A Fleetville Childhood

Mike Neighbour


Bikes around St Albans

I received my first means of transport when about three in 1946. It was a maroon red tricycle, obtained by my parents from a shop in Fleetville between Tucks garage and Spendwise. Everything then was secondhand (or ‘pre-owned’ in today’s jargon). Nothing new was being made for children, nor many things for grown-ups either - the war saw to that. The factories were busy, but manufacturing for export.

The trike was a proper framed version with 18-inch tricycle wheels and geared pedals - quite unlike the pressed steel Triang trikes from 1948 onwards, with pedals directly attached to the front wheel axle, which my brother had. That came second-hand too, and from the same shop. The basket on the front of my trike was a boon to my mother, for I accompanied her each day on her local shopping expeditions from our home in Woodland Drive to Fleetville. There was a routine, which had obviously come about through the shops mother was registered with during the war. For groceries it was Dixon’s, on the corner of Hatfield Road and Tess Road, now Woodstock Road south. Mr Finch accepted the coupons for meat, but we still walked to the Crown for our bread, because that was the nearest baker’s shop she could register with. Only when Spurrier’s first sold sliced bread did we seem to think it more sensible to go to a nearer shop, especially now that bread had come off the ration.

Even at the age of seven and eight I took solo trips on the trike, to watch any trains at the Ashley Road bridge, to visit my grandmother at Camp, or later, when father transferred to a job in Hatfield Road, to meet him at the end of his working day. I accompanied father to the allotment at the end of the road and was able to bring back vegetables in the basket. In the neighbouring streets I gave rides to other children as they stood on the cross rail at the back and held on to my shoulders.  On my ninth birthday I received a bicycle - secondhand of course. I knew something was up. When father came home the evening before I was told to go upstairs and read in my room for ten minutes. This gave my father the opportunity of bringing in the machine, acquired from Hickies (near the Sandfield Road junction) through the kitchen to the

lounge. Strangely, this room was locked for the rest of the evening with the excuse that there had been a fall of soot which would be dealt with the following morning.  Now I really had to learn to ride. Father was not a fit man, although he did exercise on the allotment and he walked everywhere, but he was short and smoked heavily. On the appointed day of my first lesson with him on our quiet and unmade road there would be a limit to his endurance, although I was completely unaware of it. He held the saddle as I rode the black bike with 24-inch wheels up the road. I called to him not to leave go of the saddle, but he did not hear me. When I reached the end and got off to turn round I discovered he was nearly a hundred yards back. Learning to ride a bike? Easy! I was older and could now travel further. My mother also had a pre-war bike, which father also sometimes rode. So there were times when she, my younger brother, Chris -

who had also gained a smaller red bike with 22-inch wheels (secondhand from Henderson’s at the Laurel Road corner), went off on school holiday afternoons to the parks, down to the river Colne or Ver, to Stanborough lido or the swimming baths at Cottonmill. This also gave me the opportunity to travel to these places, and others, with my friends. We especially explored Marshalswick, around the lanes and farms.  I never used the bike to school, but sometimes went to church on it, especially for the Monday Club, and the rehearsals we had for little shows we put on at Faulkner Hall. It splashed its way endlessly through puddles in our unmade road, and even more so going through the Ver at the St Michael’s ford.

Now I was twelve I needed a big boy’s bike, but my pocket money would not stretch to the big boy’s bike prices. As soon as I could I took on paper rounds at Stone’s newsagents in Hatfield Road. The money was saved in an old toffee tin in a hideously old-fashioned Utility chest of drawers in my bedroom. As soon as I had saved up sufficient money I purchased a full-sized frame from Stan Miles shop in Hatfield Road. I had told Mr Miles what I was doing and he obtained a suitable frame for me. I carefully recorded the frame number and stored it away, never to be found again. Bit by bit I saved more and bought the wheels, saddle and handle-bars. Other accessories came from Halford’s in Market Place, next to the Clock Tower. Within six months I had a brand-new red kit bicycle with straight handlebars and three-speed Sturmey-Archer gears. Lighting was obtained from a tyre rim dynamo. I was so proud of this achievement, as this was

probably the first occasion in which I had done anything without relying on any help whatsoever.

As befits a thirteen-year old, the bike soon became adorned with badges, additional lights, proprietary orange direction signals, reflecting panels between the spokes and, inevitably, strips of plastic from the new plastic Fairy Liquid bottles, which rapped against the rear wheel supports and made a fearsome clacking sound that gained volume (and irritation among elderly neighbours) the faster the bike was ridden. Finally there was an ear-splitting horn, worked by a battery, attached to the handlebar. It was all a combination of ideas and imagination, copying what other guys had done to their bikes and the opportunities afforded by the products Halford’s and market traders sold, and the myriad accessories and electrical bits and pieces sold by the burgeoning army and government surplus stores, such as Bold and Burrows in Verulam Road. That bike enabled me to travel the length and breadth of the city and even to Hatfield and Watford; to Oaklands where one of my friends lived, and Park Street to the house of Tom and Joan Ryder (Sam Ryder’s daughter), who welcomed all of the young people of Trinity Church to their home on different occasions. It was therefore a catastrophe for me when, at the end of an evening event being held at the Manse in Ridgmont Road, I returned to my beloved red bike to find that it had been taken.

I was now fifteen and was due to be transferred from Beaumont School to a new establishment, Marshalswick, for the final year of my formal education (or so I thought at the time). I suppose I took it for granted that I would still return home for lunch, as many pupils did at the time, and as the distance was further than a stroll along Oakwood Drive, I bought a new bike. Red again, but with 5-speed derailleur gears, which was considered the ultimate in a teenager’s bike aspirations, unless, of course accompanied by drop handlebars and stripey tape. However, I kept to the straight bars I was used to, and Stan Miles supplied my Hudson Speedster to me. This was my mode of transport to and from Marshalswick School, and in 1960/61 to the station if I wasn’t in time to catch the bus for my train to London. It would get me out of trouble and I would park it in the bike rack on the old platform one. For the following two years I would commute on it to St Albans College of Further education in Hatfield Road, and after that my first teaching job at London Colney School was reached each day by bike. Crossing the North Orbital between Highfield Lane and White Horse Lane was, at least, considerably easier than today in one respect - there was, then, only one carriageway. Although you needed to look both ways, there was far less traffic than today.

Life on a bike exposes us to all that the weather - and other vehicles - can throw at us.  So I had a full rain kit in yellow. A “sou’wester” hat which tied under the chin; a cape which had elastic cord loops to hitch onto the handlebars to keep it spread out in front of me; and separate leggings with splayed bottoms which protected my shoes. Winter maintenance and repairs, which often had to be undertaken in the evenings, was undertaken in the warm kitchen after the washing up and homework (one of many activities completed on the kitchen table). Cleaning might wait until the weekend, but a puncture repair or chain and gear adjustments had to be undertaken immediately for the following day’s journeys. Mother never complained, but I am sure she would rather her

kitchen was not used for bicycle repairs.

I kept my Hudson for some years, but cannot recall its passing. But around 1965 when my brother, Chris, obtained his first job at Boreham Wood, he purchased a little Vespa scooter to aid him to work; the journey otherwise would have been challenging. When he no longer required it for that purpose he sold it to me. By this time I was living in

Birmingham and so began my first experience with powered travel on two wheels. And three years later we shared our first four wheeled transport, a £199 Ford Anglia van, obtained from the garage on the corner of Marshalswick Lane and The Ridgeway.

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