When we were two little boys - When we were two little boys - CycleBlaze

When we were two little boys

Two little boys: 50 years on. The good-looking one o the left is Mike
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IN THE OLDEN DAYS, the British tested children at 11 and sent them to schools according to the results. The numerate and literate went to "grammar"schools; the rest went to "modern" schools, known as sec-mods, for "secondary modern."

It was well-intentioned. We were all to be taught as most appropriate, each to his level. But it was flawed. The better teachers wanted what they saw as the better students and so the one in five of us at grammar schools had the wider range of subjects, the better teachers and the best facilities. Sec-mods came to be seen as dumps for life's less talented. It wasn't just and in time it changed, but that's how it was then.

Small boy at maybe five years old. My uncle won a photo competition with this picture but never had the good grace to split the prize with me
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Having passed this first sorting, the rest was simpler. We were put into classes in our first year according to the alphabet. A young Léo Woodland found himself in class with a young Mike Watkins. And we were still in the same class at 15. It was then that we had the idea of a Great Cycle Tour Around The South Of England. It was new to both of us, although I had at least been hostelling for a long weekend. Mike had done little more than ride to school. We pored over maps of England, chose youth hostels and sent off handwritten letters to book beds and evening meals. We had a wonderful time.

Many years passed. Mike left school before I did because he was intent on working on the railways, in signalling. He went on to be an international consultant. If I hear of a pile-up on the trains, I secretly hope he was behind it.

11 years old, with a teacher who looks like a Boer War general. Mike is two to the left of the teacher, me two to the right
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When he left school, we left each other's lives. School is like that. Then one day I came across an internet site linking old friends. I asked Mike if he remembered our ride. "Remember?" he wrote back. "It was the highlight of my teens. I always wished we'd ridden a second one." It was from there that the idea grew. This year would be the 50th anniversary. The 15-year-old boys were now old lags of 65. Why didn't we do it again, half a century later, the same route as best we could, the same night stops and the same fun?

You've never seen a more enthusiastic reaction than Mike's. I carried on bike-touring for the rest of my life but for him that trip had been both a start and an end. A little later his parents sold his bike and he never rode again. For weeks, he sent e-mails asking which bike to buy, telling me about clothes and bags he'd chosen, the progress he was making. And how his wife kept saying he'd never make it!

"You just see so much more from a bike,' he gasped one day. 'I've just been for a ride and people waved as I passed. You just never get that in a car,do you?"

Could we, he asked, ride on little country lanes as we did all those years ago? "In a car, you just go the easiest, straightest way,' he wrote. 'But on that first ride we rode on quiet little roads through the countryside. Can we do that again?"

I said we could. And that we would.

We are going forward to the past. When we were two little boys.

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