Chapter 9

Expanding my Horizons


I have always kept myself fit, be that through practicing Karate, something I did a couple of times a week for several years, although that brought me a few injuries including two fractured knuckles picked up in a karate tournament: I wouldn’t have minded but I didn’t even win my fight. On the positive side, it did probably save me from a couple of beatings over the years.  Something that did keep me fit was a morning exercise routine as soon as I got up, which I still do each day. For most of my life, this has included a run. When I was with the Auxiliary Air Force, I thought it would be nice to enter a team in the Lincoln Half Marathon and raise some money for charity. I hadn’t run one before, but I felt that as I was reasonably fit and as I went running each day, I wouldn’t have any problems with it. Fortunately, I was right, I didn’t have any problems, so I enjoyed it. So much in fact that it was to become an annual event for me, and we made it a Squadron event by submitting a team to raise money for charity. 
As I had enjoyed that, I decided that I wanted to do a full marathon but not just any marathon; I wanted to do the London Marathon. As an individual, it is not easy to get a place and I tried for several years but kept getting rejected. In 2002, I was complaining to Mark, my stepson, that I had once again been rejected. Mark was at the time working for BBC Radio 5 as a sports programme producer, so he said he would see what he could do. It wasn’t long before I received a guaranteed acceptance form, so, at last, I had a place.
While I could do the half-marathon without too much training, I knew that completing the full 26.2-mile marathon would require some real training. If I take something on, I put in one hundred percent effort and dedication, so I set about doing just that. My training went well but three weeks before the event one of my knees started to hurt. I reigned back and even took a few days off in the hope that it would heal. Unfortunately, when I started running again the knee played up. I decided therefore that I would curtail my training in the hope that it would be okay for the actual event. I had decided that as it had taken me so many attempts to get a place, I was going to do it even if I had to crawl around on my hands and knees. The other thing was that I had obtained a fair amount of sponsorship and didn’t want to let my sponsors down. 

The organisation I ran for was the Osteoporosis Society. Val had just been diagnosed with osteoporosis so I wrote to them saying that I had obtained a place in the London Marathon and that I would like to run in aid of them. They were delighted and sent me a ‘bag of goodies’ which included a T-shirt with my name on it, something that was to prove a real asset during the race.

The day before, Val and I drove down to London and stayed with Mark. The next morning, I took the tube to the start line, registered, and changed into my running kit. Other than the elite runners, competitors join the start line according to how long they expect to take to complete the course. One thing I had decided was that I wasn’t going to push myself, just ensure that I complete it so I would run my own race and not get forced into running faster than I felt I could do. That is exactly what I did and despite the niggle of my knee, I didn’t feel too bad. 

They talk about ‘Hitting the Wall’ when you become extremely fatigued, which is caused by the depletion of glycogen stores in the liver and muscles. I kept expecting to reach that point, but fortunately never did. That might have been because I was reasonably well prepared, and I wasn’t pushing myself too much. The key goals for me were not the time it would take me but completing it and enjoying it. Enjoy it I did. The atmosphere was terrific as the crowd provided so much encouragement and the other competitors were mainly there to enjoy it also. After the race, I was asked if I met any interesting people. I could tell them that I ran along a bit with a gorilla and a chicken who certainly were, and generally people were quite happy to chat while running along. 

Periodically I would drop into a walk, and I found that beneficial. The crowd was brilliant with their clapping and encouragement and having my name on my T-shirt frequently generated shouts of, “Come on Ron” which buoyed me up.

One problem was the porta-loos as that involved waiting in a long queue and, although it meant you could have a bit of a rest, it also added considerably to one’s time. On one occasion, I noticed a continuous stream of people running down a track someway in front of me and thought that indicated a loo break, so I also took the turn and went down to what was a rough courtyard surrounded by bushes. As I entered, I noticed a couple of ladies squatting to my right and a group of men lined up against the bushes in front of me as though they were lined up for a firing squad. I joined them and very quickly I was back out on the road and on my way.

Val and Mark had decided to watch for me during the course of the run and then go to the finish line. Mark had access to the VIP stand so they were able to sit and wait for me there. In due course, I reached the Mall where the race ended. They were surprised at how fit I looked as I ran past them and across the finish line. Being given my medal was a feeling of great relief and satisfaction, although it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t finish. If I set my mind to something I will do it, regardless of the obstacles, be they physical or mental. 

It took me over five hours, but my knee held out and I really enjoyed it. Following the race, I was fine except for the next few days when most of my body ached. After I sent the money that I had received in sponsorship to the Osteoporosis Society, they asked if I would like to run for them the following year. I declined. I had wanted to do the London Marathon for a long time. Now I had done it and really enjoyed it, I didn’t want to go back again and not enjoy it.

Me crossing the finishing line having completed the London Marathon 2002.

Like many things in my life, I got into guest speaking for cruise ships purely by accident. Most cruises have guest speakers and, on one ship Val and I went on, the speaker was terrible. I thought “I could do better than that”. I was a visiting lecturer at the Nottingham Trent University so I had some credibility and wrote to the cruise line P&O asking if they would be interested in me. They responded by asking me for my CV and what I could offer by way of talks, which I sent. I had a call from a lady asking if I could call down to Southampton to see her, which I duly did. We got on very well and at the end of the meeting, she asked if I could do a cruise for her in two weeks’ time in the Caribbean. Unfortunately, it was in term time so I couldn’t, so I had to turn it down. She said that she would get back to me with something else. In a few weeks, she did but that too was in term time so I couldn’t do that one either. The next time she contacted me I was also unavailable.  I really thought I had blown it, refusing three times, but a month or so later, she asked me again and I was free to do it. I have been working for that company now for many years. 

The talks I do on cruises are on the history and architecture of the places that people may see during the cruise, although I also speak on other iconic buildings and sites around the world. I am passionate about history and architecture and love to share that passion with others. I believe that if people are aware of a historical site’s background, the individuals connected to it, and the significant events that shaped its history, it makes visiting the site that much more interesting for them. My talks always strive to give the listeners a complete picture of each place.

I would only do talks on places that I had been to, although I did make one exception.  That was the Panama Canal.  I had always wanted to go through the Panama Canal and one day I had a phone call from one of P&O’s bookers to offer me another cruise.  We were talking and I mentioned that one place that I really wanted to go was through the Panama Canal, adding that I could do a talk on it.  She said that she had a cruise going through it later in the year and could pencil me in if I liked, which I jumped at. A couple of months later I had the offer of that cruise.  Subsequently, I have been through the canal on six occasions, and I still marvel at the engineering achievement.  On one cruise I had a couple approach me and said that I was the reason they were on that cruise.  They had been on another cruise where I was the guest speaker, and I did one of my talks on the Canal, whereupon they decided that they wanted to go through it.  

My first working cruise was for two weeks to the Norwegian fjords in 2005 and I had seven talks to give. In those days, you would have to give each talk twice, once in the morning, then again in the afternoon. Now you just give the talk once and it is recorded so that guests can watch it on the television in their stateroom at any time until your next talk, which replaces your previous one. 

The first cruise really was hard work. I had the talk and photographs prepared on PowerPoint, but it was necessary to run through each one prior to speaking to ensure that everything was in the right order and that I was happy about what I planned to say. PowerPoint works well for these presentations, as each slide acts as a prompt enabling you to see what you will be talking about. I also wanted each talk to be entertaining as well as educational. “Edutainment” is the word that describes this type of delivery. I wanted to make sure that the talk flowed and was interesting. I understood the advantage of using humour to keep people’s interest and attention. It was essential that my introduction grab the audience from the start because, if it didn’t, it becomes difficult to try and retrieve their interest, and on cruises they are free to get up and walk out.  

I was aware that a report would be written about me at the end of each cruise.  In addition, I knew that guests received a feedback form where they could write their opinions of all aspects of the cruise, including the individual guest speakers. They could give you a score of one to five. If you fell below a certain score, you would not be engaged for any future cruises. My talks went well, with many people coming up after to speak to me and say how much they had enjoyed them. I also received feedback from the Cruise Director, who oversees all entertainment, and that was incredibly positive. On my return home, I heard from the lady who had booked me, and she informed me that my score was well above what was required. Consequently, I was offered more cruises. 

If you had told me when I was young that, when I grew up, I would get paid for travelling around the world talking on luxury cruise ships, I would not have believed it, yet that is exactly what happened. P&O started offering me cruises on a regular basis, although my acceptance was somewhat governed by my work situation. Most of my cruises have been one to two weeks long, although I have done three-week cruises if it was somewhere that I really wanted to go to. 

Over the years I met other guest speakers on cruises who suggested additional companies for me to approach.  Also, other cruise lines heard about me from other sources and contacted me to do talks for them: So my client base spread.   

After I retired, I was able to increase the number of cruises that I took and, at one stage, I was doing them quite frequently. In most cases, cruise lines would approach me to do a specific cruise, as they knew that I could talk about specific sites on the itinerary of that cruise, although by that time P&O were sending me their schedule of cruises, letting me decide which ones I was interested in doing. 

Generally, the people that cruise are really nice, and, being a guest speaker, they are not afraid to approach you. I am always open for people to do that. On one cruise, which was a history and architecture-themed cruise, we had a TV personality as a fellow speaker. On one occasion, he was sat on deck with his laptop and a cup of coffee. We hadn’t met previously so I went across to speak with him. Before I could get out more than a few words, he interrupted me to inform me that he was working and then looked back to his laptop. During the course of the cruise, a couple of people remarked about his unsociability. I don’t think he was asked to do any more cruises, at least not for that cruise line! As a guest speaker, you are a representative of the cruise line, and you are expected to behave in a way that represents them well. 

On another cruise, when I had finished my talk, a lady came up and said how much she had enjoyed it. We chatted for some time. My wife was standing a few meters away waiting for me and, when the lady had gone, she asked if I knew who the lady was. I didn’t but she did.  It was Jean Alexander, one of the stars of Coronation Street.

Apart from getting taken around the world to some wonderful destinations, I was also able to go on any of the excursions that interested me, as the ship requires that each tour have not only the local guide but also someone from the ship to act as an escort. This was something that I enjoyed as it enabled me to meet more people. I used to joke that I was the ship’s “male escort”. The job simply involved being a point of contact if anyone had a problem which, with a good guide, is very rare. 

During all of my excursions, I only encountered a problem once.  During a walking tour through the crush of a very crowded bazaar in Algeria, we discovered that we were one gentleman short.  We retraced our steps, but he was nowhere to be found.  Unbeknownst to us, he had taken a taxi back to the ship. Thankfully, he told the crew that he was supposed to be with our tour, and they were able to reach us by phone with that news, but he caused us some very anxious moments. 

Cruising has enabled me to visit a great many historic sites and so increase the number of talks in my repertoire. 

Although after my divorce I started to increase the amount of time that I did travelling under my own steam and visiting the places throughout the world that held an interest to me.

A couple of the places that were on my must-see list certainly needed to be done while in a reasonable state of health; they were Machu Picchu in Peru and Lhasa in Tibet.  I went to both of these within 6 months of each other.  Firstly, I went to Lhasa.  I had wanted to go there since reading the books of Lobsang Rampa when I was in Aden.  Lhasa is at an altitude of over 3,700 metres (12,000 ft) so if anyone has problems at altitude it is not a place to visit. I went in a small group of 10 people and only one person was not adversely affected by altitude sickness to some extent.  I had a constant headache and difficulty sleeping.  In fact, I only got to sleep if I was sat up, if I lay down, I had problems. It would have been better if we had had time to get used to the altitude, but our arrival launched us into a hectic round of site seeing and the very first place we visited was the Potala Palace, which is situated on the top of the Red Hill in central Lhasa and required a climb of over 100 metres. From 1648 until 1959 the Potala Palace was the residence of the Dalai Lama until he escaped to India during the Tibetan uprising. Although it was converted to a museum by the Chinese government it is still a place of pilgrimage for many Tibetans and during our visit there were long queues.  We, however, being foreign tourists were exempt from the queuing and were taken right to the front.  I would have thought that that would have got an amount of resentment, but not at all, everyone would smile at us as if we were VIP’s being led into the holy places.

Machu Picchu, the lost city of the Inca, is one of the most important archaeological sites in South America and the most visited tourist attraction in Peru. Constructed in the middle of the 15th century under Sapa Inca Pachacuti.  It was never discovered by the Spanish but was deserted by the Inca within 100 years of its foundation due to the Spanish invasion. It contains some beautiful architecture and building work and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Located at an altitude of  2,430 metres (7,972 ft) above sea level the altitude is quite manageable, however, prior to visiting Machu Picchu travellers will visit Cusco and which is 3,400 metres (11,154 ft) which can cause problems.  I had reasoned that as I could cope with the altitude at Lhasa I wouldn’t have too many problems in Cusco, and I didn’t.  I do know of someone who had been so bad in Cusco that they didn’t get to Machu Picchu whereas if they had gone, they would have found their situation improve due to the reduction in altitude.

There are several ways to get from Cusco to Machu Picchu.  If you are adventurous and fit you can take the Inca Trail, which can be done as a 2, 3, or 4-day hike.  Now you can go by road, but when I went the only other option was by train and then up to the site by bus. I went by train and bus.  Certainly, it was well worth the effort.

My travels also inspired me to create the Famous Historic Buildings website, on which I provide information and photographs of many of the world’s most famous historic buildings and archaeological sites. In turn, the website brought me an invitation from Encyclopaedia Britannica to become a publishing partner with them and a contributor on historic sites and buildings.

Some of the places I visited on my travels around the world.

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