Barking and District Historical Society

Go to content

Main menu

Wheels of Our Time

Articles > Vic's Memories of Barking

Wheels of our time

Vic Howard

Have you ever seen that illustration of the pyramid of life? You know, the one that starts with a man crawling and then walking and then running, and so on. He gets to the top in good condition and then starts to descend until he reaches the bottom, bent  double and sans everything, as the poet once said.

I was thinking recently that one could just as easily make a pyramid of man on wheels. We start off on pram wheels, then pushchair wheels, roller skates, a scooter, bicycle, moped, Lambretta, old jalopy, sports car, family saloon, estate wagon with dog;  then a smaller car for two pensioners, before each of you gets issued with a rollator. Finally, there is that big Rolls Royce that has plenty of room at the back for a long box.

Some of the best days are those we spent on rollers skates or an old scooter; in my case my sister’s discarded one, before we finally learnt not to fall off a bicycle. That’s when the fun really began.

Do you remember when the streets were empty of cars and you could skate around unhindered? Roller skates nowadays mean a single row of small plastic wheels on each foot, that wiz you silently along in your snazzy spandex outfit. Nothing like those heavy  jobs we had, that felt like you had a small Fiat strapped to each foot. The four steel wheels on each foot made a terrible racket as you dud-dunk dud-dunked over the paving slabs. In the summer at Clacton or Margate one could go on  the skating rink that was usually covered in sheets of smooth asbestos. ASBESTOS!!!! What would H&S say to that, I wonder. Fortunately we were oblivious to the dangers then and could pretend we were travelling at speed round a racetrack. When I see the  old photos of me on the roller-skating rink I see that the reality was far from the fantasy I had in my head at the time. What marvellous simple pleasure it was.

Riding a bike for the first time with somebody running behind holding the saddle must surely be part of everyone’s memory bank. Our neighbour’s grown-up daughter kindly ran behind me holding on. At least I thought she was holding on. When  I looked around she wasn’t there – and I went straight into a lamppost as I rounded the last corner of the block we had been running and riding round. I was quite upset for a couple of minutes, till I realised I had been riding unassisted  and must therefore have mastered the art.

In no time at all I was doing the "Look Mum. No hands!" trick and felt quite advanced. I still claim the record for having ridden "no hands" around the whole of our estate, which consisted of 3 streets, plus a section of River Road  and part of the A13 from The Volunteer pub to Westminster Gardens. I should have got a Gold Medal for that Olympian achievement, either that or a good clip around the ear.

There was a cycle track at the top of the street, along the A13, and on Sunday mornings one could see packs of young men in shorts and T-shirts, with special shoes tucked into toe cages and wearing very strange leather helmets. Their bikes were fitted  with complicated looking deralier gears and often double pedal wheels. Cor! And they made a lovely spinning sound as they zoomed past in a tight bunch. We assumed they were headed for Southend, which was all of 32 miles away. Before long, the temptation  to make the trip ourselves was too great and off we set, with sandwiches and water for the day.

Southend was a very good destination for a budding cyclist in the early fifties. There was very little traffic on a Sunday and what there was kept clear of cyclists. Bread-and-Cheese Hill was a bit of an awkward obstacle, even for old Austin Seven cars  at the time, but we managed to push our bikes to the top.  And at the end of the ride there was Southend Pier and perhaps an ice cream if we could afford one; and for those brave enough, and if the tide was in, perhaps a dip in the sea.  I imagine that  the thought of sending a 12 year old off on a bicycle to ride to Southend today, along the A13, would be regarded as insanity by most parents, and they would be right, of course.

We were extremely lucky to be growing up then. Not only did we enjoy much greater freedom, being able to play outdoors so much, but it kept us fit and an overweight child was rarely seen. In fact it was practically unknown.

My cycling days covered a few years and included one weeklong trip around East Anglia. I remember listening to the radio in a Youth Hostel in Colchester at the end of the first day’s ride and hearing Roger Bannister break the four-minute mile record.  That was 6 th May 1954. The following year I planned a two-week trip around the south of England.

Having ridden around East Anglia as far as Great Yarmouth and Sandringham without problem, it never occurred to me that the landscape might be anything other than perfectly flat in southern England. After three days cycling 80 miles a day and having arrived  in Lyme Regis totally exhausted, I decided to take the train home, where I slept for 12 hours solid and spent three days in bed.

My biking days were over; it was time to buy my first moped.

Vic Howard

Back to content | Back to main menu