Bikes in my Life

Steve Middleton

Chapter One

My love of bikes, motor bikes, that is, all started about 16 when my best fishing mate, Pete, passed his test and was given access to his father’s scooter, a Zundapp Bella . Together we would go from his bungalow in Fawdon all the way to Plankey Mill past Hexham and Langley, a journey taking an hour and a half on old roads. Today it would take half the time.

We would huddle under layers of woollies with newspaper stuffed down the front of our shirts to keep the wind out. We had no leathers or Kevlar reinforced gear but instead wore green ex-army stores Parkas and travelled in our fishing waders with school scarves wrapped round and round under our open-faced helmets.

Pete was so proud of this old scooter and never tired of shouting over his shoulder for me to “feel the power!” as he accelerated up a hill in third. It was a solid German machine in red and it never let us down. Soon it was not fast enough for my pal and he progressed to a (to me) huge black beast of a bike, an AJS 500. This seemed to be the most powerful, fastest machine God ever made of course I’d never even heard of a Bonneville at that time. But this was really going some and the little scooter was soon sold off. And of course Pete’s pulling power with the girls was immediately greatly enhanced so I got a lot less rides on the back.

At 18 our ways parted, he went to Newcastle to do a German degree, me to London to do medicine at King’s. He soon got engaged to his first girlfriend from school and I hitch-hiked up the A1 to be his best man. After that we saw little of each other until I visited them in Bielefelt in Germany, but more of that later ….

So in September 66 I started as a student in halls with £3 a week spending money to get by on. My frequent pleadings with Dad for a bike fell on deaf ears, entering as they did into the same categories as flick knives and air rifles, too dangerous. So nothing happened on the wheels front until much later.

A quiet fellow student called Keith Hyde casually mentioned he had a bike to sell and was I interested? I was so excited I could hardly speak! I was somewhat exuberant in those days and said I believed in “grasping every opportunity with both hands”
“How much?” “Six pounds, if that’s all right.”

He lived in a rather nice house in Surbiton with his rather nice parents. The bike, MY FIRST BIKE, was a BSA Bantam 150cc 2stroke painted green. Talk about love at first sight, I was over the moon! That afternoon he tried to teach me to ride it. You would have thought I would have understood the idea of a clutch and gears having been a pillion all those years but that didn’t stop me driving straight into a pillar box, forgetting to brake or turn the handlebars!

The bike and I were unscathed and after “high tea” I reckoned I was man enough to ride right across London back to my student house in Camberwell. Everything was done legally, although I didn’t really understand it, as I signed my name across a 2 1/2d stamp on a scrap of paper which said I now owned the bike.I had phoned the insurance company who would give me third party only cover straight away and I had “tax applied for”scrawled in the disc holder. Keith’s Dad, who was keen to see the back of this death-trap generously threw in a Second World War flying suit (for a shorter man than I) and a helmet and gauntlets. I wore that flying suit for years until it was completely oilsoaked and filthy—I still have the full length zips somewhere….

So imagine riding across London on your first ever attempt on a bike as it’s getting dark and the puny strength of your lights waxes and wanes with the bike’s revs…

I went through a red traffic light at Wandsworth. Looking back, the Policeman must have been very brave or extremely foolhardy to trust that I could stop for him when he leapt out in front of me waving his little square Ever Ready hand torch. But stop I did and he approached purposefully.

“Terribly sorry Officer, I went through an amb..”
“It was red”
“red, R E D ,red!”
“Terribly sorry, Officer”, my voice trailed away

He then did his slow Mr. Plod act walking round the bike, noting the illegally rolled L plates on the shock absorber covers and the lack of road tax.

“Could do you here ‘n now for fifty quid “, he said. “Is this your bike?”
“Oh yes Officer, I just bought it this afternoon and here’s the bill of sale and my provisional licence. I slowly unzipped the front of the flying suit to get at the crumpled bit of paper.

“Cool,”said the copper, “Now bugger off and don’t go through anymore red lights cos’ the next copper might not be so soft.”

I was off!

I loved that bike! It was slow, had only three gears, and consummately refused ever to kickstart so I always had to bump start it. Nevertheless it went! So the expedition was to see if I could get down to Deal (my new “home” when not at college) on it in one piece. My mother and aunt had moved into a bungalow there after my Dad died. They made a good team at washing student clothing and roast Sunday dinners, and the 80mile trip seemed like a manageable challenge.

Saturday morning dawned on a crisp, sunny, autumn day with me scarved up to the eyebrows and raring to go. I got as far as Sidcup in Kent when, while screaming up a hill in second the bike suddenly lost all power. I freewheeled and pushed it to a nearby garage and the aged mechanic agreed to have a look at it for me. In a few minutes he had the head and barrels off and diagnosed seized piston rings.
“Whatammagunnado on a Sat. am in Sidcup with seized rings?” I wondered.

“Don’t worry”, said the nice man, “The rings are near as dammit the same as a Morris Minor’s. So he fitted a pair and charged me a pittance (pleading student poverty and not for the first or last time) and I was back on the road!

I made it to Deal. That weekend I took great care to explain the whole situation to my dear mother -- how I wanted to be able to come home frequently to see her and Aunt Betty but I really needed a reliable form of transport, one that wouldn’t seize up at Sidcup on Saturdays. And Christmas was coming….

Chapter Two

I had actually been sniffing around the local bike shop in a side street off the front in Deal. This was a small shop run by a father, teenage son and one other mechanic.

In the window they had a one year old D14/4 Bantam in shiny black paint. Compared to my (crappy,slow,old,knacked)bike it was the ultimate in speed(60mph!) and promised reliability .

My aged mother said yes (but do be careful and you will wear a vest, won’t you) and so the deal was done! He charged me £68 and gave me my original £6 back in part exchange. But I continued to wear my flying suit….

This bike was a completely different kettle of fish to my first. For a start it was reliable, i.e. it started with the kickstart and it went well, cruising at 45mph and doing 100mpg. I enjoyed it right from the start. I fitted a handlebar fairing in silver and took to pottering round the leafy Sussex lanes, stopping to explore old Saxon churches and brass rubbings. And of course there were frequent trips down the A2 to Deal with a load of dirty washing to keep the ladies busy.

At this point my best mate-and later my best man-Eddie bought a bike too. This was a 2-stroke Suzuki 80cc screamer. It went faster than my Bantam but it, like my first, soon seized and was discarded. That, combined with Eddie’s easily frozen fingers, put him off bikes and on to cars forever. It also helped to account for his great successes with girls.

I became mates with the blokes in the bike shop. I might have just been another innocent mug to them but they always seemed really pleased to see me. The following June, six months after buying the second Bantam , was in the shop one Saturday when Dave , the mechanic said , “Time you got yerself a real bike ,doc .”
“Wotchamean Dave?”
“Wot you need is this ‘ere Triumph!” he said.

Standing in the window was to me the most beautiful, desirable love-object I’d ever seen in my entire life. Compared to the Bantam, well it was just no comparison at all! It gleamed at me in pale, pale blue. It’s 350cc seemed absolutely huge when ranged against my tiny phut-phut 175.It was a “ Twenty one “ all encased in a lovely (I thought) bathtub fairing with a front mudguard like a centurian’s helmet.Little did I know that most of the bikers of the day soon ripped off the fairings as “uncool.”

“Give him a ride on the back”, said the proprietor to his son. He started it up and revved it as much as he could. The smooth difference from a 2 stroke was immediately apparent to the ear. I hopped on the back. I should say at this point that I was totally unaware that this lad was the leading junior light of the Lydden racing circuit! I had never been so terrified in my life. Clinging on for dear life I looked over his shoulder at the speedo, which said we were cornering around the perimeter of Deal castle bends at 70mph two-up!

Sold to the idiot in the scarf for £100! And he took the Bantam back for £60, and I don’t think I put upon Mum for the rest, but I can’t be sure…

This was the bike! It felt so smooth and the acceleration to me seemed blistering!
It would cruise on the A2 back from Deal to Camberwell at 50 to 60 without, as I remember, any great vibration. Under duress it (she) would do 70! But here befell a dreadful fate. That tempting, long, rolling bend downhill on the A2 near Gillingham was my downfall. Flying along on a Sunday afternoon on my way back to London after a large Sunday lunch cooked by ‘the Grannies’, with a bag of freshly irond clothes on the back, I foolishly opened her up to full throttle. Well, it was only for a minute and it was downhill, I thought….

The loss of power was immediately noticeable. I had burnt out the exhaust valves. Of course I personally didn’t know this at the time, that was not made clear to me until a week later when I returned to the Deal bike shop (slowly) and confessed my sin—managing 85 on a 350 T21 !

True to form they had the head off that Saturday afternoon and the valves reground before closing time! And I don’t remember them charging me an arm and a leg either. But I learnt to treat my little blue bike with love and respect from then on.

Summer holidays were coming—the last long vac we were ever going to get as medical students. In subsequent years we would only get two weeks in the summer, while all our mates doing French and Law and Maths got three months off, lucky buggers!

Right then! It’s our only chance! I had a flatmate called Geoff Frost from Hull .
“My name’s Geoffrey and I cum from ‘Ull” was his opening chat up line at hops (dances). He was the proud possessor of a BSA C15 in red with the loudest megaphone silencer you’ve ever heard. He was obsessive about the oil level in his primary chaincase and insisted on checking it at every opportunity.

Nevertheless we determined to embark on an adventure together on our bikes which seemed to us as great an expedition as Thor Hayerdahl and his balsa Kon Tiki. We were going to Rome!

Another flatmate, Steve Bentley was great with his hands. He became an anaesthetist in later life but he was a great mechanic and electrical engineer. He made Geoff and me a set of fibreglass panniers each and sprayed them up to match the bikes. The plan was that he and Eddie (see previous Suzuki 80 debacle) would go to Greece in his Triumph Spitfire while we went to Rome on our bikes.

We crossed the channel on the ferry and spent a last night together in a municipal campsite north of Paris. Next morning we waved the others off and Geoff and I started our adventure proper. The plan was to do a hundred miles a day on average and to take a week to get there, have a week there, and take a week back. My brother David was doing his Theology training in Rome to become an Augustinian Friar, which was handy…

So off we went. Try as we would we always seemed to end up driving through the heat of the day. “Tomorrow we’ll definitely get up early and be there by lunchtime so we can relax for the rest of the day”. Never ever happened. We always ended up hot and sweating with lots of dead flies on the visors and slippy melting tar under the wheels.

Things went well. We reached the Alps and started to climb. The power steadily got less and less the higher we went and we were ever so grateful to reach the Susten and St. Gothard passes safely. We pulled into a little, dark hostelry on the Italian side and the owner produced a bottle of ice_cold Lambrusco from the fridge, which tasted like nectar in that heat. We tucked a bottle under the bungies for later.

Unfortunately later came sooner than we hoped. Rounding a corner on a long descent into a town we came across a mile of bumpy cobbles. I saw it all in incredibly slow motion. Looking in my bar-end mirror I saw the bottle bounce once, bounce twice then shatter. There was nothing I could do, I was in a long line of traffic and guilty though I felt, I just carried on. Luckily Geoff missed it and didn’t get a puncture. And coming up the hill was a long crocodile of Cub Scouts with a good deed for the day just waiting for them!

We eventually got to Rome and my bro David. He really looked after us. The monastery in the centre of Rome, St. Pat’s, did not have air conditioning but it did have the biggest fridge full of cold beer you’ve ever seen. He showed us all the sights and took us out to their summer retreat in the hills (cooler) called San Pio. This had a swimming pool and a vineyard. Good combination. He had even anticipated our arrival in Rome by giving a pint of blood three weeks previously to secure two opera tickets for us to see Aida. What a bro! They were really good seats and he actually bought himself a cheaper ticket near the back! The performance was of course outdoors in the ancient arena and I remember they had live elephants and camels on stage as well as the fat singers.

All too soon our time was up and we had to say goodbye and start our trek northwards again. We decided to go back a different way and climb the Dolomites this time. Once again we felt the power sap away from our laden bikes as we climbed higher and higher. Slower and slower we ground our way up the mountain. We didn’t think we were going to make it so when we came to a convenient mountain railway, we bought two tickets for the Nathan-Bockstein train tunnel. It’s really something new to sit in a cattle wagon, on your bike, with your headlights on, as you are taken through the mountain instead of over it! And then of course it was lots of downhill when we got out the other side!

The next day we entered southern Germany and started to make our way through the Schwartzwald (Black Forest to you). On a downhill set of S bends I got a front wheel puncture. No problem, the tire went down gently and I had good warning. So we stopped in a small side lane on the convex side of a bend.

“Watch this, I said, “For the quickest repair you’ve ever seen.” And in minutes I had the front wheel off and in my hands. At that moment we heard a series of tyre squeals and suddenly a car came round the bend, passed within two feet of us and hit both our bikes, taking them with it over the edge and down the bank into trees below.

All was absolutely silent. We were still eight hundred miles from home and the only thing left in either of our hands was my front wheel with an unmended puncture! The car had turned over on its roof and we suddenly came to our senses and remembered the driver. When we got to him he was half out of the car muttering and obviously looking for something.
“Ich will meine Schue,” he kept saying. Silly man had been driving barefoot and had pressed the accelerator instead of the brake!

Gradually a crowd of locals and passers-by gathered and a Polizei man dee-daa’d his way up the hill. He arranged for a tow truck to come and pull the car up from the valley below and take it away. By now it was six o’clock on a Freitag evening and the crowd ambled off, there being little of interest left to see, ad we had to say,”Oi! What about us?!” to the copper before he too buggered off for his wurst and chips. Kind man though he turned out to be. He went back down into the village and purloined the breakdown truck himself, came back up the hill and helped us load up our bashed-up bikes and take them all the way down to the garage.

So at least we were safe and unhurt. We retrieved our bedding and our little home-made two man tent and stove and set up camp near a meandering stream which ran through the village. Popped into the little store before it closed and bought a bottle of fizzy strawberry mousseux (palates were sweeter at that young age) and thought of our evening meal. All this excitement and trauma had made us hungry and in need of a feast…or perhaps a banquet. Well,we were by a stream weren’t we, so out came the fish hooks and fine line, and a worm was soon found. Before long we had two fat little German Forellen frying in the pan!

Next morning we were up early and anxiously awaited the opening of the garage. Luckily they did do Saturday mornings! The mechanics kindly leant us their hammers and we beat my bathtub fairing back into some sort of shape, enough to fit back on the bike anyway…tied on with string. Sadly my panniers were beyond any chance of repair, so that meant that Geoff had to carry more of the baggage on the smaller C15.

The other major downside as far as the Twenty one was concerned was a persistant oil leak from a cracked pipe under the crankcase.This translated into a loss of one litre of oil sprayed over the back tire each day forth till our return home!

Needless to say we drove home very gingerly. Every morning we would pack up our little tent and top up our various oil orifices and cheer our motto,”And still they go on!!”

We made it back to Dover, and eventually Deal in one piece and immediately went round to the friendly local dealer who had originally sold me the bike. Dave took one look at them both after hearing our tale. “They’s definitely write offs, they is, definitely.” He said. And with that he and they disappeared round the back, him carrying a long length of steel piping over his shoulder. Crunching sounds and bending creaks issued from the back yard..and we never saw either of our bikes ever again….

Letters were written and translated into German by fellow students, and sent off to the Vesicherungsgesellschaft, insurance company to you. Grant, soliciting brother got involved and wrote a stiff British legal-type letter. And eventually, it seemed like an age to be bikeless, a cheque came through in lovely Deutchmarks! A hundred plus pounds for me and forty-five for Geoff!

Dave the mechanic said much later that Geoff’s little C15 motor was used for years to power the rabbit at the local Greyhound stadium. Nothing was ever mentioned about what was done with my pale blue beauty. Sad.

Chapter Three

But not sad for long! Money was burning a hole in my pocket and I wanted some wheels, and fast! In conversation, another student mentioned he had a 650cc BSA Super Rocket which he wanted to get rid of because his Dad didn’t approve, and was I interested? Boy, was I! Imagine going from a little 350 straight to a massive 650 with legendary bottom end grunt, without passing through the 500cc stage! I was naturally tempted and immediately donned the rose-tinted spectacles which mugs wear when they are about to be taken for an expensive ride.

The bike was parked (or was it languishing?) in his garden. Rusty but huge. And it started. The noise from those baffle-less exhausts was ear splittingly mind blowing. I was entering Toad of Toad Hall’s “Poop Poop!” trance again.

“Why don’t you have a ride?” he urged. I was lost already. The acceleration and aforementioned torque (grunt), even on a wreck like this was incredible after a 350. And he only wanted twenty five quid for it! Only! Done! Done I certainly was.

So I looked to the cosmetics to start with.

Nice new shiny exhausts and silencers and a coat of hand brushed salmon pink paint! Sacrilege, you may say today, but you must remember this was the late sixties, the time of the Beatles and psychedelia. But I still didn’t do a very good paint job.

I knew little about mechanics as you now realize, and so was very dependent on handier mates like Steve Bentley who could do anything (remember the panniers). So we took the head off, (me handing the spanners to him), and replaced the pistons with some nice high compression ones ….to boost the performance even more…….

The valves were reground and the rear chain replaced. I put new tyres on since the originals were worn square. So at last it was ready for a ‘Home’ run.

Off I went at a corking pace. The A2 and then the M2 beckoned. A coffee and devibrationary stop at the half way Fortes services, then on again. Suddenly a coughing, jerking from the motor made me pull over. Looking down I was amazed to see the end of the magneto hanging loose with sparks merrily dancing off it. But the main thing was the end cap hadn’t dropped off! Once rescrewed back on I was away again and arrived safely at the ‘Grannies’.

What I learned that day was that we had a serious shakes problem in the higher registers. So I rubber mounted the handlebars! I wrapped 6ins of cut inner tubing around the bars under the attachments to the fork yokes and tightened it up as tight as I could. Then I bought a pair of those fat air-filled Triumph hand grips and kidded myself that the vibes were much improved. (Hadn’t actually heard of isolastic suspension at that time, but I think it was just being invented for the Commando.)

Time passed and the initial expenditure seemed to have been worth it. This included a new seat cover by this time. Most things seemed to work most of the time. A little tootle was called for.

My cousin Francis invited me up to the Tweed to take his two days salmon fishing at the end of the season in November. What a great opportunity to give my P & J a good thrash! Scotland here I come!
And so, on a bright, crisp Autumn day I steered my way up through the centre of a sleepy London to Apex corner and the start of the A1. All was going well to start with. I cruised along at a steady 70 in the middle lane listening to the thrum of the engine and the burble of the exhaust note. Bang bang bang BANG BANG BANG went the exhaust note and Someone Above told me to pull the clutch in NOW!!
Total silence, except for the wind, at 70 miles an hour, alone in the middle lane of the A1M, near Long Eaton… The difficult thing was how the devil to get over to the hard shoulder without releasing my clutch hand to signal my intent to the bloody great lorry on my inside! Eventually they got my message from the drained look of impending death on my face and I coasted gently and silently to the side. I applied the brakes, and when I’d slowed to about 20mph I let the clutch out just to see if everything was allright. Optimistic fool that I was! Blue smoke and a controlled skid was my answer-she was seized, that was for sure.

The rest of the day was long. The nice RAC man came and took the bike and me to the nearest garage in Long Eaton. They said yes they would mend it if I could leave it for a week. Of course I had no choice, so I left it, thankful to be alive in one piece, and caught the slow train to Berwick, and Francis and Nancy’s renowned hospitality. And no I didn’t get a touch of a salmon all that week, so don’t ask!
As soon as I got back to London I phoned Long Eaton for a progress report.

“No good, it’s f***ed,”said the mechanic. Exactly how f***ed remained to be seen later but the immediate problem was to find a replacement engine and to get mobile again. Eddie was dragooned into cruising round all the East End bike dealers with me until at last we found a second hand A10 motor in Forest Hall. It was sold “as seen” with no guarantees at all for £38. It wasn’t a Super Rocket engine like the original but I didn’t care. Niceties like matching frame and engine numbers meant little to penniless students.

Next weekend Eddie took me up the A1 in his Ford Cortina with the engine in the boot. The mechanic had saved the remains and entrails of my broken engine for us to see. The con rod had snapped and the flywheels had spun off and gouged out the base of the crankcases. There was honestly only a toilet paper’s thickness of metal left at the bottom of the sump! No wonder it was seized solid and blue smoke skidded when I let the clutch out! I have often thought since that I might have continued onwards at 70 in the middle lane of the A1M if I’d not pulled in the clutch when I did!

So anyway, enough of this omphalospecsis,(medical term for navel-gazing!) we left the “new” motor with him for yet another week so he could put it all back together, and promised to come backed pick it up the next Saturday.

I really couldn’t put upon my old mate for yet another trip up the A1 so I put all my clobber in a holdall (including the famous oilstained flying suit) and stuck my thumb out to hitch a lift from Apex corner. I got a lift in a lorry as far as the first service station and stood in the December cold on the sliproad enswathed in my King’s scarf with my cardboard sign for “Long Eaton, please.”

A large Rolls Royce pulled up. A liveried chauffeur got out and said he was going near Long Eaton and for me to hop in. I was so gobsmacked I started to get in the front clutching my holdall.

“No, no Sir”, he says, “We don’t allow any luggage inside Rolls Royces.” And with that he picked up my grip and put it in the huge boot. Off we went and were doing 70 before we joined the motorway. He was an RR trained chauffeur and was totally devoted to and proud of this car. It had electric everything and walnut and leather everything else! He had just dropped his employer, a business tycoon, at the airport. This man had emphysema and so he had had an oxygen concentrator fitted as an extra to aid his breathing.

The chauffeur went round each of the features in turn and gave me a demonstration. Of course today lots of these are bog standard but then I’d never seen electric windows and sunroofs. You could actually hear the clock ticking and not much else! “Do you want to hear what it’s like outside?” he asked at a hundred miles an hour. With that he rolled down the electric front window to let the roar in. Soon we came up behind a red E-type Jag, which seemed so small and low beneath us.

“Just look at him waving all over the road in the wind!” he said, as the lovely sports car wavered and wallowed in the cross-wind as we bore down on him. Stately as a galleon we drove past as he dutifully gave way….to a chauffeur-driven penniless student on his way to pick up his P&J. Would it be ready? Would it go alright with the “new” untried engine? How much would they charge?

The chauffeur dropped me off and swished away with my many thanks. The bike looked fine and the financial damage wasn’t too drastic so on I leapt, keen to get back to London before dark. Twenty miles was it? I can’t remember now, but it wasn’t much further before I noticed that a large amount of oil was being sprayed out of the breather all over the back tyre. This was coming out of a really obscure little hole at the back of the crankcase, which I had never even noticed on the previous engine! Nevertheless I got back home to Camberwell in one piece, and after a thorough cleaning of the back tire and engine, I later Araldited the biggest plastic hose I could find to the little breather hole. I fed this upwards and over the back mudguard out of harms way, should it decide to spew oil again. But it never ever did! Oil froth would bubble up so far during a run, but not overflow, and later subside back whence it came into the crankcase. I never did investigate the bores for wear. I think I’d spent enough on this particular bike at the time and just wanted some miles out of it before any further expenditure.

Chapter Four

So now with time passing we were nearing finals and the medical school, in its wisdom, threw us out for a three month elective period to go and do something vaguely medical anywhere in the world that would take us. So Eddie and I went to a Hospital in Columbus, Ohio for two months with a fortnights touring holiday either side. In the hospital we were called Doctor with the title of Extern (as opposed to the qualified Intern). We earned 25 dollars a day and 75 dollars a weekend so we really went for it. At one stage we worked 13 days and nights on the trot! It was a wonder that we found any time or energy to study the indigenous female population at all!

At the end of it all we had learned a lot, made a lot of friends and saved a tidy sum. I came home with a Chase Manhatten cheque in my pocket for two hundred pounds. That old banger just had to go!
Interestingly it had performed faultlessly for Johnny Rycroft for the whole time we were away and the minute I got back on for my first burn up the headlight bulb blew!

It knew obviously I no longer loved it.

Streamline Motors beckoned, and I saw and bought (within a day) a beautiful one year old Triumph 500cc T100SS in green and silver. This felt like a small, easily manageable bike after the thumping old Beeza, but what a sharp, revvy little engine!!

Boy did it go once you got past three and a half thou’! It was the newest, smartest bike I’d ever owned so I decided to beautify it even more, and make it more comfy too.

So I fitted a full Avon fairing in white, with a radio slung in the unused headlamp brackets and a Police loudspeaker on the handlebars. The radio was fine as long as the engine wasn’t going! Unfortunately it wasn’t an FM radio and couldn’t be effectively suppressed so it clicked unmercifully with each spark.

Never mind! It looked cool and the way the traffic parted when I had the aerial up was fantastic. Car drivers only noticed the white fairing and aerial and totally failed to see the lack of speed cop riding it! In case you had forgotten, my regular garb included a grey helmet with plastic bubble visor, faded Millet’s 2nd World War US Parka worn over oil-marinated Flying Suit (also WW2) and fur-lined boots, the whole ensemble emitting an air of faded grubbiness.

The little Triumph went so well! It was reliable, revvy fun and you were warm and relatively dry on a wet day too. Coming back one balmy summer evening on the A3 from Cobham I clocked up my fastest speed on a bike, and I shouldn’t think I’ll be bettering it in the future either. Tucked down behind the windscreen on a nearly empty dual carriageway after a pint of bitter the speedo read 105mph at 6800rpm. I doubt I’d have the confidence or recklessness to do that now.

In winter too I still loved this bike. It was the most user-friendly set of wheels I’d ever had but it still had its ups and downs. Christmas was coming, and I had it off, so down the M20 I flew to Folkstone then along the south coast to Dover. Now there is a steep hill to climb out of Dover up the white cliffs to get round the bottom right hand corner of England to reach Deal, and all festive like it started to snow. Soon it was deep and crisp and even. I motored on very gently in first gear with my feet off the footrests gliding just above the ground, but suddenly the front wheel just slid away from me and the bike skittered off down the road on its side as I deftly hopped off without injury. I need to get home, I thought, tonight, I thought. So I pushed my (unscratched) bike to the nearby railway station and the kindly guard let me put it in the luggage van! When we got to Deal it hadn’t even snowed there so I was home in minutes.

I actually qualified that summer and started my first house job doing three months Orthopaedics at King’s followed by three months at Dulwich doing Urology. It was there that I was struck by a tanned, petite staff nurse who had just come back from a sunny holiday. I was plucking up courage to ask her out but I had this trip planned for a weeks visit to see Pete and his new wife Linda in Bielefeld in Germany. The guy I got to do my locum for me was a real good looking smoothie, so I made him promise not to ask her out while I was away!

The trip went well and the Triumph sped happily along the Autobahns. Pete still had his ancient AJS although sadly it was stolen some time later. Sadly too his marriage didn’t last and he’s still a bachelor thirty years later-with a dusty Norton Commando in his garage.

On my return the nurse in question, Lesley, found me quaintly old fashioned and obviously a challenge in need of restoration, so she said yes when I asked her out. Now Lesley could drive and had a car of her own. Her acquaintance with bikes was only via her younger brother Grahame, who had fallen off his and got a nasty scar on his cheek to prove it. Nevertheless she was game to come for a ride and eventually we decided to let her meet the grannies in Deal. Brave girl! It precipitated down all the way there and we looked like drowned rats when we arrived. One of us had mascara on, which ran down her face to give a pretty good impression of the Rocky Horror Show! And of course my mum was at her disapproving best, “Really dear, don’t you think you should ride side saddle…”

Undaunted the relationship continued, and since my next six month House job was to be in Tunbridge Wells that meant I soon got to know the A21 really well. It was the beginning of several years of romance at a distance. One winter night I had bade my farewell and was humming back down the dual carriageway, it was very cold and frosty. I came to Badger’s Mount roundabout and took it slowly as I leant into the curve. It was an extremely black night to hit a patch of black ice and the bike slid away from me on its side. I had time to extricate my leg as it went, and sort of stand on the saddle before rolling over and over on my side. And lo! A great light shineth in the East! Yes it was a following car’s headlamps and I was dead centre stage! Quick as a flash-and that’s pretty bloody, adrenaline-fuelled quick-I jumped up and dived for the central reservation and safety! The car passed on without stopping. I felt bruised about the knees in particular but the old flying suit had done its business once again and nothing was broken.

I wandered over to the bike to inspect the damage. As usual the wing mirror was beyond hope but otherwise all seemed OK. Then out of the corner of my eye I saw a Mini without its lights on parked on some waste ground at the edge of the roundabout. A bloke and his girl got out. “Hey mate,” he said, “I’ve never seen anyone get up off that roundabout as fast as you did then!”
“What? You make a habit of watching for crashes do you?”
“Oh yeah, we come up here most nights, it’s great! Saw someone killed, we did, last week!”

Disgusted by his ghoulishness I said no more, just started up my faithful Triumph and pottered back to my room in the mess at the Kent and Sussex. My knees were so sore I went downstairs to Casualty. There an incredibly camp male night nurse [sounds like a cough linctus] dressed them with a cooling salve of Lotio plumbi et opii. Dead old fashioned it would be now, but it seemed to help at the time. I do remember the next day being so stiff that even the consultant overtook me in the corridor running for a cardiac arrest!

Chapter Five

Comfortable, warm, fast, reliable, what more could you want? The raw power of a 650 Triumph perhaps?

Driving back to Dulwich from seeing the grannies, leaning into the twisty-twisties ‘tween Deal and Sandwich I called in at the local bike shop and saw this object of unutterable beauty. (Where have you heard this saga before, dear reader?) A red 1970 H reg Triumph TR6 of low mileage with the slim export tank. ‘Of course you can have a test drive sir’, he said. The power was there and so much smoother than the old A10. The only trouble was the previous tyro had had short megaphones fitted and the noise was incredible! ‘Of course we can replace them with standard exhausts if you wish sir, just give us a couple of hours’.

So for a straight swap for £200 I said goodbye to my warm and dry white faired 500 and took off on this wild red monster! It sat me higher than theT100 with more of a leg stretch and a comfortable riding position. The acceleration (I felt) was blistering, in fact I found myself cruising at 80 at 5000 revs in third, thinking I was in top, and then changed up from there!

My life was changing, my career progressing. I meandered into the 3 year vocational training programme for general practice based in Tunbridge Wells which meant four, six month hospital jobs and two spells in different training practices. For the psychiatric job I had a wonderful summer commuting to Hellingly in deepest Sussex to an old Victorian “looneybin”. Later on during my time in general practice I use the bike, still my only means of transport, to do my visits. I would park it down the road around the corner, divest myself of my clobber and then walk to the patient’s house. One old chap was most concerned that I had walked so far from my car and tried to insist on giving me a lift back to it! The writing was starting to be written on the wall, I had to get a car.

Now Lesley already had a car and could drive. A greeny-blue Morris 1100. I bought a black Morris Minor for £68 with a replacement front wing where the previous medic had hit a cow. This went well as long as you didn’t mind seeing the ground passing beneath you through the holes in the floor. The front seat (in red leather) was up on wooden chocks as I remember. I manage to fail my test in Canterbury- sitting in the wrong lane to turn right in the stupid one way system. Eventually I did pass in T. Wells under a 16 stone ex-army instructress with BO who shouted ‘Mirror Signal Manoeuvre !’ in my left ear. You can see where this story is leading, can’t you…

So I bought this white Capri see. With the long bonnet and the tan bucket seats…

In this, David and a fellow Friar, Lesley and I drove to Rome stopping off in all the summer-emptied Augustinian monasteries on the way. Unfortunately Lesley was shipped off each night to the local nunnery as we were as yet unbetrothed.

Little by little I was using the bike less and less. When we were married it gathered dust even more. When darling Stephanie arrived priorities changed yet again. A Capri, a Morris 1100, a Triumph 650 and a baby were just too much of a good thing. So the bike had to go, especially as I was coming to the end of my training scheme and we now planned to emigrate (for fun) for £46 assisted passage to New Zealand.

Now Lesley has a younger brother by 4years and he was a biking bachelor. Grahame gladly bought the TR6 from me for the £200 I paid for it and had several trouble free years joy out of it. He even offered to sell it back to me for the same £200 years later when he was ogling at a BMW R69, but by then we had baby Peter and my biking days were definitely on hold.

So I had ridden bikes continuously from1968 Bantam days till a 1974 Triumph TR6 was ousted by the practicalities of family life. Our time in NZ was so busy and exciting I didn’t really miss it, nor in the succeeding years while developing the practice in Hexham, until one day in October 1992……….

Chapter Six

I had made a new friend at Rotary, a retired Lloyd’s bank manager with a dry Neddie Seagoon wit and an interest in old bikes. Pat Docherty, later to become known far and wide (locally) as Motorbike Repair Man, is a collector/restorer really rather than a fanatic rider. He has a collection of six bikes in various states of disrepair all of which are lovingly stored in his warm, dry inner sanctum awaiting his perfectionist attention.

They include a 1945 500cc BSA M20, a 1950 350cc BSA B31, a 1950 Douglas Mk 4 Sports 350cc boxer twin, a Sunbeam S8 in-line 500cc twin, a 1961 BSA C15 250cc single with a ’67 engine and lastly an 850cc Mk 1 Norton Commando. They had all been on his personal wish list and hold special emotional significance. He has another bike, but that hardly counted because he bought that one outwardly beautifully restored and working…until he started taking it apart, that is.

This lovely green BSA Shooting Star A7 500cc came with most of a spare engine as extra. But something caught his attention early on in his owning of this beauty, something just not quite right—the fork slider covers were too short! And once he’d noticed that he just couldn’t stop till he’d been right through the bike looking for other inaccuracies. Of course he found lots and lots, from incorrect speedo and carburettor to worn out cams and end float shims that shouldn’t even be there! So over a year later it’s nearly complete and I live in hopes of a mobile companion on the moors this summer.

But I digress. This is now and I am talking about then…1992. We got talking at Rotary and I started to wish I could recut my teeth on an old bike again. Pat had been to a little backstreet shop in windy Tow Law, high on the way south down the A68. So one wet and miserable October afternoon I wended my way there and saw a sad looking little 250cc Triumph. It looked manageable- bearing in mind I had previously terrified myself on my brother Grant’s 750cc BMW, and I thought it might just do me as a reentry model into classic biking.

This red TR25W was a 1971 model which was a rebadged BSA B25, the last gasp stretch of the old C15 engine. Poor old BSA were desperately trying to compete with the latest Jap imports-and failing. To try and increase the power they increased the compression to 9:1 which of course boosted the vibes toward self destruction mode.

Of course I didn’t know any of this then and I foolishly hadn’t taken my new friend with me so I paid over my £500 and drove home followed at a safe distance by sainted brother David giving Grannie a ride out in the car. I just about got home in one piece but the rusty, oily, leaky pride and joy was coughing and spluttering like a 40aday Capstan Full Strength smoker. Call in quick!

Pat arrived, in fact he turned out faster than a GP on maternity call. And he dressed the part too, with proper overalls and rubber slaters’ kneepads and faded little baseball cap, not that we deliver many babies dressed like that these days. He also wore that lugubrious air of resignation about him, something of the undertaker perhaps, or the plumber offering an estimate for a blown up boiler.

Obviously if he’d been with me he’d have noticed that the timing was a mile out amongst other things. Well the other things let their presence be known en katimini(my best French phrase-on the sly) over the next few months and years. But in the meantime Pat deftly strobed the timing back into line and the bike started and ticked over and went passably well.

The children enjoyed “backers” round the block and all held on tight. Chloe, our new little Spaniel puppy barked and barked and wagged and wagged.

Honeymoon period over the bike was a temperamental starter. On cold or damp days I would give up in the end, sweating like the tropics inside my gear having kicked it to b---ery for ten minutes. Eventually we enlisted Pat’s eldest son Michael to help. Not a M.C.Repair man clone, Michael is a professional electrical wizard who can do magic with circuit diagrams and a crimping tool. He installed a Boyer Bransden electronic ignition system instead of the old contact breakers and that helped the starting a lot.

Soon I started to meet the classic bike fraternity. You probably didn’t know there’s a veritable cottage industry of repairers/restorers for different bits of your bike just waiting for their bit to go wrong. And so I met Scotty. A young man in his 30’s I should think, running a repair shop in a soon to be condemned building down the Gateshead side of the Tyne bridge. He rebushed the front forks for me and did a good job. I had found no oil in one fork and brown water in the other so I thought I ought to do something..

And then Pat introduced me to Rufforth and thereby to Fencehouses Deryck. “Rufforth” is an auto-jumble held on the first Saturday of every month in the grounds of Rufforth Hall on one of the back roads near York. To get there is a matter of great effort and veritable pilgrimage. Since it takes a good 2 hours to get there it means at least an 8am setoff if not earlier. Arriving, paying and parking was followed by a first pass recce to see if there were any unrepeatable, rare parts waiting to be snapped up from the rusting remains languishing in the Sunblest Bread baskets. Well, they’re bound to be a bit rusty, aren’t they, if you’re looking for bits for a 30 to 50 year old bike!

Hundreds of middle aged men milling about reliving their youth in shabby anoraks doesn’t sound that enticing actually, but then there’s the bacon sandwiches! And thereby hangs a tale…

I inadvertently (honest) mentioned that we’d had one (a B.S.) to Pat’s wife Jean, not knowing that she had expressly forbidden his ingestion of same in perpetuity to prevent his early demise from fat-related clogging of arteries. Well, once a month can’t hurt, can it, your honour? My name was mud. Such is his Bankmanagering honesty that he daren’t have another because he’s totally unable to fib under interrogation.

Anyway, one of the white vans full of rusting remnants was owned by Deryck Pratt, a thin smoker who is also a master mechanic when it comes to old bikes. He has an encyclopedic memory and he needs it because he has 12 lock-up garages full to bursting with old bike parts. Every month he sifts through his stock and picks out what he hopes will be tasty morsels for punters like Pat and me. A patient man, he sits quietly and watches life go by until someone comes up and asks him for that hard-to-find part. But he has a good sense of humour and is always kindly to fools such as yrs trly.

Eventually, after some time riding this little red Triumph it finally gave up its last in a big way-as in a big end way, luckily on a downward slope nearly home. I took the engine out and took it to Deryck at Fencehouses where he duly took it apart and renewed the necessary. He dropped the engine off a few weeks later and I put it back into the frame. But would it start, would it wattle! Backfire and spit, that’s all!

So I rang Deryck. “Don’t worry,” he said,“I’ll be there”. He turned up rather quickly and slightly sheepishly explained that he must have set the timing a complete 180 degrees out!

The redelivered bike ran purrfectly.

The most recurrent and irritating problem with this bike was the gear change lever. This is mounted on a spline but mine was worn so that no matter how tightly you tightened it up, sooner or later it would start to rotate when you were changing gear i.e. just at the wrong moment! Various shims were fashioned from McEwan’s Export cans cut up, but they never lasted. Eventually drastic action was undertaken and a horizontal hacksaw cut was made right through the spline and a metal wedge inserted so the b---er could never rotate again! Result!

Having been through the bike and feeling all eventualities must have been envisaged by now, I decided the first (of many) tootles was due. I had a week’s holiday left to take and I do enjoy riding in crisp early October autumness, so I girded my loins and off I went. First stop an overnight campsite overlooking Scarborough. Next day dawned clear and bright so I headed down the East coast road past Bridlington to the great Humber bridge. Over that and on down via Lincoln and Sleaford to see my old friend Phil Evans, a GP in Bury St. Edmunds. He was on his own and quite glad to see a grubby old biker. We put the world to rights and next morning I started to retrace my steps northwards. This time I overnighted with Tony and Linda Lacey, strategically placed at Wass Bank near Helmsley. Then home to the bosom of my family and a long soak in the bath. I hardly dare say it but the trip contained no breakdowns at all. I put her to bed for the winter happy.

The following year I joined the fledgling Tyne Valley Classic Motorcycle Cub. Fledgling indeed, I am no.26. There are now over 200 members. We met on the last Wednesday of the month at the Errington Arms at the top of Stagshaw Bank above Corbridge. A jolly crew of old bikers, they had some beautifully restored examples which left me feeling rather down at heel. But they were very kind and encouraging so I occasionally tagged along on the Sunday rides out. I was just about the slowest bike there but it didn’t seem to matter too much. Ian Watson, the Runs Captain must know every back lane in rural Northumberland because he steered us unerringly around most of them showing us places we’d never otherwise have found, not in a million years! Yes, you knew where it was once you got there but how, that was the question.

October rolled round once again and that autumnal tootling urge came over me once more. So since I now had a daughter at Nottingham university and a son at Crewe and Alsager I plotted a triangular route and set off in the late autumn sunshine…

The rain and gale force wind soon hit me coming from the side as I went over Hartside Pass towards Penrith. I made it to Garstang down the A6 and a warm bed thanks to Sue and Andy Hallington, expat Oakwoodians. Then on down to stay at Kidderminster with Geoff(C15 to Rome, remember) and Jeanetta the next night. With the weather looking up I reached Alsager and slept in Halls with Pete, my eldest son. Next morning I found his “little friends” had sat on the bike on their way home from the pub and inadvertently jammed the throttle fully open. Of course they weren’t to know the carb slide was oval and could stick at the top, eh? So I spent the morning stripping the carb and freeing it up. Just as well I’d brought the kitchen sink’s worth of spanners with me…

Then off to Nottingham to see my lovely daughter. She shared a flat in not so lovely Lenten and thought it unwise for me to leave the bike out on the street overnight so down the side passage to the back yard perhaps? To do this I had to loosen the handlebars and refix them diagonally as it was so narrow. Next morning I was off again, this time to call in on our Kiwi friends the Cornforths, high up at Leek near Buxton. Well I thought it was about time I landed on them, they’d landed on us enough over the years.
Next day dawned bright and crisp, a perfect autumn day. Off I went due north up the backbone of England, missing the motorways all the way, hugging the bendswinging byways as much as possible. Then up and over the moors, it was truly glorious.

Home in time for tea and no breakdowns (not counting the stuck up carb), 650miles in all, mostly at about 45 mph. Not bad for a 28 year old 250. As long as you’re not in a hurry…