Ride tall on this Airbnb Experience
Updated: Apr 27
Cycling has with each year become more and more popular around the world. However, you may not be aware that if you took a DeLorean back in time over 200+ years you simply would not find a man or woman on this contraption. They simply did not exist before 1817 and what existed in 1817 was certainly not worthy of your morning commute. More on that later!
I'm an avid cyclist - granted I’m no Bradley Wiggins (British born cyclist who has more Gold than Mr-T on a Friday night) but I did take Norman Tebbit at face value when he said "Get on your bike!" - so I did. Whether I'm riding a bicycle for leisure, exercise or commuting there's always been a bike near to me. However, it was not until recently did I get to try a legendary bicycle out thanks to Airbnb advertising it as an Experience. The Penny Farthing London Experience popped up on my screen and I thought to myself "I must try this!" It was certainly on my bucket list. However, before we delve into the Penny Farthing or High Wheel to the Yanks where did it come from?
A Brief History on the Bicycle that would lead eventually to the Penny-Farthing.
The "Dandy horse", also called Draisienne or Laufmaschine, was the first human means of transport to use only two wheels in tandem and was invented by the German Baron Karl von Drais. It is regarded as the first bicycle, but it did not have pedals; Drais introduced it to the public in Mannheim in 1817 and in Paris in 1818. Its rider sat astride a wooden frame supported by two in-line wheels and pushed the vehicle along with his or her feet while steering the front wheel. It was effectively an adults balance bike made of wood.
The first mechanically-propelled, two-wheeled vehicle may have been built by Kirkpatrick MacMillan, a Scottish blacksmith, in 1839, although the claim is often disputed. However, as I’m part Scottish I’m going to believe the Scot beat the world to the invention. And in typical feisty Glaswegian fashion, he is also associated with the first recorded instance of a cycling traffic offence, when a Glasgow newspaper in 1842 reported an accident in which an anonymous "gentleman from Dumfries-shire... bestride a velocipede... of ingenious design" knocked over a little girl in Glasgow and was fined five shillings.
In the early 1860s, Frenchmen Pierre Michaux and Pierre Lallement took bicycle design in a new direction by adding a mechanical crank drive with pedals on an enlarged front wheel (the velocipede).
The French vélocipède, made of iron and wood, developed into the "Penny-Farthing" (historically known as an "ordinary bicycle", a retronym, since there was then no other kind). It featured a tubular steel frame on which were mounted wire-spoked wheels with solid rubber tires.
The pedals were still attached directly to the front wheel, which became larger and larger as makers realised that the larger the wheel, the faster and farther you could travel with one rotation of the pedals. Solid rubber tyres and the long spokes of the large front wheel provided a much smoother ride than its predecessor, the Boneshaker. This type of velocipede was the first to be called a bicycle (“two-wheel”) and its shape led to the nickname Penny Farthing in the UK. They enjoyed great popularity in the 1880s, at least by those that could afford them. Although the trend was short-lived, the Penny Farthing became a symbol of the late Victorian era. Its popularity also coincided with the birth of cycling as a sport.
Now as a keen cyclist who has a sense of wonder if one can do things. I made an enquiry via the Airbnb experiences website to see if I could ride with the Penny-Farthing Club. Thankfully, they ride regularly so they were able to accommodate my desire to learn all about Penny-Farthings and test my balance. If you have a spare £100 in your pocket you might be tempted to enjoy a London Tour on a Penny Farthing! I can honestly say it's well worth the time and money and should be tried by anyone who has a sense of wonder about the world.
The Penny Farthing Club, founded in 2013 by Neil Laughton who was intrigued by these Victorian-era bicycles. The PFC has developed into a community of enthusiastic riders, racers and polo players! The Club has two dozen modern replica bicycles of various sizes and offers rider training, events throughout the year - including private hire, corporate team building and film/photo commissions.
Those on the experience will be introduced to the Penny Farthing and its history before being helped up to the lofty height of the bicycle. You will then head out onto the streets where you will learn to safely mount, ride and dismount.
A few hours spent with the Penny Farthing Team one Sunday morning was enough for me to feel I had mastered the art of riding these splendid contraptions. Once you feel competent and able to hop on and off these tall relics, the Penny Farthing Club will take you on a tour through Westminster and central London.
Once riders are confident on the Victorian invention they will be leisurely guided around the Westminster area, past many iconic locations such as the Palace of Westminster, Parliament Square, Churchill War Rooms, the gardens of 10 Downing Street and Buckingham Palace.
It helps to be fearless and confident with your balance this is not for the overweight and those who aren't very fit. As the Bikes have only one fixed gear it does require you to exert more energy than a usual bike. However, the view and attention that you get from being up so high make up for these extra calories burnt. I’ve never had so many people wave and smile in my direction while on the road in London. Everyone either stood and took pictures, waved or cheered.
Of course, this being The Wondering Englishman Blog - I've of course included a video to go with this post - do check out the video on the day I spent with The Penny Farthing Club. Tours and lessons can be booked in London, Bath & Brighton.
If you do decide to ride tall through London, Bath or Brighton on the Penny Farthing Bike Tour please let me know in the comments below! I can’t recommend it enough, it should be done by everyone! Happy riding!
One last thing - if you aren't from London and you are planning on visiting London for the weekend or even longer. I highly recommend booking yourself an Airbnb to go with your Airbnb Penny-Farthing Experience. Pick one that suits your needs and in your location - there is an array of choice in London and something for everyone's budget. If you have not used them before (you have probably been living under a rock). But if you use this referral link you will get many Dollars, Euros or Pounds off your first booking and I'll get a very small referral kickback.
This link will give you $50-$60 off your first booking. If you are a new customer.
I am not sponsored by the British Government or any Travel Group, I simply have written this post as I enjoy travelling. Please do check out this blog for more independent travel ideas and my YouTube Channel.
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Thank you - Alex van Terheyden AKA The Wondering Englishman