Home-made pizza, what better way to while away a summer evening?
I’ve just taken part in a truly extraordinary event. My late husband, Julian, was with the Royal Anglian Regiment for 14 years and retained close ties to the army and those he served with. He rode the inaugural Help for Heroes Big Battlefield Bike Ride in 2008 and, on its 10th anniversary and the centenary of the end of the First World War, he was planning to ride it again this year with the same team. When he tragically and suddenly died last year, his colleagues asked me if I would ride in his place and, of course, I agreed. Help for Heroes was one of Julian’s favourite charities for the work it does with soldiers wounded both physically and mentally.
Our team, The Three Mustardeers, included the Bison, a family mascot. Julian was known as the Bison in the shooting field, so he came with us the whole way, strapped to my handlebars. We cycled 375 miles over five days through the battlefields of the western front in northern France, stopping for battlefield tours to learn more about the bravery and sacrifice of those young men. The statistics were sometimes overwhelming and brutal. Hundreds of thousands of men, mostly between 17 and 24, died in the most horrendous conditions.
Among the 150 riders were a Scottish piper and bugler, several wounded soldiers – including one who cycled with a prosthetic leg, specially designed for his bike – a blind man on a tandem, a man with no arms from the elbows, and several men suffering PTSD.
Day 1: at the Armistice clearing with Tom, the piper, piping us all into the clearing, where the Armistice was signed at 5am on November 11, 1918, to come into effect at 11am that same day.
Day 2 – along the valley of the Somme river, a very emotional ceremony at Villers Bretonneaux, where our cycling bugler sounded the Last Post – incredibly moving.
Day 3 – 68 miles. The highlight was the ceremony at Thiepval and the monument to all those who died in the battle of the Somme. We were piped in, wreaths were laid, and the bugler sounded the Last Post.
Day 4 – the day of the hills! A long, slow hill up to Vimy Ridge, and then on and up a very steep hill to Notre Dame de Lorette, site of the new Ring of Remembrance. One of the most incredible places I have visited – 570,000 names of young men who died.
We learnt about Jack Kipling, the shortsighted son of Rudyard Kipling, who did not get into the army on medical grounds, but was so desperate to fight that his father pulled strings to get him in, and eventually succeeded. He joined up at 17 and was killed in action, his body never found. His father never recovered from the loss and wrote his shortest poem as a result. “If any ask you why we died, tell them because our fathers lied”.
Final day: From Lille to Mons with a very moving ceremony at St Symphorien, the military cemetery where the first and last man to die in the Great Wars are laid to rest. Then a huge 150-strong peloton, with a police escort into the centre of Mons, where we celebrated the end of an incredible week of stories, camaraderie and physical challenge, very happy to have made it in one piece.