Riding north out of Elsenham in Essex we ran into the telltale signs that a time-trial was in progress: fluorescent triangular boards urging fellow road-users to exercise caution, followed by marshals in hi-vis jackets, and eventually parked cars, bikes leaned carefully against the sides. The faint whiff of embrocation still hung in the air, despite most of the field having finished their 10-mile efforts long since.
We had arrived in Ugley, the curiously named village and longstanding mecca for testers from Essex and East London. The Ugley Women’s Institute allegedly changed its name to the Women’s Institute of Ugley to avoid the jibes. Ugley Farmers’ Market, however, has stuck by its guns, good looks obviously being secondary to quality produce in its members’ eyes. Ugley itself is certainly handsome enough, despite the adjacent M11.
This junction on the village outskirts where the motorway passes overhead is home to a curious collection of bungalows, each built by a different East London cycling club in the 60s and 70s and, seemingly, unchanged since. It is tempting to think they have seen better days, but hard to say for sure. Yet they are an important focal point, acting as race HQ for competitors riding the nearby E1 course that hosts events most weekends from April to October, and providing a base for Londoners escaping the capital to ride the lanes of Essex and Hertfordshire.
The bungalow very kindly loaned by the Lea Valley CC for our photoshoot was, it transpires, not the original. Club president Don Keen explained that a large wooden shed with “running water…and that was about it” belonging to the now-defunct University CC had stood behind the present structure.
The brick-built replacement taken over by the Lea Valley ten years ago sits amidst a string of similarly quirky buildings constructed by members of clubs such as the Easterley, Crest, Unity, Shaftesbury and Comrades – clubs that formed a mass two-wheeled exodus of the bomb-scarred East End every weekend in post-war years in search of country air and good riding – not to mention some time-trial action on the E1, 28-spoked best wheels strapped to the front of the bike, only to be used on race day.
Camping on land in Ugley belonging to a Mr and Mrs Curtis was the order of the day, land bequeathed to the cycling clubs by the couple, and divvied up between what became the 32nd Association – an affiliation of clubs named after the milestone marking where races finished outside the Chequers pub. Bungalows gradually emerged on the site, a curious collection of structures set in ample grounds with a railway line to the rear and (now) the M11 to the front. Neither intrude unduly on the tranquil setting. Stansted airport is also just a stone’s-throw away, but the rural idyll that lured those Londoners out of town in cycling’s boom years in the aftermath of World War Two is rarely shattered by low-flying jets even now. And the appeal of the bungalows, despite their lack of modern decor and ramshackle appearance, remains strong.
“They are more used now than they were 10 years ago,” says Keen, a Lea Valley member since the early 70s. “They are kept together by the people that use them. Every now and then we have working parties up here, to tidy ours up and keep it in order.”
To step inside is to enter a time capsule, frozen in an era of saggy woollen shorts and nail-on shoeplates. Red leather banquettes appear to have come straight from a closed down East End boozer (they had, it transpires). The eight-track cartridge stereo seems to be in working order. Several tapes promising ‘Top 20 Hits of the Decade’ fail to mention which decade. The signs above the respective dorms read ‘Birds’ and ‘Geezers’. In this corner of Essex, birds are still birds and geezers, very much geezers.
The shower room is where the ad-hoc nature of the structure really hits home. All those unwanted spare bathroom tiles gathering dust in the garages of club members found a home in the bungalow: a run of twenty plain white here, joining a batch of beige flowery- patterned there. It is recycling of the highest order, borne out of necessity, running throughout the building. Whilst it is tempting to label the whole set-up ‘charming’, the word does not sum up what the bungalows are about. What these buildings represent is a common bond of cycling (remember those club names: Comrades, Unity); precious riding time given up to help build a meeting place for like-minded souls; materials and skills donated to the cause.
Good company and good riding is what those pioneers sought and what the following generation still find today, according to Keen, whose culinary weekends at the bungalow, featuring such delights as slow-roast pork with all the trimmings, attract a healthy crowd. And what more could a time-triallist facing the timekeeper at seven in the morning ask for than a bed for the night just a short warm-up ride away from the course?
“We start cooking bacon sandwiches at six-thirty and send the marshals out with them,” says Keen, “then keep going all morning for the riders.”
Tea, cakes, bacon sandwiches, and still that faint whiff of embrocation. It’s a heady mixture. And a sign that East London’s cycling clubs and their community of bungalows are still very much alive and kicking.
Extract from 1 issue 20 – www.1.cc