A first-hand, very revealing account of a tour taken by three British cyclists’ in France appeared in the gazette of the London based Stanley Club in 1899. Describing waking up on the morning of the tour, the writer commented that he had,
‘A feeling something akin to a schoolboy on breaking up day. It is delightful to think that for a brief spell you are free from the eternal grind of business- the everlasting struggle after wealth and not getting it.’
A desire for escape and relaxation can certainly be seen in the activities of the three cyclists on tour. The articles title, ‘The Land of the Darned Moosoo’, sets the tone for an article in which the trio’s behaviours very much resembled those touring cyclists described in part one.
A central attraction of the tour certainly seems to have been the opportunity to visit French music halls or cabarets. These were spaces where popular entertainments took place on stage- whether it was singing, dancing (the can-can was very much at home in French cabarets) or comedy, whilst a seated audience who smoked and drank to their hearts content watched on (think something along the lines of Moulin Rouge).
That these were not places of entirely ‘reputable’ entertainment can be seen in the ‘finely developed’ lady singers and ‘stomach dancer’ that the three cyclists enjoyed at one music hall in Vannes. At another music hall visited by the trio, the author describes how,
‘A damsel from the stage kidded us to stand her a drink. Jack was particularly struck with her, and we had almost to use force to get him out of the place, in fact, I came to the conclusion that he is a man more amorous than the average.’
Drinking seems to have played a central part of the tour. The writer stated his firm belief that, ‘to my mind, the best thing to cycle on in France is white wine and water’, whilst the youngest member of the group was awarded,
‘The insignia of the order of the Blotting Pad for meritorious conduct in connection with the absorption of French beer.’
Of course not all British cycling tourists drank. Many used the bicycle to experience foreign history and culture. However, even here British tourists seem to have made a habit of ‘distinguishing’ themselves. In 1891 Cycling remarked upon how you could see a typical English cycling tourist walking around Paris dressed in,
‘A dusty sweater, with hair unkempt, a dirty pipe in his mouth and his hands in his pockets’, before entering a Cathedral in the same attire. The tourist then, ‘slouches noisily about the aisles, talks in nearly full voice and does his best to maintain the glory of his country’. The article goes onto describe how such a cyclist, ‘ mostly gets broke about a week before his time is up and has to come back and tell everybody that he couldn’t stand those beastly French’.
Amidst this there were tourists who did nothing to damage Britain’s reputation abroad. Comparing themselves to their more rowdy touring brethren, writers in Cycling described how they would instead, ‘ride easily along the lovely Seine valley’, and ‘waste all their time looking at the scenery, the ruins, cathedrals and other such rot, instead of having ‘a good old rorty time’’.
Perhaps rather than focussing on our rowdy ancestors we should instead be proud of our Victorian forbearers who used the bicycle as a means of exploring new countries, admiring new scenery and ‘improving alike their bodies and minds’. These were people who spread the good name of Britain abroad, behaving in a well-mannered and polite way.
However, the question remains of how should we feel about our less reputable Victorian ancestors? Ashamed and embarrassed? Perhaps.
Or maybe instead we should feel a sympathetic affinity to them. After all, these people were pioneers, English tourists abroad in an age when the world wasn’t built to cater for English tourists. They lived in an age where not everyone abroad spoke English, when there were few others singing badly in the early hours of the morning, when speaking loudly and being inappropriately dressed in a cathedral was something that didn’t make you fit in, but stand out. They very much took English culture to French villages that had never experienced it; in a period before cars, cheap air travel and the internet they were the frontiersmen of globalisation.
Perhaps then we should pay them the compliment given to all great historical figures, to all those who have cleared the way for later generations. This was a group who was before their time.