James, my brother-in-law, came to stay with us in Suffolk with his son, Henry, the other day. They arrived on an early, peachy summer eve-ning in their pale-ivory 1970 Triumph Stag, in perfect condition (it had been heavily restored), both of them windblown in 1930s cheese-slicer caps.
This was not an ordinary visit. Months before, James had been diagnosed with lung cancer. Ever positive, he and Henry decided to do the whole tour of Great Britain, from Land’s End to John o’Groats, in aid of cancer chari-ties and, along the way, to visit places important in his life.
James lives in Devon, so, first, they did an easy trip to Land’s End. After that, it got harder. Roaring throatily, they drove to his youngest brother, John, up in Bladon in Oxfordshire (where Churchill is buried) and then a great heave to his eldest brother, Ronald, in Swaledale in North Yorkshire.
From there to where James was born, Cullercoats on the north bank of the Tyne. Along the way, Henry told me, he got to know his father as never before. He saw where he was born, grew up as a child and heard what it was like then.
Next it was up to Blair Atholl, where James, after training in agriculture at Cirencester, had got hands-on experience at the Blair Castle estates and where, in 2014, he met old friends he hadn’t seen for 40 years. And, of course, up to John o’Groats on the longest day but one, where they tried to read the paper at midnight with partial success. June was chosen, not because of the romance of midsummer, but because the Stag’s headlights are temperamental.
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The road from Cornwall to Sutherland is well trodden. The Stag met people driving, cycling and walking the 874 miles, inc-luding 16-year-old Adam Mugliston, who, last month, did the whole trip by buses in four days. It’s a new pilgrimage, unlike the medieval 500-mile Santiago de Compostela, dedicated not to St James, but to Britain. Along the way, by the way, they got the impression that Scotland will not secede and fervently hope that Britain remains Great after September.
The next lap was to visit his ex-wife in Cumbria and then on to RAF Digby in Lincolnshire where James, a National Serviceman, trained as a pilot. We had lots of laughs about the bullying corporals (‘Can any of you play the piano? Right, move that grand downstairs’) and his first ever flight, with the sun breaking through the cloud. A magical moment for anyone, even blasé travellers today. And then on to us.
The trip took more than six months to plan (and just under a fortnight to execute), for not only was every stop organised, but various halts were made in between—a friend here and a remembered scene there. James and Henry’s wives and families were kept in touch with phonecalls and, because this was done for cancer charities, each leg was faithfully recorded: a stop by York Minster on a yellow line (with a laminated card on the Triumph’s dash explaining the trip was for charity) was proof that the schedule was being followed.
Up to the last moment, we had serious doubts that the pair and their 44-year-old car would make the lonely roads from Blair Atholl to John o’Groats. I didn’t buy the leg of lamb for their supper until the day they were due. But, smack on time, they arrived here in Suffolk.
As far as I can see, there were no minuses to the venture, but plus marks aplenty: for family reunions miles apart, for a closer relationship between father and son, for places revisited, memories rekindled, friendships revived and a journey through the length of Great Britain achieved. And more than £3,000 raised for charity.
We waved them off as they raced down the drive in clouds of dust. Back to a barbecue and vintage-car rally at Bladon, a visit to daughter Sarah and a return to Devon in the next few days. Mission accomplished. They’re now working on their next tour.