In the 1950s 34 per cent of journeys were made by bicycle. In the 1970s, just two per cent of us would willingly travel by pedal power.

How has this happened?

That’s the subject of a new exhibition at the New Forest Centre in Lyndhurst, which looks at travel and transport in the national park across the ages.

In the beginning all people could use – if they didn’t have their own horse – was Shanks’ pony; walking, often for miles.

According to the account given by a 1920s gamekeeper living in the Forest, children would walk three-and-a-half miles each way to school sometimes having to be carried across flooded ford by their father so they wouldn’t get wet.

Horses were the speediest method of travel and the only way to move large amounts of goods. Accounts featured in the exhibition describe butchers, brewers, bakers and farmers using carts and carriages to ply their trade, dodging the occasional traction engine which was always preceded by a man with a red flag.

The exhibition also features images of The Wanderer, the UK’s first purpose-built leisure caravan, drawn by a horse. In 1886 the contraption was brought to the New Forest by its owner, Dr William Stables, who had a penchant to see the area’s ‘gnarled, ancient old oaks’.

Neither he or those who ran the forest could possibly have anticipated that caravans would continue to return, hauled by the motor cars which have now become a major issue for the environment of the national park. Even by the 1920s the area was seen as a good place to drive a motor vehicle, with Lyndhurst described as: “A popular resort of cars.”

For ordinary people, the arrival of the railways in 1847 sparked the biggest change in their lives. The exhibition reveals how villages such as Sway and New Milton swelled as a direct result of having their own stops on the Bournemouth line.

But it was perhaps the invention of the bicycle that brought the greatest personal freedom.

Hard to imagine now, as mountain bikes streak by on all the forest roads and tracks, that there was a time when these things didn’t exist. The first bicycles arrived in the New Forest in the 1860s, known as boneshakers because they were so hard to control.

Seeing these metal monsters with their solid tyres, unyielding saddles, and lack of manoeuvrability in the New Forest Centre, it’s incredible to think they were seen as harbingers of liberty.

But they were. Despite some thinking them ‘the invention of the devil’ the aptly-named Speed family took to them ferociously; images of Henry and Lancelot Speed outside Creek Cottage in Lymington with their bikes in 1878 show their interest.

Their sister, Maud, dismissed old-fashioned claims that cycling could be ‘injurious to women’s health’ and was pictured in 1879, posing for pictures outside the cycle shop at Brakes of Ringwood.

With the advent of Christchurch Cycle Club in 1877 came more competitive and leisure cycling, some of it – improbably perhaps – completed on penny farthings. Visitors to the New Forest Centre can get close to one of these beasts made in 1889 by Frank King of Wimborne Minster, and appreciate how amazing it was that a Romsey man managed to cycle one of them 21 miles in an hour!

Jim Mitchell, Interpretation Officer at the New Forest National Park Authority, says: “The exhibition is a fascinating look back over 200 years with some remarkable-looking contraptions and machinery.

“It also shows how transport transformed the way people lived, offering new personal freedoms, as well as what the future may hold as pressure increases on the unique and fragile landscapes of the National Park.”

  • Transport Through The Ages is at The New Forest Centre, Lyndhurst ( until Sunday June 1