In this section you will find articles written by David on various subjects that interest him – and hopefully you!
(4) Being a Born-Again Biker in Brum
My first experience of motor cycling came around 1952, when I was about 16.
I used to visit a friend in Great Barr (the other side of town from Bournville, where I then lived), Michael Guest, whom I had met at the Midlands Branch of the British Interplanetary Society, which I had just joined. He had built a telescope, through which I was able to obtain my first glimpses of the Moon’s craters and Saturn’s rings ~ magic! But I had to travel over there by bus; not an easy journey. However, on one occasion Walter Harris was there. Walter also had a telescope, and lived about half a mile from me, in Mulberry Road, and he had a motorbike: at first just a moped, but then he got, I think, a BSA 250 (maybe 500 ~ it seemed big, and black of course), and one night he offered me a lift home on his pillion.
Anything was better than that bus journey, so I accepted, with some trepidation. It was scary, but I quickly found that I enjoyed it ~ loved it, in fact! So I made sure that in future I got a lift from Michael’s whenever I could. In 1954, at 18, I joined the RAF for National Service, and after basic training was sent to train in the Medical Branch (this came as a result of the fact that my lab job was in the Pharmacy Department ~ I never wanted to be a nurse!). But after training I was posted back to my square-bashing camp, RAF Hednesford, up on Cannock Chase. After some months a new Dispenser was posted into my billet, Alan Ainsley, and he had permission to keep his motor cycle on camp. We became friends, and he quite often took me into the local towns, Cannock or Rugeley, on the back of his bike. Of course, I never had a helmet or anything; I just rode in my uniform or ‘civvies’.
My First Bikes
When I was demobbed I got a job at Cadbury’s, only a mile or two from my home; at first in the General Sales Office, while I waited for a vacancy in their Studio. I used to go to work on my bicycle, but it wasn’t long before I began to pester my parents about having motorised transport. A car was never an option, and at last I wore my poor mother down into ‘lending’ me £100 so that could buy a motor cycle. Off I went to Cope’s in Bearwood (the place for bikes in those days), with the intention of buying a second-hand BSA Bantam two-stroke which, at 125cc, was the usual ‘beginner’s’ machine. But I was seduced by a Francis Barnett 150, in beautiful condition and British Racing Green, and at a price which I could ~ just about -~ afford. I bought a helmet, and enrolled in Cope’s two-hour training course at Barnes Hill, where I rode around a track and learned how to use the throttle, hold in the clutch while I changed gear with my right foot, use the rear brake with my left foot, and so on. Then I rode home on it.
The feeling of being on the road for the first time, on your own and under power, is indescribable! There was just room to garage it in the lean-to veranda of our house. (Today, I wonder how it, and later, bigger machines, ever went through the door, but they did.) Of course, I was soon going to work on it; there was a large motor cycle shed on Cadbury’s car park, and I met other bikers there, with machines of all sizes and shapes. I passed my test at the second attempt. The first time it was raining and I was too slow with my emergency stop, on that slippery road. Well. . .
I went out for rides on the local roads, and generally enjoyed my new freedom. My friend Barry Soden got an old BSA 250, and we went out on our bikes together. His kept breaking down. But it did inspire me to get a bigger machine myself, and I traded in mine for another Francis Barnett, but a 225cc. While still a two-stroke, its exhaust had an impressive, staccato ‘blat’. On this I went down to Seaton in Devon for a holiday, while my parents went down on the train. On the beach there I met a very nice girl called Wendy, who taught in a local school and rode a scooter with ‘L’ plates, and gave her lessons!
Another year I went to stay in Colwyn Bay, alone, and it was here that, unknown to me until later, an inexperienced young garage attendant put Red-X into my fuel tank instead of two-stroke oil when I asked him for "two gallons and two shots". The result was that I was roaring along the nice straight road alongside the estuary when, with a nasty screech, my engine seized up solid! I
was able to de-clutch, get out of gear and coast to a halt, and asked a passing motorist to call the AA, which I had wisely joined. (Back then, AA men rode yellow motorbikes with a sidecar, and saluted you as they passed if you had an AA badge. Ah, those were the days!) He said I should be OK to get home, but to take it carefully, as it would need a re-bore.
It was never the same after that, seeming to lack power, and around that time (1959) John Richards, who lived just around the corner in Old Barn Road but was away, I think, at university, came home on a gleaming Triumph 21. I fell in love with that at once; the only 350cc twin four-stroke on the road, it was a metallic silver-blue, and he had a full Avon fairing of the same colour. I couldn’t afford it, but I wanted one, and started looking around, only to find that this model was like gold-dust. Eventually a friend of Dad’s, who seemed to have ‘contacts’, told me to go to Shovelbottom’s on Ladypool Road, who were due to have one delivered.
The Triumph 21
It was the first and only time I ever bought anything on hire-purchase. It cost £339, which was just about £1 per cc. I paid it off monthly, driving there from work to have the payment checked off in a little book. I wanted crash-bars rather than a full fairing, so I had an Avon fairing and screen, and later Rodark panniers fitted, as well as a luggage rack. And a spot/fog light and two-tone horns! I was also the first biker that I know to fit small dome-shaped amber car indicators: one each side of the headlamp on the fairing, and one replacing the red reflectors on each pannier, and a handlebar switch. Nowadays, of course, all bikes have them as standard.
The engine had a muted but powerful note, and I used to delight in coasting down New Street to where pedestrians would always be crossing ‘against the lights’ on the corner of Corporation Street, then pressing my horn button and watching them scatter (expecting at least a Rolls Royce) as I opened the throttle to roar around the corner. What a tearaway! I also got one of the new ‘semi-dome’ helmets, which, also in silver-blue, looked much more cool than the old ‘bullet’ shape. They still didn’t have visors, but I got prescription lenses put into some aviator-style goggles.
Around this time a number of school-leavers joined Cadbury’s General Office. They were all six or seven years younger than me, and by this time I had been ‘promoted’ to Head Office, where I got to be in charge of, and design, stationery, among other things. But Ian Elliott (who had gone to my school, Kings Norton Grammar ~ his older brother Graham was briefly in my class) had a Lambretta scooter, and Roger Parkes had a 350cc Ariel ‘Red Hunter’. I don’t think Bob Palser had a vehicle at that time, and Brian Grainger never had a bike while I knew him, as he had a car (wow); an Austin A30. But we all hit it off, and used to go out to the Fleur de Lys at Lowsonford, which at that time was the only place you could get the steak-and kidney (and chicken-and-mushroom) pies of that famous name (1s 6d), calling ourselves the Kidney Klub. I still had the 225cc when they first appeared on the scene, but on the day I arrived at the car park on my new Triumph 21 they all gathered around in admiration. We talked of all having identical Triumph 21s ~ perhaps persuading Triumph to fund us to tour the USA to promote them. Fat chance. . .
After a while Ian and Bob (traitors!) each bought an Ariel Leader, which was the new 250cc two-stroke twin, with a completely enclosed engine and unique ‘buzzing’ engine note. They also left behind them a blue smoke-screen from the two-stroke oil. Roger, on the other hand, bought a Triumph 500cc Speed Twin, which was a twin of mine except for its bigger engine and maroon colour. So we never had those identical machines, but we did ride out together, to places like Stratford-upon-Avon and Stourbridge or Bridgenorth. And, of course, to the Fleur de Lys; we never thought anything of having a pie and a few pints and then riding home. I used to go to scrambles at Feckenham or Rollswood with Howard Dorrell (from the office at Cadbury’s), where we acted as ‘marshals’ for Kings Norton Motor Cycle Club, keeping spectators off the track, picking up fallen riders, and so on.
In December 1959 Ian and I got tickets to see a recording of the Goon Show in London. We set off in late afternoon, Ian on my pillion, to go on that new-fangled M1 (which we actually loved, in those days), but while still on the A45 we saw frost sparkling on the road. Not fancying the journey back on an icy motorway and roads, we stopped instead at a roadside café, had a coffee and listened to Fats Domino singing ‘Be My Guest’ on the jukebox before going home. The funny thing was that when ‘Bluebottle’ (Peter Sellers) appeared on that show, he said sadly: "Hello everybody. Ooh ~ one, two, three, four. . . not many in tonight, are there?"
For our summer holiday in 1960 Ian and I went on my T21 on the ferry from Dover to Ostend, both insured to drive it so that we could swap, driver or pillion, heading for St. Anton in Austria via Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany and Switzerland. The weather wasn’t great some of the time, but it was a wonderful experience. On the boat I remember hearing ‘Apache’ by the Shadows for the first time, which blew our minds!
Something interesting happened on the ride down to Dover, which we made at night so that we could arrive at the ferry early next morning. We came to a fork in the road, I braked as I wasn’t sure which to take ~ and we continued straight on, fortunately only onto a grass triangle. For some reason the handlebars hadn’t turned, though they seemed fine once we had stopped. This was rather worrying, as if it were to happen on a hairpin road high in the Tyrol, it would not be good! So we got to Dover and found a motor cycle shop, and waited for it to open at 9.00am. They agreed to take a look, and half an hour later told us the news: I had recently had those twin horns fitted, on either side of the frame at the front. When the shock-absorbing front forks had sunk to a certain level as I braked, the front mudguard had been trapped between the horns, so the wheel wouldn’t turn. They moved the horns to either side of the crash-bars, where they could do no harm, and off we went to the ferry.
I had now started making waves at Cadbury’s to get myself moved into a more artistic job. I had already been put on the ‘Letter Opening’ staff ~ a prestigious and trusted position for which I was paid extra, but which meant I had to start work an hour earlier. As I walked down from the car park in my gear I sometimes used to see a pretty young girl with dark curly hair also arriving, and she would seem to look my way and (I thought) smile. Shortly I got the news that I was to work in the Design Office, which is where the actual chocolate boxes, wrappers etc. were designed and painted, catalogues compiled, and such ~ as opposed to the Studio, which was concerned mainly with advertising.
On my first day there I found a girl working quietly at a desk at the back of the office, doing lettering. Yes, that girl. As it happened, I was working on a book which required lettering for its diagrams, so I asked Christine if she would be interested in supplying this. She was, and this meant I had to offer her a lift home on my bike; it turned out that riding pillion was just what she wanted! Needless to say, we started going out together. We went up to the Lake District (it rained) with Roger and his then girlfriend Eunice on our bikes, where Chris and I got engaged, and we even went on honeymoon, down to Torquay, on the T21. (It was a little unfortunate that halfway these some oily residue in the silencers caught fire. I wondered why motorists were flashing me, then glanced behind ~ to see a white fog obscuring the road! Fortunately it seemed fine once we let them cool down.)
The only serious accident I had on the T21 was one day when Roger and I got back to Cadbury’s early after lunch, and friends and fellow workers gathered around as usual. One, David Elkin, asked if we could go for a quick spin. We went up Bournville Lane, left into Linden Road, left again through Cotteridge, and then left down the Pershore Road through Stirchley. There was a car waiting to turn out of Maryvale Road, and it let Roger past on his Red Hunter. Only a few yards behind, I naturally expected him to wait for me too. But he didn’t. He came out, I swerved to avoid him, but one of my panniers caught his bumper and we slid across the road on our side. I only had minor injuries, the bike needed some repair; but poor Dave’s leg was fractured and he spent weeks in hospital. Still it could have been worse: if a lorry had been coming the other way, I probably wouldn’t be here to write this. . . The Police prosecuted the motorist and we had to give evidence in court, but of course motor cyclists are always suspect, and he only got a light fine, as I recall.
Chris and I continued going to work on the T21 until 1964, when our daughter Karen came along. Of course, this meant that the bike had to be swapped ~ for a second-hand Morris Minor. I advertised and sold it, not without some regrets, and handed it over to a young man, with his father, outside Bournville Church. After a few weeks I did buy a James 150, which was basically the same engine etc. as my first Francis Barnett, just to go to work on, but never got on with it as it now felt so small and tinny, and I only kept it for a few weeks. (And anyway my friend Tony Naylor, in the Design Office, took the p*** out of me for it ~ see cartoon above!) In 1965, after being asked to work on 2001: A Space Odyssey (but never doing so ~ another story) I left a Staff Grade position at Cadbury’s to go freelance. We sold our bungalow at Hollywood, and after a brief spell in a caravan at Wootton Wawen we moved to a cottage at Haddiscoe in Norfolk, nine miles from Great Yarmouth, having been for several holidays on the Norfolk Broads. I hardly saw a motorbike then until I met fellow rock fan David Wallace (we used to go to see Pink Floyd, Focus or Hawkwind in Norwich), who had a Triumph 650 Bonneville, and he let me borrow it one afternoon to ride on the A143 into Beccles. That must have been around 1971.
David Wallace with his Bonneville
Much happened in the intervening 30 years, during which the only thing I knew about motorbikes was that the Japanese has taken over the market, that prices had risen so much that you’d have to add a nought to what I paid for my T21 and then double it, and that Triumph went out of business, then made a come-back, though with very different designs. Back in Birmingham, divorced from Christine but now happily married to Ruth, I could do little except occasionally comment: “If I could afford it, I’d still like to have another motorbike – preferably a Triumph.” But that was obviously out of my reach. On my 60th birthday I actually did tour round the local bike shops, but saw nothing that I would really want to have, and that was within my price-range.
Sometime in 2000, Terry, the Harley-Davidson-riding husband of my space-artist friend Jackie Burns, told me that Triumph were now making a virtual replica of their old Bonneville, but of course with modern technology. But the price was around £8000. . . In 2001 I was 65, so officially ‘retired’ (not!), and I had begun to think, “If I don’t have another bike soon, I never will.” In early December Ruth got ‘flu quite badly, and on a Saturday afternoon I went to get the weekly shopping (“First time ever,” Ruth says, but that’s a damned lie!). I crossed the Stratford Road from Waitrose to get some ‘flu medicine from the Chemists opposite, and outside was a biker with a big Honda, loading up his panniers with shopping. He saw me admiring it, and was still there when I came back, so I stopped to talk to him, mentioning that I had always fancied having another Triumph, but couldn’t really justify the cost. “Oh, what you want is a Kawasaki W650,” he said. “I saw one in Carnell’s a few months ago, at about four grand.” A Kawawhat? Where? I had never even heard of Carnell, which turned out to be a motorbike superstore at Digbeth, let alone the Kawasaki W650.
But next day I was at Carnell, who didn’t have this model in stock (but must have had every other – it was an Aladdin’s Cave for bikers. (I say ‘was’ because it has since changed its name several times, closed and reopened.) But they were very helpful, gave me a brochure, with pictures, and he had been right – the W650, especially the blue-and-silver one, really does look like a Triumph Bonneville; With Ruth’s blessing, I ordered one, and on 21 December 2001 (just in time for me to call it a Christmas present to myself) I drove there with Ruth to collect it. She came back in the car, and I donned the gear I had ordered, and went to find with Mike, the trainer (about the same age as myself) with whom I had booked three hours tuition.
I went outside with Pete, my salesman, and there at the kerb stood my new bike. It was gleaming with chrome, metallic blue on the tank, and beautiful – and big. Remember, I had only ridden a 650cc machine once, and that was 30 years ago. Mike came out, and told me to sit astride and “start her up”, which I did – with an electric starter, no kick-starting (though it did have one, for emergency use). It sounded great, with a deep-throated roar; like a real motorbike, not one of these buzzing-gnat Jap jobs (even though it is Japanese). Then he asked me to ride around the car park for a while.
The first big difference was that the back brake was operated with the right foot, and the gear lever (five gears, not four) with the left – the opposite to what I had been used to in the 60s. But the throttle, clutch and front brake were the same, so I lifted my boot-clad toe-cap and clicked into bottom gear, gradually let out the clutch and applied some throttle, and moved smoothly off, without even stalling! I slowly circled the car park, passing through some quite narrow spaces, and came back to Mike. “Well, I see you haven’t lost your sense of balance,” he commented.
He kitted me out with a fluorescent yellow over-jacket, earphone and microphone, so that he could give me instructions during our ride, and together with a young chap who was about to take his test, we drove off, into the main roads of Birmingham. In some ways it was a scary as that first time. In others, it was as if I’d never been away – I could have been riding after a break of only months. Pretty amazing really, and I was quite pleased with myself. We rode around areas of Birmingham that I have never been before, and by the time we got back to Carnell it was dark. Mike said had done well, no real problems though I did tend to take the corners a bit wide and should watch that. We went in and had a coffee, and Mike and I reminisced about old British bike names, Villiers engines, SU carburettors and such, no doubt to the amusement of our young friend. Mike gave me a ‘cargo net’, for strapping luggage to the pillion seat. “She doesn’t just look like a Bonneville – she sounds and feels like one,” I commented. Mike agreed, but added, “Except that she won’t drip oil all over the garage floor like the old Bonnie!” Wisely, the Japanese have split the crankcase horizontally instead of vertically.
By the time I went outside to ride home, it was very cold and there was a layer of frost on my saddle. But the roads had been wet after earlier rain – not the most appealing of surfaces. (To make matters worse, I had been told the tyres are coated in a protective layer of silicone when new, and this reduces their grip. It takes up to 100 miles for this to wear off.) But out I rode into the rush-hour traffic, at one point slipping along the inside of a stationary jam of cars and feeling quite superior! I went home via Ladypool Road and the balti quarter, so must have passed near the site of Shovelbottoms, from where I got my T21. I got home safely, and opened the garage doors. I’d had to get the left-hand one working again, after many years of disuse. There was plenty of room in the garage for a bike (though not enough for a car bigger than a Mini), and I’d tinkered around with the electric light so that it was now on the wall and could be used to plug in a charger, which I would need for the battery if the bike wasn’t used for a while. It was winter, after all, and I made no secret of the fact that I would now be a ‘fair weather’ biker!
Into The 21st Century
So now we come to the differences between then and now. Back in the 1960s motorbikes were our form of transport. We went to work on them, on holiday, rode them for pleasure at weekends, and if it rained we got wet. (I remember riding into the City one night in a blizzard, to put some urgent artwork on Red Star at New Street Station.) We rode in our everyday clothes, with a helmet and gauntlet gloves. As I said, I had prescription goggles, and I had rubber overboots to protect my shoes in bad weather. I had a black leather jacket (definitely a rocker!); Ian and I had ridden down to London especially to buy these, and he bought a brown leather flying jacket with a fur collar. In summer we would ride in our shirtsleeves. In 2001 I soon found that those days were over (although you do still see a few unenlightened or foolish souls riding around like that, especially on scooters). I was recommended to have a Gore-Tex suit, padded with Kevlar in the back and knees; I chose black with blue motifs, to match the blue on my W650. I had zip-up boots with reinforced toes, and comfortable but strong gloves, also black-and-blue.
And my Shoei helmet was, of course, a full, enclosed dome with a drop-down clear visor. This was definitely an improvement over the old days, though I usually had to leave it open a slit, letting in the cold air, if it wasn’t to steam up. I wasn’t too keen on the cheek pads, but got used to them. While I felt pretty safe in all this gear, it did make me feel rather isolated from the outside world ~ a bit like an astronaut. It also took quite an effort, and about ten minutes, to get into it all, so going for a ride took a definite commitment ~ I couldn’t just hop onto the bike at a moment’s notice as I used to in the 60s.
I had also opted to have a DataTool alarm and immobiliser fitted, to ensure that it didn’t get stolen. This meant that I had, in addition to the ignition key, a separate remote control, which gave me 30 seconds to start the machine before it started beeping. There were various options, using three buttons to disable the alarm, put it into ‘service’ mode while working on the engine, etc. I have to admit that I found this a bit intimidating, as it put me under pressure to be sure I used the remote every time before starting up; if I forgot, the alarm would go off! And the separate control had to go into a pocket sealed with Velcro, so I had to take off my gloves to fumble for it anytime I stopped. It also had indicators, but of course these were not self-cancelling as on a car, and I had to remember to cut them off after cornering; more than once a following motorist would flash to remind me. . .
On the plus side, riding this bike was a joy ~ once the weather allowed. It has to be admitted that January, February and March are not the best months for biking, and I was constantly watching the weather forecasts on TV to see if there was any chance of a ride. I also had to run-in the bike, which basically meant 600 miles before I could go over 60mph or high revs in any gear, and 1000 miles before I could really ‘open ‘er up’. But I managed to ride around most of the local ‘scenic routes’: Earlswood, Tanworth; Lapworth and Lowsonford (past the Fleur de Lys, no longer serving their pies but much more expensive meals); Kenilworth, and Warwick. Generally the roads and traffic fumes of congested Birmingham are not much fun, but I actually quite enjoyed riding through Shirley with all its traffic lights and then on out to the A3400, out through Henley and Wootton Wawen, then Stratford-upon-Avon and down to Evesham and as far as Broadway. Or, on the Alcester Road past the Maypole, on the rather nice A435 road past Wythall and on, past Coughton Court, to Studley, Alcester and Bidford. Another favourite was to go via Kings Norton, over the top of the Lickey Hills, past Catshill onto the A38, bypassing Bromsgrove and on to Droitwich and Worcester.
As the weather improved I went a bit further afield in this direction, to Kidderminster and Stourbridge or Bridgnorth. All places that I would never think of just driving to in a car, unless I had a reason to do so, such as passing through on to go on holiday. But I rarely stopped; riding was the end, not just the means. The real pleasure, of course, was getting onto good country roads with lots of curves and maybe the odd hill. This experience is totally different from anything you get driving a car. Sometimes I would return via a motorway, usually the M42, in order to get a feel for motorway driving, and to travel a bit faster than I could on normal roads.
I was also pleasantly surprised by another phenomenon, new to me: the camaraderie amongst bikers. It was very rare to pass a ‘real’ biker (as opposed to someone on a scooter or moped) going the other way without them either raising a hand or inclining their head in a sort of sideways nod of greeting, which I would reciprocate. Of course, not that it mattered a jot, but in all my gear nobody could tell whether I was 65 or 25! (I certainly felt the latter.) Not that I ever pretended to be a ‘boy racer’, naturally. My game now was to ‘cruise’; just coast around the countryside at a comfortable speed and take in the scenery, enjoying the breeze blowing in my face. Mind you, I’m not saying that I didn’t occasionally enjoy the adrenaline rush when I was able ~ safely of course ~ to open the throttle and overtake some dawdling motorist, with a satisfying roar!
Then And Now
A month or so after buying the bike, I had crash-bars (which they now seem to prefer to call an engine-guard) fitted, and a small luggage rack, as well as buying a saddle-bag ~ which literally did strap to the pillion ~ and a smaller bag (actually intended for a bicycle, but it was the right size) which I could keep permanently on the rack, to hold a few essentials such as a water-bottle and some light clothes for the journey’s end. I must admit that I took quite a delight in arriving at friends’ and relatives’ houses unannounced and ringing the bell. In almost every case it took quite a while for them to register that the black-clad, helmeted figure standing there was me. A childish pleasure, perhaps, but it does no harm to recapture your youth once in a while, does it? My first such call was on Roger Parkes, who had heard me for years saying that I’d still like to have a bike one day, and probably thought I never would. He stared at me in my gear and almost shouted: "You bloody haven’t?!"
I was piling on the miles, but there was one journey that I was determined to make ~ once the weather looked promising enough for a whole day away, preferably on a Sunday. My daughter Meraylah (aka Karen), her husband Graham, and my granddaughter Jenny Fae (then 10) and new grandson Aidan Jack lived in a cottage out in the country near York. Years earlier, while we were staying there, their friend Andy arrived on his motorbike, and when he had gone I asked Meraylah what she’d think if I turned up one day on a bike. "I think I’d be rather impressed!" she answered. I felt then quite sure that I would do so, one day.
So, in the early morning of Sunday, 24th March 2002, I set off up the M42. My family in Yorkshire still had no idea that I even had a bike, and I didn’t tell them I was going as that would rather defeat the object! I just thought there was a good chance that they would be in at the time I arrived. It wasn’t sunny, but the forecast claimed that it would be a dry day. I hadn’t actually realised how cold it would be on the bike though! By the time I reached the M1 my knees were literally shaking. I considered turning back, but by that time it seemed I might just as well press on, as I should get just as cold going back. And anyway, I don’t give up that easily. . . Once I got off the M1 and M18, onto the A19 past Selby, I began to really enjoy the ride. The roads are good, with all the curves and hills that make biking a pleasure, and the final stretch of country road from the A19 to Crockey Hill was especially enjoyable. At 10.30am, three hours after leaving home, I bumped down the unsurfaced dirt track to Link Hall Cottages. I circled around the back and pulled up on the grass outside.
No sign of life. I sounded my horn. An upstairs window opened and my son-in-law Graham leaned out, looking puzzled. I flipped up my visor. "What are you doing here?" he said in an incredulous voice, and vanished. I learned later that he had called: "Meraylah? Your Dad’s outside ~ on a motorbike!" Then, of course, they all came out. Jenny appeared round the side of the house from where she had been playing with a friend, stood with her hands on her hips, and said: "What’s my Granddad doing on a great big motorbike, in a great big helmet, and a great big padded jacket?" All I could think of to say was "Well, why not?", though (as usual) I later realised that what I should have said was "Well, I’m sorry if I should be sitting in my armchair in my slippers, smoking my pipe!"
Meraylah lets baby Aidan (now 14!) try my bike for size.
They made me very welcome, of course, gave me a much-needed hot coffee, and I changed into the clothes I had brought in my saddle-bag. Graham kindly gave me a pair of long-johns for the journey home, and they certainly made a difference. Aidan had his photo taken sitting on the bike, and Jenny placed a daffodil behind the headlight, though I had to put that in the saddlebag as it would quickly have got blown away! I left around mid-afternoon, coming back via the more scenic A38 and intending to get home before dark if possible, though I didn’t quite make it. But that was certainly fun!
After that I had a ‘smoked’ Givi A650 screen fitted to reduce wind-pressure, and it certainly helped, The trip to York also meant that my bike was now ‘run-in’, and it had its first service. There was one more trip I especially wanted to make: my friend Jay (formerly Major Jonathan) Tate, who owns and runs the Spaceguard Centre, an observatory near Knighton in Powys, Wales, is also a biker, as is his son. That, I knew, would make a nice ride out. So again I started scanning the TV weather forecasts for a fine Sunday. But, being Britain, this didn’t happen for some months. In fact it was 21st July before it looked promising enough. I had printed out a route, which I could slip into a plastic case magnetically attached to my tank, which took me out past Bromsgrove on the A38, to Droitwich, Worcester, Leominster and up to Knighton. It was, as expected, an excellent ride. The weather stayed dry, though with some cloud, which is actually an advantage because it meant it wasn’t too hot (I’ll come back to that later). I got slightly lost when I followed a sign at Leominster which seemed to lead nowhere (so what’s new?) and had to ask some passers-by for directions.
The final approach was round an almost hairpin bend and up a steep hill, then along the crest of it until I saw a sign for the Spaceguard Centre (whose job is to search for asteroids which might be a danger to Earth). Once again there was no sign of life when I stopped outside, but I rang the bell on the gift shop door and Anne, Jay’s wife, opened it. She invited me into the shop and I said "hello" and talked to her, but it was clear that she had no idea who I was until I took off my helmet. Jay was taking a party of visitors around the observatory and would be busy for another half-hour or so, so I went into their house and took off my gear ~ I was wearing shorts and a T-shirt underneath, and had brought a pair of trainers ~ and had a drink. Jay seemed very pleased to see me, though not too surprised (he already knew about the bike), and he called his son to come out and admire the W650, and opened his garage to show me their machines. Then I left, after Jay had taken some digital photos, to come home by a different route, via Ludlow, Bewdley and Kidderminster. All in all, another very successful and enjoyable trip.
I went out for more rides when the weather permitted, but realised that I was basically returning to routes that I had used before. In September 2002, Ruth’s friend from swimming, Vic, who was a Harley-Davidson rider, told her that I really should go to the informal bikers’ meetings which were held every Sunday evening at Arrow Mill, a large hotel and pub just opposite Ragley Hall, near Alcester. Some 200 bikers meet there from 6.00pm onward, in a huge coned-off area of the car park, and it is an amazing sight, as I found out!
I met Vic there, and chatted to several bikers. The pub’s owner, Denis, is himself a keen Harley-Davidson rider, and also a millionaire who owns several helicopters. On these Sunday evenings he takes up selected guests (often female, I noticed!) for a flight over the local area for about 15 minutes. That, too, was enjoyable, though of course one could no longer relax in the golden evening glow with a pint. Well, I couldn’t. I did notice quite a few bikers with glasses in their hands. A young boy was going around selling beefburgers from the pub for £1, and I bought one of those. But there were a few rather worrying stories being passed around about former attendees of this group who had given up riding after writing off their machines, or had been maimed or even killed on them.
Overall, my experiences had been very good. Yet I was beginning to realise that in a way, I had now accomplished all that I had set out to do. ‘Been there, done that, got the T-shirt’, kind of thing. I was now repeating the same rides, and whereas in previous years at weekends Ruth and I would go out together in the car, or for walks along the canals, I was now spending a disproportionate amount of time watching weather forecasts, cursing when rain was likely (I don’t enjoy riding in the rain, or on wet roads slippery with tyre rubber; indeed I don’t like being out in the rain anyway, bike or not!), and, when the weather was fine, being out by myself.
Yet, when the summer weather was fine and hot, the last thing I really wanted to do was don heavy, black padded gear and an enclosed helmet. I did, of course, because it was the only safe way to ride, but I did sometimes wish I could go back to those carefree days of the sixties. . . I would come back from a ride hot and sweaty, and just wanted a shower. I suppose I also missed having friends to go out with, as in the ‘old days’; yet I didn’t really want to join a motor cycle club, or go on ‘organised’ rides with large bunches of bikers, as I sometimes saw. I always prefer to do my own thing, at my own pace.
The roads were much busier than they had been, and bikers had to be constantly on the lookout for motorists who would fail to notice, or ignore them, would pull out on them without warning, turn without indicating, open doors when parked, or cut them up ~ sometimes, it seemed almost deliberately. There is no doubt that a lot of car-drivers are envious of bikers who can slip between the lanes of a traffic jam, and I did that more than once. (I also noticed that there seem to be a lot more roundabouts these days, especially those little ‘mini’ ones, which can be quite tricky.)
I never felt particularly vulnerable when actually riding on the roads, though the frequent traffic jams at places like Stratford, in roads too narrow to slip between cars, could be frustrating. But later I would recall times when I had had to brake or take avoiding action because of some motorist’s stupidity or lack of courtesy. I had begun to realise that I had done quite well, really, to have come this far without once ‘dropping’ my bike, or having any serious problems. So I took a decision: if I could get a good price before I’d had it for a year, so that its number plate would be only the previous year’s and it would show only around 1600 miles on the clock, I would sell it. Another factor was that winter was approaching; I was unlikely to want to ride during the winter months, especially now that I no longer had to add miles to run it in, so would have to think about doing things like draining the oil for a layover, leave it on constant charge to keep the battery in good condition, turn the tyres occasionally to prevent flat spots, and so on. It would be due for another service, and an insurance renewal, too. . .
I made sure I had plenty of photos and some video, as a record, and produced two adverts on my Mac for Bike Trader and Motor Cycle News. One, which I hoped would attract attention, showed me sitting on the W650 on a moon of Jupiter. (I noticed with interest that a lot of the adverts were for machines with only, say, 200 miles on the clock; obviously there are many people who buy a bike and then quickly decide it isn’t for them. . .) But initially the price I asked was too high; what I didn’t know until later was that some imported models had come into Britain, at about £1000 cheaper than I had paid a year earlier. Which was a bit of a blow, but eventually a man called Brian Shandley, who is almost exactly the same age as myself and already owned an Enfield Bullet, contacted me and said he would pay my full asking price, as it was worth it for an ‘official’, not imported model. I met him at New Street Station in the car, and brought him back here, where he went for a ride around the block (wearing his own helmet and gear, which he had brought with him in a bag). He loved it, paid me, I gave him all the manuals and paperwork (as well as the battery charger etc.), and drove home to Maidstone in Kent. He promised later, in an e-mail, to call her ‘Bonnie’ in my honour!
So I’m quite sure she is in good hands. I’m also quite sure that I made the right decision. I’m still here and in one piece, and I really enjoyed having a bike again ~ especially a big 650, which I always wanted but could never afford when I was in my twenties. I’ve recaptured the feeling of biking, and while it has cost me a few pounds, I would happily have paid the same amount for, say, a holiday abroad lasting only a week or two, and which I certainly couldn’t have enjoyed more. Of course, it’s true that on fine summer days, or when bikes roar past me (without waving) in the car while we’re out, I may have a brief pang of envy, and regret that I can’t do the same. But then, I always did. I'm a biker at heart ~ and probably always shall be!