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Stuff of legends: The Rough-Stuff Fellowship

In-depth
1 Aug 2022
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Long before gravel riding was a thing, there was the Rough-Stuff Fellowship. To celebrate a new archive of images, here’s their story

Words Max Leonard Photos Rough-Stuff Fellowship Archive

The advert in The Bicycle magazine in November 1954 didn’t attract all that much attention, but its impact is still being felt today: ‘I believe there is still a small select circle who love the rough and high ways among the mountains of Wales, the Lakes and Scotland,’ wrote Bill Paul.

‘This prompts me to suggest the formation of a fellowship of rough-stuff enthusiasts.’

A few months later, in May 1955, Paul was joined at the Black Swan Hotel in Leominster by around 40 cyclists for the founding of the Rough-Stuff Fellowship, giving it claim to being the oldest off-road cycling club in the world.

Almost 70 years on it’s still here. Now numbering over 1,000 strong, its members are still devoted to exploring the rough-stuff of the UK and beyond.

A rough-stuff state of mind

So what is ‘rough-stuff’? Let’s start by stating the obvious: people have been riding bikes off-road since before there were roads as we know them today.

Nowadays it has become fashionable for road races to include some mild peril in the form of gravel sections, such as the Montée de Glières in the Tour de France, the Colle delle Finestre in the Giro d’Italia, the Strade Bianche roads of Tuscany, and the rough-and-ready farm tracks of Tro-Bro Léon.

But the early Grand Tours took place mainly on unsealed roads – probably well-made gravel surfaces near the towns but rutted dirt tracks in rural areas.

Up in the high mountains in particular, it took a long time for things to change. When Andy Hampsten won the 1988 Giro, the legendarily snowy Gavia was climbed on dirt roads – the pass wasn’t tarmacked until some time later.

(Paris-Roubaix, on the other hand, may have been run on better surfaces in the early days than some of the cobbles now – after the Second World War, as the region’s roads were tarmacked over, the organisers actually went out looking for bad pavé, culminating in the introduction of the Trouée d’Arenberg in 1968.)

It’s fair to say, though, that rough-stuff is generally a little less structured than these examples, and there’s certainly no racing involved.

An oft-repeated definition is that rough-stuff ‘begins where the tarmac ends’. That means anything from tracks and bridleways to footpaths and even boulder fields.

Never mind ‘off the beaten track’ – rough-stuffers often leave even the idea of a track behind them altogether.

Charlie Chadwick, the club’s first chairman, wrote for the club journal about his rough-stuff experiences on ‘a soggy hill path… searching for an elusive track among mountains in the swirling rain-mist’, as well as on ‘old green drove roads’, a ‘high Caernarvonshire trackway’ and in the ‘purple hills of Galloway’.

There could be a lot of pushing involved. Members would sometimes remove their pedals for long treks up narrow singletrack so as not to skin their shins, hoicking bikes over streams and shouldering bikes and luggage for long periods.

Another definition was found by Steve Griffith, club member and historian, in a copy of the CTC’s Cyclotouring magazine from the 1980s: ‘To the dedicated rough-stuffer there is no such thing as a dead end.’

The template was perhaps set by cycling journalist WM ‘Wayfarer’ Robinson, who in March 1919 crossed the Berwyn Mountains in Wales in thick snow.

His account in Cycling Magazine became a classic, an inspiration to future rough-stuffers, and it led to a pass being renamed in his honour.

The idea of what constituted proper ‘rough-stuff’ was under constant debate in the cycling press when Bill Paul sent his letter.

It’s interesting to think about what rough-stuff might have meant to those pioneers, because in their era not all roads would have been tarmacked and the difference between a good ‘road’ and a rough track more marginal.

Insisting on rough-stuff perhaps indicated not only the surface, but also a state of mind.

Not all who wander are lost

The Rough-Stuff Fellowship was born just after the National Parks were established. The first were the Peak District, Lake District and Snowdonia in 1951, which were finally opened to the public for the first time after decades of pressure and the Mass Trespass campaign.

One of the fellowship’s founding members, Bernard Heath, was also a founder of the Mountain Bothies Association.

Rough-stuff riding finds its roots in cycle touring and camping rather than racing, and the emphasis has always been getting out into nature, self-sufficiency and camaraderie.

Many rides featured a brew stop – or a ‘drum up’, if you were on the Scottish side of the border – for tea made on a Primus stove.

Cafe stops and snacks were customary, and longer trips would often involve camping out, a stay in a youth hostel or in an aforementioned bothy.

All these activities were avidly documented right from the fellowship’s early days by a horde of photography enthusiasts – both amateurs and also some who worked for the cycling press and beyond.

The most competitive part of club life was possibly the annual photography competition.

It’s thanks to these photographers, and club archivist Mark Hudson who saved their work for posterity, that the club has enjoyed a boost in popularity in the Instagram age.

In 2018 Hudson made his first major find of 34 wooden boxes – around 10,000 colour slides – taken over the course of almost 50 years by RSF founder member Bob ‘I Never Go For A Walk Without My Bike’ Harrison.

Harrison’s photos covered all parts of the UK as well as trips to Ireland, the French and Swiss Alps, the Dolomites in Italy and Norway.

They show men and women dressed in immaculate Greenspot jackets, bobble hats and breeches, and ponchos for the frequent occasions they were caught in the rain – clothing that now looks antiquated but was actually very well suited to the tasks at hand.

Since then, tens of thousands more slides, photos and other memorabilia have come into the archive.

What they show, aside from exemplary sartorial choices, is a club that has always been open and accessible, with a good balance of male and female members, and young and old alike.

One of the main photographers is Dave Pountney, who through the 1970s and 1980s would often lead rides for local young cyclists around his home town of Kidderminster.

A favourite area was nicknamed ‘Paradise’, presumably ironically since it was a mixture of dense brush and thick brown mud.

And Pountney’s photos more than any exemplify the spirit of rough-stuff riding: they’re full of the determination to push on through, the enjoyment of taking your bike to unlikely places, and also the humour of the puncture stops and wrong turns, unexpected dips in a stream or bashing severely buckled wheels back into true.

All these mishaps – and many more – happened regularly because the course of a rough-stuff ride is never smooth.

Ride reports in the club journal (published several times a year since 1955) often recount outings not going to plan because of missed turns, bad weather and wrong directions, all met with a cheerful resourcefulness and a can-do attitude.

During a 1960 trip over the San Giacomo pass in the Alps, regular contributor Bettine Bubb writes, ‘Climbing steeply, with several 1-in-2 sections, and edging on a narrow ledge with almost perpendicular drops to the valley below, it was hard plugging and very dangerous… We were in a spot and no mistake. The crossing must be abandoned!’

Luckily in this case, Ms Bubb and her companion made it back to the restaurant in the Italian village below for a restorative bowl of pasta.

Other notable contributors that feature in the RSF archive books include George and Margaret Berwick. In his long cycling career, George participated in at least 60 24-hour TTs.

Now in his eighties he still rides most days, and he still holds a couple of long-distance records. Together, they led the ‘Vagabond’ group of RSF riders in Scotland and, over a long riding life, they must have hike-a-biked every glen and stayed in every bothy, exploring paths that others are only just rediscovering today.

Mountain biking before mountain biking?

Bill Paul may have been worried about the future of rough-stuff in 1954, but – although he could never have known it – rough-stuffing did anything but die out.

It might even, in fact, have helped to kick-start a revolution that took place in the late 1970s and early 1980s all the way over on the other side of the world.

There has always been an international cohort to the fellowship, and in the 1960s that included a Californian called John Finley Scott, who is often credited with building the first mountain bike in 1953.

In 1963 Finley Scott wrote an article for the RSF journal about his rough-stuff rides on a UK-built frame in the Colorado Rockies, and he would later become an investor in MountainBikes, the company started by mountain bike pioneers Gary Fisher, Charlie Kelly and Tom Ritchey.

Kelly and Fisher both were members of the fellowship for a year or two in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

In 1982 Kelly even contributed an account of a ride from Crested Butte to Aspen, Colorado, to the RSF journal, noting that ‘in contrast to the European rough-stuff style, nearly all the riders here use the large 26 × 2.125 tires that have recently become popular in the United States’. The rest, as they say, is history.

Mountain bikes were not immediately popular with rough-stuffers when they appeared in the mid-1980s, and they triggered a lot of debate in the letters pages of the journal.

A look back through photos around the time show a lot of very standard-issue touring bikes and a smattering of lightweight frames from classic British builders such as Hetchins, Geo Longstaff and Jack Taylor.

Sturmey-Archer gears were popular because they were much less vulnerable to being bashed by rocks than derailleur systems. A Carradice Camper Longflap saddlebag was almost compulsory.

The worlds of the California hippy counterculture and of rough-stuff riding in the UK may seem poles apart, but in its own very British way, the RSF’s adventuring was also rebellious – the members pedalled and carried their bikes through bogs and over fences, where angels feared to tread, with an indomitable spirit.

Every mountain bike and gravel bike has followed in their tyre tracks.

Every so often cycling trends reinvent the wheel, and right now, with the rise of gravel riding and bikepacking, the rough-stuff has come back into vogue.

The Rough-Stuff Fellowship is still going strong, and if you want a slice of cycling history, you could always join them for a cup of tea, a slice of cake, and perhaps even a walk with your bike.


Find out more about the The Rough-Stuff Fellowship at roughstuffarchive.com and rsf.org.uk