The Welsh Borders Britain by Bike


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The Welsh Borders

On Clare Balding's pedal-powered UK trip, her journey into Wales sees her discover how a cycle factory went to war and find out about a bizarre village ceremony.


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60 years ago, an extraordinary man called Clive Briercliffe

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wrote a string of books about his great passion, cycling.

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Now largely forgotten,

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these overlooked gems were the culmination of a lifelong journey.

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His destination? The whole of Britain on two wheels.

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Over half a century later,

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armed with one of his cycling touring guides and riding

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his very own bicycle, a hand-built door supergalaxy,

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I will be retracing his tracks

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to find the glorious landscape he loved.

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I'm going in search of Britain by Bike.

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This is the stirring landscape of the Welsh Borders.

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Mile after mile of quiet cycling.

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Fabulous fertile farmland and peaceful valleys.

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I'm in west Shropshire at the start of my 28-mile journey

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through Border country and into Wales.

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Cycling author Harold Briercliffe described this area as being for the more discriminating cyclist.

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He says the appeal is nearly all scenic,

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but it does come with a warning, because look at those hills.

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Stunning, but not easy to ride up. Looking forward to the challenge.

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Down the centuries, this landscape has shaped people's lives in dramatic ways.

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There are stories of hill farmers who worked the land.

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Wealthy aristocrats who owned it, or lost it.

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And writers and poets who were inspired to great things by it.

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I will be encountering them all on my journey.

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My route follows just part of Harold Briercliffe's 309-mile tour

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of the Welsh Borders, beginning in Shropshire,

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travelling through some memorable country I'll be following

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the course of the River Clun, heading west.

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Then on towards the the Border, crossing Offar's Dyke and heading into Newtown, central Wales.

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And we start here in Aston on Clun, where the villagers

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have a very ancient and rather quaint celebration.

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In fact it's the only place in the whole country where this happens.

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Rochdale-born cyclist Harold Briercliffe wrote about it when he cycled through here in 1947.

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At the centre of the tradition - a tree and a bride.

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'Go westwards, climbing the short hill to Aston on Clun,

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'where the bride's tree is decorated afresh every May 29th

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'to commemorate a lady who gave a bequest to the poor at the village.'

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Rosy Evans is Secretary of the Arbour Tree Committee.

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Hey, Rosie. Nice to meet you. So this is the famous tree?

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Yes, this is the famous tree, here in Aston on Clun.

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Every year this black poplar is dressed in a ceremony dating back to pagan times -

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the rites signifying a deep connection between people and the land.

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How did the ceremony develop?

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Ancient people worshipped Bridget, ancient goddess of fertility.

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They prayed for...

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large families and fertility for the land - good crops.

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They would use what they called prayer strips,

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or if they were very poor,

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they might just use a bit of wool pulled off a sheep

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and pray for their families and the land.

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A healthy family and a good crop have always been important, and for hundreds of years

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informal tree-dressing festivals were celebrated throughout Britain.

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By the late 18th century the old customs were dying out,

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but Arbour Day in Aston on Clun was given a new lease of life

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when the son of a local landowner was married

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on the same day as the festival.

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In 1786 a local squire was married just down the road,

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and on their way back from their wedding,

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the tree was all festooned with flags and people were having lots of fun

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and they were so taken within this,

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they thought, "We must pay for the upkeep of this tree and the flags."

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So they did. And they did it through their lifetime and they left a trust.

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The generous couple belonged to the Marston family, the largest landowners in the area.

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Tree-dressing fell out of favour elsewhere,

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but thanks to the Marston bequest, it continued here and is still celebrated today,

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with a very special song.

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This is our recording machine. So when I wind this handle...

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..you'll hear the song, with a bit of luck!

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And you wrote this song?

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-Yes.

-Is this you singing it?

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This is three of me singing it and all of the music parts.

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# Come see our famous black poplar

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# With flags flying high in the sun

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# Join in our Arbour Tree Festival

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# In the village of Aston on Clun. #

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When Harold cycled through the village in 1947, it was part of the Marstons' vast Oaker Estate.

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They owned everything, including the local pub and almost every house in the village.

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Sadly, just a few years later, the last heir to the Marstons' lands died suddenly and tragically.

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The estate was broken up and sold at auction.

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For the first time, many of the villagers were able to take ownership of their own homes.

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A land-owning dynasty was at an end

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and the daily life of people in Aston on Clun was changed forever.

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But the Arbour Tree Pageant, led by a bride and groom, continues,

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so even though the great estate is no more, the Marston name

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is remembered in the ceremony they helped to keep alive.

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I can see why this area of the country appealed to Harold, and actually he says,

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"This part of west Shropshire is remarkably unsophisticated, despite its many attractions."

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That would have appealed to him.

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He loves the simplicity of an area, if it's not too commercial.

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AE Houseman, the poet,

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actually wrote about this area as the land of lost content.

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He quotes Houseman actually in the guide.

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Referring more to the quietness and the solitude of the area,

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"Clunton and Clunbury,

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"Clunenford and Clun are the quietest places under the sun."

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As I continue my journey towards Clunton,

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the sense of calm conjured by the rhyme seems appropriate.

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Although I'm not sure about Harold's route through peaceful Purslow.

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Much has changed since Houseman wrote a Shropshire Lad,

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but it turns out that his feeling for the stillness

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and sadness of this landscape was entirely instinctive.

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Many of the poems were written before he had even been here.

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But one modern writer who did come here found plenty of inspiration.

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Harold referred to this landscape as wild and stirring upland

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and that vast track of charcoal forestry over there.

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That's called Black Hill and you'll find it in the title

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of Bruce Chatwin's deepest and darkest novel - On The Black Hill.

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That is the house he stayed in when he started the book and that is the view that inspired him.

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Combining the philosophy of a nomad with the skills of a poet,

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Bruce Chatwin was a much loved writer

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who died young of an AIDS-related illness,

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which he once claimed he contracted from a bat bite.

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Back in 1979, Chatwin stayed in the coach house here at Coombe Hall,

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working on a novel set in the Welsh Borders.

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On the Black Hill vividly evokes the lives of twin brothers struggling

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to survive in the unforgiving environment of an upland farm.

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Nicholas Murray is Bruce Chatwin's biographer and an expert on the influences that shaped his work.

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So this is the landscape of the Welsh Borders, of course that was the backdrop to On The Black Hill

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and this is the place where he spent some time writing the actual book.

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He'd travelled and seen so much of the world.

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What do you think it was about this place that kept him rooted,

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albeit for quite a short time, but actually held his focus?

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It is important to think of this area as border country.

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It's at the edge of things, which for someone like him,

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who was a very divided and complex and edgy character...

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..that probably attracted him.

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He was a nomad, he moved from one place to the next.

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And On The Black Hill you might say, "Look, this is a book

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"about two Welsh hill farmers who never went out."

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But that is the whole point. Because he was putting

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his microscopic focus on two people

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in this very traditional, rural landscape,

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and looking at what happened to them when they were rooted in one place.

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And the other thing that comes out very clearly is the harshness of landscape.

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Yes, there was a sense of absolute unchanging life

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and a very elemental life. The things that we take for granted,

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flowing water and sewage and so on,

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it was a tough existence there.

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I mean, when you look around at these beautiful Welsh hills, there is a soft rolling quality to them.

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But in winter, it's a different story.

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And in terms of the farmhouse he writes about...?

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Well, one feature which one might think is almost too good to be true is that one window

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looks out on to England and one window look out on to Wales.

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And that's very characteristic feature of the Welsh Borders -

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that people are always crossing in the course of one day to do some shopping,

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they will be going from England to Wales and back to England again.

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And this sense of being between two cultures.

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What is fascinating about the book is that it is a book written by if you like an English outsider,

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about Welsh Border life, and you might expect the local population

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would be a bit sniffy, but they loved it.

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Even though if you read it carefully, it's not exactly flattering.

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There is a lot of greed and Cupidity and aggressiveness,

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as well as the beauty of the landscape.

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I think it is impossible almost to think of this area without

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On The Black Hill coming in as some sort of point of reference.

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Chatwin's works were as vivid as his life.

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And his early death robbed the world of a rare literary talent.

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A writer with exceptional insight into the land

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and the people who make their living from it.

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This area of Shropshire was remote,

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not just in the '40s when Harold Briercliffe cycled through,

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but also in the '70s when Bruce Chatwin came to write his novel.

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Both men were attracted by the area's rural seclusion, but I'm sure

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for the people who live here, such isolation can be a mixed blessing.

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Still on a clear day - and when you don't have to farm them -

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the land, those hills, look harmless.

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Except when I have to cycle up them, of course!

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I can feel a down hill bit coming.

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I can feel it!

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Up above the trees now, got to come down.

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Got to come down.

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From Coombe Hall the route takes me over the shoulder of the Black Hill

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and back down towards the River Clun.

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Clun is a small town, mainly situated on a hill to the north side of the River Clun.

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The village is a natural centre for the wild and varied region known as Clun Forest.

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Below the town is a grand old bridge,

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narrow and with pointed recesses that serve as vantage points

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for the local worthies as they look for trout.

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Amongst those local worthies, a strange sight.

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Harold must have wondered if he had cycled into the wrong century.

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The early 17th century costume worn by certain elderly men in the town

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signifies that they are almsmen.

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And this is where those strangely-attired men lived.

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The alms houses of Trinity Hospital, a place that speaks volumes about

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the hardships of working the land in this beautiful border region.

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Many farm labourers would have lived in tied cottages on estates like the Marston estate in Aston on Clun.

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So when they grew too old to work, they lost both their jobs and the roof over their heads.

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Trinity Hospital provided them with a home and still does.

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The warden is the Reverend Richard Shaw.

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How much would this place have changed since Harold Briercliffe, who is the cyclist I'm following,

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since he came through in the late 1940?

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It will have done, because...

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they opened it up to ladies in the '60s.

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And the wearing of the old gown, that went out as well.

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-So, yes, it loosened up quite bit.

-What was the old gown?

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They had a gown which they wore on Sundays and festivals, church festivals,

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which had a badge on the pocket,

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representing the Earl of Northampton, the founder.

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What do you think it is about this place that gives it its sense of calm and serenity?

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It's not always been peaceful.

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And certainly when it was men only, there were nights when they went out

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and drank rather more than they were expected to.

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They were always given a pint of beer every day.

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A pint of beer and a pint of milk. It's a funny mixture put together!

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But I think it's probably the setting.

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It is a quiet community, quite remote, really.

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-Is working on the land here very hard?

-It is quite hard.

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When you get to the top end of the valley it is about 1,600 feet,

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so it's quite cold.

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The main crop really is sheep

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and so the lambing period is always a trying period.

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Quite difficult.

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Depending on the weather, and it lasts probably for about three months

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and at that time the farmers are on the go seven days,

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24 hours every day.

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83% of Shropshire is given over to agriculture and for hundreds

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of years the majority of people here relied on the land for their living.

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That's why these alms houses were founded four centuries ago.

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They are said to be the product of the Earl of Northampton's guilty conscience

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after he was implicated in the murder of fellow aristocrat, Sir Thomas Overbury.

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As an act of penance, the Earl set up Trinity Hospital to provide homes for "old men

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of good character" who had worked all their lives on the land.

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Nowadays, Trinity opens its doors to people from all backgrounds.

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But retired farm worker Harold Francis is one resident who would still meet the Earl's approval.

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How long have you been living here?

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Well, I'm in my 13th year now

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and there's only one person here been here longer than I have.

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And it's very nice here.

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I've always been more or less alone. I used to love to work,

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when I was working, I used to love to work on my own.

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When I finished, I could see what I had done.

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Well, I've enjoyed farming, I've had a lovely life.

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So you like the manual side of farm work...

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getting in there?

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I went straight up the field.

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You have seen the stripes up and down the field with arrows.

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You've got to took pride in having them straight

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and even turning hay with a hand rake. Those sort of jobs.

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You got satisfaction out of it. I did anyhow.

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So you're one of the only genuine residents,

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you're the person this was actually built for originally?

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It was built for shepherds, retired shepherds and farmers.

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Of course if that rule persisted now, I should be the only one living here!

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In Harold Briercliffe's day, Trinity Hospital was men only.

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One of the many areas of discrimination

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even during the modernising world of post-war Britain.

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By contrast, cycling clubs were refreshingly inclusive.

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Take the Hitchen Nomads, Harold's cycling club.

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Renee Stacey, now 92 years old, is the oldest surviving founder member.

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She recalls the enthusiasm of their early days.

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We started with quite a good number.

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Within the first 12 months we went up to about 80.

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Very, very popular.

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This was the pre-war meeting place of the Hitchen Nomads.

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That tank was the First World War tank.

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That was our meeting place and we loved it.

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One night we had an all-night run.

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And in the middle of the night, we found a great big sand pit

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and we all sat around in this sand pit and had our sandwiches.

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There was more sand than bread,

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but at least you enjoyed every bit of it, and the company was always so good.

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Once you'd made a cycling friend, you've made them for life.

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The next stage of Harold's journey takes me into the heart

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of this beautiful landscape and to an impressive reminder of a centuries' old divide.

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A line climbing steeply southwards from lower Spode,

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a little east of Newcastle, has one of the best-preserved and accessible parts of Offa's Dyke for company.

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Harold's route actually takes us through Shropshire and into Wales.

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And this -

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huffing and puffing up the hill! -

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and this bit's actually worth coming off the road for.

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Because you get to see up here...

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Offa's Dyke.

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Harold actually recommends in the book

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that you take a closer look. That is exactly what I'm going to do.

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Offa's Dyke really is incredible.

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Everyone's heard of Hadrian's Wall, but that's like a garden fence compared to this.

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Built in the 8th century by Offa, the King of Mercia,

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the dyke is actually created from the land.

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An imposing symbol of Offa's political power.

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This huge bank of soil separated the fertile lands of Mercia,

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from the poorer hill country in the Welsh kingdom of Powys.

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Even today, 1,200 years after its original construction,

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it's a permanent reminder of that division.

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It is pretty big, you know,

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and the most impressive thing is the length of it.

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It is 176 miles long. So it was a pretty major statement by old Offa.

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Legend has it that if you were an Englishman

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and you got discovered by Welsh on their side, you got hung.

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And if you were a Welshman and you got discovered on the English side, you got your ears chopped off.

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Which either way isn't particularly pleasant.

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So you go this way, ears chopped off. Hung ears - chopped off.

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Hung - ears chopped off.

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Grow up, Clare!

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I've just done my knee in. Serves me right.

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It is now time to go into Wales, and I don't think I'm in too much danger of being hung these days.

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Harold reckoned it was better to start outside and have that sense of transition.

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So you notice the change in temperature if you like.

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I mean that broadly speaking.

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There are many miles of hill roads and paths that will enthrall

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the adventurous wheelman when he first makes their acquaintance.

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The road undulates amidst forestry land and then turns a corner to the

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right, where there is a splendid view across the Severn valley.

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Down hill bit. Definitely now.

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This is fantastic! And the view...is stupendous.

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This is the Kerry Ridgeway. Just look at that.

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Hee hee!

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The later stages of my route have taken me from Offa's Dyke

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over the border at Anchor, past Kerry and on to the closing stretch of the journey, towards Newtown.

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The sun is beginning to dip in the sky, getting towards the end.

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But my finishing point is Newtown down there and Harold mentions

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in his guide that factories and warehouses played a big part in the town.

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In fact, that factory there was one of the biggest manufacturers of bicycles in the UK

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and I'm going to head down there to meet a former cycling superstar to find out more about all of that

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and also I hope a bit more about Harold Briercliffe.

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Until recently, Barry Holborn was Britain's most successful Tour de France cyclist,

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chalking up eight stage wins between 1965 and 1978.

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His career spanned three decades

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and now aged 69, he is still a keen cyclist.

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You can't be a cyclist without passion.

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And you do have this passion.

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You can do all the right training. You can do all the dietary work.

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You can do everything under the sun and you might not just make it,

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and you wonder why, because there's a little something.

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That little speck you have got to have.

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After his professional career, Barry became involved

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in bicycle manufacturing with the Coventry Eagle brand.

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A cycling celebrity,

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he often crossed paths with author and journalist, Harold Briercliffe.

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So you knew Harold, you met him. What was he like?

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I knew Harold very well. I came back to this country after a professional career on the continent.

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I came back in '81. At that time I became involved

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with the British Eagle cycle factory, the other side of town here

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and Harold was one of these folkloric journalists who were always around at certain functions and what have you.

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Cycling journalists, they were few and far between and everyone knew who they all were.

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I can see him today with his sort of gnarled expression.

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Not only was Harold an experienced trade journalist,

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he was also fascinated by the design and construction of bicycles.

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The back pages of his touring guides are dominated by adverts for famous British brands - Raleigh, Eagle,

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Royal Enfield, BSA, Phillips,

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so he would certainly have been interested in the Phillips factory

0:23:150:23:19

here in Newtown, although it had a hidden history.

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In the late 1930s, the Government started

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a rearmament programme and set up shadow factories across the nation.

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These top secret plants appeared to outsiders to be innocently making everyday components,

0:23:310:23:36

but were fact building munitions and parts vital to the war machine.

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Bicycle manufacture was the perfect cover and the line works at Newtown

0:23:430:23:47

was built as a shadow factory allegedly making cycle tubing.

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The end of the war coincided with a new appetite for cycling.

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So the work force at Newtown dropped the pretence of building bicycles in favour of the real thing.

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Here is the most modern cycle works in Europe and backed by the world's largest production resources,

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Phillips bicycles are produced from tempered steel.

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There would have been factories within factories.

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There would have been sections with foundries, producing the steel chain sets.

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There would have been sections building the frames and then

0:24:220:24:26

they would have been produced the bicycles on an assembly line.

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A good design produced to the highest standard

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in one of most modern factories of the world.

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There was an era when the bicycle was the mode of transport

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for the majority of people in Britain.

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It was a means of getting from home to town,

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home to school, home to work.

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When Harold wrote his guide in 1948, there are more than 120 British companies making bicycle parts

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and demand for bicycles outstripped supply.

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Only a few years later, the relaxation of import restrictions

0:25:040:25:08

and the growing affordability of cars brought the British industry to its knees

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and led to closure of the Newtown Phillips factory,

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once the largest cycle store in Europe.

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Harold rode past the factory and he mentions it in the tour guide.

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What do you think he would make of it now?

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I think he would have shed a tear.

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Because he would say, what used to be here and what is.

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But unfortunately it is the demise. You could reel off a whole list -

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Phillips, Raleigh, BSA and these were all big, big manufacturing capacities of bicycles.

0:25:350:25:42

By the '60s, cycle sales had halved and the British Cycle Corporation had taken over the manufacture

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of almost every British brand of bicycle.

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One exception was Dawes, the company that made Harold's bike.

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What about this bicycle? This was Harold's bike,

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the last bike he ever had, actually.

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But that is classic of British cycling manufacture.

0:26:030:26:07

Because they produced top class touring bicycles.

0:26:070:26:10

The gearing system would have been low enough

0:26:100:26:14

to enable people to ride hills, reasonably easy. Even handlebars.

0:26:140:26:18

That is what they call a randonnee handlebar, or a leisure handlebar.

0:26:180:26:24

It's much happier when it's going fast.

0:26:240:26:26

It's much happier when it is flat and fast.

0:26:260:26:29

That is not me saying it. It's the bike saying it.

0:26:290:26:31

It's not nearly such a comfortable or smooth ride

0:26:310:26:36

when I'm having to change gears and make it work.

0:26:360:26:39

Well, I mean... it's still a lightweight frame.

0:26:390:26:44

Lightweight for the era in which it was built.

0:26:440:26:48

In fact I raced on the same tubing,

0:26:480:26:51

but built into a racing designed bicycle.

0:26:510:26:54

Exactly the same - Reynolds 531 tubing.

0:26:540:26:57

What advice can you give me as I continue my journey in the footsteps of Harold?

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There's only one thing you can always do is spend time riding a bicycle.

0:27:020:27:07

We all say just ride the bicycle, enjoy it.

0:27:070:27:10

The more you ride, the more you will enjoy it.

0:27:100:27:12

I shall take that advice to heart. Harold described this area

0:27:140:27:17

as having the appeal of countryside on the edge of wilderness

0:27:170:27:21

and following his route, I've discovered many stories that seem to echo that.

0:27:210:27:25

An ancient tree ceremony connecting man and the land.

0:27:250:27:28

A writer inspired by hill farming.

0:27:280:27:31

Offa's Dyke, a political statement built from the land.

0:27:310:27:35

From farmers to cyclists, all have forged a lifelong relationship

0:27:360:27:41

with this countryside.

0:27:410:27:43

From meeting Barry in particular, I feel...

0:27:430:27:47

as if I understand more

0:27:470:27:50

certainly the racing cyclist's psyche, and also because he knew Harold

0:27:500:27:55

and talked about him and could tell me more about this bike,

0:27:550:27:58

I feel that bit more privileged to be on the Supergalaxy,

0:27:590:28:03

the last bike that Harold ever owned.

0:28:030:28:06

This is my companion and it was his as well.

0:28:060:28:10

Many times in my cycling lifetime, I have been assured by well-meaning advisors that cycling is finished,

0:28:120:28:19

slain by the advances made in motor car and motorcycle ownership.

0:28:190:28:24

This is just not so.

0:28:240:28:26

Bicycles and bicyclists have survived.

0:28:260:28:29

They will continue for a long time yet.

0:28:290:28:33

Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

0:28:530:28:56

E-mail [email protected]

0:28:560:29:00

Clare Balding sets out on a two-wheel odyssey to rediscover Britain from the saddle of a touring cycle. In a six-part series, she follows in the wheeltracks of compulsive cyclist and author Harold Briercliffe whose evocative guidebooks of the late 1940s lovingly describe bypassed Britain - a world of unspoiled villages, cycle touring clubs and sunny B roads.

Carrying a set of Harold's Cycling Touring Guides for company and riding his very own Dawes Super Galaxy bicycle, Clare goes in search of the world he described. Is it lost for ever? Or still there, waiting to be found?

Clare's journey into Wales is rich in literary connections to both Bruce Chatwin and AE Housman. She reveals how a cycle factory went to war and finds out about the Bride's Tree - a bizarre village ceremony with a dark secret.