Annual Ben Nevis peace pilgrimage to go ahead for VJ Day

The late Bert Bissell photographed at his home. NO F33 Bert Bissell at home

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When Dudley peace legend Bert Bissell MBE began his humble Bible class at Vicar Street Methodist Church in 1925, he could not have envisaged the impact he would have on so many lives throughout his amazing lifespan of 96 years.

When Bert passed away in 1998 he was buried in Glen Nevis cemetery beneath his beloved Ben Nevis which he had climbed an incredible 107 times and left a peace cairn on its summit which today is officially recognised as the highest war memorial in Britain, with Dudley proudly referenced on its structure.

Bert hated war and happened to be in Fort William with a group of Dudley lads on VJ Day in 1945 when he decided to climb the Ben and started building the cairn.

He was awarded the World Methodist Peace Prize and MBE for his unstinting contribution to the good of mankind.

Today the Bible class is still in existence and is run from Dixons Green Road Methodist Church by Bert’s right-hand man, Astley Blake, who is still a member of the Gentleman Songsters Male Voice Choir of which Bert was president for many years.

The choir had the honour of being the first choir ever to sing on the summit of Ben Nevis in 1978.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of VJ Day on August 15 and a group of intrepid Dudley folk will again attempt the ascent in Bert’s honour.

It was in 2014 that former borough mayors, councillors Steve Waltho and Dave Tyler, met with former MP Ian Austin to discuss rekindling the annual peace-making pilgrimage that had twinned Dudley with Fort William. The event proved quite an attraction and this year will be the seventh annual pilgrimage hosted by the Bert Bissell Memorial Society chaired by Councillor Waltho.

The groups have visited Bert’s grave and held commemorative services in the church where stained glass windows from Dudley are installed. Two years ago the Songsters joined the trip to hold a concert in the church to mark their 40th anniversary of the famous 1978 climb.

To date, over the seven years, 48 individuals have made 73 ascents of the Ben but this year will have significant limitations.

Councillor Steve Waltho said: ‘This will be a no frills visit – we came so close to cancelling this year’s event but our main accommodation was booked and open, and 22 intrepid individuals were determined to not only utilise the event to raise money for charity, but also to honour the 75th anniversary where we intend to place wreaths on Bert’s grave and the summit cairn to remember those lost in war, and also those lost in the Covid pandemic.

‘Clearly we need to observe Covid guidance and our church service is cancelled. This year joining us to raise money to support groups in the Covid crisis will be 1st Coseley Scouts chairman Nick Gallagher for his local scout group, fellow Councillor Simon Phipps for the Edwards Trust and Society vice-chairman and taxi boss Shaz Saleem for the Saleem Foundation.

‘Also joining the group will be the family of Jules Garrett-Payne for whom the pilgrimage will be an emotional one since money was raised for her treatment on the climb last year, but who sadly passed away three months later.’

Mr Waltho added: ‘The group will leave Dudley on Thursday August 13, with the aim being to climb Ben Nevis on the 14th and visit Bert’s grave on VJ Day, the 15th, returning to Dudley on the 16th.’