October 25 1984 was a big news day in Norwich. At Carrow Road a fire was engufling the City Stand which was keeping the reporters and photographers busy.
So busy, in fact, that they almost missed another little piece of history that was about to play out outside City Hall, one that reaches back into Norwich’s political heritage.
You might know Bert Bremner – certainly if, like me, you went to Mile Cross Middle School where he taught for many years, you’d be hard pressed not too.
He’s a teacher you never forget, who alongside Mr (Colin) Foster and Mr (Paul) Davies helped get me into running via the school’s cross country club, and my first ever event a ‘fun run’ round Norfolk Showground. I’d have been about nine or so, so my love of running has been with me throughout my life, and it’s those teachers I have to thank. They also encouraged me to write school football reports, so I see now how they sowed the seeds of my career as a writer too.
Bert’s recently called time on his career as a Norfolk county councillor for the university ward, where he was succeeded at the recent election by Dave Rowntree of Blur fame.
But we’re still in touch on Facebook and when Bert, or ‘Sir’, as I still think of him, posted some pictures showing his younger self kitted out for a run in support of striking miners, I went to see him to find out more.
Getting into shape with a fun run
Bert Bremner never say himself as a runner. By his own admission, he was short-legged, and at various times fat.
But in the early 1980s he had surprised himself by pulling on a pair of white plimsolls and running 9 miles in a fun run with a group of fellow Mile Cross Middle School teachers around the Norfolk Showground.
He hadn’t even planned to run, but was cajoled by his colleagues because they needed to field a team of six.
‘We need a sixth man,’ he’d told them.
‘Bert,’ they said, ‘you are it!’
Yet with a training plan that consisted of some runs around the school field, he managed to get himself into some sort of shape.
Cycling though, may have been more his thing – or at least cycling to the school across the city from his then home in Britannia Road. He was hard to miss astride his bike with wide upright handlebars, wing mirrors, reflector strip across his chest and his jackets adorned with CND and Labour party badges – although I never remember him bringing his politics into the classroom.
When the Miner’s Strike began, Bert with a group of friends had actually organised a sponsored cycle ride up to Nottinghamshire in support of the miners.
There are no coal mines in Norwich, but the city has a deep connection with the Labour Party, and so supporters rallied around to do their bit to help in solidarity with the miners.
Why not run to Otterton during the half term break?
But as the dispute raged, he had another more ambitious idea – why not run there during the half-term break – setting off on the Wednesday to arrive by Sunday?
Bert decided to set off on an epic run from Norwich to Ollerton, Nottingshamshire, as part of a fundraising effort to support striking miners.
Running with him would be his close friend John Newman, a fellow city councillor, who passed away in 1993.
They would run a marathon a day, while their friend Mike McConnell would drive a ‘support’ car with a small caravan in tow.
“It was to raise money for the miners, we got people to support us,” Bert explained.
Training was done during my lunch break
“My training for the big run was during school lunchtime when we had about an hour and a half. I remember getting ready to go out on my run, which went out on Valpy Avenue, and out to Drayton Road, along the ringroad to Dereham Road, then Waterworks Road and Mile Cross Road and back into Valpy Avenue from the other side.
“It was about four miles and then you could have lunch.
“John used to live on Earlham Road, so I’d also run round the ringroad to Jon’s have a water around his and off we’d go,” he said.
“I was never a runner, but with short little legs, I used to build up a sprint down the Plumstead Road, I was going at full absolute pelt by the time I got to Britannia Road.
“I used to go out in the country as well. I’d get out via Lion Wood, and once I got to Postwick, you were in the countryside. I’d cut across the A47 again and come back in via that way.
“One time I went in one direction and found I was running towards Wroxham, so I ended up doing an 18 mile run, which was far too much!”
A false start when the photographer turned up
The runners decided to leave from City Hall where a crowd would wave them off and a group would run with them to the edge of the city, but as they set off they quickly had to scramble back to the start when a photographer suddenly appeared.
“The start had to be rerun because the photographers didn’t turn up,” Bert said. “That was because of the fire at the main stand at Norwich City, which was quite reasonable!
“We got to Guildhall and he turned up, so we thought ‘alright we’ll start again’. But we were happy, we were there for publicity for the Miner’s Strike.
“We had a route and starting from Norwich we went along the back roads to King’s Lynn. There was just the two of us and Mike in his car, it wasn’t complicated. We didn’t have anyone protecting us. We ran on paths mostly if they were there.
“By the time of the run I had got into trainers, they were simple little things called Silver Shadow. I bought some blue ones which were more expensive, but the funny thing is the Silver Shadows really worked. I didn’t get blisters or anything, I was very lucky.
“But at Gayton my knee was in terrible pain and I thought there was no way I could go on, so John went on into King’s Lynn on his own and I got in the car.
“We got to Lynn then drove to an address of a supporter – and had a complicated meal of fish and chips, real proper food!
“I think we had a beer, or two, and I thought that was it for me.
“But Mike could do massage – he massaged my knee and rubbed some stuff into it. I learned a lot about my knee and drawing the fluid out.
“We then stayed at West Lynn across the river and ran into a place called Quadring Lower Fen, where we were met by supporters from the Transport and General Workers Union.
“We had really lovely people that looked after us.
“John was always the brilliant finisher but the poor starter. I was generally alright starting, it was finishing that was the difficulty, because of my knee.
“We started off in Quadring Low Fen, and it was freezing cold, with brilliant blue sky. So there was actually frost on the dykes and we jogged out with socks over our hands and our hoods up!”
Then it was off to Newark.
“Newark was major, we had done over 100 miles, it was symbolic! I’d done about 106, John had done about 116.
“There’s a point where the road comes in and it’s a T-junction and you turn left and you are running towards the Castle – that was the target.
“We started and we were yelling and cheering – nobody knew what we were on about, and we ran alongside a Morris Minor and waved at them.
“Whereas I wasn’t a runner, I could do a short sprint, especially doing a run like that. You’d built up fitness. We weren’t professionals, we were having fun.
“We stayed with a wonderful couple of supporters, opposite the police station, which at the time was important!”
The evening saw the group driven up the A1 to Retford Workers Club, leaving them slightly the worse for wear the following day as they began the final stretch to Ollerton.
“We were not in the best of states on Sunday morning. We jogged off, we weren’t even out of Newark, I think we’d got past the sugar factory before we called Mike in with the glucose and drinks, and I think we may have been sick over the wall!
“But it gradually wore off. The hills started coming and we had more hills, there’s actually quite a looping road going into Ollerton.
“We had an incredibly good support group in Norwich. It was so wide that it actually did far bigger things than people understood. I don’t like to call it a soup kitchen, but it kept the food kitchen supplied at Ollerton.
“Part of it was that every Sunday a convoy would go up and part of the convoy would be a van loaded with stuff. Plus if they got any specials they would send another van.
“This van would be totally loaded with food and vegetables, enough for the week. We hadn’t got money, but it was incredibly successful.
We knew we could do it!
“Every now and then some people going in the Sunday convoy would go past hooting and cheering.
“At that point, the big double decker bus came from Norwich which was part of the regular convoy, and some people ran alongside us.
“We were comfortable running, we knew we could do it! We jogged in, they handed me my favourite Washington Redskins hat with my badges on.
“We then jogged up to the junction and sprinted in to the finish. It’s something you’d never done in your life, and you think ‘I’ve done that’.
“Would I ever have done that? No! Was I sporting at school? No!”
We could have kept running
“It was just amazing! I did about 120 miles and John obviously did about 130. We had a marvellous experience. The best thing about it is remembering John, he was my best mate.
“We were sitting down together, and people chatting, and we thought ‘shall we start again’?
“As long as we had the support we could have just kept running.”