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.