How many gears does a man need?

(for the map of this route, see here)

This question was prompted by my ride to Elcho Castle on the Dream Roadster (I suppose it also has an echo of the Tolstoy short story ‘How much ground does a man need?’ which is well worth looking out, but I can’t find a link at present).


My love of the epicyclic hub had always been tempered by frustration at its fixed range of gears, meaning they could only be raised or lowered as a group. A tall gear for bowling along at speed means sacrificing hill-climbing power and vice versa. I took it as axiomatic that more gears were better till I got my first Sunbeam. This was a 1923 model, fitted with the ‘standard’ Sunbeam hub* giving gears of 56″, 73″ and 96″ – yet I could ride this bicycle up Stephen’s Brae in Inverness, a short but steep incline which had defeated me on other machines. Doubtless the geometry (it’s a 26″ frame) and the clean permanently-lubricated drive-train in its oil-bath helped, as did the fact that simply being on that bike made me feel happy, but it did make me question for the first time whether more gears were necessarily better.

So, bearing that in mind and after my experience on the Elcho Castle run, I resolved next day to make a trip on my other Sunbeam, from 1934, which has a Sturmey Archer K-type 3-speed hub.

But first I had to fix one of those niggling problems that can (when you are in the wrong mood) provide an excuse for not going out on a particular bike. The left-hand brake lever (which in usual Sunbeam practice, but unlike most other British bikes, operates the front brake) was able to slide sideways in its bearings, rendering the brake inoperative. Close inspection showed that there was a little grub screw which was intended to locate  the lever in a slot on the underside of the bearing, but it had sheared off, leaving the remnant in the lever. So I detached the lever and drilled it out (having tried to free it by other means, in the hope of preserving the thread in the hole) and solved the problem in brutal but effective fashion by inserting a small screw through the slot and jamming it into the hole in the lever.


I had no definite plan in mind, but I thought I might complete the journey to Almondbank which I had started but abandoned on the Dream Roadster shakedown trip. I duly set out and made a long diagonal across the South Inch, one of two broad expanses of green between which Perth lies,hence the old jest that it is the smallest town in the world because it lies between two inches. On the corner of Tay St. I paused for a picture outside the Fergusson Gallery:
The Fergusson Gallery is a splendid little place, located in the old Perth water works (hence the title above the door – ‘water by fire and water [i.e. steam] I draw’).  The upper part of it is said to be the oldest cast-iron building in the world. Despite the name, it is devoted as much to the works of Margaret MorrisJohn Duncan Fergusson‘s wife , an artist in her own right and a pioneer of modern dance. Well worth a visit.

From there, I went along Tay St, which runs by the river as its name suggests – along with much interesting street furniture and some fine sculpture, the most striking things are the heavy gates of the flood defences, set into a sturdy parapet wall which in my youth was just railings that you could get your head stuck in. The need for the flood defences becomes evident if you pause under the arch of the Old Bridge, where various high water marks are carved:

(click to view large and read the inscriptions)

This gives an idea of the normal water level, and allows you to imagine the sheer volume that must have been required to raise it to the flood-levels shown:

Bear in mind that for many of the floods, the bike would have been entirely submerged, and yet the path it is beside is at much the same level as the huge expanse of the North Inch that lies beyond it, though this has now been protected by raising mounds along the edge of the path.

The path runs some distance with river on one side and the green expanse of the Inch on the other, then turns and follows the Almond where it joins the Tay up past Woody Island. Though people call it the River Almond, that is a redundancy – Almond (which is a common river name in Scotland) means river, and is (I believe) cognate with ‘Avon’. This stretch of path is a pleasant one, particularly at this time of year, when everything is so green and lush.


My attention was caught by this tree, which had a wild rose growing up through it, right to the top – sadly, the pictures don’t do it justice: it was beautiful.



There is something very attractive about a narrow path between green banks, especially one that disappears round a bend some way ahead – it leads you on…


(The tag on my handlebars, by the way, is from the auction where I bought the bike, which happened to fall on my birthday. I wasn’t able to go and left an absentee bid. I was delighted to return and find I had won the Sunbeam, along with a little Lady’s Raleigh, part of the same lot. I’ve grown fond of the tag, for no particular reason, and have left it on)

Some way along, you come on this spectacular scene of erosion. The opposite bank is about twenty feet high, and at some recent time a large portion of it has slid into the river, bringing with it a couple of good-sized trees, which you can see in the foreground; the solitary rather bare and dead-looking tree that remains looks none too securely fixed.
If you click on the picture above and maximise it to the full, you will see that the top of the bank at the right hand side is riddled with little burrows, which are the nests of sand-martins.
These were diving and swooping at a great rate and in great numbers over the water, doubtless catching insects (or perhaps spiders – I heard recently (here, in fact, on the marvellous Tweet of the Day) that swifts’ diet is composed very largely of tiny spiders, which they catch in mid air – the spiders seemingly spin out a long thread of silk and the wind catches it and bears them away through the vast spaces of the upper air – which for them must be every bit as heroic as space -travel is for us, with rather fewer resources. Perhaps I should write a book with a spider hero evading ravenous giant swifts…) (though I do love swifts – my favourite bird I think – they give such an impression of the sheer joy of flight)
It’s striking that the tree in the left foreground, which is actually lying horizontal, its crown towards us, (having presumably started life much higher up the slope) is still so abundantly green, while its upright companion at the top looks very forlorn and dead. If you click on the picture below and enlarge it to the full, you will see a sand martin high up in the top right corner (‘the postage -stamp corner’ as footballer commentators of old used to term it, when describing where a shot went into the goal)
It’s moments like this on cycling trips that make you wish you had the skill of Frank Patterson, whose effortless line drawings capture so well the many and varied delights of cycling, especially in country lanes (galleries of his art here and here and here) :

And the Sunbeam does look rather well, does it not, for all its non-regulation red rims and showy cream Schwalbe Delta Cruiser tyres?
I’ll hazard a guess that this sad remnant has something to do with the Perth, Almond Valley and Methven Railway, which received Royal Assent in 1856, was closed to passengers in 1951 and to all trains in 1965, the direful year. Perthshire used to have a network of branchlines that must have been among the prettiest in the country, if you follow their routes on old maps:
Here we are approaching the weir that forms a reservoir to feed the Lade, a stream that was created over eight centuries ago to take water from the Almond through Perth, debouching in the Tay, to provide power for numerous mills, a project that proved eminently successful.

This is the sluice gate that controls the flow into the Lade:


And this is the barrage across the Almond which creates the reservoir to feed the Lade – the river flows through the narrow channel in the right middle ground, while the sluice gate is located below the left bottom corner:
and this is the rather humble beginning of the waterway that in many ways founded the fortune of the town:
If you look at the map of this route (and bring up the profiles by putting ‘elevation’ on ‘large’), you will see that there is a stiff climb out of the glen of the Almond on the North side, which starts a little before mile 7. This was the first real challenge on the run, the first posing of the question ‘how many gears does a man need?’ – and (though it cost me some exertion) the answer in this case was ‘three will suffice’ – I made it all the way up without having to dismount and push. A little after mile 7 there is one of those respites that are so important in cycling – you sweep down a fine short hill into Pitcairngreen, a pretty village that is more English than Scottish in appearance, with its large eponymous green in the centre. I was aware as I descended of a wonderful swathe of colour on my left, where there was a great bank of poppies –
I had already swept past them and reached the junction when its struck me that I was doing them a disservice – they merited a photograph at least, so I turned back and took some:



Which is why my bicycle is across the road, facing back the way I had come:
It was fortunate (though it did not seem so at the time) that I had no cash about my person, because I would undoubtedly have joined the people sitting outside the inn on the corner, enjoying their pints – and who knows how far I would have gone after that? More than likely I would have turned and headed home – after all, I was already further than my only specific notion of a destination, which was Almondbank. But instead I pressed on, satisfying my thirst with just the water I had in my saddlebag. A roadsign at a junction promised me 5½ miles to Bankfoot, which seemed a manageable distance, so I went for that. As you can see from the map, this is an undulating route, relieved by numerous downhill sections, though the general trend is steadily upward – ideal cycling, in other words – periods of sustained effort are rewarded by delightful freewheel stretches where you can catch your breath and admire the scenery. I realised as I went along that I was reversing part of the route I had followed some six years before, on my epic voyage from Inverness to Perth on my 1923 Sunbeam, which I will recount another time – though this picture posted on the Brooks website memorialises what was, literally, one of the high points of the journey.

When I came to Bankfoot – having used all my gears but without once having to push – I was delighted to find a Nisa local store in the Main Street which had a free cash machine – blessings upon them! Here is their Facebook Page. (There’s nothing like getting about under your own steam to make you appreciate local services). I bought an egg mayonnaise roll from them for my lunch. It tasted wonderful. And I felt so virtuous that I resisted the temptation of local hostelries and made do with water.

Unlike Pitcairngreen, Bankfoot is a classic Scottish ‘lang toon’ consisting mainly of houses strung out along a single main street. A little way beyond, I met my Waterloo –  a tiny settlement presumably so named in patriotic fervour after 1815. This is on the way out – another case of thinking, as I sped on may way,  ‘I really should take a picture of that’:


The profile on the map suggests a very stiff climb shortly after this, between mile 14 and 15, though oddly I have no recollection of it – doubtless I was revitalised by my egg mayonnaise roll and the knowledge that with money in my pocket I could potentially stop for a pint at the next available hostelry. What I do remember vividly was this, some distance further along the Murthly Road, a wonderful free display of beauty on the roadside, eclipsing even the fine poppies of Piutcairngreen, by virtue of their variety of colours:


It has been suggested to me that these might be opium poppies, papaver somniferum.
They are certainly beautiful and their beauty is enhanced by their being on the public roadside. To stop and enjoy things like this is one of the rewards of cycling.




As can be seen from the profiles on the map, this part of the route makes for pleasant easy cycling, being a long descent from mile 15 into the valley of the Tay, which is crossed, together with its tributary the Isla, between miles 21 and 22. Both crossings are by narrow bridges controlled by traffic lights, but there is room enough for a cyclist to stop and take pictures, as I did here on the Isla, looking upstream first:
then down, along its last reach before its confluence with the Tay, just around the bend:
Another Frank Patterson moment:
Beyond the bridge, I resisted the temptation to go left and take in the spectacle of the Meikleour Beech Hedge, a local wonder – it is an impressive sight to see, but not easy to capture well in a photograph. I had been before when I did a variant of this route in reverse on my 1923 Sunbeam a couple of years ago. Doubtless that run will find its way onto this site eventually, but in the meantime you can see it here. Instead I turned right along the A93, which in the other direction will take you to Braemar by the Devil’s Elbow (what’s left of it) and the Cairnwell, the highest main-road pass in Britain. But in the Perthward direction it’s a pleasant undulating cycle, with every climb compensated by a downhill stretch, it seems. For all that, I was glad to see this sign at a bend in the road, and shortly after pulled in to the  Strawberry Shop,  for a spot of afternoon tea (but without the tea). This is in the heart of Scotland’s finest soft-fruit growing district.
For now, raspberries and ice cream…   and some strawberries to take home for later:
The Strawberry Shop itself, with a polytunnel next to it – these have greatly extended the fruit-growing season in these parts.
Finally, on my way home, passing Scone racecourse on the eve of the Summer Solstice, I could not resist a picture of this rather premature advertisement – some sort of record, surely?

The Sunbeam has no mileometer, so the first thing I did on returning home was map my route on an excellent site of great utility. I was gratified to find it came out at 33.7668 miles – just as well I did not have the means to buy a pint in Pitcairngreen. And how many gears does a man need? On the evidence of this trip at least, three is sufficient.

*The  ‘standard’ Sunbeam hub succeeded the ‘stepped’ Newill hub about 1912. Its characteristic feature is that the wire is slack (lever full forward) in low gear, so that you have a better chance of getting home easily should the wire fail. It also has no ‘no-gear’ position (unlike later SA hubs) so there is no risk of a groin-crippling slip when ascending a hill.  The hub is in fact identical to the BSA 3-speed, itself a version of the first successful Sturmey Archer hub, designed by William Reilly, and later marketed as the X-type after Frank Bowden and Co had done Reilly an ill turn and swindled him out of his patents, a sorry tale well-documented in Tony Hadland‘s excellent book, The Sturmey Archer Story – now sadly out of print, it seems – I got mine from Old Bike Trader. (but it may still be available through the V-CC)

4 thoughts on “How many gears does a man need?

  1. For some reason I have only just got round to reading this’un. Many years ago, meself and Nowson, having followed a regular trip along the Tay and the Almond, decided to continue under the A9 instead of turning left for home.
    The path was just dirt then, not at all overgrown with some scary sections perched high above the river on the edge of a cliff such as the ones you photographed on the opposite bank. Imagine our amaze to find here in deepest Perthshire, an electrified railway! It had a wee steeple-cab shunter loco, just like the one Tri-Ang made. A long time after, I found out it was at the RN Stores depot at Almondbank. It made a connection to the Perth-Methven Junction-Crieff line. That line closed to all traffic on 25/1/1965 ( a curious choice) so I expect I was there in the summer of 1964. At that time the eastern end of said line formed the headshunt for the hump in the new marshalling yard – one of many around the country that were being built concurrently with a planned withdrawal of all the old freight stock which needed to be sorted out in marshalling yards. Madness.

    • I did a bit of searching after I came back – chiefly here – – and it looks as if the remains of the bridge I photographed are associated with a spur line that serviced the Pitcairnfield bleachworks. It is labelled ‘******* railway’ but I can’t make out the first word. The line, which is shown on the 1933 and 1959 maps but not the 1901 map,joins the Perth,Almond & Methven branch just before Almondbank station, East of Lochty.It appears to run back into a shed on Huntingtowerhaugh, on the S. side of the Almond,to re-emerge on a separate line and cross the bridge to the Pitcairnfield works – i.e. it makes a Y junction, with the stem of the Y in the shed.

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