Ben Nevis pilgrimage reaches summit for VJ Day anniversary

The triumphant team on the summit standing in front of Bert's peace cairn with the Black Country flag. NO F35 Bissell 02

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Two months ago the seventh annual pilgrimage of Dudley’s Bert Bissell Memorial Society to commemorate the 75th anniversary of VJ Day looked to be in jeopardy with Covid restrictions, loss of coach transport and knowing that the traditional warm welcome from Scottish friends in Fort William would not be possible.

Society chairman Councillor Steve Waltho MBE put out an urgent message indicating that the mission could only go ahead if Covid restrictions were accepted, accommodation was open and participants made their own travel arrangements.

The response from a group of diehard Dudley folk was amazing as 23 people rendezvoused in Fort William on the evening of August 13.

Twenty made it to the summit in strength-sapping heat the following day  to lay a wreath on the summit of Britain’s highest peak.

Ben Nevis has a significant link to Dudley through the late Mr Bissell, who climbed it a staggering 107 times.

Councillor Waltho said: ‘Without doubt this was not only the most stressful visit to date due to Covid limitations but also the toughest climb due to the strength-sapping heat, which afforded incredible views from the summit which is rather unusual.

‘However, it took its toll with one member having to be escorted off the mountain and another having to be half carried down with exhaustion.

‘My dear wife Jayne had her work cut out as base commander but handled it all admirably and the camaraderie and support amongst the group was phenomenal.

‘People joined the group for a variety of reasons and without doubt the most moving sight of all was five members of Jules Garratt-Payne’s family, whom we raised funds for last year, including husband Darren, all making it to the summit to unfurl her banner after she tragically lost her fight for life last November.

‘I’m also a proud member of the Gentleman Songsters Male Voice Choir for whom Bert was president for many years and fellow songster Andy Parker also made it to the summit with his partner Sue and two sons only to courageously have to half carry Sue part way back down as she succumbed to exhaustion.

‘The other group saw five individuals employed at Wetherspoons Oldbury, including my eldest son Jay. The spirit, courage and willpower shown by this group was exemplary with the final climb group spending nearly 12 hours on the mountain.’

Fellow Dudley councillor Simon Phipps also climbed the mountain, raising money for the Edwards Trust as did Coseley Scouts chair, Nick Gallagher, raising much-needed funds for his Scout group.

Finally, society vice-chair and Dudley’s taxi chief Shaz Saleem was raising money for the Saleem Foundation. All three causes had links to the Covid crisis and are still receiving donations via their respective JustGiving sites.

The following day was VJ Day and after a day of welcome respite, the team gathered again at Bert’s grave in Glen Nevis Cemetery to pay their respects to the legendary Dudley figure and place a wreath and flowers, whilst a prayer that was written by Astley Blake, who still runs Bert’s Bible Class to this day, was read out by Councillor Waltho.

The group pays its respects at Mr Bissell's grave in Glen Nevis Cemetery. NO F35 Bissell o1
The group pays its respects at Mr Bissell’s grave in Glen Nevis Cemetery.
NO F35 Bissell o1

A minute’s silence was also observed for all those who had lost their lives in war and the current Covid pandemic. The group returned triumphant to Dudley on Sunday, August 16.