Jeremy Vine Penny Farthing

Jeremy Vine and his penny-farthing bicycle

The sight of journalist and broadcaster Jeremy Vine on a penny farthing has become quite normal in Chiswick. Chiswickians are far too cool to stare at someone just because they’re on TV, but the vision of a tall figure going past on a Victorian contraption does make people do a double take, and laugh and wave.

Jeremy Vine talks to Matt Smith

It’s 150 years, give or take, since such a vehicle was first seen on Chiswick High Rd. The penny-farthing was the first to be called a “bicycle”. Popular in the 1870s and 1880s, its name came from the British penny and farthing coins, the former being much larger than the latter, so that the side view resembles a larger penny leading a smaller farthing.

I noticed a video Jeremy posted on Twitter, in which he was riding his penny-farthing along Chiswick High Road. At first I thought it might be a publicity stunt. I was half right. An ardent campaigner for the cycle lane, this was his first time riding along Chiswick High Road since Cycleway 9 had opened, and he wanted to do it in style, but it turns out he actually rides it all the time. He told me how his unusual hobby came about. And yes, it is as difficult as it looks.

So I saw your video on Twitter earlier and thought it must be one-off to perhaps celebrate the fact the cycle lane is open, but I was told you actually ride it quite a lot?

“Yes, well funnily enough I was, bizarrely, unwell over Christmas. I had COVID so I was out of action. When it opened [Cycleway 9] I thought ‘if I could get out of bed I would have gone down it’, but I waited until I was fully recovered.”

Above: Jeremy’s Tweeted video

I think my first question might be the most obvious one, why do you ride it?

“Well, I was sitting outside in one of the cafes on the High Road a few years ago and bloke came down on a penny-farthing. Everyone was looking at him and laughing and it just spread so much joy, he actually looked like the only one who wasn’t having any fun! I remember thinking – I’d love to see if I could buy one, even just to have it.

“So I got in touch with a guy who sold them and he kind of insisted, in a lovely way, on meeting up with me and showing me how to ride it. He had four or five of his friends there so they all helped me stay on and after about a couple of hours I thought ‘oh I think I might be able to do this’ so I bought it and practiced in the neighbourhood, so my neighbours are used to seeing me practice in the street and everything. I’m pretty stable on it actually; I’ve ridden into the centre, been to Buckingham Palace and back.”

What’s it like to ride? Is it easy to control?

“The one thing is, there aren’t really any brakes so you need to step off it to stop. You need to go very slowly and predict lights and stuff, you’ve got to work out when lights are changing and be prepared to dismount. I go about five miles an hour, I go very slowly, and it’s amazing.

“A friend of mine who lives in South Africa was texted by somebody who’s local to here, who I don’t know, said: WTF, Jeremy Vine’s head has just floated past my bedroom window! I mean, I probably am ten foot off the ground actually, you feel very high up.”

When I’ve seen pictures of them in the past I’ve always wondered, how do you manage to get on it? Is it difficult to mount and dismount?

“Mounting and dismounting is the key thing. Once you’re on it, it’s like riding a normal bike as long as you don’t look down. Mounting and dismount involves basically pushing it, letting it have its own momentum and then climbing up the back. There’s two very small steps on the back of it and so you climb onto the saddle as it’s rolling forward. You can’t mount it pushing uphill for example as it needs that bit of momentum.

“Dismounting is the same, whilst it’s free-wheeling you just climb down the back. It does take about three hours to sort of get [acclimatised] – it’s a bit like contact lenses, you need to stop blinking and to just not feel too much fear. After about three hours, you’re there.”

Image above: Jeremy’s penny-farthing on display in his home 

Is it hard to maintain? I don’t suppose you can just take it to Halfords for a regular bike service can you?

“Well it’s funny, the first time – the London Cycle Workshop is my favourite, or one of my favourite, cycle shops on the High Road, that’s probably King Street actually, but the first time I took it there they all laughed at me but they did me a great service actually. The spokes are the issue, they get a bit out of line. There is a brake on the back wheel so there is a sort of emergency brake as well.

“So I think about once a year I try and get it to them. But yeah they’ve been brilliant. But I think they were a bit shocked the first time, I must say.

You said earlier about the guy that you saw that everyone was laughing at him. Do you get any weird looks at all?

“Oh yeah I mean always. Mainly you’re just cycling along and you hear ‘Oh my god!’ like that. But It’s lovely because I think I actually think it’s safer to ride on the road than a normal bike because cars suddenly see you and they’re much more careful around someone on a penny-farthing, for obvious reasons, they slow down, they smile, they wave, all that.

“But yeah, usually it’s pedestrians shouting ‘Oh my god’ or ‘Jesus Christ’ or whatever when I go by that I hear the whole time! But I suppose it brings a bit of cheer. Also it’s one of those things where it’s quite a solitary way of getting exercise. It’s probably quite good in a pandemic actually, maybe everybody should ride one.”

You’re definitely two metres up and two metres across as well.

“Yeah you certainly are two meters away from everybody that’s for sure.”

“Also, you have to concentrate as well. You really focus on the here and now and that’s a good thing.”

So for my last question, what difference does it make to you now that the cycle lane is open, or partially open, on Chiswick High Road?

“I think it’s a wonderful, wonderful thing. I think it’s absolutely brilliant, it’s going to calm down the cars and I don’t think it will end up delaying car-travel and I think most people who are worried about that will find that it’s all fine. The campaign against it, in the end just fizzled out really because, I think, people understood it is a good thing. The campaign against it was called ‘Not An Inch of Pavement’, so TfL took all the space from the road, I didn’t follow every thing they were doing but I just woke up one morning and it was there.

“What it means now is quite literally a toddler can cycle a mile down the high street without, really, very much danger at all. We never needed four lanes for cars so I think it’s absolutely great, the bus stops are working well and I think even just cycling down it is going to be really popular and it will turn out to be one of the best things they’ve [LB Hounslow] have ever done.”

A penny-farthing in action

If you’re still trying to picture how Jeremy manages to get on the bike, let alone ride it, here’s a video of him doing both.

Read more stories on The Chiswick Calendar

See also: This is Chiswick – well-known people who live in Chiswick 

See also: The Diver and the Lover – a first novel by Jeremy Vine

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