Isabel's book catches hold of those Wheels of Change

IT may be expected that a new book written by a former Larne woman who enjoyed an outstanding cycling career would concentrate mainly on her sporting life.

However, in Wheels of Change, Isabel Woods rekindles memories of many facets of her life right back to the 1920s, making it a real gem of social history. It also contains almost 100 photographs from down the years, many of people and places now long gone.

Born in Victoria Terrace (opposite the Fair Hill steps) in November 1928, Isabel Clements was the youngest of three children, following the arrival of her brother Andrew and sister Nan (now Mrs Surplus). Her father David had been a dairy farmer at Ballytober, near Cairncastle who later opened two butchers shops in the town.

"In 1928, a year after I was born, came what was known as the depression or slump. Money became very scarce and my father's customers, who were also his friends were having difficulty paying their bills. Father kept on supplying them with meat, thinking that the crisis would not last too long and the customers promised to pay their debts when things improved," Isabel said.

Of course, the depression continued until the Second World War started in 1939, but Mr Clements' generosity had put him out of business in 1933. He and his wife separated and the five-year-old Isabel and eight-year-old Nan were sent to the Victoria Girls Homes on the Ballysillan Road, Belfast. Their brother stayed with friends in Larne to continue his education at Larne Grammar.

Isabel's memories of the five years they spent at the home are described as "disciplined" but "happy". She said both Nan and she always felt they benefited from the experience and that it was a contributing factor in forming their characters.

During this time Isabel's father found employment in the King's Arms Hotel and then became land steward at Garron Tower. His deteriorating eye-sight prompted a move to Dundee Street off the Shankill Road in Belfast, where he had assisted a nephew to open a butchers shop.

Shortly afterwards the family was reunited for a new life together in the inner city - a "wonderful homecoming" as Isabel recalls.

Her vivid memories of life during the war years tell of war raids, women calling at the corner shop for a slice of Spam and a time of make do and mend. She remembers flour bags being ripped out and bleached to eradicate the name and the picture of the big blackbird which appeared on Morton's Early Riser brand and how four were sewn together to make a perfect double sheet. Flour bags, unripped made excellent pillow cases.

Isabel enrolled at the Comptometer School in Howard Street - training in all kinds of calculations in the days before calculators - eventually obtaining a job in the book-keeping office of JP Corry's timber yard.

She recalls how she was determined to save up to buy a bicycle, something her parents were never able to buy her. She was 18 by the time she had the money saved and she recalls it as a "momentous day" when she walked in to Piddingtons Shop, handed over the precious nine pounds and wheeled out her new Raleigh sports cycle.

Despite her parents disapproval and the stony silence which prevailed for several weeks, Isabel's love with cycling was something that was going to shape the rest of her life.

The book recalls how she began to take up the sport seriously and became a long-distance champion in the 1950s. She set and held eight Irish records, seven of which still stand to this day.

By a strange twist, her meeting with the woman who broke Isabel's record for the Mizen Head to Fair Head 386-mile race prompted her to write her book.

"It had not been broken for 52 years and my husband Peter and I travelled to Fair Head to congratulate the woman, Rose Leigh, who we knew was going to beat it. While waiting for her arrival, I was talking to the timekeeper, Mrs Farrell from Wicklow about how my experiences had been and she said I should write it all down from a social history point of view. I had never thought of it before and although I liked the idea, had no intentions of taking it seriously," she said.

However, close friend May Farrar encouraged her into writing it, albeit with some degree of difficulty as Isabel was registered visably impaired in 2001.

Some of the chapters are interspersed with stories of ancestsors, whose characters Isabel brings to life. Sorrows and joys are intermingled, good times and bad and the story seasoned with a dash of humour.

Isabel's story will be enjoyed by all ages, both as an opportunity to take a trip down memory lane and to learn more about life in years gone by.

Wheels of Change is published by Shanway Press, Belfast (10 paperback).

Isabel will be signing copies of her book in The Book Nook, Larne on Saturday, January 31 from 11am.