A few weeks ago I wrote about taking a short train trip out of London to locate a tiny stained-glass window. Little is known about the 9-inch square, colorful pane except that it was moved to Stoke Poges, England, from a church in Italy in 1590. It depicts an imaginary two-wheeled vehicle with a gnome-like rider astride - blowing a long trumpet! It is the very first suggestion of a vehicle with two wheels, one behind the other.
It was, at the time, unlikely that any human being might try to ride such a contraption!
Why and when did the little pane of colored glass leave Italy?
My guess is that it might have been removed from the Italian church, thought to be a figment of a warped mind. The laws of physics dictate that such a device could not be made stable on only two small points of contact where wheels touched the ground.
That "bicycle embryo" hanging on sky hooks is the earliest known suggestion that a person might ever make or ride such a vehicle.
An author in 1876 wrote, "Few things are more puzzling to the ordinary observer than the self balancing of the velocipede ... perhaps the self sustenance is best illustrated by the familiar feat of balancing a long pole in the vertical position on the chin or on one finger. The process for riding the bicycle is not identical, but it is analogous."
Who might have designed this strange thing for an Italian church? The answer: Leonardo da Vinci. Da Vinci? The Leonardo? The one born in Vinci in 1452 to a prosperous attorney from Florence and a peasant girl?
Raised by the attorney’s parents, Leonardo da Vinci loved roaming the countryside and sketching the natural things he saw - leaves, plants, rock formations, clouds.
Eventually he left his lifetime sketch books with a variety of "wild ideas" about science, anatomy, a parachute, a helicopter, ships and many doodles not understood by others.
How did I know about the little window pane? We had been in Stoke Poges on our 1966 bicycle tour. Walt stopped at Jack Hearne’s Bicycle Shop, and his visit dragged on for hours!
Nancy, Barbara and I sat in the warm sun and wrote letters, reorganized our saddlebags and read. Hearne visited with all four of us about our trip, but he didn’t mention the old church, which was only a stone’s throw away! Months later I read of the stained-glass panel at Stoke Poges.
Everybody knew that a two-wheel vehicle, with one wheel in front of the other, would fall over!
But Leonardo didn’t think as other people thought; he wrote left-handed, with letters written backward for mirror reading.
His sketch books were full of things that wouldn’t work and things that were made after his death. He sketched as his mind wandered, perhaps from boredom. Machine guns, musical instruments, the printing press, air conditioners, flying machines, etc. The list is long! Surely he sketched that gnome on a wooden bicycle!
When I planned the route of the 1972 Columbia College bike tour, I included Stoke Poges so my college students could see this embryo of a bicycle and so I could photograph it. I used the picture in black-and-white in my recent book, "Just Leave The Dishes," on Page 173.
I urge travelers to go to Jack Hearne’s Bicycle Shop and ask where to find Thomas Gray’s Country Churchyard and the little gnome on a two wheeler.
Stoke Poges was a quiet English town of friendly people 30 years ago. It’s probably that today.