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The Big Bike Back

Having first been evacuated to Kent, a further emergency evacuation to Betws-y-Coed in 1940 occurred when a German invasion looked likely during World War 2.
11 Oct 2021
Alumni News
The riders with Gordon Dearing, in front of the Royal Oak
The riders with Gordon Dearing, in front of the Royal Oak

It was a grey, slightly damp day when ten brave cyclists and two support volunteers departed from Betws-y-Coed in North Wales to pedal the 240 miles back to the Betws building in Dulwich, London.

This adventure celebrated the 80th anniversary of the school’s arrival in North Wales in 1940 during the second world war. For a year, the pupils had been ensconced in the safety of their purpose-built evacuation camp at Coursehorn, just outside Cranbrook, Kent. However, when the German blitzkrieg saw the Wermacht poised on the cliffs of France, ready to invade Britain, the camp became a dangerous place to be as it was only 11 miles from the coast. Leaping into action, the then Headmaster, John Leakey, quickly moved everyone by train to safety in North Wales, where the Royal Oak in Betws-y-Coed became their home for the next five years.

One of the pupils on that train was Gordon Dearing. Now aged 94, he travelled up to North Wales to meet and greet the group and captivated them, and other hotel guests, with his tales of life as a pupil at the Royal Oak in 1940. In the morning, he waved the starting flag as the group set off.

The route wound its hilly way through spectacular scenery to Llangollen and a welcome break for lunch at the Three Eagles before pedalling on to Shrewsbury, then Stratford, High Wycombe and finally Dulwich. They rode up and down, several challenging climbs in the Cotswolds and Chilterns, including Edgehill, the site of the first battle of the Civil War. Ironbridge brought back vivid memories of a former staff member Neil D. Smith’s famous annual geography trip there.

Racing bikes are rather like race horses; they need a lot of tender loving care. So before setting off each day, the bikes were checked and serviced, and often again during the day at snack and lunch stops. Fergus Ryan, a professional cyclist and son of Nick Ryan (1978 Leaver), was always on hand to rectify any problem – repairing punctures and flat tyres, replacing inner tubes and shredded tyres with calm and speedy efficiency. In short, he kept the show on the road.

Above all, what shone through was the friendship and the fun of sharing moments of the day as well as moments of the past. One rider commented: ‘to spend four tough and challenging days with a group who have not seen one another for some time and experience such fun, laughter, kindness and camaraderie was unusual and therefore so special.’

Marshall Field (1943 Leaver) was on hand to welcome them back to Dulwich. Riders, staff, friends and families then headed over to the Alleyn’s Head pub, who had laid out an excellent buffet for them.

The Big Bike back ride was to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the school’s second evacuation and raise money for GOSH, the Great Ormond Street Hospital, a charity chosen by the Year 8 boys at the school. If you would like to help swell the funds even further, please click on this link to contribute

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