The Elgar Connection

This web site has a particular interest in Elgar’s cycling activities, but there’s some wider information about Edward Elgar (the English composer) below, plus further reading suggestions.

Also See

A famous local cyclist

Elgar The Cyclist is a publication produced by Kevin Allen. He has moved from the area and copies are hard to obtain. Of course Amazon may point you to a copy (£14-99 from Castle Hill Books at Sep. 2017).

The following information is extracted from the book:

Elgar’s first bicycle was ‘sent for’ on 10th July 1900 (a month after his 43rd birthday), presumably from one of the various businesses advertising in Malvern Link, just down the road from his house in Alexandra Road. In about a month he was sufficiently enthused and proficient to order his own machine. This was to be a Royal Sunbeam, which he collected on 29th August. The catalogue of manufacturer for that year gives a list prices of twenty one pounds ten shillings – not a cheap model. {Note – I’m not completely convinced on some of the bike data.}

Cycling lessons were given by Squire Little, the landlord of Birchwood Lodge, Great Storridge, where Elgar had a second home for a while. Wife Alice also had lessons, but did not have as much enthusiasm. There was no shortage of other cycling companions, however, and Alice’s diary provides a useful source.

First ride of 1901 is recorded as 14th March via Hanley to Upton on Severn. The following year, 5th March was the start of the season, again via Hanley. 22nd June sees him pondering whether he ought to buy new tyres which were ‘going on into their 3rd season: 1300 miles.’ In 1903, struggling with composition of The Apostles, Elgar took to his bike on 30th January, for a 16 mile trip. In early February he hired one of the new fangled free-wheel (rather than fixed) machines and shortly afterwards ordered a Sunbeam version, which didn’t arrive until mid-March, and proceeded immediately to have brake problems. It settled in after attention from the supplier.

On 29th June 1904, the Elgar household moved to Hereford, with Elgar pedalling most of the way.

Other Elgar articles

From CTC press release for 2001 Birthday Rides based close to the Malverns:

The composer Edward Elgar is one of the region’s most famous sons and was a keen cyclist as well as brilliant musician. He was 43 when he first cycled, in 1900, spending £21 on a Royal Sunbeam fixed wheel model with hand polished black enamel finish. He toured regularly until he moved to London in 1910 writing in his journal that his cycling experiences had inspired many of his compositions.

From the Elgar Society web site description of The Robes Room at the Elgar Museum:

Around the turn of the century, Elgar took up cycling. Alice never really mastered the art so Edward was often accompanied on his cycling trips by friends. Rosa Burley remembered: ‘Our cycling trips began in earnest after Gerontius… There cannot have been a lane within twenty miles of Malvern that we did not ultimately find … to Upton, to Tewkesbury or Hereford, to the Vale of Evesham … to the lovely village on the west side of the hills … as we rode, he would often become silent and I knew that some new melody or, more probably, some new piece of orchestral texture, had occurred to him’. Though none of Elgar’s bicycles seem to have survived, some of his cycling maps have, complete with the routes he carefully filled in.

The Elgar Society website did have a short section under ‘Elgar at Play’ covering some notes on his cycling years, including this from Wulstan Atkins:

“It was not until 12 June (1908) that Atkins went over to Plas Gwyn. He was staying the night and had suggested taking his bicycle with him, as he often had done, but Elgar told him that it was not worth while since ‘biking’ was no longer much fun these days owing to the motor cars which had increased greatly … Walking by the river was better.”

From Local History pages at Wolverhampton Uni on history of Sunbeam Bicycles (now at Wolverhampton History Website):

Bicycle sales continued to rise and the ‘Royal’ Sunbeam was introduced. Over 1000 of these were sold in the first year. One customer was Sir Edward Elgar who purchased two of the machines with 28inch frames and three brakes. He called them both ‘Mr. Phoe(b)us’ and was an enthusiastic cyclist, often going to the works for a ‘tuning’. The ‘Gent’s Royal’ model sold for 16 guineas.

An original c.1910 Sunbeam bicycle almost identical to Elgar’s in size and finish, photo courtesy of Robert Champ

Elgar information and places

Elgar Society Includes info on local events.

The Elgar Birthplace museum at Lower Broadheath has become part of the National Trust as ‘The Firs’ (also tweeting as “The Firs”).  An old map of Elgar’s with his cycling routes marked is back on display, along with a Sunbeam bicycle (circa 1910) and other details about his cycling adventures. Has bike racks and those arriving by cycle can claim a free tea or coffee in the tearoom when buying cake – you don’t have to be a NT member or pay to go around the museum.

The Elgar Birthplace Museum is on the signed ‘Broadheath Hallow Loop’, cycle route starting from Oldbury Road,  University of Worcester campus, short version 6 miles, longer option 15 miles. Cycle maps may still be available from Worcester Tourist Information Centre – ask for the Worcester Cycle Leisure Guides pack of 5 rides.

A full size bronze of Elgar and his Royal Sunbeam bicycle stands in Cathedral Close in Hereford. Ironically no cycling is allowed in the vicinity. There’s a video on YouTube (better with the sound off).

Sculptor of the above ‘cycling Elgar’ statue Jemma Pearson has made a short film for the BBC’s ‘Video Nation’ series about making it, and describes how cycling in the local countryside was part of Elgar’s way of getting inspired.

See Tourist Info Centre for leaflets giving routes to visit Elgar connected places. Note that the 2019 relaunched Elgar Route, despite a token mention of cycling the route (leaflet/web), uses some busy A roads and is not suitable for the majority of cyclists.

Suggested further reading

Elgar: Child of Dreams (paperback 2006) sets out to connect the composer to his creative landscape. It also has a picture of him with bicycle on front cover.

Elgar: An Anniversary Portrait by Nicholas Kenyon.

The Life of Elgar by Michael Kennedy (2004).

Original recording of Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius.

Engima Variations recording.