England By Bicycle, Frederick Alderson (1974)

A description of a circumnavigation completed in the Spring of 1973 that while old fashioned in its scheme is surprisingly undated

David and Charles 0 7153 6432 4 Octo 207pp £3.95

I am not sure that this book would find a publisher today: writing that promises a general survey of a topic is considered insufficiently attention grabbing.

Nonetheless, this is a title worth seeking out, for any number of reasons.

Alderson tells us little of himself, save that he is a Cambridge graduate, a 20-year absentee from his bicycle seat and the author of half a dozen other titles concerned with travel and an interest in place.

The picture of him amongst the plates suggests a man in his 50s. His mission was to seek out England’s quieter, forgotten corners that had, to date, resisted the maul of traffic and the sprawl of concrete. He journeyed south from York, cut south west at Cambridge, reached the south coast at Chichester, headed north (after a turn around Wiltshire and Somerset), to Carlisle and ends with a lap of Cumberland and Northumberland.

This quest clearly informs the judgements he passes on the landscape he finds – he frets about villages where “Antiquities [live] on antiques”, and bemoans over prettification. “For me, some of the Cotswold cream curdled”. But far more often he finds quiet distinction in towns such as Rawcliffe, Snatih and Goole in the West Riding of Yorkshire, and fine views in Shepton Mallet.

The book is rich in information about the towns and villages though which Alderson and his Claude Butler progress – but he imparts his learning with a very light touch. Here he is in South Harting, in the South Downs.

“…a very considerable village and highly rated at Domesday. Its Early English Church tower with green copper spire is a real eye-catcher: there are stocks and a whipping post, flint-faced and thatched cottages, views up every lane to the pastel-shaded down skyline. Anthony Trollope lived here: his pen and paperknife are preserved in a showcase within the Church.”

What is astonishing is how little of the book does not read true today. True: the pub sandwich and shandy that is Alderson’s midday repast can no longer be had for 18p. But this is no wallow in nostalgia for those of us who remember the 1970s. The country on view has clearly changed. That there is little here that would not be true today makes it tempting to conclude that this author has grasped something of the eternal Albion. That, and its thorough index make this a useful primer for anyone considering sallying forth in a similar manner – even if the bed and breakfasts that he recommends are unlikely to have endured.

PS August 2009

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