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Thursday, 24 July 2014

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Retirement hasn't put brakes on Cumbria's mister perpetual motion

Forget turbines, nuclear, fracking and wavepower, you could solve any energy crisis by using Geoff Brazendale. Strap him into a harness, wire him up, fit him to some pedals, anything that could capture his output.

Geoff Brazendale photo
Geoff Brazendale and partner Midge McKeachie

He has so many interests, so much to do.

Talk to him and the man is in perpetual motion.

If his hands aren’t waving or flapping, he’s shooting forward to the edge of the sofa, or else leaping up – to boil the kettle (for a cup of tea there’s never going to be time to make), to run up the stairs, to dash across the room to answer the phone or grab the mini computer to show me how much energy he has generated from the solar panels on his roof or the mini turbine in his back garden.

Get him on one subject and he soon accelerates off onto another topic, another story, more facts and information.

Motorbikes, the old heavy industries of west Cumbria, the workings of pre-electric lights, choir singing, bees, green energy...

Lean and spry, there’s the tang of the sea about him, with his beard, mussed hair and weathered face.

But it’s bikes that interest him, not boats.

It’s an obsession for motorbikes, particularly sidecars and more especially, the 1920 Sunbeam motorbike and the sidecar that he has lovingly rebuilt and now rests in his garage-cum-workshop-cum-working museum.

It took him 20 years of searching to track it down and a year to rebuild what he calls a ‘tribute’ to his dad.

The road map of his obsession can be traced back to a childhood in Crosby, near Liverpool.

Born in 1939, Geoff says it wasn’t until he was 12 that he realised his dad Maurice was interested in motorbikes.

“In the 1920s he had been a sort of chauffeur for a family friend, taking him off on holiday from Liverpool to Galloway and John O’Groats.

“The man owned the Sunbeam motorbike, but didn’t like to ride it, so he would be in the sidecar and dad drove.

“One day, dad came home with a small motorbike and I would help maintain it, I used to set the points, do the spark plugs, decarbonise it... I must have been about 14.

“The inevitable happened and I used to ride it round the garden and he got really annoyed,” he says, throwing his arms up with a grin.

“One night, I got dressed up as him and went out for an illicit ride.

“He was furious and read the riot act and I never did it again.”

As soon as he was 16, Geoff sat and passed his motorbike test and bought a Norton 500.

He got friendly with an ex-speedway rider who introduced him to the Vintage Motorcycle Club and Geoff would ride out to meetings in Buxton and Colwyn Bay.

He was voted in as president of the club’s 17,000 members in 2004 and is current president of the Lakeland section.

“The club life has changed and the rules have changed over the years,” he says.

“It was very competitive in the Sixties and Seventies, now people just want the craic and it works well in Cumbria.

“They are all really lovely people.”

His children are all in their 40s now, sons Richard and Guy both ride bikes, daughter Rachel hasn’t caught the bug – at least, not yet.

“Richard and Guy are both members of the club, they say ‘we like to see what you’ve been up to and where you’ve been!’” he laughs.

Over the years he has also noticed a big change in behaviour on the road.

“Everything has speeded up and motorists are impatient.

“If you are riding an older vehicle, they don’t recognise it as an older vehicle.

“Motorbikers still have the spirit of the road, they are still kings of the road.

“I broke down just outside Longtown around Christmas-time and a car stopped. They don’t usually stop for a motorbike, but the driver was a biker.

“He drove me home and I managed to rescue the machine.”

His riding licence was followed by a degree in science in his home town and he got a job as research assistant at Durham University studying cormorants, seals and kittiwakes.

“I wrote a paper on the migration of cormorants and was the first person to discover that cormorants from different colonies winter in different places,” he says proudly.

After a stint as a science lecturer at a tech college, he became a factory inspector.

“You’d be called elf and safety now,” he grimaces.

He was posted to Cumbria in 1973, moved the family to Wigton and toured the dirty, heavy, labour-intensive industries that provided most of the jobs for the region.

Places like the steelworks in Workington, the Marchon chemical works in Whitehaven, Vickers at Barrow and the different quarries.

The hands wave: “Marchon, that was a very interesting works, they used to mine the phosphate they used right underneath. It was real chemistry making, with acids. They had a cement works there as well.”

“I spent a lot of time at the steel works,” he says fondly.

“I loved that steel works. I got very depressed when it closed. It seemed to be the death knell of British industry.”

When the inspectorate told him he’d have to move away from the company, he quit and joined an insurance firm involved in industry before taking early retirement.

When he worked he didn’t have as much time for his bike, but retirement provided him with the time and opportunities needed to develop a healthy obsession with old machines, sidecars and early lights.

He has become such an expert on pre-electric transport lamps that he now gives talks on the subject and he is an internationally-known expert on Sunbeam motorbikes.

He has also used his time to research, write and publish The Sidecar: A History, the only book ever published on vintage motorcycle sidecars.

“There was only one little book on sidecars and me dad had told me so much about them and I had learned so much, that I thought I could write a better one,” he explains.

It took him seven years. The handsome-looking book was printed in 1999.

“The first 1,000 sold easily, the next 500 quite easily and the last 500 about five years to sell, but it has gone to 25 different countries.” There is one still available on Amazon – for £391.

He enjoys pedalling on two wheels almost as much as riding the motorised version and goes out with Midge (Marjorie) in the Cumbrian countryside, or taking their bikes on the motor home for one of their regular trips into Dumfries.

Both divorced, they have been a couple for more than 20 years and he insists that she shares some of his interest in noisy, oily old motorbikes.

I don’t get the chance to ask her myself as she’s zipping herself into a hi-vis jacket and zipping off to Maryport for a day’s cycling.

As well as his interests in all things two-wheeled, Geoff has kept bees for 30 years and is a keen choir singer. Over the years he has been a member of the Wigton choral society, the Dalston male voice choir and now the Solway Singers.

“I get a terrific buzz out of it, it is addictive,” he smiles.

Then there’s three quarters of an acre of garden out the back of his home in Etterby, near Carlisle.

There’s a veg patch, small orchard, beehives and collection of outbuildings, including his work shed, crammed with tools, lathes, century-old hand-powered drills, bits of dismantled lights, engines, pumps, and just general mess, there’s a shed with his vintage lawnmower collection and summer house, with comfy seats and a porch: “I like to come here and have a snooze, it’s got no phone!” he grins, though it’s hard to imagine when he has time for a nap.

“Get out there and there are views of the cathedral, the castle and Skiddaw. It is tropical out there sometimes, even for Cumbria,” he grins.

In between all his hobbies and interests (did I mention he is also involved in the Milepost Society and takes part in the painting and the upkeep of historic signposts in the region?) he is also a regular correspondent on a range of topics to this paper and the News & Star.

“Well, I have to have a hobby don’t I?” he smiles. “I’m interested in local affairs and I write about the provision for cyclists in the area.

“A local councillor said I should stand as an independent but I don’t want to, I’d rather be on the fence looking in on it.”

After gently wheeling the Sunbeam back into the garage, Geoff suddenly remembers something else to tell me: “You never got that cup of tea!”

I’m not surprised he didn’t find the time.

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