THE SPEED OF TRAVEL

WALKING HOME

Before the days of the internal combustion engine it was natural to walk. Especially if you lived in the country, you had to walk miles to do anything. If you were rich enough to own a horse you would ride; otherwise it wasn’t a quadruped, only shanks’s pony. When motor cars first appeared on the roads the maximum speed was limited to 4 mph. In 1894 the speed was raised to 14 mph, and so the man walking in front with a red flag, which was the previous requirement, had to be dispensed with. The powers that be did not expect him to sprint! It was still pretty safe for pedestrians to walk just about anywhere, because even at fourteen miles per hour you had enough time to get out the way of the traffic. After 1903 the speed limit was raised to 20 mph. This made the roads much less safe for walkers, and in any case speed limit was doubtlessly frequently ignored by the increasing fast motor cars.

The growth of the motor bus soon followed, and the habit of walking more than a few hundred yards was soon lost. By the 1950s walking down country lanes was still relatively common, but the main roads were places where you never saw anyone on foot. People would not have lasted long if they had tried to walk. As nobody but the fairly affluent could afford a car, it meant ‘get on your bike’ or ‘wait for the bus’ were the only choices for most people.

This was a huge change in the way the public got around. In about a generation the age-old habit of walking disappeared. Now everyone aspired to owning their own form of motor transport. Before the Second World War a motor car was still out of the question for the vast majority, but a motor cycle wasn’t. All types of folk, from the upper middle class of T. E. Lawrence and Evelyn Waugh to the rising working class like my father and my father-in-law travelled round on motorbikes. Unlike today, when a secondhand Superbike can cost considerably more than a new car, a motorbike was a genuinely cheap way to join the motor age. A motorbike was the ideal conveyance for one, but it wasn’t meant as family transport; nevertheless my father-in-law took his entire family on a camping holiday to Devon with his motor cycle and sidecar. His wife rode pillion, and their three little children (and the luggage) squeezed into the sidecar.

HONDA CITY EXPRESS

In the sixties the nature of the two-wheeled motorist changed from the adventurous but respectable members of society to the immature young  Mods and Rockers. The motor scooter made its appearance; the small wheeled Lambretta was invented to take advantage of all the undercarriages left over from the planes of WW2.

Meanwhile the middle-aged members of society were busy buying their first secondhand car. For most this mean four wheels, but there was a dedicated minority who preferred three.  The principal attraction of the three-wheeler to many was the fact that it attracted a lower rate of road fund tax. The main disadvantage was the undoubted lack of stability that attended only three points of contact with the road. The Reliant and the Bond Minicar were attractive to the working class motorist; the Morgan three-wheeler, which unlike the other two had its third wheel at the back, was the preserve of the upper classes. You can see that class was still very important in the early days of mass motoring.

But what about walking home? I did walk the four miles from Norwich to my home in Poringland once, but it was an uncomfortable experience. To walk on the road would have been suicidal, so this meant walking on the verge. There was no footpath, so this meant trudging over the grups and gullies that periodically punctuated my progress. Some years later, when I had moved to the other side of Norwich, I walked a similar distance home. This time I didn’t have to navigate the long grass of the verge because there was a pavement all the way. The presence of a footpath meant that it was theoretically possible for people to walk to work, although none did. A couple of hundred years ago it was not remarkable for a young man to walk from Bury St Edmunds to Norwich in pursuit of a job. This distance puts Poringland to Norwich in the shade, but even the four mile journey is a long walk by todays standards. The athletic young might occasionally run such a distance, but nowadays people have completely lost the habit of walking.

JOSEPH MASON

FOR MEMORIES OF EAST ANGLIAN LIFE

joemasonspage@gmail.com

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