|Bill Corden on his Clifton Cycle|
I stumbled upon your blog and had some memories stirred by the mention of Clifton cycles , Geoff Hughes , the Hewitt bros and their shop at the Haymarket.
Particularly stirring was the mention of my Dear Brother Ron Corden who sadly passed away back in 2005.
I was a member of the club in the early 60's and at that time Ron and Geoff were the greatest of friends and rivals.They swapped the club championship between them for a couple of years, Geoff was undoubtedly the faster of the two but I think Ron was maybe a bit better at the longer distances.
I remember very clearly the back room at The Clifton in the Haymarket , especially the fire and the teapot.The Hewitt's sister was a girl named Beryl and she eventually married another cyclist , a wonderful guy by the name of Johnny Potter.
I still had Ron's handmade Clifton until a couple of years ago when I foolishly lent it to my daughter who, of course, had it stolen. Not to worry though somebody must still be riding it.
I'm not sure but I think Ron won the Melling Wheelers medium gear 25 in one of those years , his photo was on the front page of the Cycling magazine and he was treated like a superstar because of it.Unfortunately I've never been able to get a photo of that front page, somebody who reads this might have a copy.
Those memories got me digging into the contents of a book I wrote a couple of years back and sure enough there were a couple of chapters describing some of the club runs and cycling vacations we embarked on, it's interesting to reflect upon the impression these older boys had on me at the time ( and still do)
We've reached the age where many of our contemporaries have passed away and poor Dave Hall left us just this past January in Heswall. Other friends at the time were Phil Liggett and Gerry Balshaw , I can see us now, drinking in the Grand Hotel in New Brighton before we went to the Kraal to try to "bag off". Gerry's gone too now. Such happy and carefree times , we both got thrown out of the Mardi Gras one night for excessive drunkenness... we didn't do anyone any harm though. Hope you enjoy this little excerpt, it starts with Ron returning home after National Service.
|Ron Corden mid 60's, around the time he won the West Cheshire BAR.|
Ron came back home from his stint in the army, he landed a great job with Lever Bros (or it seemed like a great job at the time) and reappeared in the house as a ready made hero for me to worship.
He quickly joined the local cycling club, The Birkenhead North End C.C. and all of his high class, urbane friends ( well at least that’s what I thought they were …. I would learn the truth later) came round to visit him or to pick him up before they went out on their training runs. It was very unusual for any friends to come and visit as by this time the Square ( Ilchester Square in the North End) had developed a fearsome reputation as a no-go area, and our own playground now had deteriorated to the level of the old flats which was like a bomb site! But these guys seemed to be hard, fit and fearless and whenever they came we would get the opportunity to examine their gleaming Racing Bikes.
One of Ron’s friends, Eddie Gray, had a dusty pink bike, an “Eddie Soen’s” I think, which was so loaded with all of the latest gear we felt we were looking at the holy grail. They all had to carry their bikes up the stairs (just like the coalmen) otherwise they would have been gone in a second, but we were assigned to keep an eye on them and the responsibility was thrilling.
Ron was very soon Club Champion and his name appeared regularly in the National weekly magazine we had delivered to the door (Cycling and Mopeds). I’ll never forget the one day it arrived when Ron’s picture took up the complete front page, I was absolutely bursting with pride but the thought of taking up the bike myself was a bit of an impossible dream, you see you have to own a bike to join a cycling club!.
That direction was triggered by the second version of the guardian angel in the form of Dave Hall, my new schoolmate in class. He was mad keen on cycling and he had noticed Ron’s name in the magazine, so he came over to me to verify that I was his brother. We talked for a while and his interest fired up my interest, next thing I knew I had a bike and we were both members of the club joining the other members for clubruns on Sunday mornings .
Oh what a change that wrought in my life ! I was now able to see that there were another few levels of society beyond Ilchester Square.
My very first clubrun was a trip to Farndon in Cheshire, probably about fifty miles there and back. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing as we passed through Chester and the countryside beyond , beautiful big houses, farmland way off into the distance, the beautiful River Dee. All this and clubmates from all different walks of life, I was transubstantiated by the experience!
Unfortunately at the age of twelve or thirteen I was a tiny little malnourished kid and by the time I got to Farndon I was completely out of gas and couldn’t even turn the pedals one more time. The older guys had overestimated my stamina and there I was stranded 25miles from home. I’m sure I started to cry but Ron and his pals calmed me down and took turns in pushing me until we got to Chester Station. Ron then had to buy me a one way ticket back to Birkenhead and I am sure that was the last of his money for the week (Lever’s didn’t pay that well). I had to cycle about two miles from the other end to get home and when I did I just fell on the bed and slept for what must have been two days!
Ron thought that this experience would kill off any nascent interest that I had and I remember him asking me if I wanted to go out the next week, I also remember the surprised look on his face when I said I did and I think that day was the day we became true brothers.
From then on I had a passion in life where I could get fulfillment but it had nothing to do with school! Dave and I became firm friends and we would turn up faithfully every Sunday Morning, rain snow or shine, meet the rest of the lads and head off into the Cheshire or the Welsh Countryside. I’ll tell you some of the stories and then get back to my adventures at school
There were many memorable rides, one time Dave and I decided to go to Beeston Castle in the middle of winter. It was biting cold and by the time we got past Chester there were snow drifts up to five feet high in the back country lanes. All we had on to keep us warm were lined army combat jackets as they were called, a scarf and a flimsy pair of gloves but that didn’t stop us. We made it almost to the castle before we started worrying about the failing light and had to turn around, when we finally made it back to the warmth of the Two Mills café (our club’s gathering point) we were treated like heroes (stupid heroes but heroes nonetheless)It took about ten minutes for our hands and feet to thaw out, how we didn’t suffer from frostbite is a miracle. It was the first of many times where we would actually cry in pain as our hands and feet thawed out after a long winter ride. It sure toughened us up and we would need it as everybody grew faster and stronger, cyclists tend to leave you for dead at the side of the road if you can’t keep up.
I used to ride up to Dave’s house on Hinderton Road in Lower Tranmere about two miles away, his Mum was one of the first people in my life to be really nice to me, I was treated just as if I was another son and the fact that I came from the Square didn’t seem to register at all.
His Dad had a really intimidating manner about him, probably because he drove a hearse for the Coop Funeral Society! He was quite strict with Dave and always seemed to be going on at him to get his haircut or to stop doing something that was bugging him (picking at his face usually!)He seemed to like me though and treated me as a harmless scallywag, I was always able to disarm him with some sort of flippant remark and take the heat off Dave, albeit temporarily, I really loved Dave’s Mum and Dad.
Their house was on a par with Auntie Nellie’s with everything in its place and everything neat and tidy. They had a beautifully appointed front parlour where we were allowed to go and play records or read our bike magazines and to me it was a welcome escape from the clamour at home.
They had a different clamour with their little Yorkshire Terrier dog named Dandy, that fucking little hound hated me and went after me like a Tasmanian Tiger whenever I walked in the door. Many’s the time I just wanted to take a swift kick up that dog’s arse, but Dave was very protective of him and Dandy knew that he could yap at me from Dave’s knee in relative safety, rather like a little brat hiding behind his mother’s skirts after he’s mouthed you off. Nonetheless he was a cute little thing once he settled down.
We used to compete with one another in keeping our bikes clean, usually spending Saturday morning’s at his house on the task. Dave used to polish the frame of his “Viking” bike with Simonize and I could never equal that shine, but my brother’s bikes were always army bright so if I ever felt inadequate I could always fall back on shine by proxy.
Ron and his pals were religiously fervent in maintaining their machines and it was they who taught us how to keep everything in shipshape order, it was a badge of honour to arrive on Sunday morning with your bike swishing with efficiency and sparkle. All the other young lads we had met were driven by the same energies and very soon we had a tight circle of friends, we were consumed with the smallest details of the biking world and its heroes, Jacques Anquetil was like a god to every one of us and it was a rare individual who didn’t wear a beret on the rides, they were the baseball hats of the day.
These friendships would be solidified through the rides I described above, nothing goes deeper than having a friend by your side when you are absolutely and completely knackered either emotionally or physically. They give you energy by some mystical means, the energy you need to get back home or to recover from a desperate challenge. I learned a lot about inner strength in those years.
We were getting a little bit stronger but compared to the big boys we were still babies and just like babies we followed them around to the various races. Most of the time they would be locally organised events but as the season wore on they would get further afield and on one weekend Dave and I decided to provide some fan support to my brother in a race called the Welshpool 100 mile. It was a very significant event in the cycling calendar and attracted the best in the country, Ray Booty was a star at the time and he would be riding so we were very excited at the chance to see him. Dave’s Dad had a friend who owned a farm somewhere close to the event and he made arrangements for us to stay overnight with them. My bike at the time was a Freddie Grubb with fixed wheel ( 72” for those who care about such matters).
I packed my saddlebag with enough stuff to have made an arctic expedition possible and my Mum made me some Banana Sandwiches for the trip. I knew it was going to be long ride but I didn’t have a clue how tough it would be with all the extra weight on the back and I was really tired just getting to Dave’s house, I could hardly hold the bike up. Here was Dave, with his 10 speed bike, polished to hyperglaze, with a tiny little saddlebag on the back and a perfectly packed lunch in his buttybag. There was a very steep climb from his house to get us underway and I started to complain right away. His reply was that he had an extra half a pound of derailleur gears to lug around so it was tougher for him.
Somehow or other I made it to the farm in deepest North Wales, it must have been close to 75 miles and the wonderful people were jumping at the gate to greet us. It’s obvious now that they didn’t get many visitors and they were over the moon to have two at once. They had prepared two beds for us, spotlessly clean with starched linen, but we were too macho to sleep in beds, in our youthful fantasy we considered ourselves to be almost professional athletes and to their bewilderment we insisted on sleeping in the barn on a bed of straw, I’ve never forgiven myself for being so stupid. All night long creepy things rustled about and insects crawled over us and we didn’t get more than a few winks of sleep.
Because the event started very early the next morning we had to be up and on our way before the cock crowed, but the farm couple were still up before us. They gave us each a jug of fresh cream and some toast but all of the generosity was a bit much for us and we refused a hearty breakfast out of shyness more than anything. I remembered my Mum’s training and offered to pay for our digs but they just wouldn’t hear of it and sent us on our way.
How I was to regret not eating that breakfast!
Dave’s calculations as to the proximity of the race were off by about 40 miles and so we spent the best part of two hours getting to the start. I was still suffering from the exertions of the previous day and the banana butties didn’t quite top up the gas tank for what was ahead of us.
We followed the race around for a couple of more hours, cheering on Ron and our clubmates but when the time came for us to start making our way home I had no legs left at all. I was completely done for and faced a ride of 50 miles or more to make it back.
I have always said about this ride that it was the one where I started out as a boy and finished as a man. We met up with two of the older guys in the club, one of them was a prince of a fellow called Tommy Banyard who was about as tough a rider as you can get. The other was one Don Spraggett who was famous in the club for being able to keep up a fearsome pace all day long.
One thing was quite plain from the start, I wasn’t going to get pushed home on this one, and crying in front of my schoolmate would only give him ammunition down the road. I was going to have to get my head down and do it! The one benefit we were afforded was that we could tuck in behind them and get protection from the wind the whole of the way back. Dave who was always a stronger rider than me (and better fed ) settled in quite comfortably but I was struggling with the pace from the moment we started.
In my mind I didn’t know how I was going to make it but as we got deeper in to the journey something amazing happened to me. My legs started to feel stronger and I found that if I concentrated completely on the wheel in front to the exclusion of everything else, it didn’t hurt. If I thought for even a second about how far we had to go, I would start to feel really sorry for myself and fade rapidly, but I found I could shake that feeling off and get back into a rhythm.
Tommy’s back wheel had a slight buckle in it and it would tap his mudguard on every circuit, this created a nice little tick-tock kind of beat and I discovered that if I pedalled to it I could make way a lot easier and sing a little ditty while I was doing it. Tommy must have been doing the same thing because he was singing out loud to the beat “Hot Chocolate, Drinking Chocolate, Hot Chocolate, Drinking Chocolate .” (He was a musician by the way, so the beat came easily to him.) I don’t think I spoke more than about two words throughout the entire ride, so intense was my concentration, but I sure made up for it when we got to the café.
I think I first gave Dave a good rollicking for his lousy orienteering skills, then I gave him a bit more for having an easier ride with his gears and then a final blast for just being better than me.
The real story of the ride though is that I was able to dig down to depths inside myself that I didn’t know I had, every experience you have like that, in any part of your life, lets you handle the next one with equanimity. This ride was one of the most important building blocks of my young life.
A couple of weeks later we were out on a very difficult ride, climbing the Horseshoe pass out of Llangollen and I found myself keeping up with the big boys. On a particularly steep section the then club champion, Geoff Hughes rode up alongside me and said “ I’m amazed you’re hanging in, at the beginning of the year you wouldn’t have lived with us on this climb, look at you now!” I had no clue that I was starting to get better.
Other rides stick in my mind because there was either a spectacular accident or there was a memorable accomplishment on my part.
On one ride we were coming back through the foothills of the North Wales mountains and arrived at the top of a very steep descent. In the winter we adapted our bikes for the slippery roads by changing to tires that provided more grip on the road, but not Pete Roberts. He was on his stripped down velo with 5 ounce racing tires and he sported a cavalier attitude to the rest of the bunch by refusing to install mudguards, thereby subjecting the unfortunate rider who happened to be behind him to a constant shower of dirty water and grit. He didn’t care though, he was Pete Roberts, potential pro cyclist, he wasn’t the most popular guy to say the least.
At the top of the descent most of the group took the precaution of loosening toestraps in case a bailout was necessary but not Pete Roberts. He actually tightened his until he was as they say “one with the bike” As we all gingerly started rolling down the treacherous switchbacks a few of us came off right away and slid heavily but safely to a stop, but not Pete Roberts. He shouted out that he was unable to stop and in a foolish panic took his hands off the brakes and catapulted down the slope, hitting the embankment on the first turn at full speed. The momentum carried him over the bars and way up into the air which was bad enough in itself but what made it worse was that the bike was still attached to him. He sailed about 15 feet into space, did a double somersault with the bike still part of the picture and in a disappearing flourish he launched the bike further into space as he himself vanished over the hedgerow.
We all thought he must be dead, but not Pete Roberts. The older guys scrambled round the bend to find his bike hanging on a barbed wire fence as if it had been casually placed there, Pete was further back up the slope lying on his back in the field separating the switchback. He was stunned (which he was most of the time anyways) but he was unhurt apart from a couple of cuts and scrapes, and our concern for his safety turned to ridicule for his general thoughtlessness. He was lucky to be alive though and the field mechanics were able to fix up his bike enough so he could ride it home even with two badly buckled wheels.
In another memorable event we went on a two week camping holiday to Tenby in South Wales, a beautiful village on the coast with a magical harbour and a beautiful sandy beach. I rode down with a clubmate named Billy Foster and we were to meet up with the rest of the guys when we arrived. We travelled pretty light this time as all of the gear was stowed in a “sag “ wagon being driven down by another member, Billy Morgan, the Cycling Club’s own version of a sparklefart. Billy could get dirt off our bikes even if we spent two days cleaning them, he was the cleanest living man of the time.
It was about 150 miles or so and we did it in two days, me again on my fixed wheel and Billy Foster with his derailleurs. The ride down was pretty uneventful with Mr Foster being as taciturn a companion as you can get. In terms of getting out of our comfort zone, travelling as far as this was like going the edge of a flat earth. The people we met on the way were real heartland Welsh people, not at all like the border people. They were full of warmth, hospitality and admiration for two young kids showing the gumption to get out on their own.
We met up with the others and made camp in a campground within walking distance of the town, it was warm and fragrant and the anticipation of the coming week was one of those moments you get in your life where you are experiencing the full joy of living.
We walked down to the beach at sunset and we all went in for a dip into the glassy evening sea, it was my very first taste of the pure pleasure of relaxing on a summer’s evening.
We tootled around on our bikes every day, basked in the sun and even visited the local dancehall, but this was dangerous territory for interloping Englishmen.
The attitude of the local Welsh Teddy Boys made it clear that there would be big trouble from Taffy if any of the more virile of our contingent were to make a move on Blodwyn.
Dangerous or not, a couple of the older boys managed to sweet talk girls into a quick knee trembler in the alley behind the dancehall and they were the subject of much hero worship for the rest of the trip. I can remember that we spent our final night in Tenby, watching Lawrence of Arabia at the local cinema and it was with a twinge of sadness that we prepared for the ride home.
It was a much more leisurely route we took back and there were about 10 of us in the group, some of the older guys were there to ride shotgun and they knew the backroads to make the journey relatively traffic free.
The competitive nature of the pack wouldn’t allow for a day to go by without someone stirring up the pace and sure enough someone would let loose on a stiff climb and string us all out along the road. To my surprise I was not only able to hold anybody’s wheel but I was also able to launch my own attacks, which inflicted just as much pain as I received. I was given the full stamp of approval when we finally arrived at the Eureka Café and met up with others coming home from their regular Sunday Run. “Christ do you ever look fit” it was the voice of Geoff Hughes again, and with that there was a chorus from the rest telling of how I had hammered them unmercifully up the hill coming out of Borth in North Wales. I had officially earned my boy scout cyclist’s badge.
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