BLESMA RIDERS AT THE R.T.T.W.
The Ride To The Wall is a unique motorcycling event which gives UK motorcyclists an opportunity to gather together at a place of remembrance, to pay their respects to our serving and fallen service men and women and in doing so, raise funds solely for the purpose of perpetuating their memory and recognising the sacrifice made. The event was started by one man who realised that such an important message should not be lost on generations to come.
Background & History.
On Remembrance Day in November 2007 Martin Dickinson, then Director of Nene Valley Harley Owners Group, rode to the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire with a few fellow Harley owners, to attend a service at the Armed Forces Memorial.
The memorial, which was dedicated in the presence of Her Majesty the Queen on 12 October 2007, consists of a large 6 metre high earth mound at the top of which stands a 43 metre diameter stone structure with two curved walls and two straight walls, constructed of 200,000 bricks faced with Portland stone panels.
The panels contain the names of the men and women of our Armed and Merchant Services who have lost their lives in conflicts, or as a result of terrorist action or on training exercises since the end of the Second World War. Unlike the World War memorials in towns and villages across the nations, there is nowhere else that records the names of those who have been killed on duty since 1945.
Martin found the whole thing quite a moving experience and decided to do something for all the members of the Harley Owners Groups throughout the country, so they too could experience it and in the process raise funds for the upkeep of this memorial. So Ride To The Wall was born!
In 2008 some 1800 riders attended the ride and the organisers where very pleased to hand over a cheque to the National Arboretum for £10,300. Success is nearly always assured to a good cause and in 2009, the numbers of attendee’s had swelled to 4031 and Major General L Kirkland CBE attended. Major General L Kirkland is the highest ranking , serving soldier who rides a Motorcycle. They took the opportunity to ask that he became the RTTW patron and he gratefully accepted. In January (2010) Maj Gen Kirkland and the RTTW organising team were able to hand over a cheque for £29,600 to the National Arboretum - the biggest ever donation made by a single organisation!
There are no solid figures available at the time of writing as to how many bikers attended the event this year, however Maj Gen Kirkland briefly mentioned motorcycles numbering in excess of 12,000 and personnel about 15,000, from a personal perspective there sure were one heck of a lot of them, all like, me proud as punch to be there!
The Epically ‘Wet’ Ride. (Fri 1st Oct).
When I first encountered John Francis (SW Rep & Harley Owner), I must admit I was more than a little preoccupied with other things, not least of which was an impending visit from a medical assessor from the VA. John’s calm, warm approach to both Sally and I was mana to both of us, that, along with his determined assurances that he (and BLESMA) were fully behind us did so much in those early weeks to alleviate and dispel lingering doubts. It was only after he’d been with us for a while did he mention spotting my bike (Quike*) in the garage. A small amount of banter passed between us and John asked me about RTTW. I immediately told him of my determination to attend this year, having only become aware of the event in 2009, but had been unable to attend due to ill health.
After a brief discussion about other BLESMA members who might attend as well, we parted company agreeing to make all efforts to ensure we could and would attend.
Fast forward a few months and luckily I had just been discharged from physio, I’d been keeping myself amused starting the BLESMA Riders Forum and bothering HQ Admin on Face Book etc. But all I could really think about was RTTW. Two friends from my local bike club had expressed their desire to attend as well - riding with mates is always good (on most occasions anyway!). So, with time on my hands I set about organising the admin and booking us in. The weekend of 1st October hove into view - along with typical October weather! The weekend before had been glorious! I’d been at a local club event and it had been sunny all weekend......... Now it looked like we had rain of almost biblical proportions threatening to unload its self right on top of us as we rode up country.
Unfortunately, one friend had to drop out before we even left - work commitments dictated he stay at home in Cornwall. We’d only been riding a short distance, before my remaining colleague indicated the need to pull over (we’d actually ridden 17 miles.................). All was not well it seemed, he didn’t feel good. We carried on, in the pouring rain, at times I couldn’t even see him in my mirrors - and I doubt he could see me much either due to the spray coming off the back of the Quike. By the time we reached Bristol the writing was clearly on the wall and after fuelling up I carried on alone. The rest of the journey up the M5 and around the M42 was uneventful bordering on boring, it was also very, very wet! Anybody who has travelled around the M42 on a Friday afternoon will know what the traffic is like........ Eventually, the signs for Tamworth hove into view and I exited looking for the signs to Drayton Manor Park where the RTTW was due to form up. Camping had been organised at a very modest cost for those who had pre-booked, (although some folks felt it necessary to stay the night in a Travel Lodge........) along with evening entertainment and a bar!
Drayton Manor is a superb venue - absolutely huge, but the security staff know their business and very quickly I was booked in and directed to the camping area. I pulled up and began to unload (it was still raining). Shortly another rider arrived and began pitching his tent next to mine - after pegging it down, in he went with a single pole and it was up! It was a tepee!!! I mean while, had my Tesco’s £10 special on my head! I find its the easiest way to put the inner inside the fly.. Finally, I got it pegged down. My new neighbour had passed a few comments during my ‘head in the tent’ experience and finally said ‘come in here for a rest out of the rain chap’ an offer I gladly accepted. He introduced himself as ‘Paul’ and having noted my ‘Vet’s Patch’ on my ‘cut off’ asked the usual ‘who was I with’, ‘where did I serve’ etc. We compared notes for a few minutes and discovered, as most service folks do, we’d been to a few of the same places and seen some of the same things (normally Bars etc.). The rain had eased by then, in fact at one point it stopped and another new friend in the form of ‘Marcus the Badger’ began erecting a tent next to Paul’s that Billy Smart would’ve been proud of. Apparently he’d come from Stoke and despite the damp weather was in great humour, laughing and joking, full of enthusiasm for the ride to come in the morning.
After ‘Badger’ had finished pitching his tent we congregated in Paul’s Tepee and cracked open a beer (or three) and having garnered information about the event from Paul who had also attended the previous year, all three of us decided to make our way over to the entertainment marquee for the rest of the evening, along with almost everyone else on the campsite.
The rest of the evening past in a blur - everyone was hugely friendly, chatting, laughing and even a bit of dancing to the very loud disco!
At one point I needed to remove my prosthetic leg to replace the packing. So I put it on the chair next to me. It immediately became the subject of much discussion and comment. I answered the questions dutifully and also mentioned the good work of BLESMA. A few had heard of us, more hadn’t, which I felt was a shame - so I set about rectifying the matter! After my short spiel they all agreed what a great organisation it was, especially in light of ‘recent events’. More than a couple of riders wanted to know more and in particular wanted to donate their time and efforts in supporting BLESMA, at this point I felt it was probably better to point them in the direction of HQ Admin (sorry guys, more work). What I can say is there will very probably be an event starting at the ‘Ace Cafe’ London on behalf of BLESMA, some time after March next year! One of the highlights of the evening has to have been the impromptu display on the bag pipes given by Piper Findley of 4 RTR, to which he received thunderous applause. About half past midnight my stump decided it was time for bed, so I grabbed a cheese burger on the way, and headed off to locate my tent.
The Ride To The Wall (Sat 2nd Oct).
I woke Saturday to the sound of Harleys ticking over...... At about 0730hrs...... It occurred to me the only reason for this must be the need to warm the gallons of oil needed to keep each bike working!!!! It was not raining - perhaps the Met Office had got it right for once???? ‘Morning Skip’ called Badger - ‘you slept well last night ya noisy b#gger’! Ah that would be my infamous ability to snore then I enquired??? ‘To right’ said Paul munching his way through a compo breakfast pack. I started to think about breakfast, contemplating a nice cup of coffee when out of the blue Badger said ‘here you are mate, get that down yer neck’ and handed me a brew and a bacon butty!!! I was very grateful, and said so, but equally unsurprised, because this is the real nature of bikers - we look after each other; in much the same way squaddies do! After a quick tidy up we decided to move our bikes down to the holding area. Lucky for us, we had pre-registered for the event and as such were give priority allowing us to be near the front of the ride out column as we left Drayton Manor, and would be some of the first to arrive at the arboretum and so get a decent place to park.
By Ten o’clock the place was absolutely heaving, I think even the marshals where a bit taken aback by the number of riders who had turned up. By this time I’d made contact with John and after he’d booked in we met up by the Quike. It was great to see him again and we managed to have a 10 minute chat, during which he asked if I would join him in laying a wreath on behalf of BLESMA? To be honest, I was rather taken aback having never been asked to do something of such importance at an event like this before, but I readily agreed. The more I thought about it, the prouder I felt! Like most folks away from home I like to make sure everything is okay while I’m away, and so I rang Sal to wish her good morning and tell her the news, she was suitably impressed! I estimated my ETA home about 1500hrs and left it at that - (big mistake), little did I know that the service of remembrance didn’t start until 1430 hrs!
Time went on, folks wondered past, stopped and chatted, even one of the CX Club members came over and said hello to me. Then all of a sudden, engines every where started to fire. The guy in front of me yelled ‘if you aren’t deaf now Skip, you soon will be’ and with that he kicked his Harley in to life - lets just say it is one of the few times I have actually been glad to have severe hearing loss as it was intensely loud. However, what could I say when there is a ‘loud pipes save lives’ badge on the back of my jacket??? Shortly afterwards the column began to move, we filtered through the gates and in a most ‘military’ manner ‘formed two ranks from four’ as we rode out of Drayton Manor. The ride out was fantastic, we were led by a patrol of Military Police and the local constabulary made sure we kept moving by closing junctions etc. I don’t know about further back in the lines, but everyone around me adhered to the requests made by the organisers to ‘Ride With Respect’, to ride at the correct speed and no overtaking. The view behind me, of the succeeding lines of motorcycles and riders was absolutely breathtaking. All to soon we arrived at the National Arboretum and parked up.
Badger had been following me and with his assistance I made my way through the visitors centre and into the grounds of the arboretum - what a fantastic place! I was filled with a sense of presence and knew straight away how important this place really was to me. We continued down the foot path and made our way to the foot of the memorial, and here we waited, and waited and waited some more..... Slowly the whole place began to fill, all the while accompanied by the growl of bike engines. Eventually, the Central Band of the Duke of Yorks’ formed up and began to play; I recognised most of the tunes, having heard them many times before while on parade, but I couldn’t tell you what most of them were called! Rumour went around that things were supposed to kick off with a fly past by the RAF at 1420 hrs - that time came and went, then suddenly Martin Dickinson climbed the steps to the dias and addressed crowds, he was brief and to the point and then handed over to Maj Gen Kirkland. We learned how much our efforts meant not only to him, but to the whole armed forces and particularly the members of Task Force Helmand currently serving in Afghanistan, that the whole service was being relayed live in theatre showed just how seriously it was all being taken. Gen Kirkland then made way for the Padre who gave one of the best sermons I’ve ever heard, more over it was short! We were then read a message from the Commander of British Forces Helmand province by his wife, who did her husband proud! Gen Kirkland then returned to the microphone and thanked us all for coming and asked for wreath carriers to come forward.
I quickly located John in the crowd and we made our way to the foot of the steps, slowly step by step we ascended into the heart of the memorial and for the first time I saw the inspiring bronzes, and all those names.
John commented to me that once we’d laid the wreath he had a few friends he had to go and pay respects to - I too, had a particular friend to honour and was wishing that I’d remembered to get a small wooden cross of memorial from the visitors centre. We laid our wreath and then John led me across to greet a fellow BLESMA member; ‘Dan’ ,who had come to RTTW on the back of a Harley, by all accounts he loved it and now wants one! John and I parted company shortly afterwards with a swift handshake and good wishes for a safe ride home.
I then made my way around the memorial to column 203, and there with all the others was the name I’d come in search of; ‘Atkinson PP’ - as I stood, the memories came flooding back and so did an over powering sense of loss. Carefully I made my way out of the memorial, down the steps and as I reached the bottom I turned to look back, I resolved to return again next year and every year, until I was physically unable to do so. I will always remember my friend Paul Atkinson; ‘Today, Tomorrow, Forever’!
The 200 mile ride home, was uneventful and for the most part dry! I think the roads must have been changed since my 2006 map book was published as for some reason I seemed to have ridden through the centre of Birmingham while attempting to find the M42. Most of the time I was preoccupied with finding a petrol station, but my mind kept drifting back to the speech Maj Gen Kirkland had made, in which he alluded to the ‘heart & spirit’ that all bikers seem to have and how proud he was to be counted as a ‘biker’. I’ve been riding for 25 years and in all that time I’ve shied away from being described as a biker, because of the stereotypical reaction it brings from members of the none biking community - up until now I’ve always described myself (to others) as a motorcyclist. But if its good enough for the General, then its good enough for me! I’m a ‘Biker’ always have been, always will be! What’s more I’m a BLESMA Biker and dam proud of it!
Finally, I would like to express my sincere thanks to Paul & Badger for their help and friendship; hopefully to be renewed in coming years, and also to ‘REME’ the wreath bearers escort from the Harley Davidson Club of Great Britain for his kindness and careful consideration in helping me move around the arboretum site, which at times, was challenging to say the least.
Membership of BR UK is open to all BLESMA members, riders or not, based here in the UK or abroad. Membership by none BLESMA members is subject to acceptance by the riders committee.Despite, and inspite of our injuries we, the BLESMA Riders remain UNDAUNTED by anything that life chooses to challenge us with - some of us have paid dearly, but all have earned the right to wear our badge!
*Quike: A machine that ‘looks’ like a trike, but in fact has four wheels; three at the back and one at the front - essentially, a motorcycle with very large stabilisers. So named by the members of the CX-CL MCC UK who decided it wasn’t a trike, nor was it a quad bike, hence it had to be a ’quike’!
Skippy (L J Allen ) - BLESMA Riders UK