Saturday, September 9, 2023

The Cycling Draper - A Guest Post by John Howard

On the hottest day of my holiday week I travelled chordwise across the city to meet that good friend I refer to as M.J. Our get-togethers have developed their routines. There is a cup of tea or coffee, with cake; then a leisurely walk, usually along one of the city’s many stretches of canal; finally a congenial hostelry for a more substantial meal and a few pints of (preferably) real ale. But first of all some book browsing: and this time there were places where books were to be found at the beginning and end of our wanderings.

We left the canal and walked busy suburban roads. By the time we reached the town centre, heat, sun, and traffic noise were beginning to take their toll. It was certainly a contrast to the drawn-out shady tranquillity of the towpath. We decided to visit the charity shop and charity bookshop that had precedent for providing the best findings – then we would venture out into the hot sun again and head for the pub.

While browsing, each of us will frequently spot something the other has missed, or draw their attention to an item that may be of interest. In this case M.J., knowing my fondness for maps and town plans, showed me a small but rather heavy volume bound in pale green shiny cloth and clearly intended to fit easily into a pocket. The covers had rounded corners as sometimes found on bibles or missals: important handbooks intended for the devotee, to be kept close, referred to, and pored over.

The cover bore a strange tripartite device that at first glance looked like a propeller. Or was it three feathers? There were gothic letters, one between each blade; and the entire design was surrounded by a broad-bordered circle. The meaning of the symbol was immediately disclosed by the text beneath it: Cyclists’ Touring Club. On closer inspection the propeller turned out to be wings, and the circle a bicycle wheel, its thin spokes perhaps partially worn away by years of being rubbed against a cyclist’s muscular thigh or jammed in with the Ordnance Survey maps, mackintosh, and puncture repair kit filling a knapsack.

The book I held was Volume IV of the British Road Book, covering the West Midlands and Wales and published by the Cyclists’ Touring Club in a new edition in 1931. After glancing through it I hesitated, but put it back on the shelf. Moments later I changed my mind and took it down to examine more closely. Its heft appealed – as did the understated and utilitarian cover. But what attracted most of all were the endpaper maps and the 250 or so pages of detailed route information accompanied by maps and diagrams of elevations. The text was a description of that part of the journey, paying attention to gradients, quality of the road, notable buildings and other landmarks to guide the cyclist on their way and bring them safely to the desired destination. Directions and other details were ruthlessly abbreviated to fit. There was also an appendix, consisting of plans of selected towns and ‘Notes on Chief Towns and Districts’ to make sure that the cyclist should not remain unaware of interesting and scenic places worthy of exploration along the way.

Reader, I bought it.

An added inducement was the name of the editor: Reginald Wellbye. It seemed utterly appropriate: a name out of H.G. Wells, whose early novel The Wheels of Chance (1896) evokes the joy of luminous green landscapes under blue summer skies and the lure and freedom of travel along quiet white roads all but empty of traffic in that era between the supremacy of the railway and coming of the motor car.

Wells chronicles the bicycling adventures of Mr Hoopdriver, a draper’s apprentice living in suburban South London – of course – as he takes his annual holiday and goes on a ‘great Cycling Tour along the Southern Coast’. He owns a ‘little cyclist’s hand-book’ – was it perhaps an earlier edition of the relevant volume of the British Road Book?

Mr Hoopdriver, at 23, wishes to better himself and attempts to do so by reading popular novels and attending extension lectures. But he is discontented and feels that his life is wasted. He complains that his school-master ‘pretended to undertake to make a man of me, and he’s stole twenty-three years of my life, filled me up with scraps and scrapings. Here I am! I don’t know anything, and I can’t do anything, and all the learning time is over.’ But Mr Hoopdriver will learn a great deal this year, on his holiday – and it won’t be from books or teachers.

During the 1890s H.G. Wells became an enthusiastic cyclist. He was fully aware of the trials that could beset the traveller on two wheels. In the second volume of Experiment in Autobiography he wrote ‘I learnt to ride my bicycle upon sandy tracks with none but God to help me; he chastened me considerably in the process…’ Many aspects of The Wheels of Chance surely came from Wells’ own chastening experiences.

The flustered Mr Hoopdriver, chastened and distracted by having to carry out a repair to his bicycle within just the first few miles, is curt with a pedestrian who offers unwanted advice. He is one of the many irascible and vocal ‘little men’ who populate Wells’ novels. ‘“Why don’t you ride on a private road of your own if no one ain’t to speak with you? […] Don’t you make no remarks to ’im […] ’E’s a bloomin’ dook, ’e is. ’E don’t converse with no one under a earl. ’E’s off to Windsor, ’e is; that’s why ’e ’s stickin’ his be’ind out so haughty…”’

Being a Wellsian character, Mr Hoopdriver not only seeks freedom and self-enhancement. The ‘years of the intimate remoteness of a counter leave their mark upon a man’ and his experiences of women amount to nothing more than the ‘adventure’ of taking one of the ‘Young Ladies of the establishment to church on a Sunday.’ So when, having hardly left London behind him, Mr Hoopdriver encounters a female fellow-cyclist, his ancient second-hand bicycle seems to resonate with part of its rider’s perplexed personality: ‘It was undeniable that it became convulsed with the most violent emotions directly the Young Lady in Grey appeared.’ Unable to concentrate, Mr Hoopdriver crashes. Although she stops to bandage his finger for him, Mr Hoopdriver remains embarrassed and tongue-tied until she rides away. They soon meet again, when Mr Hoopdriver seizes the chance to transform himself into a ‘knight errant’ as he saves her virtue from the scheming Mr Bechamel, an older married journalist who had convinced her to leave home with promises of assisting her make a start in a literary career – while all the time harbouring much less altruistic intentions for her immediate future.

Mr Hoopdriver resumes his tour. ‘There were miles of this – scores of miles of this before him, pinewood and oak forest, purple, heathery moorland and grassy down, lush meadows where shining rivers wound their lazy way, villages with square-towered, flint churches, and rambling, cheap and hearty inns, clean, white country towns, long downhill stretches, where one might ride at one’s ease (overlooking a jolt or two) and far away, at the end of it all – the sea.’ But he now has something – someone – other than the quiet countryside on his mind.

At the end of his holiday Mr Hoopdriver returns to the draper’s shop. But new mental vistas having been opened to him: ‘To-morrow, the early rising, the dusting, and drudgery, begin again – but with a difference, with wonderful memories and still more wonderful desires and ambitions replacing those discrepant dreams.’

What a difference a holiday can make!


  1. At about the same time, Grant Allen wrote two novels about young women cyclists, The Type-writer Girl, published as by Olive Pratt Rayner, and Miss Cayley's Adventures. Both involve their heroines finding love and marriage through cycling.

  2. Mmmm, maps and H G Wells in one post, brilliant, but I can't find my Wells' "Autobiography" volumes! I think k I loaned them. I hate people who borrow and don't return. I shall have to look for second copies. I need to say just how much I love this blog. Thanks.

  3. Our new illustrated edition of "The Wheels of Chance" features especially created maps of Mr Hoopdriver's journey, including linear route strips not dissimilar to what you got here.
    Take a look at

  4. For me when I think of a cycling in fiction, I remember the protagonist of Ronald Fraser's wonderful slim 1943 novel The Fiery Gate meeting his future companion during a chance encounter in Battersea Park. He's out for a walk, slightly brooding and looking at the river, while she (in a lavender shirt) keeps passing by while darting around on her bicycle.