Ride around the south east

Following on from my time in Afghanistan, in 2010, during which I cycled the equivalent distance back to the UK, I wished to celebrate my 25th year in the RAF doing something just as interesting, whilst at the same time focusing attention on the RAF Association.

The plan was to cycle around the South East, calling in on the Branches around the outer ring of my RAFALO Area.  After 9 months planning, with my wife Tracy, an Associate Member, as backup, I set off as the lone cyclist on the 7-day, 700-mile journey between 22nd and 28th June 2012.

DAY 1 began at the Armed Forces Careers Office in Oxford at 0800. The traffic was, fortunately at this stage, all heading into Oxford, as I moved on to Banbury, then to Bletchley, in very wet and windy conditions, not helped by spray from large vehicles on the A Roads.  My final stop of the day was Letchworth, where we were met by the Branch and Aircrew Standards, with an overnight, courtesy of Linda and Ken Needham, from the local Branch – much talk of Association business, nearby Knebworth and a certain Robbie Williams.  A steady start to ease me into the week, with 87 miles completed in a reasonable time and a bag full of wet clothes needing drying.

DAY 2 was amended to add in Royston, which saw a nice stint topping out at 30mph on the flat. Then the longest leg of the trip – Colchester, 50+ miles through the countryside. A great welcome at Harwich was followed by a run to Clacton-on-Sea, where we were not only paraded with the Branch Standard but met at the Town Hall by a local Councillor who provided refreshments. Accommodation was kindly arranged by the Branch, and Tracy and I enjoyed fish and chips on the seafront. Another 100+ miles done in reasonable conditions, save the detours.

DAY 3 I thought it wise to move a little inland, in order to ensure that cycling conditions were safe, so off to Witham in the early hours, to find the membership tidying up from a function the night before.  Chelmsford followed, with a nice contingent present.  A mix of roads to Southend-on-Sea followed, where we were met by a number of Standards and the opportunity for a spot of lunch and a chat. In addressing those present, I was introduced as ‘cycling around Great Britain’ – maybe next time! Next stop was Thurrock, with the opportunity to chat about Bomber Command, before crossing the bridge to Dartford, with the lovely history to their building, then back up the hill and the final stop at Medway Towns, in Chatham. The day got better as it went on and we had been invited to stay the night at Faversham, the home of Spitfire beer, thanks to Angie and Clive in the Brents Tavern – what a night, with a fantastic attendance, including members from Whitstable, a 3-course meal and a raffle, the prize money from which, amongst others, went towards the ride sponsorship. Almost as important – 100 miles completed.

DAY 4 was another early start with a trip to the Isle of Sheppey, then back to Faversham, Whitstable and Herne Bay, which included a stop at a Spitfire Memorial at the top of the town. I then moved on to meet one of my newest RAFALOs, SAC Ash Berry from Manston, who cycled down to Ramsgate to accompany me to one of the Branches he now supports. Sandwich and Dover were the next stops, followed by a visit to the Battle of Britain Memorial, at Capel le Ferne – well, worth a visit. The final stop was at Hythe, during which I suffered my one and only puncture. Tracy ensured that I changed wheels, as the press expected a cyclist, not someone pushing their bike.  Accommodation was organised by the Dover Branch, with thanks to hosts Patricia & Michael Knight, who really looked after Tracy and I in their beautiful Guest House; look them up www.eastlee.co.uk. Just as important was another 95 miles down.

DAY 5 a full breakfast to fuel the tanks, then on to Hastings and Bexhill-on-Sea, the Branch having a fantastic stained glass picture in honour of The Few. A few tricky, car-dodging, moments with the locals in Eastbourne was followed by a meeting with a large contingent of Air Gunners at the Branch. Just as well that I had a break, as the cheeky little climb out of Eastbourne, followed by the Big Dipper all the way in to Brighton, was a test – I welcomed a return to training in the Chilterns! On to Littlehampton and finally Bognor Regis, with overnight supported by the Branch and a visit to ‘best’ Club.  Thank you to Ian Hunter and the membership for hosting us so well – 100 miles.

DAY 6 started with Hayling Island and an early start for the members, and Branch Standard, in attendance – much appreciated. I then travelled by ferry to meet a new RAFALO, Sgt Wayne Griffin, at the Armed Forces Careers Office Portsmouth. I discovered that Wayne is from my home town of Atherton.  Then, another ferry to Gosport to be met by Branch officials, before cycling to Fareham to meet ‘Smokey’ Furness, the Area Chairman, and members of the Branch. The Sat Nav then added a nice 5 miles to my journey to the Itchin & Hamble Branch, where the members had kindly made a packed lunch for Tracy and me, then on to Southampton, through the New Forest, en-route to New Milton and Betty’s cakes, on sale as part of her fundraising efforts for the day. Back through the New Forest to Romsey.  The Branch members had local Air Training Corps personnel in attendance and our photographic session caused a scene – even though I look nothing like Mark Cavendish. The final stop at Alresford came just in time for a fish supper, thanks to the Branch and RAFALO Sgt Sarah Hammond from the Catering School at Worthy Down. It was a fantastic welcome, cycling up the street where we were surprised to be met by friends Wendy & John, on what would be the longest distance, of the 7 days, at 116 miles.

DAY 7 was another early start, however too early as we could have had an extra hour but were on auto-pilot by this stage. The Sat Nav did it’s usual trick into Newbury, where Steve Mullis had arranged for us to meet the Deputy Mayor and also for the Tribute Bikes to attract attention – thank you to Caroline and Colin, long-time supporters of the Association, for travelling over from Reading. The steady uphill towards Wantage was rewarded with a very fast downhill into town – top speed 40mph – to be met by Branch officials and the Town Mayor. It was a steady route over to Carterton, riding under the flight line of a C-17, with a stop for lunch at the Branch meeting place, before a short ride to Witney to meet with Brize Norton RAFALO Cpl Geordie Thain and Branch members.  Then it was a push into Oxford, with a scenic detour along the canal – not sure what the school children made of me. The last leg was a mix of country lanes, chasing tractors and then a headwind all the way along until the last, 2-mile, climb of the day, at the 98-mile point. I met a colleague, WO Kev Wise in Stokenchurch, before the final 10 mile leg, into the High Wycombe Branch and a fantastic welcome by Station Executives, RAFALO Committee, Branch members, family and friends as well as another visit by the Tribute Bikes.

I was keen to ensure the ride was linked directly with the RAF Association and had special cycling shirts printed for the occasion, the purchase possible due to sponsorship from Hampshire Region, High Wycombe Branch and the Families Federation, who do so much to speak on behalf of RAF personnel and their families. Thank you to Dawn and the team for their support, with more information on their excellent work available at www.raf-ff.org.uk.

Points that stand out 

•  The black squirrels in Letchworth

•  Appreciating why there are wind turbines off the coast at Clacton-on-Sea

•  The evening in Faversham

•  The beautiful guest house in Dover

•  The climb out of Eastbourne and the ‘rollercoaster’ hills across to Brighton

•  Betty’s cake

•  The horses of the New Forest

•  Fish supper in Alresford

•  The Tribute Bikes

•  Breaking 40mph to Wantage

•  The last climb to Stokenchurch and turning the corner to the High Wycombe Branch.