In 1924 the Guardian journalist C. E. Montague set out on an overnight bicycle ride from Manchester, then the home of the newspaper, to Charing Cross in London. He left at midnight, on the summer solstice, from outside the Manchester Royal Exchange. “By 1.40 A.M”, he wrote in Along an English Road, his meandering, essayistic account of the ride, “the miles had begun to draw out between my forsaken pyjamas and me.” Eighteen hours and 200 or so miles later, he arrived in London.
His ride took him along the backbone of England: through the Peak District, across the Midlands, over the Chilterns and down into the Thames basin. He rode alone, and his description of the journey is a lyrical, meditative one: a nocturnal blur of place names soundtracked by the pumping of pedals and the gentle thrum of rubber on tarmac.
Most people these days seem to go on long bicycle rides to find out if they can, or to raise money for charity, or to get to know the limits of their own bodies, but Montague’s journey was, as he saw it, more important than that. For Montague the ride was an act of almost mystical geographic reclamation. It was emphatically not a feat of endurance (“a ride from Manchester to London within twenty-four hours has no sort of rank as a physical feat,” he wrote, “any long-distance cyclist who counts would jeer at an average pace of ten miles an hour”) but a way of connecting himself with a landscape he had known until then only as an abstraction, as a series of anonymous points on the map.
Above all Montague’s essay was a love letter to the road. In it he wrote of the expressiveness of roads, of the way their layers can be can be read as a kind of palimpsest. “There is no end to the expressiveness of ancient roads,” he wrote. ‘They are dinted with history; they echo with it.” To ride the road network of England was to read its history, Montague felt: old Roman roads running alongside meandering medieval ones, which once served individual villages, and which again are paralleled by the great coaching roads that were constructed in the 18th and 19th centuries. “In the straightness of the straightest road of the three is written the nature of Roman rule in Great Britain”, Montague observed, “and in the modern straightening of the least straight road is recorded the English settlement of Ireland, and perhaps the Act of Union.”
In its forensic attention to place and the texture of the land his ride was a product of its time. It was borne of an anxiety over the retreating English landscape, a landscape that was increasingly being colonised by cars and trains and the mass infrastructure of modernity. The bike was the perfect vehicle with which to conduct a personal survey of a vanishing territory – faster than walking, more intimate than driving. “By car the thing would be easy”, he wrote, “but then travel by car is only semi-travel, verging on the demi-semi-travel that you get in trains.” On his bicycle Montague would be able to “make friends with some great trunk road” and spend some time with it; would be able to feel the warp and weft of the land he travelled over, his arms and legs acting as seismographs or divining rods as he rolled along the tarmac.