traffic. The heat too, was almost unbearable, and at Woofferton, where I was tempted to follow the Teme Valley to old-world Tenbury and Worcester, I enjoyed the doubtful ‘fun’ of wallowing along a newly tarred two miles length of road. By the time I had dissected countless tarry stones from my knees and shoes, and succeeded in liberally transferring the dauby stuff to my hands, I had decided to go straight ahead. Then the country took on a new outlook, the road winding in and out like an alluring by-lane with the country around just like a garden. Herefordshire ! I met a tandem couple who turned out to be two prominent members of my club, and with whom I had a long chat. They were as brown as berries, had been in Devon and Cornwall, had there obtained, besides an unhealthy taste for cider, a great enthusiasm for the West Country and they urged me to go their way, lending me maps and putting me ‘on’ several finds, in the shape of caterers and lodging houses. So I left them, and the half-formed thoughts of heading West resolved into a decision. I had tea in an old-world cottage in old-world Leominster, or ‘Lemster’, as it is pronounced, and then ran into a magnificent country, perhaps not really magnificent in the right sense of the word, but a bit of untainted England, fields of waving wheat all splashed with crimson poppies, long-grass meadows, rolling up and down in furling waves….
‘-Such and up and down,
Of verdure, noting too much up or down,
A ripple of land, as if God’s finger touch’d
But did not press in making England’.
and hedges ablaze with roses. Once the road climbed evenly for a mile or more, and I had a fine view from the summit, a view of sweeping hills – waves of land all green and red and brown and gold until the blue haze of distance mingled it all. I came to quaint old Hereford, busy Hereford, I should say, for the Saturday night crowds were about. Perhaps the best thing to remind me of Hereford will be the long search for ‘sun-specs’ I had. I wanted some ‘sun-specs’ for my eyes had ached that day with the glare of the sun, but the millions of midges which seem to be all determined to explore the inner recesses of my eyes were my chief reason for the investment. Hereford was combed for those ‘specs’, and I got them just as I was about to give up the hunt. But they were good ones, and I yet mourn their loss, which came about a month later on the Berwyns – Bwlch Rhiw Hirnant, to be precise. I must hold the crowds responsible for my failure to take a proper look at Hereford Cathedral and for not looking up the street where Nell Gwynne was born, but I did spend a moment looking down at the sylvan Wye from the old bridge. That, I think, concluded my associations with the ancient city of Hereford.
The next 14 miles on the hills to the west of the Wye Valley hold glorious memories yet with me. The sun was setting; over the hills and valleys, green fields and woods was the hush of a summer twilight, a twilight that, at first tinged with the rays of the setting sun, golden hued, changed ever so slowly until the distant hills went blue and hazy and a dead quiet settled o’er the countryside. Then is the time when the bicycle scores, when one glides noiselessly along, when one is, and desires to be, at peace with the great peace around, when one may sit on a stile and watch the distant mountains turn from purple to blue, and see the haze of night – a filmy cloak steal over them, when one may walk slowly uphill and see the roses drooping to sleep, or catch the scents of the hedgerows and hayfields; that is when one draws closer to infinite secrets of Nature, and feels the call of the countryside. Add that to the thoughts of a whole week – more than a week of such country and it will be readily understood how supremely happy I was. I revelled in my bare arms, open neck and, yes, bare knees, loose, light clothing, and in the knowledge that now, time was my own; I could go whither I chose. I would put up in the next village till the next village came, then the next, and so on, for I hated to give up riding on such an evening. The freedom of cycle touring, it is great !
Eventually I found myself crossing the Wye again and entering a quaint little town, Ross on Wye, where I took counsel with myself. The local clock was set at 9.15; Gloucester, the next place in the handbook was 16 miles away. Was it feasible tonight? An hour’s hard-riding if the roads were not hilly, an hour hard-riding in country like this – no, I couldn’t do it, so I found a place, had supper to the tune of a wireless concert from 2LO (You can’t get thoroughly away from modern life even in quaint little Ross) then took a walk when dusk was deepening to night, and a bright streak over the Black Mountains of Brecon was all that was left of a magnificent day, a day of 148 miles of the English Wonderland. Back at my little Temperance Hotel I sat listening to the burlesque of Harry Lauder, and to the engaging remarks of the daughter of the house, a rather pretty ‘modern maid of Ross’, who wanted me to tell her of the latest things in jazz and hairdressing in town. I’m afraid that I failed to tell her more than she already knew, for I did not know myself, but all the same I must apologise to Harry Lauder for neglecting him. The end of a perfect day !