Joff Summerfield, Penny Farthing Maker
I met Joff Summerfield in Smithfield at the Penny Farthing Race during the Summer, and yesterday I paid a visit to his workshop at Trinity Buoy Wharf to catch up with him and learn about the extraordinary round-the-world trip he undertook on the homemade contraption in the picture above. At first, I thought Joff was spinning me a yarn when he claimed he had circumnavigated the globe on this eccentric vehicle that I recognised from the cover of “Professor Branestawm” but, in spite of his happy-go-lucky demeanour, there was something in Joff’s intense, almost prismatic, eyes that revealed a steely resolve – and I realised it must be real.
Yet sitting on the Docklands Light Railway in the foggy dusk with the tower of Canary Wharf vanishing into the low cloud and the Dome glowing as if it were alive, I realised I was travelling through a landscape of wonders and thus I was suitably prepared for my interview with Joff. In a modest nineteenth century workshop on the riverfront warmed by an old iron stove stoked with scrap timber, Joff spends his Winter making bicycles. The latest black beauty stood against the workbench, sleek and gleaming and ready to hit the road, while beside it sat the venerable boneshaker with pockmarked green paintwork which you can see in the thousands of photographs Joff took on his global trek, should evidence ever be required.
Outside, the darkness closed in upon us, as I perched upon a carpenter’s bench cradling a cup of tea while Joff stood opposite to tell me his story.
“My original background is motor-racing and I come from a motor-racing family. My dad restored pre-war Rolls Royces and Bentleys, and he raced motor cars. I grew up in a three hundred year old house near Southend, full of antiques and motor parts. Every book I read was about motor engineering. While my friends were kicking footballs around, I was standing in front of a lathe making things. I followed that path and ended up working in Formula One motor racing for five years as an engine builder – although the ultimate goal was always to work for myself.
But then I experienced the shock of having no pay cheque, and that’s when I started cycling to save petrol, getting to and from my workshop. And I fell in love with cycling again, being out on the bike and getting fit. That year for my holiday, I rode a pre-war BSA bicycle to Amsterdam. And I loved it so much, I thought, ‘This is how I’m going to see the world.’ I wanted to make a bike and the silliest thing I could think of was a Penny Farthing. So I went to museum and had a good look at some, and the first one I made took three months. No-one taught me to ride it, I just leant it up against a wall and climbed on and taught myself. Then I rode it to Paris for the millennium celebrations and I learnt a lot on that trip.
I made the second one lighter and rode it from Land’s End to John O’Groats. After that it was a big step, to bring all the knowledge I’d acquired from handling these bikes to cycling one around the world. I had a lot of problems. On my first attempt, I had to abort on the first day because of the pain in my tendons. On the second attempt, I got as far as Budapest but I had a different problem with my kneecaps and I had to come back and have an operation. On my third attempt, my tendons were strapped up and I took every precaution to make sure my legs would be ok, and apart from the odd pull in the knees they were fine. The journey took me two and a half years and I cycled twenty-two and a half thousand miles.
It changes you. Things that upset other people don’t bother me now, because I have seen people who have reason to be upset and they smile. It makes you realise how lucky you are. You see people complaining here about their lot and you just want to give them a shake and say, ‘We’re so damned lucky!’
You see the world news and it’s all stereotyping – but, especially when you’ve been among these people, you realise that the perception of any country is all about the government. Cultural differences don’t matter much if you turn up on a Penny Farthing. If you go through the villages, you meet people who’ve never seen the Westerners before, just those flying past on the freeway in their cars, and they’re very interested and welcoming. The people everywhere were lovely. If you’re going to feel vulnerable this is not the right kind of thing to be doing.
I carried a dog whip, because they can be a problem. The odd stray dogs ran after me in Eastern Europe, fortunately any that have rabies can’t run very fast. In Turkey, the goatherds have these dogs as large as St Bernard’s with big iron collars to stop the wolves biting their throats. You have to whip them off until the goatherd arrives to drag them off you.
Thomas Stevens was the first to cycle around the world on a Penny Farthing in 1884/7. He is buried in North Finchley and I started my journey at his grave. I took a stone with me and returned it when I got back, so he’s been round twice now. You couldn’t follow his route because the roads have moved and the world has changed. I wasn’t setting out to better anything he did. I rode more miles, but he’s always going to be the first.
A year after I got back, I found this little workshop. It’s perfect for me. This is where I make Penny Farthing bikes and pot notches – devices for hanging flower pots. You can’t make a living out of making bikes because they take too long to make. Other people around the world I know who make them all do something else as well. I charge £1500 for a Penny Farthing which is cheap for a handmade bike. I have just made two and I have time to make one more before Christmas. Of all the bikes I have made, only one was resold and it appreciated in value, which was very nice.
The revival in Penny Farthings has been going a lot longer in other countries. There’s a huge following in the USA and Australia – I took part in my first world championship in Tasmania – while here it has only just taken off because the British are snobbish about cycling modern built bikes. Yet we’ve had five races this year. It’s such a spectacle.
Anyone can ride a Penny Farthing. It’s no harder than a regular bicycle, but it takes a half a day to learn to get on and off. It hasn’t changed at all over time, still the same basic frame with hard tyres. You can still have an accident, just as you could in the nineteenth century and it hurts just as much, except the painkillers are better now.
I’d love to go around the world again, there’s lots of things I haven’t seen. I’ve never been to South America or Africa. I’d like to do different routes because there are always different things to see. You’ll never run out of places to visit.”
At the grave of Thomas Stevens, the first to cycle round the world on a Penny Farthing.
Competing in the World Championship in Tasmania
At the Great Wall.
At the Yellow River
Joff freewheels downhill into Death Valley, Arizona
Thomas Stevens cycled a Penny Farthing around the world in 1884/7.
Lewis Carr, resident of 11 Victoria Cottages, Spitalfields, with his Penny Farthing in the 1870s.
Photographs of the round the world trip copyright © Joff Summerfield
If you would like Joff to make you a Penny Farthing for Christmas contact email@example.com
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