Set back from the New Cross Road with its multi-cultural community, shabby buildings and constant thunder of traffic, is an enclave where echoes of Deptford’s distant village past remain.
A quaint terrace survives including an old fashioned butchers and an old curiosity shop for anyone interested in cycling history.
The signage has been painted over but peer through the window and you can see a collection of old and new racing bikes, and walls peppered with black and white prints of champions from yesteryear.
This is Witcomb Cycles (http://witcombcycles.co.uk/), one of the last traditional framebuilding businesses in London. The only other one still surviving is Roberts Cycles (http://www.robertscycles.com/) in Croydon.
Tour de France riders and members of the British Olympic team once straddled the trademark lilac and black Witcomb machines forged here and this is where revered US frame-builders such as Ben Serotta (www.serotta.com/) came to learn from the master.
But it’s the end of an era for Witcomb. The lights are still on and there’s activity in the workshop but the shop is now closed after more than 55 years on this site. A laminated note in the window informs customers that “We are moving…”
Ambitious plans are in motion to carry on the Witcomb brand, but later this summer this fascinating piece of cycling nostalgia in this run-down corner of South East London will be no more.
The shop is closed but if you knock on the black wooden door a colossal white Italian sheepdog barks within and a figure emerges from the dark of the workshop.
This is Barry Witcomb, the last of the Witcombs to ply the rapidly diminishing trade of framebuilding. His grand-father, Tommy, began brazing lugs in the cellar of his West Ham home in the 1920s. An interest became a business with his son Ernie who joined forces with frame-builder E.A Boult, establishing Witcomb Lightweight Cycles Ltd and moving into the Tanner’s Hill premises in 1952.
Barry, 65, is a modest, mild-mannered chap who retains the slight build of a racing cyclist. It’s his hands that betray his profession; he has the fingers of a pianist with the wear and tear of a skilled artisan.
He’s been working here, building and fixing bicycles, since leaving school in 1958 and despite the decades spent grafting in the dilapidated workshop remains deeply proud of his trade and the family business.
“It has to have been in my blood to have carried on for all these years,” he says. “I still get satisfaction from building a bike from scratch. What I create is not just something that comes out of a box,
it will last a lifetime and is a complete one off.
“It’s like having a suit made for you.”
Barry shows me his workshop. There’s no computer or fancy equipment here. Frames, forks and pieces of tubing lurk amid organised chaos. Barry works with a 100-year-old forge, there’s a
vice and a bench, and tools that he’s made himself adorn the walls. “It’s all done the old way, not using equipment such as a jig,” he
explains. “It’s all in the head and the hands.”
Oil lamps hang from the ceiling, left over from the power cuts in the 1970s. Barry lights a welding torch, and jokes, “That’s the heating in the winter.”
It’s like entering an era long before today’s rampant consumerism, when we had a workforce of artisans who built and fixed things,
when broken products were repaired rather than just thrown away.
Witcomb’s golden age began in the 1950s when their frames, with
the distinctive colour scheme devised by Barry’s mother Lily
because she thought it looked upmarket, became an object of desire among racing cyclists.
Affirmation of the pedigree came when GB team rider Stan Brittain rode on a Witcomb frame to 69th overall in the Tour de France of 1958.
The business underwent rapid expansion during the 1960s and 1970s with a team of frame-builders led by Barry producing bikes in Tanner’s Hill and a chain of Witcomb shops opening around the South East. They also had their own Witcomb team riding in the colours. And in an audacious move, they opened a cycling boutique in 1972, specialising in clothing.
But the bike tinkering escapades of the likes of Joe Breezer and Gary Fisher to ride the mountain trails of Marin County, California during the late 1970s was to revolutionise the cycle industry and bring an end to Witcomb’s golden age.
“The mountain bike was our undoing,” says Barry. “People became more interested in buying mountain bikes than road bikes. We tried building a few but we just couldn’t compete with bikes built in Taiwan and the business began to drop off.
“Evans, the bike shop, is a good representation of what happened. Gary Evans started off with one shop in The Cut, Waterloo, and then he opened a dedicated mountain bike shop round the corner – we told him he was mad.
“The company was recently sold for millions and Gary is living the life of luxury while I’m still here building bloody frames.
“With mountain bikes, business people cashed in while those like ourselves, who kept to our roots, struggled. Now most bikes are
made in Taiwan and the cycle-building business in Britain is almost gone. You could probably only find about 15 framebuilders still working today in the UK.”
These days few have heard of the Witcomb brand. “We did once have the image of Colnago or Pinarello, but modern generations don’t know about us,” admits Barry. “Our frames are good as Italian frames, but when the orders stopped coming in we had to stop advertising and we couldn’t afford to run a team anymore. Our profile gradually faded away.”
Witcomb in Deptford is closing, but ambitious plans are afoot for a revival of the brand.
Barry has joined forces with Nicholas Young and Tom Malone who believe it can be returned to the halcyon days.
The company is to move to state-of-the-art new premises in South West Wales. “ We want to expand in terms of the bespoke bicycles we build, but also with the addition of frames which will be off the peg,” says Nicholas.
A range of T-shirts, cloth caps and courier bags has already been produced celebrating the Witcomb brand. A book about its rich heritage is also in production.
“We want to expand but we want to keep the traditional skills which are dying out in the UK,” continues Nicholas. “In order to do that we believe the way forward is the move to Wales, though we do hope to still have some kind of presence in London.”
The demise of Witcomb in Deptford is indeed something to be mourned among those nostalgic about racing cycling’s past. However, without this bold attempt to revive the brand, you can’t help but feel it would be lost forever.
This old curiosity shop may be closing, but you can only hope it’s the start of a bright new future for Witcomb.