The Cycle Industry/Chapter 12
ROADS IN GREAT BRITAIN
As an inhabitant of the county of Warwickshire, I have always had an idea that the comparatively level roads of the districts surrounding Coventry and Birmingham had something to do with the early popularity of the bicycle.
It is inconceivable that had the heavy, hard running machines of the early days of the industry been exploited in Devon, for example, they would have attracted the attention of the mechanical minds that evolved the perfect bicycle we ride to-day.
The modern bicycle, had it been possible to put it on the road in its present form at one jump, would have been popular anywhere and at any time, but with the bone-shaker it was different.
Many years ago the surfaces of the Midland roads around Coventry and south of Birmingham were much better than they are now; the hills, except in the Edge Hill district, are not abnormally steep, and close to Coventry is the famous London road with a level stretch for six miles or more. It was on such highways that the high ordinaries were perfected and the safety bicycle tested and exploited. They were both tested and tried out in other places, but Coventry was the home of the bicycle, and without fairly level and good roads I am sure the early attempts would not have developed the enthusiasm of their makers to the same extent.
The use of the bicycle expanded from Coventry and the Midlands like a ripple on a pond spreads from the spot where a stone is thrown into the water. The Warwickshire roads had therefore a good deal to do with the popularity of the pastime in early days.
The classic roads of England and Wales are the Great North Road, the Bath Road, the Holyhead Road, and the Brighton Road. Mr. C. G. Harper has given us interesting descriptions of these great highways in his books, named after the roads themselves, also narrative and data referring to each. I only propose to refer to them from the cycling view point, and would advise those who wish to acquaint themselves with their history in detail to read the Harper series.
Two other interesting roads of value to cyclists are Watling Street and the Fosse.
On the Great North Road are started the famous 12 hr. and 24 hr. road races of the North Road C.C., but as the club only utilize the classic highway as far north as Norman Cross, near Peterborough, the route for their race extends mostly eastward into the adjacent fen country. The London-Edinburgh record breakers ride on this road from the G.P.O., London, to a point near York, where the highway ceases to be known as the "Great North Road" but it is, of course, the route by which the old coaches travelled between Edinburgh and the metropolis.
The Bath Road C.C. claim the western highway as their special hunting ground, and there is a recognized Bath and Back Record, the time of which is occasionally reduced by some expert rider who tackles the journey under favourable conditions. There is no recognized road record for the Holyhead Road, but as it is the main artery from London and the Midlands into North Wales it becomes almost a necessity for cyclists to make its acquaintance when travelling to the watering places of the North and West. Leaving London it occupies the site of Watling Street (is Watling Street in fact) until at Weedon it branches to the left and passing through Coventry, Birmingham, and Shrewsbury, enters Wales near Chirk. It then traverses some of the most famous beauty spots of North Wales, crosses the Menai Straits on Telford's suspension bridge, near Bangor, and terminates with a twenty-two mile nearly level stretch across the island of Anglesey.
As regards the Brighton Road there are many ways to Brighton, the classical record route being by Purley, Horley, Crawley, and Handcross. The Brighton Road was associated with the earliest bicycle performances, when plucky pioneers trundled bone-shakers there in the day. Relay rides were also a feature of the days when cyclists showed they could beat the time of the Brighton four-horse coach. Innumerable cycling records have been made on the Brighton Road, but the extension of London southwards and Brighton northwards entails so much traffic riding that very few attempt the performance now.
Watling Street is probably the most ancient road in the Kingdom. It is supposed to have existed prior to the first Roman invasion, but it was the Roman conquest that caused it to be improved and extended. Originally, it stretched from near Dover to Wroxeter and probably north to Chester or Carlisle. Cyclists riding from Dover to London follow the line of the old highway by what is known to-day as the Dover Road; the Street went right through the heart of London, issuing at Edgware. Near St. Albans, the Holyhead or Birmingham road makes one division from the old Roman track, but returns to it and makes use of Watling Street all the way to Weedon. Here it turns to the right, away from the modern road, and, with two breaks (where the Street crosses fields), continues in an uninterrupted line through Atherstone to a point near Lichfield. It is picked up again near Brownhills and continues from there to Wroxeter, between Wellington (Salop) and Shrewsbury.
It is largely used by London and Birmingham cyclists as a through route to the gate of North Wales (Shrewsbury), partly because it avoids practically all large towns and on account of its occupying high ground from which extensive views are obtained.
The Fosse, the second ancient road in importance, once known as a Royal Road or King's Highway, stretched from the Lincolnshire coast to a point in Devon near the mouth of the river Axe. Cychsts use the modern Fosse from Lincoln to Newark-on-Trent, Bingham, Syston, Leicester, and Narborough, almost to the Warwickshire boundary. They will find it rideable, although mostly a gated road through Warwickshire, and it emerges as a highway again near Halford Bridge. From Halford it is the main road to Moreton-in-the-Marsh and Cirencester. Below Cirencester it can also be followed to Bath and beyond, but is not a rideable road beyond South Petherton, in Somerset. Both Watling Street and the Fosse are best known for their directness in making from one point to another, but they are not straight, as is popularly supposed, except in the sense that they were laid out in straight stretches of about nine miles or so in length between pre-determined spots.
The popularity of cycling in this country is due largely to the excellent network of roads we possess. The surfaces, it is true, are fast deteriorating owing to abnormally heavy traffic which they were not constructed to bear; nevertheless, Great Britain has probably better roads, from a cyclist's view point, than any other country in the world. When I say better I do not allude to surface alone, but to their suitability for the tourist and the follower of the pastime generally. Our British roads and lanes are not made in straight lines like many Continental roads and by-roads; consequently they are more interesting to traverse and seldom monotonous. In fact they are the reverse, because every turning brings some interesting view before the rider's eyes. There is nothing so monotonous when cycling as to follow a perfectly straight road. Even long distance airmen will tell you that flying in a straight line for hour after hour becomes terribly irksome, and they often yearn for the motor or cycle and the turnings and twistings of the road.
The increasing amount of motor traffic and the possible conversion of some main through routes for the use of motor-cars alone has caused the Transport Ministry to consider the question of making special cyclists' paths. Whether these ultimately will be constructed is conjecture at the time of writing, however, such paths for the sole use of cyclists are quite common in some parts of the Continent, notably in Belgium, Holland, and France.
In the rural districts the paths are used by cyclists and pedestrians together, and it is only near populous parts that the special cyclists, paths, are reserved for their exclusive use.