Sometimes the journey on which a motorbike takes you doesn’t involve a road at all. Such was the winding path that took me 3,500 miles to the Ace Cafe in London.
The origin of this path was far closer to home. Specifically, Wildwood, New Jersey, which is the site for The Race of Gentlemen (affectionately known as TROG). I’ve been covering TROG for several years, documenting the unique gathering of people who are dedicated to keeping American values alive through their interpretation of pre-World War II motorcycles, cars, and fashion.
The stories I’ve created from TROG have led to a series of collections in magazine and book form, and have been very popular in social media. One person who purchased a collection of TROG images was Paul Hayes-Watkins, at the time the Art Director for Saga Magazine—Britain’s largest circulation print magazine. Viewing the collection, Paul decided to run a photo story for the July 2017 issue of Saga Magazine, using nine images and copy I had written. The process was easy and great, and I enjoyed getting to know Paul through our emails. It was a fantastic use of images, and a great business experience.
The nature of magazines is such that there’s a lead time before publication, so my work with Paul started in May 2017. In June, I set off for a five-week expedition of assignments which took me to France, Spain, Morocco, Italy, and England. Because I had a few days at the end of my journey, I contacted Paul to see if it would be possible for us to put faces to names over dinner. Paul and his partner Katy went beyond any expectations and instead invited me to stay with them at their home in the countryside of Kent. Paul even picked me up at Gatwick airport, which is where our adventure began.
There are people we meet in life whom we’ve known forever. Paul is one of those people and we instantly hit it off. Conversation was easy, our interests were parallel, even our humor the same. From the first moment to the last, our time together was, as the English say, “brilliant.”
Paul was an excellent host—introducing me to magazine staff, touring the countryside of Kent, guiding me around Ashford and Folkestone, revealing the hidden secrets of pub culture, and always keeping up a great conversation about life and adventures, art, and motorbikes. (Ironically, Paul is a fan of Harleys, while I prefer Triumph.)
As is my preference, my visit with Paul dropped me straight into his daily life. There’s no better way to know a person or a place than to become part of the natural rhythm, and there’s no better opportunity for unexpected adventure than to let it just take you along. Such was the case on the Saturday that Paul had to move his son to an apartment in London.
We started off the morning by renting a van. The loading was handled in short order, and we wound our way into the city, getting a slow motion view of south London. Unloading was just as quick, and Paul and I were left with a full day and a rented white van. Having lived for many years in London, Paul offered several great options for how to spend the rest of the day touring London. But during our discussions it emerged that he had never been to the Ace Cafe.
In motorbike culture, few places are as much a touchstone as the Ace Cafe. Opened in 1938, it served 24 hours a day and originally catered to industrial traffic off the newly opened North Circular Road. The post-war boom in the popularity of motorcycles soon made it a popular destination for bikers—notably the Ton Up Boys in the 1950’s, and the Rockers in the 1960’s. Bands performed live, biker gangs met, and its jukebox became the basis for street racing—drop a coin, jump on your bike, and make it to a predetermined spot and back before the song ended. The Ace Cafe defined urban biker culture, and its influence is still strong among those whose hearts thump for Triumph, BSA, Norton, Vincent, and other great British motorcycle icons.
Making our way through the city from the south, we rolled up to Ace in “two guys in a van” style, and immediately decided to park further away and walk a bit. Despite having been bombed by the Germans in World War II, and shut down and gutted in the 70’s, the refurbished Ace has all the glory of the original. We ordered up plates of decidedly cafe food, bought some t-shirts, and spent some quality time looking at the people and the bikes, soaking up a bit of history. As a fan and rider of British bikes, it was an awesome experience, made more awesome by getting to share it with Paul.
The remainder of our day was spent on a driving tour of London, where Paul again played indulgent host by making several passes by notable sites, making sure to point out salient features. He repeated this method of touring until we noticed that the armed police guarding several of the sites started to organize when they saw the van coming. We decided to head back to Kent after we realized that two scruffy men driving a slow moving white rental van past important governmental and historical sites while gesturing wildly out the windows might not look quite like tourism. (We further later realized that the transit of our van—from south to north, across the city, around the circular, and then back from north to south—drew the shape of the Anarchy symbol over London. As of this writing, however, I’m happy to report that there have been no interviews under caution by any law enforcement official!)
My adventures with Paul cemented our friendship, but little did I know what a role they would play in his life. Although the Ace Cafe was an extraordinary experience for this fan of British biker culture, the effect was apparently transformative to Paul. For just a few short months later, Paul went from major-magazine Art Director to the owner and proprietor of Grizzly’s Custom Bike shop in Folkestone, Kent. I had the good fortune to visit Paul at his shop, meet his mechanics, and see the remarkable transformations that are underway. Bringing the story to a complete circle, Paul has featured in his shop dozens of prints of my work from The Race of Gentlemen.
Indeed an Ace Saga, this true story proves once again that the journey is an unknown, but excellent, destination.