Over the past few months you might have seen the Rough-Stuff Fellowship (RSF) Archive lighting up Instagram with their amazing riding and travel photos from a bygone era of pioneering bicycle adventure. Now, they’re making a book, and RSF archivist Mark Hudson explains the story behind it…
Rough Stuff Fellowship [n.]
– founded on 29 May 1955, by “forty members who, in pursuit of their pastime, traverse the rougher and less beaten ways”
– the world’s oldest off-road cycling club
– members (riders) explored the Lake District, the Cairngorms, the Alps, further afield, and even undertook the first ever bicycle crossing of Iceland’s mountainous interior, in 1958. Their exploits were beautifully documented by amateur and professional photographers…
When I accepted the post as the Archivist of the Rough-Stuff Fellowship, the world’s oldest off-road cycling club, I had no idea of what I was letting myself in for. It was the first time in the 60-plus years of the club that anyone had tried to collect any history together, but it was an important job.
In their own very British way, the men and women of the early days of the RSF were pioneers, pedalling and carrying their bikes where angels feared to tread. Mountain biking, gravel bikes and bikepacking all followed in their tyre tracks. Somebody needed to preserve it all, before it was all scattered to the winds of time. I spoke with a good number of long-time members, asking them to send in their photos, documents, maps and other materials connected to the club.
…and I was inundated. I began to sort through the 15,000 or more slides and negatives – and more amazing material is arriving all the time…
The RSF was founded at a meeting in a pub in Leominster, near the English border, in May 1955. The club has strong roots in Lancashire, Cheshire, Yorkshire and Cumbria, and historically has ridden and tramped over the hills and mountains of the Lake District, the Peak, the Brecon Beacons in Wales and the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. “I never go on a walk without taking my bicycle”, was the motto of one of the founding members.
Perhaps the ultimate RSF route is the Lairig Ghru pass in the Cairngorms. “Like many traditional routes, the ends of the route through Lairig Ghru are like the ends of a frayed rope”, says Wikipedia, of the drove road or path that leads through up rocky slopes and along ridges for around 28 miles (43km). There’s not much cycling possible on the Lairig Ghru – the RSF describes it thus: “This is 28 miles through some of the most remote and challenging mountain scenery in the UK. Much of it, a boulder field that involves shouldering the bike. Once described as, ‘a bit like picking your bike up at Gatwick Airport and carrying it to Brighton’”…
Since the earliest days, the Easter Meet Up has been important to the RSF, with members converging for a weekend of rides, cups of tea and discussions in pubs. Aside from that there were – and are still – regular meets across the UK. Stylish dress was mandatory, as were stops to eat sandwiches and “brew up” (make tea). As one long-time member put it, when he wrote to me about the book project: “I enjoy cycling best when I take my stove, petrol or wood, out with me and brew up – I have been on a few rides where several stoves came out at lunch and I gained a reputation in the Tandem Club for brewing up on rides. I have cycled in the Alps and the best part has been the classic brew up and taking the water from a mountain stream.” Clearly a man after your Pannier.cc 15KPH Club hearts…
“I never go on a walk without taking my bicycle”
All of these RSF rides, meets, tours and expeditions have been beautifully documented in the archive. Some of the best pictures are from a photographer called Bob Harrison. He took colour transparencies (slides), which he stored in beautiful handmade drawers (he was a cabinet maker). Most of the colour ones you can see on the RSF Instagram feed are his. There are 34 boxes of Bob’s work, but they’re not such a headache to sort through: they’re really well organised, and sorting through them is fairly simple. Our MO is to put the slides on a light-box for a first sweep, and decide which we need to see projected on the wall. Then, we go through everything selected and make a final cut of those slides we want to scan digitally and select for the book.
The black & white images are a bit different. They were taken by Albert Winstanley – who took pictures for many cycling magazines – took negative film, in a variety of formats (35mm, various medium format), and he stored the negatives in paper envelopes in… biscuit tins, mostly. Each of these paper envelopes has between one and five negatives in. The envelopes are numbered, but we don’t have the key for them. So this is the most major of jobs!
On top of all the images, there’s the complete set of Rough-Stuff Fellowship Journals, the hand-drawn maps, the documents – including a typed report and box of cuttings about the first traverse of Iceland’s mountainous interior desert by bicycle, that was undertaken by four RSF members in 1958. There’s a lot to sort through, but we’ve had a massive amount of support so far, which is spurring us on no end…
“I enjoy cycling best when I take my stove, petrol or wood, out with me and brew up … I have cycled in the Alps and the best part has been the classic brew up and taking the water from a mountain stream.”
It has been an exciting journey getting to this point, and no doubt the next steps will continue the adventure. Some money from each copy sold goes to the RSF, and on the Kickstarter there’s a reward for a year’s RSF membership alongside a discounted book – so I hope we’ll be both documenting the past and helping to assure the next 60 years of the club….
The Rough Stuff Fellowship Archive – thousands of stunning images, hand-drawn maps, documents, and an unexpected treasure trove of incredible value and beauty – is now being curated and published by Isola Press, in what is set to be a beautiful book.
The photos are evocative of a bygone age and a bygone style – a time when you would set off on a bike ride wearing a shirt and tie or a bobble hat, and no ride was complete without a stop to brew up some tea and smoke a pipe. They are also a record of intrepid adventures, and this important book celebrates their style and their spirit – a stunning visual resource of cycling heritage that will inspire new adventures…
>> Vintage photos, hand-drawn maps, and ephemera from the RSF archive from 1955 to the 1990s
>> Multiple rewards, including RSF Membership and limited edition re-run Carradice top-tube panniers
>> Short introduction and history by Mark Hudson, RSF Archivist
>> Contemporary design and layout from an award-winning team
>> Hardback / 270 x 210 mm (portrait) / 192 pp
>> RRP £30
>> Deluxe limited edition available