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The 1940s

The war years were an exciting time for a child, even in north-west London which was generally out of the action. Milestones were the blitz at the beginning of the war (I remember being held up, at the age of five, to see London – 15 miles away – burning in December 1940) to the arrival of the ‘doodlebugs’ and V2 rockets toward the end. Between these events we were occupied with school and marching up and down the street singing songs about the testicular abnormalities of Adolf Hitler and his friends. The real excitement, of course, was when the primary school received a direct hit from an incendiary bomb.


Family trip by bike

Not having a car, the family used bicycles for transport. In the summer, we also embarked on longer journeys out into the countryside. I remember little of these excursions apart from cries of “are we there yet?”, or “when do we get home?”. The photograph shown to the left was taken by my mother on one of these trips in the lanes near Harefield, in the summer of 1942. It shows me on my blue ‘Hercules’, my sister on a bicycle called ‘Speedwell’, and my father on his upright roadster. My father was a late-comer to the art of cycling: I well remember him falling off in a patch of nettles.



By 1948, when I was thirteen, I had acquired my first full-sized bicycle, an electric blue Dawes, of which I was immensely proud - as the photograph above shows. In March 1949 I joined the Northwood Wheelers along with my friend Brian Huggins and started going on club runs. I had been aware of Brian since we were in the primary school together. We then moved on to grammar school where we became close through our mutual interest in cycling. Brian has remained an active cyclist since our school days, and he still comes up to Scotland most summers to ride the highways and byways of the Lothians, Fife and Borders.

In 1949 I also tried my hand at time-trialling. The club had measured a somewhat hilly 10-mile course through Harefield, starting near Batchworth Heath. My first efforts were not bad for a 14-year old: my records show that I achieved a fastest time of 32 minutes. The Junior 10-mile championship was held on October 2nd 1949. I seem to have suffered with a time of 33m 50s – but I was not the slowest! The event was won by Pete Kibbles with a time of 27 m 26 s. Among the finishers were my friends – Tony Standing with 28m 50s, Brian with 30m 24s, and Jeremy Sexton with 32m 15s. The results sheet is reproduced below. What is extraordinary is that a club could muster a field of 22 junior riders. Today many clubs have no juniors at all, and time-trialling is the pursuit of the over forties!

1949 10 02 Junior10MileChampionship011949 10 02 Junior10MileChampionship02

To put these results in context, today’s competition record for 10 miles is 18 m 27 s by Graeme Obree, and a good clubman can expect to do a ‘22’ or a ‘23’.

The Thanet ‘Silverlight’ Frame. The Silverlight was one of the most distinctive bicycle frames produced during the early post-war years. It was constructed so that the down tube and the seat tube, both of a narrow 1 inch diameter, joined below the bottom bracket in a “V”, and the seat stays joined the top tube about 5 to 6 inches in front of the seat cluster. The bottom bracket was thus ‘cradled’ within the frame, a design that was claimed to reduce frame ‘whip’. The frame was also extraordinarily light: about 3 lb 12 oz for the frame without forks, and a further 1½ lb or so for the forks. This compares very favourably with modern alloy frames. It was certainly a comfortable and responsive bike to ride.

Very few Silverlights were made, probably a total of less than 500 between the late 1940s and 1958 when production ceased. This makes them a very rare item today. I rode my Silverlight until about 1953 when I sold it to a club-mate. I regretted this sale for decades thereafter, but have recently (February 2000) managed to locate a replacement 50 years after the first purchase – at a price more that 40 times the originall!

I have few pictures of my first Thanet Silverlight. The one shown here at least shows the structure of the bottom bracket! Club-mate Bob Harvey is helping me with my puncture; Brian Major is in the middle distance on the left.

Open Roads is © David Saunders