Land’s End to John o’ Groats is the traversal of the whole length of the island of Great Britain between its two extremities in the southwest and northeast. Most people undertake the traditional distance of 874 miles (1,407 km) by normal road-worthy bicycle. However, more and more kickass variations have been popping up and – in true British eccentricity – quite a few folks thought it to be a good idea to ride the distance on a fabled antique Penny Farthing bicycle.
Chris Saltrick’s Old Cranks ride across Britain (2014)
In 2014 two men have shown this true British eccentricity by riding antique Penny Farthings from Lands End to John O’Groats in a bid to raise money for Cancer Research UK.
Andrew Donald, and Chris Saltrick christened their journey The Old Cranks Ride Across Britain and completed the 940 mile journey in 12 days (minus 5 minutes).
The bikes that Chris & Andrew were riding were a ‘New Rapid’ manufactured by the St. Georges Engineering Company in around 1888 and an ‘Invincible’ made by the Surrey Machinists Company in about 1885. They described their ‘machines’ as follows:
We are riding very big original 1880s bikes with solid tyres, no gears and no functional brakes. On my larger bike each full pedal revolution turns the front wheel over just under 5 metres, therefore it is very hard to pedal up hill and on some hills impossible without breaking the bikes or ourselves.
“Once that 57” wheel starts to spin on downhill it is impossible to slow down, there is only so much one can resist the fixed pedals. Unlike a more modern bike the pedals are fixed, there is no freewheel on a Penny Farthing and no other position than sitting on the saddle and keeping pedalling
The Penny Farthing was only built for a relatively short period of time, because of the serious accidents that occurred and it was superseded by the Safety Bicycle in 1890. The height of the bike means you are on the same level as lorry drivers in their cabs, which they found a bit of a surprise, but they were all fantastic in helping us on our way.
“I can’t believe we actually managed to finish the ride. Lots of people along the way were saying we must be mad and we had to agree with them. Some mornings when we woke up we were just so sore and tired we didn’t think we could face getting back on the bikes. We were averaging around nine miles an hour and were out for about twelve hours a day with about eight to nine of those actually on the bikes.
The men, who arrived at John O’Groats on June 3, 2014 managed the journey with no major mishaps other than a lot of broken spokes and a lot of re-greasing.
“On our way we were also delighted to be able call in at a Penny Farthing museum in Knutsford where we had a warm welcome from the owner Glynn Stockdale and met other fellow enthusiasts. Glynn and his friend Nick Clayton had completed the same trip in 1984 and it was their encouragement that gave us the inspiration to attempt this trip”
Glynn Stockdale’s ride in 1980 & 1984
In 1978 Glynn Stockdale owned an Antique furniture shop on King Street , Knutsford. One day a customer asked if he would like to buy a ‘Penny Farthing’, which he indeed did. The big wheel bicycle re-awakened in Glynn a childhood fascination with these legendary machines and from that point on the Glynn Stockdale penny farthing collection began.
He has gone on to collect hundreds of early bicycles and with other like minded enthusiasts, founded the 10-yearly Knutsford Great Race for vintage bike enthusiasts (the next is scheduled for 2020 ).
In 1989 he opened the Penny Farthing Museum , housed in The Courtyard Coffee Shop and Restaurant, set in his old furniture workshop situated in a cobbled courtyard at the rear of 92 King Street.
‘I’d always been fascinated by the big wheel,’ says Glynn. ‘Penny farthings were only made for 20 years, from 1871 to 1891, but young Victorians developed a cult following for them and even when they realised the chain-driven bikes were faster, they continued to ride their penny farthings well past their sell-by-date.’
Glynn rode a penny farthing from Land’s End to John O’Groats in both 1980 and 1984, but this pales into insignificance compared to his 45 day quest to ride from San Francisco to Boston, a distance of 3,358 miles, which he completed in 45 days.
Stuart Kettell’s 2008 ride
Regular kickass adventurer Stuart Kettell also rode a penny farthing from Lands End to John O’Groats in 2008. He covered the 1000+ mile journey to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Support, his usual charity of choice for all his unusual fundraising kickassness (like pushing a sprout up a mountain with his nose!!)
Stuart rode a Penny Farthing with a 52″ solid tyre and without the luxury of brakes or suspension. The hills proved to be particularly difficult with no breaks and Stuart had to pedal backwards frantically to slow down. The height of the penny farthing meant Stuart got blown off several times during windy weather resulting in various bruises and scrapes but he met some amazing people along the way who spurred him on. Their messages of support and donations (so far totalling 5,200 pounds) made all of that more than worth it he said.
Joff Summerfield, penny farthing builder
Joff Summerfield is a bit of a legend in penny farthing land. His profession was as a Race engine builder, and he spent five years building Formula one engines before taking a different cycling path. Very different to the extent that he went to create his own Pennyfarthing workshop where he builds them from scratch.
“Have to say its pretty Bohemian but I love it.”
In 2000 Joff rode one of his self-built penny farthings from Land’s end to John O’Groats. He covered 1100 miles in 22 days, and “we had loved every minute of it, roll on the world!”
This was only a short warm-up trip for Joff as between 2006 and 2008 he cycled around the world on his Pennyfarthing covering over 22,000 miles.
Inspired by Thomas Stevens’ 1885 world circumnavigation on a penny farthing he wanted to see the world from the seat of his tall-big-wheeled-bike himself.
Fastest Penny Farthing ride across UK (1886)
George Pilkington Mills was the dominant English racing cyclist of the 19th century. He may not be a household name, but George Pilkington Mills was winning cycle races in France more than a century ago! In fact he won the first ever Bordeaux-Paris bicycle race in 1891, riding for 26 hours non-stop (and more than five hours ahead of the first French rider).
Pilkington Mills still holds a record to this very day – for the fastest ride from John O’Groats to Lands End… on penny farthing! He accomplished this in 1886 in 5 days, 1hr 45 mins. Impressive as a feat on its own without considering the dire state of roads at that time. He made the same journey on a tricycle that year too. He also once rode 288 miles on a penny farthing in 24 hours.
Other Land’s End to John O’Groats Adventures
For more crazy and original travel adventures covering the traditional distance from Land’s End to John O’Groats have a look at our corresponding gallery here.