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September 2021

On Sunday 5th September 2021, Cornwall hosts the modern Tour of Britain for the first time ever. The Grand Depart will see riders, including World Champion Julian Alaphilippe, travel 111 miles (180km) through the Cornish countryside starting in Penzance, taking in St Just, St Ives, Hayle, Camborne, Redruth, Falmouth, Penryn, Truro, Newquay, St Austell and finishing in Bodmin. The action will be broadcast live on ITV4 and Eurosport.

As I’ve been cycling the lanes of Cornwall over the past month at a much more sedate speed than the 46 kph the Tour racers average, it got me wondering about bicycles during the Second World War. So for this month’s blog, I have dug out of the collection several photographs featuring bikes of all sorts of shapes and sizes.

Bicycles were beholden to the black-out restrictions and the first photograph shows a bicycle lamp in Mevagissey Museum (photographed with permission back in 2012). Note the filter fitted to the front to direct the beam of light downwards. It was hoped this would avoid the cyclist being spotted by enemy aircraft. Most people I’ve spoken to from the war told me if they were caught out cycling in the dark in an air raid they simply turned off their lights and pedalled like mad to get home!

Doreen Philp lived in St Cleer and worked for the Council in Liskeard. So to help her be spotted in the black-out her father painted her bike white. On 25th September 1939, she was photographed by George Ellis, the Cornish Guardian photographer.

In the summer term of 1942 20 boys of the Bodmin County School (became Bodmin Grammar School after the 1944 Education Act) volunteered to go to Penzance to work in the potato fields of farms in the area. That meant a fortnight camping on the farm, harvesting the March crop of potatoes, so the boys took their bikes to enable them to get from the station in Penzance to their allocated farm and to be mobile while they were there. A letter to the Headmaster Mr G.V. Marks from the War Agricultural Committee praised the boys for their conduct and help. It was repeated in 1943 and this time George Ellis was on hand at Bodmin’s Great Western Railway Station (Now known as Bodmin General) to capture them boarding the train.

In the week beginning 18th January 1943, the pantomime Aladdin was produced by Madame Noel Bassett and Miss E Dampler-Child at the Public Rooms in Bodmin in aid of DCLI charities. The photo shows Jean Croscow and Dennis Johns in coster costumes on their three-wheeled trikes.

In 1943 Don Wallis was stationed at the Radio Security Service Wireless Intercept Station at St Erth where they were listening to the signals traffic of the German Abwehr. It was one of just nine posts in the UK and fed back the details to Arkley House in Barnet which in turn passed on the information to Bletchley Park. The RSS site at St Erth is featured in my novel A Place And A Name. Don provided this photograph which he took of two of his colleagues outside a local pub after the three of them had cycled there for some refreshment.

Finally, 404 Squadron, a Canadian Squadron based at RAF Davidstow in the run-up to D-Day that have we have met in a previous blog, are pictured on a taxiway on the airfield on bicycles. Given the dispersed nature of wartime airfields bikes were an essential part of an airman’s transport around the base and were a common sight on all the airfields in Cornwall. When 143 Squadron arrived at RAF Portreath in September 1943 they moaned about the lack of transport to get across the aerodrome and to reach the dispersed sites. They said 50 cycles were urgently needed and the station wasn’t in a position to supply them. Someone in Coastal Command felt sorry for them as two weeks later 50 bicycles and two motorcycles arrived. (Details in the eBook RAF Portreath War Diary).

So whether it be for work or pleasure, for sport or entertainment, get your bike out and continue the tradition of struggling up the hills of Cornwall and enjoying the freewheeling down the other side! Stay safe and have a good month.

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