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Travels With a VéloSoleX

Peter Perkins

I'd had the VéloSoleX in the shed a long time, and after re-engineering the rotary engine (tip seals again!) in my NSU RO 80 car, I had some spare time so I thought I'd mod the old gal.  It's basically a 1956 French cyclemotor, friction drive on the front tyre.  It sits above the forks in a streamlined tin case like a big crash helmet.  It only has a knob at the side to put the roller on the wheel and a throttle on the handlebar.  Little old ladies and priests and postman used to putter round France on them like billy-ho.  I'd got it in good nick of course but it would only do about 18 miles an hour (24.87kph).  There's nothing you can't do if you try so I converted it to an overhead cam four stroke.  I can't go into detail here but if anyone takes a fancy to doing the same I have written up a manual for doing the job, but be prepared for some tricky filing.  My manual also covers the optional supercharging, a centrifugal vane compressor is not so hard to make.  I also have the casting moulds for the cylinder head.  I will lend them out with the manual.  It will now do just over 50 miles an hour (71.5kph) and has surprised one or two people I can tell you.

I made a combined wet-suit/riding suit/leathers out of a heavy duty vinyl pond liner, this also gets admiring glances.


I nipped over to Spalding today on the VSX to get some sphagnum moss for my orchid box.  I came back via Burnham Thorpe as I had been told that Mr Leinstherman, who is an organ stop collector like myself, had got a 32 foot Diapason for sale.  Fortunately I have the 'signing' as old Mr Leinstherman is deaf.  (He was deafened by Gustav, the railway gun which bombarded Sebastopol in the Second World War.)  The organ stop was unfortunately a 32 foot vox humana, which of course I have.

Nipped over to Spalding on the VéloSoleX to get some more sphagnum moss.  The orchids, especially the Madagascar Blue Star, eat it up.  I was a bit lucky on the way home as I came back via Burnham Thorpe and was able to save a sloop which was drifting on the lee shore with the crew laying off in the cutter.  I got out to it easy enough in my pond liner suit and the fools had got it clewed up tight in a dhow rig, which is only any good with a lateen sail.  I took a bight on all the starboard sheets and cut away the gunnel.  She laid over like a kitten on the port tack and made head ten points to the wind.  I had a bit of a sail round for old times sake before coming back for the crew.  Oh yes, I nearly forgot, I also bought some battered cod from Superfreeze.

I had to nip over to Spalding this morning on the old VSX for some sphagnum moss.  Came back the other way, via Thetford Forest.  Looked at the old village of Stanton, just by (alright, inside) the battle area.  Outside a shattered barn was a cast iron trough, 27 feet 9 inches in length, cut longitudinally by acetylene.  I recognised it at once as the lower half of a German 'Biber' one man submarine.  The engine mountings were still in the bottom for the 32hp Opel Blitz engine.  Inside the barn, under the rubble, rusty but unmistakeable, was a Maybach V8 engine from a Schutte-Lanz airship, rival of the Zeppelin in 14-18.  It was a V8 with a four throw crank!  The second bank of cylinders had a con-rod fitted above the big end of the first bank's con-rod.  Couldn't see the timing gears, damn.  I rested awhile in the meteorite crater which I knew to be in the woods just opposite and put on my pond liner suit as it had started to rain.  I had the 'wets' on the bike so I got home quick.  Pretty quiet the rest of the day.

Nipped out on the VéloSoleX.  Got the sphagnum moss from Spalding and came back via Burnham Thorpe for a purpose.  It was just the right weather and time of the year to find the rarest of our little friends, the Lesser Fritillary Pupa Mite.  The plants will always lead you, at the edge of the Marram I found a Drovers Scrotum, and some Newt Borage so I knew I was getting warm.  Sure enough there was the Maidens Clout and on the lower third of the anterior cotyledons, the Lesser Fritillary Pupa (3/16ths of an inch long).  I made a magnifying glass with a drop of water and saw that each pupae had its small colony of mites.  With my magnifier I was just able to make out the unique marking on the back of these tiny creatures which is in the shape of a Fender Stratocaster guitar.  I left all as I found it and on my way home marvelled at how nature has a place for everything and everything in its place.


I should have mentioned in reference to my earlier trip concerning the Organ Stops.  I collect only stops, the inserts of which are Mombasa Ivory, and engraved by Herbert Smout.  The Vox Humana which Mr Leinstherman had was Mombasa Ivory but the engraver was either early Daniel Tungate or more likely an apprentice.

Early today I nipped over to Spalding as the orchids were crying out for sphagnum moss (especially those little devils the Chilean Emberpoints).  Came back Thetford way and stopped off at Stanton.  I was having a sit down in the old meteorite crater when John Smith walked down.  I knew him at once as he makes all of his own clothes.  He is a philosopher and I am the only person he will speak to, I don't know why.  He thinks everyone should be called John or Joan Smith, thus he maintained all people would be equal.  His philosophy is of the 'hidden truth' variety.  The truth of everything was located in the small of the back of everybody and only readable by that person, but of course they could never see it.  If mirrors were used it transferred to the back of the mirror or mirrors, however many were used.  John maintained that there was a French contortionist who could see his own back but he died just before he tracked him down.  He does not believe my philosophy of 'am as', so we didn't discuss that.  I admired his suit made of dyed tea towels then nipped off on the VéloSoleX.  Got home in good style but may re-contour the cams as I think there is a little more top end in the old girl.

Got out the cyclemotor and had to nip over to Spalding for some sphagnum moss for the orchids.  Critical time for orchids of course in early June.  I came back via Burnham Thorpe to have a look at a barn at Victory Farm.  My word, what a clue!  I suspected the barn was made of the timbers from a man-o-war which had been at the Battle of Trafalgar, namely the famous Bellerophon (called Billy Ruffian by the sailors).  The barn was disused and half collapsed but I found a complete cruck and crutch roof truss.  Looking at the grain rings (I have memorised the data) I determined it was oak felled in 1764.  It looked suspiciously like Forest of Dean.  The Battle of Trafalgar was in October 1805 and the Bellerophon was a relatively new warship at that time, but recycling took place even then.  I do know that the original Temeraire (Not its later namesake painted by Turner) was decommissioned and broken up in Limehouse Reach in 1803.  Limehouse Reach is where the Bellerophon was built!  The early Temeraire had been built in 1765-6.  It all fitted in, but were there any more clues to prove that the beams of this humble barn were the remains of a famous old First-Rate.  The timbers had clearly been keelsons and strakes, with one bracing bar from a gunport.  The adze marks showed a millstone grit sharpening tool.  This was a London trademark as provincial yards were using limestone or even sandstone wheels at this time.  The gunport bracing bar provided the conclusive proof.  The Bellerophon had carried four Forty Pounders, no other ship had over a twenty-eight pounder.  The gunport bracing bar held the recoil trunnions which were bolted through (the holes were there) four feet, eight inches apart.  ONLY A FORTY POUNDER needed this distance.  I was rather humbled at being in the presence of such famous wood and almost thought I could hear the shots and shouts, and smell the smoke of that distant conflict.  The VéloSoleX cleared my head on the way home as the experimental water injection made the old girl zip.

Hadn't been far on the VéloSoleX lately but I needed some sphagnum moss for the new orchids just arrived from New Caledonia.  They are called the Put-Put Orchid.  (Onomatopoeiac - the bud opens with an audible pop.)  Nipped over to Spalding for the moss and took the opportunity on the way back via Thetford to have a look at the old pub site at Stanton.  It is now in the woods quite close to the meteorite crater, and there is virtually nothing above ground.  It was a minor coaching inn on the old Peddars Way, probably been there about 300 years till it was shut in 1910 and demolished a few years later.  It was called the 'Goat and Compasses'.  It is believed that this name derives from the religious homily 'God Encompasseth', but this is not true.  There was a minor order of monks called the Comptrollers which was shortened to 'Comp', and their exhortation to their servants (they did nothing themselves) was "Go Attend Comp Asses".  This is the correct origin of the name.  There were a few loose bricks on the site, (two and a half inch faggot fired local reds, quite rare) but the interesting thing to me was the edible snails which had survived ninety years.  They were a speciality of the Goat and Compasses Inn having been brought from France by the last landlord, a Huguenot called Chompière.  I suppose people think that the snails in that corner of Thetford Forest are common or garden gastropods.  Far from it, they are the Auvergne Escargot, witness the light, almost white horns and umber shell stripe.  They are small and there were plenty so I gathered about a pound and zipped home with them on the VéloSoleX.  I ate them on a pizza (Thin and Crispy).

Started up the VéloSoleX and nipped over to Spalding for a dollop of sphagnum moss for the orchids.  Came back Burnham Thorpe way and stopped off to try to find the right sort of osier (called eel whip), to complete a weaved document case which I have made of the various materials of the region.  I found a few osiers, the remnants of an industry which died generations ago.  The trees had obviously not been pollarded since then and the broad and cracked stumps were covered with foliage.  I cut a few branches and looked at the trunk of the willow.  It was cracked from top to bottom and streaked with what looked like rust.  I kicked at one side of the trunk.  It fell away and out dropped a two hundred pound unexploded German bomb.  By what chance had it dropped directly into the centre of this tree sixty years ago?  I can picture a low level Heinkel 111 twisting and turning, chased by Douglas Bader's Hurricanes from Coltishall, jettisoning its bomb load before making a despairing run for home.  The casing of the bomb was rusted paper thin and split down one side.  The Torpex explosive was, as I expected, still in the moulded segments as it left the A.G. Farben works in the Ruhr.  Torpex does not deteriorate with time and its wax impregnation makes it impervious to weather.  The bomb had the normal capacitor armed fuse with anti-handling, but it was dilapidated and corroded.  To be on the safe side I pulled out the detonator and rapped it on the heel of my boot.  It went off with a satisfying bang but it was all flash and no blast which is a characteristic of the Picric Acid detonators.  I wound the osier stems that I needed round my body to take them home and I noticed that the VéloSoleX got more than the usual admiring glances on the way.  I advised the bomb disposal people by telephone of the item requiring their attention.  They thought it was a joke to start with.  Hitler was no joke I told them.

Up earlyish and had to nip over to Spalding for some sphagnum today and came back via Thetford.  I had a purpose.  On a previous trip I had noticed a cottage just outside Stanton with an old USAAF Quonset hut in the garden, and propped against it a bicycle with a belt ring clipped to the spokes of the rear wheel.  It had to have once been a Cyclaid cyclemotor.  Today the bike was still there and a man came out of the hut as I drew up.  He was amazed at my machine, and when he identified my cyclemotor, correctly as a 1956 VéloSoleX, made in the Lille works, I knew he had the knowledge.  He took me into the Quonset.  What an Aladdin's Cave!  I gave him a commentary as we looked at his cyclemotors and he beamed and nodded in confirmation as I was probably the only other person in the country who would have known what they all were.  There was the Power Pak with its cylinder upside down next to the back wheel and bean shaped tank.  The Mini-Motors, Mark One and Two, with horizontal finning.  He had the 25cc and the 32cc Cyclemasters in the rear wheels and the similar Winged Wheel with its special BSA bike to go with it.  He had a complete Cyclaid with belt drive to the rear wheel. Then there were the front wheel rarities, the Motamite with a little round petrol tank like an anarchists bomb.  The Cymota with a big fairing which was a copy of the VéloSoleX.  The bottom bracket engines were the rarest.  The overhead valve Cucciolo with exposed valves and pushrods and the Lohmann, which was a compression ignition motor of 18cc!  There was a Mosquito, which was a bottom bracket two-stroke, and a Victoria ditto.  Waiting restoration he even had a Micromotor, an Itom, a Cyc-Auto and rarest of all, indeed the only one I had ever seen, a Rex, which was a front wheel belt drive.

In the long garden behind the hut a riding track was worn in the grass, a little over a hundred yards each side and slightly banked at the end curves.  He let me ride whatever I wanted.  The Power-Pak was rough but powerful and the motor wobbled like jelly on its rubber mountings.  The Cucciolo was the fastest with a three inch multiplate cork clutch and two-speed gearbox.  The valves were just a blur.  The smoothest was the Cyclaid with its little round belt.  The weakest was the Lohmann, indeed it was difficult to tell if the engine was actually working.  He had a go on my VéloSoleX and set a course record for his garden Grand Prix.  The new time of 32 seconds easily beat his previous best, achieved on the Cucciolo.  Reluctantly I had to leave the sight and sounds of these lovely little engines and really gave my modified machine its head on the way home. I was glad I was not on the Lohmann.  Relecting later, it was almost as if I had dreamt the whole thing.

Nipped over to Spalding, usual thing, sphagnum moss for the orchids.  Came back via Burnham Thorpe.  Nelson was born there and I always feel sort of nautical riding through.  I made a bit of a detour to avoid deaf old Mr Leinstherman as I have an organ stop I know he wants.  It's only a common or garden Cor Anglais, and I have two of them.  Both are Mombasa Ivory and both are engraved by Herbert Smout, but one was engraved before he had his stroke, and one after, with his right hand.  (having previously been left handed) I went the back way and it's a good thing I did.  I had stopped to look at the undulations in a field adjacent to the road, which were the remains of a very old Motte and Bailey castle, when a riderless horse raced down the lane towards me.  It was the work of a moment to windmill my arms, crouching, to confuse the animal.  It slowed enough for me to grab the halter and bring it under control. The thrown rider soon appeared, running and breathless.  He was naturally very relieved that I had secured his horse before it reached the Blind and Deaf Children's group on their pilgrimage to Walsingham.  They tapped their way past us in perfect safety.  I asked him what he knew about the obvious Motte and Bailey humps in the field.  The field was his, but he knew nothing of its history exept that it was called the Holey Field.  Because of the holes he thought.  The Knights Templar had one castle, and one only in this Country.  It had been a sort of training centre for the Crusades to Jerusalem in the 12th Century. It was established by the Valois, knights of Burgundy. It is documented but had never been found, till now!  I am positive that these hills and humps are the remains of that castle.
Evidence.  Number 1.  The outer bank shows where the Postern gate was, and it was not opposite a corresponding entrance to the Inner Bailey.  That was on the opposite side.  Exactly as at Acre and Salamanca.  By this means it was not possible to rush both gates pell-mell.  The Infidels had to move round the Inner Keep and could be assaulted from above.
Evidence.  Number 2.  The ellipse of the outer ditch, enclosed a rectangular central tower, with two walls on ninety degree chords of the ellipse.  There is an identical layout in Malta.
Evidence.  Number 3.  The nearest Inn is called The Saracens Head.
Evidence.  Number 4.  The farmer said it is called the Holey Field, because of the uneven ground.  No.  It was originally the Holy Field because of its religious purpose.  Food for thought on the way home as the VéloSoleX purred.  The crusaders walked two thousand miles for their battle.

Where does all the sphagnum moss go to?  I had to nip over to Spalding to get some before my Seychellians wilted.  I came back via Thetford and cruised through Stanton.  I was looking for a particular herb to cure athletes foot, which I have, but not on my feet.  I think the pond liner riding suit is a bit 'close' in the nether regions.  The herb I wanted was Pauncefoote.  It is rare but is usually found near the much more abundant Quaking Grass.  I tracked it down in a clearing near the old meteorite crater.  Having picked a handful, crushed it and placed it on the affected region, I sat on a large flint and waited as the herb must be in place for ten minutes.  It must be no longer than ten minutes or inflammation worse than the orginal alffliction occurs.  I noticed another flint within arms reach, just poking out of the grass in front of me.  Digging with my heels, the ground around the largest flint was full of flint shards.  It was a 'Knapcot'.  A knappers flint anvil which was used in the main for axe making.  Arrowheads and scrapers and awls and such were small enough to be made in the hand but axes were made on a 'Knapcot'.  What could I learn here?  The knapper was right handed as the shards were mainly in an arc from nine o'clock to twelve o'clock at the base of the striking flint.  He had been a tall man as the flakes were close to the base of the flint so the downward blows must have been nearly vertical.  He had also taken larger flakes than usual so must have been a strong specimen.  Probing with my home made knife I deduced some five seasons of knapping on this spot, by the same individual, with apprentice flakes in season two and three (a son, perhaps).  I noted in the upper layer, the last season of use, that the last flint knapped had not been finished.  The knapping is a sequential process, large flakes at first as the head is roughed out, then flakes about a third of the size as the edge is perfected.  (Polishing is done elsewhere.)  The smaller flakes laying on top of the larger.  The last and upper flakes on this site were all large and few in number, perhaps one side of an axe head only.  This ancient cousin had stopped, or been stopped abruptly in his work, never to resume it.  A raid?  A roof-fall in the flint pits?  Disease?  I could have wished for a happier conclusion to my brief investigation.  Ten minutes.  The Pauncefoote had done its work.  The saddle of the VéloSoleX was now kinder to that with which it came into contact.

Bit of a mod to the old VéloSoleX.  I've made a screen.  It's fixed to the handlebars and comprises a frame of flattened copper tube with a piece of hardboard bolted on.  I know that's not transparent but I look over it and it deflects the air above my Corker helmet.  It's just like sitting in a limousine.  Good job I made it as I had to nip over to Spalding in inclement weather for some sphagnum moss for the Andean Sun Orchids.  These little devils normally grow at an altitude of ten thousand feet so I have had to make a special box for them.  It is hermetically sealed, or as best as I could, with a vacuum pump taking the air pressure down.  A tiny butane flame burns off some oxygen.  With temperature variation from zero to 30C in every twenty-four hours, it's all a bit tricky.  The last thing I wanted though, after all this effort, was to lose them for a lack of sphagnum.

On the way back from Spalding I came Burnham Thorpe way. On a mission you might say.  You see it was the 27th of August, which is the day in Burnham of the traditional folk custom of 'Mumping the Tato'.  I am afraid, over the years, their observance has been less and less exact.  In an effort to keep the tradition reasonably accurate and to maintain the oral tradition, I put in an appearance.  It was a good thing I did!  Three men, three women, three boys and three girls were sitting on the 'Trostle' (a long bench) outside the Village Hall, each person holding one potato.  So far so good.  Then in turn they got up and gave their 'Tatos' to the man on the far left wearing a sack on his shoulders.  At this point I had to correct their dialogue, which is as follows.  On receiving the 'Tato' the sack wearer, called the 'Jimmer' says, "Whassat for a doin, I'd lose it in my tuth".  The giver shouts, "Tato".  When the 'Jimmer' has all the 'Tatos' along comes 'Mawther'.  This is actually a young man dressed as an old woman with cabbage leaves pinned to his clothes.  He is also carrying a sieve.  He says, "Too late was the cry, the Tato man's gone by".  Three times he says this and each time the donors on the bench reply, "We'll give you Tatos for Jimmer's a Mumping".  They then retrieve the 'Tatos' from 'Jimmer' and put them in the old woman's (young man's) sieve.  She (he) riddles them, saying the while, "Trostle men and maids, bar the 'Jimmer' I'll have your 'Tatos' for my dinner".  That was the end of 'Mumping the Tato' for another year.  My assistance was, I think, much appreciated though the natural reserve of the inhabitants prevented too open a display of gratitude.  Nipped back home in limousine comfort behind my screen.

Having re-timed the VéloSoleX by a degree or two, I was glad of the need to nip over to Spalding for some sphagnum moss.  The Flamenco Orchids are raising their beautiful arms for it.  I came back from Spalding Thetford way and after a stop at the meteorite crater to reset the VSX timing back to how it was before, carried on.  Just through Stanton I knew I was for it.  Old O'Blennerhasset was standing by the road outside his cottage.  He has an astronomical observatory in his back garden.  I have visited it a number of times when he or I want to compare notes.  Now it has become our practice, when we meet, even in passing like this, to swap thought experiments.  The astronomer was wearing his customary laundered brown dust coat and his home-made spectacles.  I stopped of course and, as usual, without preamble or greeting, he said, "If you were at the centre of the Earth, what would the force of gravity be on you?"  "None", I replied.  He smiled and his eyebrows rose.  It was the right answer, as I knew.  I explained. "At the surface, the mass beneath you to the centre of the Earth produces the gravitational force.  The closer to the centre you get, the less is beneath you, so less gravity, so nil at the centre."  He nodded and looked at me expectantly, it was my turn.  "Accelaration and gravity produce the same effect," I said, "How could you tell, if you were in identical surroundings, if on one hand you were experiencing gravity on the surface of the Earth, and on the other hand, were in space accelarating at 9.81 metres per second per second."  He replied at once, "I would drop two balls to the floor.  In space they would fall exactly parallel, on Earth they would fall towards the centre of the Earth and would therefore be closer together when they hit the floor than when they were released."  It was my turn to nod.  We parted with no more words, and as I nipped home I thought up another poser for him ready for next time.  No sense in being caught out.

Bit of a crisis in the small orchid box and the Taiwan Miniatures were beginning to suffer.  Had to nip smartly over to Spalding for some sphagnum moss.  Came back Burnham Thorpe way and stopped in the village to adjust the screen.  The 2BA bolts were pulling through the copper pipe as the force of the air on 2 square feet at even modest speeds is surprising.  I have a tool kit and with some judicious use of washers soon had it fixed.  Since I had broken my journey and I have had a beach hut at Burnham for many years I decided to visit it.  It is on stilts, against the cliff and high tide just splashes it.  I used my remote control and the trap and ladder in the floor worked fine.  I could tell that the solar charged batteries were well up.  I had my small Yaesu Multiband Receiver with me so once that was fixed to the aerials I picked up some decently clear Japanese.  I have been learning Japanese the last few weeks so this would help.  It was a programme in the Kyushu dialect about the 'Hairy Ainu' who are aboriginal Japanese who are found on the northern-most of the Home Islands.  They still exist but are not respected by their populous hairless cousins.  Little do they realise that the Ainu are the genuine Japanese, as Koreans are the genuine Chinese, Nepalese the Bengalis, etc.  I re-tuned to the Latin transmission, the only dead language broadcast left.  They were relaying the latest news and the difficulties with "Multiple pile-up on the Rome-Orbital Motorway" can be imagined.  They made a game attempt, only getting in a muddle between the past indicative tense and the present subjunctive.  Well, "Eheu Fugaces.  Postume.  Postume." as I always say.  Swam with the seals, slept on the floor and came home in darkness, but the two linked dyno-hubs did their illuminating work well.

So I dumped all the orchids.  Deflated the low atmosphere box.  Put the last of the sphagnum moss on the Kohl-Rabi bed, and started my lichen garden.  A new challenge!  Many lichens will grow on concrete paving slabs, but with a perversity all their own, many will not.  I am going to need Welsh Bluestone, Scottish Granite, various slates, Midland Oolitic Sandstone, even Kent and Sussex chalks.  Whilst the VéloSoleX has proved its reliability and reasonable speed, and could carry a good deal of sphagnum moss, stones were heavy and I would need something sturdier.  With regret I laid up the VéloSoleX, removed the tyres, greased and oiled the moving parts and lacquered the frame.  I put it in the back of the shed and looked round at my bikes to decide what to use for this new and heavier work.

The EMC Puch split-single two-stroke?  Still a bit light.  My Ner-a-Car with the Bradshaw oil-cooled engine?  Not really fast enough.  The Indian?  Best stay British.  Sunbeam Lion then?  Can't get more British than that, or more conventional.  There's the rub.  Too conventional.  The VéloSoleX was unusual and I liked that.  My mind was made up.  I got out my Wooler.  A flat-four with no crankshaft!  It's a swash-plate engine, unknown outside marine engineering.  Solid con-rods, no gudgeon pins.  The ends of the rods push a canted circular plate imparting the turning motion.  The banana shaped tank encloses the steering head and at 500cc I had little doubt that it could cover the British Isles and bring home the stones I needed.  I am a bit concerned about the rudimentary plunger rear springing, so I will convert it to swinging arm tomorrow, and include shaft drive to obviate the incessant chain maintenance.  I can hardly wait to start on my 'Wooler Ways'.

Animated VSX drawing

First published, May 2001

Thanks to Peter Perkins for allowing us to publish this wonderul story.  If you have enjoyed it, you might like to take a look at Peter's British Humour Page at

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