The National Cycle Collection
An enthusiast-run museum that is overflowing with fascinating exhibits, Llandrindod Wells, Wales
The National Cycle Collection is little short of an assault on the senses for cycling history enthusiasts. Over 250 bicycles, dating from 1819 to close to the present day are crammed into a ground floor exhibition area. The walls groan with cycling memorabilia – from cast iron Whinged Wheels, to long-forgotten components and advertising from the age when the poster was king.
There are penny farthings, tandems, tricycles, sociables, touring bikes, racing bikes, track bikes and utility bikes. One or two exhibits are arranged into period tableau, and there is a programme of modest special exhibitions – but for the most part this is a dizzying array of steel tubing, tyres and accessories, packed as sardines in the 6,000 square feet of display area.
The museum is the result of the marriage of three collections of bicycles. At its heart is the bequest of Tom Norton. He was clearly a remarkable man. In 1919 he built the marvellous, art nouveau ‘Automobile Palace’ to house his growing garage business. Notwithstanding his immersion in the motor trade, his first love remained bicycles, and during his time running the garage, various two-wheeled specimens – old and new – were always on view. The ground floor now serves as the museum’s home.
By the time Norton died, in 1955, he had everything from Micheaux-era velocipedes to some fine sturdy uprights of the 1900s, several ‘high ordinaries’ (or penny farthings) and some extraordinary quadrants and tricycles. To these have been added much of the now defunct National Cycle Museum that was in Lincoln until the late 1990s and the collection of the NCC’s curator David Higman.
Today, the collection operates as a private charity, relying for income from paying visitors – of which there are around 20,000 a year. The generosity of friends, bequests and occasional help from grant-making trusts boosts the coffers too, but it is the infectious and seemingly limitless energy of Higman that really keeps the project afloat.
From your first foot inside, is it clear that it is a museum run on enthusiasm and love for subject, rather than the generally predictable formats of professionally-curated exhibitions. There are no didactic boards here, nor bells and smells re-enactments. Indeed, the dizzying volume of exhibits sets this apart from most museums. And this is its joy. Higman hands out a detailed and scholarly catalogue of exhibits to visitors, but the real delight is in simply poking around and marvelling at the astonishing repository of ingenuity that the bicycle has been this past two centuries.
There is also much to transport the imagination of those whose love of the bicycle goes back a year or two – from the Hercules on which Eileen Sheridan smashed the Land-End-to-John O’Groats record in 1955 to Choppers from the 1970s and one of the Lotus bikes on which Chris Boardman rode to Olympic gold in 1992.
Considered from almost anywhere in the UK except for mid-Wales, Llandrindod Wells is a bit of a trek. Radnorshire is a beautiful part of the country, however, and this Victorian holiday town has a faded charm that would make it an ideal base for a few days stretching your legs over the Cambrian mountains. I would have happily spent an afternoon at the museum, not least because Higman is happy to share his love of the collection. My ten-year-old son whose enthusiasm for the bicycle does not extend much beyond getting to school and back, was occupied by the exhibits for nearly an hour.
PS Sep 09
David Higman announced his retirement the year after my visit.