Dreams of alloy brakes and five-speed Campag

What magical places were cycle shops to a schoolboy. The smell of fresh rubber tyres and brake blocks; oil, grease, old blokes in brown overalls with slicked-back hair and an ever-present roll-up stuck to their lip.

And bikes galore — beautiful lines, featherweight frames, whitewall tyres, Campagnola derailleur gears, centre-pull brakes and streamlined leather saddles that were more comfortable than they looked, but not by much.

Peter Lowther, of Holland Road, Chatham, agrees. “I have vivid recollections of local cycle shops in the 1950s and 1960s, especially Len Chambers and Elliott’s in Canterbury Street, Gillingham,” he tells me.

“Len Chambers was originally in Corporation Street in one of the railway arches. My school friend and I cycled to Rochester most summer evenings after school to look at all the Campagnola [derailleur gear] parts in the window.

“We couldn’t afford any of them — most were second-hand but still way too expensive for pocket money.”

Peter, who went to Upbury Manor school in Gillingham, adds: “Every weekday lunch time we used to walk from school to Elliott’s to look at bikes and bits, and talk to Bert, the shop manager. It was all exciting stuff, especially being allowed ‘out back’ into the workshop, where customers were not allowed!

“On Fridays we treated ourselves to egg, ham and chips in the café a couple of doors away; I think it was called the Sunnyside. I was fortunate enough to have bought two hand-built racing cycles from them — a Carlton racer and Viking track bike. I’m still riding and looking in bike shop windows but now I can afford what’s inside!”

Mr Lowther’s first bike came from a shop in Gillingham High Street called Sid Daley’s. “They were a forerunner to Halfords, selling bikes and car accessories,” Mr Lowther says. “Sid also owned a garage in Canterbury Street which is now a bathroom centre. We lived opposite, in a 20-roomed and very cold Victorian house.

“In Livingston Circus could be found Billy Bragg’s cycle shop. They also repaired and sold mopeds and his son Bobby became a comedian after appearing on one of the Opportunity Knocks shows. Where is he now?”

Thanks, Mr Lowther. I, too, recall Len Chambers’s shop under the railway arch, and spent many a lunch-hour from the Math School peering in its window — although in my time it was used only for store and display. The arches are still there, but the shop vanished, as did many other buildings, during road widening of the early 1970s.

It would seem, however, that Bob Oakham was a much more dedicated cyclist than me. He writes to say how pleased he is that Len’s shop is still recalled fondly. “I was 15 years old when I bought my Chambers frame, 531, Nervex lugs, Campag ends,” he writes. (And we cycle geeks know what that means, don’t we?)

“Okay, the frame was second-hand, but it was my first real frame,” Bob continues. “At that time I lived in Sittingbourne, and was a member of the Canning Town Cycling Club based on the Isle of Sheppey. I raced often on the road from Bobbing to Minster on the island, an evening 10-mile time trial course — my best was 25min 35sec.

“Back to Len’s — what a nice man. I seem to remember that he would call you ‘laddie’. I would ride from home to Len’s for no more than a cup of tea and a look at unaffordable gear! One of the regrets of my life was that as a young Mod I sold my bike back to Len for a tenner so I could buy a leather jacket.”

And the fads and the fashions, Bob! But read on…

“I’ve since realised a lifelong dream: in 1994 I commissioned a made-to-measure Hetchins frame, absolutely top of the range. It will be buried with me! Forgive my ramblings, but Len was to a ‘laddie’ like me the sort of father figure support in sport that leaves a real impression.”

Farewell to Philbrook

Back in Gillingham, the masterly Memories correspondent Ted Connolly recalls Philbrook, of Arden Street, Gillingham, one of the very few frame-makers left in Kent.

Ted emails: “His workshop was his sales room, was his canteen. In other words, he did it all, in front of customers, including spraying the frames. He died about two decades ago and the shop has been demolished to make way for … yep, you’ve guessed it, flats. Every one of his hand-built frames bore the legend PAG. The initials stood for Philbrook, Alison and Glen, the latter two being his children.” Thanks, TC.

Cycle shops everywhere

Rochester historian Frank Wright came up with another almost-forgotten cycle shop: the famed Featherstone’s.

“Featherstone’s had a full cycle department in Rochester High Street and employed a full-time cycle mechanic in an old workshop at the back of their main shop,” Mr Wright told me. “I often visited this place during my employment with the GPO. They used to do some repair work on GPO cycles (1939-42). “Then there was a cycle shop further along, but I can’t remember the owner’s name. Harris had a bike shop near the Regent (later the ABC and Classic) cinema in Chatham and there was a cycle shop at the corner of High Street and New Road.”

Mr Wright then moves over the river: “Strood had two cycle shops pre- and immediate post-war. There was Eckerts in the High Street off Station Road. A Mr Bourne had a shop in North Street, opposite Vicarage Road. This area is now part of the Aveling Court Flats on the corner of Prentice Street.”

Mr Wright concluded by speaking of the legendary Len Chambers (mentioned above). “I was a keen cyclist for many years and Len Chambers and his wife Alice were great friends,” he said.

Now there was a shop! That’s where my parents bought me my first racer – a gold and black model made by Len himself. Five-speed Campag, alloy frame. It’s still in my shed … and it’s about time I took it out for a spin. Maybe when the weather’s better. Maybe when I regain my balance. And maybe when my son puts some new tyres on it … and a saddle … and checks the brakes and gears.

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16 Responses to Dreams of alloy brakes and five-speed Campag

  1. Gordon Chambers says:

    Hi all

    My name is Gordon Chambers and I am Len Chambers’ Grandson. I just want to say that it is wonderful to see that my Grandad is remembered so fondly. I have great memories of him too.

    • SteveR says:

      Excellent. I recall him well – as does my father. Steve

    • Rex Harvey says:

      I think it is possible that I went to school with your father (also named Gordon?) Gordon at St Andrew’s, though I think I was a form or two higher. I have fond memories of Chambers in Rochester and Len’s kindly advice, when saved-up pocket money bought the odd tube, tyre or sprocket for my Cinelli bike.

  2. John David Brimm says:

    Hi ,
    Just a small addition. I used to live near Cranbrook and cycled to work in Maidstone between 1963 and 1966. Quite often at the end of the working week I used to cycle, from Maidstone, over to Len Chambers’s shop in Rochester; more often than not just to talk bikes and look at the latest gear. Len was always helpful with sound advice, and would cheerfully bid me goodbye as I left to cycle to Cranbrook, 25 miles down the road.
    Len Chambers was quite a special kind of salesman of which there are too few around nowadays. I was first put in touch with the shop by my club mates in the San Fairy Ann CC who all spoke highly of Len.

    • barry walker says:

      Yes, my first bike from Len Chambers was a second-hand Holdsworth Cyclone fixed-wheel, conloy rims and very light.

      After joining Medway Wheelers I had a good start, winning the 15-mile cup in 38min 48sec.

      Remember Len coming out to the San Fairy Ann 50 t/t and giving me support.

  3. Peter Ward says:

    I remember Arnolds in Twydall green. I used to save my paper round money to buy my new bike.

    • Peter Beirne says:

      My wife Maureen was doing some family research when she discovered the Medway Memories website. It certainly brought back memories for me.

      I was serving on the cruiser Birmingham in the 1950s and between two foreign commissions quickly found my way to Len Chambers shop under the arches. He was so kind and helpful to me. I invested 15 guineas in a Cinelli super corsa frame and built up a wonderful bike using Campagnolo equipment. I was a fleeting member of the Wigmore Wheelers But went out with the local YHA club runs where I met my wife-to-be.

      In that group was a young rider who could ride the legs off just about anybody usually with a big grin on his face. Geoff Wiles went on to greater things and became a professional rider with (I think) the Holdsworth team. Much late I bought a Roy Thame frame from Holdsworths in Putney. I last saw Geoff riding at Eastways with all the major riders of the day.

      On retiring from the RN in 1975 I re-engaged with cycling and time trialled until I was 68 with my local club, the Fareham Wheelers. I still pootle about with the over-the-hill mob (Mike Eastwood rode as a semi pro in the Tour of Britain in the 1950s and still thinks he is still in it)! Happy days and memories.

      Maureen and I married on 3 April, 1960, and six weeks later I flew off to the Far East and joined HMS Cavalier for an 18-month commission! We both visited my old ship when we visited Chatham a few years ago. In order to capture me, Maureen got Elliots to build up a bike for her for the sum of £34 pounds or thereabouts. that bike is still with us and is on a set of magnetic rollers in the loft … he built his bikes to last!

      Many thanks for letting me ramble on…

      Peter Beirne

  4. harrry chesney says:

    In the 1940s Billy Bragg lived next door to us at 22 Livingstone Road he had a faithful old German shepherd called Beauty that used to lie sprawled across the pavement outside his workshop determinedly making everyone walk around him.

    The dog used to jump the six foot fence between our houses to steal our cat’s food. On one occasion when Beauty was sitting outside on the pavement he saw a cat crossing the road about fifty yards away and gave chase, the cat (was which was ours) simply stood its ground and Beauty skidded to a halt and retreated rather sheepishly.

    I first learned to ride a bicycle in Livingstone Road which in those days was not cluttered with parked cars and virtually traffic free. My Great Uncle while staying with us collapsed in the bathroom falling against the door, Billy Bragg’s son, Barry, came to the rescue he got a ladder and climbed in through the bathroom window.

    During the war big army trucks used to park along Livingstone Road, they stank of paraffin and had had big smoke stacks on the back – in an air-raid the paraffin was ignited providing a smoke screen that spread all over the town.

  5. David says:

    Wasn’t there a cycle shop on Strood High Street during the war between the Invicta and Station Road? I seem to remember that my first bike, a Hercules Roadster came from there. Does anyone else remember this shop?

  6. David says:

    Remembering back to Bragg’s in Livingstone Circus reminds me of a sign that was painted on the side of the workshop. Hope I’ve got it correct, but the phrase BILLY BRAGG BUILDS BETTER BICYCLES has always remained in my mind.

    • Derek Hatton says:

      Hi David. I used to cycle from Twydall estate normally alongside Richard Brinkman and Steven Pettett to and from Gillingham Technical School at Gardiner Street/Green Street.

      I have always remembered the phrase BILLY BRAGG BUILDS BETTER BICYCLES and although I very rarely get to drive around that area I always expect the sign to still be there. Sad isn’t it?

      Also I regularly used to visit Philbrooks premises in Arden Street, what with the school being around the corner. He was a lovely bloke. Some friends who attended Gillingham Tech, Derek Rai (Ray) who lived along the Lower Rainham Road (whose father was manager at Betabakes along Beechings Way and Mike Seago (known as Ned for you that remember the Goon Show) who lived at College Road in Gillingham by the hospital.

      I was lucky to win a prize of £50 on the premium bonds (my Mother had purchased them for me) and I went out and spent it all by buying a Jensen bike complete from a lad who was in my form, David Whitehead. It was blue metallic with chrome forks. The only other person who I knew had such a bike albeit in better condition than mine was a older lad whose surname was (is) Tong (e).

      Needless to say most people if not all used to call him Ying also after said person from the Goons, Ying Ton Ying Ton Ying Ton Ying Ton Ying Ton tiddle I po etc. A veritable pair of Goons.

      His Jensen was a lovely deep maroon with chrome forks and was always immaculate. He lived in Preston Way on the Twydall Estate, just off Romany Road.

      From memory when I first joined Wigmore cycling club, the person who I first spoke to when I turned up at the hall in the area where the Skoda dealer is (was) a chap called Pete Filmer who lived in one of the cottages at Bredhurst on the way to Maidstone. What happened to these people?

      What happened to my Jensen? Questions I expect to take to the grave unanswered. Good times and mostly good memories.

  7. Bill Keogh says:

    I was told, (maybe wrongly) that PAG stood for “Philbrook, Arden St., Gillingham” We always referred to him as Pag. I once asked him to fix a nipple to a hand brake cable for an old car. He said, I haven’t got time to do that but if you can solder, I’ll tell you how to do it so it won’t come off. And he did. (Countersink the hole on one side of the nipple, put the cable through and un-twist the strands to fill the countersink. Solder and file off any excess. Sad to hear the shop is gone. See
    https://greenjersey.wordpress.com/2007/04/06/bill-philbrook/ for some great images.

  8. Roy Morgan says:

    Memory of Len Chambers shop. As an apprentice at Winget I won £19 on the football sweep and this windfall paid for most of the bike that I wanted. The frame had been in Len’s window for a week or two and so it soon became mine with all of the other necessary bits. It was an Ernie Clements ‘Ercal’ frame to which Len’s lads attached stuff to turn it into a very passable road racer. When I went to collect the finished article I was afraid to ride it home so I pushed it across the bridge to home in Strood and just spent some time admiring it before summoning enough courage to mount it and wobble off down Brompton Lane. I joined my cycling friends in the Medway Road Club which later became The Velo Club Olympic under the guidance of Dave Friars. Training runs were every Sunday Morn at 8 o’clock starting at the gate office of the big cement works on the road heading towards Maidstone. Hell for Leather to the junction with the A20, turn left onto the A road until approaching the club’s marshals, then turn in the road to return, early Sunday Morn and little traffic then. Pass the road junction that had got us to the A20 and continue London bound until meeting the second set of marshals to turn in the road and then turn left onto the road to our original start point but now the finish. Said to be about 25 miles and to finish in 65 minutes was commendable.
    Roy Morgan.

  9. Roy Morgan says:

    There were two shops in Strood High Street which, apart from a variety of other paraphernalia did stock bicycle tyres, front and rear lamps, brake blocks, etc but they were never considered to be cycle shops like Chambers. They were Eckerts and Wacketts. Either one was available to recharge the heavy batteries that some families used to power their radios, in those days known as the wireless which, of course they were not. My favourite shop in Strood was Goodworths where I used to go every week with Mothers grocery list and all of our ration books for the weeks rations. I loved the smell in that shop and watched in wonder as the shop assistant measured and weighed the butter(margarine) cheese, maybe bacon, flour, sugar,tea, etc. No self service in those days. I think Goodworths was next to the Invicta Cinema as it was then.

  10. Paddy O'Byrne says:

    I have just purchased a bicycle, pretty vintage for restoration, amazingly good condition. It was furnished with a bell, engraved B.N. Bragg Gillingham. Is this part of your heritage in Gillingham?

    Nice to make the connection. I am in Co Kildare, Republic of Ireland.

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