London to the National Memorial Arboretum Charity Bike Ride: In aid of the Colonel's Fund

17 August 2010

By Pete Seargent

As I awoke to an array of fluorescent lights flickering to life, with an all too familiar irritating hum and terminal ‘blink’, it was easy to think that the last 14 years of my life had been a dream and I was once again 24 years old with Guard Duty beckoning.  Thankfully, this was no Bobby Ewing moment.  This really was June 12th 2010, although with the smell of the Queen’s Guard changing room and the painful groans of hung-over men steadily stirring to life, it was easy to believe that time travelling was a reality.

As my head rested once more on my pillow and with my senses regained, I thought to myself, ‘what am I doing here?’  The answer to this fundamental question, one that would raise its head on several occasions over the subsequent 48 hours, was both complex and simple.

The complex answer lay in a long series of emails, telephone calls, internet forum exchanges, route plans and ‘blags’ by a multifaceted, self generated and self sufficient group of men and women who contribute to the Colonel’s Fund charity.  The simple answer, and the answer most pertinent to this article, was that the old saying, ‘Once a Grenadier, always a Grenadier’ was, and remains today, a reality.

The concept was simple.  As many able bodied men and women willing to do so were to set out on a marathon (in reality around 6 marathon) cycle ride from Horse Guard’s Parade to the National War Arboretum, Alrewas, Staffordshire.  The purpose: to raise much needed funds to support Grenadier’s injured in Afghanistan, be it from mental or physical injury, past, present or future.

With the organisational skills of, not forgetting the grit and effervescent character that is, Malc Mayoh, expectations were high.  Past accomplishments raising money riding to the battlefields of Waterloo and Nijmegen had established a good foundation and network for success; but as always there were a series of barriers and disappointments that made this particular challenge far from simple.  Despite this, routes had been planned and annotated, accommodation organised, sponsorship raised and on the evening of Friday 11th June, from the four corners of the United Kingdom, 30 men and 1 lady congregated in the Sergeant’s Mess, Wellington Barracks.  The start line had been drawn and in the bar, with only 12 hours to go, anticipation, fears and nerves were almost tangible; contributing no doubt to several ‘one too many’ from the bar.

Saturday morning saw an array of magnificent (and not so magnificent) machines lined up with their riders on the drill square alongside Birdcage Walk.  Riders fell into one of three distinct categories.  Burt Cunnliffe, Vern and Lorna Overton, Dave Beresford and others formed a vanguard of serious riders.  Their machines highly tuned to perfection, clothing ‘fit for purpose’ and strategy discussions personified riding excellence.  The second category (one in which I count myself) were those for whom the introduction of elasticised waistbands in trousers has been matched only by the introduction of ‘go large’ Mc Donald’s meals.  We were the riders that European laws should ban from wearing Lycra, but in the same breath had the core muscle memory ingrained from countless beastings on the ‘Sand-Hill’ at Pirbright training camp to hold the pace and give the ‘racing snakes’ an occasional, if only short lived, run for their money.  The third group formed a formidable rear guard.  These were the stalwarts of the group, whose endurance, shear bloody mindedness and determination would give surety to success.  It was probably no coincidence that this group appeared slightly more hung-over than most and they seemed set to have more ‘nicotine RV’ points plotted on route cards than the remainder.  Nonetheless, these were the core of the group who would throughout the ride show the true meaning of strength of mind and willpower.

With start photographs taken and the jovial attitude of the group established, the assemblage set of.  Departing London was invariably challenging; early riding, particularly around the Queen Victoria Memorial and Marble Arch resembling the ‘Whacky Races’ more than the start of the ‘Tour de France’: nonetheless, an agreement to hold the line and work as a group all the way to St. Albans was maintained.  Occasional navigational checks and punctures provided opportunities to collect donations from unprepared, yet generous, passers by or those who had unfortunately, for them at least, found themselves within Malc’s charity radar.

A stretch between St Albans and the half way point for the day (around 40 miles) came quicker than initially anticipated.  The group were now stretching out, finding their own pace under the watchful eye of Bob Bullock on his motorbike, acting as ‘despatch rider’ and group liaison.  A well earned break was needed, as was a bite to eat, prepared by Guy, a police officer and one of a contingent of ‘non Grenadier’s’ (including two young ‘Guardsman Gas’ apprentices) who were generously riding or providing logistical/administrative support.  Lunch was in the form of sandwiches, fruit, crisps and chocolate bars, all washed down with an inevitable mug of tea.  Not quite ‘cordon bleu’ or the established dietary model set by Lance Armstrong, but none the less hitting the proverbial spot.  A long discussion ensued during which the old military peculiarity of ‘rounding up’ or ‘rounding down’ the mileage according to the needs of the individual was reinforced with vigour.  For some there were ‘just over’ 40 miles to go, for others ‘just under’ 50.  Nothing changes; when all else fails, lie and deny to keep morale high! We all set off unsure of what lay ahead, other than the knowledge that the A5 was soon to become a ‘busy’ dual carriageway and that there may be some ‘undulating’ sections before we reached our end of day destination.  Both of these loose definitions were to prove somewhat of an understatement.

By this stage, I was determined to keep with the main pack of whippets and tucked in behind the group to enable me and my very inappropriate mountain bike to be towed along by a shield of clean air.  Things were going well.  Sometimes I was unsure if the grinding noise I could hear was coming from my baringless pedals or my knees, but the swiftness of the peloton was good and with the encouragement from the group I was able to maintain the pace.  We regrouped occasionally and the support vehicles, driven by Guy and Stan, worked hard to ensure that the riders remained in touch, on track, well hydrated and motivated.  Our ‘Support the Troops’ T-Shirts prompted the occasional pip and wave from passing drivers, a small but notable contribution to spirits.

As we arrived at Milton Keynes, the A5 soon became a daunting and dangerous place to be.  This section of the expedition was an alarming experience as large 18 wheelers flew unnervingly close to the riders along the duel carriageway section, seemingly unaware of our vulnerability.  We packed in close to one another for security, heads down, determined to reach the end of this section unscathed.  Dave Beresford became our first and only casualty as he lost grip on his front wheel and slid along the tarmac.  Thankfully, this was during a rare traffic free moment and he was out of harm's way.  Showing true ‘Sarn’t Major’ attitude, I observed him rising from the floor to immediately check that his bike was fine, unconcerned about any bumps and cuts he had endured.  After a brief pause, a repair of a shredded tyre and a drink of water, the group set off once more towards Towcester.

The perils of the A5 eased considerably before the next town, but the flat roads we had devoured earlier in the day metamorphosised into the much anticipated hilly sections of Northamptonshire.  Unforgiving and relentless, these hills declared war on already tired muscles and exhausted lungs.  Riders carried on unrelenting and determined, knowing that with every mile covered one less remained to the village of Everdon, our solace for the night.  With every push and every revolution of the wheel we drew closer to our night’s rest.  For some, including myself, this was now an increasingly individual effort.  I had now lost sight of the forward pack of riders during the ascent from Towcester and as I glanced behind, the road was empty as a result of others sharing my experience. Gradually the gear ratios became exhausted and the incessant, monotonous push, converting fast depleting muscle power into miles, continued for what seemed an eternity.

Bob’s function as despatch rider came into its own at this stage as he raced (within the speed limit of course) between the forward and rear riders, updating them with progress, providing encouragement and navigational updates.  The sight of the forward group, just short of the Grand Union Canal indicated the start of the end for the day’s ride.  It was here that we waited and regrouped.  For some, it was a long wait, for others too short, but we were again a complete unit and the home stretch rose up before us.

We arrived in Everdon tired but were rapidly revitalised by the overwhelmingly munificent inhabitants of the village.  Our arrival coincided with their own village charity affair and we were welcomed, one and all, with open arms despite our bedraggled appearance and challenging odour. Drinks of both the alcoholic and non alcoholic nature were made readily available, as were freshly barbequed sausages and burgers.  This was a personal Nirvana; all we could eat and drink, the Sun was shining and aching bodies were at last given an opportunity to rest.  Showered and changed, the atmosphere became once more increasingly good-humoured; the banter and games of ‘abusive ping pong’ were reminiscent of the days gone by when we all expressed ourselves without fear of reprimand, affronted one another with insolent good humour and felt in the company of likeminded and compatible people.  An incomparable high that those who have not served will never understand or appreciate.   Again, it felt like I had been taken back into my own past.  It was a good feeling.

The day concluded with chilli, rice, sausages, spare ribs and a marginal performance by England in the World Cup on the TV at the Plough Inn.  Beer flowed for many and a ‘lock in’ ensued for the brave (or foolish) of heart.  Day 1 was under the belt, and as the Sun set and the air chilled, an evening chorus of snoring filled the air of this tranquil Northamptonshire oasis.  87 down, 50 to go (depending on who you asked!)

Dawn broke quicker than our bodies would have liked.  We changed, packed and drank our morning tea quickly.   This was not solely due to our enthusiasm to once more inflict pain on ourselves, but was more accurately prompted by the promise of bacon and sausage sandwiches from landlord of the The Plough.  Again, a magnificent gesture of support and a good start to the day.  Everdon and its residents exceeded all expectations and I thank them all for their generosity and good will.  Our morning guide out of the warren of local roads and lanes was in the guise of Pete Hales’ brother.  He led us effortlessly to the A5, the start of our journey and then bid us farewell and good luck. 

The rolling, early morning roads provided challenge to still sensitive and tender leg muscles, and as a result the pack closed in to provide support for one another.  This was a well timed intervention by the more experienced riders who set a pace that enabled an appropriate coverage of ground whilst keeping most of the group together. The ‘tete de la course’ changed regularly ensuring that pace was maintained and it was surprising how quickly the miles were being covered once a series of energy zapping hills around Rugby had been conquered.  As well as a team approach, progress for the bulk of the group was probably a result of geographical changes after this point, reduced contours meant increased pace and longer gaps between rests.  Arguably more significant was the fact that psychologically we were now counting miles remaining and not completed.  Eventually, as the miles stretched out, so did the group. I myself was finding once more that my legs and my knobbly, ‘off road’ tyres were starting to pull me away from the lead riders.  I was relieved to reach the lunch break at Nuneaton close to the pack but resigned myself to the fact that the remaining miles needed to be at a more rational speed.  The chase was over.

We stopped for lunch at a lay-by and harassed unsuspecting drivers for cash once more.  Over time, all riders were again together and speculation was rife and varied as to how far the National War Arboretum was.  Opinions were wide-ranging.  There were some wild and misinformed judgments that we were only 12 miles away, when simple mathematics concluded that this figure was in excess of 20.  For some of us, this was now academic; muscles were starting to cramp and copious volumes of Sudocrem were being applied liberally to sensitive areas, much to the shock of passers by (the stocks and shares in inflatable rubber rings seemed a firm and sensible investment).  Dave Boucher may have caused several of those passing by to seek counselling for post traumatic stress themselves, or at best seek compensation, as his well creamed posterior was exposed during a period of pain alleviation and airing.

After the food had run out the general feeling was that it was time to move on, sooner rather than later, and regroup with only a short and confirmed distance remaining.  This some did quicker than others.  Again the road became a never ending dual carriageway and as Tamworth Services faded into the distance, there was a return to long sweeping landscapes we had seen in Northamptonshire.  The roundabout for the M42 had the first signpost we had seen for Burton-Upon-Trent; not our objective, but a town lying not too far beyond it.  The end was now in our grasp, although frustratingly not yet in our sights.

The mile stones unhurriedly passed by one by one and the sight of the bridge spanning the A38 at Alweras, was welcomed with a rejuvenated capacity to get out of the saddle and make that extra effort.  Cheers of encouragement from those who had previously arrived were greatly received and spirits were now at an all time high, even if legs, hearts, lungs and rears were suffering.  Regrouping on the bridge, banter was again evident, water was consumed, cigarettes smoked (an odd ritual to observe after such an athletic effort) and some much appreciated muscle stretches to hold off immediate cramps and future aches and pains were offered by Geoff.  When all the admin team were present and a headcount of riders had been given, we set of in an appropriate smart, soldier-like and uniformed manner to the entrance of the arboretum, where we were greeted by a small but appreciated contingent of friends, family and onlookers.

Although we had reached the end of the road, the journey had yet to be completed.  There was a reason the National War Arboretum was our destination.  This was no random choice, selected over a glass of port or chance location picked by the throw of a dart.  This was the location that embodied a yearning to remember the Regiment’s fallen.  Freshly etched on the memorial wall were the names of comrades we had known and lost, men whose character, bravery and honourable actions will be remembered forever more.  Most recently the names of Chant, Major, Telford, Greenhalgh, Janes had been added; Atherton, Davison, Downes, Hickey, Probyn were to be found amongst others such as Blinco and Johnson, to name only a few.  There were numerous more of our own to be found, as each of the riders pointed out the names of those they had known so well, had shared good and bad times with, or simply had met in passing.  Each name told a story that ended too soon and in an unsatisfactory conclusion. I glanced at each of the names I had known personally, knowing well that if I was only half the man they were when they fell, I would be twice the man I am today.   As men shared the names and stories there were occasional smiles and grins as memories were rekindled, mixed with tears and sorrows as the reality of their departure hit home.  Bystanders seemed moved at the openness of feelings, and I was told by one later, “I just wanted to hug him” as she witnessed one of our group who was clearly overwhelmed.  The expressions of other observers demonstrated a feeling of honour to be able to witness the displays of companionship they would never be able to truly comprehend.

There was a moments silence as a wreath of poppies was laid on behalf of the Regiment.  The journey was now complete.

Each of those who participated, in any way shape or form to this achievement, demonstrated that with a combined effort a difference can be made; that the suffering of the injured, the departed and their families is not meaningless or forgotten, nor will it ever be so.  I feel proud to have been a part of this movement of solidarity, to have been given the opportunity to be there and above all, to have been a Grenadier; a word that that cannot be successfully articulated, only felt and lived.  I have felt compelled to write a recount of events of June 12th and 13th 2010, not because of a need to create an historical document, but as a tribute to those who were there and especially to those who would have been there for me had roles been reversed and my name had been etched in cold stone for others to remember.

Peter Seargent
(Grenadier Guards.  1988 -1996)

Those who can be proud to say, “I was there for them”:
Guy Lambert, Chris Hildrup, Chris Regan, Dave Friend, Colston Sheppherd, Nick Probert,
Stan Boardman, Pete Rylands, Dave Felton, Mark Prince, Adam Neild, Andy Shannon, Billy Bentham, Darren Smith, Pete Seargent, Pete Hales, Geoff Geraghty, Eddie Carter, Dave Beresford, Malc Mayoh, Wayne Renshaw, Bert Cunliffe, Bob Bullock, Vern Overton,
Lorna Overton, Andy Jackson, Geoff Clampin, Dave Boucher, Roy Ibson, Steve Penny,
LCpl Bent,
and the wives who supported the collection at Horse Guards Parade:
Debbie Bainbridge, Joanne Shepherd, Emma Langridge, Dianne Wilkinson