The Grand Tour: Fife and Beyond

Ramblings of an inveterate cyclist

Dad and me 1950s

I must have been around seven years old when my father brought home an old bicycle frame and set about making up a bicycle for me. It was a fixed wheel, possibly all he had, no saddle, only a hessian bag tied around the top tube and too big for me to ride. But dad, ever resourceful attached wooden blocks onto the pedals, enabling me to reach them. It was a long wait, and then there it was my first bike, in all its glory. It was difficult enough balancing at first, then there was the fixed wheel to contend with, but soon I was riding it around the street, pedalling as hard as I possibly could, singing at the top of my voice;

‘Riding along on the crest of a wave, when the sun is in the sky,

all our eyes on the distant horizon ………………. ‘

You couldn’t get me off that bike. Riding fixed wheel was fun. If you rode with one straight leg the pedals lifted you up and down like a jack-in-the-box. Downhill the pedals went like the clappers so it was feet up, getting your feet back on the pedals again was an art in itself. Later it would have a saddle fitted and the blocks would eventually be removed, and the rear wheel swapped for one with a three- speed hub, oh joy of joy!

Bob Maitland Daily Express Tour of Britain 1952

My hero at that time was Ian Steel, an exceptional Scottish cyclist from Glasgow who had won the Peace Race two years on the trot in 1951 – 1952. I remember asking dad to take me over to Kincardine Bridge, on the back of his motorcycle, to see Ian Steel ride over the bridge on the ninth stage of the Daily Express 1952 Tour of Britain, Dundee to Edinburgh – 91.5 miles. Many cyclists had gathered and we chanted as they went flying past “Ian, Ian, Ian.” Bob Maitland (a BSA rider) and Ken Russell from Shipley (a privateer who built his own bike, so he could enter) were also racing that day. Ken Russell won the Daily Express 1952 Tour of Britain by a mere three minutes after 1470 miles of racing. Years later, and now retired, I would ride out socially most Wednesdays with Ken and many other riders who had been top-guns in their day, even one who had won two stages of the Tour de France in the 1960s. Bob Maitland too, I got to know well in those days. You would not believe the people I brushed shoulders with.

Riding a bicycle was the one thing I was really good at and moreover something I just loved doing. Two of my elder sisters had joined the CTC (cycle touring club) but not for the cycling, I suspect, so I joined too. Ride outs were on a Sunday, and gave rise to the CTC becoming affectionately known as the cafe to cafe club, for that is where we always ended up. Youth Hostelling during holidays was always something to look forward to. At that time we had to do chores in the morning; first up would be given easy tasks. Unfortunately my big sister liked her bed and was always slow to rise, so would be given such jobs as washing down the stairs or cleaning the toilets, then again she knew we would pitch in just to get on our way, she was not daft, was our Irene.

In 1959 I joined the RAF and after basic and trade training I was shipped out to Laarbruch in Germany, a station that lay very close to the Dutch border. Once settled I went off to find the PTI (physical training instructor) to see about a bicycle from the Nuffield Trust (Lord Nuffield was Mr. Morris of Morris Motor Company fame) I was given a decent road bike and since there was little in the way of racing on the camp or in the local area I went over to Holland and was soon in tow (literally) with a local cycle club. Cycling was a national sport in Holland and some of these lads and lasses were semi-professional, my riding skills, speed, stamina was greatly enhanced by being with such riders. I bought a second-hand estate car, which was really a van with windows in the side, from an airman returning home after his tour of duty. Europe was now my oyster, I really did not want to come back home.

Demobilised in 1965 I still cycled but not nearly to the extent I had done, until that is, the son, of my next-door neighbour, a policeman in Edinburgh, moved with his wife and two kids to Canada. Intending to join the Mounties, when they arrived he found work in the Dunlop factory and he never did join the Mounties. His father was not keeping well so I would do shopping for him, take in the odd meal and generally tidy up for him. His condition worsened over time and eventually he was taken into hospital suffering from pneumonia. The doctors did not hold out much hope of recovery so I phoned his son to tell him what the doctors had said, and he arranged to come over with the family. They stayed for three weeks in the old boys flat, doing a bit of sightseeing and catching up with old friends, but still the old man hung on. They had to return to Canada, but the plane would hardly have touched down when the old man passed away. I phoned the son and told him the news.

“I can’t come back over” he told me. “If I give you power of attorney would you see dad cremated and the house cleared?”

How could I refuse? When everything was settled I phoned him again.

“I can’t thank you enough” he told me “If you ever want to come to Canada for a holiday you will be made welcome”.

I joined a club run by the Canadian government (they were still looking for people to emigrate to Canada at that time) and if you joined and attended the club each month, where you would be shown films and given lectures about all the advantages of moving to Canada you got offered a seat on a chartered plane to go out there for two weeks. I did not want to move to Canada but wanted simply to take advantage of the chartered plane.

The family could not do enough for me on my arrival; trips to the lakes of one thousand islands, trips over to the US to an old west reconstruction, covered wagons, shoot outs at the OK Coral, and yes, ice hockey – that was a passion with the family, they all skated well. What I never could get used to was the amount of food they consumed, at breakfast, brunch, lunch, dinner and then sending out for pizza whilst watching the game on the television.

When my two weeks were up, it seemed crazy for me to return home, after all the effort of getting there. I bought a second hand bike with rack and panniers and set off into the USA with no real plan in place. In the evening I would look out for folk clubs, bars with music and offer to do a turn. You would not believe the amount of Americans who believe their distant ancestors came from Scotland, far more than the entire population of our country. A few Scots songs and the whisky tears were rolling down their cheeks. I would be rewarded with a drink, often food but mostly a place to spend the night, although I did have my back up plan, my tent. When money was scarce or winter was closing in I would find employment, and that was my life for the next two years as I made my way, first west, then south and finally east around America. I was given a ride from Florida in a motorhome, its owners travelling back to Washington DC. Next stop from there was home on a tramp steamer. It all seemed to pass so quickly, and to have happened in a different life. My biggest regret was not being able to keep a log of my sojourning.

Home again, and I was soon back in harness. With decent wages and a disposable income, I started planning trips over to Europe. Cycling the Loire from source to the sea and the Compostela de Santiago were just two of the most notable, but at first it was trips back to Holland and always France.

When I retired I had planned to go and live on the canals of France in my old Folk boat. Mum was an elderly lady by now and went into hospital with heart trouble and breathing difficulties, they found she had exceptionally high blood pressure, so they put her on a machine to thin the blood. Five weeks later she was due to be discharged but only if there was someone at home to look after her. Thinking that this would only be until she got back on her feet I said I would stay with her.

Not long after I moved in with her mum had a mild stroke, and I would become her carer. With no disposable income, I sold my house in Scotland and moved down permanently to Yorkshire. We bought a van, converted to take her mobility scooter, so I could now ferry mum around, shopping, hospital appointments or simply to get away from the four walls. Mum went into day centre every Wednesday so I had a day off.

A blind lad had advertised in the Telegraph and Argos; he wanted to buy a tandem and was looking for someone to captain it. I volunteered. A totally new experience for me. For a start, with him not being able to see I had to talk all the time, telling him we were coming up to a roundabout or halt sign, changing gear, hill ahead. The other problem was he was sitting on the rear like a big sack of potatoes strapped into his pedals. When we stopped or slowed down I had all the weight of the bike.

As well as riding a bicycle, I rode a tricycle and it was when we went over to the York Rally that year he bought a second hand tandem tricycle, just out of the blue, no prompting. It was great to be able to simply stop and not worry about balance. We went out every Wednesday for a full day on the tricycle, meeting up with many retired cyclists that were also out enjoying the beautiful Yorkshire Dales, an experience I will always look back on with fondness.

When mum died I returned home to Scotland, finding a place in a sheltered housing development in Elie, in Fife. Tim, mum’s Yorkshire terrier and I enjoyed long walks each day along the shore:

‘House Martins and Swallow in erratic flight,

Gulls diving seaward from astonishing height,

Curlews nest in the rough grass nearby,

a pretty chaffinch sings its song to the sky.

I love when the waves crash onto the shore,

retreat, regroup, advance once more,

feel foaming surf between my toes,

Such days as these I do adore.’

I was coming home one day on a motorcycle. I was more or less stopped and I leaned forward to save a shopping bag precariously hooked onto the handlebars, when the bike started to lean over and I found I could not hold it. It fell over on top of my right leg snapping two of the bones in my lower leg, one in two places and very close to the ankle. I thought not a problem I will be up and about in no time. Sadly that did not happen. The tricycle sat in the corner of the room along side my solo bike. I was thinking how difficult a place Elie would be to live in for the elderly person (my future) so made a conscious decision to move to St. Andrews, best move I ever made.

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