Friday, 2 December 2011

Charles Harper heads north

I discovered Charles Harper, and his "Cycle Rides Round London" when we lived in the Thames valley. It provided me with some ideas for interesting rides, rediscovering the routes that he described in 1902, or thereabouts.

Now we have moved to the other end of the country, I've been sampling his book on the Great North Road. I doubt if this is going to prove a useful way of devising routes, but parts of it are a still a bit of a treat (once you get used to the language).

As usual Mr Harper is pretty pungent about the local aristocracy, but it is new to find him being equally rude about the weather. Sometimes he combines the two. He suggests, for example, that border warfare was the way that the northern aristocracy kept warm (and that football took its place when the courts started to take a dim view).

He was writing some fifty years after railways had displaced coaches as the main way of travelling between London and Edinburgh. On reaching Darlington, he expounds on the different merits of the two systems.

Describing the railway as "a method of progression which does not admit of outside passengers" he continues...

Nothing in its special way can be more exhilarating than travelling by coach as an "outside"; few things so unsatisfactory as the position of an "inside"; and if a well-groomed coach is a thing of beauty, there is also a beautiful majesty in a locomotive engine that has been equally well looked after. One of the deep-chested Great Northern expresses puffing its irresistible way past the green eyes of the dropped semaphores of some busy junction at night-time, or coming as with the rush and certainty of Fate along the level stretches of line that characterise the route of the iron road to the North, is a sight calculated to rouse enthusiasm quite as much as a coach. Nor are railways always hideous objects. It is true that in and around the great centres of population where railway lines converge and run in filthy tunnels and along smoke be-grimed viaducts they sound the last note of squalor, but in the country it is a different matter.

The embankments are in spring often covered with a myriad wild flowers ; the viaducts give a human interest to coombe and gully. Lovers of the country can certainly point to places which, once remote and solitary, have been populated and spoiled by the readiness of railway access; but the locomotive has rendered more holidays possible, and has kept the roads in a decent solitude for the cyclist. 

Imagine, if you please, the Great North Road nowadays without the railway. A hundred coaches, more or less, raced along it in the last years of the coaching age, at all hours of the day and night. How many would suffice for the needs of the travelling public to-day ? and what chance would be left to the tourist, afoot or awheel?

More than 100 years ago, he saw railways freeing the roads for cyclists.

There's a thought.

The book can be downloaded here.

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