In 1975 I left home for Bristol University to study law. When there I lived in Hall about two miles from where I studied. My only ways of commuting were the bus (too expensive) walking (too slow and no I wasn’t about to run) or cycling (too… well you can decide)
There are many things that the casual visitor might have noted about Bristol in the mid seventies – its grotesquely rebuilt centre following war damage and a surfeit of grey on grey concrete; its links to a glorious engineering past with the recent return from Uruguay or some such of the SS Great Britain built by Brunel; the availability of cheap, potent cider that the locals mixed with orange squash and blackcurrant cordial to mask the less than palatable taste (when first experienced, this kind of illegally still-brewed concoction has one remarkable characteristic for a liquid: as soon as you’ve drunk it you feel as if all the moisture has been removed from your body; you’re not so much dehydrated as completely unhydrated); the propensity for it to rain with an unnecessary generosity of spirit;… and its hills.
Oh those bloody hills. Why did Brunel spend his time on state of the art railways and steam ships, mobile hospitals and bridges when levelling the bloody hills would have served a far better engineering purpose.
Perhaps I should recap how students were housed both bank then and now if the Vet’s recent experiences are a guide. Every first year student was meant to be offered accommodation in one of a variety of Halls of Residence. Broadly these were split into two: Goldney, Clifton Hill House and Manor Halls were on the same elevation as the University buildings; Wills, Badock, Hiatt Baker and Churchill Halls were not. Thus it was I found myself in A block of Churchill Hall, some many feet away from and at a considerable height above the Wills Memorial Building where all life so far as a law student was concerned took place.
To travel between one’s abode and place of learning required (a) a car – nope, you’re right that wasn’t happening in my sliver of the space-time continuum and for several adjacent parallel universes next door (b) a bus journey – ha! You think I’m made of money? (c) on foot – an option but one requiring you to leave before you returned from the previous days’ lectures or (d) the bicycle. Of course running had a supporter amongst my intake but he was a card-carrying loon who ate radishes, recited the contents of furious if somewhat monosyllabic pamphlets on the perils of a heavily protein-dependent diet and advocated gravel shampoo and dry humping for a clear complexion and an aesthetically pleasing Marxist disposition. He also studied French and Stupity. It was rumoured he came from Droitwich.
It had to be my bike. Having brought on the train from home, I confronted issue number one. At school i could carry my books in a pannier or rucksack. Here, an adaptation to my bat-mo-wheel was necessitated. Lawyers like words, especially the printed variety and one humble book does not suffice. Oh no, we were required to own ‘tomes’ of the stuff. My school satchel proved to be about as useful as a gauze condom. I invested in a proper grown-up briefcase which whatever it lacked in style and eye-catching fabrication, it made up in size and substance. A bit like a Volvo.
I tried carrying it by hanging it from one side of the handlebar but that merely ensured I described perfect if rather redundant circles. To reach my lectures I needed a method of porterage that allowed for a linear progression.
The answer was both simple and depleting of my grant monies (do I hear a Millennial weep? Oh yes, sweet child, we had grants; none of your loan malarkey. I’m a baby-boomer after all, how else could I have ensured it was all spent out by the time you were considering tertiary education?).
I bought a metal carrier thingy that attached on the back above the rear wheel. With the benefit of a strong elastic strap said tome-holder was held in place and we were good to go.
Back tracking slightly I should explain I did physics to O level at school. I have only a few, rather vague memories of it: the teacher’s name was Hucker, to be forever known as ‘Alf’; he failed to seal the tube thing when he released bromide gas into what was meant to be a vacuum thus ensuring the whole of the science block was evacuated for three days; and while I know he taught, I never really grasped (a) the difference between centrifugal and centripetal forces, (b) ditto inertia and friction and (c) what was terminal velocity. This is relevant, I think but since this all made as much sense to me as does its tail to a cat I cannot be sure.
The first part of my ride to lectures was across ‘The Downs’. Sounds rather jolly, doesn’t it? Redolent of grassy swards and picnicking maidens twirling parasols. Bollocks. It’s an upturned saucer of land with as much to recommend it, between the months of October and April as the Sub Siberian Steppes. The English, with their penchant for understatement might have described the conditions as ‘chilly’ or ‘parky’. Trying to tack my way across, always apparently going uphill and into a wind that the Beaufort scale failed to capture adequately it was, to quote Haemorrhoid the Unwise from Shakespeare’s little known triptych plays, ‘The Proctologist of Upbottom’, absolutely fucking freezing.
Having reached the far side, life should have been easier. Ha! When has that old soar ever applied? Life just gets more lifey, a curious mix of the unexpectedly serene, consistently prosaic and recurrently excruciating. In my case I had reached Blackboys Hill.
The name maybe hints at the slaving past of Bristol. I know not. Certainly during the recent demonstrations, the crowds focused on deplinthing statues; on behalf of all cyclists, had they flattened Blackboys Hill they may have done everyone a huge favour.
All I can say for certain is it was steep, narrow and gratifying downhill. Well, in the morning one was grateful for its trajectory; the return journey didn’t make one love it more.
After the hill, came Whiteladies road which widened considerably but began to flatten out. It was one of those truisms that one learns as one enters adulthood that, however ‘on time’ one was when one left Hall one was somewhere on the ‘late’ spectrum by the time one had arrived atop Blackboys. So time management was crucial. Viz, you let go the brakes, pedalled all to buggery and hoped no one got in your way.
Perhaps, dear reader you can see where this is going? Our hero – me – is astride a fast moving free flowing machine which is anchored to the tarmac by a dead weight comprising Smith and Hogan on Crime, Winfield and Jollowitz on Tort and, on top, a couple of cheese sarnies for my lunch stolen from the canteen. As long as I minimised third party interventions, namely other road users but especially pedestrians and kept to as straight a line as the journey allowed all was well.
That wasn’t always possible. Of course it wasn’t. But if you take the number of journeys I undertook during this frenetic free-pedalling phase then the statistical size of those journeys that could fairly be described as ‘catastrophes’ are within statistically acceptable aberrational limits.
And what were those statistical anomalies aka accidents? Three spring to mind. Today I will share the first.
Pedestrian interface no.1. I am at terminal velocity, approaching the point when the Alpine Blackboys becomes the more Uplandish Whiteladies. The road begins to widen. I am using a number 24 double decker bus to slipstream and am belatedly aware that said charabanc is pulling towards the kerb. I have forgotten the bus stop.
It is make your mind up time, a double or quits moment. Brake, pull round the outside but lose precious momentum; or increase the power output, namely pedal furiously in the hope of overtaking the bus on the inside. Insanely I am confident in the latter as an achievable stratagem. What I haven’t factored into this equation is the overconfidence of one time-stressed passenger who, even as I make my choice, is tripping down the stairs intent on departing the bus swiftly.
Back then buses lacked such health and safety features as doors. You could jump on and off the back platform with a gaiety borne of youthful exuberance; indeed the conductor often, erm conducted you in such hair-raising manoeuvres with a jaunty ‘gerroff, pillock!’
To be fair to Pillock esq., he might travel that journey for a lifetime and not need to contemplate this scenario.
While my mistake was to fail to consider the possibility that Mr Pillock might be aboard that day, Mr Pillock’s mistake was to check forward, towards the approaching stop for potential impediments to his smooth suave exit, namely the concrete bus stop and awaiting passengers-to-be, rather than back towards an increasingly frantically pedalling head down pursuer.
If I’m honest while I spotted Herr Pillock’s internal descent I believed until the last moment that it would be him who stopped. It was only as he stepped off the bus that he heard (a) my squealing brakes belatedly trying to use friction to generate inertia (I think I have this the right way round) (b) my ‘oh fuck’ and (c) the communal intake of breath from the watching passengers-to-be standing on the kerb.
Thus rendered aware of impending doom he looked at me. He was so close I think we were beyond the ‘whites of his eyes’ measurement and had reached an ‘inside of his retina’ proximity.
Collisions, in my experience are many and varied. But they all have a ‘time passes slowly’ quality. That is until time catches up with itself when it tends to get very messy as metal, flesh, clothing, and more flesh intertwine to be shortly joined by tarmac.
Which bits hit where are difficult at this distance to recall save to say the point where my handlebars joined the front fork did appear to smite him in what might be describe as adjacent to the testicular region.
Happily if oddly neither of us was hurt. Well, not in a life changing way. Well, not me anyway. I had a cut knee and his shirt seemed a little dusty. Even more oddly the conductor berated him for not looking where he was going while the pedestrians were inclined to the view I was to blame.
Looking back the fact he didn’t so much as berate me let alone belabour about my head with a mashie nibblick is one of the miracles of the 20th century. He had to be in shock or perhaps he was focusing on the fact that while he might reasonably have expected his balls to have dropped at the onset of puberty and stayed down, he now found they had been rammed back whence they came some 25 years earlier. We all experience those deja vu moments, but perhaps awaiting a reprise of the descent of his scrotal sack was taking all his concentration or indeed he too might have been awaiting his own little miracle, something akin to Moses appearing from above with an ‘are these yours?’ cheeriness.
I was allowed to go while he made his way, somewhat wider of gait that earlier towards his destination. I picked up my bike and contemplated what might have happened to it. Apparently nothing. I was good to continue my cycling odyssey. Oh dear, was Bristol ready for this?