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A Shout From The Attic: Not Quite the Amazon

Ronnie Bray goes exploring on his first bike.

To read earlier episodes of Ronnie's engaging life story please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/a_shout_from_the_attic/

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And the wheel’s kick
And the wind’s song -
John Masefield


Transport being in short supply, one had to fall back on one’s legs for most excursions. My legs were OK for taking me to school, rollicking about in Greenhead Park, steering me from one cinema to another, sometimes two or three in the same day, and for exploring fairly close to home. Yet there was a more extensive world waiting for those with superior means of propulsion that was mechanical. Every kid should have a bike. I had seen some fabulous velocipedes and scooters in the American comics that started to come into the UK shortly after the war.

One such was a sit-on thing made out of a plank, a box, a roller skate, and a few nuts and bolts. I was short of raw materials and had to be content with petty envy for children who had kiddie trikes, especially those who had the wonderful Raleigh tricycles. These were gleaming machines that looked good and sounded even better as the free wheel mechanism ‘snickery-snickery-snickeried’ when it was coasting instead of being pedalled by a lucky pair of legs.

Most of all I envied the children with metal pedal cars. No toy made such a pain in my longing than did these. Toy car makers went out of their way to make them resemble the real thing. I often saw them but never got my body into one. Now I am too big for them and another dream passes stamped “not fulfilled.”

When I was about fourteen, I got my first bike. I cannot remember where it came from but it was old. Since swapping was a major form of trade between young boys, I imagine this was obtained in that fashion. The frame was bolted together and the bolt behind the seat tube that held some important bits of the frame together was missing. Rather than see this as a disadvantage I invented independent rear suspension. I found a large compression spring from somewhere (I got a lot of things from there) and wedged it between the seat frame and a small cross-member that would have held the rear mudguard if one had been fitted. It prevented the frame from collapsing and spring-loaded the whole rear end. The result was impressive. It absorbed most of the shocks to which boy’s bikes are subjected.

The bike was perfect for cross-country and a bit of dirt tracking. The brakes were a bit of a disappointment - I would have liked some. Lack of brakes was not considered much of a disadvantage to lads then. Bikes could be stopped sharply by laying them down and shifting one’s weight rapidly to one side, sliding to a screeching halt. It was important to remember to leap clear just before the machine came to rest. If it was possible to raise a cloud of dust at the same time, so much the better.

As I got more adventurous on this ancient speed machine, I went further afield. There was nothing to stop me. The serious traffic was unknown, roads were open, and pedal power was cheap. I always headed for Leeds. I can still remember the road to Leeds as it was some fifty years ago: all the houses that have since been knocked down, the destruction of community that was the result of a radical new housing policy. Many of the houses so cleared have not been replaced, but industrial complexes occupy their sites. When I drive through these places, I wonder what happened to the people who lived in the gone and forgotten houses, and where their children and grandchildren are. Is anything, even memory, left of what they had in the long ago?

To the mapless traveller Leeds offered a variety of roads that were ill signed and inviting. I learned about ring roads the hard way. Seeing a sign for Huddersfield on a return journey from the north side of Leeds, I took the turning. An hour or so later I was still following the Huddersfield signs with no recognition of any part that I cycled through. After near panic I found the A64 turn to Huddersfield and went again down familiar avenues towards home. In my ignorance, I had skirted the whole inner city of Leeds.

I would have been home in the time it took me to get back on to the Huddersfield Road. Since then, I have avoided ring roads like the plague, unless they are only a mile in circumference, like the Huddersfield special. The Huddersfield ring road has successfully strangled the town, placing everything outside it beyond the range of leg visiting. The Victorians had vision and adventure born of confidence; lack of vision, timidity and a lack of understanding about what a future Huddersfield could be like if it was encouraged to expand its centre limited the planners of the ring road.

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