Six members hit Moscow for a rally
by Colin Williamson Cadet Challenge Project Officer
I was fortunate to be part of a group of six Blind Veterans UK members to compete in the Moscow Rally in July. The group included former Royal Marines Steve Sparkes and Alan (Reggie) Perrin and former soldiers Russell Hart, Gary Lomas and Billy Black. We were guests of Graham Raphael, Chairman of Motorsport Endeavour, a charity that supports disabled drivers here in the UK. Graham is a fantastic supporter of our charity and regularly puts on driving events for our members.
The party set off from Heathrow Airport on Thursday 7th June and after a pleasant four hour flight arrived at Domodedovo Airport, 26 miles south of Moscow centre. After a short hiccup over our transport we Hnally set off in a terrific downpour to our hotel on the north east outskirts of the city centre. Moscow is three hours ahead of the UK so by the time we arrived and unpacked it was time to get our heads down ready for the briefing by Graham the next morning. Graham had invited along Alan Thompson, who is the Russia based Director of the Russo/British Chamber of Commerce and who was to play a pivotal role in our Moscow experience.
After the briefing we had some free time to explore our surroundings; the Best Western Vega hotel, which was our base for the visit. lt was one of four hotels in a complex specifically built to accommodate visitors to the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games and each hotel consisted of 900 rooms spread over 27 floors.
That night we were guests of the British Ambassador to Moscow, Tim Burrows, at his residence overlooking the Kremlin, at a reception to celebrate Her Majesty the Queens Diamond Jubilee. Everyone had on their finest and we were all proud to wear our Blind Veterans UK member’s badge which aroused a lot of attention. We spent most of the evening explaining to various guests, both foreign and British nationals, what Blind Veterans UK is all about and how we support our blind and vision impaired ex-Service men and women. lt was an unforgettable evening and one that will live in the memory for years to come. On our way back to our hotel we were chaperoned by Alexander, a former Lieutenant Colonel in the Russian Fleet air arm who is the Defence Attaché at the Kremlin. Alexander, (or Sasha as he is known) took time to stop off at every Metro station en—route to show us the bronze statues that adorned the various metro station concourses.
Saturday saw us up early (despite the previous night’s celebrations!) and we ventured into Moscow city centre via the impressive Moscow Metro system. We emerged out of the station at Red Square into glorious sunshine and the most amazing scenery. We explored the square, bought souvenirs from the stall holders, and watched the very impressive changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the Alexander Garden at the Moscow Kremlin. The Tomb is a memorial to all those who died in The Great Patriotic War of 1941-45 (as the war on the Eastern Front of World War ll is commonly referred to in Russia). The guards are soldiers of the Kremlin Regiment, a special unit responsible for security of the Moscow Kremlin. We then walked around to Saint Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square which was built on the orders of Ivan the Terrible to commemorate the capture of Kazan and Astrakhan. It is one of the most striking and beautiful buildings l have ever seen; truly awe inspiring.
On Sunday Graham and Alan had arranged a coach tour of Moscow where we were joined by members of MAKI, the Moscow Association of Disabled Drivers, who we were to compete against in the car rally the next day. Despite the abysmal weather, it was pouring down; we all enjoyed the tour, excellently translated into English by Ena, one of the organisers of the rally and one of the founders of MAKI. We passed many historic buildings including the former KGB headquarters, the Communist Party HQ, the world famous Bolshoi Ballet and Opera House and the new British Embassy on the riverside. After the tour, we visited a superb museum that catered for blind and vision impaired people and we were invited to handle the various insects and spiders in the ‘natural world’ exhibit hall. After the museum we were then driven to the 1980 Olympic Velodrome, which doubles as the HQ of MAKI where we were provided with a splendid meal courtesy of our friends at MAKI.
We had to be up at 6am on Monday morning to transfer to the start of the rally which was to be at the Velodrome. Our ’on road’ drivers were to be Alan Thompson, Graham Raphael and the British Assistant Defence Attaché to Moscow, Major Catriona (Katy) Caie. We then split into three teams, sorted out the order we were to start in, prepped our vehicles and started the first part of the rally which was to be a slalom course around cones set up on the car park of the Velodrome. Billy Black was the quickest around the course, setting off at breakneck speed and managing to collect quite a collection oftraffic cones under the vehicle much to the alarm of a police officer who was forced to take evasive action to avoid ending up underneath BilIy’s car!
The ‘road’ stage of the rally then took place, which unfortunately didn’t incorporate an ‘off road’ section, which would have enabled us to get in a spot of driving. But all in all, it was a great day and we covered roughly I4O miles around an area north of Moscow city centre driving along country roads and through small rural villages. Billy Black and I were forced at one point to change one of the rear wheels of our car after it had suffered a blow out when doing a high speed ’U’ turn on a minor road; exciting stuff! The trip was an unforgettable experience and one that I will remember for a long time to come. We met some marvellous people, made some great friends, ‘saw some wonderful sights and hopefully raised the profile of our incredible charity whilst doing so. Thanks must go to Graham Raphael from Motorsport Endeavour for all of his hard work in arranging the trip and my fellow Blind Veterans UK members for their great company and camaraderie during the visit.