Scratching a Living 1
Scratching a Living 1

Driving towards the Sussex coast with my wipers on full under a slate grey sky, the trees on the side of the A23 are bent double, the unwilling recipients of a summer spanking from Mother Nature.

DIRT ISSUE 129 - FEBRUARY 2012

Words by Rod Fountain. Photos by Oliver Perrott

Scenes like this used to excite me. Ten years ago driving these roads in these conditions would be done with a surfboard on the roof and a wetsuit in the boot because, surprisingly, Brighton in a storm is quite the place to be if you can surf. There are mercifully few times I've turned up in Brighton without a board or a bike, but this is one of them. In a brain that hasn't yet received operational procedures from coffee this trip to the coast is confusing: the surf’s been whipped up by a south–westerly but I have no board and I’m meeting hardtail builder Jon Aston without my bike in a South Downs farmyard just behind the house where my oldest surfing buddy lives and from where many epic surf trips began. As the sea recedes in my rear view mirror and tarmac gives way to farm track my riding present and surfing past collide. I’m here to add the latest instalment to the ‘Handmade in Britain’ series of features, which after the Jubilee and Olympics seems perfectly in keeping with a summer of celebrating the homegrown.

With all craftsmen you can’t separate the product they make from the people they are and the stories they have. In his book ‘Midnight’s Children’ Salman Rushdie describes how we stir our emotions into the food we cook. He writes of the bitterness stirred into a biryani by a lady who’s remembering everything that had gone wrong in her life whilst making it. Maybe this is why food you make when you’re drunk tastes great. If this is true then riding a frame from ‘Chickens Frame Emporium’ is going to be bonkers. The ‘Emporium’, a sea container beside a barn on a working farm, is very much the laboratory of a mad scientist. Jars of dropouts, gussets, headtubes and bottom bracket shells seem macabre in their temporary separateness from the tubes they’ll one day hold together. Mitred tubes litter a bench like amputated limbs and grease stalactites add something of the subterranean top shelf. Blu–tacked to it is the Chickens Frame Emporium mission statement, ripped from the back of a box of something Jon ordered from overseas: “To rank first among similar products. Every styles fully wonderful. Best quality for your selection. Once own nothing can instead." Read on, you’ll see this is perfect.>>

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[part title="CHICKENS FRAME EMPORIUM | SCRATCHING A LIVING PAGE TWO"]

Scratching a Living 6
Scratching a Living 6

I stood in that cold sea–container for a good two hours, listening to the rain do its best to puncture it and to Jon as he told me tales that made my life, which I’d previously thought was quite interesting, seem very dull. Equally dull would be to say ‘Jon Aston makes hardtail frames’ and nothing more. People don’t buy frames from welders, they buy them from someone who can stir in emotion, experience and a dedication to riding as inextinguishable as the Olympic flame. People like Jon Chickens with smashing stories to tell. Take that name, “My friend’s three year old daughter Amber dubbed me ‘Jon Chickens’ because I keep chickens. Please note the pluralisation I am not Chicken, I are Chickens. My fame, I believe, has now spread as far as the southernmost borders of Surrey and as far west as Petworth’. See.

The story of how he ended up here, doing this, is part of why an increasing number of his frames are seeking out chalky singletrack on the South Downs and back–siding booters in Wilds Park.

Like a lot of raggers, Jon considers a Bontrager as his first proper All Terrain Bike. Behind his eyes a million good times are being replayed and he says, “That bike is what it’s all about for me. Straight, clean lines put together in a devastatingly effective way. I hope I build frames people will love as much as I still love the Bonty". But it nearly didn’t happen at all, but for a crash a few years ago. “I worked as a road bike frame builder for Enigma. I dislocated my wrist at an event I organised called the Big Dog, which is a six hour enduro in Brighton’s Stammer Park with a big party on the beach afterwards. I needed an operation and since you can’t build frames with one hand my career at Enigma was cut short. Looking back, that was a blessing because now it is just me and it can finally be all about the off–road". But all the passion in the world isn’t going to sugar the pill that building frames on your own for a living takes expensive specialist equipment which is big, hard to find and very, very heavy.

Jon again, “I’d been after a milling machine for a year when eventually I came across Mike. Well into his 80s, Mike had made parts for F1 motorbike teams (the fore–runner to World Superbike) from his garage. He told me he’d raced flat track at Brighton’s Preston Park ‘when it was cinders’ and we talked for hours. He asked if I needed a lathe as well plus the machine tools he’d made. I said I’d love to take them but had no money or space which was when Mike said he wasn’t well and wanted to ‘get his affairs in order’ whilst he still could...’. He totally bought into what I was doing and sold me the three tons of post war motorsport history for scrap price because he knew they’d be used to put more smiles on faces after he’d gone. He gave me a month to find the rest of the money and another to find somewhere to put it. He even helped crowbar it for eight hours to get it onto the truck. I genuinely couldn’t have started without Mike’s help". Jon stops mid flow and I realise the sound of the rain of the roof of the tin box we’re in is deafening. With a smile he asks me if I’ve got a bit of swarf in my eye. ‘Yeah, must be’ I say as I respectfully take my brew off the lathe’s top.>>

[part title="CHICKENS FRAME EMPORIUM | SCRATCHING A LIVING PAGE THREE"]

Scratching a Living 10
Scratching a Living 10

“You’ve not been at the farm long so where did you put all this gear at first?" I ask after swallowing mouthful of cake that was a lot posher than the surroundings and which Chickens Frame Emporium’s only employee Harvey, master spanner man, bought in especially. “I knocked on the door at Stanmer Park Forge. I knew that Blacksmith’s forges were where bikes were traditionally made in the days before mass production, so thought it’d be a good place to start. Ricky Delaney answered the door and like Mike was into what I had planned. He let me keep my stuff there for nothing and without his help and inspiration I couldn’t even have started. I had all these machines but it was humbling to see what can be done over hot coals with just a hammer and a shed–load of skill. But all things must pass and when Ricky went on to teach blacksmithing full time I had to ship out. I thought I’d run my luck until he hooked me up with Bevendean Farm where I am now, tucked in next to the barn and surrounded by animals. Mike and Ricky and their kindness truly renewed my faith in the human condition."

See what I mean? You’re not just buying a frame when you buy handmade, you’re buying all this. Every builder has got a story and the balls to avoid working in an office.

As the proud owner of a custom Curtis hardtail I know the answer to the question that everyone asks a frame builder; the one about justifying the expense, in time and money, of getting one made. If you commission Jon you get more than just metal, “I’ll take you out on the trails to work out what suits your actual style of riding, not how you think you ride. Then I’ll disappear for a bit, call you when it’s ready and minutes later you’ll handbrake your car into the farmyard to pick up a frame that rides how you do, not how you say you do. I don’t mean this arrogantly; we all overplay/underplay our abilities when asked."

Master criminals, grand masters and Alfred Hitchcock hide signatures in their work that only the initiated can spot, so I ask how to recognise a Chickens on the trail. Deadpan he says, “the smile on the owner’s face" before spraying tea all over Mike’s old lathe as he cracks up. “That and the Chickens–claw dropouts. Oh, and filed brazing that makes the finished frame look like a cross between a Curtis and a Cannondale." To avenge Mike for the tea on the lathe I ask Jon the kind of question that little boys always ask when they see a big ass motorbike, but instead of asking ‘how fast does it go, mister’? I ask: ‘Could you build a full suss?’ “Yeah but I’m not convinced steel is the right choice for that. The beauty of steel is the feel of the ride and that feature of the material is lost in a full suss and I love working with and riding steel." Touché.

Another obligatory question always asked of shed alchemists is ‘why bother?’ “It’s all–consuming but I can’t help but bother. I need to get the stuff that’s in my, or a customer’s, brain through my hands and onto the trails. The fact that anyone chooses me over any other brand or builder makes every frame a dream commission and it’s very flattering when you think of it like that. I’ve had people come back and be genuinely emotional about their frames."

So if I come back to the farmyard in 10 years, what will I see? “Two containers side by side with a pump track on the roof and the next generation of chickens having a scratch in the dirt. Oh yeah, and I hope to have a toilet by then as well."

The rain’s stopped now and I’ve been eying up a purple 29er that’s awaiting collection and which Harvey’s assembled beautifully. But Jon stops me and directs me to a white 26er that’s propped up on a haystack. “Ride a bike without the owner’s permission? You’ve got to be kidding!" he rightly says. Seems he stirs a little bit of morality into his builds too.

www.chickensframeemporium.co.uk