On Saturday 2nd October I rode to the wall. Not Hadrian’s Wall, nor even Pink Floyd’s. But the National Memorial Arboretum at Alrewas, Staffordshire, the national centre for remembrance outside London.
I was in good company. Some 15,000 other motorcyclists joined me for the ‘Ride to the Wall’ or RTTW, from all over the UK and abroad, riding bikes of various types and sizes.
That Saturday morning it dawned fine and clear, a pleasant change from the previous day’s rainstorms. We set out from Drayton Manor Park at 11.00 am for the 17 mile ride to Alrewas; a convoy of motorcycles and trikes, shepherded by road captains and the military police, that took well over three hours to clear from the park.
The ride itself was short and at low speeds. What made it memorable for me was the support of passers-by; the waving, the smiles and applause from people lining the route. Householders, children, shoppers, car and truck drivers, all stopped to wave as we passed.
I suppose it made quite a sight – 10,000 bikes passing by in waves for a good part of the day. Never having participated in anything like this before I felt moved by the whole experience.
But I also felt something of a sham. For I have viewed events like this in the past with a certain suspicion, tending to see war in all its forms as the ultimate failure of diplomacy, and not wanting to glorify it in any way. But as a national expression on the part of the biking fraternity of its wish to commemorate the fallen, and to raise funds for the memorial itself, I felt my participation could be justified.
Ride to the Wall is now in its third year and growing each time. In 2009 the ride’s organisers donated a cheque for £30,000 to the National Memorial Arboretum, the biggest single cheque the site has received since its foundation in 1997. This year, they expect to double that sum.
Why did such a diverse collection of people from all across the country participate, often riding long distances through heavy rain the previous day just to get there? Many of the riders are ex-armed forces personnel, and see the event as a way to commemorate their colleagues while doing something they love.
Yet the theme of paying a personal tribute was a common one. I met a man who’d ridden from Antwerp, simply because he felt it important to take part. Another, a retired music teacher from Norfolk, wanted to make his own tribute to the fallen.
For others the reasons are more diverse. One rider I spoke to was from a large and somewhat notorious riding club. Not the most articulate of people, he said he was there simply because he felt it was the right thing to do. Another couple worked in the media industry; they were attending as members of one of the organising clubs.
Perhaps the most apt words were those spoken before the service by RTTW’s patron, Major General Lamont Kirkland. What was important about the occasion, he said, was the morale boost it provided for the troops, especially those fighting under difficult circumstances in Afghanistan. The whole event had been filmed for that purpose, and the resulting production would remind those on the front line right now that people back home were thinking of them and valued their sacrifice.
I rode back to my B&B at the end of the day feeling somewhat humble. I didn’t visit the memorial itself, intending to return another day when it is quieter. One other lesson I took away with me however – it seems that Harley-Davidsons can actually go round corners!
- The National Memorial Arboretum at Alrewas, nr. Lichfield, is free to visit, and open throughout the year. www.thenma.org.uk
- Ride to the Wall is at www.rttw.org/
© Philip Hunt, 2010.