On Sunday, we embarked on a rather ambitious combination of training ride and cycle tourism. We decided to ride from our home in Coventry to the outskirts of Birmingham, Small Heath, to see the last remnant of the Birmingham Small Arms (BSA) bicycle factory on Armoury Road. Buoyed by my recent successes on 30-40 miles sportives I felt that the 36-mile round trip ride shouldn’t pose too many problems.
It’s probably not surprising that a gun manufacturer could easily convert from swords to ploughshares, or from small arms to bicycles. We’re interested in the industrial heritage of the midlands, and in particular at the bicycle industry, which took off here with the invention of the safety (i.e., modern) bicycle. Beginning about 1880, BSA shifted several times between small arms and bicycles and motorbikes, becoming an important manufacturer of bicycles and, for a time, the world’s largest manufacturer of motorcycles. The Small Heath Works were extended in 1896 to take advantage of the explosion of interest in cycling at what was to be a golden decade. Between wars, BSA continued to manufacture bicycles until 1957, when the bicycle unit was split from the motorcycle group and sold to Raleigh.
It was a beautiful sunny day although it was cold at the beginning of the ride. After watching Match of the Day highlights and eating a hearty breakfast, we set off. We covered ground quickly until we got to Catherine-De-Barnes where we got onto the towpath of the Grand Union Canal. The next section was a lovely ride along the canal—about 7 miles—but certain sections were very, very muddy and other sections were really narrow so it was slow going. It did feel in parts more like a mountain biking experience—on my road bike—and I did spend much of the journey worrying about catching my wheel in the thick mud and ending up in the canal!
When we arrived at Armoury Road there were around 15 or so BSA motorbikes all lined up outside the ex-factory and a group of people who were just getting ready to set off. That was really cool.
In 1915-16, the factory, now a car breaker, was built by the Trussed Concrete Steel (Truscon) company in an early use of reinforced concrete construction. It is now in a rather sorry state as the original windows have been blocked up or modernised. The fate of the building and the campaign to try to save it from further damage are covered on the website of the BSA Trust and they provide a lot more information and old photos of the building as it used to be. The website of the Birmingham Gun Museum also has lots of photos. Next to the old factory is what is left of Edwardian workshops and BSA is still here—BSA Guns UK Ltd—taking up a much smaller site than in its heyday.
The return trip was harder than setting out (always is) and not as sunny, but we were buoyed by a stop at the Malt Shovel in Barston where we had drinks and lovely starters that set us up for the return trip.