Earlier this year the disintegration of the Royal Mail reached a new low as the service announced that it was decommissioning its bicycle fleet after 120 years. Apparently, postmen are falling all over the roads like conkers. It’s health and safety again.
The real victim of this debacle is Pashley, Britain’s longest-established bicycle-maker, based in Stratford-upon-Avon. It is the principal supplier to the Royal Mail and a rare success story in the recession. There has been a huge resurgence in cycling during 2010, with a vogue for vintage-style designs that suits Pashley very well. What logic is there to the postal service’s decision?
In protest my friend Claude Piening and I took a three-day road trip, from Poole to Paignton, on Pashleys. Claude’s Tube Rider is a swirl of organic curves in electric blue. My Roadster is the stuff of Ealing comedy, all straight lines and imperial sturdiness. If his bike is Dennis Hopper, mine is Alec Guinness.
Our journey begins at Waterloo with an 8 a.m. wake-up call from Southern Trains’ carriage policy. The last time I took a bicycle on a train was 20 years ago. My BMX was bundled into the kind of huge cattle truck in which Butch and Sundance dynamited Pinkerton men. Now you get about six slots on a whole train, lined up in the entrance by the loos.
Two-and-a-half hours later, we arrive at Poole and cruise down to Sandbanks. It has the fourth-highest property prices in the world, according to the headlines, but this millionaires’ row of gaudy erections is the Costa del Sol on Viagra.
From there, we catch the chain-ferry to the National Trust beaches of the Purbeck peninsula and cycle up through the reeds to Studland and west to Corfe and its ruined 10th-century royalist castle. Claude, a continental pictures expert at Sotheby’s, declares its gothic hillside silhouette ‘totally Caspar David Friedrich’. It looms over us as we have lunch in a pub in the pretty village at its feet. Groups of cyclists in anoraks mill around watching a green Manston Locomotive puff noisily past on the Swanage railway.
We continue under our own steam to the coastal ridge at Kimmeridge. Looking out to Clavell Tower, perched on the cliff edge, the sky and sea behind form two smooth pages of differing blues. This folly, which was immortalised by P.D. James’s The Black Tower, is now a Landmark Trust holiday cottage. The long sweep down, with the still channel on one side and an MoD firing range on the other, is sheer tear-inducing ecstasy. Like downhill slalom skiing, says Claude. We fly past the ghost village of Tyneham, commandeered by the war office in 1943, and on to Lulworth Cove for a few moments of calm before continuing to my home town of Weymouth.
Dinner at my sister’s cottage highlights how pitifully unprepared we are for this trip. My brother-in-law, Greg Parker, takes a look at our bikes. ‘I take my hat off to you,’ he says, one eyebrow raised. Greg recently waved farewell to banking to set up Velo Nirvana, running biking holidays in the Pyrenees. Why go from finance to freewheeling? ‘It’s more than a hobby,’ he says. ‘It’s a way of life.’
The second leg, from Weymouth to Sidmouth, reveals what was behind his tactful comments. After a quick detour to Moonfleet, John Meade Falkner’s lagoon of smugglers, the epic ordeal of Abbotsbury Hill drives the point home. We’re out of our depth, screaming for the pampered pleasures of contemporary cycling. Bring me the carbon fibre frames, the anatomically shaped handlebars, the Shimano gears and the padded shorts. Just make this pain end. Although the shimmering view of Chesil Beach stretching out to Portland Bill almost makes the agony worthwhile.
The Jurassic coastline is a rollercoaster of grinding and grinning, hill and drop. As touring cyclists we are in the minority; those on the lanes are sport cyclists on superbikes. By the time we get to Sidmouth the sun has set and we’ve navigated a dual carriageway and a near crash on the pot-holed slipstream into Lyme Regis. One of the trials of country cycling is the woeful state of our rural roads.
The following morning, Sidmouth esplanade glints from the night’s rain. As we emerge from our B&B, a full English polished off, the air is clear. We are, if not raring, at least competent to go. First the clay-red rise out of town tests the legs and then there is another career through some of England’s finest countryside, down, down into the Shangri La valley of Otterton for tea in the riverside bakery. Walking over the bridge out of the village, we cross the overgrown railway platform, disused since the 1950s.
The Devon coastline is less pretty than Dorset’s, and as a result there are fewer cyclists on the roads. A passenger ferry has us haul our Pashleys onto its deck and takes us over the busy Exe estuary to Starcross, where the Great Western line hammers trains along the beach. We watch aghast as an eastbound service skims the balcony of a Georgian drawing room.
The homeward stretch is a tick list of bucket-and-spade towns and shipping ports of call. First Dawlish sets up our afternoon with the world’s best ploughman’s at the Old Mill House and then it’s Teignmouth, Torquay and finally Paignton. Eventually, we roll into the station to the soundtrack of amusement arcades. We are 40 minutes early. A quick pint in a down-at-heel pub and we pick up our return tickets only to find that our train to London is delayed. One thing we’ve learnt is that manpower, putting one’s mettle to the pedal, is not subject to the whim of engine failure or autumnal leaves. Royal Mail should take note.