It being a disgraceful time since I last rode a bicycle – nearly two years ago, on my 1905 Dursley Pedersen, though that was in rather distinguished company, with Mark Beaumont on a penny farthing riding with the remarkable Ed Pratt, who was just then completing his circumnavigation of the world on a unicycle – I considered it was high time that I got back in the saddle.
So a couple of days ago I did a bit of furbishing and put some air in the tyres of my 1915 Golden Sunbeam 2-speed.
I rode it up and down the street in pleasant reacquaintance and resolved that I really must go for a good ride soon – not least because in these strange times they might decide to put a ban on all unnecessary movement, though it is hard to see how solitary cycling on quiet roads can present much hazard: a bicycle is a mobile self-isolation unit. In any case, the present advice is that cycling is allowed, provided appropriate precautions are observed.
I had just this morning finished a most enjoyable book, The Warlock of Strathearn by Christopher Whyte, and since the landscape in which it is set is just over the hill from me, I resolved to go there. I have covered this route before, part in one direction, part in another, so if you are keen to see rather more pictures than I took today, you can find them there.
I took my usual sceret paths and climbed up out of the valley of the Tay and over into Strathearn, reflecting as I rode in the direction of Bridge of Earn that it was on this very road, some 50 years ago, that I first drove a car on a proper journey – the car was a Vauxhall Victor FB, registration GSE 927, and I was then 14 years old. My father (who had advanced notions on teaching his children to drive) and my mother were with me. It was a pleasant evening as I recall and I drove them to St Andrews.
At Bridge of Earn I turned right heading for Forgandenny, where I clocked 17 mph on a speed sign, and beyond that to what I had already decided would be my decision point, at this fork in the road:
which affords a splendid view over open fields to the distant hills
(to which, sadly, the camera does not do justice – the more beautiful (and higher) hills are at the left hand side, and had that characteristic half-dissolved look of being almost but not quite there).
At this point, I had sometimes turned back, at others gone right in the direction of Forteviot; but today I was resolved to take the Invermay road, something I had always meant to do, a resolve reinforced by my reading of The Warlock of Strathearn, in which the Water of May figures prominently.
A second resolution, made easier by the fact of writing my two-speed Sunbeam, was that I would be humble and not hesitate to use the walking gear if the steepness of the road required it. There is, in truth, no such thing as a single-speed bicycle, since one can always get off and walk if need be, and still make progress (try doing that in a car).
Though the Invermay Road starts steeply from this end, it soon reaches a summit and from then there are a number of sweeping descents, so this is definitely the best direction of travel for the cyclist. I had intended to take the next turn for Forteviot, but the map convinced me that it should be more obvious than it was, and I persuaded myself that the true turning was still ahead (there was a narrow track to Forteviot on the map). Only when I spied Dunning in the diustance did I realise I had overshot
And sat myself down on a conveiently placed bench for a wee rest.
I headed off for Dunning, always a confusing maze of streets, and swung in an Easterly direction to approach Forteviot with its level crossing. The road here runs very much along the valley floor and is fairly level.
At the level crossing, as I paused to take a picture of the roadsigns (recalling how as boys my brother and I had mocked my father’s penchant for doing just that)
The lights began to flash and the siren sound, heralding the arrival of a train. On this point, the Highway Code is admirably clear and sound in its advice – always give way to trains.
It was soon past and i went on my way, first across the tracks, then down a short incline to the old bridge over the Earn, which I wish I had pictured, since it is rather handsome, but traffic was surprisingly heavy at that point.
At the Bridge one can climb left and join the busy A9 Perth-Glasgow road, which I had no intention of doing, or swing right along the banks of the Earn, though at some height above it, once more in the direction of Perth.
I was growing rather tired by this time – to tell the truth, I had somewhat over-exerted myself, not having been in the saddle so long, and I knew that a choice lay up ahead: at Aberdalgie, I could push uphill over the old road to Perth, or shirk that for the moment and continue to Craigend, where I would rejoin the Bridge of Earn Road, which left me with a climb back into Perth by the way I had come.
I opted for the former, since I knew that although I would have to push a fair way up hill, the summit became a plateau before once more descending to Perth by Necessity Brae, so that I could ride for a bit more till I came top a point where a farm track turned off to the right, affording a fine view of Perth
The very great advantage of this track, rough and muddy as it was, was that it allowed a steady descent homeward. When you live as I do on the slope of a hill, it is always pleasanter to end a journey with a descent rather than a climb if you can.
The track – much rutted by farm vehicles and muddy from the recent heavy rain – proved no problem for my Imperial Roadster, which with its relaxed frame angles, large diameter wheels and sprung saddle, takes such terrain in its stride.
But for all that, it was pleasant to pass under the bypass and join the track that led to home, with the Friarton Bridge spanning the Tay up ahead.
It had been a most satisfactory outing.
then it levels out with a nice wee diversion through Walnut Grove (mentioned in this sad ballad by local poet William Soutar) before a longish stretch alongside the A90. You are briefly diverted up and over a slip road for Kinfauns but once you reach the next junction, for St Madoes and Inchyra, you can bid farewell to the A90 and go by pleasant country roads. I did note a little wistfully that the Glencarse Hotel was just across the bridge on the other side of the A90, but I pressed on in the sure and certain hope that I could get a pint in Errol, some 4 miles on.
It being as fine an Autumn day as you could wish for, I set out on my hundred-year-old bicycle to take a turn about Perth, pausing only to admire the details that never fail to give me pleasure on my 1915 Golden Sunbeam, such as the parallel seat stays, the gold-leaf embellishment, the noble proportions of the 26″ frame:
My chosen route has become a favourite – with only a slight climb at the start, it offers a circular tour round the outskirts of Perth in a clockwise direction, almost entirely off road and largely downhill or level – I first wrote about it here and the map can be found here: link.
Every season has its delights, but I suppose most people have their personal favourite; mine is Autumn. That may be because it’s the season of my birth, but I think it has more to do with leaving home for the first time to go to University – Edinburgh, in my case. Even now, a visit there at this time of year induces a powerful nostalgia.
One of the delights of Autumn is the lower angle of the light, which slants across paths and glances off the surface of streams, making strong contrasts between light and shade:
The path runs round Craigie Hill then picks up the line of the Scouring Burn as it runs into Perth alongside the Glasgow Road; a well made path flanked by trees runs through a residential area to the splendidly-named Western Edge, where it turns North and you gain some fine views of the distant hills from the vicinity of the improbably titled Noah’s Ark golf-driving range and go-kart track.
Past Noah’s Ark the track is rougher, in places at this season deeply puddled and thick with glaur, but that only serves as a reminder that imperial roadsters like the Sunbeam were conceived at a time when roads were rougher as a rule and are well-equipped to cope, with their big 28 × 1½” tyres, fully-enclosed oil-bath chain cases, well-sprung saddles and relaxed frame-angles.
after a little way travelling westward along the track of Old Gallows Road, we turn North towards the vale of the Almond, a steady descent by narrow paths overhung with trees and bushes:
A pause at the signpost affords fine views across the Autumn fields to the distant hills
while close at hand the brilliant colours in the hedgerow catch the light
the path runs on in shadow for a time
before opening up again to the West, with fine views of the hills and a distant moor burning, the sunlight striking a distant castle, and splendid autumn trees ahead
the path now becomes a well-surfaced private road (albeit with grass down the middle, Stephanie Peppard!). There is a sign I really ought to have photographed, asking literate horses to keep off the verge. This track leads down to the main road, where you cross the A85 to Crieff and dive down a little side road leading to the Huntingtower Hotel, where a prominent clocktower draws the eye
down nearer the clocktower the sound of running water suggests the proximity of the lade, and after initially overshooting, I turn back and find the narrowest navigable path running into the woods then over the waters by a wooden bridge
The path emerges at the start of the lade, the little waterway that contributed so much to Perth’s fortunes – over eight centuries ago, someone had the shrewd idea of cutting a channel to take water from the Almond and running it through the town, powering several mills, before it debouched into the Tay.
From here there is a very fine and pleasant cycle along the Almond towards its confluence with the Tay, so fine in fact that I scarcely stopped to take any pictures, though there are others that show this section in earlier posts
Once the Tay is joined, the path runs alongside the river that is the longest in Scotland and the largest in Britain (by volume) with fine views across to the well-situated houses on the farther bank, while on the right hand side the North inch is an expanse of sunlit green
From there, you pass under the bridge that was built before the United Sates came into existence, and along the broad pavement of Tay Street, with its interesting sculpture
culminating in the fine John Duncan Fergusson Bronze outside the old waterworks, now the Fergusson Gallery, dedicated to his works and those of his wife, Meg Morris
Then home across the green expanse of the South Inch. An excellent excursion!
It’s an odd thing: when I bought my 1915 Sunbeam (see here and here) I’d have thought I might spend the summer on it – yet here we are in Autumn and my rides have been few and far between. Of course, things have happened, but still…
So this morning, having slept in and missed my usual start to the day, I decided to make another change – instead of going for a walk (a regime I have been following faithfully of late) I would take that much-delayed cycle outing. It was Autumn weather as fine as you could wish for, the Michaelmas daisies in bloom
Does a sunbeam have a shadow? This one does:
I had opted for a familiar route, a clockwise circular round the outskirts of Perth, but I varied the start a little, swooping down to join the path round Craigie Hill a little further on than is my wont – forgetting that where there is swooping down, there is often a need for climbing up; so I was reminded of that often-overlooked advantage of the bicycle, that you can always get off and walk if you have to:
Probably the most pleasing thing about an Autumn run is the angle of the light and the effects it creates, especially combined with the changing colours of the trees
Though sometimes black-and-white evokes the light conditions better – a curious phenomenon:
I am becoming practised at using the phone-camera while under way, though I should perhaps look at some sort of handlebar mounting: there is a tension created between the desire to record the moment and the pleasure of cycling on.
this path is already well-documented [here] and although much of it is fine well-metalled cyclepath of a good width, I rather like those parts that remind you how minimal a cycle path can be –
Where the track broadened again (but with a pleasing central strip of grass) I came on a fine sight up ahead, a bar of sunlight lying across the path like fiery gold – sadly, the phone does not do it justice:
After running much of the way by leafy paths hemmed in by trees, the route turns Northward, opening a pleasing vista of the distant hills:
and the low-angled sun strikes pleasingly on the gold-leaf adornments of the Sunbeam:
The path from here runs down an escarpment by way of a narrow lane much overhung by trees:
till it opens out and you are confronted by a splendid glowing beech-tree:
After crossing the Crieff Road, the downward trend continues, till the welcome landmark of the clocktower heaves into view:
What seems an unpromising cul-de-sac actually leads to a narrow path that takes you almost at once onto the banks of the Almond, where if you are lucky, you might continually glimpse a great Grey Heron as you ride along, and if you are unlucky, never quite manage to capture it on camera:
The path along the Almond makes such pleasant cycling that I am always loth to stop; so after diving under three bridges – the disused railway one that carries the cycle path North to Luncarty, then the one that carries the A9 North to Inverness, then the active railway line that carries the main line to the North, you come at last to the confluence of the Almond and the Tay, and see that the anglers are both out and in, some on the bank, some in the water, while on the far bank a little grey Fergie tractor sends up a plume of smoke:
A pause by a signpost marks the start of the next leg
which takes us along the brilliant green of the North Inch
In the direction of the Fair City, with the spires pointing heavenwards (the right hand one is St John’s Kirk; the old name for Perth is St John’s Toun, which is preserved in its football team, St Johnstone – they won the Scottish Cup this year)
A swift passage along Tay St, past the old and new bridges and the railway bridge, and round by the old waterworks that is now the Fergusson Gallery, takes us to the South Inch, and the final leg of our journey, where on the pond we pass the swans and their cygnets sailing line ahead like battleships:
and so home, exhilarated.
I have an anxiety about auctions which probably originates in the comics of my youth: it was a staple of The Dandy and The Beano that some character attending an auction as a mere spectator would – through the application of itching or sneezing powder, perhaps, or simply by waving to attract someone’s attention – make gestures that the auctioneer would mistake for bids, and so end up buying something at great cost that he did not want or could not afford.
There is less likelihood of that happening when you are bidding live online, though I was careful always to keep my cursor well away from the screen button that said ‘bid now’. As a matter of fact I was more worried about being interrupted at the crucial moment, either by a connection failure (given the well-known malice of inanimate objects) or a visitation of furniture-removal men.
The latter was no random fear: we had arranged that a project in town should come to collect an unwanted sofa and table, and of course the day of the auction turned out to be the only practicable date, so I was at pains to emphasise that they must call in the morning (the auction started at 11, and the first lot I was interested in was no 299); but as the morning wore on, they failed to appear.
That was at the back of my mind: the forefront had plenty to occupy it. Another anxiety I have about auctions is getting carried away in the moment, so I was determined to fix my limits. Having decided my target lots – these three Sunbeams, lot 299, advertised as a 1913 Golden 2-speed, though its frame number suggested 1914 0r 15:
lot 326, a bona fide 1911 or 12 Golden with the Newill 3-speed hub
finally lot 454, an early 2 speed, perhaps as old as 1905:
I calculated the actual value of a scale of bids at £50 intervals and wrote them on a sheet of paper. This was important because in addition to the buyer’s premium – 17.5% – there was a further premium of 2% for online bidding then VAT (20%) on top of that – so a hammer price of, say, £500 would be considerably more in total. (Being prone to fantasy, I still entertained the hope that I might be the sole Sunbeam enthusiast and find myself in the position of bidding for all three lots at knockdown prices, so I needed to be clear about what I had to spend).
I discovered that Brightwell’s allow you to set an alarm for any lots you are interested in, which was handy for me with my first lot of interest being so far in to the sale and the appearance of furniture removal men still impending; just to be clear how it worked, I set it for an early lot and was rewarded by the sonorous clanging of a bell some three lots before the one marked was due, along with a warning on the screen.
I also made a note of how long it took for the first hundred lots to go in, just to give a rough idea of when mine might come up. When the auction starts, you get a live sound feed from the auction room accompanied by a picture of the lot on offer. A button on the screen advises you that you can bid and you are also warned that there may be a slight delay on sound; there are various visual signals, such as ‘fair warning – lot about to sell’ before the hammer actually comes down.
Never having bid online before, I was glad of the opportunity to study what went on for a good time before I became involved, though beyond a certain point you just want your lot to come round; but at the same time I was willing the tardy furniture men to appear before they were a nuisance.
It is a well-observed fact that printers will serve you faithfully till you actually need them to print out something important and urgent, at which point they will seize the opportunity to misbehave in an unimaginable range of ways, from running out of ink, chewing up paper, to breaking down altogether. The same suspicion attaches to any audio-visual equipment and indeed to computers generally – they are fine till you actually have to rely on them.
So it was with considerable chagrin but no actual surprise (more a feeling of grim predictability) that I realised – somewhere about lot 250 – that I was no longer hearing anything down the line from Leominster.
My computer is upstairs in my attic aerie with the router in the hall below; I had toyed with the notion of wiring directly, but the only line I had available would have meant moving the computer downstairs, where it would have impeded the late coming of the furniture men (is it only writers who are plagued by plot complications of this sort?) – so on the grounds that wireless failures seemed to occur mainly in the evenings, I took the risk of leaving things as they were.
And now – !
In the initial bout of cursing I failed to notice that it was only the sound I had lost; I could still see the bidding progressing on screen. While I was working out the implications of this, the sound came back, and it was evident that there had simply been a hand-over from one auctioneer to another with some disruption as the new man was wired for sound. All was well.
In the days of my childhood, when computers occupied whole floors of buildings and the notion of online shopping was unimaginable, we had catalogues. Mostly they were concerned with clothes or household articles but there was always a section on toys that I used to pore over; and then there were more specialised ones, such as those my brothers had for Hornby train sets, and one I particularly remember for ‘Frog’ diecast models (which we rather despised, for some reason (or none, perhaps), preferring Dinky and Corgi).
This had a model of an ERF lorry (A KV, I discover:
which was, I recall, a distinctive shade of pale green. I was enamoured of that lorry, or more precisely, of its picture: I would gaze fondly at it, with yearning I can still recall, though the object of it has become blurred in my memory; it was a species of ownership, I suppose, yet one that served to remind me that I did not actually possess the object. I worshipped it from afar, in my imagination, unbeknownst, much like the mediaeval knights who practised Courtly Love.
I mention that because it seems to me there is a direct line from the emotions induced by the picture of that toy truck half a century ago and the strong feelings arising from the pictures of these Sunbeams in the Brightwell’s catalogue: this falling in love with distant objects is a capacity (or infirmity) I have never lost.
And now – the clock told me – I was within some ten minutes or so (and still no removal men!) of bidding to possess one – what would that be like? (I never did own the ERF).
I am not one of those who go in for ‘visualisation’, by which I mean imagining the positive outcome to whatever it is you wish to succeed in (such as kicking a conversion in rugby, say). My superstition takes the opposite form: any attempt to imagine successful possession beforehand smacks of hubris and counting chickens; better to affect a conviction that the hoped-for outcome will never come to pass, that such things happen to others but not to you, so that by an outward show of humble undeserving, you might win Fortune’s favour.
(Interesting snippet: it was Dante Alighieri who first installed Fortune as Earth’s presiding spirit)
So instead of telling myself ‘in ten minutes, this will be yours!’ I contented myself with ‘in ten minutes, it will all be over’ (much as one might on a visit to the dentist). The warning bell sounded, though I had no need of it; three lots slipped past and all at once it was the moment.
What you forget, of course, is that there are other online bidders who may be bidding at exactly the same time as you, so the process of bidding has a desperate quality, as you click repeatedly on the button and yet it does not respond; then you are suddenly rewarded by the statement ‘you are winning this item’ only for it to vanish again as quickly when you are outbid. I was within a bid of my limit (and pondering whether I could extend it) when my rival dropped out, leaving me in possession. After a brief frenzy of bidding lasting under a minute, I had my prize.
So, after several weeks’ pondering the possibility, accompanied by many yearning contemplations of the catalogue pictures, I now had what I wanted – how did that feel?
To report honestly, there was no elation: I found myself completely unmoved – perhaps I did not quite believe it; I kept going to another section of the web-page, marked ‘purchases’, where I was reassured that I had indeed secured ‘lot 299, A 1913 All-Black Golden Sunbeam Gentlemans Bicycle, the celluloid handles with twist ends to reveal tyre repair kit, no.129403’.
Well, I thought, that’s that, then – it was a sensation of quiet satisfaction more than anything.
Though curiously anti-climactic, it was not unlike how reaching the summit of a mountain must be: you’ve achieved your aim, but to savour it properly, you still have to get back down; in my case, my success had committed me to an epic journey south the next day (a 720 mile round trip) to fetch my spoils.
I had already arranged with my brother that I would be at his house in Motherwell for 6 next morning, which entailed leaving Perth before 5. I was conscious of reserving my joy for the moment when I had the Sunbeam home on my own street.
Meantime, there was the rest of the auction to see out: having achieved my No1 target at near my limit, I did not entertain much hope that I could afford anything else, but I might as well look…
As an online bidder, you cannot see your rivals, nor they you, but you can guess at them. After emerging victorious by the skin of my teeth in the contest for lot 299, I reasoned that there must be someone much like me, even to the extent of his (or her) funds; and had I missed out on 299, my next target would be 326, the 1911 or 12 Sunbeam 3-speed, though I would be conscious that a greater prize was still to come, in the form of 454, the early two-speed. With my war-chest still intact, I would have entertained the possibility that with a fair wind I might even net both…
That was not really an option that was open to me, but I did not want to drop out entirely. A large part of what had persuaded me to join the auction in the first place was the thought that I did not want to find myself looking up the results later and thinking ‘O, I could have bought it at that price!’ If it went beyond what I could afford, well and good; but who knows? perhaps my rival’s sole target had been lot 299, which, having failed to win, he or she had now retired, sorrowful but with funds intact.
I did bid on 326, but my heart was not in it: I did not want it badly enough in itself, and I would rather keep alive the slender hope that 454 might somehow be within reach. So 326 went for £260 on the hammer, a real bargain for a Newill 3 speed from 1911 or 12. I wondered if the buyer had been my rival for 299, and whether (had it been me) I would have found the bargain price an adequate consolation for missing out on 299; part of the consolation would certainly have been that I remained well-placed to bid on 454.
In the event, 454 went for £500, the lower end of its predicted price range, and again, in my view, quite a bargain. So had my rival, having missed out on the major prize, succeeded in securing the two next-best for a similar expenditure? I rather hoped it might be so. Had it been me, would I have considered myself adequately compensated, or even perhaps more fortunate, to have secured two interesting bicycles for the cost of one? Who knows: auctions give rise to such imponderable might-have beens.
For my own part, I had the satisfaction of knowing that I had planned a campaign and seen it through to a successful conclusion: I had done what I set out to do. I had myself a pre-1918 Golden Sunbeam.
All I had to do now was go and fetch it.
(But what of the furniture removal men? they came, but not inconveniently; all-in-all, a successful day).
‘Opium! dread agent of unimaginable pleasure and pain! I had heard of it as I had of manna or of ambrosia, but no further. How unmeaning a sound was it at that time: what solemn chords does it now strike upon my heart! what heart-quaking vibrations of sad and happy remembrances! Reverting for a moment to these, I feel a mystic importance attached to the minutest circumstances connected with the place and the time and the man (if man he was) that first laid open to me the Paradise of Opium-eaters. It was a Sunday afternoon, wet and cheerless: and a duller spectacle this earth of ours has not to show than a rainy Sunday in London. My road homewards lay through Oxford Street; and near “the stately Pantheon” (as Mr. Wordsworth has obligingly called it) I saw a druggist’s shop. The druggist—unconscious minister of celestial pleasures!—as if in sympathy with the rainy Sunday, looked dull and stupid, just as any mortal druggist might be expected to look on a Sunday; and when I asked for the tincture of opium, he gave it to me as any other man might do, and furthermore, out of my shilling returned me what seemed to be real copper halfpence, taken out of a real wooden drawer. Nevertheless, in spite of such indications of humanity, he has ever since existed in my mind as the beatific vision of an immortal druggist, sent down to earth on a special mission to myself.’
–Thomas de Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium Eater
Bicycles, I am quite sure, are better for you than opium, though there is an addictive element there: how else to account for the small cupboard downstairs in which I have enough bicycles to attempt a calendar with one for every month, and some bits and pieces to spare? (Not all of them are mine, of course, but most of them are) Who it was that was responsible for drawing my attention to Brightwell’s auction I know not, though it was someone in the Slow Bicycle Movement; but I have come to think of him as like de Quincey’s immortal druggist, ‘sent down to earth on a special mission to myself.’
My own bicycle addiction takes a very definite form: the machine should be old (and as far as I am concerned, nothing built since the Second War really counts as old, and indeed the thirties barely scrapes in; the twenties are tolerable, but the true Golden Age is the Edwardian era, in its broad sense of the first dozen years or so of the twentieth century); it should be an ‘Imperial Roadster’ (I admit the beauty of slender lightweight racing machines and graceful yet sturdy French tourers but they are not for me); and, as to make, it should be a Sunbeam. Why a Sunbeam and not – say – a Lea and Francis, such as this particular magnificence owned by my friend Tim Dawson? As well ask why a man prefers to own a Bentley (I mean a proper, W.O. Bentley) than an Hispano-Suiza, a Bugatti or a Rolls-Royce: he will allow that these other marques have their charms, may even admire them greatly, but they do not have his heart. It is love, which is ever mysterious.
I am fond of quoting Robert Cordon Champ’s resounding line (in his Illustrated History of Sunbeam Bicycles and Motorcycles)
‘An example of a product made deliberately to the highest standards, the pre-1918 Sunbeam is undoubtedly the finest production cycle ever made’
though I accept that any claim containing the word ‘undoubtedly’ is open to contention. What is certainly true is that the early part of the twentieth century was the zenith of a particular kind of manufacturing in Britain, not only of cycles but other articles, and that the Sunbeam (among others) epitomises the idea of building up to a standard rather than down to a price (by the time the thirties came round, things were viewed differently, and Cordon Champ records a factory memo from that time which states ‘One of Martson’s troubles is that they make too good a product.’)
1918 is a significant year in Sunbeam history as it marks the end of the true Marston era, when the company was owned and run by John Marston. Marston, born in 1836, trained in his youth in japanning, the production of black-enamelled metalware, and that undoubtedly influenced the wonderful rich black finish that became the hallmark of Sunbeam bicycles. In true Victorian fashion, Marston prospered sufficiently to take over the firm in which he had served as an apprentice, and in 1888, like many others, decided to try his hand in the emerging bicycle market.
(There is a book to be written, I think, on the various routes that led companies from quite different fields into bicycle manufacture, and the extent to which their previous background is embodied in their particular products: some (like Rudge, Ariel, Singer and Humber) already made Ordinary bicycles (‘Penny-farthings’ or ‘Hi(gh)-wheelers’) as did the Starley family, who began by making sewing machines and went on to produce the Rover, the first true ‘safety’ bicycle – but it was the boom that followed that invention which drew many others: BSA (originally Birmingham Small Arms) made guns, and presumably had a capacity for light precision engineering that was ideally suited to making bicycles and their components; Peugeot made pepper mills; Marston’s, as we have seen, were japanners – which I guess influenced not only the quality of finish on their bicycles (the classic Sunbeam is ‘all-black’ with no plated parts) but that other characteristic feature, ‘the little oil-bath’ chaincase, which clearly called for some skill in sheet-metal work.)
My first Sunbeam – no 141812 – dates from around 1923 or 4 and belongs to the period when Marston’s were a subsidiary of Nobel Industries, who took them over in 1918 when John Marston died; my second (P.468.O.625) dates from about ten years later, by which time Nobel had become part of the giant ICI conglomerate, who ‘rationalised’ bicycle production (i.e. made it cheaper). This period – 1918-1936 – is a second phase of the ‘Marston’ era – a silver, rather than a golden age, if you will – when the bicycles were still made in Wolverhampton by the company that bore Marston’s name, and still (but to a decreasing extent as time wore on) to a high standard.
1937 marks the final end of that era, when the bicycle and motorcycle business was acquired by AMC, Associated Motor Cycles, who transferred production to London.
Although they always made a range of cycles, the ideal that Sunbeam stood for is embodied in one model, in much the same way as Rolls-Royce is epitomised by the Silver Ghost. (Their histories are comparable: the 40/50hp model (strictly, ‘Silver Ghost’ is a specific car, AX201, built in 1907) was introduced in 1906, and the model continued in production virtually unchanged (apart from the addition of front brakes) till 1926- by which time, of course, the car industry had moved on. Sunbeam’s design A1 of 1898, designated ‘The Royal’ is to a large extent the same machine that continued at the top of their range for the next thirty-four years.
(Although there was an A1 Royal in 1896, retailing at an eyewatering £27-0s -0d (with oil bath) – the equivalent of £2560 today, by the lowest calculation – it still retained the upward sloping top tube (now fashionable once more) and different diameter wheels – 30” front, 28” rear – that characterised ‘safeties’ of the first period. It is odd to think that these vestiges – the big front wheel, the tall frames – must have been an attempt to counteract the perceived lowness (and implied inferiority) of the Safety in comparison to the lordly Ordinary, with its towering wheel of anything from 50” to even 60” in diameter).
The Sunbeam roadster acquired its characteristic two-speed bottom bracket gear in 1903 and that was fitted till 1932; the top of the range model was called ‘The Golden Sunbeam’ from 1908, though the name had been used on and off since at least 1898, but ‘The Royal Sunbeam’ designated the top of the range till 1907. Taking the two-speed roadster as the characteristic model, we could say that its era began in 1903 and ended in 1932, by which time it could be termed old-fashioned, though certainly not obsolete – after all, the ‘imperial roadster’ design continues in service today, for the very good reason that it still works well.
Any design that endures so long, regardless of the prevailing fashion, can be ranked as ‘timeless’ and you could argue that an example from a later period, such as my 1934 Royal Sunbeam, is much the same as one from earlier times; and yet, and yet – I have always had a hankering to own a Sunbeam from that first ‘Golden Age’ up to 1918, and in buying my 1934 machine (at an auction, locally) I had actually broken the rule I set myself not to buy any bicycle newer than the one I bought first, my 1923 Royal. I had also lately refrained from bidding on a rather interesting green Sunbeam on eBay, from around 1912, and had regretted it, as it went for a not-unreasonable price.
(A word or two on Sunbeam prices: it seems to be a rule that whatever I take an interest in is immediately subject to absurd inflation or else becomes unobtainable. My first Sunbeam cost me £175, though I had to travel to Preston to get it; my next (a later one, so less desirable) was £100, but that was bought locally, at a general auction (I actually got a second bicycle – a little Ladies Raleigh – thrown in). Following prices on eBay and elsewhere I have resigned myself to the fact that the likelihood of obtaining an early Sunbeam for less than several hundred pounds is slight.)
So when on the Slow Bicycle movement that link to the Brightwell’s auction appeared (thank you, whoever it was!) I found in quick succession this ( lot 299):
this ( lot 326):
and this (lot 454):
I began to drool, then to scheme. Where was Leominster (and how did you pronounce it?) what were the possibilities of bidding on one at least of the Sunbeams I fancied?
The feeling began to grow on me that this was an opportunity I should not pass up if there was any way of taking advantage of it: if I tried but failed, well and good; if I passed it up, I would regret it. But how to go about it? and which to choose? If you take an intense interest in anything, one of the things you develop is an eye for detail: and of course with bicycles – which look so much the same – it is the details that make the difference. It is remarkable what you can glean from a photograph when you know where and how to look. In terms of desirability, the three lots had different claims to make.
All belonged to the Marston era proper, being pre 1918, though I had doubts about 299’s being as early as 1913 as was claimed; the record everyone goes by is found in ‘Sunbeam Cycles: The Story from the Catalogues’ by Pinkerton et al. an invaluable resource for the aficionado.
This shows 130148 to date from 1915, and 120470 from 31.3.1914, so it was reasonable (though not infallible) to assume that 129403 lay somewhere in between. I had a notion (I am not sure from where) that as a war-time bike it was less likely to have alloy fittings ( pre-war Golden Sunbeams could be had with aluminium pedals and rack and of course the celebrated ‘Romanium’ aluminium alloy wheel-rims). On the other hand, it looked in remarkably original condition and unusually complete, having retained its chainwheel disc and rear quadrant on the chaincase – frequently lost – as well as one screw-off handlegrip cap, complete with contents:
(though no mention of that other neat bit of storage, the seat-post oiler:)
It also had the classic bottom-bracket two speed gear. It looked to be my beau ideal as far as frame size went, namely 26” (the thing to look at here is the length of the head tube, and the general proportion of the bike: to my eye, anything larger than 26” looks unwieldy, while 24” is just a little too low. (This has nothing to do with my height – I am about 5’ 11’’ – but has everything to do with appearance.)
Lot 326 had frame no 108878, so its date looked accurate; it could even be earlier, since 111642 was dated to 19.10.1912. That in itself made it more desirable, and it had Sunbeam’s own ‘stepped’ 3 speed hub, designed by William Newill, which I like [see articles here and here]. It also had the pedal-actuated rear brake (note the long cylinder at the top of the brake mechanism behind the seat-tube, and the fact there is only one brake-lever). This is not a conventional ‘coaster’ brake – it acts on the rim, not the hub – though it is operated by back-pedalling.:
326 looked to be in good condition, but the absence of any coachlining suggested that it might have been repainted and the chainwheel disc was missing. I judged that this, too was a 26” frame (as the evaluation report subsequently confirmed).
Lot 454, modestly billed as ‘A Sunbeam Gentlemans Bicycle, with rare two speed bottom bracket gear’ was in many ways the most interesting of the three. Though there was no frame number given, the lack of a forward extension to the front mudguard immediately suggested an early date – forward extensions were introduced in 1910. Closer examination (and the aid of a zoom) suggested external springs on the brakes; these were discontinued in 1907. The style of handlebar also suggested an earlier model.
The evaluation report told me the frame number was 71695 (a five-figure frame number in itself is enough to give a Sunbeam enthusiast palpitations) and this one lay somewhere between 1903 (when the two-speed gear was first offered in the catalogue) and 4.6.1907 to which 84386 has been dated. With 51649 being 26.4.1902, a quick bit of rough and ready arithmetic suggests a monthly production over that period of 536.5 units giving lot 454 a date somewhere around July 1905 (the same sort of calculation puts 129403 – lot 299 – somewhere about September 1915*).
I had wondered if the description ‘rare’ had any significance when applied to the two-speed gear, which as we have seen, was in production for near thirty years; it is the case that the very earliest versions gave a 25% increase, but by 1904 that had already become 33%, so it is likely that this particular machine had the later (not uncommon) version. Again, this model has the pedal-activated rear rim brake, though I judged the frame to be slightly smaller (which the report confirmed: 25”) and although it looked complete, the rear quadrant on the chaincase did not look right and was probably a later addition. On age alone, (an important criterion for me, so in love with the Edwardian age) 454 was probably the most desirable; it also had an unassuming quality that rather appealed to me: it didn’t look like anything special, yet it was.
On the other hand, 299 was up first, and did have that charming intact handlegrip. Once you have set your heart on something, you cast around for ways to make it possible. The ideal would be to attend the auction, enabling me to view the lots close to and bid on the day; but while living in Perth has many advantages, ease in attendance at bicycle auctions – which tend to be in the English midlands or further south – is not one of them. In my day, I have driven the length of the country – to Somerset, in fact – to attend the fine TCA auction , where I bought my Dursley Pedersen,
but in addition to two overnight stays (we drove down the day before, and stopped halfway on the way back) the combination of driving long distances and the tension of the auction itself left me with a headache that lasted, quite literally, for several months. That was not something I was eager to repeat.
Nor (sadly, for I like to travel so) was taking the train a practical alternative: too expensive at short notice, and not practicable without an overnight stop – and in any case, taking a bicycle (or two, if I was lucky!) on a train is no longer the straightforward matter it was in the sensible days of my youth, when they had guard’s vans. Of course any actual attendance entailed the possibility that I might not succeed in any bid and return empty-handed, making the whole thing a costly waste of time.
Making a commission bid – asking the auctioneers to bid on my behalf up to a certain limit – was a more attractive option, but I did not want to commit to bidding on all three lots I was interested in: if I secured the first at the maximum I was prepared to pay, I could not afford to pursue the others, but if I missed out on the first I would be willing to go higher on the second or third.
Telephone bidding was a possibility, but sounded laborious: you had to book a line beforehand, and the number available was limited; and in any case, I dislike telephones.
Then I discovered that, for a small additional premium, I could bid online. The 2% this added to the buyer’s premium (17.5%) seem well worth it: it allowed me to bid live and make my own decisions on the day, yet meant I would only travel in the event of success, which I was sure would greatly offset the effort involved. The only other cost involved is that you have to make a £500 deposit beforehand, which is of course returnable if you do not succeed in any bids. So if I failed, I could console myself that the experience had cost me nothing but my time, and that I had saved the extravagant sums I had been prepared to spend, as well as having the satisfaction of knowing that I had at least given it a go; and if I succeeded, well –
that seems a good place to break off, for now; in my next post, I will deal with the auction itself, and what followed.
* Since, according to Pinkerton et al, ‘civilian production (of bicycles, motorcycles, or both – it is not clear from the context) stopped nationally on 31 December 1915’ then lot 299 may be one of the last Golden Sunbeams of the true Marston era.
(to enlarge any of the pictures below, just click on them)
‘When a man says he’ll do something, he’ll do it – there’s no need to remind him every six months’
-The Madonna of the Yarnwinder by Leonardo da Vinci
It is almost exactly six months since a conversation on the Slow Bicycle Movement Facebook page with Susanna Ingram – Brompton owner, slow cyclist and celebrated mandolinista – reminded me both of the painting above* and the existence of yarn winders in general. We had been discussing Pedersen saddles and I had been explaining the particular difficulty which had prevented me for many months already from following through my plan to weave a new saddle for my Pedersen from a skein of crimson silk.
I had woven one already, pictured below:
This was woven from some 50 yards of plain piping cord which I dyed a fetching shade of green; it was made on the improvised jig shown below, following the instructions of Sue Hodghton in the Dursley-Pederesen workbook, to whom I (and many others, I am sure) owe a debt of gratitude for her pioneering work in the field, nearly forty years ago:
The saddle, though not the prettiest piece of weaving, worked well enough, though I think the cord I chose was too thick – 3mm I f I recall aright; half that might have been better. But the main difficulty arose from the design of the cantle iron, which forms the rear part of the saddle; this, it must be said, is viciously bad:
It looks well enough, in a sinister way – a bit like the iron crown of Morgoth from the Silmarillion – complete with seven loops which might be stone settings but actually provide an attachment for the seven springs from which the rear of the saddle is suspended. There are two methods Sue Hodghton suggests for weaving: the one I chose starts with the tip of one of the horns and winds the cord around the cantle-iron until the first quarter of the ‘hook’ is covered, and you have reached the lowest point; then you run the cord up to the bobbin that secures the nose of the saddle, pass it round that, returning to the cantle to form the first pair of warp threads; you take a single turn about the cantle, then go back round the bobbin to form the next two warps and so on.
When you have come round level with the tip of the horn, you take two turns round the cantle before going round the bobbin at the nose, and continue thus till you come level with the other horn, where you revert to taking a single turn. All well and good, were it not for those infernal spring loops in between. When you reach the first of them, the problem becomes apparent: hitherto you will have been able to keep the bulk of your fifty yards of cord wrapped round some form of shuttle or spindle – I used a wooden rolling pin bought from Morrisons. Since there are no closed loops on the early part of the cantle – the horn tip has a gap that allows the cord to pass – you can unwind only as much cord as you need, pass that round the rod or the bobbin as required, and keep the rest wound round the rolling pin.
But when you reach the first spring loop you meet the problem. Four warp threads (i.e. two pairs) should run from each loop, with a double turn between each, meaning that the thread must pass through the loop at least six times – and because the loop is closed and is much too small to admit the passage of a wooden rolling pin, or indeed any kind of thread holder, that means that all the thread must be unwound and passed in its entirety through the loop, six times for each loop, a totally of 42 times in all (there are four warp threads with double turns between each loop, but they, being open, are not problematic). And if it is unwound for each pass through, it must be rewound in between, or a horrible tangle will result; so I bought a second rolling pin from Morrisons, and two knife-sharpening steels; I drilled a hole in the end of each pin, so that it could be mounted on the steel in the manner of a giant reel of thread on a spindle.
Had Mr Pedersen had the foresight (or the wisdom to consult the small army of women in and around Dursley who wove the saddles as a cottage industry) he might have adjusted his design to one using eyelets, say
or even simply turned the loops through 90 degrees, so that the cord could pass on either side without ever having to go through, thus obviating the difficulty; but alas, he did not.
A moment’s thought will tell you that winding some fifty yards of cord around a rolling pin is tedious enough to do only once, let alone on forty-two separate occasions, so you might wonder that, having successfully made one Pedersen saddle, I should ever want to make another unless I had to. When I say that the answer can be given in a single word, and that word is ‘silk,’ then there will be one set of readers who will shake their heads and look puzzled, another who will nod and smile ruefully.
Doubtless there are people who are impervious to the allure of silk, but I am not one; the very word is enough to beguile me.
(I am in good company: consider this sexy little poem by the great Seamus Heaney, from his collection Station Island:
The white towelling bathrobe
ungirdled, the hair still wet,
first coldness of the underbreast
like a ciborium in the palm.
Our bodies are the temples
of the Holy Ghost. Remember?
And the little, fitted, deep-slit drapes
on and off the holy vessels
regularly? And the chasuble
so deftly hoisted? But vest yourself
in the word you taught me
and the stuff I love: slub silk. )
Whether Pedersen saddles were ever actually made from silk is a moot point: some say ‘yea’, others ‘not so’; but the possibility was enough to tempt me. So I bought off the internet – via eBay, where so many of our dreams lead us – a quantity of red Chinese silk. This sat around for a long time in a crystal bowl – so long, in fact, that it began to fade in the light from a rich crimson to a dusky rose pink – then at some stage I decided I ought to do something with it.
Quite how it became such a tangled mess I cannot now remember, but it did:
And that of course meant further delays, and long periods trying to disentangle it, a curiously therapeutic exercise in futility, which at times struck me as a apt metaphor for my existence (and my pursuit of philosophy in particular).
The seed that Susanna Ingram kindly planted in our conversation about yarn winders took some time to germinate, but with the onset of Spring and the stirring of the blood, I decided I really should get round to doing something. So I built a contraption.
This is the first version, though strictly speaking, it is Mk II, since it incorporates the jig I used previously. It has, I would allow, more than a touch of the Heath-Robinson about it: note the use of jam-jar lids, a brass olive and quantities of dowelling rod; though what appears to be a toilet-roll holder is actually two towel-rail supports and a bit metal tube sawn from a left-over part of our spiral staircase. The advantage it offers is that the yarn winders, with pegs placed (more by luck than calculation, I confess) at 9″ centres, will take a yard of silk at every turn.The winders, by the way, though connected by a common axle, rotate independently.
To make things easier still, I had decided to opt for the second method of weaving, which is to start in the middle and work towards each end in turn, so halving the total length of yarn that needs to be handled.
This decision had been rather forced on me, as I was not sure quite how much silk I had managed to disentangle – I reckoned the right-hand rolling pin below probably had enough for half a saddle, roughly reckoned at 25 yards,
and in fact I wound on about thirty turns before taking the momentous decision to cut it off.
I had decided that there was no point in making a fetish of the notion that the saddle must be woven of a single thread throughout: I reckoned that a reef knot or two would not be too obvious, particularly as my neglect of the silk had allowed it to become somewhat hairy and ragged anyway.
Before I started, I brought the cantle up to its proper angle by securing it with fine brass wire (saved from a bottle of Rioja, if you must know – these things do come in handy eventually, provided you live long enough):
This is the method suggested by Sue Hodghton in the Dursley Pedersen workbook, a compilation of miscellaneous jottings by various Pedersen owners, available to members of the Veteran Cycle Club. The idea is that the wires will keep the cantle in place till there are sufficient warp threads strung to do the job; they can then be removed.
Just how laborious the task is, even with yarn winders, can be seen from the pictures below. In the first, the two threads in the foreground are the first and second warps – the upper one will eventually run over the top of the nose-bobbin – seen in the middle of the picture, at the top of the grey bracket – while the lower one will run back from the bobbin to the cantle; but in the meantime, the thread is divided between the two winders: the line in the top left corner has already passed round the cantle and through the loop, and is being wound onto the left-hand-winder; the thread that is, effectively, the slack between warp 1 and warp 2 is wound on the right hand winder; the second picture gives the overall view:
by the look of things, there is about nine yards of silk still on the right-hand winder; it is worth saying at this point that while it is being wound on to the left-hand winder, it is being lifted off the right hand one, as the top warp thread remains in tension. If you are experienced in these matters, you might notice that I have stored up trouble for myself, so that the brief joy of lifting off the final turn to transfer it to the nose-bobbin was short-lived:
here we see the first two warp threads in place, a process that took an inordinately long time. But observe the run of thread on that left-hand winder, and think it through as I had failed to do at this point. Where is the end of the thread, that I need to feed back round the cantle and forward to begin the third and fourth warps? Yes, it is on the inside, at the right-hand edge of winder, nearest the hub, with all the rest of the thread outside it; so it cannot be lifted off easily a turn at a time as was the case before, because the incoming thread (now in tension, remember) will be in the way. And while you are trying to find the best way round that thread, you need to remember that damn’ bit of near-invisible brass wire you used to hold the cantle level – you don’t want to get on the wrong side of that, do you?
To be perfectly honest, I cannot actually remember what I did next. It is evident from the next picture that I must have started again, probably after a profound bout of cursing – note that the two warp threads running to the nose-bobbin have disappeared. I have added two side panels which seem to have some function in keeping the runs of thread separate and ensuring they pass above the brass wire stays (if you look closely you can see they have eyelets fitted, though I did have the good sense to open them out so the thread could be removed through the side if need be).
(and yes, the side bars are made from a broken IKEA sofa-bed slat – what of it?)
and I have also fitted an eyelet to the outside end of one of the pegs, to remind me to start with the end of the thread on the outside and wind in towards the hub:
And in a further frenzy of eyelet-fitting (I must have found a packet of them) I have attached three to the top of the bar behind the cantle plate, with the thread now passing through the middle one:
This was a first attempt solve another problem that was becoming evident – as my late brother Brendan would have been able to tell me (he being a master mariner) a line looped round a slender bar tends to tighten on itself rather than flow freely, so passing the warp round the cantle twice and attempting to wind it on to the second winder was proving difficult. The notion with the eyelets was to keep the line from tightening on the cantle by maintaining a larger loop by passing it through the eyelet as well (I reckoned I would need to shift the eyelets as I progressed along the cantle, hence the other two), but in practice it did not work.
By now Easter was approaching, so I abandoned the attempt for the present, to attend to the Triduum and the great feast that follows. We went to my sister’s in Linlithgow for a very pleasant paschal feast with numerous family members ranging in age from 1/2 (my great-nephew Hamish) to 94 (my mother) and all ages in between. I went for a walk and took a picture of a hedge on the canal towpath that reminded me of a line from Eliot:
‘If you came this way in may time, you would find the hedges
White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness.’
(I know it was only April, but all the same)
This break from action, begun in frustration at my initial failure to progress (after many hours of painful effort – one thing I was completely unprepared for was the aches and muscle knots engendered in my shoulders and arms by the small but constantly repeated lateral movements from one winder to another) proved to be a time of valuable reflection.
What I would call my practical imagination is underdeveloped: beyond a certain point, I cannot envisage how things will work without actually making them; then I generally learn a lot, usually because they fail, through some fault I have overlooked. The trick is to see that this first unsuccessful effort is not wasted: for me, it is a necessary (if cumbersome) means to improve my understanding.
Among the things I realised was that having the two winders side by side at one end was a needless complication – it would make far more sense to have them in a fore-and-aft arrangement, one behind the cantle plate, the other forward of the nose bobbin. This would be better all round, since it puts them where they actually do their work, and clarifies what that work is. That they turn is secondary: their main function is to absorb the slack between one warp and another; how they do it is immaterial.
I realised also that the mental notion I had of the whole process was mistaken. Misled perhaps by the idea of using a continuous thread and rotating winders, I had been thinking of it as a continuous process whereby the thread was wound back and forth between the winders, passing through the saddle on the way; in fact it is better conceived as a repeated cycle, where the forward top warp runs from the cantle to the nose-bobbin, the slack is taken up at the front, then the lower return warp runs back to the cantle and the slack is taken up at the rear. Each cycle ends with a pair of warps in place and all the remaining thread wound on the after winder.
Each fresh cycle starts with a double turn about the cantle-iron, but it is important to see that as a separate action, nothing to do with the winders and requiring a separate tool to facilitate it; what I hit upon was the simple expedient of a rod – another length of dowel – which would double the cantle-iron for most of the passage of the forward warp, which would begin by being wrapped around the cantle and the dowel; only at the very end, when all the slack had been transferred to the forward winder and the warp was to be drawn tight, would the rod be slipped out and the thread left to tighten about the cantle iron.
Passing the warp forward involves lifting a turn from the rear winder (which remains stationary to maintain the tension in the return warp till it is transferred to the cantle-iron) and feeding it around the cantle & rod by winding it onto the forward winder, at the same time easing the rod back and forward to keep the double loop open and allow the thread to flow. The technique is demonstrated below – here we are close to the point where the rod can be removed and the thread tightened round the cantle-iron:
(Another improvement that can be seen here is the supports for the ends of the cantle iron, which did away with the need for that troublesome wire stay on either side. The iron rests on them at the appropriate height, but being still attached by hooks to the back bar, can be lifted clear if need be.)
One of the things that revived my energies and renewed my impetus was an idea I had for attaching the winders in their new fore-and-aft arrangement, which at the time I thought very clever (I still rather like it, though like many ‘clever’ ideas, it proved less brilliant in practice – but still, it moved me on, and that was its real benefit). It struck me that I might attach the winders to ratchet drives, of the sort that are used for spanners with interchangeable sockets. I knew these could be had cheap (I had seen them in the pound shop, though typically when I went to look, they had none – but I sourced a couple of cheap ones elsewhere) and they offered several advantages, to my mind: the winders could be made easily demountable (I envisaged a socket head attached to the centre of the winder, the ratchet drive mounted on an upright) and the ratchet function would allow them to wind in either direction as needed, but also to be held steady when that was required.
My desire to make all the components recyclable engendered a somewhat over-elaborate mode of fixing: I ran a bolt through the centre of the winder hub (formed from a jam-jar lid) and secured it with a nut, which was to have a double office, since I could use it to locate the socket, which in turn would slot onto the ratchet drive. And to hold the socket to the nut? Why, a mini-magnet, of course!
I might have been better to stick to my original plan of two larger disc magnets fitted neatly into the 10mm sockets, but I allowed the man in Maplin’s to seduce me into buying a pack of twelve mini magnets (because of course you never know when you might need one, and they cost the same). These were actually packaged as a scientific toy, which provided some diversion when I got home – below you can see a small square of graphite: in the first picture, it is resting on the left of the metal plate, beside the array of mini-magnets; in the second, it appears to be resting on the bed of magnets, but is actually hovering above them, the same principle that operates a mag-lev train. How cool is that? – well, I thought it was, a bit:
In practice, I found that I needed to thread more than one nut on the bolt (because of the depth of the socket) and the fit of nut in socket was a bit loose, so the whole arrangement was rather shoogly, but it was fun. Here we see the Mk III saddle-weaving jig, with winder-mounts on pillars fore and aft incorporating ratchet-drives held in place by ice-lolly sticks (knew they’d come in handy too, eventually – all those magnums we’ve eaten):
Note a further refinement, that the bracket for the nose-bobbin has been turned through 90 degrees and mounted on a pad that can be slid between rails, to allow it to be secured in a range of positions – this allows the starting length of the saddle to be varied, and should also give a means of increasing the tension if needed. (I’m obviously getting a bit grandiose, now – what started as a one-off jig has become a means of batch production).
The following sequence gives an idea of the Mk III jig in action. The first picture shows the new starting position, with one end of the thread anchored to the base; this, in due course, will be tied to the silk to be used for weaving the second half of the saddle. If you were determined to use a single continuous thread, you could instead have the other 25 yards wound on something (like a wooden rolling pin) and set aside. The entirety of the thread has been wound onto the fore winder, as seen in the second picture; note that there has been no need to use the dowel rod at this point, as the first double turn about the cantle can be made before anchoring the spare end to the base.
Now we can run the second, return warp back to the rear winder – starting, of course, on the outside and working in. Note that at this point the return warp does not need to go near the jig – in effect, it has not reached it yet; only when all the thread is wound on, and the loop of warp at the other end is transferred to the nose bobbin and pulled tight do we need to concern ourselves with feeding the end of the thread through the spring loop –
– and though, of course, it passes over the top of the bracket to which the cantle is hooked (and an improvement might be to blank off the space below the bar and between the grey brackets to prevent any possibility of passing underneath) the thread enters the spring loop itself from below, as it is the bottom or return warp; it is then turned twice about the cantle, and, temporarily, the dowel rod;
I found that the easiest mode of operation was to hold the dowel rod in the left hand and move it accordingly as I was either gathering the feed from the aft winder (from which the thread was lifted a loop at a time, the winder remaining stationary) or else winding it on (with my right hand) to the fore winder. In the first picture below, almost all the thread has been wound forward; now the rod can be removed and the thread tightened about the cantle, as seen in the second picture:
I will not pretend that this was a speedy process, and the half-finished warp below represents many hours’ work, though in retrospect it could have been quicker – I persisted in using the winders even after I was clear of the spring loops – the only stage they are actually needed for. I could simply have stored all the spare thread on a single winder, detached it, and held it in one hand while I used the other to wind only as much thread as I needed about the cantle plate and the nose-bobbin.
Even using the winders throughout, one advantage of starting at the middle is that the amount to be wound lessens with every pair of warps, so that you have a sense of the end approaching to spur you to the finish; going in the other direction, with a continuous thread, you would still have half of it on the winders when you reached the mid-point.
As I suggested above, my ingenious notion of using ratchet drives proved less clever in practice, for several reasons – the fit was loose at best, with a lot of play between the various components, so that the winder tended to lean over at an angle; and rotation could make the socket act as a spanner (which it was, after all) and undo the bolt that secured the winder, so that from time to time the whole thing would fall off, accompanied by much bad language. I toyed with various ways of correcting this, till it struck me that the simplest was to turn the winders from vertical to horizontal, so that gravity would help keep them in place instead of making them lean over and fall:
The arrangement was very much a makeshift – (a timenoguy, indeed, Susanna!) and the ratchet drive was actually bound to the top of the post with the discarded brass wire from earlier, which later had to be supplemented with string, as the strain of operation began to tell on the glue that held the lolly-sticks. By that time I was determined to finish the thing, come hell or high water, and it has to be said the contraption finished in a fairly ramshackle state of fallingapartness. If (when!) I redesign it, I think I will retain my beloved ratchet drives, but incorporate them in the winder-hubs and put the socket on top of the pillars.
I did think that, with the warp completed, the hard work was done, but I was mistaken. Though the weft or cross-threads are relatively few – ranging from 9 to 17 on a sample of original saddles cited by Sue Hodghton in the Dursley-Pedersen workbook – I found weaving them as difficult and frustrating a part of the process as any. This was owing to the difficulty in distinguishing the upper and lower warps – the weft passes over the upper and under the lower, so that when it is tightened, one is pulled down and the other up, creating the weave. The trouble was that my choice of silk was unwise; I should have gone for something with a more definite ‘twine’ so that its edges were sharply defined. To make matters worse, my neglect of the silk in allowing it to become tangled had rendered it hairy and ragged, so that where the the warps ran close (as they do especially at the edges) the space between them was blurred. In the end I was just shoving the needle through a mass of warps and wiggling its tip about in the hope of finding something like the right path, and I abandoned the attempt as soon as I decently could, with a new record low for a Pederesen saddle of about six (possibly seven) wefts. It was not a satisfactory thing, as the picture of the finished article shows:
Another point worth noting is that the tension is somewhat uneven – note the lumpiness towards the upper edge in the picture – and that the saddle is actually rather short, despite my initial determination to make it longer than the 11 5/8″ recommended by Sue Hodghton in the DP workbook. Both faults have a common cause: in setting up my ingenious ‘sliding foot’ arrangement for the nose-bobbin support, I had only secured it to the board by a single screw, at the end of the bracket nearest the rear of the jig. I had failed to hoist in the considerable force exerted by the warp threads as they are run to and fro, which grows as they multiply; at some point they had begun to lift the other end of the foot clear of the board, so effectively shortening the saddle, and throwing the overall tension out. So any future arrangement should I think be secured at several points, and certainly at the bobbin-end of the foot.
My friend Susanna Ingram has since pointed me in the direction of the heddle-stick (the vocabulary of weaving is a delight in itself) as illustrated on the Andean backstrap loom here, and I think some variant of that, together with a better choice of thread, would go a long way to solving my problems with the weft.
But, hey! it worked!
Here it is in action, on its very first trip, to fetch a Stornoway Black Pudding from the Brig Farm shop over the hill in Strathearn:
It was a dreich day, as we say in these parts,
and the crops in the fields glowed a sinister day-glo yellow,
but what did I care as I sped along?
I was back in the hammock saddle
and seated on silk
* The Madonna of the Yarnwinder – whom I now acclaim patron saint of saddle-weavers – aka The Buccleuch Madonna – was a great favourite of my youth, when I was at Edinburgh University and it was in the Scottish National Gallery on the Mound; it has had some adventures since then, I believe, including having been stolen for a time from Drumlanrig Castle, the Duke of Buccleuch’s ancestral home. Sadly the picture here does not accurately reproduce the arresting blue-green shade of the background, which drew the eye as soon as you saw it, even from the other side of the room where it hung.
I had a dim recollection of having cycled this path before, but could not recall the details nor how far I had gone, so that gave it an adventurous feel. I was also (being a slothful sort) curious to see how far I could go without encountering any serious hills. I had a notion that the path ran for a good way alongside the burn, so skirting the hillside to the right, at the top of which is the house where I grew up; but I reckoned that sooner or later I would be in for a climb. However, I was wrong: when I eventually swung away from the burn in a northerly direction, I found myself in a little park with the ground falling steeply away from me:
There was a fine view to the hills.
I was now in familiar territory transformed: I knew this area well as a boy, when it was very much a country walk, often enjoyed in the company of my father and immediate older brother; but now it is built up and residential – to the extent that what we had always known as ‘Old Gallows Road’ is now coyly renamed ‘West Mains Avenue’ – or at least the portion with houses is. I suppose addresses do matter to some people, but all the same, I feel such obliteration of history is a loss. When we were young I always supposed – for no better reason than that we walked that way setting out – that the gallows would have been at the end of the road somewhere out in the country; it was only on more mature reflection that I realised they must surely have towards the town, almost certainly on the Burgh Muir (Town Moor) that gave its name to the district where our house was, on top of the hill. (Must see if I can confirm that from a map.)
The metalled portion of Old Gallows Road takes you past an Electricity Sub Station, beyond which (of old) it became a rough track. Now it crosses the Western Edge Bypass that connects the Broxden and Inveralmond roundabouts, allowing the A9 to bypass Perth on its way North, and brings you to the improbably-named Noah’s Ark Golf Driving Range. However, the old track survives, a public right of way, a bit nearer to the rough condition I remember:
I was curious to go out this way because some years ago (seven, in fact – eheu fugaces labuntur anni) I had mooted it as a possible entry to Perth, when I cycled down from Inverness (where I lived in those days) on my 1924 Royal Sunbeam. In the event I did not use it but turned eastward and came in via the North Inch; but I wanted to see how feasible it was.
Once you have followed the track some way, you come to a path branching off to the right: it took me some moments to recognise it as ‘the boreen’ of our childhood days, as my father christened it – it is now a very neat, trim thoroughfare, making up in rideability what it may have lost in character. This was the route I could have taken seven years before. It was at this point that I began to form a more definite plan: the sign said Huntingtower; beyond that, I knew I could connect with the path along the Almond, part of National Cycleroute N77 which I have often followed in the other direction.
The quondam boreen takes you northward, descending steadily, with a fine open view to the hills. I paused to photograph a disintegrating mossy wall.
After a bit, the boreen plunges down through a tunnel of trees and emerges on the level with a fine beech hedges on either side, a bit dry and withered just now – I must make a point of coming this way again in other seasons to see how it looks:
A short run along a minor road takes you to the Crieff road, which you cross in the direction of the Huntingtower Hotel. Running down towards the Almond you find place names that do recall the history of the place, in particular its local industry, which had much to do with dyeing and bleaching: there is a Bleachers’ Way and a Dyers’ Close, as well as a Clocktower Road, which must be named for this striking building – a school? a church? a house? I’m not sure:
Pressing on, I knew that I was near the Almond, but could find no obvious way; I nosed down a cul-de-sac and found a promising path heading off through the trees
I took it, expecting to go some distance, but came abruptly on the muddy riverbank path:
Proprioception – your sense of where you body is located in relation to its surroundings – accommodates itself to the vehicles we use: thus, in driving, we have the urge to shrink away if we pass close to another car, to duck if we go under a low bridge, to wince if we reverse into something (it isn’t just the thought of the repair bill – the slightest contact evinces it); it is as if we feel the limits of the car’s body as our own. Similarly, on a bicycle, there is an impulse to steer clear of mud and puddles as if we were stepping into them ourselves; I needed to remind myself that this was the very terrain the roadster bicycle was born to cope with. It is a common observation that the reason why French cars have such excellent suspension is that French roads were so bad at the time the motor car was evolving. Whether or not that is true of cars, it is certainly true of the roadster bicycle – its robust construction, large-diameter wheels, high bracket height and easy frame angles are all designed expressly to cope with the rough roads of late-Victorian and early-Edwardian Britain, in that brief golden age when cars were a rarity and the bicycle was the fastest way to travel on the road – easily tripling the range of a pedestrian and opening up whole new prospects of adventure.
It was not long before I found myself across the river from the cliff where in another season I had watched the martins flitting in and out, seen the toppled tree and wondered how soon its precariously-balanced companion at the top of the slop would join it; it hasn’t happened yet.
Now that I was riding eastward with the sun at my back, the interesting shadows I cast encouraged me to test the Theory of Relativity by photographing them while under way (don’t try this at home, children – Mama will not be happy if you ride across the persian carpet in the living room). They also called to mind some lines of Eliot:
(The lengthened shadow of a man
Is history, said Emerson
Who had not seen the silhouette
Of Sweeney straddled in the sun).
|And I will show you something different from either|
|Your shadow at morning striding behind you|
|Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;|
|I will show you fear in a handful of dust.|
here’s another, this time with a bridge: don’t arches always look pleasing?
by the time the Almond met the Tay and the path turned South, I was becoming quite adept at the mounted shot:
It has been a wet winter here, though fortunately for us not as wet as elsewhere – the flooding is picturesque rather than destructive, a nuisance only to golfers:
The scene above is part of a curious experience: what prompted me to stop and photograph it was that it called to mind Walter de la Mare’s poem As Lucy went a-walking – the association was strong and immediate, yet if you had asked me to explain it, I could not pin it down – the poem has a numbers in it, and witches, and for some reason I linked these four trees, singled out by being in the water, with the witches; it is only now, looking up the text of the poem, that I find these lines:
And, by and by, she comes to seven shadows in one place
Stretched black by seven poplar-trees against the sun’s bright face.
She looks to left, she looks to right, and in the midst she sees
A little pool of water clear and frozen ‘neath the trees;
Interesting that the words do not correspond (only four trees, and not, I think, poplars) but the image is similar – trees against the sun with long shadows and a pool of water at their foot; yet though seeing the trees recalled the poem, it did not consciously evoke the image, which I had forgotten. Curious how the mind works – and poetry.
When I was young we used to walk along the North Inch by the Tay and admire the big houses across the water: at that time it would have been my ideal to live in one, and have a boat I could put on the water from my own boat-house. I expect now I’d find it too big; nice for parties in the Summer, though.
From the Inch the path passes under the Old Bridge (which pre-dates the USA) and along Tay Street, where just before the railway bridge I came on an ominous site which I did not photograph: a clutch of emergency service vehicles – HM Coastguard, Fire Brigade, an ambulance command unit with a satellite dish – a quantity of red-and-white tape marking off the slipway to the river, numerous uniformed people milling about. Newspaper placards next day confirmed that a woman’s body had been recovered from the Tay near Moncreiffe Island. Alas! It is not easy to fall into the Tay accidentally round there. On such a beautiful day, too. Perhaps that was part of it.
At the time, seeing a great number of other emergency vehicles in the Shore Road car park, I had hopes it might just be an exercise; but it was not. After a brief halt outside the Fergusson Gallery, I headed home across the South Inch, turning once more towards the sun, with a final shot from in the saddle.
Today being a beautiful clear frosty November day I decided that a bike run was called for. In view of my recent unsatisfactory run on the Dream Roadster, I thought a change of bike was in order, so I decanted several from their hiding-place under the stairs (it’s remarkable just how many bicycles you can fit into a confined space – there are another half-dozen in there besides these, and a few frames to boot)
I decided to take the 1934 Royal Sunbeam, but first I wanted to change the saddle.
Its current saddle is a hybrid, using an old B66 cover (with my favourite keyhole slots and oval Brooks side-stamp) perched on a set of triple-wrought springs I’ve had for ages. Unfortunately, the cover (an eBay purchase) had suffered a makeshift repair, leaving it with a loose and awkward rivet at the rear (nearest the camera); it has also nearly reached the limits of its tension and begun to sag, so for all its handsome appearance, it is not the most comfortable ride.
Removing the old saddle revealed an interesting feature of the Sunbeam, a closed-end seatpost. When were these introduced, I wonder? Presumably there is some notion of protecting the inside of the seat-tube.
I decided to fit the mystery saddle, which has now been identified with some degree of certainty as a Lepper – originally a German firm, as I now know, so that finding a similar saddle on a pre-War Goricke bicycle (also a German make) was not so remarkable. Many thanks to Rona Dijkhuis of the Slow Bicycle Movement and Maarten Bokslag, Chairman of De Oude Fiets (whom I contacted at Rona’s suggestion) for their help in my quest to identify it, detailed here.
I opted for a rather forward position for the new saddle, purely as an experiment – my older Sunbeam, a very comfortable bike to ride, has a ‘gallows’ type seat post which brings the seat a little further forward and more over the pedals, so I thought I might replicate that. In view of the new saddle and the experimental seat position, I reckoned a leisurely run was called for, with nothing too strenuous, so I decided to head into town and pick up the lade-side path. It was only when I paused for my first picture that I realised I had left my camera sitting on the garden seat at home (I had been distracted by fettling a loose rear mudguard).
I had ridden some way before I remembered that I had a camera anyway, in my phone. I was glad of it when I came to the point where the ladeside path has to cross the railway, because I was able to record this simple but effective aid to cyclists, an iron rail running up the side of the steps:
it mounts up one side
and down the other
and does the job it was intended for admirably (though you need a firm restraining hand or even a touch of brake on the descent). I missed this turning the last time I was out this way, so it was a pleasure to find a lengthy new stretch of the ladeside path. Though it is generally well-maintained with a tarmac surface, there is a pleasingly rougher section a bit further on:
However, after following this part, I lost my way again – I had hoped to pick up the N77 national cycle route at Almondbank, though this involves an unsatisfactory crossing of a motorway bypass; but the route I followed petered out among houses and an industrial estate (if you consult the map, you can see where I went wrong, round about Edradour Terrace) and I ended up going back towards town and joining the N77 route via North Muirton. Heading along the banks of the Tay, my eye was caught by a large dark bird perched out in mid-stream. From its distinctive beak and greenish-black sheen, I took it to be a cormorant, possibly one I had seen before on the South Inch pond some time ago and recorded in this rather poor picture:
Unfortunately, the camera phone is not very good for this kind of thing – the bird can be seen here in the left middle ground, looking a bit like the celebrated ‘surgeon’s picture’ of the Loch Ness Monster:
while here it makes rather a nice impressionist blur:
This stretch of the Tay looks well at this time of year:
Some way further on I posed the bike with some street furniture with the bridge in the background
then headed off along the broad Tay St pavement and on to the South Inch, crossing by the fine diagonal avenue:
and so home, after a largely car-free seven-and-a-half mile circuit of Perth (see route here). All in all, a much more satisfactory and uplifting trip than the previous one, detailed here. How much was that due to me, how much to the choice of bike and route, how much to the absence of wind? it is hard to say; anyway, it was much better.
And the new saddle? Already a firm favourite.
‘Walking for exercise? Pah!’
My father had a way saying ‘Pah!’ that was peculiarly dismissive. He liked a good walk, so it seemed an odd thing for him to say, but I think it was his very love of walking that made him say it. To walk ‘for exercise’ carries an overtone of duress, as if the person would sooner not be walking at all, but feels obliged to; it is as if all possibility of enjoyment has been removed beforehand – ‘I only do this for the exercise, you know.’ It was the grudging attitude that my father contemned.
A recent excursion on the Dream Roadster prompted that memory of my father: it was a ride I did not enjoy, I think in part because it was undertaken grudgingly, out of a sense of duty. In an endeavour to bring some order to my chaotic existence I had resolved to adopt some regular habits, chiefly in relation to my writing. Among them was the resolution that I would make at least one cycle excursion per week and write it up here. By Thursday I still had not done it, and since the day seemed fair enough for the time of year, I forced myself out.
Cycling is often, for me, a deliberate antidote to the melancholic lethargy to which I am prone, so it is not unusual to have to chide myself into it: ‘you’ll feel better for having done it; you know you’ll enjoy it once you’re out there.’ It generally works, but not always (and I was interested to find Lovely Bicycle blogging on much the same point, here – could it be the time of year?). The day was bright enough, with flaring Autumn colours
and I went by the usual secret paths
but for all the beauty of the scenery the calmness of soul I was seeking (perhaps too determinedly) refused to manifest itself. Instead, I found myself annoyed with my bicycle: the saddle was not high enough, the handlebars were too low; it just didn’t seem right. Then there was the road: it was altogether too straight
in both directions
yet it was not easy cycling: for all the seemingly straight and level ground, I found I could not deploy my lordly hundred-and-fifty inch top gear and toiled along in the middle ranges. Only gradually did it dawn on me that I was battling an invisible adversary: there was a steady headwind.
I am not a much of a man for getting wet – though there is a certain pleasure in defying the elements if you are dressed for it – but given the choice between wind and rain I think I would choose the latter. Rain is honest; wind is insidious. You know it more by its effects, as in this case, where a level ride seemed like toiling up a steady gradient. It is dispiriting; you are conscious of making less headway than you should, yet the cause is not apparent – it is not the wind you feel, so much as a resistance.
And having set out in what was not the best frame of mind, this soured my mood still further. Why was I doing this? Where was I going?
The answer to the second question was ‘nowhere in particular’ : I had resolved to investigate the road in the direction of Longforgan and Forteviot, partly as a scouting mission for some future attempt on the Ochil glens, though I did not think I would attempt the first opportunity for that, over the Path of Condie, which is steep and twisting.
(While I was taking the picture (badly – I know) the white pick-up truck came past, stopped, then reversed to where I was. The driver peered out and laughed, saying he had mistaken me for someone else – ‘I thought I knew the only cyclist who would stop to take the picture of a road sign’. I assured him that every cyclist has the urge to take pictures of roadsigns. I wonder if that is true? I remember when we were young my brother and I mocked our father’s penchant for taking pictures of roadsigns on our Irish holidays; yet now it seems perfectly sensible: few views are so distinctive in themselves as to be instantly recognisable; there is nothing quite so local and particular as a roadsign)
I toyed with the notion of making a circuit by turning North across the railway line and joining the Aberdalgie-Craigend road that featured in my earlier excursions here and here, but eventually I resolved that enough was enough: I would simply turn back. When the road swung round at the junction with the Invermay road,
I decided that the splendid view of the distant hills that opened up was reward enough for any outing.
Heading back with the wind behind me I was able at last to use my mighty top gear, and went bowling along at a swift pace while pedalling in a leisurely manner. An ample pavement allows traffic-free cycling from Bridge of Earn to the Craigton interchange, with magnificent Autumn colours
And the Tay from the top of the Edinburgh road is one of the pleasantest approaches to Perth
though in this case I was not quick enough to catch what had caught my eye, the unusual sight of a boat in mid-river – by the look of it, probably a semi-inflatable of the kind the fire service use.
So home at last, after a trip that seems pleasanter in remembrance than it was in reality, though that perhaps is because it is overlaid with the memory of one I have done since – just before writing this, in fact – which was altogether more satisfactory and uplifting.
And later in the evening there was a splendid moonrise, pictured at the top.
The route for this journey is here.