Thursday, September 23, 2021

The Joyous Wheel

Happy is the cyclist.

James Arnold’s The Joyous Wheel (1940) is pretty much the perfect embodiment of the literature of the cycling-rambler tradition which was popular in Britain in the first half of the twentieth century. Two-wheeled ramblers like the great "Kuklos" (W. Fitzwater Wray) and Edward Thomas traveled the countryside at a modest but steady pace, seeking out experiences in nature, stopping at points of interest (historical, literary, architectural), partaking of food and beverage at inns and taverns en route, and generally savouring the pleasures of English country life.

These ramblers, almost all of them British, cultivated a very particular aesthetic in their writings about cycle travel. The goal was neither speed nor distance but rather “experiences,” as Arnold says. “Happy is the cyclist who rides throughout the year, taking what comes his way in weather, choosing only his itinerary.” Stalwart, unflappable, optimistic, the rambler pedals on, seeking subtle contact with the rustic world.

Arnold’s slim book (133 pages, including his own exquisite black and white illustrations) recounts his cycling adventures during the 1930s in and around the landscape of the Cotswolds, west of London. A “seasoned Woldsman,” as he refers to himself, he rattles off the names of the villages he passes through on his rides--Shrewston, Tilshead, Wantage, Stow, Burford--like a kind of geographical rosary. Some of these place names sound totally made up: Wooton Fitzpayne, Buttermere, Abden Burf, Uphusband. And my favorite: Lord Hereford’s Knob. The weird poetry of these names isn’t lost on Arnold; in fact, he says that sometimes he altered his routes just for them. “These names lured me and did not let me down.”