Stopping for a “drum-up” at the Corrour bothy
Stopping for a “drum-up” at the Corrour bothy
Stopping for a “drum-up” at the Corrour bothy (Photo: Ben Read)

The Rough Stuff Fellowship Is a Celebration of Doing Hard Things, Together


In a small town in England in the early 1950s, a group of Brits gathered at a pub to form the world’s first off-road cycling club. They came from all classes—barons rubbed elbows with foundry workers—but were united by their love of the wild and a shared belief that a bike could get them anywhere they dreamed of. Seventy years on, Tom Vanderbilt heads to the UK to join a few current members in pursuit of the rough stuff.


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The query, politely probing, came in the October 27, 1954, issue of The Bicycle, a British weekly. “Who wants to join a ‘Rough-Stuff Fellowship?’ ” The letter writer, one W. H. Paul, had been prompted by an article, published a few weeks before, asking, “Are the rough ways losing their popularity?” Noting that he’d always “been a searcher of the remote, wild and more desolate country,” Paul decried the prevalence of the “modern lightweight” bicycle, “with its Continental this and super that,” which impels the rider “to keep on the billiard-table surfaces of the modern tarmac.” He suspected there might be a “small, select circle who love the rough and high ways.”

He was not wrong. His letter provoked other letters. “The sense of adventure and interest to be found in traversing country without signposts and metal highway is infinite,” wrote one respondent. Penned another: “I feel that this aspect of cycling has been much neglected, because of the fact that it is too slow for the majority of modern club-folk.”

Such was the collective response that a year later, over afternoon tea at the Black Swan, a hotel in the Herefordshire town of Leominster, a ragtag group of a few dozen cyclists gathered for the inaugural meeting of the Rough Stuff Fellowship. In a sign that this might not be your ordinary cycling club, the founding members of the RSF elected as their first president Sir Hugh Rhys Rankin, third baronet, who, as the Daily Telegraph noted upon his death in 1988, was “an extraordinary character whose eccentricity was remarkable even by the rarefied standards of the baronetage.” A member of the First Royal Dragoon Guards calvary and a broadsword champion, Rankin worked as a sheep shearer in Australia, flirted with Islam (before eventually settling on Buddhism), ran for office as a professed “bloody red militant,” golfed the most courses of any amateur in England, and of course was a dedicated off-road cyclist.

Decades before free-spirited bike geeks in Marin County and Colorado started rejiggering old Schwinns to bomb down hills, and nearly three-quarters of a century before the gravel bike became a commodified thing, the Rough Stuff Fellowship was established on a quietly radical proposition: that a bike’s utility did not end where the paved—or even unpaved—road did. And so men and women, often couples, cheekily took their bikes where their bikes weren’t meant to go: on chunky bridle paths, over forbidding fences, and through treacherous mountain passes (a pursuit members called “pass storming”). Sometimes they looked like they were cheating death; sometimes they looked like they were out for a Sunday picnic—often they probably did both. They did this not on the specialized all-terrain machines of today, but on the skinny-tired, fendered, internal-gear-hubbed, drop-barred, steel bikes they might also have ridden to work, and dressed not in Gore-Tex but in woolly sweaters, high socks, and boots, with nary a helmet to be seen. As often as not, they were pushing their bikes through unrideable bits (“I never take a walk without my bike,” quipped one member, in what would become a club mantra) or shouldering them as they forded rivers or, roped, clambered down cliffsides. They typed up their expeditions in a hand-illustrated newsletter, whose editor claimed that he would accept “anything I can read, bearing on our pastime.”

Men and women cheekily took their bikes where their bikes weren’t meant to go. Sometimes they looked like they were cheating death; sometimes they looked like they were out for a Sunday picnic—often they probably did both.

The idea of competition was anathema, with one exception: a yearly photo contest. Among the RSF were any number of keen lensmen, who documented the group with striking prodigiousness. When these pictures began quietly to appear, in 2018, on the Instagram account @rsfarchive, it felt as though we were witnessing the opening up of some Wes Anderson wormhole. Cyclists like myself, thinking we were living—now—through the historical emergence of a new kind of riding, were startled by these hardy Kodachrome emissaries from the past, outfitted in their plus fours and tweeds, floating bike-laden dinghies over Icelandic crossings, grinding down snow-covered tracks marked Unsuitable for motors, puffing contemplatively on pipes in the Welsh moorlands. A book, The Rough Stuff Fellowship Archive, followed in 2019, and its success prompted another, Further Adventures in Rough Stuff, late last year.

I was bewitched by these images. Wanting to know what the “world’s oldest off-road cycling club” looked like today—and desiring, as a kind of homage, to tackle one of its most iconic challenges—I headed to England.

Mark Hudson cruising through the Scottish Highlands.
Mark Hudson cruising through the Scottish Highlands. (Ben Read)

“I have an interest in old shit,” says Mark Hudson, “as you can see.” Fittingly for the official archivist of the RSF, Hudson’s cozy flat on a tree-lined block of modest redbrick houses in Sheffield looks like a provincial cycling museum. There is a rack of obscure books (The Veteran Cycling Club History Series #2), old advertising placards for Reynolds tubing, badges for rides like Paris–Brest–Paris, boxes of vintage derailleurs and other “new old stock” bike parts, and tens of thousands of historical images going back as far as 1930s-era hand-tinted slides from the rough-stuff pioneer (and inaugural RSF chairman) Charlie Chadwick, a working-class adventurer who for decades toured off-road England, his camera in hand. “It’s a house of many hidden gems,” says Ben Brown, a friend of Hudson’s and a fellow RSF member, as we gawp at the room. Along with photographer Ben Read, we’ll soon be off to Scotland, some eight hours away by car, on a rough-stuff pilgrimage to a place called the Lairig Ghru, a high mountain pass in the Cairngorms known for its stark beauty and unpredictable weather.

Hudson, 48, is tall, with a handlebar mustache, piercing eyes, a tweed hat covering a shaved head, and a collared shirt open to reveal a faded tee of the Smiths. He has been around bicycles most of his life, ever since he and his dad, having gotten friendly with the fellows at the local dump, began rescuing classic bikes from the landfill. He joined the RSF about a decade ago, years after he’d spotted an ad about it in the magazine of the Cyclists’ Touring Club (now Cycling UK). Around 2017, he saw an advertisement in the RSF’s journal seeking an archivist. “I got it by default, because no one else wanted to do it,” he says with a laugh. “But I thought, well actually, it might be an interesting thing anyway, because I have a curiosity for
vintage stuff.”

In search of photographs and other memorabilia, he started cold-calling the group’s 600 or so members, each of whom had been assigned a number; the lower it was, the longer the rider had been a member. Initially, he received some “crap from the seventies,” but then he stumbled on a 10,000-strong collection of photographic slides, carefully stored and arranged in wooden boxes, from a member named Bob Harrison. One by one, ­Hudson held the slides up to a bare lightbulb—he didn’t have a light box at the time—and was thunderstruck. “I had no idea,” Hudson says. “It felt like a genuine discovery, not just the amount but the quality.” When he began posting the images to Instagram, “things just snowballed.” More leads, even bigger image troves. One person who saw those first RSF images was Max Leonard, a London writer and cyclist and the founder of Isola Press, which in time would publish the two RSF books. More than just striking vintage images of people, bikes, and landscapes, Leonard considered the photographs
evidence of a vital overlooked social history—“like lifting a lid on a world you didn’t quite know existed.”

The RSF’s members, Leonard and Hudson readily admit, were hardly the first to take their bikes off the beaten track. There was, for instance, “Wayfarer,” the pen name of W.  M. Robinson, a Liverpudlian insurance man and keen off-road adventurer, and a talismanic figure for the Fellowship. In one of his more memorable exploits, he crossed the snowbound Berwyn Mountains in northern Wales in March 1919. “Is this cycling?” he wrote in his popular column in Cycling. “Per se, possibly not. Some of the way over the mountains was ridden, but for the most part it was a walking expedition.” Lest this appear mere folly, he stressed that the expedition was only made possible with the bike—a 60-mile ride beforehand and 50 miles more afterward. (The RSF, for its part, placed a plaque along the route, and members retrace Wayfarer’s route every few years.)

In 1958, a few RSF members made what they thought was a pioneering ten-day expedition across Iceland’s high desert, the Sprengisandur. Upon returning, they published an account of the trip, only to discover that Horace Dall, a British telescope maker and an avid cyclist, had crossed the terrain on a three-speed Raleigh decades earlier. “They were totally shocked, and I think a bit gutted,” says Hudson.

But there seemed to be something in the air in the 1950s that coalesced this lonely pastime into the stirrings of a movement. As Hudson writes in the first RSF book, postwar Britain was marked by “men and women for whom bicycles were the sole means of transport and who thought nothing of riding large distances, whether to and from work or in pursuit of that relatively new idea, ‘leisure.’ ” More than previous generations, he argues, “they felt they had the right to enjoy the open land beyond the town’s end.” What’s more, the roads were increasingly filled with that new beacon of middle-class respectability, the automobile, which helped stoke larger fears that William Blake’s England, that “green and pleasant land,” was slowly disappearing. “That will be England gone,” eulogized poet Philip Larkin in “Going, Going,” published in 1972. “The shadows, the meadows, the lanes / The guildhalls, the carved choirs.” What will remain? “Concrete and tyres.”

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(Courtesy of the Rough Stuff Fellowship)
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(Courtesy of the Rough Stuff Fellowship)
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(Courtesy of the Rough Stuff Fellowship)
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(Courtesy of the Rough Stuff Fellowship)
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(Courtesy of the Rough Stuff Fellowship)

The off-road urge extended to riders beyond the United Kingdom. One of the RSF’s earliest American members was John Finley Scott, a sociology professor at the University of California at Davis and a tireless cycling advocate credited with inventing the first mountain bike. In a 1963 Rough Stuff Journal article, he details a ride he took (“the bicycle was wheeled and carried”) to the White Wolf summit in Yosemite National Park on a British bike, built by Jim Guard Cycles of Southampton, bearing an RSF badge. “Personally I expect rough-stuff riding to increase,” he wrote, “because there are many who are now both cyclists and enthusiasts for remote regions and rough terrain.” He predicted “an American version of a British specialty.”

And then, of course, came the whole mountain-bike boom of the succeeding decades, followed not just by gravel riding but by gravel racing. In a world where enduro riders shred the gnar on precipitous singletrack or professional cyclists hold nearly 300 watts for 200 miles of unpaved roads in events like Unbound Gravel, the exploits of the RSF may seem a bit quaint. It’s just one of the challenges that current RSF chairman Geoff Smith articulates to me on a phone call from his home near Manchester. “Nowadays,” he says, “pretty much every square inch of the old rough-stuff roads have been tarmacked over,” he says. But because midcentury riders “couldn’t afford cars,” he explains, “they used to go to work on bicycles, then use those same bicycles on the weekend.” Today, he says, people drive to the rough stuff: “I’m as bad as anyone. I drive to the ride with my bike on the car rack.” Another issue is the group’s aging membership. “I mean, even at 68, I’m considered to be a baby,” Smith jokes. He recalls turning up at a cycling event in an old RSF T-shirt and being told: “God, I didn’t know that was still going!” But the Instagram account, along with the books, he notes, have brought in new blood, boosting membership to its highest point in decades—somewhere north of a thousand.

Smith says that he, like many RSFers, has “thrown out the computer.” He’ll still use GPS, but he’s not trying to notch any KOMs. “It’s not about how fast you’ve gone,” he says. “It’s where you’ve been.” Which is not to say that the RSF hasn’t produced some incredibly strong riders. One of its most legendary is George “McNasty” Berwick, who joined the RSF in 1960. He is an unmistakable presence in UK cycling. Pictures show a man with wild hair, huge glasses, and a startlingly prominent set of front teeth, magnified by the fact that he always seemed to be smiling. When I spoke with him in November, he’d logged around 820,000 lifetime miles.

Cyclists like myself were startled by these hardy Kodachrome emissaries from the past, outfitted in their plus fours and tweeds, floating bike-laden dinghies over Icelandic crossings, grinding down snow-covered tracks, puffing contemplatively on pipes in the Welsh moorlands.

The day I call Berwick, he’s already put in another 24 on the quiet roads around his house outside Dundee, Scotland. “I’m a bit low this year,” he says of his 6,000 miles in 2021—at least 1,000 more than me. He’s 81. He would have ridden more, he says, but his wife, Margaret, “has a wee bit of dementia, so I stay about more.” Still, in three decades, he’s had just three days off the bike. Apart from holding the Scottish 24-hour time-trial record, he’s completed 60-plus 24-hour trials, basically one per year since he started riding. He last worked, he tells me, in 1980, for Singer, the sewing-machine company, when it still had a factory in Clydebank. “I married a rich woman,” he says with a sprightly chuckle. “You couldn’t expect me to work after that.” The trip to the wedding ceremony, you may not be surprised to hear, happened on a tandem, as did the honeymoon. He hasn’t crashed since 1964, when a drunk driver coming home from a Scotland-England soccer match hit him in Glasgow. These days he does a lot of his riding on a trike, for safety; he keeps a mountain bike in his 21-bike stable for “when it’s snowy and icy.”

Stories about Berwick are legion, like the time, at 69, that he rode more than 300 miles with a fractured down tube held together by zip ties. But he won’t tell you those stories himself. That’s another thing that is so ­appealing about the RSF. Unlike today, when shouty Ironman tattoos and 26.2 stickers proliferate the landscape and social media feeds are filled with earnest pronouncements of the deep life lessons acquired on weekend rides or half marathons, the RSF was just out there, going where few people had gone before, simply because it was a labor, and, more important, because it was fun. “Doing hard things without making much of a fuss about it,” as Leonard says. “It’s probably a quite British way of looking at things.” And yet he pushes back against my suggestion that the RSF is a sort of pre-
social-media, pics-or-it-didn’t-happen idyll of cycling, for the simple fact that they took so many photographs. People, he suggests, have always wanted to show the world what they did. Their 1958 expedition to Iceland, drolly documented in the journal (“Toilet paper,” the trip’s chronicler observed, was “supplied usually by British Railways or the Iceland Steamship”), even foreshadows today’s sponsored efforts and the #KitGrids of Instagram.

Back in Sheffield, as we loaded the van for Scotland, I asked Hudson about the evening’s dinner plans, envisioning some twee country pub along the way. “I’ll just heat a tin of beans at the gaff,” he said with proper rough-stuff nonchalance.

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(Ben Read)

Like many rides these days, the Lairig Ghru outing began on WhatsApp. Weeks before, in a chat titled “Ghru crew,” we were all introduced and started hammering out logistics. In addition to Hudson, the two Bens, and myself, we’d be joined by two Scots, Stu and Lewis, and a Brit, Robbie, living in Scotland. The chat was full of jokes and cheery bravado, bristling with new-to-me Scottish words like “howff.” I tried to decipher comments like “if Fords of Avon are in spate there is a fair detour around the loch,” and “weather’s not hoorna cold yet.” My earnest inquiries about which gear to bring, given the news updates I’d gotten about a recent Cairngorms mountain rescue, were met with piss-take suggestions of “country shirts” and “German cyclotourist boots.” Lewis chimed: “Gna be a weird mix of Outlander and Alf cos­play on the go.” When I asked if I might borrow a helmet, he offered: “I’ve got a heavily waxed safety cap you can use.”

My advance reading on the suitability of cycling the Lairig Ghru proved no less unsettling. “Lairig ghru is it really that bad?,” the headline of a post in the Singletrack World forums, was typical. (The answer was a unanimous yes.) “An undiluted mountain bike ride,” counseled Mountain Bike Rider, “if your body can take it.” On Trailforks, which rated it two stars out of a maximum five, a commenter advised: “Don’t ever let anyone convince you to ride the full length of this.”

On the eve of the start, we assembled before a warming fire—and a bottle of whisky—in the John Muir Cottage, a cozy bunkhouse near the town of Braemar. We talked about iconic RSF members like Bill Houston, a Scotsman featured in the BBC Scotland short “I’m a Kind of Mechanised Tramp.” “He’s just a guy you’d see at the pub,” Lewis noted, “but then he’s like, ‘Oh, I went to Oman on my bike.’ ” We talked more about gear. “I’m still trying to be selective for tomorrow,” Ben Brown said. “A friend gave me some binoculars.” “He’ll take shitloads,” Hudson exclaimed. “I can guarantee his bike will be the heaviest.” Lewis piped in: “I’ve brought some boules. They’re ultralight bikepacking boules.” And we talked about the state of the RSF itself. Stu recalled growing up reading his father’s old Rough Stuff Journals. “I remember being young and saying, ‘What is this madness?’ ” But mountain biking came along and stole the thunder. What had once seemed “spicy,” he says, was now “just some 60-year-old man riding a bike with a rack.”

We set off early the next morning. I was on a singlespeed ­hardtail mountain bike, made by the Scottish marque Shand, where Stu worked. The others mostly had older steel bikes—a Raleigh, an MB Dronfield—equipped with saddle and handlebar bags from Carradice, ­a longtime English manufacturer. The Brits’ clothing also had a vintage feel, less Rapha vintage than thrift-store vintage. We were on the tarmac for a while, speeding along the fast-flowing River Dee through aromatic forests of Scotch pine before turning onto a gravel track.

Lairig Ghru, in Gaelic, is thought to mean, in one of several interpretations, “gloomy place.” In his book The Old Ways, Robert Macfarlane describes it as “the great glacier-gouged valley that divides the Cairngorm massif from north to south, and whose highest point—at over 2,600 feet—is higher than the summit of most British mountains.” It is, he says, “one of the most affecting places I know.” It’s an old drover’s road, a route once used by shepherds to bring sheep or cattle to market, a practice that died out in the late 19th century. On this particular morning, however, there seemed nothing gloomy about it, as the sun broke on vibrant rust-colored fields of heather, and a rainbow beckoned. We cruised steadily on the path, and I began to wonder at the supposed severity of the journey. We’d already completed, by my reckoning, a third of the route in little more than an hour. Was this even worthy of the expedition we’d created, let alone a magazine article?

Then the obstacles began. The first was the Luibeg Burn, a small, rocky river. Lewis and Stu stripped to bare feet, hoisted their bikes, and crossed, nearly toppling over. The rest of us opted to head for a small footbridge, which required ascending a high, narrow track along the river, into which Ben Brown nearly fell. From here the path deteriorated and the climbing began. So, too, did a frustrating kind of dance: I’d ride 15 or 20 feet, then come to a “water bar”—a granite channel laid perpendicular to the track to prevent flooding. More often than not, these were uncrossable on bikes (at least, by anyone not named Danny MacAskill). After a while, it no longer seemed worth mounting our steeds for so little riding, so I began to push. And hoist. And heave. And cajole. It was like a training camp for the yet-to-be-invented sport of competitive hike-a-bike.

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(Ben Read)
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(Ben Read)
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(Ben Read)
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(Ben Read)
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(Ben Read)

As we climbed, a fog began to roll in, accompanied by a steady drizzle. The tenor of the place changed completely, from bright, pastoral, and warm to dark, cold, and vaguely menacing. Thin, jagged streams shot down the side of the surrounding mountains; stags bellowed from distant ridges. At midday, after wetly navigating another river crossing, we arrived at the Corrour bothy. In Scotland, the bothy is a deeply embedded feature not only of the physical “right to roam” landscape, but of the psychic. The small shelters are spoken of with reverence. Like many, this one was once an old shepherd’s hut, with thick stone walls. We stopped for a “drum-up”; camp stoves were unpacked, coffee brewed, cans of Newcastle Brown Ale cracked. Lewis unearthed the wooden orbs from deep in his Carradice. “Boules on the Ghru!” he shouted, and we retreated to a patch of rock-strewn grass for some lawn bowling. “It’s 1:20,” Stu said. “I reckon we’ll get to the hostel around five.”

That would prove to be an optimistic assessment. After we departed the bothy, the path grew increasingly rocky, and soon we encountered the first of three enormous boulder fields, each stretching the length of several football pitches. The rocks were huge, jagged, and uneven. Repeatedly as I scrambled across them, looking for traces of footsteps that centuries of travelers had burnished into the rock, I nearly lost my balance, owing to the saddlebag-bearing bike slung onto my shoulder; my only consolation was that I didn’t have Ben Brown’s overladen steed. “Taking the bike places it normally does not go,” another RSF mantra I’d heard, was fine enough in theory, but one could equally have carried an ironing board, an upright bass, or a potted plant for all the good it was doing.

“Taking the bike places it normally does not go,” another RSF mantra I’d heard, was fine enough in theory, but one could equally have carried an ironing board, an upright bass, or a potted plant for all the good it was doing.

After what felt like hours of exhausting climbing and then treacherous descending, banging the bike over endless rocks, constantly gouging my shins on the metal platform pedals, we arrived at the Pools of Dee, a set of small, strikingly clear ponds. Stiff winds buffeted their surface. “Transparent and reflective,” writes Macfarlane in The Old Ways, “they appeared like the mountain’s own eyes, gazing skywards.” This was where, in 1948, Sir Hugh Rhys Rankin, the mercurial founding president of the RSF, had reported encountering “the Presence,” a towering figure with long hair and sandals who he recognized as a bodhisattva, “one of the five ‘Perfected Men’ who control the destiny of the world.” The only apparition we saw at Dee was an older man, clad in a blue anorak, who approached us out of the mist looking startled. “You’re not going to make it by sunset,” he scolded.

We laughed him off, but the comment proved sage. As the sun set, we’d not yet reached the Rothiemurchus Forest, the point at which we could ride our bikes on a proper path. Instead, we were trudging through a bog-filled minefield, using our headlamps to try and pick out a safe place to walk; I would avoid twisting one ankle only to plunge my other foot deep into freezing mud. I’d pushed and carried my bike more than 20 miles, up nearly 3,000 feet of elevation, and was admittedly at the breaking point. We finally made it to the hostel in Aviemore at 8:45, to the chagrin of the sole kitchen worker cleaning up for the night. Over fish and chips, the bulk of us decided we’d return to Braemar via a route with plenty of rough stuff but more conducive to actual cycling. Only Lewis and Ben Read, the photographer, opted for the more arduous return. The next day, after a ride that Brown described as “unrelentingly ace,” we stopped for a celebratory pint at a café called, appropriately, the Bothy. My phone chimed with a text from Ben Read, accompanied by a clip of Lewis riding his bike, his tire hopelessly shredded, held to the rim by bungee cords. Since much of their ride would be walked, it didn’t much matter. “That’s so Lewis!” chuckled Stu.

I tried to puzzle out how I felt about the “ride.” Was it worth doing by bike? Maybe once. Was it fun? Yes, in the sense that it was so bonkers that it completely confounded your expectations of what a day on a bike could be—and because, as the RSF name portends, you did it with people. “It’s only a certain type of person that would do it,” Hudson said, “which is sort of the appeal.”

There were moments—in the bog, in the dark—he said, when he began to ask himself: What am I doing? “Then, when you look back, the reason you did do it is because you’re trying to find an answer that you don’t really know. And that’s what keeps you going; that’s why you want to do it. And I don’t think you should necessarily be able to answer it, because it might just pop the bubble, you know?”