It was a warm summer evening in 1979 and my bike throbbed throatily below me, the sounds twisting and spinning backwards in the gentle slipstream. In front of me, I could see the yellow jacketed figure of my girlfriend, sitting erect, yet relaxed on the saddle of her big Suzuki, as we powered round the bends, and up the long gentle hill leading into East Grinstead.
As her bike passed in and out of the dappled sunlight, I could see the faint blue mist from the twin exhausts, and the rich oily smell of Castrol R filled my nostrils. At the Felbridge traffic lights, I pulled to a stop next to her, and looked across, and I could see that she was smiling beneath her white silk scarf. The lights changed, and we cut our way smoothly through the traffic, up to the centre of the town.
The old market town was quiet, despite it being half past seven on a Friday evening, and we were the only traffic sitting at the lights by the Post Office.
The lights changed, and we swept majestically into King Street, and into Christopher Road, and sedately burbled round the bends, before turning left into the car park of the Wallis Centre.
Kicking down the prop stand, I switched the ignition off, and dismounted my bike, and stepped back, removing my helmet and scarf. My bike looked good; deep, lustrous, dark blue metallic, with a gold pinstripe. Piper three into one exhaust. Gleaming chrome. Grabbing the seat rail, I heaved the beast onto its centre stand – not an easy job due to the weight of a Suzuki GT550.
My girlfriend had already removed her helmet, and was busy with the hairbrush – can’t go into the Wallis youth club with “helmet hair”.
We strolled to the door, got an ink stamp on the back of the hand, and wandered in. The place was already filling up, and Pete had already fired up the disco.
As we walked through the main hall, we were greeted by the usual crew. Rastus, Skinny, Toddy, Olly, DC, Elvis, Nutty and many more, which made our short journey to the snack shop quite lengthy, as we had to catch up with everyone.
Buying a couple of bottles of Pepsi, and a Mars bar each, we wandered back into the hall, which was now packed. Above the sound of Status Quo, we could hear more bikes arriving, and the cacophony of revving engines competed hard against the electric guitars.
Going outside a little later on, we were greeted by the sight of a plethora of different bikes; Old British – Nortons, Triumphs, BSAs and Modern Japanese – and a very light sprinkling of continental makes such as Jim’s Moto Guzzi.
Inside the Hall, was a sea of black leather and Denim, and it wasn’t long before the dancing started – long parallel lines of bikers and babes, all moving – almost, as one, with a stomping, shoulder-rolling belt-clutching beat.
We joined the end of one of the lines, and swiftly fell into step with the others, and enjoyed the music – the track was “Caroline” by the Quo, which was skilfully blended into Dion belting out “The Wanderer”. By the end of the second track, we were both a bit puffed out, so we wandered to the back room, and started a half hearted game of pool.
The pull of the music was strong though, and we spent the rest of the evening on the dance floor, only interrupting our biker line dances to go and cool down outside, and for me to stoke up a cigarette, and shoot the breeze with some of the others.
The girlfriend would usually end up deep in conversation with her best friend Sarah, and some of the others, and I would sometimes catch them glancing furtively at me, and then hearing their peals of laughter, I guessed at my expense.
However, I enjoyed these relatively peaceful sojourns; I would normally sit astride my bike, and chat in the gathering darkness with my mates Fatty and RJ, talking about women, bikes, hot rods and the future.
On this particular evening, I was talking with Emjay, when Nico, the youth club leader wandered out, to stoke up his pipe. He looked at me, and said
“Come on now lad, let’s be getting a photo of you and that bike of yours. And you Mr. James.”
So we dragged our bikes out onto the centre of the playground, and Nicos aimed his camera, and snapped away. Nicos was a legendary photographer, and images of the youth club members both past and present adorned the walls. I knew that I would have to wait until the next Friday to see the result, as Nick would develop the photo himself.
At that point the warm summer evening was changing to indigo dusk, and like a flock of noisy starlings, the car park suddenly filled with bikers and their girls, and the sound of thirty or so bikes echoed around the small quad, and just as quickly, with a twinkling of an eye, they were gone.
A short ride to the top of the town, and we all parked our bikes by the steps just up from the war memorial. Laughing amiably, we all piled into the Rose and Crown, filling the small public bar, ordering drinks, and shooting pool.
There was only time for two pints of weak bitter before time was called, and we eventually wandered to our bikes in ones and twos, with muted conversations, and muttered discussions. The bikes departed as if to the four corners of the universe, and within three minutes, the high street was empty, save the slight pervasive odour of two stroke smoke..
The girlfriend and I rode slowly home, having enjoyed the company of the group of friends from the Wallis, infamously christened “The Top of the Town Bikers” by the local rag.
That night, and hundreds more like it, was forty years ago.
Forty years on, I still ride a bike. Still have a leather jacket – but no longer adorned with fringes. The denim cutoff festooned with badges has long gone, consigned to the rubbish heap of history.
I no longer ride in White tee shirt, Jeans, Despatch rider boots with seamens socks. Now its fully armoured leather and kevlar. My crash helmet is fitted wit blue tooth communications, and has an inbuilt tinted visor. No more mirrored aviator shades under the visor.
Armoured gloves, and Reinforced boots complete my riding ensemble. Safety got serious.
The intervening years have meant that I now take a slightly larger jacket and ride slightly slower these days. The only time i get my knee down now is to get a pint of milk from the fridge.
I am fortunate that I no longer ride in the wet. I don’t ride after dusk either – a habit I picked ip riding across tyhe USA to Sturgis. Too much road kill for my liking, and in my rural country district I share the lanes and byways with Deer and Pheasants. Deer wander into the road, and Phesants are just plain stupid.
Hit either of them doing more tha
Whilst I am unable to meet them regularly at ten o’clock on a Sunday morning, I was privileged to join them on a ride out to Glorious Goodwood, for Bike Fest South. The same names, but the bikes are different…
Lots of Harleys now, when back in the day, we would have laughed at the idea of riding a “Tractor”.
But the thrill is still the same. Twenty plus bikes, many two up, rumbling their way through the country lanes of West Sussex, exhausts popping loudly on the over run, weaving round sweeping bends, cutting our way through the South Downs, the green hedges, and mauve blossom of the Rhododendrons blurring into a kaleidoscope of colour.
Forty years on and yet the conversations are almost the same, almost picked up from where we left off, shooting the breeze, and strangely, still talking about bikes, beer, women, hot rods and what we plan for the future.