Category Archives: Old Friends

Escaping to Colditz

The three of us had last flown together as a crew was when we decided to fly to Ostend in Chris’s Piper Warrior Light Aircraft. 

Piper Warrior 180 four seat light aircraft

The purpose of that trip was a simple one. We all shared an interest in military history, and all of us had relatives who’d served in Passchendaele and Ypres during the First World War.

That trip is the subject of another article, but suffice to say, on the way home (feeling quite subdued and humbled by our experiences) our conversation turned to other potential trips.

We all decided that the Normandy Beaches were fairly high on the agenda, as was a suggestion to fly into some of the French airfields that the Luftwaffe operated from during either or both of the two world wars.

I happened to mention that I’d heard somewhere that Colditz Castle had been re-opened to members of the Public.

Now, for those that don’t know, Colditz was used as a maximum-security Prisoner of War camp, predominantly housing repeat escapers.  This generated quite a bit of interest, as we had all grown up reading about the exploits of the escapees, and we all revered these men as heroes during our respective youths.

Colditz was also a very successful BBC TV series, and I remember avidly watching every episode, so I was greatly interested in going.

Nothing more was said, but then one afternoon in early March, I received an email from Chris – he had been doing some research into making the proposed Colditz trip a reality. The big question was – how could we schedule it? Chris is a 777 Captain, I work shifts in the Flight Crew Training Centre as an instructor, and Barrie is a “Gentleman of Leisure”.

Eventually we decided to fly out on the 3rd April, Easter Saturday, and come home on Easter Sunday.

It was a grey and overcast day as the Ryanair 737-800 touched down at 1030 local time at Altenberg Airport.  Altenberg, like Colditz is stuck in the middle of nowhere, which is probably why Ryanair chose to operate there. Leipzig is about 54 miles south, and Colditz is about 40 miles in the other direction.

Not exactly a busy airport, but well equipped and only a 40 minute journey by road

Looking out of the window as we taxied to the terminal, we could see the hardened concrete aircraft shelters that twenty-one years ago would have housed MiG 21 fighters of the East German Air Force. Today they are dismal looking and overgrown with weeds, a sad casualty of the outbreak of peace.

Disembarking from the aeroplane, we joined the meandering crocodile of passengers casually wandering towards the low concrete building of the terminal.

This was a stark difference from the way things are done in the UK. At home, the passengers would have been bullied and shepherded by airline staff all in high visibility jackets; however, to be fair, the Ryanair flight appeared to be the only aircraft on the windy and damp tarmac that morning.

We had arranged to be met at the Airport by Peter Werner Taxis, and the forty-minute ride would cost about 45 Euros each way to take us to Colditz Castle. The driver of the cab spoke no English, but we managed to communicate by virtue of some schoolboy German that Chris and I had learnt some 40 years ago.

We all bundled into the people carrier, and sat back and enjoyed the scenery – Small well-kept villages, pretty towns, and thick greenwoods. The road, whilst obviously a minor rural thoroughfare was extremely well-maintained, with absolutely no potholes. Maybe we could send some of our local council bureaucrats here to be trained in civic amenity management.

Eventually, we arrived in the outskirts of Colditz, where the taxi driver generously agreed to let us drop off our bags at the small hotel we were staying in.  Once we had dropped the bags off, the taxi drove us the short distance to the castle itself.

Looking up at the castle which sits broodingly crouched atop a rocky crag, it was easy to imagine the feelings of those Prisoners of War who were marched up the steep incline to the castle entrance.

Colditz – silently holding it’s nine hundred years of secrets

Colditz Castle has been associated with incarceration of one type or another for many years.  Building was started in 1158 AD, and by 1694 it had expanded to become a 700-room castle, and was the home of regional royalty and nobility.

During the early 1800s it was destined to become a workhouse for the poor, the ill and local criminals, and became quite run down.

From 1829 until 1924, it was a sanatorium for the rich, and was home to some notable residents, including Ludwig Schumann, the son of Robert Schumann the composer, and Ernst Baumgarten, one of the inventors of the airship.

In 1933, the Nazi Party came to power, and they swiftly saw the potential of Colditz as a prison for Communists, Jews and other dissenters, and by 1939 it had become a Prisoner of War Camp for Allied prisoners.

Due to its remote location the Wehrmacht decided that they would use Colditz as a holding camp for troublesome prisoners, and those that made repeated escape attempts. It became known as Oflag IVC (Offizierslager –Officers Camp), and housed Douglas Bader, Pat Reid, Airey Neave and Desmond Llwelyn, (better known as “Q” in the James Bond films) to name but a few.

The camp Kommandant and his guards appeared to be relatively humane, accepting that the prisoners would attempt to escape, and operated fully under the terms of the Geneva Convention.

The prisoners, however, were also under a sworn duty to escape, and used the long empty hours of captivity to dream up ever-more sophisticated ways in which to make their way out.

These included tunneling out, walking out disguised as German officers, and exit by subterfuge.  In order to facilitate these attempts, a sophisticated support network was created. Counterfeit papers were produced, fake uniforms and civilian clothes manufactured, and diversion tactics employed.

We were all looking forwards to wandering round, and seeing for real the places that we had read so much about.

The castle is accessed through a pair of doors into a steeply sloping cobbled courtyard. A small door leads into the official entrance, and we entered the cool interior. Climbing the stairs to the first floor, we arrived in a well-lit room housing a small gift shop and ticket desk, which led onwards into a bright area containing museum exhibits.

Stout wooden doors – and a stout English visitor!

Glass cases displayed a great selection of artefacts ingeniously fashioned by the prisoners; digging implements, printing equipment, and even a wooden typewriter for creating work permits and travel documents!

The size of the museum is quite small and occupies only a tiny percentage of the castle itself.  The only way that access can be gained to other parts of the building is by engaging the services of an official guide.

Chris had thoughtfully organised a guide for us, and at just 45 Euros for 2 hours, Lottie was great value. She was extremely knowledgeable, and had a great sense of humour, the result of spending three years living as a student in London no doubt.

Under Lottie’s guidance, we were led out into the courtyard and were shown the impossibly tiny coal hole that Airey Neave hid in during one of his breakout attempts.

The restored coal hole from which Airey Neave MP made his escape.

From Lottie’s explanations, it seems that after the war, and the Soviets took over the administration of the region; the history of Colditz was totally ignored, and local children like Lottie grew up accepting that the Castle was nothing more than a mental asylum.

The Soviet government chose to do nothing with the castle, which became more and more decrepit and derelict as the decades marched on.

The worst casualty of this willful neglect is the Chapel, which was virtually derelict at the time we visited back in 2012, but it may well have been restored by now. As guests of a tour guide, we were actually allowed in, and could see that prior to the war, it would have been a beautiful building, but for the neglect.

Escape tunnel deep under the Colditz castle

Having come back into the bright light of the courtyard, I asked Lottie if we could see the loft where the glider was made.  She sighed theatrically, and told me that due to Health and Safety we couldn’t see that part of the castle as it was being renovated.

I then asked if it would be possible for us to visit the theatre where the prisoners put on plays as part of the diversion strategy to keep the guards occupied as they conducted escape activities.

She smiled at that, remarking that we were the first group of visitors who even knew of the theatre.  This surprised me, as I would have thought that many of the visitors to the castle would either be ex-military or as interested in military history as we were.

Anyway, suffice to say that she led us up the stairs and along some gloomy corridors that were still decorated with the original flock wallpaper, and with an all-pervading smell of mustiness and damp.

Once into the theatre, we chatted amongst ourselves, discussing the scene in the Colditz film where prisoners put on a show to disguise the noise of tunneling and excavation whilst an escape attempt was in progress.

The inventive escapees staged a play, and invited the German Officers and senior NCOs to watch the performance and whilst they were on stage, some of their brother officers were making good their escape.

“Is there any chance that we could stand on the stage” Chris asked.  “Ja, of course you can” grinned Lottie. “Would you like that I take your picture?”

We gleefully mounted the stage, and adopted a group theatrical pose, and She snapped away.

Having exhausted the inside of the Schloss, we were led outside into the grounds, to the places where the prisoners played football. Lottie pointed out where Michael Sinclair was shot trying to escape.

He was the only prisoner to ever be shot escaping from Colditz. This in itself was a sad accident, and was apparently unintentional.

According to Lottie, he attempted to run during a football match. The guards ordered him to stop, but he continued sprinting away. The guards opened fire, apparently aiming to hit his legs, but a bullet hit him in the elbow, and then ricocheted into his heart, killing him instantly.

Eventually, Lottie bought us back to the courtyard where the tour ended.

We thanked her profusely, and gave her a handsome tip – she had done a splendid job, and we left the castle in far better spirits than some of those men from 70 years ago.

We strolled down to the town, and wandered back to our hotel, where we enjoyed some excellent German cuisine – and a few steins of strong lager in the deserted restaurant.

By now, we were all quite tired, and so after a couple more beers in the bar, we said our goodnights, and retired to our rooms.

Next morning our taxi arrived promptly, and we meandered our way back to Altenberg, catching the Ryanair flight back to Stansted.

Our weekend was both historically rewarding and great value for money. Our flights were £135.00, accommodation was £35.00, Entrance fees and tour guides £35.00, £30.00 taxi fares, and £35.00 food. A total of £270.00[1] for an incredibly interesting and moving weekend.

So, having scratched that particular itch, we will now have to plan our next journey into history.

Go Well.


[1] At March 2012 prices.

THE CHINESE CONNECTION

As a sixty-year-old, I am very privileged to live in an age where I have been able to maintain contact with old schoolfriends, college buddies and university alumni, in a way that my parents could never do.

I was chatting with my Mum the other day, who was wistfully talking about growing up in the 1930s, the disruptive and irretrievable loss of her youth to the war and the education that she subsequently lost.

She sadly referred to good friends – friends that she had when she left school at just fourteen, to go to work. Friends that she lost contact with over the years, and has never been able to find.

I recall sitting down with the old dear with my Facebook account (When I still had one!) searching, as she went through a litany of names. As would be expected I was unable to find any of her peers. Many were girlfriends, so probably would have married and changed names.

My Mum is reasonably fit and healthy, and is approaching ninety. She is highly unusual as she has a laptop computer, and happily uses email to stay in touch with her grandchildren. She shops on line, and is pretty savvy for a lady of her years.

I couldn’t say the same for many of her contemporaries, so even if they were still alive and kicking, there is no assumption that they would have an on-line presence.

I connected with one of my old friends some years back.

Some of you may remember Friends Reunited, which closed down in 2016 after sixteen years of operation.

Screenshot 2020-01-19 at 10.20.04I was sitting in my back room in about 2003, typing the names of old friends into the search bar, when I finally got a hit. I immediately emailed the lad whom I had last seen in about 1986 when we all went to see Queen supported by the mighty Status Quo at Wembley.

After about six weeks without hearing anything, I accepted, a little down-heartedly, that times move on, and maybe he no longer wanted to catch up with a life that was seventeen years previously.

I was somewhat surprised when some eight months later I received an email out of the blue from my old mate. Yes, he was keen to meet up, and was still in contact with the rest of the blokes.

It seems it was me that fell through the cracks, moved away and followed a different path.

Happily, we all met up at a pub in East Grinstead, and we picked up conversations as if it were yesterday, rather than almost two decades.

Subsequently, we have remained firm friends, and meet regularly every couple of months. We chat on WhatsApp or Messenger, or just plain text messaging.

So it was last Friday. We all met up in East Grinstead – initially in a little independent brew-house called the Engine Room,

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THE ENGINE ROOM, EAST GRINSTEAD

from where we all trooped down through the town centre to the Wing Wah Chinese restaurant.

Every member of our group of 8 has a fond memory of this particular restaurant. For me, it was the place that I took my very first girlfriend to on a date, way back in 1977.

The crazy thing is, that the waiter at the time, a young Chinese chap called Alan is now the owner of the restaurant.

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So – how the wheel turns!

Forty-three years later and I am being served in the same restaurant, in the same building, by the same man and sitting with the same bunch of blokes, discussing motorcycles, politics, and music and putting the world to rights.

 

 

Life’s Good!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rolling Back The Years

The sun was smiling warmly as I walked out of the relative gloom of the Chequers Inn, in the tiny rural Hampshire hamlet of Well. I carefully cradled my pint as I walked to one of the somewhat rickety tables overlooking the small car park.

Sitting down at a secluded corner table, I wrestled with my packet of cheese and onion crisps, childishly relieved when the deceptively tough bag finally submitted and dutifully opened, spilling the yellow discs onto the aged wood.

In direct contravention of my dear old Mum’s advice, I gathered them up from the slightly damp, green stained table top, munching them in indecent haste.

Leaning back against the mellow bricks, I could see my motorcycle. It too appeared to be resting, leaning against its side-stand. I smiled. Metaphorically, all she needed was a cigarette…

She was a bit of a beast. Conceived in Milwaukee, she was a diva, and a total extrovert. Dripping in chrome, she was loud, brassy and turned heads wherever she went.

I smiled to myself. 103 cubic inches of American muscle. Deep iridescent metal flake crimson. Acres of chrome. Slash cut muffler and tyres that wouldn’t have been out of place on a Range Rover 4×4.

I took a pull on my pint. Here I was, aged sixty, blatting round the backroads of leafy Hampshire on a hooligan’s machine.

Idly reminiscing, I thought back…

How did I get to be biking?

In a heartbeat it was 1977 again and I was 18, free and single. I was earning a decent wage as an apprentice communications technician, and was enjoying combining working on the tools, and attending West Kent College of Further Education.

It was there that I met my good friend DC, (you know who you are!) who lived in one of the villages south of East Grinstead, where I lived.

Every Friday evening, I would drive the seven miles to Chelwood Gate in my careworn 1969 Vauxhall Viva, and pick up DC, Chip, and our ever-faithful wingman, Elvis.

From there, we would hurtle through the byways and farm lanes at stupid-crazy speeds, playing 50s rock n roll at maximum volume on the eight track. Back then we were all into rock’n’roll, and Chip and Elvis even wore the obligatory drapes and crepes, and both had great haircuts – the Tony Curtis look. I swear that Elvis got through an entire man-sized aerosol of Cossack spray every Friday. His quiff would probably have stopped a round from a Kalashnikov assault rifle at fifty feet!

DC was more of a greaser type, with leather biker jacket and jeans, and although I had a Tony Curtis, I went for the American college-boy look, with drainpipe Levis and baseball boots.

And so it was that fateful Friday…The old country manor house set deep in the West Sussex woods reverberated to the sounds of classic rock and roll – just a normal Friday evening really.

The resident band, The Whispering Sands, were ripping it up, with a rendition of Wipeout, and the dance floor was a mass of gyrating figures, some bopping, some jiving, and others just swaying.

The crowd parted for a moment – just long enough for me to spot her. Tall, willowy, and with a mane of copper auburn curls. Sensing my stare, she grinned, and waved me to come over and join her.

I swallowed the lump in my throat. I was not renowned as a dancer of any kind. More of a self-propelled clothes horse – that was my style. Still, it was too good an offer to decline, so I made my way over.

Thankfully, the band ran out of steam at that point, so I avoided having to dance, and we found a quieter table and sat down.

After an awkward introduction, we settled down to chat amiably, and all too soon it was time to leave. I did however, manage to get her phone number, which I hastily scrawled onto a damp beer mat.

In a blink she disappeared into the night, leaving me wanting to see her again.

Two days later, I called her, and she seemed pleased to hear from me. I asked if she wanted to go for a drink. She immediately agreed, and suggested a small pub in one of the nearby villages.

“When should I pick you up?” I asked, hoping to find her address.

“Meet you there at seven o’clock. Public Bar”

I was about to respond, when I realised that she had hung up.

Later that evening, I parked up in the small car park at the Punchbowl Inn in Turners Hill. I checked out the public bar, but she wasn’t there, so I ordered a pint of Harveys and went out to sit in the beer garden, which sat adjacent to the car park.

The mid-May sun was low in the clear cloudless sky, and was painting the local roofs gold.

I could hear my car clicking softly as it cooled down. The outside of my beer glass soon had a sheen of condensation.

I was checking my watch for the fiftieth time since arriving, when a light blue motorcycle swooped into the car park, it exhausts crackling and popping. The rider got off, and pulled the bike onto its stand, and then removed the blue crash helmet – revealing a shock of copper curls.

Turning, she saw me, waved, and walked over.

“Nice bike” I ventured.

“Its new. I only got it three weeks ago.” She grinned. “It’s already run in!”

I walked over to get a better look at it. Iridescent blue, with gold pinstripes, gleaming chromework, and a gloss black frame.

Suzuki GT185 proclaimed the badge on the side panel.

I then realised that there was an open face helmet with WW2 Fighter pilot goggles strapped to the small rack behind the seat.

“Drink up” she said. “Leave your car here. We can go to the White Hart at Ardingly”

“On that?” I asked.

Looking at me levelly, she said “Call it a rite of passage.” “That’s assuming you would like to see me again.”

I hastily pulled the helmet on, feeling my stomach start to knot. I eventually managed to fasten the strap, and pulled the goggles down over my eyes.

She was already rigged, with helmet scarf and gloves on. Leaning over, she popped the small pillion footpegs down, and got astride. I awkwardly climbed aboard, and held onto the chrome rack with a vice like grip.

The bike suddenly started, and she yelled at me to lean with her, and relax. With that she swung the bike back onto the main road, and we sped off, with fantastic acceleration.

It was a truly visceral experience, the joy of speed, the sensory overload of seeing hedgerows and houses pass in a blur of colour. The smell of two stroke exhaust, and the smooth roller coaster swings of the bike as we rounded bends. The weird feeling of the footpegs dancing up and down as they followed the wheels trajectory – I could not only see the road, I could feel every ripple, every bump.

All too soon, we stopped at the White Hart, where we stayed for the rest of the evening.

Driving my car back home was very much an anti-climax, and at that point I decided to get a motorcycle.

Within three weeks, I was the proud owner of a second-hand Suzuki GT250, in iridescent blue, with gold pinstripes, gleaming chrome and glossy black paintwork.

I then owned a variety of bikes of differing sizes, including a TS250, RD 200, TD175, RD250, XS250, KH250, and then, having passed my test, Suzuki T350, GT380, GT550, GT750, Triumph Bonneville, Yamaha XS550, XS750, Kawasaki Z900, and then more latterly, after a gap of some twenty years, Suzuki GS550, Triumph Bonneville, Suzuki V-Strom, Harley Davidson Switchback, and now my Triumph Trophy 1215 SE.

And not to forget a Honda Silverwing 400cc scooter, which is very different and was a good commuter for an 80-mile daily round trip.

I’m now sixty. Still riding. And all because of a girlfriend in 1977 who owned a bright blue Suzuki GT185.

Night Departure

Tail lights vanishing into a darkening sky,

A symbol of your leaving,

An intermittent spark of fading cherry red,

Dwarfed, and made miniscule by the vastness of night,

The lonely silver disc of the moon, bathes the landscape with surreal intensity,

In it’s unfeeling spotlight, for an unknown reason, I feel desolate,

You, speeding across the roof of the world, chasing the eastern mystic dawn,

I gaze at the last seductive blink of light, yet distance and darkness conspire,

The universe wins, and defeated, I stand alone,

I trudge to the car park, wearing shoes of lead,

Having nowhere to go, yet no reason to stay,

Out! Out! onto the highway, My reality here,

Yet My spirit soars east, chasing, never catching,

Radio taunts, me, romantic songs,

I turn south, and briefly look up,

I see another, red, winking, vanishing into a darkening sky

Mark Charlwood© 1989

He Rides a Different Road

He’s in his fifties, yet leather-clad, his grey hair proves his years,

His tattoos long since faded, and his belly fat, from beers,

With chains, and studs and heavy boots, his presence here is awesome,

The patch upon his back is clear, he is an iron horseman,

 

Iron Horseman, iron Horseman, on your two wheeled steed,

In search of lost horizons, a wistful, restless breed,

Always riding to the future, in search of some deep truth,

Or chasing down the tattered fragments of your youth.

 

You’ll see him up the Ace Cafe, or at a bikers boozer,

He spends less on food and clothes, than he does upon his cruiser,

In his mind he’s easy rider, he’s Brando on the run,

Mad Max on the Highway, Terminator with a gun,

 

Iron Horseman, iron Horseman, on your two wheeled steed,

In search of lost horizons, a wistful, restless breed,

Always riding to the future, in search of some deep truth,

Or chasing down the tattered fragments of your youth.

His summers packed with ride-outs, just cruising with the HOG,

In a roaring stream of metal, they look a fearsome mob,

But behind the beard, and denims, the leather and the chrome,

Is a bloke who’s’ taking Christmas toys, to the local children’s home.

So when you sit in judgement, from your shiny, ivory tower,

On your dull commute to office land, where you wield such puny power,

Of the old bloke on his noisy bike, In his jacket, jeans and scarf,

Remember that he’s just chosen, to ride a different path

 

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Mark Charlwood 2019©

Facebook – A Modern Time Machine

Social Media is a wonderful thing.

A few years ago, when my dear old Father was still alive, I recall a gloomy conversation that I had with him about friends. He lost touch with many of his school day friends, mainly as a result of being evacuated to different parts of the UK during the war.  He was expressing his sadness about how he had never been able to find those old friends of his lost and damaged childhood. 

Friends Reunited, and Facebook arrived too late to help my Dad, and so he died having never found those boys he grew up with.

I am very privileged. Using Facebook,  I managed to reconnect with a number of old friends, some from school, and some from my apprenticeship and college days. I am happy to say that I am still firm friends with all of these individuals , despite the passing of the years. It just needed the catalyst of social media to re-ignite old friendships.

I was sitting in my man-cave the other day, when my IPad softly chimed, indicating an incoming message. Putting down my mug of tea, I opened the app, and read my message. It was from a very old friend, Mark 

Now, I should perhaps explain here, that Mark was a year younger than me, but his Father had been my headmaster, a man who is still fondly remembered by many of my friends, if their comments on social media are to be believed. 

Mark and I used to be regular members of the local youth club, the Wallis Centre and both of us developed a passion for motorcycles – a passion encouraged by the leader of the youth club, a middle aged eccentric who loved bikes, and was a skilled photographer. I have many black and white photos of my bikes, accompanied by either my girlfriend of the moment, or in some cases, me!

At the time, in the mid nineteen seventies, there were a number of cliques in my youth club. There was my age group – seventeen and eighteen year olds, and a number of older members who were already in their early twenties.

However, under the wise management of Stef, we made the transition to adulthood with a soundtrack provided by the Mighty Status Quo, Lynyrd Skynrd, Thin Lizzy, Led Zeppelin and the Stones. We all got along, and grew up together.

I remember the thrill of taking my first real motorcycle up to the Wallis; a metallic blue Suzuki GT125, and then as the years passed, of riding up on different, ever larger machines, from my ponderous Honda CD175, to my agile and nimble Suzuki TS185, the TS250,  The Yamaha RD200, Suzuki GT380, GT550, Yamaha XS750, and so on.

Friday nights used to be almost a ritual. Black fringed leather jacket.  Check. Levis. Check. Despatch rider boots. Check. White tee shirt. Check. Denim cut off with badges and patches. Check.

Bikes would be washed and polished – never knew when Stef would have his camera out. A gentle potter up to the Wallis centre and park up – along with maybe twenty or thirty other bikes.

The disco would be in full swing, and the sounds of rockabilly, rock, and rock and roll would be pounding.  Black ink stamp on the back of our hands.  Helmets and jackets everywhere. Long lines of guys n girls stomping out line dances to the Stones and The Quo.

All of these leather jacketed “bikers” in a polite and orderly queue, buying bags of crisps and bottles of Pepsi at the tuck shop – no alcohol allowed in the youth club. 

Summer evenings, outside, with your girl, enjoying a snog and a hug. Quiet conversations over a cigarette, helping mates through the pains of a break up, or helping them to screw up the courage to ask a girl out.

Bad Ass people us motorcyclists.

At ten o’clock sharp, we would be unceremoniously ordered out, and we would tumble out of the doors, a happy throng, and jump astride our bikes, kick them into life, and a stream of Hondas, Yamahas, Nortons and Triumphs would make their way into the High Street, where we would park up by the war memorial.

Laughing and joking, we would all pile into the Public bar of the Rose and Crown, where we would have a few pints and shoot some pool.  Once the pub turned out at eleven o’clock, we would wander across the road, and sit down on the steps, by the memorial. There we would sit, smoking, laughing and talking.

This would go on until the Town’s local police car cruised past us for the third or fourth time. Eventually, the car would stop, and PC Rain would casually walk over.

“Evening Lads” he would say. All of us would respond, “Evening Sir”. A little banter would ensue, with gentle insults traded in both directions.

It would normally end with “Plod” heaving a deep sigh, saying, “Goodnight lads. I don’t want to see you here when I next come past”

He would then climb back into the little sky blue and white Ford Escort, and slowly drive off down the town.  We knew from previous experience that he would drive down to the fire station, turn around in their car park, then come back up the town, via the cinema. 

About ten minutes.  He was always very reasonable, and we all liked him. 

Within five minutes, we would be helmeted, started, and gone, leaving only the smell of burnt two stroke oil, and a slight haze to testify to our existence.

We would be back in place by ten o’clock on Saturday morning. We would sit on the steps and chat, and maybe take a wander round the market. By noon, we would descend on the Wimpy Bar, where we would take up residence for the afternoon, drinking tea and coffee until we were unceremoniously booted out at five o’clock

This went on without issue for months, but apparently, somewhere, somehow, we had managed to irritate someone.

We only discovered this, when someone wrote to the local paper, complaining about anti social motorcyclists gathering by the war memorial. The East Grinstead Courier were delighted with this, and the headlines screamed out “Top of the town motorcycle gang causing concern”

Really?  A bunch of bored middle class kids enjoying a cigarette and each other’s company? I never witnessed any problems – not even dropping litter. Yes, we may have got a bit loud sometimes, but we were never villains. I think I still have a copy of that headline. 

Eventually, we all grew up.  Moved away. Had kids. Got divorced.  Got back into motorcycles.

So, within the last three or four months, my old friend had got in touch with everyone he could think of who used to be part of this notorious “gang of n’ere do wells”.

And so it came to be – the Rebirth of the Top of the Town Bikers. Forty years since it all began.

As a result, if you venture up to the top of the sleepy West Sussex town of East Grinstead at ten o’clock on a Sunday morning, you are likely to see fifteen or twenty middle aged men and women, on a selection of bikes from sports bikes through to customised cruisers.

You will witness much laughter.  You may be in time to see them mount up, and start their machines, the ground shaking, and the peaceful high street woken up with the noise of engines.  Then they will be off, majestically sweeping off down the town, off on a ride out somewhere. Probably back to 1976. Who knows?

I was with them on the most recent ride out – there must have been 12 bikes, including 6 Harley Davidsons, and the rest sports bikes.  We rode down to Goodwood motor racing circuit, and enjoyed ourselves in that uninhibited way that only long time friends can.

 

Happy days…thanks to Facebook!

Motorcycling – The Wonder Years…

It was a warm summer evening in 1979 and my bike throbbed throatily below me, the sounds twisting and spinning backwards in the gentle slipstream.  In front of me, I could see the yellow jacketed figure of my girlfriend, sitting erect, yet relaxed on the saddle of her big Suzuki, as we powered round the bends, and up the long gentle hill leading into East Grinstead.

As her bike passed in and out of the dappled sunlight, I could see the faint blue mist from the twin exhausts, and the rich oily smell of Castrol R filled my nostrils. At the Felbridge traffic lights, I pulled to a stop next to her, and looked across, and I could see that she was smiling beneath her white silk scarf. The lights changed, and we cut our way smoothly through the traffic, up to the centre of the town.

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The old market town was quiet, despite it being half past seven on a Friday evening, and we were the only traffic sitting at the lights by the Post Office.

The lights changed, and we swept majestically into King Street, and into Christopher Road, and sedately burbled round the bends, before turning left into the car park of the Wallis Centre.

Kicking down the prop stand, I switched the ignition off, and dismounted my bike, and stepped back, removing my helmet and scarf. My bike looked good; deep, lustrous, dark blue metallic, with a gold pinstripe. Piper three into one exhaust. Gleaming chrome. Grabbing the seat rail, I heaved the beast onto its centre stand – not an easy job due to the weight of a Suzuki GT550.

My girlfriend had already removed her helmet, and was busy with the hairbrush – can’t go into the Wallis youth club with “helmet hair”.

We strolled to the door, got an ink stamp on the back of the hand, and wandered in. The place was already filling up, and Pete had already fired up the disco.

As we walked through the main hall, we were greeted by the usual crew. Rastus, Skinny, Toddy, Olly, DC, Elvis, Nutty and many more, which made our short journey to the snack shop quite lengthy, as we had to catch up with everyone.

Buying a couple of bottles of Pepsi, and a Mars bar each, we wandered back into the hall, which was now packed. Above the sound of Status Quo, we could hear more bikes arriving, and the cacophony of revving engines competed hard against the electric guitars.

Going outside a little later on, we were greeted by the sight of a plethora of different bikes; Old British – Nortons, Triumphs, BSAs and Modern Japanese – and a very light sprinkling of continental makes such as Jim’s Moto Guzzi.

Inside the Hall, was a sea of black leather and Denim, and it wasn’t long before the dancing started – long parallel lines of bikers and babes, all moving – almost, as one, with a stomping, shoulder-rolling belt-clutching beat.

We joined the end of one of the lines, and swiftly fell into step with the others, and enjoyed the music – the track was “Caroline” by the Quo, which was skilfully blended into Dion belting out “The Wanderer”. By the end of the second track, we were both a bit puffed out, so we wandered to the back room, and started a half hearted game of pool.

The pull of the music was strong though, and we spent the rest of the evening on the dance floor, only interrupting our biker line dances to go and cool down outside, and for me to stoke up a cigarette, and shoot the breeze with some of the others. 

The girlfriend would usually end up deep in conversation with her best friend Sarah, and some of the others, and I would sometimes catch them glancing furtively at me, and then hearing their peals of laughter, I guessed at my expense.

However, I enjoyed these relatively peaceful sojourns; I would normally sit astride my bike, and chat in the gathering darkness with my mates Fatty and RJ, talking about women, bikes, hot rods and the future.

On this particular evening, I was talking with Emjay, when Nico, the youth club leader wandered out, to stoke up his pipe. He looked at me, and said

“Come on now lad, let’s be getting a photo of you and that bike of yours. And you Mr. James.”

So we dragged our bikes out onto the centre of the playground, and Nicos aimed his camera, and snapped away.  Nicos was a legendary photographer, and images of the youth club members both past and present adorned the walls. I knew that I would have to wait until the next Friday to see the result, as Nick would develop the photo himself.

At that point the warm summer evening was changing to indigo dusk, and like a flock of noisy starlings, the car park suddenly filled with bikers and their girls, and the sound of thirty or so bikes echoed around the small quad, and just as quickly, with a twinkling of an eye, they were gone.

A short ride to the top of the town, and we all parked our bikes by the steps just up from  the war memorial. Laughing amiably, we all piled into the Rose and Crown, filling the small public bar, ordering drinks, and shooting pool. 

There was only time for two pints of weak bitter before time was called, and we eventually wandered to our bikes in ones and twos, with muted conversations, and muttered discussions. The bikes departed as if to the four corners of the universe, and within three minutes, the high street was empty, save the slight pervasive odour of two stroke smoke..

The girlfriend and I rode slowly home, having enjoyed the company of the group of friends from the Wallis, infamously christened “The Top of the Town Bikers” by the local rag. 

That night, and hundreds more like it, was forty years ago.

Forty years on, I still ride a bike. Still have a leather jacket – but no longer adorned with fringes. The denim cutoff festooned with badges has long gone, consigned to the rubbish heap of history. 

I no longer ride in White tee shirt, Jeans, Despatch rider boots with seamens socks. Now its fully armoured leather and kevlar. My crash helmet is fitted wit blue tooth communications, and has an inbuilt tinted visor. No more mirrored aviator shades under the visor.

Armoured gloves, and Reinforced boots complete my riding ensemble. Safety got serious.

The intervening years have meant that I now take a slightly larger jacket and ride slightly slower these days. The only time i get my knee down now is to get a pint of milk from the fridge.

I am fortunate that I no longer ride in the wet. I don’t ride after dusk either – a habit I picked ip riding across tyhe USA to Sturgis. Too much road kill for my liking, and in my rural country district I share the lanes and byways with Deer and Pheasants. Deer wander into the road, and Phesants are just plain stupid.

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Whilst I am unable to meet them regularly at ten o’clock on a Sunday morning, I was privileged to join them on a ride out to Glorious Goodwood, for Bike Fest South.  The same names, but the bikes are different…

Lots of Harleys now, when back in the day, we would have laughed at the idea of riding a  “Tractor”.

But the thrill is still the same. Twenty plus bikes, many two up, rumbling their way through the country lanes of West Sussex, exhausts popping loudly on the over run, weaving round  sweeping bends, cutting our way through the South Downs, the green hedges, and mauve blossom of the Rhododendrons blurring into a kaleidoscope of colour.

Forty years on and yet the conversations are almost the same, almost picked up from where we left off, shooting the breeze, and strangely, still talking about bikes, beer, women, hot rods and what we plan for the future.

Life’s Good….