Tag Archives: rides

On Going A Bike Ride

“One of the pleasantest things in the world is going a journey; but I like to go by myself. I can enjoy society in a room; but out of doors, nature is company enough for me. I am then never less alone than when aloneā€¦” So begins my favourite of William Hazlitt’s essays,On Going A Journey, which I re-read yet again the other day, on a rainy, blustery afternoon while sprawled in an armchair beside the Christmas tree, as you do this time of year.

Just substitute the words “Bike Ride’ for ‘Journey’ and you have my sentiments exactly. By nature I am fairly gregarious and outgoing, and generally interested in the stories and foibles of others – it’s all part and parcel of being a journalist and travel writer as I have been these many years, and a guest lecturer and guide on cruise ships as I have been off and on in the past.

But this broad sociability of mine, such as it is, has never extended to my cycling persona. Once in the saddle a kind of stretching-cat selfishness comes over me; I want nothing more than to be left alone, in perfect curmudgeonly freedom to think my own thoughts, go at my own pace, ride where and when and how I please, changing my mind as often as I like, on a whim and at the spur of the moment. I love the sense of captaincy that comes over me, when I grip the handlebars and push off down the street, setting my own course and speed and bearing without reference to anyone else.

My hours in the saddle are special, mine and mine alone. I do not feel the need to comment on the scenery or share my thoughts aloud, let alone draft (or be drafted by) another to help me (or them!) maintain speed and cadence, and conserve energy. If given a choice between staying home or riding with a club or in a pace line, I would just as soon stay home. Then, when all was quiet, and the coast was clear, sneak out on my own.

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Pillars of the Community

Victorian postbox - Bexhill seafront

One of the many things I love about cycling through the English countryside is the breezy familiarity you acquire here with antiquity and tradition. By that I don’t mean just the big-ticket items, the ruined castles, Norman churches and picturesque 15th century pubs, all of which by the way I see all the time on my daily jaunts, but all the little, common everyday things. Take for example those classic old Royal Mail pillar boxes.

They are so ubiquitous, so much a part of the accepted scenery, that you hardly notice them, a dash of scarlet on a curbside or at a rural crossroads, hidden in plain view. But when you look more closely you discover that some of these post boxes are old enough, antique enough if you will, to be museum pieces – or at least they would be anywhere else.

Britain, as every stamp collector knows, is where postage stamps got their start, beginning with the Penny Black, bearing Queen Victoria’s likeness, back in 1840. In those days anyone wanting to post a letter was obliged to take it to a post office, or to a tavern or shipping office nominated for the purpose, and leave it to be sent on by the next available ship or contrivance.

While this worked passably well on mainland Britain, the people on the Channel Islands – Jersey and Guernsey – where the mail packets called in at irregular intervals were poorly served. And so in 1852 the postal authorities dispatched a young Anthony Trollope – later the famous Victorian novelist, but then a mere postal inspector – to Jersey so see what they could do to make things work better. He came up with the idea, or rather, he borrowed an idea from the French, of a cast iron pillar box where letters could be left for collection. The first one was set up in Jersey that year. More followed, in Jersey and in Guernsey, and soon on the mainland itself, as the idea caught on.

Then as now, every Royal Mail post box bears the Royal Cipher – the Latin initials of the reigning monarch at the time that particular post box was set up. Then, of course it was VR for Victoria Regina – Queen Victoria. These days it is ER II for Queen Elizabeth II. Given that she has reigned for nearly sixty years now – she’s celebrating her diamond jubilee next June – it’s no great surprise to find that most post boxes you see these days bear her cipher. Most, that is, but by no means all. You still see plenty of old cast iron boxes with her father’s cipher – a curvaceous G.R. enclosing a tiny Roman numeral VI, for King George VI.

There is nothing like cycling for bringing to life the details of a landscape and as you start riding more and looking around more you discover there are also still quite a few King George V ones too, his monogram being a simple unadorned G.R. These are pretty old mailboxes we are talking about here, bearing in mind that he died in 1935 and so all of those bearing his cipher must be at least 76 years old.

But this is Britain, where history never dies or even seems to be put on the shelf and out of the way. Just up the road from us, casual as you please, is a pillar box adorned with a copperplate E.R., not Elizabeth this time for the intertwined letters there enclose a Roman numeral VII – making this one a true Edwardian relic and at the very least a century old. It’s far from being the only one around. I pass another Edwardian one every morning as a spin along the seafront, past Warrior Square Gardens, and on mornings when I ride up into the weald I ride past yet another, beside an old pub on a tiny rural lane in a village called Wartling.

Victorian postbox - Brightling, Sussex

It has become kind of a game with me, a past time while riding, to notice the monograms on the these old British post boxes. Once, while touring up in Scotland, in a village called Tobermory, I came upon a very rare one bearing the initials of Edward VIII – the king who was never officially crowned but abdicated in favour of love and an American divorcee. Only a handful of these pillar boxes were ever made.

My favourites though are those with the oh-so-elegant intertwined VR. I pass a couple every day on my morning rides, genuine cast iron Victorian relics that have been collecting the mail since the days of Anthony Trollope and the penny post and are still in casual use, curb-side, here in the Age of Blogs and Broadband.

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