Helen Wright has recently completed a bike ride in memory of her friend, Squadron Leader Ant Downing, who died from wounds sustained in Afghanistan. Helen tells how the ride went in this blog.
The idea of remembering Ant through a solo tandem ride in ‘missing man’ formation had been in my mind for some time, but the decision to actually do it was quite spontaneous.
I would make it up as I went along - it was, after all, supposed to be an adventure. At Lands End, my husband and I sat in the car for a while and stared at the rain lashing the windscreen.
We assembled the tandem in silence in the relative shelter of the tailgate of our van. The rain subsided to drizzle. Maybe I wouldn’t get too wet after all. As I set off on the tandem on my own, I got the first of many weird looks, but I’d reached the 18 mile point before someone eventually shouted at me, "You've lost someone!"
In all 477 miles, I never quite worked out what was the best way to respond to this.
"Yes, I have." "I'm afraid he died." "That's the whole point." "Gosh, so I have, I wondered why the bike felt so heavy!"
In the end, I found the best way was just to give them a wave. At cafes or on passenger ferries there was more time to satisfy people’s curiosity about why I was riding a tandem on my own. I had flyers which I gave out, but some people just didn’t get the ‘missing man’ idea and looked at me as though they thought I was a bit dim.
"But a tandem on your own must be really heavy." "Yes." "So why not just do it on a normal bike?" "That'd be missing the point."
Other people thought it was a great tribute. Whatever, I was blessed with lots of little kindnesses along the way. I had lots of help manhandling the tandem in and out of small ferries. Several ferry operators even waived the fare; on other occasions, fellow passengers insisted on paying my fare for me.
In a pub, I even got a free meal and a reduced room rate. The first real obstacle was getting off the Place ferry at the low water landing point where there were 20 or so steep steps and then a steep and narrow path.
A more serious problem was getting a heavy tandem up and down the steps of a railway footbridge to reach the departure point for the Exmouth ferry.
Every time I came across a problem, I imagined recounting the tale to Ant and how much we would have laughed, just as we’d done at tales of my mountaineering epics. Bournemouth and Christchurch were the most cycle-unfriendly places I travelled through. I had also picked up a minor injury and it was raining heavily.
I ate a Rocky bar and allowed myself a cup of tea because that’s what Ant and I used to do to feel better. Ant believed there was nothing which couldn’t be improved by a cup of tea. I was glad to arrive in Portsmouth, having made my ninth and final ferry crossing, and stop for the night. On day seven, I reached Alfriston in the beautiful Sussex Downs.
The following day, the weather was fantastic and I climbed Beachy Head and visited the new Bomber Command Memorial which is in a spectacular location overlooking the lighthouse.
That evening, I reached Kent, the final county on my journey, and spent the night near New Romney. With the end in sight, it all began to feel surreal.
Ant's mum had assembled a welcome party for me, and my arrival in Kingsdown was all rather emotional. We took the bike to the churchyard with us –
I felt sure that Ant would have approved. Ant’s mum kindly hosted everyone for afternoon tea, and I told them about my 477 mile journey.
Of course, every part of the tale somehow linked back to Ant. I guess the huge hole he has left behind is simply a measure of how much he meant to so very many people.
As well as being my own personal tribute to a wonderful friend, I completed the ride in aid of the RAF Benevolent Fund. This was for two reasons.
First, and perhaps most important, it was the charity nominated by Ant’s parents. Second, the RAF Benevolent Fund supports serving and retired members of the RAF and their families in all sorts of ways.
I personally know people at many levels who have benefited from the charity’s work, and for me, the fact that the majority of these deserving cases are not headline-grabbing makes it all the more laudable.
By Helen Wright