The dinosaur of the bicycle world is back in the spotlight with the help of the Penny Farthing Club and its intrepid members, finds Madeleine Silver.
It’s like riding a horse – but one without a temperament,’ says keen horse-woman Melissa Eisdell, as she hurtles along in a howling gale aboard a penny-farthing. It’s early on a Sunday morning and half a dozen members of the Penny Farthing Club – a cleaner, a lawyer and an engineer among them – are on a strip of AstroTurf in West Sussex for a practice chukka of penny-farthing polo.
‘We try to make it a non-contact sport, but that doesn’t always happen,’ smiles the club’s founder Neil Laughton, a former Special Forces Officer-turned-entrepreneur. ‘When the whistle blows, the adrenaline starts and there’s certainly a bit of jeopardy cycling around trying to avoid each other.’ Something of an understatement, perhaps, when you consider that the towering contraptions have no brakes, gears or suspension and their wheels are made from solid rubber.
It was 2013 when Mr Laughton spotted a letter in the pages of Country Life proclaiming a resurgence of interest in the penny-farthing, a device that had begun to slide into insignificance with the advent of the ‘safety bicycle’ in the 1880s. ‘Penny-farthing racing had been a big thing, almost like football is today,’ he says. ‘Thousands of spectators would come to places such as Herne Hill to watch the cyclists of the day. It was extremely popular – and dangerous. Racers would go hell for leather around the track, but without helmets, which was crazy. It was a time when expressions such as “breakneck speed” were born…’
The letter sparked an idea for Mr Laughton, who had played bicycle polo and has a penchant for the eccentric (last year, he hosted the world’s highest black-tie dinner party near the summit of Mount Everest). Thus, the Penny Farthing Club was born, open to anyone over 5ft 4in, weighing less than about 15 stone and in ‘good physical shape’.
‘What I’ve found riding these things is that they really put a smile on people’s faces,’ says 56-year-old Mr Laughton, who has a CV littered with Everest climbs and polar expeditions. First on his agenda was challenging fellow adventurer David Fox-Pitt to an annual England-vs-Scotland polo match aboard the ‘pennies’.
‘I said yes before I bought the penny-farthing and then I had to learn how to ride the thing,’ says Mr Fox-Pitt, who captains the Scotland team. ‘But they’re pretty straightforward. It’s like riding a bicycle – just a bit less safe.’ By Mr Fox-Pitt’s own admission, their appearance on England’s hallowed polo grounds is akin to the ‘clowns coming on’. ‘People love it because it’s unusual and there’s lots of shouting and crashes.
We write off one or two penny-farthings each match – it’s a bone-breaker if you fall and we’ve had people hauled off on stretchers,’ he says. In 2017, the battle for the penny-farthing Calcutta Cup played out in front of The Queen and Prince Philip during Queen’s Cup finals day at Guards Polo Club. ‘The next day, a big article came out in a newspaper all about the penny-farthing polo – and there was no mention of the Queen’s Cup at all, so we’ll probably never get invited back,’ he laughs.
‘At red lights you find yourself holding onto a lamp post or putting your hand on someone’s head to avoid getting off’
Day-to-day, Mr Fox-Pitt’s foray into penny-farthings is a little more sedate. ‘When I go to London, I take my penny-farthing on the sleeper train from Dunkeld,’ he explains. ‘There are a few eyebrows raised when you come onto the platform, but it’s a really graceful way of getting around London.
You go at about half the speed of a normal bike and so have plenty of time to react to people. At red lights, you find yourself holding onto a lamp post or putting your hand on someone’s head to avoid getting off.’
For prospective members brave enough to scale the 48in-wheels, London can be seen from the same vantage point during the club’s three-hour training course. ‘The first time I got on [at the new members’ course] this summer, I was terrified,’ remembers Miss Eisdell. ‘Your arms completely seize up. But, within three hours, having ridden in a circle around Smith Square, I was riding a penny-farthing down The Mall and I thought “how did I do that?”’
Once initiated, a calendar of Victorian costume rides, polo and track and road races awaits. ‘There’s a growing community of penny-farthing enthusiasts and the club gets a request every week to join a festival or cycling event,’ reveals Mr Laughton.
In July this year, he entered The Penny Farthing Open Championships at the Eastbourne Cycling Festival (where he took a tumble in a 25mph collision) and, at the end of the summer, he and Mr Fox-Pitt embarked on a trip from Land’s End to John O’Groats aboard their pennies. ‘It was complete agony,’ confesses Mr Fox-Pitt. ‘Penny-farthings aren’t designed for hills and going from Bude to Taunton almost finished us off.’
Raising nearly £30,000 for Mary’s Meals, a charity that feeds disadvantaged children around the world, rewarded the pair for their 12-hour stints in the saddle and any suffering hasn’t curbed ambitions. ‘I’m a bit too old and grey for the penny-farthing sprint races, but I have my eye on a new record the fastest flying mile on a penny- farthing, with no hands,’ beams Mr Laughton.
‘We just want to have a bit of fun and encourage people to try something new. In London, even taxi drivers stop to take photographs and, when that happens, you know you’re onto something a bit different. The police love it, too I make sure I doff my top hat to them – and I don’t think I’ve ever paid for a drink in a pub with my penny-farthing [in tow].’
Find out more about The Penny Farthing Club at www.pennyfarthingclub.com
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