Bicycle Journeys through Norfolk in the tyre tracks of Leonard Bolingbroke

The Bolingbroke Bicycle Journal (NRO, BOL 1/87, 739X2) is an intriguing find. It documents cycle rides throughout Norfolk, and further afield, with instructions on bicycle care and repair bills. The journal begins in 1878 and records to 1884.

Who wrote the journal?

This journal is in the Bolingbroke collection of the Norfolk Record Office. Although not named within, this journal once belonged to Leonard Bolingbroke (1859-1927) who was a solicitor and Norwich Diocesan Registrar Antiquary but was more famously known as the founder of Strangers’ Hall Museum in Norwich.

The first entry, May 17th 1878, describes the arrival of his new bike: a Coventry Machinists Roadster, with a 50” frame. This cost him a total of £11, a stunning £688.70 now!

A Coventry Machinists Roadster

An example of the style of bikes being produced by the Coventry Machinists in 1878. In 1879 Bolingbroke records that he had his painted black and yellow. Image from How to identify your ordinary or safety bicycle?

What’s included in the journal?

Bolingbroke documents his adventures through the Norfolk countryside with great detail. He describes the weather, the road conditions, the people he meets along the way and any historic sites of interest that he comes across.

Quite frequently, as he notes, he stopped to sketch some of the sites he saw. Below is a drawing of Wymondham Abbey he sketched on April 3rd 1879.

Wymondham Abbey

Drawing of Wymondham Abbey by Leonard Bolingbroke. NRO, BOL 1/87, 739X2

Bolingbroke always concludes his entries with the length of his rides, they vary from 2 miles to 82 miles. At the end of each year, he creates a table to compare the amount of rides completed in each month, and the distance of each. As the years progress, he begins to compare years to each other.

In the back of the journal is an index in which he records all of the places he has cycled through and mentioned in the journal. Whilst there are familiar entries of Hethersett, Beeston and Norwich itself, there are plenty of others from areas all around the country. Ely, Salisbury and Exeter are just some examples. Where Bolingbroke was unable to pause to draw the location, he always endeavoured to pick up a souvenir, seen by the drawing of the Cheddar Cliffs in Somerset.

Cheddar Cliffs

A souvenir of the Cheddar Cliffs, Somerset. NRO, BOL 1/87, 739X2

Recreating the July 6th 1879 cycle

Feeling inspired by Bolingbroke’s journal, I endeavoured to undertake one of his routes. On one of the hottest days of the year yet, at 31 degrees, myself and my partner set off to begin our ride. Starting a little bit later than Bolingbroke’s 8:30am (it was more like 10am), we drove to our starting point in East Barsham. Bolingbroke however, began his route in Attlebridge riding through Bawdeswell and Guist, onto Fakenham. From Fakenham he then rode to East Barsham, where we picked up his route.

From East Barsham, we set off following the directions of the journal: simply onto ‘new Walsingham’, known better to us as Little Walsingham. Just as Bolingbroke did, we passed through with the ruins of the Abbey (but paused to take a photo) and then went through the town past the shrine.

Walsingham Abbey

Little Walsingham Abbey, July 2019.

Following the route, we went on our way to Stiffkey, turning off to the right to Binham. Here, just like Bolingbroke, we admired the beautiful priory: “Binham Abbey is a very nice ruin being well situated and is well worth going a little out of the way to see.” Bolingbroke paused here to draw the priory.

Binham Priory July 2019

Binham Priory, July 2019.

Binham Priory Bolingbroke

Binham Priory, drawn by Leonard Bolingbroke, July 1879. NRO, BOL 1/87, 739X2

Binham Priory July 2019 - 2

Binham Priory, July 2019.

Although prepared due to the warning from the journal, we still found the “steep hill” a bit of a challenge in the heat, but we were rewarded with the beautiful views of the surrounding countryside and the village of Stiffkey. Just as Bolingbroke “began to feel the pangs of hunger” back in Little Walsingham, we had a quick respite in the form of a lemonade and chocolate magnum.

Where Bolingbroke continued to Blakeney, Cley, Kelling and Weybourne, we took his advice as “the roads became very hilly and bad”, and headed back to East Barsham. Though the weather made for a tough ride, we very much enjoyed following the route as described by Bolingbroke. Particularly, that despite almost to the day 140 years ago, nothing much has changed in the Norfolk countryside! Whilst our ride only measured in 20 miles, Bolingbroke’s was a real adventure at a massive 82 miles.

His journal is a testament to the dedication and interest our hobbies can draw from us. This journal is a stimulating read and I challenge others to bring it to life by ‘re-cycling’ Bolingbroke’s routes of the 1870s and 1880s!

Researched and compiled by Jenn Hulse, NRO Research Blogger

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