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'After many a dusty mile'

A friend has lent me a modest paperback devoted to Elgar the cyclist, published in Elgar country two years ago. The author, Kevin Allen, has conjured a memorable picture of round-the-turn-of-the century Worcestershire and Herefordshire, enough to hold the attention of anybody with interest in Elgar the man as much as the composer. That Elgar displayed qualities not usual for one of his upbringing raises matters that have been documented and discussed well enough in the past, and I joyfully pass on to this delightful excursion.

For a country-loving man in his forties the purchase of a bicycle at this encouraging stage in its development was unremarkable. Even so, Elgar needed prodding into this venture by Rosa Burley, who was one of the determined ladies, especially around the Midlands, to adopt this mode of transport as rather a splendid adventure, not least in determining purchase of suitable clothing.

Elgar's first bike was probably hired, and was a vital and liberating contrast to hours at his desk writing and scoring The Dream of Gerontius. Elgar soon learned to 'wobble around', and his habit of musical creation in the open air obviously became linked with cycling through the countryside, not forgetting that pedalling a bike is a steady rhythmic process. The cycling years that followed gave birth to some of Elgar's significant works - Introduction and Allegro, The Apostles, The Kingdom, first Symphony, and others.

It was not long before Elgar's enthusiasm for 'wobbling around' led to increasingly longer rides, usually with friends, and with occasional mishaps. An exhausting chase to keep up with G.T.Sinclair - organist at Hereford - on a hilly ride was ruefully described by Elgar in a letter to William Reed. But this was an exception to his more leisurely approach.

By 1909, Elgar's cycling days were drawing to a close as demands upon his time and travel to foreign parts made his country rides virtually impossible. Probably his last cycle ride in June 1910 coincided with the Violin Concerto's conclusion, and the Elgars' decision to move to London.

Kevin Allen's fascinating and carefully documented account of that part of Elgar's country life when bicycling and composition were extraordinarly linked as the inner manifestation of such an enjoyable pastime, also includes rare contemporary photographs of people and places. An 1891 map of Herefordshire tucked into a back pocket displays the areas so dear to Elgar's heart and often visited by him with his friends.

Basil Ramsey, 24 February 1999

A Creative Odyssey
By Kevin Allen

Available from the author at
23 Benbow Close, Malvern Wells, Worcestershire
WR14 4JJ, England. Price (with postage) £5.50