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28 September 2015 2 comments

From Hinckley to Covent Garden

Correspondence Friends Travel & Adventure Cycling
By GUEST
From Hinckley to Covent Garden
That I have a Brooks saddle on my touring bicycle is scarcely worth mentioning. Since the company was taken over and rejuvenated by the current Italian owners in the early 2000s, Brooks’ saddles have been restored as go-to for both touring and commuter cyclists. The three Brooks’ I ‘ve had stolen, all from London streets, are also, I fear, not the least remarkable. Nor are my rather more heartening anecdotes; I’ve circumnavigated 18,000 miles of the world on one, as – you realise while doing so – have quite a number. Then there are the chance encounters; the rotund, businesslike Italian at Milan’s main train station who once, with a wave of the hand, gestured to the leather and copper saddles on the bikes of my girlfriend and I, registering his approval with only a pursing of thumb and fingers and slight kiss of the lips. The small Russian man who, seventy years old, I met as we both pedalled the Ukraine; a delightful cry of “da! Brooks!’ the only words of his we were certain we both understood. When you tour enough, the road will reliably bring you into contact with bicycle-loving strangers who may know little of the UK but have nonetheless been reached by the reputation of its most famous of saddles. The one and only thing I imagine to be unique in my relationships with Brooks is Hinckley. Though often referred to in the Brooks biography as the rather more recognisable and British-sounding ‘Leicestershire’, Hinckley is the small town in the Midlands from which, 150 years ago, Brooks lore holds that John Boultbee Brooks set out to start a saddle-manufacturing operation with £20 in his pocket. It is also, give or take 2-3 miles, where I grew up. My first swimming lessons, regular bike rides, Saturday job in bike shop, underage drinking experiences… all in Hinckley. The fortunes of Brooks and Hinckley are, it is safe to say, divergent. One now resides, at least in part, amongst the boutique shops of central London. Whilst the other, a teenage friend found out when enrolling in the Royal Navy’s Officer Training Programme, was listed fourth on the UK’s list of towns officers ought avoid so as to stay out of trouble. I shan’t trouble you with stories beyond that – but they exist. This summer I travelled back, to give a talk on cycling the world, and to see family and old friends. For nostalgia’s sake, I decide to make part of the journey by bicycle, and after a day at home – I picked my way down the A47 to Hinckley and began to ride the journey that Brooks, if not literally mile-for-mile, have themselves undertaken. The landscape here still feels like home, but the stuff is lens-defying… anonymous countryside interrupted by towns that Londoners can’t even be bothered to raise jokes about north of Milton Keynes. A few times, as a teenager, I rode the miles between my mother’s Midlands home and my father’s in East London. My flight-deck compatible computer – a thing of which I was always proud – recorded 102 miles. After I first completed that ride, my mother smiled to tell me that her road maps had always given that exact mileage, and, in 2015, I’m not sure why I find it satisfying to have Google confirm the same 102. Nothing’s moved. On the right bike, in the right frame of mind, I used to be able to do it in five hours, but the distance between the two types of place, at either end of the A5, always felt further. That said, I find a certain romance in these roads and their ecosystem. Whatever the obvious attraction of the picturesque escapes of touring… I’ve always been equally fascinated by doses of roadside reality. You can’t easily hide or beautify that which exists along the roads of a nation. The thorn thicket with bin bags snared, flapping as the torn plastic reduces to a slender, industrial skin. Above the hedgerows peer shy warehouse tops, green algae growing, and at the laybys are truck drivers beside wagons where men fry eggs and cheap sausages, the air a mist of vegetable oil in places where the politicians’ epithet “hardworking families” was designed to give meaning to lives sold short. My route crosses and briefly joins dual carriageway, British interstate… greener and more innocent than those I remember from Arizona and America’s desert states. Cars cheaper and trains more expensive than a decade earlier, the last time I made this trip, and it seems that the intensity of traffic has multiplied, “Please reduce your speed” is printed, white-on-red in mile after mile of forlorn plea. From out the verges grow blackberries and elderberries, dusted in soot, and then –upon the road – the forensic, yellow-paint markings that trace where wheels left tarmac and impaled a car upon the crime scene of a ditch. Don’t breathe a word to anyone, say it at a hush, but I promise you – the roads are murderers. As always there comes the roadkill. A ball of ex-hedgehog, spine and sinew… a bird plucked of all but its tail-feather, and then, flattened lucklessly – in the Midlands, the bloody Midlands! – a seagull, one of Britain’s flying swarm that have now left the fishless seas to make for the fried chicken inland. Away from the larger roads returns the peace of countryside – the Grand Union Canal and fields trod by long-haired cattle, returning the bicycle and rider to scenes that touring cycling travels more readily within. John Boultbee Brooks made his journey, from Hinckley to Smethwick, Birmingham, in 1865. It took the company 148 years before they opened a premises of their own in London, in an era when the bicycle had become a machine of such aspiration that selling saddles alone can justify the presence of a shop amongst the prestige of Covent Garden. In some ways, this journey mirrors that of the bicycle itself – now the pride and coveted goal of city planners around the world. Come Covent Garden, the shop – with its simple B1866 name plate above the quiet street – is somehow satisfying to behold, imagining that Brooks himself might have made it here, by bicycle… picturing the sort of fiction that attaches itself to the most charming of business stories. I see him: a saddle of his own fabrication, a flat-cap, tweed and plus fours. I wonder what he’d have made of it all. Find more from Julian over on his site: http://juliansayarer.com
Comments
Hi Julian,

There's a Boultbee Farm, ( Baxterley CV9 2HW ) not too far from 'inckley.

I was wondering if it has any connection with Brooks. Any idea?

Cheers

Neil

( Burbage )
Neil Macmillan 23 May 2016 at 18:09
roads aren't the murderers it's the folks behind the wheel
https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/annual-road-fatalities 1,713 deaths in 2013. Although the numbers are going down it seems far more dangerous out there.
peter 23 May 2016 at 18:09