A man, a bicycle, a printing press

Nick and the printing bike – illustration by Jon McNaught

In 1986 I cycled with a group from John O’Groats to Land’s End, camping each night at a sports’ ground, farm site or commercial camping ground, sometimes dripping wet, occasionally hot and sunburnt. As someone who at that time spent a lot of time writing about contemporary life in Britain I thought I should at least know something of the terrain. The route followed only back roads and narrow country lanes, avoiding towns, cities, built up areas and main roads.

The range of landscape and settlement types encountered over nearly a thousand miles was remarkably varied: uplands, lowlands, mountains, river valleys, forests, heaths, arable, grazing, coastal, threaded with picturesque hamlets or bleak moorland enclaves. All had been shaped by the ground beneath – granite, limestone, sandstone, chalk, clay, whatever – and each formation produced a different sense of place and ecology, a jigsaw puzzle of topographical experiences and emotions. On the larger scale of things, geology is destiny.

There was one unifying factor in this ever-changing terrain: the ubiquity of First World War Memorials. These punctuated almost every village crossroads, market square, and churchyard, invariably supported by an endless succession of memorial halls built after the ‘war to end all wars’: some simple pre-fabricated structures, others elaborate exercises in Arts and Crafts pavilion architecture. It was what I remembered mostly about that journey and still remember now.

Less serious, though prescient of things to come, was the equal ubiquity of Mother’s Pride delivery vans racing up and down every by-road from one end of the country to the other. They tore along the lanes from early morning until late at night, the speeding backdraft blowing us from side to side as they passed. Apart from fuel tankers and public utilities vehicles, the over-familiar bread vans were almost the only other commercial vehicles we came across on the ride. Standardisation was on the move, and travelling fast.

Typographer and printer Nick Hand recently cycled the same journey in the opposite direction (Land’s End to John O’Groats – lucky man he had a tail wind), in his case for the cause of non-standardisation. He had arranged beforehand to meet up and talk to small-scale crafts-people from St Ives to the Isle of Lewis who were conserving or reviving trades and skills once familiar across Britain: pottery, cider-making, letterpress printing, bespoke clothes and footwear, and even the well-known Brooks leather bike saddles. What added to the difficulty of his journey was that he mounted a small printing press on the back of the bike, on which he printed postcards at each designated stopping place on the route.

Brooks saddle postcard – illustration by Ben Goodman

A small book based on his journey, Conversations from Land’s End to John O’Groats, has just been published, and gives only a hint of the commitment involved in his trip and the pleasure of his many conversations and engagement with crafts-people, artists and photographers. The statistics of his journey are impressive: 1,273 miles cycled, 29 days on the road, 163 hours in the saddle, 73, 118 feet climbed. What really struck a chord was his observation that while life becomes simpler on such long journeys, one purpose over-riding everything else, ‘your emotions can be quite raw’. This is particularly true when cycling conditions become extreme. At one point on an official Sustrans route, Hands had to keep lifting his bike (with printer and luggage attached) over a succession of boulders. I certainly identified with his claim that ‘a craft is harder than an art’. The snobbish distinction between the two has dogged aesthetics (and public cultural policy) for much too long, and still does.

Conversations from Land’s End to John O’Groats is published by Hands’ own production company, The Department of Small Works, based in Bristol, and their website is worth investigating. There’s something about the West Country air that seems to generate an enthusiasm for small-scale production and the art of making and repairing. I value my copy of Visible Mending: Everyday repairs in the South West, published by the wonderful Uniformbooks a few years ago. This was a collection of illustrated case studies of repairers – clocks, shoes, tools, woodwind instruments, clothes, electrical goods, bicycles, upholstery – brought together in another of that publisher’s exquisitely designed books. Both books are rooted in the past but look to a different future, admirably so.