Archive for June, 2010

2000 miles for Help for Heroes – Day 35 – 29 May

19th June 2010

Saturday 29 May

Odometer – 2038 miles. Amesbury – Gillingham (29 miles).

The B&B had been excellent. But more than that, the owner refused to accept a penny in payment, in recognition of my efforts for Help for Heroes. (I took this to be a gift to me, not to Help for Heroes. There are two ways I categorize donations: to me personally if the giver makes that clear, and all the rest go entirely to Help for Heroes. Each night I tot up the day’s gifts to Help for Heroes and note them down, before adding the money to my own. At the end of the ride I will add up all the days’ takings and send a cheque to Help for Heroes.)

I had 29 miles left to run before reaching Gillingham by noon, so I allowed myself 3 hours and set off at 0855 hrs. It was raining, and as the morning went on it dried up for a while before continuing as a steady rainfall until just before I reached Gillingham. There was a small group at Milton-on-Stour who hailed me joyfully as I rolled up. Among them were the two Gillingham PCSOs, Nicky and Pete. (Later, I was told that Pete – who had met me completely by chance in Cornwall – had confided to Nicky that he doubted I would ever complete the ride, so shattered did I look. So it was good to find him waiting for me at Milton.) I then rode on into Gillingham followed by my police escort, up to the town hall and British Legion. There a great welcome awaited me. First, there were some of the family – Vicky, faithful as ever; sisters Janet and Liz and her husband Chris. Then there was the Lady Mayor, and Lee Mason the president of the British Legion branch who welcomed me. They gave me a framed certificate from the British Legion in recognition of my contribution to Royal British Legion’s and my common cause, the welfare of our soldiers, sailors and airmen. I was also presented with a bottle of Moët et Chandon – which I did not spray over the assembled people as is the response of racing drivers and other such ill-mannered folk. I accepted both with delight and thanked everybody for turning out to greet me. Jake Francis-Jones, a retired naval officer, said they were only there for the beer; but what can one expect from a matelot? There was also a section of smartly turned out army cadets. One of them had already decided to join the Rifles. The scoutmaster was there who gave me a warm welcome. From my church there were Fathers Martin and David with Betty, and many others from the church as well as from the other churches in the town. And I was delighted to see some old friends such as the O’Briens and Adrienne Kimber… so many others it is impossible to name them all, so forgive me if you are not on the roll of honour! Your presence was heart-warming, I promise you.

James Mackain-Bremner started a whip-round raising £230, bringing my total road takings to £950. This well illustrates the generosity of all the people I had met. Having drunk some very fine beer from the beer fest and talked to many people there, I said goodbye and cycled back to my house where I parked the long-suffering bike. James then collected Vicky and me and took us to lunch in his farmhouse, where Anna and the three girls joined us on returning from a walk. We had a delicious cold lunch, with much laughter and talk about what had been happening in the last five weeks. Vicky then drove me home where we began to sort ourselves out.

It had been a great home-coming. In the night I was racked by cramps which had made an unwelcome return.

The journey had taken 35 full days, of which 31 full days were cycling. The distance cycled was 2,050 miles or 3,298 kilometres if you’re a fan of Napoleon. So the average per cycling day was 66 miles – not great, but fair enough in view of the weight of the loaded bike… (and the age of the rider?) The longest day was 102 miles.

If you haven’t already had enough then look out for my afterthoughts in the coming days.


2000 miles for Help for Heroes – Day 34 – 28 May

19th June 2010

Friday 28 May

Odometer – 2009 miles. (night at Reading) Hook – Amesbury (41 miles).

This was a day of exhilaration and hope, a suitable finale to all the highs and lows, the ups and downs (literally), the pain and pleasure, frustrations, desperations and joys of this pilgrimage – probably the hardest of the four I have done. As I have said before, a journey like this is a perfect cameo of life, the pilgrimage we all have to make. The more fully we enter into it the more completely human we become; because avoiding its pains and cherry-picking its pleasures is simply not an option. Only a wholehearted acceptance of the package deal will cut the mustard. How each of us comes to terms with this adventure we are born into will depend on our character, background and beliefs. For me, the perfect example of how to do it is found in the life of Jesus and his journeying through Palestine with his small gathering of close friends. One of the uncertainties I had to face nearly every day as the sun sank low was where I would spend the night. The anxiety grew as the dusk closed in; and sometimes the only answer was to sleep rough under the stars. I would look for cover from the wind and from casual observation – the soldier’s word for such cover is a hide – and find a level piece of ground with an indentation for my hip, without which sleep is difficult. Then kick away the stones, spread the Gore-Tex bivouac bag with the sleeping bag inside and crawl in out of the cold with torch, knife, water and phone. Each time those words of Jesus came to mind: ‘Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ I would commit myself and those I loved to God and fall asleep.
I had already cycled through Headley Court the previous day so we drove to the Cock Inn, our lunch RV in Headley. My daughters Fiona and Madeleine were already there, with Madeleine’s three children, and later we were joined by my cousin Mary. It was a lovely reunion. We ordered lunch, but it took so long that I only had 20 minutes to eat it and get back to Headley Court where I was due to join a party for a conducted tour. I got there a bit late, but needn’t have worried: others were even later. Soon a lieutenant colonel arrived to take us round. There were about fifteen of us from various organizations: medics, designers of special equipment, other charities and six connected with Help for Heroes – including two young ladies from the organisation who made themselves known to me and said they had been following my progress. Apparently, I was the current most profitable challenger, and frankly, this astonished me. There were also three young men supporting Help for Heroes by cycling coast-to-coast across the USA, 3250 miles. Sensibly, they would have a support team. They asked me about long-distance cycling, especially the factors deciding rate of progress, and I was able to help them. I admired their enterprise which was in the planning phase, and was envious of their excitement.

We spent 1½ hours being shown every aspect of the place. It is a magnificent Elizabethan-Jacobean house set in splendid grounds with many additional buildings for new facilities coming available. It was left first to the RAF and is now used by all three services as a centre of excellence for getting soldiers back on their feet. I was there as a patient many years ago and much of it I remembered, but there have also been huge advances with modern fitness machines and cutting-edge medical technology. The staff, covering many disciplines from neurosurgery to physiotherapy, are world class. The aim is to get each soldier able to lead as fulfilling, normal and independent a life as possible by the time he or she leaves. Every patient is given a recovery programme unique to his or her needs. We saw one soldier who had suffered sever brain damage, but had some definite motor faculties for which new equipment was being produced from the drawing board for his needs. Prosthetic limbs are designed and programmed precisely for the individual – at £17,000 a limb. But this is a drop in the ocean compared to the cost of full lifetime care that would have to be provided if he could not eventually walk. The whole atmosphere was as I remembered it – upbeat and hopeful. The place is inspiring, as are the people it serves.

One other parallel that a pilgrimage has with life is the people one meets on the way. Making allowances for the natural everyday irritations that can make our relationships gritty at times, out of the dozens of people I met, I can only remember meeting two who were not, deep down, just plain good. Every single one of them was in some way or other worth dying for. (That last comment came straight off the end of my pen and the truth of it has hit me between the eyes.) By and large, despite the news media, humanity of its nature is potentially very good. That is not to deny the existence of terrible evil in the world, but merely to show it up as an unnatural aberration, like cancer. This may sound naïve, but it was a source of constant encouragement to me. Today, within 5 minutes, I was pulled over by two cars, as had often happened.

Car 1: ‘Are you Chris?’
‘Er, yes.’
‘Chris Evans and Ken Bruce on Radio 2 have told us to stop you and give you money.
Here you are, mate. You’re bloody marvellous.’

Car 2: ‘I spotted you on the road. Were you in the Army?’
‘You bet.’
‘I was in Air Defence – 12 Regiment, in the Gulf war.’
‘So was I! Attached to 10 Battery.’

And so the conversation went on, ending in another note being stuffed into my hand. The heart sings.

And that was how it had been the entire journey: people going out of their way to support and help. At heart, people are just plain good. But I have jumped ahead a bit. After the tour of Headley Court it was getting late – later than predicted – and I realized it would be impossible for me to reach Amesbury that night if I started cycling from where I had stopped the previous evening. If I failed to get to Amesbury I would not make Gillingham on Saturday noon where a reception had been laid on. I therefore decided I would have to restart my journey at Hook instead of Woking: it would still exceed the target of 2,000 miles. I therefore called up Vicky and Andy in the van and they dropped me at Hook from where I resumed my journey.

The going was good, but even so, in the hours left to me, I only reached my B&B in Amesbury by 2100 hrs. I had warned the owner by mobile telephone that I would be late and he said that it was not a problem. He made me most comfortable and I slept well that night, albeit a little hungry as I had had no supper. My mileage had reached 2,009 and tomorrow would be my last day. It was an exciting thought.

2000 miles for Help for Heroes – Day 33 – 27 May

19th June 2010

Thursday 27 May

Odometer – 1980 miles. Ware – Woking (night at Reading) (60 miles).

The day dawned overcast with drizzling rain. I set off after breakfast 0830 hrs and it was quite cold, but by mid-morning it had dried out and by 1300 hrs the sun had broken through, with a light wind.

My route took me down the Roman road, round the inner ring road to the City of London, crossing Tower Bridge at noon, and onto the A24 towards Epsom. Compared to Edinburgh, the road surfaces were a doddle and the road signing excellent. Unlike Edinburgh, the density of traffic and the huge number of traffic lights made it necessary constantly to stop and start, but I made good progress and rewarded myself by stopping at an Italian restaurant in Balham or Clapham for lunch. I couldn’t face any more junk food, and ordered a hotpot of mushrooms and garlic and herbs in a small copper saucepan, with 2 glasses of good red wine. I deserved it, and the bill was very reasonable. While waiting for it I phoned daughters Annabel (who was in Greece) and Fiona, who told me I had been discussed by Ken Bruce and Chris Evans on Radio 2. Heaven knows how they got hold of my challenge, but I was most grateful for the money-generating publicity. I must remember to thank them when I get home.

I pressed on through London. Quite suddenly the towns, seamlessly linked that make up this great city, began to separate and thin into suburbs – Merton, Cheam, Ewell and so on. I followed signs to Epsom, caught sight of one to Headley and took it. This was a mistake: I should have stuck to the route I had mapped out. The countryside was now becoming increasingly horsey, with stables and paddocks and glimpses of the racecourse through the trees, and some very expensive houses protecting their owners from intruders with huge remotely-controlled gates. But hardly a soul in sight! Headley turned out to be a few scattered houses, bad roads and tall trees. I had spent a long time unsuccessfully looking for a sign to Headley Court when I spotted a workman. He directed me to it, and suddenly there it was. I clocked in at the guardroom at about 1515 hrs and explained my business. The guard commander was pleased to see me and asked if I would like to be shown round, but I explained I had a prearranged guided tour the next day and more miles to put in today; so he told me how to get back onto the main road and I cycled off.

I then cycled on as far as I could in the time left to me. When I reached the area of Woking at 1945 hrs, it was getting late so I called daughter Vicky and fiancé Andy who collected me in the van and took me to the house of Andy’s parents in Reading. We noted the pick-up point and said that that would be my start point for tomorrow’s cycling. I was introduced to Andy’s parents, Tom and Pauline, who were most kind and welcoming. After a meal and a bath, I slept like a log. It had been quite a hard day.

2000 miles for Help for Heroes – Day 32 – 26 May

13th June 2010

The more alert among you will have noticed the radio silence of the last 13 days. Two reasons: 1. The Editor has been away and then very busy with half-term and audits. 2. I have had to rush to my wife Molly’s bed side in France after a kind of minor heart failure from which she is now recovering, thank God. Anyway, life goes on so here follows the next instalment of my journey.

Wednesday 26 May

Odometer – 1920 miles. Nassington – Ware (70 miles).

Woke at 05:30. Sorted myself out quietly, Deefer Dog following me wherever I went in this ancient Prebendal Manor, staring at me on the loo. Then I had breakfast with the rest of the household. James set off, leading me through winding lanes to the Roman road which joins Ermine Street (the Great North Road) running parallel to the A1 (the best road surface of the whole journey so far). We parted at the top of Ermine Street. The countryside is lovely, English and cool (atmosphere, temperature, psychologically). After some miles, I met Niall Fitzgerald, by appointment. He took some footage and we set off , chatting away. At lunch we stopped at the Queen Adelaide (God bless her) in Croydon, Cambs (?) – a really excellent meal. On the way, I had snarled my gears and Niall had unravelled them. The receptionist, quite rightly, said we could have no food until our hands were clean. We were sent to the Gents and on our return were told to turn our hands over so she could inspect both sides before we were permitted to eat. Then Niall had to go at Royston – something about an appointment for an interview with a hairdresser – I don’t know, the modern world moves too fast for me. So I cycled on to Ware where two old gents sent me to the Old Vic (“it usually has rooms”) and it had, for £35 with breakfast.

I had arrived at 18:30 after 10 ½ hours’ cycling. I went to the local Tandoori because in my experience Indian restaurants have always provided good food and service. This one was true to form… “Le Spice Merchant” (I didn’t ask). The Manager, Mr Imran Chandahadry, approached during poppadom and chutney while I was writing my log.
“Excuse me; I see you are cycling for Help for Heroes. Were you a soldier?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“Me too.”
He was the third of four generations of soldiers. His grandfather was in the 17th Lancers, a fact of which he was very proud. He himself joined and became a Sgt Major in the British Army before transferring to the Bangladeshi Army and getting commissioned. His son is also commissioned in the same, as is his daughter. We saluted each other. He contributed £10 on the spot and asked for an explicit receipt as a souvenir and memento. I had to insist on paying for the meal – we were soldiers and equals. On my way out, I passed some people next to the door who had been talking about H4H and Headley Court (I gather it’s been in the news); one leaned forward and donated another fiver.

On my way to Ware, a man drove past, pulled over and got out. He was built like the proverbial door of a municipal convenience. He crushed my hand and asked what I was doing, so I thought I’d better tell him.
“I’m going to tell all my work colleagues about you. And persuade them to fork out.”
I didn’t think many would decline his invitation, even if they did play in the front row of his particular rugger team. He was mid-forties; short dark hair; tall, wide and… gigantic. Total given today was about £38. Total given on the journey so far has been £700.

A sticky moment in Royston: at a pinch in the road, a lorry from behind decided not to wait and edged closer and closer, eventually grazing the handle bars, causing me to wobble. As he pulled away, I just managed to stay upright. The car behind was outraged and roared off in pursuit of the lorry.

Ed: To bed now; stay tuned for the next instalment. If you’ve been meaning to, why not visit the Just Giving site below. Having exceeded the £6000 target, and with at least £2000 received elsewhere, Chris is trying to reach £10,000!