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Retracing Bolingbroke's tyre tracks of the 1870s across Norfolk

PUBLISHED: 17:44 13 October 2019 | UPDATED: 17:44 13 October 2019

A Coventry Machinist Roadster

A Coventry Machinist Roadster

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Jenn Hulse from the Norfolk Record Office retraced a famous cycle journey once undertaken by Leonard Bolingbroke

Wymondham Abbey as sketched by Leonard BolingbrokeWymondham Abbey as sketched by Leonard Bolingbroke

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

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). Bolingbroke 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 Machinist Roadster, with a 50 inch frame. This cost him a total of £11, a stunning £688.70 now!

The picture below is an example of the style of bikes being produced by the company in 1878. Bolingbroke records in the following year that he had it painted black and yellow.

Banham PrioryBanham Priory

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

Quite frequently he stopped to sketch some of the sites, including a drawing of Wymondham Abbey, sketched on April 3, 1879.

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Bolingbroke always concluded his entries with the length of his rides, they vary from two miles to 82 miles. At the end of each year he created a table to compare the number of rides completed in each month and the distance of each.

Binham Priory as sketched by Leonard BolingbrokeBinham Priory as sketched by Leonard Bolingbroke

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

Feeling inspired by Bolingbroke's journal, I endeavoured to undertake one of his routes from July 1879. On one of the hottest days of the year, I set off with my partner. Starting a little bit later than Bolingbroke's 8:30am (more like 10am), we drove to the starting point in East Barsham.

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 the ruins of the Abbey (and paused to take a photo), then went through the town.

Following the route, we went on our way to Stiffkey, then into Binham. Here, just like Bolingbroke, we admired the beautiful priory, just as Bolingbroke did: "Binham Abbey is a very nice ruin being well situated and is well worth going a little out of the way to see."

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're rewarded with beautiful views of the surrounding countryside. 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 even though 140 years have passed, nothing much has changed in the Norfolk countryside!

His journal is a testament to the dedication and interest our hobbies can invoke. This journal is a stimulating read and I urge others to bring it to life by 're-cycling' a Bolingbroke route.

The Bolingbroke bicycle journal is part of a collection of material relating to the Bolingbroke family, dating from 1690-1960s. It is one of many collections within our Family and estate material. This material includes well known Norfolk families, such as Harbord of Gunton, Ketton-Cremer Family of Felbrigg Hall and Upcher of Sheringham. More information can be found on https://www.archives.norfolk.gov.uk/help-with-your-research/using-the-archives/guide-to-holdings/private/family-and-estate



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