The disabled father of a serving soldier is taking part in a month-long cycle challenge in aid of wounded soldiers – and hoping to get into the Guinness Book of Records at the same time.
Darren Heaton, 43, from Derbyshire, set off from Unst today and will use his specially built bike to travel to the Scilly Isles, 1,300 miles away.
Paralysed from the waist down after an accident and with heart problems, Darren is cycling to raise money for the Colonel’s Fund, used by the Grenadier Guards and the Scots Guards, and the Back Up Trust, a charity for people with spinal cord injuries with whom he is a trainee mentor.
At first Darren intended to do the trip from the very north of the British Isles to the far south on his own after he was unable to obtain a fuel sponsor for his support vehicle. People had already donated, he said (he already has £1,000), and he could not let the injured troops down. So, in a journey that was a challenge in itself, he set off from his home in Glossop with no support, cycling on his bespoke hand-cycle, which he described as a cross between a mountain bike and a wheelchair.
However during his journey north, another charity with similar aims for caring for military personnel came forward to help. The Invicta Foundation, which is trying to raise £500,000 for a home to accommodate wounded soldiers before rehabilitation, decided to take part in the challenge in parallel with Darren. Not only would the charity provide a support Range Rover, but also two cyclists to undertake the journey with Darren so that he did not have to do it alone.
Driver of the support vehicle is the founder of The Invicta Foundation Stephen Hall, the father of wounded Sapper Ashley Hall who lost both legs last year at the age of 20 in an explosion in Afghanistan. The two cyclists, using impounded bikes donated by Essex Police, are Stephen’s younger son Luke, 17, and his 19-year-old friend Sam Treloar.
The ambitious aim of The Invicta Foundation (invicta means undefeated) is matched by the determination of Darren, whose son Christian, 25, has also been in Afghanistan and is due to go back there in February. They have joined forces to take part in “Bertie Bear’s Long Way Down Challenge” (accompanied by Bertie Bear, a teddy that has seen active service in Afghanistan).
Darren arrived in Shetland ahead of schedule last week, using A and B roads in a 500 mile, nine-day journey he described as “not too bad, most motorists were really respectful”. He had trained for 10 months on the Derbyshire hills and his bike, with its seven manual gears and power assistance to be used when needed to get up hills, had performed well. This came in useful in the ascent of Shap Fell, at 1,400-ft the highest road in the Lake District.
The bike has been fundamental to the challenge. It would have cost £12,000 had he had to buy it, said Darren, and he is indebted to the builders teamhybrid (www.teamhybrid.co.uk) for their contribution. The front section detaches from the rear, which itself forms a sturdy wheelchair.
The idea of a challenge is that you shouldn’t have it easy, Darren said, and you should also save as much money as possible by relying on “public support”.
To this end, he has spent his nights in police stations, fire stations and even village halls on the journey up to Shetland. In the Lake District, he was offered a meal voucher and a bed for the night at Travelodge after the manager spotted his jacket logo “Hand Cycle for Heroes”. This was all the more welcome as an employee at the hotel had earlier refused Darren’s request for a free bed – he asked for it when he found the emergency services’ premises in the village closed.
Darren even slept in the cells of Lerwick Police Station when he first arrived. “It was quite funny, there was shouting all night.” Subsequently he has slept, again free of charge, in camping bods, thanks to the Shetland Amenity Trust, and latterly in the Saxa Vord Resort.
He said: “At every single place the people have been wonderful”. He loves Shetland, he said, and described the Saxa Vord Resort, which gave him hospitality for nearly a week, as “brilliant”.
But why is he going to so much trouble when there should be systems in place for looking after wounded soldiers? Darren said he does not believe enough is being done. For every fatality the public hears about there are possibly as many as 40 maimed or badly injured: “there are a lot of forgotten heroes that need support”.
He said: “The challenge is not about war, it’s about helping people not fighting any more. They’ve been hurt and deserve the best possible care. This is a personal thank you for them being willing to lay their lives on the line.”
The Invicta representatives arrived in Unst on Tuesday after travelling up from the “super garrison” town of Colchester, Essex, and the freshly-liveried Range Rover and the three cyclists left from the Unst Boat Haven on a dreich Wednesday morning.
Stephen, the driver, said he became all to aware of the plight of wounded soldiers after the injuries to his son Ashley, who was in the Royal Engineers and engaged in going ahead of the front line looking for improvised explosive devices. Besides losing both legs when an IED exploded, Ashley lost the tips of several fingers and suffered a collapsed lung and a torn retina, and to date has had 28 operations. Although the incident happened last July, he was only admitted to the military rehabilitation centre Headley Court in Surrey three weeks ago, and Stephen realised the need for a purpose-built house for veterans between leaving hospital and entering rehabilitation.
He said: “Not a lot of people know how many injured troops there are, some of them very seriously injured. The Parachute Regiment had 40 amputees when they last returned.”
When he heard about Darren’s proposal he decided to “get on board” and raise awareness for wounded soldiers. It would be a “big challenge”, he admitted, not least for the teenage cyclists, who on their way up to Shetland slept one night in a service station car park. “They don’t know what they are letting themselves in for,” Stephen joked, even though Luke has been in the army cadets and Sam was in the Royal Marines but left through injury.
But, said Stephen, however rough the conditions will be on the challenge they are nothing compared to Afghanistan. “The guys out there have it a lot tougher.”
The challenge participants are in Lerwick on Friday and will receive a cheque from the Royal British Legion, which is supporting their efforts, before getting the boat to Orkney on Friday night. They will then travel from Scrabster through the mainland to Penzance, and plan to be in St Agnes, the most southerly part of the Scilly Isles, on 3rd July. Donations are being collected en route by Invicta and will be split equally between their charity and Darren.
• To find out more, track the challenge’s progress or to make a donation go to theinvictafoundation.co.uk and click on forthcoming events, Bertie Bear’s Long Way Down Challenge.