Riding down Memory Lane

Welcome to the first in what we hope will be a series of posts, stories, writings and musings stimulated by cycling under lockdown. I’m kicking things off with an attempt at a photo essay ‘Riding down Memory Lane’ which follows a recent day spend cycling in the Cotswolds

I grew up in Gloucestershire in the 1970s and early 80s and had been promising myself that one day I would cycle around all the houses I had lived in across the county. We moved around a lot depending on my dad’s job, finances, and his dislike of ‘being overlooked’ (not that he ever did anything more embarrassing in the back garden than fall asleep in a sun lounger and snore).

It took my dad’s death last year and lockdown (with its brief glimpse of 80s-level road traffic) for this vague idea to become a real urge. So this week, on the hottest day of the year so far, I set out from Cheltenham, a place I hadn’t properly visited since the early 90s when my parents moved out of the county. I started out from GCHQ, where my uncle worked, through Whaddon, where my dad grew up and my grandparents lived, and then north to Tewkesbury.

Twynning, 1974-75?

My dad, mum, my brother and I moved here from the London suburbs in the early or mid-70s. I could ask my mum  the exact date, but in many ways that doesn’t matter and so the question mark reflects the vagueness and the fact that, at 6 (or was I 7?), such markers don’t really register or matter. For me, the time is marked by just a few scattered memories aided by photos like this one. This is me, my brother, our dog Mick outside the same two-bed bungalow with a  couple of knock-off Wombles from Tewkesbury market. I’m the one with my mum’s arm across my face.

Cycling out of the village, I pass the primary school and remember the jaundiced boy I tried to befriend in my first week. Ian died of leukemia a few months later. I realise now that he simply didn’t have the energy or possibly the time to make new friends. I’m not sure why this is now my abiding memory of our time here, which was a happy one, otherwise associated with exploring the local countryside and the River Avon.

Alstone, 1975-1978

I pass my second primary school at Ashchurch, opposite the army base, as I head out on the busy A-road to Teddington and Alstone. I always thought of the former as a big village, but it turns out to be tiny. The larger properties here and in Alstone indicate we’re moving up in the world in the mid-70s. Now we’re living in a four-bed detached place backing onto a farm and overlooking the countryside. There was even more exploring to be done here, a fact that constantly played on my risk-averse dad’s mind and occasionally got me into trouble. Cycling rapidly became the means of seeing friends on the other side of the village and heading off for the day. This is me test-riding my new bike Christmas Day 1975.

Charlton Kings, 1978-82

I head out through Winchcombe over the Cotswold Hills and descend into Cheltenham after a couple of hours of undulating, narrow, pot-holed, gravel-strewn roads. I can see now that moving back to Cheltenham in the late 70s was both a victory and defeat for my dad. He’d left very much aiming to make something of himself, joining the Metropolitan Police in London. Pensioned out of the force through ill health, he’d returned to Gloucestershire, but by choosing Tewkesbury over Cheltenham had maintained some distance from his parents and older brothers. Charlton Kings is one of the smarter areas of Cheltenham, so it offered some kind of statement. But what’s interesting as a cycle down the road is that our house is no longer there. The slightly dilapidated bungalow that my parents spent years working on has either been demolished or buried beneath this swanky pad. The fact that I failed to get myself in the picture is coincidental, but looking at it now it suggests a lack of fit, that something isn’t right or is missing. Or that one of us (me or the house in the picture) was out of place. So let’s put our old house back in the picture.

Longway Avenue, 1982-85

By now I’m realising that my cycle trip is becoming a short history of Thatcher’s Britain. My dad was unemployed for two long years in the early 80s. Like many I suspect, we downsized to free up cash. Longway Avenue was where I spent my exam years. I’m an academic, so of course they were some of the happiest years of my life. I mainly remember spending this time in my bedroom reading or listening to my LPs. It’s here I progressed from synth pop to The Smiths. I would cycle from here into the hills above Cheltenham on a 5-speed Dawes that probably weighed a ton, always being dropped by my friends on their superior (and far more expensive) road bikes.

Everest Road, 1985

This is almost literally just around the corner in Leckhampton. But I never really lived here. We moved here after my A levels and I left a few weeks later to go to university. This is the place I stayed when I spent my  summer holidays working in catering or in office jobs and my evenings out drinking with old school friends. The photo below is me and the car I’d just bought off my dad (the only car I have ever loved – a Citroen GSA) parked on the drive. It signals a pause in my relationship with cycling as my Dawes was confined to the shed and eventually unceremoniously chucked on the local tip.

Like a lot of men my age, I simply forgot about cycling when I bought my first car, but have since come back to it. Perhaps this is partly nostalgia. But lockdown has shown us a glimpse of a way of life beyond motoring. I still have a car, but for the last three months I have cycled far further than I have driven. I also see far more cyclists out on our roads than I have ever seen in this country. Cycling during lockdown has reminded me of the relative quiet of road cycling in my childhood and adolescence, but it has also shown all of us that there is an alternative to locking ourselves away in our metal boxes.