Category Archives: Old Friends

Rolling Back The Years

The sun was smiling warmly as I walked out of the relative gloom of the Chequers Inn, in the tiny rural Hampshire hamlet of Well. I carefully cradled my pint as I walked to one of the somewhat rickety tables overlooking the small car park.

Sitting down at a secluded corner table, I wrestled with my packet of cheese and onion crisps, childishly relieved when the deceptively tough bag finally submitted and dutifully opened, spilling the yellow discs onto the aged wood.

In direct contravention of my dear old Mum’s advice, I gathered them up from the slightly damp, green stained table top, munching them in indecent haste.

Leaning back against the mellow bricks, I could see my motorcycle. It too appeared to be resting, leaning against its side-stand. I smiled. Metaphorically, all she needed was a cigarette…

She was a bit of a beast. Conceived in Milwaukee, she was a diva, and a total extrovert. Dripping in chrome, she was loud, brassy and turned heads wherever she went.

I smiled to myself. 103 cubic inches of American muscle. Deep iridescent metal flake crimson. Acres of chrome. Slash cut muffler and tyres that wouldn’t have been out of place on a Range Rover 4×4.

I took a pull on my pint. Here I was, aged sixty, blatting round the backroads of leafy Hampshire on a hooligan’s machine.

Idly reminiscing, I thought back…

How did I get to be biking?

In a heartbeat it was 1977 again and I was 18, free and single. I was earning a decent wage as an apprentice communications technician, and was enjoying combining working on the tools, and attending West Kent College of Further Education.

It was there that I met my good friend DC, (you know who you are!) who lived in one of the villages south of East Grinstead, where I lived.

Every Friday evening, I would drive the seven miles to Chelwood Gate in my careworn 1969 Vauxhall Viva, and pick up DC, Chip, and our ever-faithful wingman, Elvis.

From there, we would hurtle through the byways and farm lanes at stupid-crazy speeds, playing 50s rock n roll at maximum volume on the eight track. Back then we were all into rock’n’roll, and Chip and Elvis even wore the obligatory drapes and crepes, and both had great haircuts – the Tony Curtis look. I swear that Elvis got through an entire man-sized aerosol of Cossack spray every Friday. His quiff would probably have stopped a round from a Kalashnikov assault rifle at fifty feet!

DC was more of a greaser type, with leather biker jacket and jeans, and although I had a Tony Curtis, I went for the American college-boy look, with drainpipe Levis and baseball boots.

And so it was that fateful Friday…The old country manor house set deep in the West Sussex woods reverberated to the sounds of classic rock and roll – just a normal Friday evening really.

The resident band, The Whispering Sands, were ripping it up, with a rendition of Wipeout, and the dance floor was a mass of gyrating figures, some bopping, some jiving, and others just swaying.

The crowd parted for a moment – just long enough for me to spot her. Tall, willowy, and with a mane of copper auburn curls. Sensing my stare, she grinned, and waved me to come over and join her.

I swallowed the lump in my throat. I was not renowned as a dancer of any kind. More of a self-propelled clothes horse – that was my style. Still, it was too good an offer to decline, so I made my way over.

Thankfully, the band ran out of steam at that point, so I avoided having to dance, and we found a quieter table and sat down.

After an awkward introduction, we settled down to chat amiably, and all too soon it was time to leave. I did however, manage to get her phone number, which I hastily scrawled onto a damp beer mat.

In a blink she disappeared into the night, leaving me wanting to see her again.

Two days later, I called her, and she seemed pleased to hear from me. I asked if she wanted to go for a drink. She immediately agreed, and suggested a small pub in one of the nearby villages.

“When should I pick you up?” I asked, hoping to find her address.

“Meet you there at seven o’clock. Public Bar”

I was about to respond, when I realised that she had hung up.

Later that evening, I parked up in the small car park at the Punchbowl Inn in Turners Hill. I checked out the public bar, but she wasn’t there, so I ordered a pint of Harveys and went out to sit in the beer garden, which sat adjacent to the car park.

The mid-May sun was low in the clear cloudless sky, and was painting the local roofs gold.

I could hear my car clicking softly as it cooled down. The outside of my beer glass soon had a sheen of condensation.

I was checking my watch for the fiftieth time since arriving, when a light blue motorcycle swooped into the car park, it exhausts crackling and popping. The rider got off, and pulled the bike onto its stand, and then removed the blue crash helmet – revealing a shock of copper curls.

Turning, she saw me, waved, and walked over.

“Nice bike” I ventured.

“Its new. I only got it three weeks ago.” She grinned. “It’s already run in!”

I walked over to get a better look at it. Iridescent blue, with gold pinstripes, gleaming chromework, and a gloss black frame.

Suzuki GT185 proclaimed the badge on the side panel.

I then realised that there was an open face helmet with WW2 Fighter pilot goggles strapped to the small rack behind the seat.

“Drink up” she said. “Leave your car here. We can go to the White Hart at Ardingly”

“On that?” I asked.

Looking at me levelly, she said “Call it a rite of passage.” “That’s assuming you would like to see me again.”

I hastily pulled the helmet on, feeling my stomach start to knot. I eventually managed to fasten the strap, and pulled the goggles down over my eyes.

She was already rigged, with helmet scarf and gloves on. Leaning over, she popped the small pillion footpegs down, and got astride. I awkwardly climbed aboard, and held onto the chrome rack with a vice like grip.

The bike suddenly started, and she yelled at me to lean with her, and relax. With that she swung the bike back onto the main road, and we sped off, with fantastic acceleration.

It was a truly visceral experience, the joy of speed, the sensory overload of seeing hedgerows and houses pass in a blur of colour. The smell of two stroke exhaust, and the smooth roller coaster swings of the bike as we rounded bends. The weird feeling of the footpegs dancing up and down as they followed the wheels trajectory – I could not only see the road, I could feel every ripple, every bump.

All too soon, we stopped at the White Hart, where we stayed for the rest of the evening.

Driving my car back home was very much an anti-climax, and at that point I decided to get a motorcycle.

Within three weeks, I was the proud owner of a second-hand Suzuki GT250, in iridescent blue, with gold pinstripes, gleaming chrome and glossy black paintwork.

I then owned a variety of bikes of differing sizes, including a TS250, RD 200, TD175, RD250, XS250, KH250, and then, having passed my test, Suzuki T350, GT380, GT550, GT750, Triumph Bonneville, Yamaha XS550, XS750, Kawasaki Z900, and then more latterly, after a gap of some twenty years, Suzuki GS550, Triumph Bonneville, Suzuki V-Strom, Harley Davidson Switchback, and now my Triumph Trophy 1215 SE.

And not to forget a Honda Silverwing 400cc scooter, which is very different and was a good commuter for an 80-mile daily round trip.

I’m now sixty. Still riding. And all because of a girlfriend in 1977 who owned a bright blue Suzuki GT185.

Night Departure

Tail lights vanishing into a darkening sky,

A symbol of your leaving,

An intermittent spark of fading cherry red,

Dwarfed, and made miniscule by the vastness of night,

The lonely silver disc of the moon, bathes the landscape with surreal intensity,

In it’s unfeeling spotlight, for an unknown reason, I feel desolate,

You, speeding across the roof of the world, chasing the eastern mystic dawn,

I gaze at the last seductive blink of light, yet distance and darkness conspire,

The universe wins, and defeated, I stand alone,

I trudge to the car park, wearing shoes of lead,

Having nowhere to go, yet no reason to stay,

Out! Out! onto the highway, My reality here,

Yet My spirit soars east, chasing, never catching,

Radio taunts, me, romantic songs,

I turn south, and briefly look up,

I see another, red, winking, vanishing into a darkening sky

Mark Charlwood© 1989

He Rides a Different Road

He’s in his fifties, yet leather-clad, his grey hair proves his years,

His tattoos long since faded, and his belly fat, from beers,

With chains, and studs and heavy boots, his presence here is awesome,

The patch upon his back is clear, he is an iron horseman,

 

Iron Horseman, iron Horseman, on your two wheeled steed,

In search of lost horizons, a wistful, restless breed,

Always riding to the future, in search of some deep truth,

Or chasing down the tattered fragments of your youth.

 

You’ll see him up the Ace Cafe, or at a bikers boozer,

He spends less on food and clothes, than he does upon his cruiser,

In his mind he’s easy rider, he’s Brando on the run,

Mad Max on the Highway, Terminator with a gun,

 

Iron Horseman, iron Horseman, on your two wheeled steed,

In search of lost horizons, a wistful, restless breed,

Always riding to the future, in search of some deep truth,

Or chasing down the tattered fragments of your youth.

His summers packed with ride-outs, just cruising with the HOG,

In a roaring stream of metal, they look a fearsome mob,

But behind the beard, and denims, the leather and the chrome,

Is a bloke who’s’ taking Christmas toys, to the local children’s home.

So when you sit in judgement, from your shiny, ivory tower,

On your dull commute to office land, where you wield such puny power,

Of the old bloke on his noisy bike, In his jacket, jeans and scarf,

Remember that he’s just chosen, to ride a different path

 

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Mark Charlwood 2019©

Facebook – A Modern Time Machine

Social Media is a wonderful thing.

A few years ago, when my dear old Father was still alive, I recall a gloomy conversation that I had with him about friends. He lost touch with many of his school day friends, mainly as a result of being evacuated to different parts of the UK during the war.  He was expressing his sadness about how he had never been able to find those old friends of his lost and damaged childhood. 

Friends Reunited, and Facebook arrived too late to help my Dad, and so he died having never found those boys he grew up with.

I am very privileged. Using Facebook,  I managed to reconnect with a number of old friends, some from school, and some from my apprenticeship and college days. I am happy to say that I am still firm friends with all of these individuals , despite the passing of the years. It just needed the catalyst of social media to re-ignite old friendships.

I was sitting in my man-cave the other day, when my IPad softly chimed, indicating an incoming message. Putting down my mug of tea, I opened the app, and read my message. It was from a very old friend, Mark 

Now, I should perhaps explain here, that Mark was a year younger than me, but his Father had been my headmaster, a man who is still fondly remembered by many of my friends, if their comments on social media are to be believed. 

Mark and I used to be regular members of the local youth club, the Wallis Centre and both of us developed a passion for motorcycles – a passion encouraged by the leader of the youth club, a middle aged eccentric who loved bikes, and was a skilled photographer. I have many black and white photos of my bikes, accompanied by either my girlfriend of the moment, or in some cases, me!

At the time, in the mid nineteen seventies, there were a number of cliques in my youth club. There was my age group – seventeen and eighteen year olds, and a number of older members who were already in their early twenties.

However, under the wise management of Stef, we made the transition to adulthood with a soundtrack provided by the Mighty Status Quo, Lynyrd Skynrd, Thin Lizzy, Led Zeppelin and the Stones. We all got along, and grew up together.

I remember the thrill of taking my first real motorcycle up to the Wallis; a metallic blue Suzuki GT125, and then as the years passed, of riding up on different, ever larger machines, from my ponderous Honda CD175, to my agile and nimble Suzuki TS185, the TS250,  The Yamaha RD200, Suzuki GT380, GT550, Yamaha XS750, and so on.

Friday nights used to be almost a ritual. Black fringed leather jacket.  Check. Levis. Check. Despatch rider boots. Check. White tee shirt. Check. Denim cut off with badges and patches. Check.

Bikes would be washed and polished – never knew when Stef would have his camera out. A gentle potter up to the Wallis centre and park up – along with maybe twenty or thirty other bikes.

The disco would be in full swing, and the sounds of rockabilly, rock, and rock and roll would be pounding.  Black ink stamp on the back of our hands.  Helmets and jackets everywhere. Long lines of guys n girls stomping out line dances to the Stones and The Quo.

All of these leather jacketed “bikers” in a polite and orderly queue, buying bags of crisps and bottles of Pepsi at the tuck shop – no alcohol allowed in the youth club. 

Summer evenings, outside, with your girl, enjoying a snog and a hug. Quiet conversations over a cigarette, helping mates through the pains of a break up, or helping them to screw up the courage to ask a girl out.

Bad Ass people us motorcyclists.

At ten o’clock sharp, we would be unceremoniously ordered out, and we would tumble out of the doors, a happy throng, and jump astride our bikes, kick them into life, and a stream of Hondas, Yamahas, Nortons and Triumphs would make their way into the High Street, where we would park up by the war memorial.

Laughing and joking, we would all pile into the Public bar of the Rose and Crown, where we would have a few pints and shoot some pool.  Once the pub turned out at eleven o’clock, we would wander across the road, and sit down on the steps, by the memorial. There we would sit, smoking, laughing and talking.

This would go on until the Town’s local police car cruised past us for the third or fourth time. Eventually, the car would stop, and PC Rain would casually walk over.

“Evening Lads” he would say. All of us would respond, “Evening Sir”. A little banter would ensue, with gentle insults traded in both directions.

It would normally end with “Plod” heaving a deep sigh, saying, “Goodnight lads. I don’t want to see you here when I next come past”

He would then climb back into the little sky blue and white Ford Escort, and slowly drive off down the town.  We knew from previous experience that he would drive down to the fire station, turn around in their car park, then come back up the town, via the cinema. 

About ten minutes.  He was always very reasonable, and we all liked him. 

Within five minutes, we would be helmeted, started, and gone, leaving only the smell of burnt two stroke oil, and a slight haze to testify to our existence.

We would be back in place by ten o’clock on Saturday morning. We would sit on the steps and chat, and maybe take a wander round the market. By noon, we would descend on the Wimpy Bar, where we would take up residence for the afternoon, drinking tea and coffee until we were unceremoniously booted out at five o’clock

This went on without issue for months, but apparently, somewhere, somehow, we had managed to irritate someone.

We only discovered this, when someone wrote to the local paper, complaining about anti social motorcyclists gathering by the war memorial. The East Grinstead Courier were delighted with this, and the headlines screamed out “Top of the town motorcycle gang causing concern”

Really?  A bunch of bored middle class kids enjoying a cigarette and each other’s company? I never witnessed any problems – not even dropping litter. Yes, we may have got a bit loud sometimes, but we were never villains. I think I still have a copy of that headline. 

Eventually, we all grew up.  Moved away. Had kids. Got divorced.  Got back into motorcycles.

So, within the last three or four months, my old friend had got in touch with everyone he could think of who used to be part of this notorious “gang of n’ere do wells”.

And so it came to be – the Rebirth of the Top of the Town Bikers. Forty years since it all began.

As a result, if you venture up to the top of the sleepy West Sussex town of East Grinstead at ten o’clock on a Sunday morning, you are likely to see fifteen or twenty middle aged men and women, on a selection of bikes from sports bikes through to customised cruisers.

You will witness much laughter.  You may be in time to see them mount up, and start their machines, the ground shaking, and the peaceful high street woken up with the noise of engines.  Then they will be off, majestically sweeping off down the town, off on a ride out somewhere. Probably back to 1976. Who knows?

I was with them on the most recent ride out – there must have been 12 bikes, including 6 Harley Davidsons, and the rest sports bikes.  We rode down to Goodwood motor racing circuit, and enjoyed ourselves in that uninhibited way that only long time friends can.

 

Happy days…thanks to Facebook!