Pedal to Paris 2021 Day by Day

Pedal to Paris 2021 Day One London to Dover

121.31 km (75.38 miles)

1,296m (4,252 feet) ascent

5.15 hours

As we stood on the start line at Eltham Palace at 6:30 on a grey, chilly morning with mizzle, all the first-timers felt a sense of anxiety about whether we would make it to Paris at all. These were of course private thoughts, but I could sense them in the exchanges or silence between group members, while solo-riders looked nervous. Even the seasoned cyclists who have one, two, three or in the case of Paul Harding, 23 Pedals to Paris under their belts there was a sense of uncertainty about the ride to come.

We set off after soon after 7am and wove our way out of London, stopping and starting at lights, slowing and bunching to get around parked cars, dodging potholes and drains, manhole covers and cobbles. As we negotiated the M25 roundabout and set off into the lovely Kent countryside the speed picked up, we fell into small groups of riders and began to get the sense of moving together. It was nothing short of thrilling for me, who has only ever cycled with one or two other riders. At one stage six of us cycled for 10 miles without stopping, pedalling along at a comfortable pace higher than I had ever averaged in training.

Out of London and over the M25. We split into groups and got rolling

Our first stop was at the Royal British Legion village at Aylesford where we were welcomed by flag waving, cheering employees of the RBL and volunteers who served us coffee, sausage rolls, Vienna whirls and all sorts of goodies that in normal times I would not eat at 10 o’clock in the morning. That was a sign of things to come. Whenever we stopped anywhere en route we could be assured a fantastic welcome, sustenance, encouragement and some gentle ribbing.

Day One ended with a monstrous hill into Dover which nearly blew my thighs, such was the build up of lactic acid as we struggled at snail’s pace in Grannie gear up the New Dover Road to Capel-le-Ferne. 120m of climbing over about 0.75km. Unrelenting and painful. Our ride captains, a magnificent and talented group of cyclists who looked after us, encouraged us, helped when we fell off or fell back, were there on that hill, 65 miles into our first day, to help those who struggled up it. Two of them cycled up the hill four times. I took my hat off to them so often over the next three days.

Waiting for the ferry below the White Cliffs

Once we arrived in Dover we were ushered onto The Spirit of Britain and had a welcome supper of fish and chips with a beer to replace the much-depleted sugar levels in our blood, which Simon assured me was a good cure. Later we learned that the consumption of alcohol on the Tour de France was only banned in 1960. Not for health reasons but because it was believed to be a stimulant.

As we rolled off the boat and onto the quayside the enormity of getting here struck us all. It was nothing short of magical to step onto continental soil for the first time since the pandemic broke out 18 months ago. For most of us it was the first time abroad and the emotions were very close to the surface. We pedalled to the great Fort Nieulay and put our bikes into safe storage for the night and made our way to the hotels. Never has Belgian beer, which Simon, Chris and I found a nearby café, tasted so good.

Calais Fort Nieulay: about as safe a bicycle store as you could ever wish for.

Day Two Calais to Abbeville

134.42 km (83.5 miles)

1,234m (4,049 feet) ascent

6.15 hours

This began with the collection of bikes from the Fort and our introduction to the ISE (International Sport Event) team who were to accompany us from Calais to Paris. This team comprised four cars and a dozen motorcycles, the latter being ridden by ex-gendarmes who earlier this summer has escorted the Tour de France. I freely admit that I was over-excited about the outriders and chatted to them. They were warm, friendly and completely into their BMW bikes.

Motorcycle Outriders

Our first ceremony was in Calais, soon after 8am. The Deputy Mayor, with special focus on sport, welcomed us to the town in a short speech which was followed by the laying of a wreath by Lieutenant General James Bashall CBE CB. Five minutes earlier I’d seen ‘Bash’ as everyone on the trip referred to him, in his RBL lycra. There he was in a dark suit laying a poppy wreath and speaking the Exhortation from Binyon’s poem For the Fallen. You know the words so well. ‘They shall grow not old as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.’ Alongside the general and the Deputy Mayor were two standard bearers: one from the town of Calais, the other from the Hertfordshire branch of the Legion. He, Paul, is the man who now has 24 Pedal to Paris under his belt and he does it on a recumbent bike with a huge union flag attached to a pole behind him. As the General finished the Exhortation, Paul repeated it in French. It was a powerful moment.

Paul Harding, veteran of 24 Pedal to Paris rides, with the RBL Hertfordshire Standard at Calais memorial

After the ceremony we gathered in front of the Town Hall where Lewis, our superb cheer-leader, organised us into three groups. The so-called Social Group would ride of first, followed 15 minutes later by Group 2 and 15 minutes after that Group 1 would sally forth. I had been advised earlier this year that Group 2 was a comfortable place to be as the speed was good but there was still time for conversation. Group 1 was for the super-speedy guys who wanted to ride in a proper peloton. The Social Group left at 9am and we divided into Groups 2 and 1. It looked as if everyone bar about six cyclists wanted to be in Group 2 so Lewis drew a line half way through the group and Chris, Simon and I ended up cycling with the back section which included the speedy guys.

A Group prepares to leave Calais Town Hall. Paul Harding, now in his cycling kit, can be seen on his recumbent bike with flag

Rolling out of Calais with our fabulous outriders halting traffic at every road junction was about as thrilling as it gets. Thirty of us poured in a liquid stream of cycling energy around corners, over crossroads, around round-abouts and out into the beautiful hilly countryside of the Pas de Calais. We were cycling over ground that had been trodden by millions of soldiers – both French and British – in the First World War and that just added to the sense of history that surrounded us all day.

The riding was great and the pace hot, which was fine until we hit a big hill and then I realised that what I saw as a wall the speedy riders saw as a minor rise. By lunchtime my legs were throbbing, and I decided that I wanted to be in a proper Group 2, not the souped-up version. Fortunately, others felt the same. Lunchtime was a buffet of baguettes made locally. We were told there were 37 different fillings on offer. They were delicious.

After lunch we went straight into the first hill, known in our ride brochures as Baguette Hill. We’d read about this in the forward planning emails but any amount of googling had left us none the wiser. It was only when we set off that we were told it was the nickname for the hill that came immediately after a lunch of baguettes on day 2 and that it was a test for us riding on full tummies. Predictably I found it very tough but soldiered on and spent the next 180 minutes riding some 72km (45 miles) without stopping. Our driver had failed to make the mid-afternoon break.

Preparing to leave Crecy-en-Ponthieu for Abbeville as one group

When we did finally stop in the beautiful village of Crécy-en-Ponthieu it took two ice lollies and three litres of water before I was able to concentrate on Dan’s short talk about the site of the Battle of Crécy in 1346, one of the earliest and most important battles of the Hundred Years’ War. From there we cycled as one group into Abbeville making the transition from countryside to urban streets with consummate ease thanks to our outriders. By now we all knew the commands for slowing down, speeding up, avoiding potholes. And then comes the ‘Stopping’ command. That was very welcome at the end of a long day.

Day Three Abbeville to Beauvais

107.34 km (67.14 miles)

751m (2,467 feet) ascent

4.59 hours

Abbeville War Memorial was the site of another moving ceremony at the beginning of day 3

The ceremony at the Abbeville War Memorial was attended by more standard bearers than the one in Calais. I was moved not only by the First World War standards but by those from the Second World War. One marked the ‘Prisoners 1939-1945’ which caught me out. France and Britain’s experiences of that war were poles apart. It made the wreath laying even more poignant.

We began the cycling with a steep climb which was painful on tired legs and I was glad I was in Group 2. The countryside was glorious: undulating roads through fields of corn, tobacco and sunflowers. Occasionally you would spot our tireless photographer disguised in a patch of sunflowers or lurking behind a signpost. His white motorcycle helmet was a giveaway and we always waved to him cheerfully even if our legs were burning at the top of a hill.

Our lunch spot on day 3 was in a sports stadium. There, on the sand, Dan created a reinterpretation of the Western Front during the First World War, using cyclists to represent the Allies and the Axis powers. He made them stand two steps apart and then talked us through every significant gain and loss on the Front. Each time one of them would be asked to step forward or back to mark a battle. What struck everyone was how little ground was fought over and what devastating losses and destruction resulted from that terrible war.

The make-up of the cyclists was biased heavily in favour of men. I’m not sure how many women there were but I would hazard a guess at about 10% (so 12-15 of us). That seemed to me to be not dissimilar from the make up of men to women in the First World War. We often forget how many women stepped up in both world wars to do their bit. On the Home Front from 1914-1918 hundreds of thousands of women worked in munitions factories and in men’s jobs on the trams, railways and in other roles. Then there were the female doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers and auxiliaries who worked in the dressing stations and hospitals in France and further afield in other theatres of the war.

In the Second World War women were active in uniform, albeit at a distance from the fighting. They worked on radar, on coding at Bletchley Park as well as nurses and ambulance drivers. Some flew planes from factories to airfields. And a sizeable number worked with the Special Operations Executive. I thought the story of Nancy Wake, known by the Germans as the White Mouse, might inspire the women cyclists. She was part of the French Resistance in Southern France during the battle for the liberation in 1944. Desperate to file a report for SOE HQ in London, but unable to make contact via radio, Nancy Wake grabbed a bicycle and claimed to have ridden some 172 miles in 24 hours. She said afterwards: ‘That part of my anatomy which is meant to give pleasure was on fire. I could neither sit nor stand for two days.’ That chimed with some of us. Imagine doing that distance on an old-fashioned bike without gel shorts, comfortable cycling shoes and under the constant threat of attack.

The steep hill after lunch. Not my speediest on hills but I made it

After lunch, and the inevitable steep hill to concentrate the mind, we sped across the countryside to the village of Auchy-la-Montagne where the village (population c. 570) had put on a magnificent welcome for us. As we entered Auchy we saw signs saying: ‘Welcome English Friends’ and ‘Auchy is Happy to Meet You.’ As we rounded the corner into a little area next the park and opposite the Mairie we saw gazebos with tables laden with cups of local wine and sweets, while members of the village’s veterans’ association waved us in, some holding flags.

This lovely village has welcomed the Pedal to Paris caravan every year and this time they presented the President with a huge cup to mark the 25th anniversary. The mayor was unable to attend but his representative told the story of the liberation of Auchy-la-Montagne in 1944 by the British 8th Army. The mayor is known to have said in the past: ‘we prefer you on your bicycles than in tanks.’ Two children were on the local council to give their age group a voice in local politics. They made a request to the RBL: could we find them an old-fashioned British telephone box that they could use as a library for book exchanges in the future. The general threw down the gauntlet to the cyclists to see if anyone could help. Let us hope someone can.

With hearts warmed by the welcome and the excellent rosé we pedalled off as a group to Beauvais for a ceremony at the war memorial. There was a sizeable crowd gathered in the park around the memorial already and we saw standard bearers from several veterans’ groups with a gap for Paul Harding. Like the General, Paul made a lightening change out of his lycra and into the uniform of an RBL Standard Bearer.

The Beauvais War Memorial Ceremony

The Mayor of Beauvais made a speech in French and English. He spoke of the collaboration between the Allies in the First World War. We had already been reminded by Dan that the French lost more men in 1914 than the British did in the entire war. Here we were, facing the Beauvais memorial, contemplating that appalling statistic. The mayor then talked about the Second World War when Beauvais had been invaded by the Germans. The British 8th Army liberated the town on 30 August 1944 and the mayor expressed the town’s enduring gratitude to their liberators. It was a humbling moment.

Beauvais had been extensively damaged during both wars and much of the older part of the city was all but destroyed. The cathedral was rebuilt in the ensuing years and as we cycled past it after the ceremony it was hard not to be moved by the resilience of this magnificent city.

Day Four – Beauvais to Paris

96.86 km (60.18 miles)

883.92 m (2,900 feet) ascent

4.40 hours

The Social Group leave Beauvais Fire Station where our bikes had been stored

The final day of the ride seemed to entail a lot of climbing. The weather had warmed up and it was with some considerable relief that we cycled into the aptly named village of Menucourt for our last baguette lunch of the ride. From there we set off as a single group for the last 40km (25 miles) to Paris. We were given strict instructions not to attempt to overtake other cyclists on this leg and to follow the car as closely as we could, especially once in Paris.

Group 1 race past our pit stop on the last day. They averaged over 24 mph and that with hills.

This was the moment when the motorcycle outriders were at their most brilliant. The closer we got to the capital the greater the number of cars on the roads and the larger the junctions. Sometimes we found ourselves streaming down the slow lane of a dual carriageway with cars zipping past us at high speed, but never once did we feel vulnerable. Our outriders had our backs and motorists who did not play fair were subject to gesticulations and whistles to keep them in place.

The last stop as we group to cycle into Paris. What anticipation

Entering Paris via St Germain-en-Laye, which occupies a large loop of the River Seine, we were now less than 20km from the Arc de Triomphe. This lovely suburb has a surprising link to the United Kingdom. In 1688 James II, King of England and VII of Scotland, exiled himself to the city where he remained for the final three years of his life. We crossed the Seine for the first and second times and headed towards the city centre itself. As we rounded the Place de la Porte Maillot we shouted ‘cobbles!’ Suddenly we were on the Avenue de la Grande Armée and there, in the near distance, the Arc de Triomphe. Tired legs, sore backsides, aching arms and bruised feet all vanished as we sped up the cobbles towards the Arc and over to a layby next to Avenue Foch.

Arrival at the Arc de Triomphe

Lewis and the wonderful RBL team greeted us with cheers and whistles ushering us to safety and towards a table with bottles of beer. It was a remarkable feeling and I am not sure I remember seeing so many smiling sweaty faces on one small patch of ground as I did that afternoon. We parked our bikes, took endless photographs and then made our way over the Avenue Foch to a tunnel which led us under the Charles de Gaulle Etoile and the entrance to the Arc de Triomphe itself. Currently the monument is in the process of being wrapped up for a Christo installation which gave it an even more wonderful air of grandeur.

Nous sommes arrivees

As we lined up in two rows either side of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier I had to blink hard not to let roll the tears of overwhelming emotion. Bash had once again, and for the last time on this trip, donned his dark suit and morphed into Lieutenant General James Bashall CBE CB, President of the Royal British Legion, which marked its centenary in May 2021. A representative of the mayor’s office gave a speech about the significance of the Unknown Soldier, the idea for which predates our British Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey by four years. This soldier represents the silent voice of all those lost in war and of Remembrance. Behind us we could see the Champs Elysées, the glorious rooftops of Paris and above us the blue sky and sunshine that had accompanied us all that last day.

After the wreath-laying we sang the National Anthem and the Marseillaise, whose words we had all learned (a bit) over the last few days. And then it was over. A girl standing next to me asked me to tell her what the French official had said in his speech. As I explained what it all meant the tears began to flow. I could not stop them. Everything about the ride, from the moment we conceived of the possibility of doing it, through the long hours of winter training, to the uncertainty of whether the RBL could even stage the ride given the pandemic, to the glorious moment at lunchtime on that day when I realised I, we, were going to make it. I have not cried like that for a very long time. We had witnessed something very special and each of us had gained a personal achievement.

“Here lies a French soldier who died for his country 1914-1918”

Pedal to Paris 2021 – 25th Anniversary Ride

A Previous Pedal to Paris – something to focus the mind upon during the build up to 2021

The night before we left Eltham Palace on the first leg of the Pedal to Paris, I promised myself and the press team at the Royal British Legion that I would write a daily blog of the expedition. Naively I thought I would be able to get to the hotels and bash out an account of the day’s highs and lows. I managed no such thing. The ride was so all consuming of time, energy and emotion that there was no way I could have done anything other than write a list of things we achieved on any individual day and slump on my bed.

Pedal to Paris is more than a cycle ride. It is an experience and an institution in its own right. I knew that, but I didn’t really understand it until we were half-way through the first day. Although few of the cyclists in 2021 were veterans or serving members of the Armed Forces, the sense of respect for how the Royal British Legion supports the Armed Services Community was there from the get-go. We realised that we were part of a very special party that would form its own bubble, and not only for Covid reasons.

That the Events team had managed to pull off Pedal to Paris in 2021 is a remarkable feat in its own right. Against the odds they made it not only work, but work very well. In addition to the organisers and volunteers who were to follow in support of every aspect, from nutrition to mechanical assistance (which sometimes combined), we had an outstanding historian, Dan Hill. He helped to bring alive the history of the countryside we were riding through, and it added a rich dimension to our journey.

The RBL President, Lt General James Bashall CBE CB lays a wreath at the War Memorial in Calais

One of the unique features of Pedal to Paris is the ceremonial laying of wreaths in the places we spent the nights. These towns, Calais, Abbeville, Beauvais and Paris, have immensely important history over centuries. But they also have a link with Britain as a result of the two World Wars and that was what we were to mark with ceremonies at their war memorials. The RBL leads the nation in Remembrance each November, but it is involved in Remembrance all year round and this was one example of the respect accorded to our shared history.

We were very fortunate to have the President of the Royal British Legion, Lt General James Bashall CBE CB, on the ride with us. This was his second Pedal to Paris, accompanied by his wife, Sarah-Lucie. Every time we arrived at a memorial for a ceremony, ‘Bash’ as he was known to the riders, leapt off his bike and changed out of his RBL lycra and into a dark suit. It was a reminder of the respect for the fallen and the importance of Remembrance to the Armed Services Community.

A few facts to end this introduction to the day-to-day blog that follows. The Royal British Legion was founded in May 1921 with three main responsibilities which it still has: Remembrance, Welfare and Campaigning on behalf of the Armed Services Community. In 1921 the size of that community was approximately 20 million men, women and children. Today it stands at 6.5 million. Every year the annual Poppy Appeal, which began in 1921, raises some £54 million for the Legion’s welfare programmes. The RBL spends £106 million a year on welfare, including running six care homes for veterans.

circa 1921: Ex-civil servants on a protest parade with sandwich boards in Whitehall, London. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

By the time we left London the total money raised by the Pedal to Paris riders was £260,000. There were 150 riders including a dozen Ride Captains. The total distance covered was 459 kilometres (285 miles) with over 3,500 metres (11,840 feet) of climbing in four days. And just for fun, the average value of the bikes on the ride was £4,000. We know that because we had to fill out carnets for each bike as a result of Europe post-Brexit.

Pedal to Paris was a personal challenge for me. I turned 60 in October 2020 and wanted to do something to mark that big anniversary. Chris agreed to join me, and we spent last autumn and the whole of this year training for the ride. Simon turned 30 the same month so we gave him the opportunity to join the ride as a birthday present. I have not taken part in a long-distance cycle ride before, but I can honestly say that I loved everything about Pedal to Paris and I am so glad I chose to do it.

Day 2, a hill immediately after lunch.

What follows this blog is the day-to-day story that I had promised myself I would write up each night. You can follow the rides themselves on our Strava trackers if you are so inclined. You will find them here on our Just Giving Page https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/teamsteeley?utm_source=Twitter&utm_medium=fundraising&utm_content=teamsteeley&utm_campaign=pfp-tweet&utm_term=4671b54f27e641418b6c2d2999b5b49c

Zero Hour for Pedal to Paris

We’ve arrived at Eltham and are ready to leave for Paris tomorrow at 6:00am. From where I’m sitting now it all feels a bit overwhelming. Will we be able to cope with six hours a day in the saddle? Will we be the oldest cyclists? Probably not but up there with the others who have senior rail cards.

The essentials for tomorrow morning’s 6am start


Our journey from Oxford was not uneventful. Although we will only be carrying small packs on the ride, we had to get our rucksacks with all the kit, gel packs etc from home to Eltham via two trains and three cycle rides, one through the West End of London. Why, do you ask, did we not take our car as there is ample parking here? Well, we’re now car free, having sold our Skoda in May as we were finding less and less use for it in Oxford. And we thought it was greener to try to use public transport where possible.

So off we set, at the crack of midday, wobbling dangerously with our 14kg rucksacks on our lovely lightweight bikes. At just after 4:15pm we arrived at the Premier Inn and checked ourselves and our bikes into the room. The receptionist didn’t blink an eye when we wheeled the Ribbles through the hall and into the lift. As these bikes are our best friends for the next four days they deserve five star treatment. Also, it would be a bit inconvenient if they were pinched.

The bikes safely in room xx6

Tomorrow we cycle from Eltham Palace to Dover and then catch the ferry to Calais. If I can still sit I will do as promised and write a short blog about our Day One in the saddle.

A Bientot!

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Destination Dover by mid-afternoon tomorrow (this was 2019)

Pedal to Paris

Last August I finished the first draft of the manuscript that would become We Are The Legion: 100 Years of the Royal British Legion. Like the rest of the world, I had been locked up more or less since the middle of March and I was aching to have a project that would take me out of myself and out of my writing space and beyond Oxford. One of the stories I enjoyed writing up most in the Legion’s history was the tale of one the annual fundraising initiatives, Pedal to Paris. Every year for the past quarter of a century, except for 2020, several hundred cyclists of varying ability have taken to the road to pedal from Eltham Palace in London to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

Rider triumphant as he leaves the Arc de Triomphe (c)RBL

The trip takes four days with a total of 297 miles (475km) and is meticulously organised by the RBL with breaks en route, road closures where necessary and motorcycle outriders where not. The final day sees the cyclists pedal triumphantly up the Champs Elysees, which is closed for the event, to the Arc de Triomphe. There a senior Legion figure lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. In 2019 the honour fell to Lieutenant General James Bashall CB, CBE, who is the Legion’s National President. The only other cycling event for which the Champs Elysees is closed is the Tour de France.

Riding through the South of England, 2019 (c)RBL

Staring out of the window after clicking ‘send’ on the final draft of my text I reflected that I would be 60 years old by the time the edited version came back. Then I jumped up, ran downstairs to my husband’s studio and said: ‘Let’s do Pedal to Paris!’ Chris has much more experience of long cycle rides than I do, albeit his have been off-road on mountain passes and through tough countryside. He said yes. So, we signed up, dusted off our mountain bikes, which had hung limply from the garage roof throughout lockdown, pumped up the tyres and set off on a ride. The sheer joy of being on a bike was intense. As soon as we had been permitted to do outdoor sports I’d gone back to the river and into my boat, almost forgetting I had a bike. But here we were, at the end of August 2020 and eager to get fit enough to go the whole distance in a year’s time.

View from my office window, 3 September 2020. Decision time!

The training was fun and we did some lovely rides but the mountain bikes were not suitable for a long distance trip. What we needed were lightweight road bikes. Chris had a 23-year-old Klein racing bike, but I had nothing. If anyone reading this article tried to buy a bike in 2020 you will know that they were as scarce as hen’s teeth. We spoke to a cycle shop in Henley who initially thought they could get us bikes within four months but later rang back to say it would be March 2021 at the earliest. No one else we spoke to had any better news. Apparently, the Shimano warehouse had suffered a catastrophic fire and the supply chain had been disrupted, adding yet more woe to the Pandemic delays and Brexit. Chris did not give up. He contacted Ribble in Preston and they said they would be able to help. We would not be able to see or try the bikes in advance, we had to trust that they would be suitable and a good fit. So, with some trepidation we ordered two bespoke bikes online, going into every detail imaginable and some I had not even thought of. Within less than two months we took delivery of a pair of beautiful bikes, one red for Chris, one teal for me.

Simon and Chris on a damp training ride, December 2020

Our son, Simon, turned 30 just after my 60th birthday and was enthusiastic to join in the Pedal to Paris fun. He ‘inherited’ Chris’s Klein which, as it turns out, is almost the same age as the RBL ride itself. We decided to call ourselves Team Steeley as Chris and Simon both answer to the surname Steele and as a family we’re known locally as the Steeleys. There could be no excuses now. We spent the winter, spring, early summer and the last few months belting around the roads north, south, east and west of Oxford in rain and shine. Some days we came back soaking wet and freezing, other times we looked as if we’d been boiled but we never lost sight of our goal.

Chris with the bikes on our longest ride, July 2021

Wewill set off on Wednesday 1st September for London and begin the ride proper on Thursday 2nd September at 6:30am. Are we ready? Yes. Will we make it? I do hope so. Will it be hard? Undoubtedly but we’re determined to enjoy it. And we’re proud that we’ve raised £7,880 at the time of writing. It is in aid of a wonderful cause, and I could not be more grateful to those who have donated funds.

Cyclists on the 2019 Royal British Legion Pedal to Paris (c)RBL

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Remembering Helen McCrory

I only met the magnificent Helen McCrory once, for an hour and a half, in a tiny room above a shop in Tottenham Court Road. But that meeting left an indelible impression on me and I will never forget the magic of her presence. I had been hired as the historical consultant on the film Woman in Black 2 and after working on the script I was asked to meet Ms McCrory and Phoebe Fox. I arrived early for our meeting and was not quite sure what to expect. They arrived together and before Helen had taken off her coat and sat down opposite me the questions began. Who was I? What had I written? What were my credentials for advising them on life in London in the Second World War? She was not impressed with Jambusters but when I mentioned that I’d written Fearless on Everest she looked at me sharply and said: ‘Sandy Irvine? The one who climbed with George Mallory? Oh that is exciting. My husband is mad about the Mallory and Irvine story. I must get him a copy of your book.’ I don’t know if she ever did but I was fascinated to learn that Damian Lewis is interested in the Everest 1924 saga.

After that we settled down. Phoebe Fox was relaxed and chatty, Helen McCrory the consummate professional. She was not there to waste her or my time and her questions were searching and intelligent. We talked about her character, Jean Hogg, and how she would get inside her head and understand what she was thinking. The conversation moved from her personality to her physical presence. What would she be wearing? A suit or a dress with a cardigan, I suggested. ‘No, I mean what would she have been wearing underneath all that?’ A corset, I said. ‘A corset? Surely that is Victorian?’ I replied that in 1940 over a third of the female population wore corsets and someone the age of Jean Hogg probably would have been one of that third since it was mainly younger women who were happy to cast corsets aside for the new-fangled bra and pants. That really captured her interest. ‘So when were bras invented?’ Well, it’s a complicated story but suffice it to say that it was only in the mid-1930s that they were mass-produced for the European market. ‘Oh I like that,’ she said. ‘So what sort of corset would Jean Hogg have worn?’ The question almost caught me off guard but then I remembered talking to my friend Marion Platt whose grandmother was a corset wearer. Marion had described watching the old lady (probably in her fifties) taking off her stays at night, rolling them up and putting them carefully on her bedroom chair. So I told Helen the story and described the simple stays that Marion’s grannie had worn.

Helen McCrory and Phoebe Fox in Woman in Black 2

‘How would that have made her look? I mean, how would it have affected her posture?’ She sat up on her chair, straightened her back and asked ‘Like this?’ ‘Not quite so stiff,’ I replied. She moved her body around, feeling for the right sort of pose. It was stunning to watch. She had perfect control over her poise and as she moved her body around, making minute changes to her posture she morphed from beautiful, natural Helen McCrory into middle-aged, spinsterish Jean Hogg. I couldn’t take my eyes off her, nor could Phoebe Fox. It was mesmerising. And then it was all over. She relaxed, smiled oh so warmly and thanked me for helping her to get inside the head and body of her character.

When she stood up to go I realised how petite she was, yet her presence was enormous. I have met other actors since, but none has made my heart beat as fast as Helen McCrory. I have watched her on television many times and I always feel a tiny sense of pride that I once met this great, wonderful, clever, beautiful professional woman whose brilliance has touched so many and whose life has been extinguished way too early.

Men on the Move: The Royal British Legion at 100

I mentioned in a previous blog that one of the things that struck me about the Royal British Legion was the age of its membership around the time of its formation. Rather like the Women’s Institute when it was set up in 1915 with its members average age of 24 years old, the Legion’s profile was young. Many of the men who had returned injured during and after the First World War were in their twenties. Some had missed out on education and apprenticeships as a result of conscription. What these men wanted more than handouts or sympathetic support was a job. The Legion was active in helping tens of thousands of men to find work after the war but there was a cohort of disabled men for whom it was much more difficult to find employment. Sometimes their disabilities meant they were physically unable to undertaken manual work. A man who had suffered a spinal injury or who had lost a limb would not be able to work in a factory or in agriculture, but he needed a job.

The Legion knew that nothing was more demoralising for a man who had returned injured to be told he could not work. It worked hard on many fronts but none more so than for these men. The Poppy Factory, one of the Legion’s best-known and popular undertakings helped thousands of men and families over the years offering employment and support. It still does. Poppy making is a year-round business and although the busiest period is in the run up to Remembrancetide, there is a permanent workforce at the factories in Richmond and Aylesford who keep the poppies and wreaths pouring off the production line.

Men working at the Poppy Factory 1930s (c) Poppy Factory Archive
Working on wreaths at the Poppy Factory in Richmond, 2020 (c) Royal British Legion/Gavin Kingcombe

A less well-known project is the car park attendant scheme. It may not strike you as the most exciting thing that you have ever heard of but bear with me. By the late 1920s the motor car had become a familiar sight on Britain’s road. Of the roughly 2 million vehicles in circulation, just under half were privately owned cars. That meant that people could take use their cars for leisure journeys, such as eating out, going to the cinema or shopping. A horrible side-effect of increased motoring was high road fatalities. In 1934 over 7,000 people were killed in car-related accidents, with pedestrians being half of the victims. Put into context, there were 38.7 million vehicles registered on Britain’s roads in 2019 and the road deaths totalled 1,870.

Some of the most dangerous places were town and city streets. With no official car parking in place, apart from in London, motorists simply left their cars where they wanted, regardless of how dangerous that might be to fellow road users and pedestrians. Councils realised that something had to be done and in 1927 the Rochdale South Branch of the Legion set the ball rolling. They agreed with the town council that in exchange for a rent-free piece of land they would employ two disabled men to run the first town car park. Rochdale Council let the Legion erect a hut and the two men, in attendants’ uniforms, manned the carpark on behalf of the town. This was so successful that it was repeated in towns and seaside resorts all over the country. It thrived after the Second World War and by 1960 the Car Park Attendants Scheme employed over 3,000 men. Today carparks are generally automated but spare a thought when you leave your vehicle in a little car park tucked away behind a municipal theatre or town market-place: it was probably first run by a disabled veteran supported by the Legion.

Men inspecting a taxi at the London Taxi School (c) Getty Images

We all know about London taxi drivers whose knowledge of the metropolis within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross is so great that they are known to have a larger and more developed hippocampus than the rest of us mortal souls. Did you know, however, that at one stage a third of all London cabbies had been through the British Legion’s London Taxi School? I, for one, did not, so thought it worth exploring. The School opened its doors in 1928 and was available to ex-Servicemen. It was particularly popular amongst those with spinal injuries who could not stand for long periods or operate heavy machinery. The idea came from Lieutenant General Sir Edward Bethune who was a veteran of the Second Anglo-Afghan War of 1878-80, the First and Second Boer Wars, and the First World War. He believed that men who had learned to drive during the war would be suitable students. The scheme was supported by the Legion’s Honorary Treasurer, Sir Jack Brunel Cohen MP, who had lost both his legs in 1917. He and Sir Edward succeeded in getting Lord Nuffield to donate a taxi for training purposes.

14th October 1947: Mr Turner briefs prospective taxi drivers on bicycles at taxi school at Harleyford Street, Kennington. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

The Taxi School was run by the Legion, who paid for a third of the costs, the remaining two thirds being covered by the government. The training was arduous, taking at least 12 months and often longer with men going out day after day, week after week, on bicycle or on foot, notebooks in hand, noting routes and “points” where taxis are usually picked up. Fred Marks, who completed the course in 1947, wrote about his experiences: ‘When at long last the Carriage Office is satisfied [with your knowledge] then comes your driving test – a stiff one. You are directed into a narrow back street and told to turn your cab around. A private motorist would do it in 20 movements, perhaps. You must do it in three.’ Remember, readers, this is pre-power steering, so not an easy feat. The Legion’s London Taxi School ran for 67 years. By the time it closed its doors in 1995 over 5,000 men had passed the famous Knowledge and the stringent driving test to become a London cab driver.

There is still a connection today. Any ex-Serviceman or woman who is scheduled to attend the National Service of Remembrance at the Cenotaph in London in November can hail a participating Poppy Cab at one of the agreed points around the capital and find him or herself transported there and back for free. The cost of this service is supported by the Legion, which gives the Taxi Charity for Military Veterans an annual grant. It is one of the most popular ways of helping veterans to get to and from the Cenotaph. The taxi drivers, some of whom had been through the Legion’s Taxi School, see it as a way to pay back part of the debt owed to the veterans old and young.

Chelsea Pensions with Poppy Cabs

One way and another the Royal British Legion has helped to keep veterans on the move for over a century and in a way that we, the public, have all benefited from.

The Duke of Edinburgh

When the Duke of Edinburgh’s death was announced this morning, I found myself recalling a wonderful afternoon in Paris in 1992 when I had to show him around an exhibition. I was working for the Henry Moore Foundation at the time, and we were staging a huge show of his largest sculptures in the Jardins de Bagatelle in Paris. It had been the most complex logistical project I had ever worked on and the installation alone had taken three weeks. The lorries bringing the sculptures from Perry Green in Hertfordshire to Paris had to travel through the night as convoi exceptionel were not permitted on the periphérique later than 5am.

Early morning delivery to the Jardins de Bagatelle in Paris (C) M. Muller

We would all gather at the magnificent baroque entrance gates to the Parc at around 6am, where the crane and lorry drivers would be standing around eating croissants and drinking coffee with the prostitutes who occupied that spot during the night hours. They were a fabulous group of people and we had many laughs about the ridiculous idea of lifting three or four tons of bronze over a set of Baroque gates every morning.

The installation team from the Henry Moore Foundation and MoMart with me and Catherine Ferbos Nakov (centre) trying to keep control.
(C) M. Muller

The installation of 29 massive works by Moore was an interesting combination of heavy lifting and exact precision. Each work had to be lowered by crane or forklift onto a pedestal that was less than 5cm larger than the base of the sculpture. And it had to be done exactly right each time as any shifting around damaged the plasterwork on the breeze blocks which meant retouching and repainting.

Lifting several tons of bronze over a Baroque gate is a terrifying manoeuvre (C) M. Muller
Hill Arches the right side of the Baroque Gates (C) M. Muller

By the time we had finished the exhibition in late May I had cycled hundreds of kilometres around the beautiful Jardins de Bagatelle, avoiding the peacocks. The opening of the exhibition was to coincide with a royal visit to Paris and would be conducted by Her Majesty The Queen with the Duke of Edinburgh, in the presence of the François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac, who at the time was Mayor of Paris. The Foundation’s director, the late Sir Alan Bowness, was to show The Queen around the exhibition and I was asked to guide the Duke.

I was given a few instructions about protocol including a warning not to ask any questions and not to leave long silences. When the Royal party arrived, I was standing in the appointed place and curtsied to The Queen, who looked at me with her piercing eyes, and then presented to the Duke with whom I set off, a few steps behind The Queen and Alan. We got to the first sculpture, Hill Arches. The Duke turned to me and said: ‘I don’t like Moore’s sculptures’. Oops. This was going to be a very long hour and a half, I thought.  Then I remembered he was interested in engineering. ‘Well Sir’ I said, ‘shall I tell you how we got them into the grounds?’ He was fascinated and asked many questions about the cranes we used, the lorries making their stately progress across northern France and the prostitutes who shared our croissants with us.

The Duke of Edinburgh and me at the opening of Moore a Bagatelle, 10 June 1992 (C) M. Muller

At one stage we had to walk through a long lane between dense shrubs with no sculptures to look at but with a lovely view of the west of Paris in the distance. ‘I grew up over there.’ He said, pointing to Neuilly. He spoke a little about what it had been like growing up outside Paris and how he had known the Jardins de Bagatelle when he was young. Then there was silence. I got a bit anxious, so I decided to chance it and bring up my grandfather, who he had known well in the 1970s when he, the Duke, was Patron of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine and my grandfather was the president.

Brigadier Sir Philip Toosey, also known (to us) as Grandpa Bush (c) Toosey Family

At the mention of his name the Duke stopped dead in the middle of the lane, looked me straight in the eyes and said: ‘Good gracious, are you Phil Toosey’s granddaughter?’ When I said I was he went into a long speech about how much good work my grandfather had done for the Far Eastern Prisoners of War and what a great contribution the School had made to FEPOW health under his presidency. He ended by asking me: ‘Is your mother here today?’ When I said she was he insisted I point her out so he could go over and shake her hand, but not before he had met the lorry drivers who had brought the sculptures to Paris. As we approached the end of the walk, where the crowd of guests had gathered to meet the Royal party, he marched past all the dignitaries from the British Embassy and the Mayor’s office, straight up to Eric, the head lorry driver, whose 42nd birthday it was, and wished him a very happy birthday. ‘A date you share with me,’ he added with a twinkly smile. Of course, it was 10 June 1992, the Duke’s 71st birthday. Eric was overwhelmed but the Duke’s greeting put him at his ease.

He then walked over to my mother, who was shaking like a leaf, and said: ‘Hello Gillian, it’s very lovely to see you here.’ He talked briefly about her father and how much he used to enjoy seeing him in Liverpool when he attended meetings at the School of Tropical Medicine. After that, the Royal party left and Mum and I went out with my husband Chris and various other members of the Henry Moore Foundation team for a long dinner.

There is a PS to this story. Fast forward to 2005 and the publication of my book The Colonel of Tamarkan, the biography of my grandfather and his role in the construction of the bridges on the River Kwai. The book came out in October and the following April a very excited postman arrived at my door with a special delivery. The Duke had seen the book in a catalogue and had bought and read a copy. On page 361 I had written the story of the Blackpool FEPOW reunion of 1973 when my grandfather had hosted him at an event for 3,000 former prisoners of war. The Duke had a strong connection to the men as he and his ship had picked up two Royal Marines in August 1945. The two had been prisoners of the Japanese and had escaped from captivity in the final days of the Second World War. They spotted British vessels near the entrance to Tokyo Bay and immediately stripped off and swam out to safety.

The Duke told this story to the 3,000 men gathered in Blackpool and as soon as he finished a voice piped up from the back of the hall: ‘They’re here!’ The Duke and my grandfather made their way through a sea of excited men who cheered and clapped as the two former Royal Marines and their erstwhile rescuer were reunited. On that occasion the Duke spent so much time with the men that he had to leave for his next appointment without having met and shaken hands with the Mayor of Blackpool and other grandees. My grandfather was highly amused by that.

When I saw the postman this morning, we reflected with sadness that there would be no more recorded deliveries from Windsor Castle for me. But what memories.

Count Down to a Centenary

Two months from now, on 15 May 2021, the Royal British Legion will celebrate its 100th anniversary. Born out of the ashes of the First World War, the Legion was the amalgamation of several ex-Services organisations, all fighting on behalf of those wounded, disabled, widowed or orphaned by war. Over the last century the Legion has become part of the British cultural landscape. Remembrance and the Poppy are its most recognisable features but there is so much more to this great organisation as I discovered while working on a book for its centenary. I am going to celebrate the RBL in a monthly blog leading up to 15th May with a few behind-the-scenes stories.

In October 2019 the Royal British Legion commissioned me to work on a book to be published in May 2021. Of course I had no inkling that I would have to write it under pandemic conditions. When the first lockdown was introduced in March 2020 many people assumed that writers had never had it so good. With no distractions such as travel to book festivals or teaching commitments, we were surely in a uniquely wonderful position to write. Weeks, possibly months of forced isolation stretched ahead – a writer’s dream. As with so many dreams, the reality turned out to be very different. Living in forced isolation was one thing, but being deluged by grim headlines and worse death figures daily, plus the lingering fear of an invisible enemy in our midst, it was far from the utopian quiet that writers crave.

A selection of the Legion’s Journal, bound annually. Note the tiny volumes from the Second World War years thanks to paper rationing

But I had a deadline. The first draft of my book was due to be handed over to the publishers in September. My problem was that from early March I had no access to Haig House in London’s Borough High Street, where the Legion’s archive material is stored. Nor could I get to libraries or Legion branches. Everything would have to be done remotely and that required a radical rethink of my usual working methods. Those who know me well are aware that I am happiest when ferreting around in old paper files, reading last century’s news and talking to archivists whose passion it is to preserve our nation’s memory.

One stroke of luck occurred in late May when it was briefly possible to gain access to Haig House. I was able to procure a number of bound copies of the Legion’s Journal, their monthly magazine, dating back to 1921.

The first British Legion journal, July 1921

I could not have the full set so I was invited to take a stab at the years I thought would be of greatest significance to me. Quite the challenge so I chose 32 volumes between 1921 and 1972 which included anniversary years 1931, 1941, 1951, 1961 and 1971 as well as all the volumes from the Second World War, which were tiny owing to the shortage of paper. There was also an important photograph album from the Legion’s peace visit to Germany in 1935 which I also requested.

The operation to secure this valuable material was undertaken in the form of a heist. My officer son was dispatched to Haig House to collect the journals and was alarmed to be handed a large red album with a swastika on the front. Being inscrutable he did not flinch, but he did express his surprise when he arrived home in Oxford with his precious cargo. With the exception of one or two volumes that might have been useful, these monthly magazines in their beautiful leather bindings, gave me as much information as I could possibly have needed for the potted history of the Legion I had been asked to write.

What I had not expected from the Journals was the rich picture they offered of life in Britain in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, especially for those disabled by their war service. Yet these magazines were far from depressing. They were uplifting. The energy behind the early founders of the Legion was remarkable and the men and women who worked as grass roots level in the branches that sprang up around the country no less so. This was a young man’s organisation. The Legion’s first chairman was in his early thirties, many of the men on branch committees in their twenties. They were not grandees – although Field Marshal Haig and Edward, Prince of Wales gave the leadership clout with the government when needed – they were ordinary men and women who cared passionately about making post-First World War Britain a better place. And help was much needed.

Over 6 million men had served during the First World War, of whom 1.1 million were killed, including 350,000 from overseas, and some 1.75 million wounded. Of that latter number over half were permanently disabled. Widows, orphans, families of the wounded, the disabled and the unemployed all needed the Legion’s support. At that stage, the Legion estimated it had responsibility for up to 20 million people and it relied, in the main, on its volunteer army of members and officers to carry out the welfare help required.

The Royal British Legion is an organisation with a big heart and it has been the joy of writing this book to lift the lid on the myriad ways the Legion has made so many people’s lives better. From facing down the government on pensions and war disability payments to helping veterans with physical and mental health problems the Legion never gives up. It works day in, day out and the work it does really matters. It saves lives.

Over the next weeks and months, you will read and hear a lot about the Royal British Legion as it celebrates its centenary. I am very proud to have been a part of sharing that story, particularly the early years when the vital groundwork was laid. Watch out for my next couple of blogs when I will lift the lid on some of the less well-known aspects of the organisation most of us think of only around Remembrance Sunday.

We Are The Legion will be published by Profile Books, 6 May 2021

July 2016

Welcome to my 18th newsletter. It’s been almost a year since I wrote one and this is mainly due to the fact that I have been working full-time on my next book. As I am about to go on holiday I thought it would be a good moment to assess a very turbulent year and give an update on where things stand, in particular with Home Fires.

Home Fires© ITV-Home FiresJambusters Audio CDFashion on the Ration - Paperback versionFashion on the Ration - Hardback versionHome Fires Extinguished

The second series of the ITV drama series Home Fires aired in April and early May. It had fabulous reviews this time round and, as last time, had consolidated viewing figures of over six million in the UK alone. The drama has sold in 135 territories world-wide and it was an enormous success in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and America, where it was broadcast on PBS Masterpiece.

In January of this year the Home Fires script-writing team met up in London. The Executive Producer, Catherine Oldfield, welcomed two new writers to the team and we sat through a long and happy day talking about the story lines for series 3. I was excited by the way the story was developing, taking us into the dangerous territory of the Blitz on Coventry, Liverpool and Manchester and ending, more or less, with ‘May Week’ when Liverpool was bombed night after night with huge loss of life and terrible damage. We explored the relationship between ‘beastly’ Bob and his wife, Pat. Their story ended in a flaming argument at the wedding of Teresa and Nick in series 2. We decided who would survive the disaster at the doctor’s surgery at the end of episode 6 and we knew what would happen to Joyce, Frances, Noah and Boris. Over the course of the spring I read the outlines for episodes 1 to 4 and was looking forward to reading the scripts in May. Then, on 12 May, at 12:08, I received a phone call from Catherine Oldfield. ‘I’m so very sorry to tell you that ITV has decided not to commission a third series of Home Fires.’ I was dumbstruck. It came absolutely out of the blue. None of us had suspected that the series would be pulled. The viewing figures had been fantastic and we had ‘won’ the 9pm slot on Sunday night every week against Undercover (BBC drama) except the first week. It just didn’t make sense. The excuse given was that the overnight viewing figures had been disappointing. And that was a half-hearted one at best. Everyone knows that viewing habits have changed out of all recognition. Witness the young and how they watch television. I don’t think any of my sons watch it live, except when they join us to watch Home Fires. Come to think of it, I seldom watch television live unless it is sport (wasn’t Murray magnificent at Wimbledon?).

The real reason Home Fires was cut was because of a changing of the guard at the top of television. ITV has a new team and, understandably, that is the moment to make a mark and bring in something new. We were simply a victim of that change. Collateral damage is how one editor described it. So, it is all over. Home Fires exists as a wonderful 12 episode drama that has been enjoyed by millions and will be missed by millions. That it was such a success is something that I will learn to celebrate, as will Simon Block, the show’s exceptional creator and writer. He should take great pride in his work, as should the magnificent cast and crew. In a way it is so good to have ended on a high rather than fizzle out like other dramas. It is just that we felt there was so much more story to tell…A World in Your Ear

Although Home Fires has gone, Jambusters is still very much with us. I continue to own all the rights in the book – film, theatre and audio. In September 2016 ChromeAudio will release an audio CD of the book read by two actresses from Home Fires, Samantha Bond and Fenella Woolgar. It is lovely to know that the world of 1940s women on the Home Front will be captured by these two wonderful voices. If you would like to pre-order a copy you can click here: jambustersaudio.co.uk.

Listen to excerpts from the audio CD:

Samantha Bond:

Fenella Woolgar & Samantha Bond:
Secrets

My new book, The Secret Life of Country Houses, is coming along well. I do not want to give too much away about it as it is still taking shape. It contains some extraordinary stories of people from all different walks of life, meeting and living in houses of sizes ranging from Blenheim Palace, which is so big that no one who works there knows how many windows it has, to a cottage in northern Scotland with no running water. I am due to finish the book in January and it will be published in early 2018. That seems a long way off but the deadline will come all too soon, I suspect.Fashion Goes North

Fashion on the Ration has been a lovely project. The exhibition ran at the Imperial War Museum from March to August 2015 and has now moved to IWM/North where it has been extended in their spacious exhibition galleries. If you have a chance to visit, I highly recommend it. Lady Mountbatten’s exquisite bra and cami-knickers, made out of an RAF silk map, are mounted on a mannequin this time. The display is bolder than in London because there is more space and the clothes look glorious. When I was told the book would get a new cover for the paperback I was sad as I loved the hardback image of Miss Parker in her tin hat and shades. I was wrong to be sad. The new cover is perfect for the smaller paperback and exactly sums up the verve of women in wartime who had something to say about what they wore and how they wore it. Congratulations to the design team at Profile.Pen Thoughts

I quite often write about archives and archivists in my newsletter and this time is no exception. Tiny details can make all the difference to a historical story and my new favourite is information in the Wilkinson Sword archive. The designer at WS had a visit in November 1940 from two ex-Shanghai policemen who wanted them to design and manufacture a stiletto knife for silent killing. It was known as the FS Fighting Knife, after the two policemen, Fairbairn and Sykes. What is so perfectly wonderful is that WS has notes from their meetings and early designs for the knife. The only thing I don’t know about that meeting is if they had biscuits with their tea. Thank heavens for archives.

Julie Summers

July 2016, Oxford

julie@juilesummers.co.uk

The Mystery of Sandy Irvine

Sandy aged 21 photographed for the Oxford University 1923 Blue Boat

96 years ago, today, 8th June 1924, my great uncle stepped into the pages of history. He was the nd’Irvine of the greatest mountaineering mystery of all times, the junior climbing partner of the great George Mallory. From the moment of their disappearance, somewhere close to the loftiest spot on earth, Mallory and Irvine’s names have been inextricably linked. The question everyone wants to know is this: were Mallory and Irvine the first men to stand on the summit of Mount Everest, 29 years before Hilary and Tenzing?

Two decades ago, I published a biography of Uncle Sandy, as he was always known in our family. It caused a little stir at the time and added yet one more book to the more than 1,000 written about Mount Everest since the 1920s. Sandy was only 22 when he died, Mallory 37. Sandy had had little mountaineering experience while Mallory was judged to be one of the best rock climbers of his generation. All the odds were against Sandy Irvine being an equal partner to Mallory. Yet I found evidence in letters, which had been hiding in a trunk in the attic of a house in North Wales for three quarters of a century, that Mallory had selected Sandy as his climbing partner as early as mid-April 1924. He wrote to his mother on 24th:

I have provisionally been chosen to do the first oxygen climb with Mallory.  Norton & Somervell doing Non ox. on same day.  It will be great fun if we all 4 get to the top at the same time!  I say provisionally because I don’t know that I will be fit at 26,500 ft yet (our kicking off camp). The weather has behaved in a most peculiar manner so far – no one knows if it is a good sign or not.

Prior to this, mountaineering historians had offered a variety of views as to why Mallory chose Irvine, some suggesting it was a physical attraction. I was always of the opinion that Mallory had accepted that it was necessary to use oxygen for the last 3,000 feet of the climb, based on the experience of the 1922 expedition. Sandy, who was a technical whiz when it came to fixing the oxygen sets, was the obvious person to take along if he proved himself at altitude. Mallory had good reason to think he would, as he had shown he was as strong as an ox on the trek and had performed well on the high passes in Tibet. The other thing that Mallory understood was that Sandy, as a top-class rower, would have the courage to push himself to his physical limit. It was a good combination.

Mallory (left) and Sandy Irvine leaving Camp IV on 6 June 1924. It was taken by Noel Odell as they made the final tweaks to their kit. c. Royal Geographical Society

So off they went, on 6th June 1924, to Camp V and the following day to Camp VI, their high camp, which in reality was a tiny two man tent which Sandy instantly turned into a makeshift workshop to prepare the oxygen apparatus for their early start the next day. We will never know for sure what happened when they left their tent but Noel Odell, climbing in support and one camp behind, spotted what he believed was a tiny figure climbing over a patch of white snow just a few hundred feet below the summit. He watched and saw a second figure joining the first. Then the summit was enveloped in cloud and when it lifted 15 minutes later there was no sign of the two climbers. They had disappeared from view.

From that day onwards people have thought, written, argued about what happened and how far they got. Some believe they made it to the summit and died on the descent, others are sure they were thwarted by the Second Step, a steep rock face that now has a ladder attached to it for easier passage. In May 1999, George Mallory’s frozen body was found in the snow some 1,500 metres below the summit. He had taken a fall, broken his ankle and cut his forehead. The discovery of notes in his pocket, a watch (broken), altimeter (broken) and other objects threw no light on the question of whether they got to the top or not. In fact, it raised more questions than it answered.

Sandy’s pressure kettle, designed so he could have a hot cup of tea. It was one of the few objects that came back from the mountain without him.

In four years’ time it will be the 100th anniversary of their climb and disappearance. Surely there will not be anyone still interested in their story. When I wrote my book in 1999, I was able to meet three people who had known Sandy Irvine, but they are all long dead. We have no more information now than we had after Mallory’s body was found. Yet still this mystery – British mountaineering’s greatest – continues to fascinate people. There have been no fewer than a dozen expeditions in the last 20 years which have set out with the express aim of finding Sandy’s body and answering the question for once and for all. None has succeeded.

Recently a young filmmaker, Archie Price Siddiqui, made an eight minute film about the last climb of Mallory and Irvine. It is a very accomplished piece of work and I thought I would share it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p0G-RVEnT-E&feature=youtu.be. What it proved to me, if indeed I needed convincing, is that the mystery continues to fascinate people.

This was sent back to my grandmother, Sandy’s sister, in 1933. In this scrap of cloth she found 20 Himalayan garnets. It was a present from Karma Paul, the translator on the expedition who had had the most to do with Sandy while dealing with the porters on the trek.

I’m going to stick my neck out here and say that I think the reason why the question of whether Mallory and Irvine made it to the top of Mount Everest in 1924 still intrigues us is because we love stories and better still, we love mysteries. Some people have tried to explain it away as a celebration of glorious British failure but, frankly, I think that is rubbish. Their deaths came six years after the end of the bloodiest war in history. There was little appetite for glorious failure in Britain in 1924. Believe me, I’ve spent the last six months writing about it for the Royal British Legion. No, this is all about mystery and storytelling. When people ask me if I want Sandy’s body found so we will finally know whether they were the first men to stand on the summit of the earth I say: ‘No. It’s a mystery. Let us leave it at that.’