The other day, poking around in the loft, I stumbled on a remarkable diary – a real-life snapshot of what now seems a very distant past. It’s an account of a cycling tour of scenic Scotland by two women in their mid-twenties in July 1943. One of them was my mother; the other was one of her closest friends. I’d seen it when I was young, but re-reading it in the present day was like discovering it all over again.
They’d had it typed so that they could send it to loved ones away at war, and my family’s copy was given cardboard covers, which probably helped to preserve it. And what a revelation it is! We tend to see the second world war through the prism of black and white photographs, bombing and devastation, battles and retreats, successes and disaster. This is another view. The grind of war is there in the background, but the diary shows that for brief moments it was still possible for the lucky few to escape.
Cast of characters
What is most striking about the diary is its freshness and immediacy. Its two voices are united in recollection of something which to them was a real achievement. They’d cycled nearly 300 miles over some extremely challenging terrain, and clearly loved every minute of it. The grandeur of the Scottish landscape shines out, but equally striking are the many different characters they encountered along the way. “You really do live, and you meet all sorts of people,” my mother wrote afterwards. “You see the country so much better than when you’re motoring.”
They never intended the diary to be seen by the wider world, but it reads almost like a series of sketches for some long-forgotten film – perhaps a cross between Powell & Pressburger and an Ealing comedy.
The text is scattered with period slang that now seems quaint, and is infused with an acceptance of wartime experiences that seem alien to us, but had become part of daily life back then – frequent encounters with soldiers of various nationalities, the sight of military convoys (yes, even in the highlands), and amphibious aircraft on the river Tay.
Beyond all that, it’s an accessible, everyday account of two people operating outside their normal comfort zone, yet apparently never doubting their ability to accomplish what they’d taken on. Maybe their maturity was borne of the rigours of life in wartime Britain. Whatever the source, they convey an air of quiet confidence that rings out across the decades.
Does it add up to anything more than a curiosity? I’d like to think so – which is why I’ve decided to do something my mother could never have dreamed of; I’ve put the whole thing on my web site. It’s intriguing and engaging, and brings to life a largely forgotten aspect of social life during the second world war. If you take a look, I hope you’ll see why I was so entranced by it.
Click here to go to the first page of the diary section.
This diary is really charming, in a real sense – beguiling, fascinating, heart-warming. Draws you in to its world and won’t let you go. To use another much debased word – lovely!
This is geographical territory I’m quite familiar with. But where I flip past at speed saying “ahhh” to the scenery, these two women really experience it. Knowing the terrain, I get a sense that this was a pretty heroic venture by bike. And it sounds so stoic. Back when I was a bike rider it was hard to find a female who would take on a mission in the local hills, let alone the Scottish Highlands.
The other thing which I found particularly fascinating was the constant pestering (not usually described as such) by men, young and old, as the women went on their way. This suggests that the two cyclists were probably quite an unusual sight for the times. So that makes them both brave and remarkably resilient and uncomplaining in the face of the sexism they encountered. How modern. How topical. In other respects of course the diary describes a world which is totally remote to us today.
Wonderful! The layout is beautifully done and the photographs add a definite je ne sais quoi.
I felt the writing improved as it went along. I assume, maybe wrongly, that Shiela wrote the diary, as most of the comments about Shiela are gently self mocking – “Shiela (of course) dropped the camera” – and all mentions of Bay very complimentary. More adjectives as the story progresses, more fleshing out, as your Mum had been when describing her projected traveling wardrobe.
I especially liked the descriptions of the characters in the strange “hotel” full of asylum evacuees – whereas earlier on, a staff member somewhere is described simply as “snooty and rude” and I was left wanting more! Later on, we are given a little more detail which is quite satisfying. I also enjoyed ebullient enthusiasm for the plainest of food items, such as rolls and butter, as if they were haute cuisine. After the big breakfasts the food they ate later in the day would probably not have impressed most modern day travelers. No food fussiness in those days!
What a beautiful story. It takes you back to what seem like simpler times, and is a reminder that in many respects life went on more or less as normal, even though war was waging on the ground in mainland Europe and in the air with bombing raids on industrial centres around the UK.
The observations are delightful. And nowadays where many travellers use the internet to plan a detailed itinerary and book hotels before they leave home, it’s a nice reminder that it doesn’t have to be that way. Two young women on their bikes travelling as far as feels comfortable each day, and always finding somewhere to stay. It’s heart-warming.
And, at times, it’s poetic with well-crafted descriptions of the countryside they travel through and the varied people they meet.
When I started looking at it I thought I’d do ten minutes worth of reading and then get back to finish it later. But I was enthralled once I sat down and read – and enjoyed – it through to the end.
It really is a remarkable record of a long-vanished world.