28 October 2012

A woman on a wheel

Bicycles loom large in the history of women's liberation.

American suffragette Susan B Anthony said, "I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel...the picture of free, untrammelled womanhood. The bicycle has done more for the emancipation of women than anything else in the world."

And she ended up on a dollar coin, the first circulating U.S. coin with the portrait of an actual woman rather than an allegorical female figure such as 'Liberty.'

My grandmother was the first woman in her whole group of friends to learn how to ride a bike in 1930s Mumbai. My grandfather taught her how to ride, but he didn't know he'd spend the rest of his life with her yet.

For me, bicycling is a sort of new thing. Sydney's the town I properly learned to cycle in. My bike was gorgeous. A pinkish orange beach cruiser, with a coaster brake and a kickstand. Her name was Eleanoura, and she matched Sydney's sunny beachy lazy pace. When I remember riding my bike in Sydney, I remember watching jacaranda blossoms waft into the street and hot days and freewheeling fast down Erskineville Road. Riding through Redfern Park on warm nights.

I loved her. Sydney's terrible transport system made cycling the best way to get around town. And Craig being an avid cyclist and an excellent bike mechanic made it easy.

Since I've been in Manchester, I haven't really felt the need for a bike very often. The transit isn't great, but it's doable. It's expensive and often very slow, but now that I live right in the centre of town, I can walk most places with no problem.

But I missed cycling. I missed the exercise and the way a bike lets you go places you'd never walk to. I missed the feeling of freewheeling down a street, watching the leaves flutter by.

And I figured if I could learn the way to MediaCity, I'd save money on tram tickets.

So I bought Champion.

He's a single speed, super fast road bike. He's lighter than Eleanoura was, and he's pretty and the fact that I've decided he's a boy allows me to make all sorts of dirty innuendo-filled jokes that make men cough a bit. WHAT COULD POSSIBLY BE BETTER?

I've been taking him out on the weekends, going up the canal, zipping about town, and generally goofing around with my friend Cormac, who also just bought a bike recently.

But last weekend, Creative Tourist's Manchester Weekender included a bicycle tour of 1910s Manchester.

Avid readers of this blog will already know what a sucker I am for walking tours. Up, then, Brave Women, which has recently become a book, was one of my first walks around Manchester.  In that same post, I covered the Tales of the Manchester Dead walk. I've also done the Red Manchester and Underground Manchester walks, as well as the Ancoats Peeps and several Psychogeography walks. An Alan Turing walk I didn't document, because I thought I was going to make a podcast of it, but the recording was filled with wind and microphone problems. I've done the Jack the Ripper tour in London THREE TIMES. I've taken a tour of a clock tower, FFS.

Led by Emma Fox of Manchester Guided Tours, this bicycle tour started in town, went through Salford, over to Media City, through Trafford Park, and back into town. Keir, who used to be my MA supervisor, but is now a figure of no authority in my life and a friend, came with me, and between seeing new parts of town, learning new stuff, gorgeous weather and getting a bit of exercise, I think we could not have had a better day. AND THEN WE ATE LUNCH AT PANCHO'S. So it was the best day ever.

Because we were on bikes, I couldn't really take any notes, so my memory is a touch hazy. We stopped at this church to talk about WWI memorial in it, too. I think it might Salford Cathedral. Keir's the one holding my bike for me.

At Victoria Station, Emma showed us an out-of-the-way, unremarkable gate known as the "Gates of Hell," next to which is a memorial to the men who walked out those gates to war, and never came back.

Emma showed us various parts of the Manchester's canals that were enhanced or built during the 1910s. She showed us evidence of Manchester's rudimentary sewage system, involving horrifying thoughts like nightsoil (look it up) and Manchester's Midnight Mechanics (don't).

We stopped at Ordsall Hall, this amazing Tudor mansion, which is supposedly one of the most haunted places in the UK. They do spooky overnight stays. I might do one. We'll see.

The strange thing about Ordsall Hall, though, is that it feels like it's from another world. It's this gorgeous old building, plonked down right in the middle of one of the most deprived areas of Salford, which is a pretty deprived town overall. Salford is dirtier, poorer, more crime-ridden than Manchester, and the recession hurts more here.

But Ordsall Hall, with its wooden swan and swanling sculptures, seems to deny all of that. It's like a miracle. An oasis.

As we rode along the canal out to Media City, we also stopped to notice some public art. David Appleyard's Factory Girls are a cast iron and enamel tribute to the women who went into factory work to keep industry going while men were at war, and thereby likely did more to emancipate women and win the vote than the suffragettes ever managed, not for lack of trying. Too bad he didn't put them on bikes!

The ride back from Media City was a harrowing narrow trail along the Bridgewater Canal. I have never felt so stressed in my life. The path was about 2 feet wide at best, and branches and thorns reached out to scratch your face. If you avoided them, you'd land in the water. On your bike. Other riders had worn a dirt trail into the path, which was about 6" wide. The canal was constantly threatening to suck me in. I was seriously terrified.

It might have been the first time Emma took a bicycle tour out, because we got a bit lost on our way back into town. We wandered around Castlefield, trying to find our way back over horrible cobbled streets. Hopefully that won't happen next time!

It was a great way to spend a sunny Sunday, and I can't wait for the next bicycle tour of Manchester-- so long as it doesn't involve the Bridgewater Canal's narrow muddy trail, that is.


  1. may i just point out, for the record, that as far as i am concerned i have always been a figure of no authority in anyone's life....it was a good bike trip though, despite having my face ripped open by thorns at the end!

    1. Ooof! I forgot about that part of the narrow horrible Bridgewater Canal trail. Ugh. NEVER AGAIN.

  2. cobbled streets + Champion innuendo license = ?????

    1. Hilarious, but no. Cobbled streets = painful wrists, painful booty, chattering teeth and angry tyres. Champion was not best pleased with me that day. I'm lucky his tyres didn't go soft. (see what I did there?)