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Around the world on a penny farthing

  • Written by  Joff Summerfield
  • Published in Explorers
Breathless at the top of Dunga La pass, Tibet Breathless at the top of Dunga La pass, Tibet Summerfield
20 Apr
Inspired by the Victorian adventurers, Joff Summerfield decided to circumnavigate the globe on that most impractical-looking of all bicycles

Here, he recalls his trip, discusses the equipment that helped him along the way and explains why he’ll never stint on water purification again.

It’s snowing and I have to find somewhere to make camp. The road that leads off the Tibetan plateau is often described as the longest downhill ride in the world. Don’t believe it – much of it is flat and rough. This is where I now find myself looking for some level ground to set up my tent. Then, with a sinking feeling, I remember that the last time I camped was above the snowline before arriving at Everest Base Camp. Pitching a wet tent isn’t much fun.

Once my shelter is up, changing into dry clothes is a priority as the cold is biting. With a brew on, I hunker down for what I know will be a long night. I’m out of food as I couldn’t make it to the town of Nyalam today to restock. The dawn finally arrives, accompanied by freezing sleet.

Yesterday’s sodden clothes go back on as I have to sleep in a dry set over the coming days. The consequences of sleeping in wet clothes wouldn’t be pleasant. By the time I regain the mush of the road with my penny farthing, I’m already frozen. My gloves are still saturated from the previous day’s pedalling and my hands are suffering. I can ride, but I can’t hold on to the handlebars properly because of my numb digits. I dismount and progress becomes painfully slow.

Eventually, I spot a tiny Tibetan house with smoke drifting from its broken chimney. I bang on the door with an elbow as, by now, my hands are useless. The windowless dwelling consists of one smoke-filled room in which live six people who couldn’t be more welcoming to their unusual morning guest. They understand my situation and sit me by the stove to thaw out. The heat feels like manna from heaven, until the blood begins to re-visit my fingers. Let’s just say that I’m in no hurry to experience the sensation again.

summerfieldJoff Summerfield poses in front of Mount Everest (image: Summerfield)


The history of travel is littered with tales of great adventurers, but for me, the Victorian age, with its stories of derring-do, is the period that draws me back again and again. One such adventurer was an Englishman named Thomas Stevens. In April 1884, he set out from San Francisco on his bicycle in an attempt to ride across the USA. Stevens completed his journey and in so doing became the first person to traverse the country on a bicycle. He then had the wonderful idea of continuing around the world. After more than 30,000 kilometres, Stevens returned to San Francisco in 1887 to rapturous applause.

Bicycle travel in the 21st century conjures up visions of multi-geared touring bikes. But in 1884, things were different. Stevens only had one option for his steed – the glorious penny farthing. This bicycle, which had a 50-inch (127-centimetre) fixed wheel, was far from easy to travel on. The penny on which I set out had no real benefits over Stevens’ machine other than being about 4.5 kilograms lighter.

To mount a penny, you place one foot on the small step above the rear wheel, give a couple of scoots with your free leg and away you go. Then, stretch forward, find the saddle and start peddling before you stop and fall off. (One of the difficulties on my journey was starting on a hill. I often had to turn around, roll down the hill, mount the bike and then do a U-turn to get on my way.)

Once moving, it’s important never to use the brakes to stop. Your injuries will be less severe if you run into or over any obstacles that cross your path. If you brake, the rear wheel will lift off the ground and tip you over the front. I had brakes fitted to my bike, but I only applied them on exceptionally long downhill sections, and even then, I used them for moderating my speed – never for stopping. It’s possible to regulate your speed to some extent with the pedals but ultimately, it’s all about being careful.

bike2Early morning on the Great Wall of China (image: Summerfield)


While planning my own around-the-world-on-a-pennyfarthing adventure, I read Stevens’ book to glean information about his kit and general travelling experiences. He carried a waterproof gabardine Mackintosh, a canvas tarpaulin to throw over the bike as a makeshift tent and a revolver.

I suspect that his most precious equipment other than these items would have been his writing materials. During the 1880s, the railways had only just begun their global expansion. Hence, all of the original routes that were walked and ridden by humans, mules, donkeys and horses were still in use. This would have influenced what Stevens had to carry. If a coaching inn, caravanserai or village was always within range of a single day of horse riding, then it would also have been ideal for a cyclist who was unable to travel with much equipment. The practicalities of what I had to carry were different.

There were even more places to stay and eat than in Stevens’ time but not for someone on a budget of £5 a day. A tent, stove and sleeping bag were essential as I camped for most of the way. Everything had to be as light as possible because I needed to keep the total weight of my equipment, food and fuel to around 30 kilograms.


If an item could do more than one job, then all the better. A case in point was my down gilet. On cold days, especially when pushing the Wheel uphill, it could be unpacked quickly to provide core warmth. At night, when I retreated into a half-summer sleeping bag (the down insulation was only on the top half), I could wear the gilet in the bag. As both the bag and gilet were ­illed with down, they could be compressed to a fraction of their regular size.

This was important to me as I could only carry 90 litres. My kit was crammed inside one rucksack and two front panniers, which I attached one above the other behind the saddle. My bar bag held my food and a stove. Any extra space – and there wasn’t much – was reserved for water.

bik23Taking a break in Monument Valley, Utah (image: Summerfield)


In Europe, we take drinking water for granted. When you head farther a­ield, the situation can change dramatically. I carried puri­ication tablets, and I could boil any water that I was suspicious of. Sometimes, however, things went wrong.

In southeastern Turkey, I was relying on topping up my supplies from friendly villagers and from natural springs that goatherds use. The heat rolls up from the Syrian Desert, so while peddling, my water consumption was huge. Then it ran out.

No more springs appeared, no traffic passed by to wave down, and the villages were a long way o . Soon, I began to hallucinate. I found myself back in the kitchen of my old flat with a glass in hand. How wonderful to hold it under the tap and watch the clear, sparkling water ­flow out.

Reality returned. I remembered an old trick to help quench your thirst that involves sucking a pebble. It was all I could do. It wasn’t nice, but it helped a little. Then, ­inally, o in the distance, a farmer’s irrigation tank came into view. Beautiful water was f­lowing onto a ­ield. It was both the best and the worst drink I’ve ever had. Plunging my head into the stream of water, I found the taste to be heavenly. I drank until my distended stomach could take no more. filled every water bottle while my head slowly stopped spinning.

When it was far too late, I considered purif­ication. The tablets were tucked away in a bag and I convinced myself that everything would be f­ine. Not long afterwards, I realised the folly of my ways. I had never been so sick and ended up spending a week lying around feeling very sorry for myself in a hot room with no fan.


The next problem I had was buying antibiotics to get the bugs out of my system. I bought a load of drugs from the rudimentary chemist in Diyarbakir but I don’t think any were the right ones. Antibiotics don’t weigh a great deal and take up little space. They will always go with me in future, along with a second form of water puri­ication. My health, especially on a long independent journey, is one thing I will never take for granted again. I now have all the jabs, including the optional rabies one. For money spent, vaccinations could turn out to be your best investment, with the bonus that they don’t weigh anything.

Having completed his around-the-world feat in two and a half years, Joff Summerfield builds and sellspenny farthings from his London workshop.


I started my journey with a wonderful Terra Nova Laserlite tent (now replaced by the Laser Competition – Equipment Ed.). It proved to be a great investment because of its low weight. And being able to split it into two pieces made it easy to pack away in my restricted luggage space. What I didn’t consider with all of my kit was that none of it was designed for continuous use over two and a half years. By the time I reached Australia, the floor of the Laserlite was worn out and extremely thin.

One afternoon, a friendly woman in a petrol station said that it was fine to pitch the Laserlite on a grassy area at the rear of the property. She warned me to watch out for the sprinklers, which were scheduled to turn on at daybreak. I looked around but couldn’t see any sprinklers, so I chose a lush piece of freshly cut grass on which to erect the tent. This was the life, with soft ground and a ready supply of drinkable water. I could even treat myself to a cappuccino in the morning. My camping bliss was rudely shattered at first light. Australian sprinkler design is more advanced than the typical English set-up. The sprinklers that I had been warned to avoid were built into the ground and raised their gushing heads at 5am.

I woke up to discover that it was raining inside my tent. As I thrashed around in my wet sock of a sleeping bag, it dawned on me that a sprinkler had punched its way through my flimsy tent floor. I made an important note to myself: take more heed of people's warnings.

Expeditions don’t get much more specialist than cycling around the world on a penny farthing and Jo­ Summerfield learned the hard way that it’s always worth being well prepared. Here he highlights some of the equipment he would now recommend for another global circumnavigation


1. Saddle Brooks Flyer £77/860 grams

The saddle is an important item on a penny as you remain seated at all times. Wearing in a leather saddle can be uncomfortable, but for long-term use, leather is renowned for being the best material. A dedicated ladies model, the Flyer S, is also available

2. Insulated clothing PHD Minimus down vest £131/240 grams

The down-_filled Minimus packs to a tiny size and can be used in both cool and freezing weather. Wear it in your sleeping bag on cold nights. Fitted with two handwarmer pockets and one internal security pocket

3. Tent Laser Competition 1 tent £330/930 grams

An incredibly lightweight tent with no compromise in build quality. Supplied with DAC Featherlite poles and a dozen titanium pegs that weigh just two grams each. For long-term use (or when camping on gardens with integral sprinkler systems), use the optional groundsheet protector (£45)

4. Pannier Ortlieb Front Roller Plus £85/1.4 kilograms

Ortlieb bags are my go-to product for keeping gear dry on the road. The hardwearing Cordura fabric is dust- and waterproof. And the airtight roll closure further improves its weather resistance

5. Ground mat Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite £90/230 grams

This heat-retaining and comfortable ground mat encourages a warm and restful sleep thanks to its Triangular Core Matrix construction and re­lective layer. Packs to the size of a water bottle

6. Rucksack Aquapac Wet & Dry backpack £65/580 grams

Keeping your documents and journals dry can be a challenge in wet weather. This is where a waterproof rucksack comes into its own. The 25-litre Wet & Dry also keeps dust and dirt out. Supplied with waist, sternum and shoulder straps. The back support is removable and doubles as a seat

7. Penny farthing Summer­ eld Mk-5 £1,500/15.4 kilograms

Built to order with a choice of wheel size and colours. The steel parts are 4130 chromium-molybdenum, apart from the stainless-steel spokes. The wheel rims are aluminium

8. Camera Olympus OM‑D E‑M5 £1,000/373 grams (body only)

This camera produces great images and has some important features for the traveller. The E‑M5 is weather-sealed and dustproof so you won’t miss a shot when it’s raining. If you don’t have room to pack a tripod, fear not: the E‑M5 has one of the most e ective image-stabilisation systems on the market

9. Sleeping bag Terra Nova Laser 600 £500/630 grams 

On my around-the-world trip, I yearned for a conventional sleeping bag to replace my half fill bag. I now use this box-wall bag, which is ­filled with 355 grams of 93 per cent 900 f­ill down. It compresses to an impressively small size

10. Multitool Leatherman Crunch £108/196 grams

Broken down in the middle of nowhere? You need a multitool, and they don’t come any better than the Crunch. Fitted with locking pliers, pin vice, hex-bit driver, serrated knife and four screwdrivers

Having completed his around-the-world feat in two and a half years, Joff Summerfield builds and sells penny farthings from his London workshop 

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