Wikipedia, Egypt and the mystery of the Stoke Poges Naked Bicycle Angel

Egypt? It’s near Stoke Poges, a delightful village near Burnham Beeches and a lovely little cycle from London.

It was well worth the pilgrimage too, not only for the beautiful woodland or for the wonderfully displaced North African country, but also for a certain stained glass window in Stoke Poges church. I learnt of this window from Wikipedia when I was researching a talk I gave last year on the history of the bicycle. Apparently, there was a window of an angel, stark naked, riding a bicycle.

So I pedalled to the church, wheeled my respectful way down the winding path through the cemetery, leant my bike up against the porch and, full of anticipation, pushed open the heavy wooden door.

Now, I was expecting to see a huge window with a glorious winged angel dazzling the congregation with his dangling member straddling a Raleigh six-speed. So it was with increasing frustration that I circled the small church two, three times, without seeing anything remotely resembling an angel of heaven on a bike.

Then I found this:

This is a small inset picture in a window installed to celebrate the lives lost in World War II. And it’s not so much an angel as a cherub, I’d say. Far from being glorious, it seems a little inappropriate. I’d like to know the thought process behind this one.

We want something nice to remember the 450,000 souls who died in the most horrific war in human history…

I know – a cherub on a hobby-horse blowing a trumpet!

Whatever the thinking behind it was, one thing is certain: Wikipedia is wrong.

What?

This is what Wikipedia originally told me about the window:

There are several early but unverifiable claims for the invention of bicycle-like machines. The earliest comes from an illustration found in a church window in Stoke Poges, installed in the 16th century, showing a naked angel on a bicycle-like device…*

Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought the Second World War was a twentieth century event.

This is a valuable lesson I think.
1. Don’t believe everything you’re told. Sometimes they’re wrong. Sometimes you do know better.
2. Check the facts for yourself. Go there. Verify the angel.

It reminds me of the British in Palestine, 1917-1948. A lot of government policy was set in London by people who had never been to Palestine (which then comprised the current territory of Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories). Their policy formation was based on idealistic dreams, unrealistic ambitions and sectarian politics. They often ignored the advice of the people on the ground in Palestine.

The administrators, soldiers and civilians in Palestine itself, faced with the day-to-day troubles, were practical and realistic in their suggestions. But they were ignored by people who thought they knew better – but who knew nothing.

I think this is one of the most important lessons of travel. How can I talk about Iran when I’ve never been there? Any talk that blew out of my mouth would be nothing more than so much hot air. How can I talk about a church window in Stoke Poges when I’ve never been there?

The more I travel, the more wary I become of talking about places I haven’t been – or of listening to other people who haven’t been either, no matter what their professional qualifications are. You can find the inaccurate angel-window story repeated endlessly across the internet, mindlessly regurgitated by people who’ve never been to Stoke Poges.

So I urge you: verify the angel!


* There are a couple of things here. Apparently the glass of the window was recycled (ho ho!) and a part of it has been dated to 1643. Which is the 17th century of course. The internet seems to be in some dispute about whether it is the bicycle part which is from 1643 or not. Either way, Wikipedia is wrong.

What do you think?