Ride to the Wall

Updated: Oct 6, 2021

We recently interviewed Martin Dickinson, the founder of Ride to the Wall - an event remembering the Armed Forces personnel we have lost since the end of WWII.

Martin got his first moped at the age of 16, before moving onto his first bike at 17. Later, after joining the army and focusing on family for a while, he bought his first Harley, in 2002. He has ridden all over Europe and in many different countries around the world but some of his favourite places to ride are the BCH Highway in California, Thailand and through the Cotswolds here in England. Riding has been a huge part of his life for many years and without it, Ride to the Wall might not have been created.

Founded in 2008, Ride to the Wall is a charity raising money for the National Memorial Arboretum through their annual event. We asked Martin to explain what Ride to the Wall is and how it came about. He stated ' In 2007, I went to the National Memorial Arboretum for Remembrance Day and the Queen, on the 12th of October 2007, had just opened the Armed Forces memorial which has 16,000 names on of service personnel that we’ve lost since the end of the second world war. In the February I went to a Harley Davidsons directors meeting and I put a proposal to all the directors and said look, this is what I want to do, I’m thinking about holding a memorial service, anybody interested? Or could I ask twenty chapters if you could get ten people to come along?

And the thing was I wanted it near the end of the riding season but not too close to Remembrance Day because my belief was Remembrance Day was more to do with the first and second world wars. Where, post-1945, a lot of us had served with people who had names on the wall or we weren’t generations removed, it’s more as we know now, with Afghanistan and things like that, a lot of people that attend ride to the wall are still serving or have recently become veterans and will know people on that wall. So it was kind of, more of the here and now and actually remembering and having connection with people on the wall, unlike Remembrance Day where you’re generations removed, so that connection is great, so that was the idea.'

Ride to the Wall obviously supports a worth-while cause but we wanted to know why it was important to Martin himself.

'Well, over the years I’ve reconnected with the guys I served with 40 years ago. There’s been a lot of, not spinoffs because it is a once-only event, always on the first Saturday in October because for me that is as near to when the Queen opened the AFM and obviously, being ex-military, she was my boss. But it allows people the opportunity to remember with like-minded people and there have been an awful lot of people that have let their barriers come down when they’ve been with people that they haven’t seen for 30 years and we’re all there for the same reason and it has kind of helped quite a lot of people overcome some of their nightmares from the past and things like that. And it’s still, I mean we’re one big family, it’s called The Family now. It’s a big family and we’ve got nineteen and a half thousand people on the Facebook page. I know a lot of people and a lot people know each other just through Ride to the Wall.

Initially, it was just motorcyclists but now, other people want to come along and share the experience with us as well.'

With Ride to the Wall having run from 2008 to the present day, it's interesting to think about how it has grown over the years. Martin told us about the very first event and the turn out the charity received for it.

'As I mentioned earlier on, I went to the directors meeting and asked 20 chapters if they thought they could get 10 people to come to this ride, which would have been 200. So I went to the NMA and paced out, there’s a thing called millennium avenue, and we paced it out and thought, you know what? We can get the 200 bikes on there.

So at 4:30am on the Saturday morning, I was at Tanwood services, went in and got a coffee and came out and a squaddie (term for a serving soldier), turned around to me and said "Oh, are you doing this ride today?" and I went "yeah" and he said "oh, brilliant great" and I thought, how on earth does he know about this because there’s no connection. We pulled out of Tanwood services with 2000 bikes, not 200.

About 98% of the bikes were Harley Davidsons so from about 6 in the morning all you heard was this rumble. We filled the lorry park, we filled the car park, I had to send a guy out to the main roundabout off the motorway to stop cars coming into the services but we managed. I rang the CEO of the NMA and said "We’re just about to leave Tanwood services, it’s not 200 bikes it’s 2000, see you soon." And I put the phone down. So that was the start of it.'

And if those numbers seem crazy to you, how the event has grown over the years will blow your mind.

'So, registration for this year (2021) is at 7040 people. We normally have between 12 and 15 thousand people attend. 2016 was our biggest year and one of the reasons for that was, it was in motorcycle news about 3 weeks before the event, and a lot of people turned up that actually didn’t understand what it was about, they just thought it was a bike ride and didn’t understand the significance and the service of remembrance. So as the service was going on you could just hear bikes leaving the site and at the end of the minute silence, people started clapping which I personally don’t feel is appropriate. That was our biggest attendance, I just looked at the figures this morning and before the event we had 7400 people register and, on the day, another 3000 people turned up and registered, so we had 10000 register but we had about 15000 people there. The site is open for all, so the registration is just money we generate for the charity.'

Ride to the Wall is such an important event and means a lot to those in the military, from military families and especially anyone who knew somebody whose name is on the wall. So making sure that you know what this event is about before attending is important and offers those being remembered the respect they deserve. Aside from this, there is nothing that would stop you from attending an event. With the ride to the arboretum being set up especially for motorcycles and similar vehicles we wanted to know if riders of all experience could take part.

'Most definitely, [the ride is] anything with two wheels and anything with three wheels, so we have a large contingent of scooters and we actually have a couple of TUK TUK (a scooter typically used in Thailand), motorbikes and side cars and trikes. The ride is just for motorcycles but other people can turn up and park their cars.

We even have two start points that are suitable for learner riders. We also get messages weekly from people who, through ride to the wall, have actually taken their test so that they can ride the next year. It’s nice to see the learners actually mixing in, they’re the motorcyclists of the future and we have over 300 marshals on the day and the rides are co-ordinated so that they feel safe. You’ve got somebody with L plates riding next to somebody on a 1500cc Harley, all riding together for the same common cause.'

With so many like-minded people able to show up and pay their respects, it must make for some strong friendships and good memories. When asked, Martin was seemingly unable to decide what his best experience was with Ride to the Wall (which is very understandable!). So instead he told us just how special the entire event is.

'Ooh, deary me. When we leave Drayton Manor, we ride through Faisley and all the streets have people out waving flags and occasionally someone will stop and give a children’s teddy bear with the name of someone on the wall. I lead the Drayton Manor ride which is the flag bearers and it’s over 800 bikes and when we get to the NMA where there is an excess of 10000 people waiting for you to arrive, that’s pretty special. Then the memories of the service and we have fly-bys, so it’s one of those days that’s a bit like a wedding. It goes very quickly and you almost forget what’s happened but when you sit back afterwards and you look at the photographs and all the messages, the jigsaw all comes together.'

As I'm sure we're all aware, Covid-19 stopped many in-person events from happening in 2020, so we were wondering how Ride to the Wall was affected by the pandemic and what they chose to do instead of their usual event.

'So we didn’t have an event last year, we did a four day filming to produce a 45 minute service of remembrance so it was trying to replicate the service. So instead of me riding from Drayton Manor with 800 bikes I rode on my own and I arrived at the NMA on my own but then over the 4 days my patrons had done their addresses, the padre had done his bit, so it was a service and it all came together. It meant a lot to people because it meant they could sit at home and watch it but it was a bit spooky actually just riding in on my own and then it was actually aired at exactly the same time the service would usually take place. And there were little things that we were able to do that wouldn’t normally happen. Our theme tune is 'Brothers in Arms' by Dire Straits and Mark Knopfler actually came on and did a minute introduction, thanking us for using his song and wishing us all the best. We still opened registration because registration opened at the end of April 2020 and we were hoping by the end of October things would be back to normal and even without the event we still raised money for the charity because of selling merchandise and having 4 and a half thousand people register even though they knew they weren’t going to be able to attend.'

The team behind Ride to the Wall are 'one big family' according to Martin and are even literally family in some cases. Martin's partner, Pat, is the charity's secretary, his daughter Rebecca is treasurer and his son helps with registration. It's wonderful to see a family unit working together towards such a great cause and being so successful in it too. Ride to the Wall presented a check of £115,000 last year without an event and to date, since 2008, have raised just over £1.2 million for the up-keep of the NMA. The charity was even awarded the Queen's Award for Voluntary Service back in 2013.

Ride to the Wall 2021 will be held on the 2nd of October and you can find more details (and information on how to donate) on their website.

As Martin says 'It's been a journey, and long may it continue.'

A big thank you to Martin for speaking with us.

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