There were a few silver linings around the dark cloud of disappointment that had gathered after it became clear that my right knee didn’t share my ambitious tramping plans. One was my discovery of the Museum of Bicycle History in Camelford, an eccentric and wonderful collection of bicycles and memorabilia, housed in a former railway station, a fascinating example of rail infrastructure recycled into contemporary bicycle use.
I was on the Western Greyhound bus to Tintagel, where locals claim that the nearby castle ruins are those of Arthurian legend (though which now are used to lure tourists and sell cheap plastic swords in stones). After making a turn at the crossroads, I noticed several signs along the road: “Bicycle History Museum,” “Museum of Bicycle History,” and “ BICYCLE MUSEUM.”
Ding ding ding DING DING DING!!!! I rang the stop request bell and begged the driver to stop and let me out, and he obliged. The existence of this museum was a complete surprise to me, and I was thrilled that I had stumbled upon it. The museum is run by a older couple, John and Sue Middleton, who opened their collection of over 400 bicycles to the public in 1992 in the old railway depot at Camelford, a station left rail-less by the Beeching cuts in the 1960’s when the UK’s rail network was slashed mercilessly by shortsighted bureaucrats and the auto lobby.
Like a kid in a candy store, I spent the whole morning looking around the museum, and chatting with Sue about their amazing collection, and going through their library of cycling manuals, bicycles, and cycle clothing catalogs.
There are some remarkable bikes in the museum, including a von Drais velocipede hobby-horse from 1816- the precursor to the modern bicycle. A vast collection of accessories, oil lamps, clothing, books, signs and posters gives a real flavour of the history of the bicycle in Britain. In the background, historic bicycle songs played on a loop, like “a bicycle built for two” and Queen’s anthem “Bicycle race.”
There was something sad about the museum too. I was one of only three visitors the whole morning, even though hundreds of cars drove by the entrance. The whole place smelled of mildew, and it was obvious that a good part of the collection was threatened by leaks in the roof. Many of the items are irreplaceable- a critical cultural link to a past where quality was valued over quantity- where enjoyment of the journey was a superior aspiration than arriving in the shortest time possible.
Though Sue and John have kept the museum alive with a love of bicycle culture and history, as well as a good amount of their own money and time, this is a resource that ultimately needs to be supported by the government or foundations, or it will wither as surely as the railway network that has provided its home.
Compared with the gleaming brand new glitzy Transport Museum in London, the Bicycle Museum was run down, neglected, and almost forgotten, despite the best efforts of its owners. A reflection of current transport policy and how cycling has been rejected by successive governments influenced by the road lobby, the museum now requires an influx of cash to preserve the collection and ensure its future. This is a jewel in the rough whose time has come to be polished and promoted. If you know anyone with a large trust fund who is enamoured of bicycle culture, there is a great opportunity here. They could also use a volunteer web designer and webmaster, and a marketing specialist (at the very least to sort out a consistent name and logo).
A beautiful and lush garden has been planted where the platforms and the rails once stood- where, prior to the vicious Beeching cuts, travellers said their tearful goodbyes and young Cornish men departed for two world wars, some of them for the last time. The right of way has been largely lost, which is unfortunate for all of us- but particularly a loss for the local community who could now be benefiting from the visitors that the nearby Camel Trail (built on the same abandoned branch line) attracts.
Continuous and integral rights-of-way are so crucial to transport systems- they are like humpty dumpty- once one building has been erected the whole line loses value. Thanks to the railbanking law in the states, there is a framework to preserve abandoned rail lines for non-motorised or future rail use. In sixties Britain, there was no such law and often valuable and irreplaceable level, direct rights-of-way became part of adjacent gardens, new housing developments or- god forbid- car parks.
Like the train, the bicycle has been neglected by the dominance of the automobile. However, while the main rail lines in the UK have been recording increasing ridership as frustrated drivers flee the congested roads, the increase in cars has intimidated all but the bravest souls from cycling for transport, a habit that has been decreasing in most places outside of London.
The museum was like a phantom, an eerie reminder of the historic partnership between rail and pedal. While I ate lunch, a future vision hovered over the sunny garden: tourists coming from all over the UK by train and by bike using a revitalised national cycle/rail network- as complete and maintained as the roads, a rebirth of community and good health, and a departure from corporate dominance of transport policy and addiction to vehicles that make you fat, weak, and unhappy.
Like faithful friends who watch over you knowingly as you throw your life away on cheap excesses, the bicycle and the train wait patiently in the wings for humanity to re-discover what we have forsaken in the rush to mufflers, asphalt, broken glass and petrol. In the crisis to come, there will be a second bicycle renaissance, and then we’ll be glad for the Middletons and their glorious obsession with all things bicycle.
Next Post: in which Josh discovers the Bicycle History Museum’s Gift Shop, cruises to the Camelford ATM on a borrowed Schwinn girl’s bike with ape bars, and rapes his bank account to fund his own obsession with bicycle history….
Photos courtesy http://kimbofo.typepad.com/ and http://www.bbc.co.uk/cornwall/uncovered/bikegallery.shtml