Sunday, 14 December 2008

A Canterbury Pilgrimage, Joseph and Elizabeth Robins Pennell (1885)

Seeley and Company 79pp 1 shilling

An illustrated account of a ride on an early tandem tricycle journey made by an American couple whose cycling travelogues did much to make wheeled touring respectable in Victorian Britain

In August 1884 the Pennell’s recreated the journey made famous by Chaucer’s pilgrims on what, I suspect, was a Humber Club Cycle Quadricycle Roadster. These extraordinary conveyances from the penny-farthing era are now completely unknown. Clearly, however, at the time of their manufacture, they made possible travel of a kind that had hitherto required a horse and trap.

This was the first volume penned by the Pennells – over the following decade they would traverse Europe and produce written and sketched accounts of their adventures. He drew, she wrote. That said, in this edition, there are two quite separate styles of illustration. One is naturalistic, the other a cartoonish take on Chauceresque emblams.

The Kentish jaunt is the basis for a charming, gentle account of the garden of England. They seek out the pilgrim’s milestones – the Tabard Inn, Boughton Hill and, of course, the shrine at their journey’s end.

They can have had no idea how completely the county would change in the century that followed. To read them now is to visit an almost unknown world. Deptford and Blackheath are villages separated by countryside. In places, the roadsides are thronged with tramps. And, the Thames is crowded with barges and commercial sailing ships.

There were clearly enough cyclists on this route for their wheels not to cause shrieks of amazement, although several people reacted with concern at the sight of Joseph trying to catch their likeness in his sketch pad.

The book is of the size and style of a school exercise book with a stitched seam. According to Irving Leonard, writing in Bicycling in 1967, this, and the Pennell’s other publications, sold in large numbers from railway bookstands. And their import to cycling history, was the role that they playing in making cycle touring respectable.

Unused to wheeled travellers without horses, some sections of Victorian society viewed bicyclists with alarm. The Pennell’s, by taking their travel cues from such respectable guides as Chaucer, and later John Bunyan, showed that were a conveyance suitable for gentle folk. And by painting such an attractive picture of their tours, they did their bit to fuel the ensuing cycling boom. Today, this account of a cross-county pilgrimage delivers readers an evocative transport in time.
Incidentally, Kessinger publishing are currently republishing this book, and much of the rest of the Pennell's work. Given that you can still pick up originalls for less than £20 (and sometimes less than £5), it might be worth holding out for an original.

PS December 2008

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