Walter MacGregor Robinson captured the imagination of many off-road wheelers of his day – a tribute
If credit must be given to any one person for the cycling boom which followed the 1914-18 war it surely should be to the late Walter MacGregor Robinson, better known as “Wayfarer”, and to his many friends simply as “Robbie”. Perhaps some other cycling writers of that time, such as F. T. Bidlake, G. Herbert Stancer (“Robin Hood”) and Fitzwalter Wray (“Kuklos”), helped to some extent, but they preached mainly to the converted, whereas it was to the young cyclist, just emerging after the dark and restricting war-time days, that “Wayfarer” took his message by his writings in “Cycling” and latterly by his lantern-talks. His cycling gospel was simple “as little bicycle as possible”, telling the youngsters of those days to get rid of their “sit up and beg” bicycles, and if that was not financially possible, for money was scarce in those times, to fit dropped bars, narrower tyres, a lightweight saddle, celluloid mudguards and a saddle-bag. He also suggested, I think with his tongue in his cheek, that they should throw their old steel mud-guards, along with their rear carriers, over the nearest hedge, but I do not think he meant that literally, for “Wayfarer” was a great conservationist, before the word assumed its present day importance.
It is hard to make present-day cyclists appreciate the esteem in which “Wayfarer” was held by the young wheelmen of the early “twenties”. He was truly idolized. To give an idea of his popularity, I would mention that dozens of cyclists regularly used to make their way on Sundays to the old “Crown” at Llandegla, where “Robbie” frequently called for tea, for a chance of speaking to their “hero”. On the occasion of his lectures, enthusiasts from various parts of the country would ride hundreds of miles to hear him speak, and on one evening in Liverpool, “Wayfarer” gave a repeat lecture almost immediately, for so many had been unable to get into the first performance. When he once had his cycle stolen from a church porch at Prenton, Birkenhead, enough money was collected from his admirers for a new one within a couple of days and duly presented to him, with an engraved silver plaque on the seat-tube. I know his mail was tremendous, and considering he worked full time in an insurance office in Dale Street, Liverpool, I cannot just imagine how he coped with it.
At the time I speak of, he rode a Rover light roadster, with shallow dropped North Road bars (as favoured by members of his club, the Anfield B.C.) and an ordinary B-10 Brooks saddle, not the narrow Champion pattern. In practically everything he did, he was a perfectionist, both in his business and pastime. His writing was exceptionally neat and uniform, and the little note-books he kept of his travels were a model of what such records should be. In only one thing he failed – he would not clean his bicycle. He used to say, “Cycles are for riding, not for cleaning!” But I think the real reason was that he just hadn’t time, being so involved with his articles to the press and in replying to his multitude of correspondents. Furthermore, he had a real dislike of dirty hands, which are inseparable from bike cleaning.
I have often been asked if “Wayfarer” was really a rough-stuff cyclist. My answer is a qualified “Yes”. But he was not the first touring cyclist to tackle rough byways and mountain tracks. This credit must go to the late A. W. Rumney, the C.T.C. Councillor, of Keswick, whose rough-stuff cycling adventures in the mountainous regions of Palestine really made cycling history in those early days. “Wayfarer”, however, was the first one to actually advocate cyclists taking to the mountain tracks, footpaths and byways, and he practised what he preached, which is really remarkable, for during World War I, when an infantryman in the trenches, he was badly wounded in the leg, which could be painful on occasions. At this juncture I should like to record that, during his spell in the front line, he continued to write his usual cycling page, which he whimsically called, “Between the Wire”, referring, of course, to the barbed-wire entanglements in front of the trench.
To return to his “rough-stuffing”. Although I did not ride with “Robbie” regularly, when I did go out with him we generally found something a bit rougher than the main road. Apart from the “Over the Top” route (as far as I remember, “Wayfarer” never referred to it as the Nant Rhyd Wilym), we crossed Penline and Bwlch Arthur, also from Nannerch to Llangwyfan (his “London Bridge”), which was then by exceptionally stony and rutted lanes. Another favourite was the Bwlch-pen-Barras over the shoulder of Moel Fammau, in those days rough and overgrown, much as it had been left, following the decay of coaching, and totally devoid of trees. One evening, with a mutual friend, F. H. Horrocks, we made our way over a rough and cobbled track across Formby Moss, where once lake-dwellers in prehistoric times built their homes on crannogs.
Let me conclude with a funny story. One afternoon, “Robbie” and I were approaching the top of Horseshoe Pass, when the window of a stationary car opened and out came some screwed-up papers and other rubbish onto the side of the road. “Wayfarer” immediately dismounted, picked the papers up, knocked at the car window, and handed all the rubbish back, with the curt comment, “I think you have dropped these!” I told you he was a conservationist!
(Huyton-with-Roby, Liverpool) CYRIL R. ROWSON
Related:- OVER THE TOP – Nant Rhyd Wilym