On Rolling Wheels In The West, W F Burbidge (1946)

An alluring account of a cultured gent’s 1930s circumnavigation of the west country 

Crowther, 166pp Hardback 9/6

Closing W F Burbidge’s charming account of his cycling tour of England’s westernmost counties, the author returns to the Somerset port of Watchet. It is a harbour-side outlook that has captured his heart, so he and companion Charles bid a vocal farewell: “‘Au revoir’ we called back to the fair scene. ‘We will be back again someday’”.

The world described, however, was shortly afterwards convulsed by events that marked it indelibly. Aside from Buridge’s erudite recording, then, there is no going back. But in describing their progress, what a evocative snapshot he provides of two gentlemen pedlars exploring the west when the roads were empty, the summers warm and clotted creme prepared in cottage kitchens.

Dating their tour isn’t easy, but the masts of Cutty Sark that Burbidge admires harboured at Falmouth, would remain there only until 1938. It suggests that his excursion was a year or two before that. Perhaps war-time paper shortages held up publication, or maybe it was tedious interludes in uniform that provided time for writing?

Burbidge does not give away much about himself. His voice is that of a ‘varsity man – a strong sense of history and literature, and a deep interest in matters ecclesiastic. His text is peppered with lines from hymns and the romantic poets. And he recounts encounters with locals with great respect, but a clear sense of the difference between them.

His unstated quest is for a kind of atmospheric magic. He sets this out while exploring John Wesley’s study in Bristol. “Cynical materialists alone proclaim that furniture and possession, walls and buildings, are dead, inanimate things, that ‘atmosphere’ is a projection of the observer’s mind. Facts refute the contention; if the most hardened materialist could be led blindfold from some hallowed shrine to a prison and would surely perceive the difference between the buildings even though he knew not where he stood”.

Happily he finds enchantment in spadefuls: in ancient towns, churches, and in the former homes of poets, pastors and clerics. The pair also fall into frequent conversations with sailors, fishermen and characters who act as guides to their localities.

For most of his progress cycling is the slight connective tissue between spots of interest. When the chums make a night-time crossing of the Quantocks, however, he perfectly captures the heady mix of awe and fear of such ill-advised ventures.

Occasionally he spies evidence of the world changing – aerospace manufacture in Yeovil displacing glove making, for example. More often though, period detail is unstated. No complaints about motor cars; requesting accommodation at cottage doors; and coalers plying the Bristol channel.

It is a lovely book that provides a seductive peep into a world, cultural and topographic that now seems impossibly distant. It also makes the case for recording experiences – however, prosaic they seem at the time.

TD Aug 18

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