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Updated June 2012

T. E. Lawrence, 'Ramping'

Journal of the Royal Air Force College, Cranwell, Spring 1931


So long as roads are tarred blue and straight: not hedged; and empty and dry:- so long I am rich. Nightly I'd run up from the hangar upon the last stroke of work, spurring my tired feet to be nimble. The very movement refreshed them after the day-long restraint of service. In five minutes I was changed and pulling on my gauntlets as I walked over to my bike, which lived in a garage-hut opposite. Its tyres never wanted air, its engine had a habit of starting at second kick - a good habit, for only by frantic plunges upon the starting pedal could my puny weight force the engine over the seven atmospheres of its compression.

Boa's first glad roar at being alive again nightly jarred the huts of Cadet Town to life. 'There he goes, the noisy beggar', someone would say enviously in every flight. It is part of an airman's profession to be knowing with engines; and a thoroughbred engine is our undying satisfaction. The camp wore the virtue of my Brough like a flower in its cap. Tonight Tug and Dusty came to the step of our hut to see me off. 'Running down to Smoke, perhaps?' jeered Dusty - hitting at my regular game of London and back for tea on fine Wednesday afternoons.

Boa is a top-gear creature, as sweet in that as most single-cylinders in middle. I chug lordily past the guard room and forge through the speed limit at no more than sixteen. Round the bend, past the farm, and the way straightens. Now for it. The engine's final development is fifty-two horse power. A miracle that all this docile strength waits behind one tiny lever for the pleasure of my hand.

Another bend: and I have the honour of one of England's straightest and fastest roads. The burble of my exhaust unwound like a long cord behind me. Soon my speed snapped it and I heard only the cry of the wind which my battering head split and fended aside. The cry rose with my speed to a shriek, while the air's coldness streamed like two jets of iced water into my dissolving eyes. I screwed them to slits and focused my sight two hundred yards ahead of me on the empty mosaic of the tar's gravelled undulations.

Like arrows the tiny flies pricked my cheeks; and sometimes a heavier body, some house-fly or beetle, would crash into my face or lips like a spent bullet. A glance at the speedometer: seventy-eight. Boa is warming up. I pull the throttle right open on the top of the slope and we swoop flying across the dip and up-down, up-down the switchback beyond, the weighty machine launching itself like a projectile with a whirr of wheels into the air at the take-off of each rise, to land lurchingly with such a snatch of the driving chain as jerks my spine like a rictus.

Once we fled across the evening light, with the yellow sun low on my left, when a huge shadow roared just overhead. A Bristol Fighter, from Whitewash Villas, our neighbouring aerodrome, was banking sharply round. I checked speed an instant to wave: and the slip-stream of my impetus snapped my arm and elbow astern, like a raised flail. The pilot pointed down the road towards Lincoln. I sat hard into the saddle, folded back my ears and went away after him like a dog after a hare. Quickly we drew abreast, as the impulse of his dive to my level exhausted itself.

The next mile of road was rough. I braced my feet into the rests, thrust with my arms and clenched my knees on the tank till its rubber grips goggled under my thighs. Over the first pot-hole Boa screamed in surprise, its mudguard bottoming with a yawp upon the tyre. The plunges of the next ten seconds would have distinguished a kangaroo dodging gun-fire. I clung on, wedging my gloved hand in the throttle lever so that no bumps should close it and spoil our speed. Then the bicycle wrenched sideways into three long ruts: it swayed dizzily, wagging its tail for thirty awful yards. Out came the clutch, the engine raced freely: Boa checked and straightened his head with a shake, as a Brough should.

The bad ground was passed and on the new surface our flight became birdlike. My head was blown out with air so that my ears had failed and we seemed to swirl soundlessly between the sun-gilt stubble fields. I dared, on a rise, to slow imperceptibly and glance sideways into the sky. There the Bif was, two hundred yards and more back. Play with the fellow? Why not? I slowed to ninety: signalled with my hand for him to over-take. Slowed ten more: sat up. Over he rattled. His passenger, a helmeted and goggled grin, hung out of the cockpit to pass me greeting.

They were thinking me a flash in the pan, giving them best. Open went my throttle again. Boa crept level, fifty feet below: held them: sailed ahead into the clean and lonely country. An approaching car pulled nearly into the ditch at the sight of our race. The Bif was zooming among the trees and telegraph poles, with my scurrying spot only eighty yards ahead. I gained, though, gained steadily: was perhaps five miles an hour the faster. Down went my left hand to give the engine two extra dollops of oil, for fear that something was running hot; but an overhead Jap twin, super-tuned like this one, would carry on to the moon and back unfalteringly.

We drew near the settlement. A long mile before the first houses I closed down and coasted to the cross-roads by the hospital. Bif caught up, banked, climbed and turned for home, waving to me as long as he was in sight. Fourteen miles from camp we are, here; and fifteen minutes since I left Tug and Dusty at the hut door.

I let in the clutch again and eased Boa down the hill, along the tramlines and through the dirty streets up hill to the aloof cathedral, where it stood in frigid perfection above the cowering close. No message of mercy in Lincoln. Our God is a jealous god, and a man's best offering will fall disdainfully short of worthiness in the sight of Saint Hugh and his angels.

Remigius, earthy old Remigius, looks with more charity on me and Boa. I stabled the steel magnificence of strength and speed at his west door and went in, to find the organist practising something slow and rhythmical, like a multiplication table in notes, on the organ. The fretted, unsatisfying and unsatisfied lace-work of choir screen and spandrils drank in the main sound. Its surplus spilled thoughtfully into my ears.

By then my belly had forgotten lunch... but all that is years ago.

J.C.

Note: The text printed here was originally written as one of a series of anonymous articles that Lawrence submitted unsuccessfully to the Motor Cycle magazine: 'I wrote a string of articles about bike-rides: but the Motor Cycle would not take them' (DG, p. 647). He later incorporated 'Ramping' in to the Cranwell section of The Mint, which was assembled from a number of contemporary sources. It appears there under the title 'The Road' (The Mint, Part III, Chapter 16).

Lawrence sent 'Ramping' to Rupert de la Bère on 8 October 1930, for publication in the Journal of the Royal Air Force College over the initials 'J.C.' Lawrence's covering letter suggests that the text was drawn from The Mint; but its true history is given in a letter to George Brough of 13.6.1933 (see JTELS I:2, pp. 81-2).


The title of the article refers to the nickname, the 'Ramper', given by cadets to a stretch of road near the College. It is difficult to understand why David Garnett, who had access to Lawrence's letters to de la Bère, should have included an inaccurate and critical footnote (DG p.781) suggesting that the text printed in the Cranwell Journal had been copied from the much later British Legion Journal piracy.

Source: Royal Air Force College Journal
Checked: jw/
Last revised: 6 January 2006




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