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Masters Blog – Summer Special

Those of you of a certain age will no doubt have had a favourite comic and will doubtless remember the eagerly awaited Summer Special. It was an extra-long edition designed to keep children amused during the long summer holidays, although it normally arrived during our holidays and was waiting on our return home and was always published slightly later than I think the publisher would have wished.

Mine was The Victor, with great stories of huge military achievements and great characters like Alf Tupper “The Tough of the Track”, who could run an Olympic final after a bag of fish and chips! What, you ask, does that have to with the Livery? Well, nothing (much) except that this extra-long blog does have something of the summer special feel about it!!! Apologies to the publication team for my delay in publication.

I could have used the excuse that because of Covid, nothing physically happened and therefore there was no material. Whilst that is true at one level, at another level I have never seen the Livery so active. Looking back through the diary for inspiration, I note there were several meetings every week and even the traditional quiet month of August seemed “full on”. Your Livery has had to adapt and change and I do believe the time we have been kept apart has been used to great advantage by the Court and the various Committees.

I would highlight, in particular: the recently completed organisation structure and revised terms of reference, completed in record time by The Upper Warden and Past Master Raines; the preparatory work for a ground breaking Charity Auction next year; the development of the Distillers’ YouTube TV channel and a whole new communications strategy by Paul Finch, Chris Searle and the Marketing group; the redeveloped Vocational Training Strategy and plan developed by Richard Watling and his team; the preparatory work by the Charity group, led by Grant Gordon,  for a change to a C.I.O which will substantially modernise our Charity; and  the massive organisational effort for the Distillers 500 Charity Bike Ride led by James Higgins. We have been superbly served by a group of people who recognise the need for change in the current and future shape of the Livery, driven by the circumstances of Coronavirus. At a personal level, I have found myself meeting several times every week on Livery business – which is only to be expected of a Master – but I have to say I have been in awe at the levels of commitment displayed by all the above – and, indeed, others – in driving these various initiatives forward. My sincere and grateful thanks to them all.

The Distillers 500 bike run was like nothing I have done before, and its memories will remain with me for the rest of my life.

Having never enjoyed endurance sports, approaching 60 and having not been particularly active (other than dog walking and golf) since retiring form rugby in my 40s, the idea, first hatched in early 2019, was to do something to help keep weight off during my Master’s year and also try to inspire those younger than me with the Livery Charity vision.

Initially, the plan was to leave my home in Auchterarder on my 60th birthday in April, but Covid and other factors got in the way and we eventually settled on arriving in London on 22nd September – City Giving Day.

As many people have commented on, Lockdown was not all bad in a rural environment and the lovely Spring and summer weather gave the other riders and me the chance to put in many extra training miles, which I have no doubt made a huge difference.

Apart from the training miles, there was the small matter of the logistics and organisation for a week-long event of this nature and, again, I am hugely in James Higgins’ debt for a superb organisational plan. Early broad-brush ideas were replaced by detailed itineraries, accommodation plans, risk assessments, kit lists and Garmin/Strava files with routes, as James set about the task with his customary diligence and enthusiasm. This, in itself, was a big enough ask, but with frequent changes in Covid restrictions (differing on each side of the border) leading up to the event, the plans were frequently being rewritten.

The run itself was a true “once in a lifetime” experience. A real physical challenge, but with an amazing group of people, amazing weather, amazing route scenery, amazing stopovers, an amazing final day in London and an amazing cause.

The people

Four other Liverymen – the Learned Clerk Ed Macey-Dare, David Wilson, Alan Montague-Dennis and James Higgins – together with prospective Liverymen Scott Allen and Simon Swift, joined me – and what a group they were! Different cycling abilities and experience were clearly evident from the start, but the group gelled as a team from the early Zoom meetings and that teamwork continued right up to the last day. We were superbly supported in the back-up team of Jonathan Driver and The Mistress, who excelled at every food stop and ensured we were perfectly fuelled for the task. I have many memories of all of them and cannot thank them enough for their support. Thanks also to my Mother and Mother-in-Law who baked tablet cakes and flapjacks (Rocket fuel!!).

The weather

From a slightly cool start in Scotland and a hint of Scotch mist, the weather steadily improved during the day and got progressively better as we rode south, culminating in a beautiful 28 degrees of sunshine as we rode into the City one week later.

The Route Scenery

First thing on day one, we had the challenge of riding the 4 miles up to the top of beautiful Glendevon in Perthshire, before a long descent to The Forth Road Bridge and into Edinburgh and lunch at 603 Squadron, our RAF Military affiliate, where we were welcomed by Liveryman Jerry Riley, the former CO. Our afternoon cycle saw the Learned Clerk and I cycle the length of Princess Street in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle, before turning to climb out of Edinburgh all the way to the top of Soutra Hill and down into the borders.

Day two was crisp and beautifully clear as we made our way to The Tweed Valley and the border at Coldstream. Stunning scenery. After lunch, we were able to cycle in bigger groups and made our way down the A697 and over some steep climbs in Northumbria, before reaching Newcastle for a welcome beer in the late afternoon sunshine.

Day 3 dawned misty and cold and we definitely experienced the legendary fog on the Tyne as we negotiated our way through Newcastle’s early morning traffic. A quick stop for photographs at The Angel of the North and on through North Yorkshire to RAF Leeming in Northallerton, with a quick socially distanced stop at Mason’s Gin just before arrival, where we were escorted by two riders from the RAF cycling team.

Blythe Crawford, the Station Commander, is a keen cyclist and had been introduced by his former boss, Clive Bairsto, our Development Director. Blythe immediately made the offer of accommodation on the base, for which we are hugely grateful. Thanks to both of them for everything they did to make this happen.

Day 4 saw a great turnout of the RAF cyclists, including a Triathlete who has represented Team GB, escort us through the idyllic country lanes of North Yorkshire, before they turned for home and we continued to Doncaster through some wonderful scenery. Unfortunately, I managed to get a little too close to that scenery as I landed in a hedge after a freak accident in the peloton, but now understand the “hierarchy of pain” much better as the nettle stings on my legs overtook my saddle sores at the top! The cyclists negotiated the centre of Doncaster slightly better than the back-up crew and were enjoying their second beer in the sunshine when the back-up bus finally arrived, having extricated itself from the one-way system!!

Day 5 was flatter, but a beautiful run through some lovely villages on back roads that I had never been on previously and will probably never see again. The weather was really beginning to warm up as we headed for Grantham, with fantastic locations for food stops. At this point, I was longing for the flat Lincolnshire countryside but was actually surprised how many small hills there were left to climb (or was I just becoming tired?). My aching Achilles’ tendons had taken over at the top of “the hierarchy of pain” and they stayed there till the end (where they remain to this day!!)

Day 6 After an early morning start in Grantham, we were off on the long penultimate day and we did finally get to experience some lovely long flat runs in glorious sunshine as we skirted the Fens on our way to Cambridge. To say that the experience of arriving at King’s College, where we were welcomed by the Domus Bursar Philip Isaac, was surreal would be an understatement! In beautiful early evening sunshine, we were shown into the stunning college and to our rooms; it all had a slightly unbelievable feel to it – stunning!! More thanks to Clive for arranging this too!!

Day 7 The back-up team excelled themselves again, as we stood eating the best bacon baguettes ever for breakfast, overlooking the Cam in King’s College garden. A fitting start to the last day – and what a day it was!!! The weather was even warmer, and the miles flew by until lunch, and we were ready for the final stretch to Mansion House. Then disaster struck. Simon had some terminal damage to his rear wheel and did not look great for finishing the run, as we were far from somewhere to get a replacement or repair. This could have led to him having to abandon the run at almost 98%, but fortunately Gavin Evans of Future Youth Zone, who had been due to cycle the last 20 miles with us, lent Simon his bike and travelled on with the Back Up team instead. Grant Gordon, our Charity Chairman, did join us, however and we set off for the City.

Further disaster struck In London, where James and Alan were involved in another accident not of their making – but Distillers are made of strong stuff and they remounted and continued to the finish. Riding into the City had a different feel from a bus or a taxi, but that might have been the euphoria of knowing that we were going to complete the task and I am sure some of us shed a wee tear as we rode up to Innholders to be met by friends and family.

Paul Finch, Andrew Cox, David Raines and Donna Bowers had battled numerous changes to the restrictions but pulled off a superb welcome as we arrived at Innholders for a quick stop before the Mansion House. My grateful thanks to all of them for the superb arrangements in London. Thanks also to John Cash our Beadle and also The Innholders – and, in particular, the Master Innholder – for allowing us to use their Hall for our arrival. It never looked so welcoming!!!

A lovely surprise for me was my brother and sister-in-law, who had travelled from Scotland to see us arrive.

After the celebrations, there was one last ride to Mansion House and the personal presentation of our cheque for £20k to The Lord Mayor for his appeal and onward donation to Future Youth Zone in Dagenham. Another wonderful memory and I was honoured to represent Distillers in that way.

If I thought that would end the highlights, I was wrong, for we then moved on to St Lawrence Jewry for a short Service of Thanksgiving, led by our Chaplain Rev Canon David Parrott –hugely appreciated by the group. This was an incredibly moving service giving thanks for our safe arrival and the work of Distillers’ Charity and our beneficiaries. Gavin gave an inspirational insight into Future Youths Work and we were all able to give our own thanks to God for what had been achieved.

A final dinner in socially distanced groups was a lovely finish for the group.

In ordinary circumstances, that would have been the end of the Summer Special – but the next day I was privileged to be interviewed for the first screening of Distillers’ TV. This initiative is designed to help keep Liverymen in touch in the current environment and I know we have ambitious plans for it. Huge thanks and congratulation to all in the Marketing team and the Master’s Task Force for making this happen. Another step forward for our amazing Livery.

Lastly, and definitely not wishing to end on a downbeat note, with reference to the numerous cancellations and change of events that as recently as last week we again had to pull the plug on, spare a thought for the wonderful asset we have in our Assistant Clerk. She has stoically dealt with everything thrown at her and has been a huge help in administering the various charity payments and receipts that we have be involved in this year. We are so fortunate to have her. Thanks Kim!