We Played Penny Farthing Polo With The Man Who Helped Bear Grylls Conquer Everest
Could this be England's new national sport?
It’s the morning after the night before. Across the land, well, across the posh bits of Clapham at least, people are waking up bleary-eyed and with sorrow in their hearts. England’s rugby team have been booted out of their own World Cup tournament before it’s even really got going, after suffering a humiliating and one-sided defeat to Australia. Any Englishman who’d found themselves temporarily struck down by World Cup fever suddenly finds themselves with a sporting void in their lives; a void that needs filling.
And so, it was with this cloud hanging over the flag of St George that Mpora went down to Sussex to find a new and alternative national sport for the green and pleasant England that we call home. Football? Suck at it. Cricket? Occasionally good at it, suck at it the rest of the time. Rugby? We’ve been over this. What England really needed, and this was clear as soon as the final whistle went against Australia, was a sport to call our own; a thing to be good at, a thing we could repeatedly beat other countries over the head with.
We travelled into the depths of the Sussex countryside to see if maybe, just maybe, that “thing" could be Penny Farthing Polo. Now before you shout us down and accuse us of making up sports that don’t even exist, you should know that penny farthing polo is totally real. Sure, it might sound like something Lewis Carroll would have casually dropped into one of his psychedelic-drug-infused Alice in Wonderland capers. But don’t let that fool you into thinking you couldn’t go out today and play this wonderfully unusual sport (providing, that is, you have enough mates, penny farthings, and mallets at hand).
The meeting place for this surreal sunday morning sporting extravaganza is Hurstpierpoint College; a private boarding school so posh it might as well have a giant top hat and monocle constructed on its facade. My contact, and head honcho of the Penny Farthing Club, is a man named Neil Laughton. Laughton, in pretty much every way imaginable, is the complete opposite of who you might think the standard penny farthing polo player to be. This man has done it all; an adventurer with more strings to his bow than Legolas.
Laughton has a long and interesting history with the biggest mountain of them all: Everest. He was situated above 8,000 metres when the deadly storm, that killed eight people, struck in 1996. And two years later, in 1998, he was part of a team that successfully reached the summit (a team that included a 23-year-old Brit by the name of Bear Grylls). By doing this, Laughton was able to tick off the final mountain on the Seven Summits list. It’s worth noting that completing the Seven Summits challenge is one of the ultimate achievements in mountaineering.
Since then, Laughton has gone round the entire United Kingdom on a jet-ski, flown a dune buggy from London to Timbuktu, been on a Shackleton Memorial Expedition to Antarctica and done so much other epic stuff that if we’re not careful here we could get permanently sidetracked and forget to talk more about the penny farthing polo. This, lest we forget, is what the article is supposed to be about. But, yes, if you were thinking penny farthing polo was a nerdish activity played by people like Moss from The IT Crowd, take the Laughton backstory on board and consider your expectations well and truly flipped.
Penny farthing polo requires a few essential basics. First things first, learning how to ride a penny farthing. When I’d first agreed to take up the challenge on behalf of the Mpora team, I hadn’t thought much about the reality of actually doing it. Back then, it had all seemed like a brilliantly quirky idea with absolutely no downsides to it. Four weeks ago, which now felt like a very long time ago indeed, there was nothing but upsides as far as the eye could see. Now, however, as I stood face to face with my stallion (the penny farthing, I hasten to add, not Neil Laughton) there murmured a rumbling of discontent in my stomach.
The 48-inch penny farthing looked intimidatingly alien to me. Of course, I had seen videos and photos of these strange bicycles in action before but it was only now that I was actually standing next to one that the fear of riding one and injuring myself in the process made itself known. The penny farthing, to all extents and purposes, looks like a bicycle designed and built by a blindfolded committee communicating messages to each other exclusively through the medium of interpretive dance.
Victorian "Velocipedes" such as the penny farthing are, for want of a better expression, a complete nonsense. Nothing about them makes any real sense whatsoever. And yet there I was, in the middle of the Sussex countryside, having a one-on-one tutoring session on how to use one by a man who’s been up Everest with Bear Grylls. Even if you ate three blocks of cheddar before bedtime tonight, you’d struggle to replicate the weirdness of that moment in your dreamscapes.
The key to a good start, Laughton informs me, comes down to how much positive momentum you can build up in the initial “scootering" phase. If the push start is too slow, the penny farthing rider (in this case, me) doesn’t have enough time to make the transition up the spine, onto the seat, and smoothly transition into the movement of the pedals. A slow start, in other words, would result in me toppling over and suffering whatever cruel fate gravity deemed me fit for.
While suffering severe injury or even death seemed highly unlikely, given the circumstances, I couldn’t escape the tiny voice in my brain that told me how embarrassing it would be to badly maim myself on an astroturf pitch while pedalling about on a 19th century high-wheeler. Perhaps it was this fear of a penny farthing induced hospital visit that caused me to attack the first push start with such high levels of aggression. “That’s it, up you go," Laughton tells me when he’s satisfied with the speed of my scootering.
It’s difficult to describe what happens next because it all just sort of fits into place, intuitively, like I’ve been riding penny farthings all my life. My bum makes touchdown with what has to be the world’s least comfortable bicycle seat and my feet do the rest, joining the pedals as they whirl around in time with the big wheel. It’s by no means easy, not by a long shot, but I’m pleasantly surprised by my ability to get up and riding at the first time of asking.
But just when I think I’ve nailed this penny farthing malarkey, just when I’m seriously considering travelling back in time to the end of the 19th century and living out the rest of my days as a Victorian gentleman, I badly misjudge a turn and suddenly find my wrists straining against the weight of the front wheel (which seems to have the same weight as an M4 Sherman tank). It’s heavy, really heavy. I strain every muscle in my upper body to stop the whole thing falling sideways and, just about, get away from the incident with my dignity still in tact.
“You need to relax, more," Laughton tells me, “...sit upright, slow turns, easy on the wrists." And while, on paper at least, those might sound like fairly simple instructions when you’re up at the altitude of a low flying aircraft it’s quite difficult to instantly transform those words into actions. Not wanting to be beaten by an antique mode of transport, however, I continue doing laps of the astroturf and feel myself growing in confidence. I’m just about to attempt a 180 to full cab, BMX style, when Laughton tells me it’s time to practice the dismount.
Oh crumbs. I’d certainly been paying attention to the dismount process during the initial demonstration from Neil but, now that it’s my turn to actually do it, my feet feel like hollowed out slippers. I know my left foot has to reach out behind me for the tiny metal step on the frame but doing this without wobbling the bike all over the place like a Brompton Warrior six pints into his stag-do turns out to be the most difficult part of the whole penny farthing experience. Fortunately, after a few aborted attempts I’m able to remove myself from the misshapen bicycle and thus avoid the hardly ideal scenario in which I spend the rest of my life 48 inches off the ground; pedalling endlessly until my legs fell off.
With the actual riding and dismounting of the penny farthing accomplished, if not exactly mastered, it’s time to get on with the polo: “So, you grip the mallet with a standard polo mallet grip," Laughton tells me. Of course it soon becomes clear to Neil, who picks up on my bewildered facial expressions, that I’m not entirely sure what a standard polo mallet grip entails. He’s a patient guy though, and happily explains to me the grip that will minimise the risk of me breaking my wrist when the action commences. Before he’d mentioned wrist breakage, I didn’t even think you could break your wrists holding a polo mallet incorrectly. But, heck, what the hell do I know?
I have a few practices riding around the pitch with my mallet, a mallet which I now strongly suspect of having a plan to covertly break my wrist when I’m not looking, and am amazed at how much more difficult riding around is when you’ve got a long wooden hammer dangling by your side. Balancing on these things, and taming the enormous front wheel, is difficult at the best of times. Factor in the mallet, and the one handed riding, and you’ve got yourself an Industrial Revolution-themed recipe for disaster.
Eventually, and this is probably because the clock is ticking on the allotted two hour practice time rather than because Neil has spotted an inherent talent for penny farthing polo coursing through my veins, we play what’s known in polo terms as a “chukka." Due to the fixed wheeled nature of the pedals, and the subsequent need to constantly pedal, this quickly becomes tiring. Not “tiring" in the sense that it’s boring, just literally quite tiring. Pedal. Pedal. Pedal. Never stop pedalling.
We’re playing two vs two and Neil, who is my teammate for the entirety of the chukka, instructs me to loiter around in the final third and utilise the forward passes that come my way. I’m effectively playing centre forward and, it has to be said, I do briefly feel a bit like Gary Lineker in 1990 or Alan Shearer in 1996. Of course, as far as I know, Lineker and Shearer never took to the field with a penny farthing between their legs so in many ways our respective situations are completely different.
I spend the majority of the chukka flailing my mallet around helplessly, and willing myself on with verbal encouragements. Neil, it has to be said, plays an absolute blinder throughout. He anchors the midfield, and plays that Jack Wilshere-NFL quarterback role to absolute perfection. My only regret is that my finishing skills up near the opponent's goal are more Lionel Richie than Lionel Messi, and thus I’m incapable of doing justice to the service.
That’s not to say my professional penny farthing polo career is a complete write-off just yet. In between all the misjudged approaches and air shots, I do manage to bag myself a brace of goals. One of them a beautifully placed, even if I do say so myself, shot into the bottom corner; the other an opportunistic bundle into the net that ends with me tangled up in the proverbial onion bag and my fellow players in fits of laughter.
Putting those fleeting moments of glory to one side, it’s not exactly a Ballon D’or winning performance on the whole. Still, when it’s finally time for me to haul my exhausted body from the field I’m able to say that, when it comes to penny farthing polo, I’m officially a “two-in-one" man. Eat my enormous front wheel, Cristiano Ronaldo. I'm a goal machine!
So, in conclusion, does penny farthing polo have the potential to usurp the mainstream and become our new national sport? Nope. No way. Not in a million years. Is it a highly enjoyable and alternative way to spend a sunday morning? Yes, absolutely.