Wheels of time keep turning

THIS year has been a bad one for famous Ipswich names with Tolly Cobbold and Ransomes now a shadow of their former selves. But it's not all doom and gloom as one Ipswich company, Elmy Cycles, is celebrating 80 years of business in Ipswich.

By Nick Richards

THIS year has been a bad one for famous Ipswich names with Tolly Cobbold and Ransomes now a shadow of their former selves. But it's not all doom and gloom as one Ipswich company, Elmy Cycles, is celebrating 80 years of business in Ipswich. Nick Richards meets past and present owners Russell Elmy and Steven Grimwood.

WHILE the shape, style and weight of cycles may have changed over last 80 years, traditional shops offering expert advice are clearly here to stay.

Shops such as Elmy Cycles, celebrating eight decades of trade in Ipswich this year, have proved that, just like bread and coffins, people are always going to need bikes.

But cycling is a unique industry – where else can you buy a form of transport which is a highly crafted machine with hundreds of separate parts for as little as £200.

So how can one shop have adapted and changed from the early days where it also sold prams and toys, through the 1939-45 war, through the car boom of the 1950s, through the bizarre cycling fads of the 1970s and 1980s to still be at the cutting edge of the industry?

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And how many shops in Ipswich or elsewhere would have kept the money from the first item they sold and put it the sealed envelope which remains unopened a lifetime later.

Welcome to the world of Elmy Cycles, a company overseen by the Elmy family for seven of those eight decades, and for the last decade by current owner Steven Grimwood.

Steven took over around ten years ago and said his period at the helm has coincided with Elmy cycles supplying a far more widespread market.

"We've changed a great deal, mostly due to the way computers have made it easy for us on the mail-order side. We have a website and take enquiries and orders from places such as Switzerland, USA and France."

These global orders are a far cry from 1922, the year Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun and a year before Wembley Stadium opened. This was the year Elmy Cycles began trading in a small converted front room of 188 Back Hamlet.

The shop was the brainchild of Arthur Turner Elmy although it wasn't purely the cycle shop many Suffolk cycling enthusiasts know today.

Back in the 1920s, the shop, which was known as just A.T. Elmy also sold motorcycles, prams and the various electrical goods of the time. And while the shop now regularly sells mountain and racing bikes for hundreds of pounds, back in the first week, trade was a little slower.

Steven said: "Although the business opened on January 30 1922, it wasn't until February 2 before the first item was sold - a pump connection for the grand sum of nine pence. Incredibly the nine pence still remains today sealed in an envelope untouched since that first day."

An unusual feature of the first shop was the petrol pump sited in the front garden to serve the passing motorists and motorcycle riders.

The shop established itself in Ipswich during the next five years and in 1927, Arthur along with brother Harry moved into the two converted 16th century cottages in St. Helens Street to set up the shop.

Anyone walking the cobbled streets of St Helens Street would have seen a shop façade, which displayed a range of cycle tyres covered in advertisements.

Into the war years and A&H Elmy continued to thrive, as people relied even more on their cycles for transport. One of the more interesting moments came as a German Bomb that had fallen in the nearby Cemetery Road blew the entire front of the shop out.

Over the years, one or two famous names have popped into the shop to pick up a new bike including Benjamin Britten and famous cartoonist Carl Giles.

The Elmy name continued when Harry, then in his eighties left son Russell to look after the business.

Russell, now 73, who still pops into the shop today said that the company had managed to keep going because they had always been adaptable.

He said: "We've always stocked a wide selection of bikes which has been part of our success. Some of the bikes today are a world away from the old bikes. I've still got a bike but I don't ride it anymore because the traffic is too busy. I've not been on one of the newer bikes but they are very lightweight and very popular."

As Russell entered his sixties, opportunity fell to Steven to continue the traditions of the company. Current owner Steven said there were two big changes in the cycling industry which are the main differences between then and now.

"Firstly, the materials we use now are far different to how they were years ago. It was all steel wheel rims in the early days, not like the carbon fibre lightweight frames of today.

"Today bikes are so much different and far better value for money and also the way we use them has changed.

"When the shop first started and for much of the last 80 years, bikes were only really used for getting somewhere. This was the case especially in the post-war years when times were hard, but as the amount of traffic increased on the road, people started to use cars more and used bikes more for leisure activities.

"In the 70s and we started to see different bikes, such as the Raleigh Chopper and in the 80s we had a big demand for mountain bikes. These needed to have index gears and had to be lightweight as they were often taken out at weekends and used solely for leisure and fitness."

In the last ten years, cycling has clearly changed greatly – the exact period in which Steven Grimwood has been at the helm of a much-loved family business.

And he's not doing a bad job according to Russell.

"I retired nine years ago and since then he's been brilliant. He really has done an excellent job and managed to keep the family name going."