Ride for Life – York to London 1988

Today’s throw-back re-lives the journey of John Cooke, a leukaemia patient who raised an exceptional amount of money for Leukaemia Care during his “Ride for Life” when he travelled all the way for York to London on horseback dressed as the infamous highwayman, Dick Turpin.

Today is the start of this year’s Tour de Yorkshire, a bicycle race which travels through the beautiful villages and countryside of Yorkshire. In the summer of 1988, a very different tour de Yorkshire (and beyond) took place in the hope to raise funds for Leukaemia Care. Today’s throw-back re-lives the journey of John Cooke, a leukaemia patient who raised an exceptional amount of money for Leukaemia Care during his “Ride for Life” when he travelled all the way for York to London on horseback dressed as the infamous highwayman, Dick Turpin. At the time, John’s Ride for Life became the most successful fundraising event for Leukaemia Care from any one person.

John Cooke was diagnosed with leukaemia in July of 1984 at which point he was told he had only two weeks to live. Despite this, he underwent months of chemotherapy during which time he lost about 4 stone in weight, all his hair, and was confined to a wheelchair. He gradually improved in fitness but in 1986 he relapsed and had to return to hospital for nearly six months for chemotherapy.

In defiance of these setbacks, John remained determined to show his appreciation to all who helped him through this difficult time for his family and friends, doctors and hospital staff. Testament to his will power, a year before undertaking “Ride for Life” John raised £15,000 when he cycled 450 miles to Beanue in France, but this wasn’t enough for John, as he was intent on beating this target.

On 4th September 1988, John and a colleague left York bound for Romford in Essex along with an entourage of 4 horses, 2 horseboxes, a motor caravan and follow up vehicle. John had never ridden a horse before and started learning only months before the event. Various patients and their friends and families rallied around John in his tremendous effort at different stages of the tour and supported him by collecting names of people who would sponsor his ride.

One of John’s friends and helping hand at the event was Ann Ashley, a long-term volunteer and supporter of Leukaemia Care after whom we recently named our counselling fund in her memory. Ann followed John every step of the way and kept a diary of the whole journey. Here is Ann’s account of the tiresome, yet very enjoyable expedition:

The route

Day 1- Departure: “We set off from Dick Turpin’s grave in York about 10:30 a.m. The horses were ridden for a couple of hours only, to break them into the roads after their long journey up from London by horsebox. Disaster almost overtook us when we tried, and failed, to get the horses back into the horsebox – apparently there’s a knack to it (and we definitely hadn’t got it!). Fortunately, the lady- groom, in the shape of Sarah Goodwin, arrived with the second pair of horses and we handed the whole problem over to her.”

Day 2: “Visited a residence for the elderly in the afternoon to let them see the horse and costumes. They were delighted to see us and gave us a donation as we left. Covered 18 miles. Horses in good condition. Weather lovely, very warm.”

Day 3: “Market day in Gainsborough so we took advantage of this and went around rattling our boxes. Weather still warm, though overcast. The horses were stabled on a farm, free of charge, and we were invited over there for coffee – on the way back the children saddled in their ponies and rode part of the way with us.”

Day 5: “Covered about 20 miles which we’re hoping to average per day. Have been on Radio Lincoln today answering questions and as a result there were quite a few people turning out en route to see us. One lady came by car especially when she heard about us on the radio. Today we rode between Lincoln and Bratheby Heath and stopped off in Leadenham at and old village pub for a collection. All horses are OK. A few sore feet amongst the walkers due to the heat but a soak in the basin at night soon sorted that problem.”

Day 7: We went into the centre of Peterborough with out collection boxes. The horses are looking well. Sarah is doing a magnificent job with them, I’m sure they’ve never been washed/groomed so much in their lives – their cots are shining, and their tails have been trimmed; they look in superb condition.

Day 10: The heavens opened today and we got soaked! Rode from just outside Peterborough to Pidley. One of the horses gives the impression he’s been taking reading lessons – at the road signs “Slow” he stops and turns his head as if to look to see if the road is clear!

Day 12: Lennine, Johns wife, received the bad news that her father had suffered a heart attack while on holiday in Spain. John has gone with her to arrange her flight out there but he is determined to return to finish the ride. Sarah, the groom, is going to take his place on the ride tomorrow morning. One of our young patients, Steven Green (16) met us and rode with us on his bike from Trumpington to Saffron Walden. He was then taken to the stables and given a ride on one of the horses.

Day 13:  John was able to return to the Ride after seeing Lennine and his son onto the plane for Spain. We went to the Junior School in Hempstead. The children were doing a sponsored walk to raise money for the ride and many of them were dressed in masks, hats and capes which looked tremendous. Tonight there is a Games Night in the Dick Turpin Restaurant at the    hotel.

Day 17: We were delighted to see actor Reg Varney who turned up to wish us well. He showed a great interest in our work and we presented him with a small model bus to thank him for coming along.

Day 20: Rode into London escorted by two military mounted policemen who looked magnificent and we were filmed for ITV. Started off at the Sedwick Centre at 12 noon and went through the Leadenhall Street, London Wall, round to St. Pauls and back down Cheapside to the London Hospital where John was a patient. We were met there by Dr. Adrian Newlands, Consultant Haematologist at the Hospital. We visited Croft Ward and met a few of the patients, some that John knew quite well from his treatment days.

Day 21- Arrival:

Started off at Chase Cross at mid-day, again escorted by the military mounted police and rode into Parkside, Romford where we were meet by the Harlow Youth Band. They played as they escorted us into the town. Then, unfortunately, the heavens opened up. In minutes we all resembled drowned rats. But in spite of this deluge, the Mayor of Romford greeted us, along with Kenny Ball (without his Jazz band), Eddie Coventry of BAC windows and Doors (who sponsored the event) and Romford Round Table who presented us with an enormous cheque. As we were saying goodbye to each other, John took us all by surprise by presenting every member of the Ride with an inscribed plaque as a memento of our three weeks – a lovely ending to a remarkable Ride.

In memory of John

Sadly, John passed away little over a year after the ride, in October 1989. He is still sorely missed, and his courage and efforts will not be forgotten. The efforts he made to raise money for Leukaemia Care and other patients in the same situation as him are remarkable and shall always be remembered as a highlight of the history here at Leukaemia Care.

 “He was a very special person as those who attended the same hospital will know. His one thought was to help others whenever he could, to make them smile, and to give them courage to face the future. We feel sure that the example he set and the courage he showed will never be forgotten.” – Ann Ashley, speaking about John in the Winter magazine, 1989.

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