The ride and the BillBerry Bluestocking Fund
On 16 April 1939 two 25 year old members of the Girl Guide Movement – Bill (Freda Cole – my mum) and Berry (Doris Rowberry) pedalled out of their home town of Worcester in England to start a journey of about 8,000 kilometres through France, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Denmark, Sweden to Bergen, Norway. Here is a clipping from a 1939 Worcester newspaper. 16,000 miles should read 1,600!
Camping, staying in farmers’ barns and youth hostels, it took them about four months. A good many epic bike rides had been undertaken by 1939. Annie “Londonderry” Cohen Kopchovsky was perhaps the first woman to undertake a great ride. In 1895 she rode out of Boston to circumnavigate the globe. She did, but she covered rather more of the distance by ship than on her bike. So by 1939 probably quite a number of women had covered big distances on two wheels. It was surely still rather an unusual thing for women to undertake. It is a bit of a puzzle that Bill did not choose to do this journey on two motorised wheels. She had been a keen member of a motorcycle club (there was only one other female member) for a few years. Perhaps it was the cost of fuelling her Velocette motorcycle for 8,000 kilometres that was the reason or perhaps it was the desire to do something a bit more challenging.
A number of people who have heard this story have questioned why two young women would have decided to set off on a tour of Europe in the spring of 1939. Bomb shelters were already being built in London and people were being instructed on the use of gas masks. Reading her journal it is clear that there were actually plenty of young people travelling the continent. So perhaps the young were still optimistic that war would be avoided, or perhaps it was just normal youthful risk taking behaviour. In this advertisement Britons were still being encouraged to come to Germany for holidays in July.
It has been suggested that Bill and Berry had a mission. Two years earlier (1937) two groups of Hitler Youth toured Britain by bicycle. An article headed “Nazis must be spyclists” appeared in the newspaper the “Daily Herald” in May of that year. Documents released a few years ago reveal that MI5 came to the conclusion that these Hitler Youth were recording information that would be of military value. It is not inconceivable that MI6 employed a similar strategy and that Bill was asked to keep a second journal in which to note such things as the ships in the Italian naval base of La Spezia and details of the bridges over the Rhine! Her possible involvement in intelligence work during and after the war lends a little credence to this notion.
Bill was a bit of linguist. She was largely self taught, though she had undertaken language courses with the Workers Education Association. Her journal indicates that her abilities in French, Italian and German were good enough to communicate with many locals who had no English. She took with her a little book called Lyell’s Languages. It was set out in columns with the English word on the left and it’s translation in about ten other languages in columns across two pages.
The ride ended early, about a week before Hitler invaded Poland, because Berry crashed on a Norwegian mountain and Bill had to take her back to England.
Seven Decades On
I have a vague recollection of my mother talking about her journey when I was 13 and planning my first bicycle tour from Tarago to Tuross via the Araluen Valley in Australia with my friend Robert Gibson. I do remember her being pretty encouraging when Geoff Pearson and I set off to ride from Bath to Manchester via the Welsh mountains when I was about 16. Unfortunately I only read her journal in full about seven years ago sometime after her death only then did I start to think about following her tracks around Europe. After a couple of years planning, in 2010, with two old friends, Philip Henty and Brian Polden, I repeated the first half of this journey to Switzerland. We started exactly 71 years on – 16 April 2010. The second half, to Bergen, Norway, was completed in 2012. My older son, Nicholas, accompanied me through Switzerland, Austria and into Germany. My wife, Jill, and 14 friends came along for two weeks down the Neckar and Rhine valleys and old friend, Rick Arthur, partnered me for the final two thousand kilometres from Koln to Bergen.
Although more than twice the age Bill and Berry were, with modern, geared bikes probably half the weight of theirs and not laden with camping equipment we moved along at about their pace.
Journal entries for Part 1 of the ride are under the tab “Journals 1939 and 2010″ and Part 2 are under the tab “Journals 1939 and 2012″.
The 1939 route – see below – largely followed main roads which were not so busy then. Seven decades on we more or less followed this route, but by avoiding main roads and using rather indirect country roads and cycle paths we travelled a bit extra and added some climbing here and there. We did take some major short cuts as indicated in red necessary to complete the journey in the available time.
The towns stayed in or passed through can be seen by zooming in on this Google map http://maps.google.com/maps/ms?ie=UTF&msa=0&msid=200713582102771620208.0004bcce59196425c5bec
BillBerry Bluestocking Fund – Pacific Youth Leadership
The Guide/Scout Movement, of which my mother was a keen member all her life, is in large part about developing leadership. With a couple of friends I am working on creating a facility to contribute to development of leadership amongst girls and young women in small Pacific nations. The BillBerry Bluestocking Fund, which now stands at about A$50,000, has been established for this purpose. We will continue to add to this amount as we are able. This fund is part of the Greater Good Foundation (http://www.greatergood.org.au). Donations (per kilometre perhaps) are very welcome. For Australian citizens they are tax deductible. We want the focus initially to be on Solomon Island Girl Guides and their civic education program. A lack of women in leadership in Solomon Islands is similar to other small Pacific nations. Since independence in 1978, only one woman has ever been elected to Parliament. For many reasons it is highly desirable to develop the leadership potential of young women.
For more details click on the BillBerry Bluestocking Fund tab and/or please email me:
Immediately the 1939 ride ended Bill joined the Navy