‘Meanwhile the dromedary was jolting him almost to pieces as it slipped and jumped and jibbed and skidded and bucked over the loose stones in the old path down the wood. You never would have thought it was possible to get so hot going down hill.’
Pigeon Post, Chapter XXXIII
It’s fair to say that bikes don’t have a major role in the Swallows and Amazons stories, but they do play their part – as ‘dromedaries’ in Pigeon Post. They’re also, incidentally, quite significant in the East Anglian-set The Big Six.
Still, Ransome’s description of Dick’s progress down the track suggests he (Ransome) had some experience of riding over rough terrain, long before the term ‘mountain biking’ was invented (see below) and even before the birth of the Rough-Stuff Fellowship. Of course, when he was a young man, many roads were unsealed and more like what we would call rough tracks nowadays. And people certainly took their bikes over hill tracks and even mountain passes.
Some may remember an episode of Nicholas Crane’s BBC2 series Map Man based on the Bartholomew’s Cycling Map of England and Wales (1896-1903), in which he took a period steed over a couple of Lakeland passes – Black Sail and Scarth Gap, I believe. These are in the western fells, well away from Ransome Country.
It’s certainly possible that Ransome, born in 1884, and a map-lover from an early age, would have been familiar with and perhaps used those Bart’s cycling maps. He might also have come across the writings of Walter MacGregor Robinson, better known as ‘Wayfarer’. One of Robinson’s best-known exploits was a crossing of the bare and lonely Berwyn Mountains in north-east Wales in March 1919. Wayfarer and his companions crossed in deep snow, pushing their heavy fixed-gear bikes far more than they could ride and taking four hours to cover ten miles. On a modern mountain bike, and without the snow, it’s possible in an hour or so: I know, because I’ve done it. The pass itself is now known, and not solely by cyclists, as ‘The Wayfarer’ and there’s a memorial to him at the top. I think, however, it’s fair to say that ‘Wayfarer’s prose style seems far more dated than Ransome’s.
The suggestion that Ransome knew of these exploits is conjecture, of course, but we do know that he did cycle, sometimes over long distances, as a young man, and the distinction between ‘road’ and ‘off-road’ was rather more blurred in those days. Certainly there were really no such things as specialised bikes for different types of terrain – unlike today, when even mountain bikes have many sub-categories, like ‘cross-country’, ‘trail’, ‘enduro’, ‘all-mountain’ and ‘downhill’.
And what this ultimately suggests to me is that bikes are an entirely appropriate as well as a versatile and enjoyable way of exploring Ransome’s lake country. Despite the growth of car traffic there are still some delightfully quiet lanes and there are also easy tracks, especially around Grizedale Forest. With a bit of effort, some of these lead out to some great views – the forest does, after all, lie between Coniston and Windermere, bang in the middle of Ransome Country.
If you’re up to some rougher going, like Dick, then try a ride over Claife Heights. Claife has never, as far as I know, been nominated as the model for any of Ransome’s locations (it’s more Beatrix Potter country), but it’s oozing with the right atmosphere and the tracks are great fun. Most people will tackle them on a mountain bike but if you want to get closer to the Dick Callum experience you might try crossing Claife, as I have, on a cyclo-cross bike. Of course only you can decide what your fitness and skills are up to…
Beyond that, there are many full-on mountain bike routes in the area, from the famed (or infamous) Walna Scar Road to the purpose built North Face Trail at Grizedale. Some of the bridleways in and around Grizedale, and elsewhere, are steep, rocky and decidedly (in modern parlance) gnarly. Even on a modern full-suspension bike, and with considerable experience, I treat them with respect. If Dick got down something like this on a 1930’s steel ‘girl’s bike two sizes too big for him’ – and with a pigeon basket strapped to the handlebars as well – I take my hat off to him.
Watch these pages for some specific suggestions of (not too gnarly) dromedary trails.
The Rough-Stuff Fellowship and the birth of mountain biking
Pigeon Post is set in 1932. The Rough-Stuff Fellowship was founded in 1955, but the term had been around for decades. As tarmac – the ‘smooth stuff’ – spread, the contrast between it and the unsealed tracks became more significant. (As the RSF’s own website says, ‘…in the very early days of cycling everything was rough stuff’.) The rapid growth in motor traffic in the 1950s was a major factor in encouraging more and more cyclists to seek out quiet byways and bridleways.
Clearly, then, off-road biking is nothing new. However, the line of descent leading to the modern mountain bike really begins in California in the 1970s. Here a group of riders began staging informal – but definitely competitive – events, speeding down mountain fire–roads and other trails on whatever bikes seemed most suitable. A key location was 784m (2571ft) Mt Mount Tamalpais in Marin County, close to San Francisco in Northern California.
Road bikes were lethal on the loose, high-speed descents; the bikes that seemed to work best were old fat–tyred ‘cruiser’ machines, affectionately referred to as ‘Klunkerz’. The first purpose–built ‘mountain’ bikes were custom–built by Joe Breeze in 1978. By 1982, mountain bikes that we would just about recognise today, like the original Specialized Stumpjumper, were appearing.