Country Matters: My marvellous collapsible velocipede

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The Independent Online
FOR someone who lives by rural rhythms, any visit to London is a traumatic experience, to be suffered as rarely as possible. The noise, the fumes, the thousands of people and above all the generally frantic air are enough to make one bolt for home before any business has been accomplished.

Yet there is one means of lessening the horrors, and that is to have personal transport in the form of a bicycle. Clearly, to venture into the maelstrom on two wheels is not the safest of policies; but a bike does confer blessed freedom of movement, enabling one to choose one's own routes, and to escape delays of other people's making.

The problem is to have a trusty steed in the right place at the right moment - and I like to think that I was a pioneer of the practice of keeping a bicycle at a main-line railway station. Some 20 years ago a few hardy riders began to frequent the combined lost-property and left-luggage depot at Paddington. Maybe a dozen of us found that we could stable our bikes in warm, dry quarters, from which we could remove them every morning without the tiresome formality of filling in forms or signing books. For a pittance - about pounds 15 a year - we could come and go as we pleased, needing only a season ticket to the lost-property office.

Today the same system obtains, but alas, the band of punters has grown disastrously, as have the fees. No doubt the swingeing increases are designed to keep numbers down; but the cost has now reached such a pitch as to exclude part-time users: only if you need a bike most days of the week can participation still be worthwhile.

For the past couple of years I have hung on, calculating the theoretical expense of taxis, Tubes and buses that I have managed not to take - to say nothing of parking fees and fines which I have contrived to avoid. As long as the annual charge remained under pounds 100, and the cost of one visit a month was therefore no more than pounds 8, I reckoned membership was still worthwhile. But now that a year's subscription has shot up to pounds 121, I am considering my options.

The alternative - to bring a bicycle up and down on the train from our part of the world - costs pounds 6 for each return journey. Besides the expense, there is also the tedious business of cramming the bike into the back of the car, unloading it at the station, and then - most probably - entering into an altercation with the guard, who claims that his van is full.

All these problems can be avoided by having a collapsible machine that folds to a size which prevents even the most zealous railway official charging for it. In this context I always think of the author-explorer Peter Fleming (elder brother of Ian), who, in writing of an expedition to discover the source of a river, recorded that the party took with them 'a portable canoe, very rightly advertised as collapsible'.

This has always seemed to me the fatal flaw of folding bicycles - that they are too flimsy and too small to give a big rider either confidence or a comfortable position. Yet now at last I have discovered one that easily folds into half its length, and at the same time is fully up to carrying someone of six foot two. This is the Worksong, designed by a lone enthusiast, Mike Strutt: in every particular a full-scale mountain bike, with a full-sized frame, 21 gears and a high technical specification, it is made unique among such tough machines by the fact that it folds in half when two nuts are undone by an Allen key.

Fired by the acquisition of this excellent device, I decided to test it on a foray to Cambridge, where I was due to visit someone in a village five miles out of town. The cheapest way of accomplishing the journey would be to take the bike on the train, ride across central London, entrain again, and pedal out into the country.

Luckily the day proved dry, with only a gentle breeze. Folded in two, the bike went into the car without the usual struggle, and on to the high-speed train without ticket or argument. At Paddington I took about 30 seconds to crank it together, and 20 minutes later, after a rapid transit past Madame Tussaud's, I was at King's Cross.

There, two surprises lay in store. The first was that nobody even tried to make me pay to take the bike to Cambridge: on the contrary, a leaflet put out by Network SouthEast positively welcomed cycles, free of charge, on most trains outside rush-hours. But the second surprise - after these blandishments - was that the little rattletrap I boarded had no space of any kind for velocipedes. What would have happened if my machine had not been a folder, I am not sure, for it would have jammed one of the doorways; as it was, I unhinged the Worksong again and stuck it in the corner.

After the one-in-four hills that flank our home valley, the prairies surrounding Cambridge seemed sybaritically low and level: a leisurely roll round the Backs, a spin out along the Madingley Road, and I reached my destination half an hour ahead of schedule.

The stages of my homeward journey were much the same, except that in London I made a detour to St James's and Knightsbridge. On the train I fell happily to calculating how much money I had saved: pounds 10 on taxis in Cambridge, for sure, and maybe pounds 15 in London. Against that had to be set the fact that the Worksong, being a highly bred machine, with refinements such as push-button gear changers, costs more than pounds 500.

Still, I told myself, only 20 such journeys would pay for it. And in any case, when London is not calling, I ride it around the Cotswolds with no mean benefit to health and morale. (Inquiries on the Worksong to 8 Dagmar Road, Wood Green, London N22 4RT; 081-888 5650.)

WE HAVE not yet heard how our house has been rated for council tax; but no doubt it was anxiety on this score that provoked an unpleasant dream, in which an inspector arrived, unannounced, to make an official census of the creatures living on our premises.

By this, it seemed, he meant not the dogs and cats, which had already been declared on some form, but other fellow-dwellers such as rats, mice, spiders and so on. There followed exchanges that would have been ridiculous had they not carried sinister, big-brotherly overtones.

How many rats were there in the house? the man demanded. I said that as far as I knew, there were none alive, although the cats often catch one in the farmyard and bring the corpse indoors. What about mice? Again, I maintained that we had none indoors.

'Dead vermin, then,' said the official nastily, scribbling on his form. As his questions continued, my anxiety increased: would I have to tell him about the snail (or is it a slug?) that somehow comes up from the cellar and leaves glassy trails on the sitting-room rug in the night? Would I have to let on that a colony of silverfish inhabit the warm stonework behind the Aga? What would he charge for each of these - and for all the other creatures such as woodlice and earwigs that live comfortably, without annoying humans, in the interstices of an ancient building?

How the interview ended I cannot say, for suddenly I woke up in a muck sweat. I only hope that the nightmare was a figment of my imagination, and not a portent of the shape of things to come.