To many cyclists the mention of gates conjures up visions of rough-stuff, for there are few tracks along which one has not got a gate or two to open. Usually the gate is open sesame to the freedom of the hills.
But gates have not always been the prerogative of fields and footpaths. I have a tale to tell of other gates.
In the halcyon days between the two world wars many unfenced hill roads had gates, often placed at frequent intervals wherever a farm boundary wall crossed the road, and usually just around a bend. Most of them carried the legend ‘Shut this gate and use Coopers Sheep Dip’. (We used to think that the people who had to be told to shut the gate were not the sort who would use sheep dip. At least we never heard of anyone doing this, and never tried its effects on our own skin).
The Forest of Bowland had its share of gates, and those close to farms were sometimes tended by groups of noisy and not very hopeful children. In the thirties when the road through the Trough of Bowland began to attract the more venturesome motorists the children did better.
Then one weekend the gate at the southern entrance to the Trough was manned by an old tramp – Old Tom, as he was called – and as the decade advanced Old Tom became a feature at that gate, which was the source of a steadily rising income. Old Tom kept that gate in perfect working order; he knew exactly the right moment to open it for the approaching motorist, and the farmer, in appreciation granted him the use of a barn to sleep in. He also built himself a cosy shelter in the angle of the wall, and at slack times he would sit there snugly, billy can on the boil and a clay pipe firmly clenched in his teeth, the very picture of homely contentment. One night a careless motorist smashed his gate to pieces, and Old Tom at once sent for a new gate at his own expense.
In the meantime other tramps captured other gates, and the business became quite popular, if somewhat expensive to the more conscientious type of motorist. We became good friends with some of these gentlemen who told us many a tale of the roadfaring days. They didn’t worry cyclists much – many a gatekeeper was more affluent than we were !
One day there was a new face at the next gate, and we asked Old Tom where Bill had gone. ‘Owd Bill’s bought a gate by Oakenclough’ was the reply. We learned that the buying and selling of gates had become a trade, and that the loaning of gates was also practised when the occupier had need of a holiday. Values were relatively high, and the word went round the clan in that semi-secret way old tramps have to communicate with each other.
By the summer of 1939 there was not a gate unattended in the Bowland Fells. There were whispers of new gates appearing where none had been before !
Then came the war, and petrol restrictions which at once killed the whole racket. Many an honest tramp was ruined after laying out all his capital on a new gate. For a few months some of them lingered, but pleasure motoring was definitely off, and cyclists, however numerous, were a dead loss.
The tramps went back to the Road, the gates swung idly open, and in due course the few that were really necessary were replaced by the more efficient but less romantic cattle grids.
Another era in the long history of the road had passed.