It is wonderful to celebrate the amazing achievements of extraordinary women on International Women’s Day. I’m very pleased to have heard so many female composers featured on radio 3 this morning, for example. And the newspapers are full of impressive profiles of women who have defied the odds, challenged misogyny or battled against fearsome prejudice. I am fascinated to read those stories. They are inspiring and valuable. They can also be a little intimidating and seem far removed from ordinary life.
I’d like to celebrate women who achieve extraordinary things every ordinary day. I was going to name some who I have found particularly inspiring, but I decided that might be either embarrassing to those I named or hurtful to those I leave out. So, I won’t. I’m going to start with carers, as I have quite a bit of first-hand experience at present of those who work in this field. There is so much criticism in the press about the care sector, but these women, and they are often women in my experience, are among the kindest and least complaining people you could meet. They cater for people’s most basic needs with professional kindness so that the person being helped can maintain as much dignity as possible given the circumstances. Emptying commodes, dressing wounds, showering frail bodies and administering food or medicine is hardly glamorous work but it is vital and I admire their dedication. They make people’s lives better even if they cannot cure the ills. If I have a plea, it is to recognise this vital work that will never cease to be needed.
There are women in every walk of life who achieve little miracles daily – nurses, police officers, firewomen, teachers, classroom assistants. Then there are those who volunteer, running everything and anything, from sports clubs to food banks. The Women’s Institute, born in the second summer of the First World War, is one enormous body of talent and generosity whose work I found so inspiring I wrote a book about their work in the Second World War. The spirit that helped over a quarter of a million members to keep the countryside ticking in those difficult years embodies everything I admire about women of that time. To hell with red-tape and wartime bureaucracy, they got on with making jam, collecting herbs for medicine, knitting millions of items for the Home Guard, the Merchant Marine and evacuees. And they sang and smiled their way through it.
Archivists and librarians are people I admire enormously. They are often women who work behind the scenes safe-guarding history and thus the national memory. I have worked in archives all over the world and often the incredible collections they protect are underappreciated by the people whose histories are being preserved. Those of you who read my biography of Audrey Withers will know that she destroyed the entire Vogue archive in February 1942. Why did she do it? It was an act of fervent patriotism, urged on by her star photographer, Cecil Beaton, for paper salvage to help the war effort. What a loss, though, to future generations. She believed she was doing the right thing at that moment in history, and one cannot criticise her motives, but it does point to the value of original archive material to the memory of the nation. Material, I might add, that celebrated women far more than men.
My current project, a biography of British Vogue, is full of stories about inspirational women from every decade of the 20th and 21st centuries, as well as some men. The magazine may be about fashion on one level but it is a celebration of the achievements of women on so many others. Over the last 105 years Vogue has covered every topic of interest to women of any given era. I find it life-affirming and hugely impressive to think about the achievements of women from every walk of life.
Much has been made recently of the value of friendship. It is something that is now understood to help to encourage healthier living and even a longer life. Studies in Australia established that women who have close female friendships are less likely to suffer from multiple serious conditions in later life. 7,700 women were tracked over twenty years to see whether they went on to contract diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, stroke, cancer, depression and half a dozen other serious conditions. ‘Researchers found that women who reported the lowest level of satisfaction with their social relationships had double the risk of developing multiple conditions compared with those who reported the highest levels of satisfaction.’ I raise a toast to the women I row with four or five mornings a week in Oxford. We were out today despite the snow and we loved it. If it helps us to stay healthier longer, well that’s just a wonderful side effect.
So yes to celebrating International Women’s Day on 8 March but I want to celebrate women every day of the year.
16 years ago, we decided to buy a dog. It would be a family pet but its owner, within the family, would be Richard. Tiggy was born in East Grinstead on 8 January 2007. She had a distinguished pedigree, beautiful markings and an enchanting black face. We picked her up when she was eight weeks old and she lived with us, in the heart of our noisy, energetic family, for 15 years and 7 months. Today we said goodbye to her. She was suffering from dementia, she had increasing mobility problems (she was always on the money when it came to trends), and she no longer had a good quality of life. It was the hardest decision I have ever taken. Period.
This Blog for a Dog is my love letter to the most wonderful, witty, funny, quirky, energetic, characterful creature I have ever met.
Tiggy went by several names. Tiggy, Tiggles and Mrs Woose were the most common ones we used. Towards the end of her life when she could no longer safely get upstairs to my office, we operated the ‘Stana-Woose-Lift’ which was Tiggy under one arm, cup of coffee or book in the other hand. It was a bit precarious, but it worked well. It was usually requested by loud barks of protest at being left on the wrong floor. All her life she had a way of making her feelings clear and in most instances she was easy to read. Her most enchanting form of communication was her smile. You don’t believe me that a dog can smile? This one could. If she saw one of us from a distance, say from the end of the garden or coming up the road, she would smile at us. Not with her mouth but with her entire body. She had a way of sashaying her hips, tilting her head to one side, twitching her ears up and back, and bounding towards you with a wave of affection that just shouted: ‘Hello! I love you, love you, love you!’ It was the most uplifting greeting, and it came from the heart.
Richard commented today that she was a dog that was extraordinarily in tune with nature. That may sound a strange thing to say about an animal, but it was true. More than any of our other dogs, she paid close attention to her environment. On summer evenings she would meander around the garden, sniffing at plants, investigating little spaces in the undergrowth or in the borders. She loved the smell of certain flowers and had a passion for lying in a Hebe bush close to the house. Often, she would ‘rearrange’ the bush to suit, which meant ripping off sprigs in order to make herself comfortable. She also interacted with the fauna, stalking squirrels oh-so-quietly, hunkered down like a lioness in the grass. She never caught one, but she often came close. She had rather more success with Sandy’s bantams, which she caught quite regularly. She never killed them; she simply caught them and then lay on them until one of us spotted her and called her off. The bantam, usually Snowy, would get up, shake herself, cluck crossly, and get back to doing what bantams do best, which is digging up the edges of my borders.
Unlike other Borders, Tiggy was not a thief, though she was an opportunist. In the summer one of her great loves was to attend the many rowing events we went to with the boys. She was well-behaved and had excellent recall, so we were always happy to have her off the lead. When she was about two, we were all on the towpath watching the racing at the City of Oxford Regatta. Simon was with Tiggy when he saw her stand up on her hind legs and very gently but firmly remove the ‘dog’ from a hot dog being held at a tempting height by Richard’s rowing coach. Triumph for Tiggy, fury on the part of the coach. He never liked her after that. On another occasion we had left a pepperoni pizza on the side in the kitchen to defrost. In retrospect it might have been too close to the edge. When we returned, we found the pizza on the floor. Part of the base, an almost perfect half-moon, remained on the floor and next to it a small pile of onions. She had eaten the pepperoni but spat out those pesky onions.
In her hey day she had not only great stamina for walks and mountain bike rides, but she had speed. Chris once clocked her doing 23mph on the footpath up our road. Not bad going for a little dog. Walking and running in the countryside close to home, in the Chilterns, the Lake District, Devon, Yorkshire and Northern Scotland, was her idea of bliss. She came on a dozen holidays to the Lakes and loved nothing better than to find a handsome rock on which to stand, ears blown back by the wind, staring at the world around her as if she owned it. She was sure-footed and unafraid of heights, so she was the ideal walking companion. She also enjoyed swimming, so a quick dip in a tarn or stream, preferably in pursuit of a stick, was always a pleasure.
The only time Tiggy really frightened us was in the November of her first year in Oxford. She had taken herself off for a walk around the village and disappeared. I was on my way down from a film festival in the Lakes with Sandy when I had a call from a distraught Richard about his missing dog. He had been all round the neighbourhood looking for her but by the time it had turned to dusk, and she had not appeared, he concluded she must be dead in a ditch somewhere. I got back around 8pm and set off on my bike, searching like mad for her. In a moment of clarity, I remembered that our vet’s parents lived opposite. I dropped in, desperate but unsure of how they could help me. It was after all a Sunday night. They advised me to call the Dog Warden. I did this but had no joy. So I rang the police and asked if they had a Border Terrier with a harlequin collar in their care. ‘No,’ answered the constable on duty, ‘but I’ve got a Norfolk Terrier with a red, yellow and green diamond collar.’ Sounded promising. I dashed over to Oxford Police Station and burst into the reception. I suddenly got cold feet. ‘How will you know if it is my dog?’ I asked. ‘Oh, I think we’ll know.’ The policeman answered. They fetched the Norfolk Terrier from a room behind the desk and to my joy it was Tiggy.
I yelped with happiness and she squirmed with delight in the policeman’s arms. As he leant over the counter to let me take her, the excitement became too much and she piddled all over the policeman, the counter and the floor. ‘I think we can agree that is your dog.’ He said, looking ruefully over at his colleague and then down at his shoes. To date, Tiggy is the only member of our family to have spent time in a police cell.
Over the course of her long life – 15 years and 9 months equals about 110 in human years – she had many experiences and made countless friends. For several years when I was on the lecture circuit, she would come with me to theatres and halls, sometimes on her own, often with Mattie, her half-sister, who we acquired in 2011. She would walk onto the stage and either sit at my feet or clamber into her basket, often with her back to the audience. Sometimes she would stand up if there was applause at the end but as often as not, she was quite content simply to be there with me. It is a matter of record that when I took the dogs to lectures, I sold more books.
At home and in the garden she had two favourite play things. The first were tennis balls. She would run to catch them and not always give them back, so we usually had two or three when playing with her. If she particularly liked a ball she would roll on it, sometimes growling to herself, and then she would lie on her back, playing with the ball between her paws. It would slip out and she’d be after it again, rolling on it and repeating the same process over and over. Borders are known in Kent as otter dogs, and if you ever saw Tiggy lying on her back playing with a ball you could see why the name was so apposite. She could find a tennis ball in a hedge or under a plant with consummate ease. Once when I was waiting for the boys at school, she nipped into a bush next to the tennis court and came out with a ball. I congratulated her and told her to sit, but she was off again, into the bushes, and produced a second ball, and a third. By the end of about 15 minutes, she had laid 23 tennis balls at my feet.
Her other favourite toys were flowerpots. If I was planting, she would grab any flowerpot I had emptied and would dash off with it, as far away from me as she could. She would then have her own private game of chuck the pot. She would dive her head into the pot then fling it into the air and jump to catch it. The game could go on for several minutes until she got tired or the pot broke. She would then roll on it and chew the rim. For several years I had flowerpots with teeth marks in them. I still do have a few left and they will be a reminder of that game.
There was the occasional funny mishap too. One sunny afternoon in Wallingford, Sandy and I had taken Tiggy for a walk along the riverbank on the opposite side to the rowing club. We were watching Simon training so had walked quite a few kilometres. As we headed back upstream Tiggy went down to the river’s edge for a drink. It was the cows’ drinking spot, so the beach was churned up and very muddy. By the time she re-joined us she had thick black mud halfway up her legs. We crossed into the final field where there were no cows but people lying around in the sun. I pointed to a couple who were topless and cuddling. I said: ‘In a bad film Tiggy would run across their backs leaving muddy footprints.’ To our horror that is exactly what she did. I don’t think she had planned it, but they were in her path and she saw no reason to divert. The boy was shocked but fortunately saw the funny side of it.
One final memory was of a photoshoot for my 50th birthday. We’d decided to have a family photograph taken and of course Tiggy was involved. The photographer had tried to get us to do characterful poses, but she was aiming at an outcome that would be too saccharine. Tiggy was in the centre of the group and was feeling mischievous. We were all piled up ready for the shot when she leapt up and started furiously licking Chris’s ear. We all fell about laughing and to this day it is the best family photograph we possess.
There we are: a long life full of walkies and adventures. She leaves a huge gap in our family life but one that will be partially filled with the most wonderful memories of a dog who, for us at least, was like no other. She was a treasure and a joy, a constant, loyal, devoted companion, and a hilarious trouble-maker.
Tiggy was cremated on 29 September 2022 and her ashes are buried in the garden under our favourite tree. While we were building a new path this summer she insisted on lying on the freshly dug soil exactly where Chris was about to lay the weed membrane. So we thought it apposite to bury her little box there. She has a flat stone and a flowerpot on a stick to mark her grave.
This is the eulogy I gave for my father, Peter, at the Service of Thanksgiving we held for him in St Mary’s Church at Acton on 3 March 2022. I do not normally write about my immediate family but several people have asked me for a copy of the words I spoke so I thought I’d break a habit. My father lived a long life spanning ten decades. I remember him saying to me in 1999 ‘good gracious, I never imagined I would make the millennium.’ Well, he did. And another twenty years at that.
I’d like to stand up and talk about Daddy for two hours, but you’ll be glad to know that I will rein myself in and speak for just a few minutes.
Peter John Summers was born at Denna Hall at Burton on 6th May 1929. Over the next ten decades he acquired many more names: Pete, PJ, Daddy, Uncle Peter, FIL (Father-in Law), Grandpa, Great Grandpa. He also had any number of nicknames: Uncle Speeds, the Fat Controller and the Square Squire are just three of them. It is said that a person with many names is someone who is much loved. That is certainly the case with Peter. The messages of condolence we as a family have received over the last fortnight have been beautiful and heart-warming. Words like distinguished and gentleman keep cropping up.
Peter was indeed a gentle man. Throughout his life he eschewed conflict, but he was never afraid to stand his ground when he knew he was right. He did this in his own inimitable way, quite often with a deliberate, silent stare. It could be remarkably effective.
Peter was educated at home by a governess with boys from other local families, including the Behrends, Glazebrooks, Leaches, and Robin Higgin, until it was time to go to the Leas School at Hoylake. From the autumn term of 1939 the school was relocated to Glenridding on the southern tip of Ullswater in the Lake District. There he spent a happy year sharing a room above the post office with his life-long friend, Bill Glazebrook. From Glenridding he went to Shrewsbury School, following in the footsteps of his father and his mother’s five brothers.
After Shrewsbury he moved into National Service, joining the Signals, and spending three cold months in the autumn of 1947 at Catterick. As a young subaltern he was posted to Vienna for a year, living in barracks in the magnificent Gloriette at Schönbrunn Palace. This was the Vienna as depicted in the film the Third Man, made that same year – a city damaged beyond recognition by bombing, divided into four sectors, where the Black Market thrived, and Americans raced around in jeeps. Peter took it all in his stride and was enchanted by the people. He learned to speak German while playing chess with friends he made there. One of them, Geoff Schiffmann, had been a prisoner of war in the Lake District when Peter was at Glenridding as a schoolboy. He remained in touch with Geoff and Etti Schiffmann for the rest of their lives. He encountered Russian soldiers in Vienna and with his brilliant ear for languages, picked that up too. On returning to Britain, he took up his place at Clare College Cambridge, to study Russian and German.
Peter always had a strong pastoral side to his character. Now, with a degree and National Service behind him he told his tutor at Clare he wanted to work with refugees. He was persuaded against this and encouraged to join the family firm. His godfather, Neville Rollason, was sure there would be room for Peter’s youthful ideals and ambitions at The Works. One of the first roles he was given was to draw up a refuse disposal project. This would be the fastest way to learn about the people and purpose of every department in the company.
He joined the board of John Summers and Sons in 1960 with responsibility for staff training and communications. Seven years later the government nationalised the steel industry and Peter joined the new board of the Scottish and Northwest Group of the British Steel Corporation as Director of Personnel and Social Policy. At that time, he had a secretary called Bridget Johnson who we children all delighted in hearing say on the phone in the crispest of tones: ‘This is Bridget Johnson, your father’s secretary. Is your mother in, please?’ In 1973 the government announced it would phase out iron and steel making at Shotton. This ended eighty years of Summers’ family history but not Peter’s. He was given responsibility to assist some of the 6,500 people who would lose their jobs as a result. Thus started the second and most rewarding part of his business career.
As the Industry Coordinator for the Northwest, he moved into a new office, a little bungalow called Park House in Shotwick. From there he and his tiny team encouraged other industries to move to Deeside. My mother, Gillian, used to provide lunches for the Park House brigade and on one occasion had made a delicious coronation chicken. Peter’s PA, Felicity, asked him whether it was from Gillian’s own hens. He replied, ‘yes, this one was called Fred. I remember him well. He had a slight limp’. Peter claimed that Felicity became vegetarian thereafter.
He said of his work at Park House: ‘My job with BS Industry evolved continuously and provided me with some of the most rewarding experiences of my working life. Starting a small business from cold in an isolated bungalow spurred on by murmurings of polite disapproval, was an experience I wouldn’t have missed for anything.’ His first signing was Iceland Food and he received a frozen lobster every Christmas from then until he left Park House. For this work and the creation of over 4,400 jobs in 87 new factories, Peter was awarded the MBE. He retired in 1989 at the age of sixty.
What of Peter the family man? In 1957 he met Gillian Toosey, the daughter, as it happened, of a member of his mother’s tennis group in the early years of the century. They made a very handsome couple. With remarkable speed – almost certainly urged on by Gillian – the engagement was announced, and they married on a windy day in April 1958 to much rejoicing. A honeymoon to the South West of the UK and then the continent in Peter’s TR4 followed. He owned every model of the TR series over the course of almost thirty years. We all remember his love of his sports cars.
Four children followed between 1960 and 1967 – Julie (that’s me), Stephanie, Jeremy and Tim. Life at Delamere Manor, where he moved the family to in 1967, was busy, noisy and unbelievably cold. In 1973 came the oil crisis. The price of oil rose by 300 per cent and Peter turned off the central heating. He did not turn it on again for 45 years.
As children we were fascinated by his various rituals. One was the morning cold bath which he had every day of his life until he retired. Jeremy coined the phrase ‘One, Two, Three Wubbage!’ as Peter hopped into the bath and braced himself for a quick lie down. Another was his breakfast boiled egg which he enjoyed six days a week, latterly seven, until the last week of his life. He timed his egg to perfection on his watch and then solemnly removed it from the pan, ran it under a cold tap, popped it into a yellow egg cup and removed the top with what he called his Ei-Knipps. That, accompanied by toast and Gillian’s delicious marmalade, set him up for whatever the day would bring.
A few years before his retirement he and Gillian bought Fennywood Farm near Winsford. It was their home for more than three decades. They had a small number of cows, endless hens and part-time sheep. At one stage they had a lady who helped Gillian in the house called Anne Card. She had two stock phrases for anything that she found unusual. One was ‘It’s funny, really’ and the other was ‘it’s amazing what they can do nowadays’. One day the AI man came to deal with Peter’s heifers. Mrs Card asked him what the man was there to do and Peter began to explain that rather than having a bull on the farm, the cows would be artificially inseminated. As he was explaining the process as euphemistically as possible, he suddenly got the giggles, wondering which of the expressions she would employ. She rewarded him with a somewhat quizzical ‘it’s funny, really.’
He ran the 40-acre farm in conjunction with the land in North Wales he had bought from his grandfather, Willie Irvine, in the early 1960s. He never tired of telling the story of how Willie had purchased the land as a grouse shoot for his sons, Alec and Tur, and of how his grandfather had grown to love that area of North Wales between Corwen and Bala. Creini, as Peter’s land was known, comprised three farms, a lake and a mountain. He loved that place more than anywhere else on earth. We used to take the caravan to Creini for our summer holidays. Gillian and any number of children, cousins and friends slept in the caravan and awning but Peter always preferred to sleep in a tent some way from our noisy camp. One morning we woke to see his tent entirely surrounded by inquisitive cows.
In 1977 he employed the 17-year-old son of a neighbouring farmer to run Creini for him. Arwel Griffiths worked as Peter’s farm manager for over forty years. Together they learned how best to run the land and maintain the integrity of its unique loveliness. In the early 1980s he decided to learn Welsh and over the course of several summers he attended Coleg Harlech for total immersion in the language. He became proficient and could conduct business successfully in both English and Welsh.
For years sheep would be sent down to Fennywood to overwinter. Peter and Gillian spent many springs lambing up to 150 sheep in the barns there. He would keep lists of every lamb that was born on either farm. Recently he was going through his papers and uncovered a handwritten list of sheep from 1978. All carefully numbered in his meticulous hand, each column ruled with a straight line. He wrote slowly and carefully, making sure every letter in his signature was the right height and shape. As he got older his handwriting slowed down and it once took him 45 minutes to write a cheque.
Peter loved to count. He would note the number of posts and rails along a field edge. He calculated the difference in the number of minutes over the course of a calendar year between daylight and night-time. He had an astonishing eye for detail and, for most of his life, an extraordinary memory. When a few years ago he heard that the Rachmaninoff third piano concerto was about to be performed he hummed the first two bars and said ‘gosh, that’s not often played. I last heard it in 1954.’
Music was another part of his life that he shared with us children in his own way. His grand piano was in the drawing room at Delamere directly below my bed. We all remember him practising at night after supper and we listened while we drifted off to sleep as he played a Chopin nocturne or a Beethoven sonata. His love of opera, Wagner in particular, was elegantly balanced against his passion for the 1970s TV series, Dallas and later, Blind Date with Cilla Black.
As you have heard from Christopher, Peter was a regular church goer for all of his life. He loved the rhythm of the church calendar but was wary of new-fangled ideas and modern hymns. He often read the lesson with clear enunciation and measured speed. A good public speaker, he was a member of the 25 Club, a debating society on the Wirral, for over sixty years. I believe he was its longest serving member.
I cannot end without referring once more to his nicknames, the most affectionate and appropriate of which came not from his immediate family but from his nieces and nephews: Uncle Speeds. Peter did not move fast in comparison to Gillian and that gave rise to the nickname. He also had one habit which anyone who ever had supper at Fennywood will recognise. Towards the end of the evening, he would grab the table edge, half raise himself, and announce: ‘Right, I’m going to bed’. All conversation would stop and those around the table would wait expectantly for him to rise and take his leave. More often than not he would sit back down on his chair and the evening would continue. Then the process would be repeated, sometimes three or four times. One evening Erica Toosey, who was living at Fennywood, got so infuriated with him that she picked up a tea cosy, which was shaped like a hen, and put it onto his head. ‘Uncle Speeds, will you please go to bed!’ She exclaimed. If he did, history does not relate, but the habit continued until well past his 90th birthday.
At the end of his life Peter was afflicted with Alzheimer’s. This cruel disease robbed him of his memory and us of the pleasure of his witty company. He had for as long as we can remember been able to deliver the mot juste for any occasion. When Tim visited him in hospital the day before we eventually sprang him out and brought him home, he said, in answer to the question of ‘how have you been Dad?’
‘I’ve been all over Europe, casting an ever-diminishing shadow.’ He came home on a Friday a few weeks ago and was surrounded by love and care, thanks to the marvellous Lydia Rose team who have been looking after him and Gillian since 2020. He died quietly, peacefully on Tuesday 15th February with Gillian and me at his side. That diminishing shadow has now disappeared but the memories of Peter John Summers, Uncle Speeds, Dad, FIL, Grandpa, Great Grandpa will be around for a very, very long time.
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.
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.
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.
Day Two Calais to Abbeville
134.42 km (83.5 miles)
1,234m (4,049 feet) ascent
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.