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From penny-farthings to pounds


By David G Scott


AFTER a recent record breaking ride from Land's End to John O'Groats by Richard Thoday, two more penny-farthing cyclists arrived in Caithness after completing the gruelling trip on Sunday morning after having some "near-death experiences".

Neil Laughton and David Fox-Pitt MBE made the journey in 13 days on the vintage style bicycles in support of Mary's Meal's – a global charity to provide school meals to children in developing countries.

Neil Laughton, left and David Fox-Pitt at their journey's end. The two selfless riders had undertaken the gruelling journey to help feed hungry kids in the developing world.
Neil Laughton, left and David Fox-Pitt at their journey's end. The two selfless riders had undertaken the gruelling journey to help feed hungry kids in the developing world.

David said it was a "huge relief" to finish the 841-mile journey but the encouragement of family, friends and sponsors, together with the support team that travelled along with them, made it all possible.

"We were doing about 80 to 90 miles a day on the penny-farthings. They're highly unusual and dangerous contraptions but were very popular around 1880. They attract a huge amount of attention and if we received £15 for everyone who took a photograph or video as we were going along we'd probably be feeding two million children."

He said that the cycling duo had a few close shaves along the route. "We've had a few near-death experiences. I had a crash in Lancaster in what's called a 'header' – that's where you go flying over the handlebars. I damaged my arm but set the bone myself and just carried on."

The penny-farthing charity ride concluded at John O'Groats on Sunday and attracted a lot of attention. Pictures: DGS
The penny-farthing charity ride concluded at John O'Groats on Sunday and attracted a lot of attention. Pictures: DGS

Neil had also experienced a "nasty accident" in a bike crash but luckily no bones were broken, said David.

"The chances of breaking something are very high when you fall off a penny-farthing as you're at the same height as a horse. There's also the traffic going past you. We had lorries going past us on the A30 in Cornwall, often at 70mph and within five inches of us."

The penny-farthing was a style of bicycle popular in the 1870s and 1880s. The large wheel allowed each turn of the pedals to drive the bicycle a greater distance, and also allowed for a smoother ride over the cobbled streets and uneven roads of the period. But with the rider sitting up to 1.5 metres off the ground, broken bones were all too common in the event of accidents.

Even worse, the position of the rider over the front axle meant that any sudden stop caused by hitting a stone would hurl the rider forward headfirst. Hitting the ground with the head could be, and sometimes was, fatal.

Two men ride penny-farthings in Santa Ana, California, in 1886.
Two men ride penny-farthings in Santa Ana, California, in 1886.

The popularity of penny-farthings waned with the development of gears, allowing the ratio between pedal and wheel to be varied. The second breakthrough was the pneumatic tyre, which gave a smoother ride. By 1893, "safety bicycles" were on sale and penny-farthings were no longer being made.

Jamie Scrimgeour was one of the support team following the riders. "We'd go 10 miles ahead, pull into a lay-by and wait for them. There's an app we used to pinpoint where they are exactly. Both of the chaps are ex-SAS. Neil has been to the North and South Poles, flown the first flying car from London to Timbuktu and done all sorts of crazy things. I asked him if there was anything tougher than this and he said there were only two things – climbing Everest and the other was SAS selection."

The charity, Mary's Meals, aims to feed 1.4 million children annually in some of the worlds poorest countries.

The team's fundraiser page is online at: http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/davidFoxPitt



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