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Trail of Poppies by Phil Brotherton - HTML preview

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From an early age I’ve always been adventurous, but also a bit of a loner. Don’t get me wrong, I do have friends & I can get on with anybody, I can also be quite sociable at times, but you can’t beat being alone in the wilderness with only yourself to rely on.

It was a speech by the Prime Minister David Cameron in 2012 which first made me consider doing something to commemorate the centenary of the Great War. He ended his speech with the following two passages:

“Our duty towards these commemorations is clear: to honour those who served, to remember those who died, and to ensure that the lessons learnt live with us forever.  And I think that is exactly what we can do with these commemorations.”

“I mean what I said about wanting ideas; I think we have a good framework here of national commemorations, the Heritage Lottery Fund, I think, can fund a lot of local activity but I am sure there are still some great history or commemorative projects that can be brought to book, so I hope people can come up with them.”

The speech inspired me & I began to think of ideas. I should add that it felt like an impossible dream in 2012, as I was still ill with Epilepsy. I had developed this illness in the years following a serious head injury which occurred in 2003. It still wasn’t under control and I was out of work, with a lot of time on my hands. The mind is a strange thing and I think that planning and ultimately completing my journey has had a big part in helping me to get my illness under control.

My first plan was to follow the Western Front by joining the dots up between the war cemeteries. I was planning to walk this and consulted Google Earth to help formulate my route. Whilst doing that, I discovered that quite a lot of the trenches which once stretched nearly across Europe were still there. My plans changed and somehow my little journey got a bit bigger. It then morphed totally out of control into something that at the time seemed completely out of my reach, but I just had to make it work, so Trail of Poppies was formed.

Unfortunately, despite his speech about wanting to encourage people to think of ideas to commemorate the centenary of the war, not many people or organisations were interested in my little plan. I could write a book listing all of the rejections and setbacks which occurred during the planning stage, but it’s irrelevant now. Although I never did get a reply to an email that I sent to David Cameron and it turned out that the Heritage Lottery funding which he talked about didn’t apply to me, as my project was happening abroad.

Quite early on in my planning, I had decided that I might as well try to raise a bit of money for charity. This was probably a mistake, as it put added pressure on me to publicise my journey. I chose to try to raise a bit of brass for two worthy organisations, the Royal British Legion whose Skipton Branch supplied the poppies for my journey and the volksbund deutsche kriegsgräberfürsorge (German War Graves Commission.)

Surprisingly at the time, the Volksbund were more supporting of my aims than the Legion and they were happy to try to publicise it, as well as setting up a fundraising page. Unfortunately the Royal British Legion just didn’t seem that bothered. They publicised it on their Facebook page once, but that was it. I still don’t understand why they seemed so cold about my plans?

As a Civilian Instructor with the Air Cadets, I came up with a plan to try to get cadet organisations from across the world involved. Unfortunately I only received a response from the New Zealand Cadet Forces as well as our own Air Training Corps and I quickly decided to quietly shelve this plan so that I could concentrate on everything else. After all, one man can only do so much!

A few people and organisations did support me, though, and I will always be grateful to them for this. There was the outdoor equipment manufacturer, Kathmandu, who very kindly sent me some free clothing and equipment and Cycle-Recycle, who, as their name suggests, recycle old bikes. I bought my bike from them for about £50 but after looking into my trip, they decided to refund my money.

Then there was Carl at Icon Web Design. I’m not very good with technology, but I knew that it would be essential to have a website if my little plan was going to be a success. I tried using one of those DIY website builders, but the results were rubbish, I then saw his advert in a free local magazine and saw that he built free websites for charities, so I cheekily asked if he’d do me one. I’d have paid if he’d had said no, as I was getting a bit desperate. Hopefully this little mention will help him as much as he helped me. Carl also found another company 3zero Graphics who designed my logo free of charge.

Then there was my wife, Ruthy, who encouraged me from the beginning, although at the time she probably thought that I would never actually do it. My journey would have been impossible without her help.

Last, but by no means least, was an old school friend, Gill Marsden, who also tried to get me some publicity. Unfortunately she had exactly the same result that I got: zero interest from the national press, although some local newspapers did show an interest.

One other thing that I did in order to try to fund the journey was to offer people the chance to “sponsor a poppy.” If I had gained enough publicity, then this would have raised a fair bit of money for the Royal British Legion, as well as making sure that I was well fed throughout my journey. It wasn’t to be though. Out of the 2015 poppies that I left on my route, only 74 were left on behalf of the few people who supported my journey. Thank you to each and every one of them, as it wouldn’t have been possible without your help.


It was a massive setback to be refused any funding for what could have been a great long term project of Remembrance and inspiration to young people, but I just changed my plans again and got on with things. It also meant that I had total control over every aspect of my journey. I could also do it to remember the dead from both sides. This was important to me, as the Germans, Austro-Hungarians, Turks and Bulgarians were just doing the same thing that our lads were doing, they just happened to be on the losing side. But I believe that their sacrifice shouldn’t be recognised any less. There were also a lot of civilian casualties in the countries which were blighted by the war. These were the true victims, especially in Belgium and Serbia. (Approximately 25% of the Serbian population lost their lives during the war!)

Some estimates put the total number of casualties at 38 million killed, wounded or missing. That seems a lot, but I think that it could be higher. Two of my Great Grandfathers were gassed during the war; both died in their 50s due to lung problems. They weren’t classed as war casualties, but in the end, they probably were. How many more were like that? I did my journey for every single one of them: man, woman or child...



I’m the first to admit that I’m fairly useless at getting sorted for anything and this was no exception, I’m still amazed that I managed to get everything done in time. I got a giant cardboard box that bikes are delivered to the shops in, intending to fit everything that was going with me into it. Thus followed a frustrating day trying to fit everything in.

It all did fit (just!) but only due to a roll of gaffa tape which held the ‘slightly’ bulging box together. The maximum weight for a single piece of luggage for flying is 30kg, I didn’t find out until check in that it weighed over 32kg. Fortunately they agreed to take it, as I don’t know what I could have taken out, I was down to the bare minimum as it was. Most people would shudder at the thought of going away for a weekend, never mind three months with the clothes & equipment that were contained in my box.

Below is a short list of my equipment:

  • Twenty odd year old, 21 geared, rigid mountain bike with big knobbly tyres.
  • Small bag of bike spares, tools & lights.
  • Summer grade sleeping bag.
  • Hooped bivi bag. (Imagine a very small coffin like tent.)
  • Tarp.
  • Hammock.
  • Pan & spoon. (No stove. I made small wood burners from empty food tins instead.)
  • Head torch.
  • Penknife.
  • Survival knife.
  • 2 water bottles and purification tablets.
  • Sjambok whip. (My trusty dog stick.)
  • Spot tracker for emergencies.
  • Phone, camera, solar panel & battery pack. (Plus chargers.)
  • 3,000 paper poppies from the Royal British Legion. (They took up more room than anything else!)
  • Laminated pages from a European road map & Google Earth printouts.
  • Laminated Google Translate descriptions of my journey in 8 languages. (Only the French one made any sense!)
  • 50 Litre rucksack, a small frame bag, handlebar bag & seat bag. (No panniers.)
  • A small diary & pencil.
  • Four months worth of Epilepsy medication.


My clothing.

  • 2 pairs of trousers.
  • 2 long sleeved t-shirts.
  • 1 t-shirt.
  • 3 pairs of underwear.
  • 3 pairs of socks.
  • Fleece bodywarmer.
  • Small down jacket.
  • Hooded windproof smock. (Instead of waterproofs. I would regret this!)
  • Army surplus boots. (I needed footwear that was both rugged but easy to ride in.)
  • Neoprene gaiters. (I soon got rid of these.)
  • A pair of fleecy gloves for the mountains.
  • A neck warmer thingy which doubled as a hat.

Well that was it. I learnt to cope with not having much, but I really missed not having a gas stove. It would’ve made cooking a lot easier than lighting a fire, (especially in the rain!) But I didn’t have the room and finding gas would have been a right pain in some places!

We just about managed to fit the box into the back of Ruthy’s small car and get to the airport. Saying goodbye to Ruthy was difficult, we’ve had our ups and downs over the years (mostly my fault!) But we’re a good team and I felt really sad when she left...






The Start. (Almost!)


The start of most foreign journeys & expeditions is nearly always when you get off the aircraft at your destination. Unfortunately for me, the true start of my little journey was a few hundred miles from the airport, a couple of day’s worth of cycling at the other side of the sea of Marmara.

Istanbul’s Ataturk airport was a bit of a shock to say the least. Reality had come along and kicked me up the arse. I was thousands of miles from home, in a strange country, with a rubbish map, not much idea of what my journey would entail and the only way that I was getting home was lost somewhere in Istanbul airport. My big box! Everybody else from the flight had collected their luggage, whilst I was left on my own with the obligatory battered suitcase going round and round on the conveyor belt. I just needed a marmalade sandwich to complete the picture, as I truly felt like Paddington bloody Bear!

“Come on Phil, you idiot, snap out of it and get it sorted!”

Eventually, I found an airport worker who spoke some English and twenty minutes later I was reunited with my slightly battered looking box. I’ll never know what they’d been doing with it, but it was going to cost me some time over the coming months...

So there I was, dragging a massive box through Turkish immigration and customs. I must have looked harmless and not at all like a terrorist or smuggler, as nobody asked me to open it. (Thank ye gods!) Finally, I made it through customs and my first thought was “I need a cig.” Bad mistake, as it turned out that once you’ve left the building, there’s no going back in. So there I was, standing at a taxi rank with a big box, in the middle of the night in a strange city, with nowhere to stay. “Oh hell, what’ve I done?”

Well, there was no going back, so I found a well lit but quiet area and proceeded to unpack and rebuild my bike.

It took me a couple of hours, with a few failed attempts. Like putting the back wheel on the front and the seat where the handlebars go, etc. (I was tired!) It was then that I discovered that they really had been throwing my box around. They’d gone and bent the big sprocket thing for my chain near the pedals. I was now down to 14 gears and I hadn’t even started yet! Bloody swines!

I’m not afraid to admit that I was now ‘bricking it.’ Istanbul is a big scary city, especially at night. So instead of going off into the dark, I sat on a bench outside the airport and waited for first light.

I didn’t see much of Istanbul, which is a shame as it’s supposed to be a beautiful city, but it was overcast and looking like it could rain. I’m also not very much of a city person anyway.

There were two route options now. I could have ridden west around the Sea of Marmara and down towards Gallipoli, but as that would mean going back on myself after Gallipoli, I got the ferry across the Sea of Marmara to the city of Bandirma.


The Start. (Nearly!)

Getting off the ferry in Bandirma felt like stepping back in time. Not too far though, I couldn’t quite figure it out at the time, but looking back now, it felt like how I remember Spain in the 1980s. Most of the cars were fairly old, it was very dusty (not dirty) and the inhabitants didn’t seem effected by our health & safety culture. In short, it was a bit rough around the edges. It was ‘proper’ Turkey and I liked it. If somebody from Bandirma came to Bradford, they’d probably think similar thoughts, except they wouldn’t feel as safe!

Before my journey started, I was worried about the parts of Turkey that I would be travelling through, but never once did I feel threatened. (Yes, there was a bit of a problem with stray dogs chasing me, but that wasn’t unique to Turkey and I could deal with that.) Everybody that I met in Turkey was friendly and curious about my journey.

I needed somewhere safe to sleep as I still wasn’t sure about things, so I diverted off my route a bit towards the seaside resort of Erdek. This was a bit more modern than Bandirma and after checking into a cheap hotel, I went for a walk to try to become a bit more familiar with the Turkish way of doing things. It didn’t take long; they’ve got a chilled out way of life and (they’ll hate this) it felt just like Greece!

The following day was the first proper day’s cycling that I’d done in years. (I hadn’t bothered training on a bike beforehand, instead I relied on my fitness gained from hillwalking. I was fine!) It was about 80km from Erdek to Biga, which was an interesting and extremely busy town. A few miles out of Erdek, I had my first experience with a pack of dogs, who decided to say hello in their own way (either that or they were hungry!) I was very pleased that my dog stick did its job and I left them looking rather nervous at the side of the road.

After another night in a cheap hotel, I set off on the slightly longer (approx 100km) journey to Canakkale, which I didn’t reach until after dusk. Unfortunately every man and his dog were in Canakkale due to the Gallipoli centenary “celebrations” which were taking place a couple of days later. So I slept on a quiet (ish) beach.