The Return of the Ordinary

From independent Cornish postmen to globe-trotting adventurers, the once-deceased Penny Farthing is finding a new appreciation among cyclists.

To get a Penny Farthing in motion you have to kick off like a skateboard, before vaulting onto the seat. From there your intuition might tell you to avoid leaning too far and stay on the slow and steady. But that, of course, would lead to a long plummet down to the pavement.

High-wheeled bicycles are in those league of objects which, from a retrospective vantage point, you can comfortably ask: ‘what were they thinking?’

The steam-powered submarine, the hydrogen-fuelled zeppelin – engineering marvels for a brief moment but ultimately monuments to the impractical and the absurd. So it is with the high-wheeling bicycles; machines ridden by only the moustachioed, top-hat wearing, turn-of-the-century gent with the onerous honour of having symbolised obsoletion for more than a century.

But here’s the thing – cyclists and engineers are those strange creatures to whom trivial ideas like time and technological progress have only vague consequence. The design flaws in the Penny Farthing are inseparable from its character and just as the bike itself is a skeleton with its evolutionary weaknesses on show, it’s flaws are just as much a distinction of pride and nostalgia for those enthusiasts who are keeping the bones rolling after technology has long since left it for dead.

Incredibly, here, in the age of cloud computing and 3D-modelling manufacturing, there’s still room for a comeback.

Before its time

In the 1870s, the ‘high-wheel’ or ‘Penny Farthing’ – so-called because of its resemblance to a penny and a (smaller) farthing laid side by side – was itself the usurper, having superseded the French invention that we might call the first ‘true’ bicycle. It was only another ten years or so before the ‘safety bicycle’, a much closer approximation of the machine we recognise as the bicycle today, rendered the Penny Farthing a relatively dangerous and unfashionable contraption.

Some 140 years later workshops around Britain are once more building what became known retrospectively as ‘ordinaries’. Yet the return of an object so anachronistic and outlandish can’t simply be chalked down to nostalgia because none of today’s new breed of ‘ordinary’ riders would have owned or ridden these relics of Victoriana. The question of why a growing number of people have taken an interest in Penny Farthings is anything but ordinary.

Roger Lovell, owner of Cycle Magic in Leicester recently told the BBC how interest in the high-wheelers has spurred him to begin production. “We just got such a demand, we decided to start making them,” he explained to a news crew earlier this year.

From his workshop on the site of the old Leicester Cycle Company, Lovell runs a not-for-profit business adapting bicycles for disabled people, from which you might infer that his connection to the cycling community has a different skew than the big commercial players in the industry. So while the idea of herds of customers knocking down the doors of their local Evans or Halfords demanding Penny Farthings hasn’t become less ludicrous, what Lovell shows is that there are those enthusiasts who still enjoy riding the ordinary.

For everything they sacrifice in speed, stability and sleek racing lines, Penny Farthings have charm and otherworldliness that has blossomed into an esoteric appeal as cycling as a sport has become more and more advanced. Bicycles now are incredibly efficient machines – but, it seems, that’s not what everyone’s after.

Delivered from the past

For Cornwall’s Graham Eccles, Penny Farthings are part and parcel of his livelihood. In April this year, he launched Penny Farthing Post in Bude, Cornwall, in response to a hike in the price of stamps.

What Eccles does, and what several newspapers found wacky enough to report on, is manufacture his own stamps and deliver local letters on his Penny Farthing at a reported rate of around 100 letters a day.

Like Lovell, Eccles is a man with an appreciation of the way things used to be done. “I want to encourage the younger generation to love the written word. Everyone’s growing up with huge thumbs from texting but receiving a letter is special,” he told The Guardian earlier this year.

His means of transport may not be the most practical, and his workload may have a natural ceiling but the bike is inseparable from his leftfield take on the postal service. Writing letters and Penny Farthings share an idea in common in that they both have the trappings of antiquity, but they’re both also fun.

All of which leads to a useful distinction: whereas revivalists might fight for the object of their affection to be brought back into usage, many of the stories you hear of people using Penny Farthings seem to be out of simple enjoyment for it as a form of cycling.

On top of the world

It would be difficult to fully describe the growing passion in the UK for Penny Farthings without mentioning Joff Summerfield. As soon as it was reported that Lovell had begun manufacturing the machines, Summerfield was quick to point out that he’d already been doing that and indeed had cycled around the world on one.

Working out of Trinity Buoy Wharf, London, former race-engine mechanic Sumerfield devotes his time to riding, building and selling Penny Farthings – £1,500 each, if you’re interested.

He’s compiled the tales from his travels into books and articles and what’s remarkable is how easy it is to forget that he’s doing this journey on a machine that is, from a practical standpoint, ten times sillier than anything his peers have tried to tour on.

Summerfield recently told The Telegraph, “I decided that I was going to see the world on a bicycle. I wanted to make my own bike, didn’t want a touring or anything normal, and the silliest one I could think of was the penny farthing.”

He explains the decision as if it were the most sensible in the world. “I met other cyclists who could go and ride up mountains, which I couldn’t but you get so much positive stuff, so much interest because you are on a penny farthing,” he says.

Perhaps Summerfield’s background as a builder of vintage cars gives some clue as to the motives of those who are prepared to embrace the quixotic notion of riding a Penny Farthing to the ends of the earth. To the right pair of eyes, these machines are beautiful and their lack of function perhaps makes them more enticing to people who can appreciate where they belonged in the evolution of the vehicle.

And of course, they’re no less enjoyable for it. The growing number of Penny Farthing cycle races is perhaps testament to that.

If you watch footage from these events, of which there are at least three annual affairs in the UK these days, you might notice a dichotomy between the silly and the serious.

For some, like the Tweed Run, the farthing is an accoutrement that sits comfortably in the regalia of an event that celebrates nostalgia. Meanwhile, take a look at the IG Markets London Nocturne event, sponsored by Brooks Saddles no less, and you get a sense of how close the high-wheelers are to today’s machines.

Sure, they have an overblown front wheel and a terrifying lack of braking equipment, but that doesn’t mean you can’t dress in lycra and blitz round a track on one.

And if you were standing in the crowd in June as these riders flew round the streets of the City, you may have got an inkling of what makes this revival special. It’s testament to the individualistic nature of cyclists – riding a high-wheeler isn’t about an efficient machine, it isn’t about following the rules of cycling, it’s about finding your own way to love the experience of riding a bike.

And if you’re one of the growing number for whom the bizarre, antiquated and frankly hazardous Penny Farthing does that – well, I doff my top hat.

Steve Hall

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  2. Simon Stait

    Thank you so much for the great article that I am very passionate about. I really want to ride a high wheeler and have been searching for years to find an ‘Ordinary ‘ to no avail so I am hoping this new come back revival will give me the opportunity to try it
    Many thanks
    Simon Stait

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