Strange as it may seem — after all, I’ve been writing about canoeing, hillwalking, and cycling for 14 years now — I find that most “travelers’ tales” make mighty dull reading. There are many exceptions to this rule, of course. The Nahanni and Stikine romances of Raymond (R. M.) Patterson, for example. Or Jonathan Raban’s acerbic account of a johnboat voyage through America’s heartland. Or just about anything written by the indomitable men and women who labored to put the globe’s remoter corners on the map in the years between 1750 and 1900.
As for cycling… Well, let’s just say that I’ve found no better remedy for insomnia than books about bicycle trips. In fact, I can think of only two cycling writers I’d recommend to others. The first is Daniel Behrman, whose The Man Who Loved Bicycles achieves the seemingly impossible task of marrying panegyric to passionate polemic. The book isn’t about a trip, however. It’s a trip in its own right, a leisurely ramble that takes the reader from the streets of Paris all the way to Lower Manhattan, with frequent stops along the way. It is, in short, a tour: a tour de force. Behrman’s enthusiasm is as infectious as his arguments are compelling, and I can’t believe that anyone reading his book wouldn’t be seized with the desire to get on a bike then and there. (And leave the car to rust away in the garage.)
But very few people will ever get the chance to read Behrman’s words. The Man Who Loved Bicycles is long out of print — and long since weeded from most library collections, too. I’d do something to remedy this if I could. For the present, however, Behrman’s voice is stilled, and his writing can only be enjoyed by readers willing to troll for used copies of his book.
Happily, Charles (“Charlie”) Chadwick has been spared that fate. I did say there were two cycling writers I would venture to recommend, didn’t I? I did indeed. And Chadwick is the second. He’s dead now — he died in 1968 — yet you can sample his exuberant accounts of cycling holidays in England, Wales, and Scotland at Charlie Chadwick: Cyclist, Writer, Artist, Photographer, a website showcasing and celebrating Chadwick’s life and work.
And make no mistake: His work is well worth celebrating. This is all the more remarkable in light of the fact that Chadwick, unlike Behrman, was never a professional writer. He was a foundryman by trade, and much of his writing takes the form of diary entries. (He began his cycling diary in 1922, when he was just 17.) Yet his prose has an ease and grace that few professional wordsmiths can match. Choose any of his tales and read just one paragraph. If you don’t then feel compelled to carry on till the end — and feel bitterly disappointed that the end comes so soon — I’ll be astonished.
This would be enough in itself, I suppose, but there were more strings to Chadwick’s bow. He was an artist as well as a writer, and his mastery of line and shadow was as remarkable as his facility with words. I’ve used a small cut from one of his sketches at the head of this article, and the other illustrations on the page were also done by him. (They are used by gracious permission of the good folks at charliechadwick.org.) His work is often compared to that of Frank Patterson (1871-1952), a commercial illustrator whose sketches appeared in publications ranging from The London Illustrated Gazette to Cycling. And it’s true that there is a striking similarity in the two artists’ styles. Yet I find Chadwick’s work the more evocative by far. Perhaps this is because Chadwick was a keen cyclist right up till the end of his life — he didn’t buy a car until 1964, when he was 60 years old — whereas Patterson gave up riding when he was just 35, after suffering a knee injury. In any case, Chadwick’s wonderfully detailed and meticulously executed pen-and-ink illustrations remind us that the word “amateur” means “lover.” His drawings were indeed labors of love.
Writer and artist — you’d think that would be enough for any man, wouldn’t you? Especially a man with a demanding day job in a foundry. But Chadwick was also something of an evangel, always ready to sing the praises of the bicycle and draw attention to its dual role as both utility transport and recreational outlet. Of course, “bicycle advocates” are two a penny nowadays. All too often, however, modern advocates seem to be working to consign cyclists to a sort of separate-but-unequal existence in a world made for (and by) the automobile. Or else they’re campaigning to carve up tiny enclaves of wild land into ever smaller fragments by building new networks of mountain bike trails, each of which is dedicated to going nowhere in the most circuitous manner possible. Contrast this with the healthy — dare I say manly? — outlook of Charlie Chadwick, as outlined in a short piece entitled “About Ourselves,” written in 1958:
The bicycle has been my only means of weekend and holiday travel since I was a child…, and unknown to me, my wife was developing on similar lines. … We have … geared our lives, as well as our bicycles, to Rough Stuff. Our delight is not to cross untracked hill country with bicycles (we can do that better with walking boots and rucksacks — as we do), but to trace out the footpaths, the drove-roads, the ancient trackways which are legion in our northern hills.
So enamored was Chadwick of “Rough Stuff” that he was a founder member — and the first chairman — of the Rough Stuff Fellowship, a UK organization that is still going strong after 60 years. Would that we had something of the same sort on this side of the Pond.
OK. That’s enough to serve as a taster. But I hope you’ll want to learn more about the life and work of Charlie Chadwick. And the best place to begin is charliechadwick.org. Do yourself a favor: Check it out today!
This article is a much-altered version of one first published on February 27, 2010.
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