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The Smethwick man who went from sailor to record-breaking marathon
marching marvel!

By Black Country Bugle User  |  Posted: April 07, 2005

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As great-grandfather Ben Haywood chalks up his ninth decade, the sprightly Smethwick nonagenarian shows no signs of slowing down. Ben has had enough experiences to fill three lifetimes, encompassing naval service in World War II, time as a prisoner of war, and amazing feats of walking endurance after his retirement!

Ben was born in Nimmings Lane in Blackheath in December 1915, the son of a Smethwick man, also Ben, and a Blackheath wench, Rosa (nee Williams). However, Ben only lived in Blackheath for six months before the family decamped to Smethwick, so that his father was nearer to his place of work at a local drop forge.

Ben was raised near the railway at Carlton Road, just 300 yards away from the Hawthorns. Back in those days, there were rural fields of grazing cattle between his home and West Bromwich, the perfect playground for a curious youngster. Best of all were the aircraft hangars, where the Albion Estate is now situated, which still contained several mothballed biplanes left over from the First World War.

Since leaving school at the age of fourteen, like many a Black Country lad, Ben began work immediately. In 1933 he joined Avery's, and when war broke out in 1939 he was a floor moulder at the firm, which soon switched to war production. Concentrating on making sinkers for mines, Ben found himself in a reserved occupation. However, with all his pals already on active service, Ben longed to join up. In 1941, he risked getting into serious trouble by taking a day off from work and heading to the naval recruiting office.

"I've always loved the navy," Ben explains of his choice. "I have always been proud of Britain's naval history."

Ben saw active service all round the world, but it came to an abrupt halt in August 1942. Ben was serving on HMS Manchester in the Mediterranean when it came under heavy bombardment from German planes. Eventually sunk by e-boats, Ben spent a terrifying ten hours in the water, before being taken prisoner as soon as he got ashore in Tunisia.

Ben and his comrades were taken six hundred miles in open-backed trucks across the Sahara Desert to the French Foreign Legion stronghold of Fort Laghout, where they were incarcerated. Conditions under the Vichy French legionnaires were awful but thankfully, four months later, the Allies swarmed into North Africa and Ben was liberated.

"We had no solid food and never saw water," Ben reflects. "We couldn't wash or shave, and all we had was two cups of vino per day. We all had dysentery, and unless we'd been liberated in November we'd all have died."

Ben and his fellow prisoners were sent back to Blighty on MS Arundel Castle, but the perils did not end there. There was a U-boat alert, and all survivors of HMS Manchester, including Ben, had to man the guns!

After a spell back at barracks in England, within six months Ben was back on active duty, serving on the destroyer HMS Ursa. Ben served with distinction throughout the war and beyond, and was still in the navy, serving in the Far East, when the Korean War broke out. He finally left the navy in 1953, and returned home from Korea to Smethwick.

Despite his harrowing experiences, Ben admits that he had never felt as well as when he joined the navy. "When I came out, I swore that I would never go into a foundry again!" he laughs. True to his word, Ben never returned to life as a moulder, and over the years has had several jobs, including as a postman, a labourer on the roads, a dustman, and before he retired, as a storeman for Sandwell Council. "I've had as many as three jobs in one week in the fifties," he chuckles. "Mind you, jobs were plentiful back then."

Ben had always loved walking, and in the 1970s he mentioned to a charity worker that he had recently walked the 21 miles to Bewdley, just for the fun of it. It was suggested that he repeat the walk for charity, and sponsorship helped him raise more than £250 for kidney research. Ben then had the walking bug, following up the walk with similar treks to Ludlow, Stafford and Warwick, but in 1977 he began to ask himself if he was capable of more. Although already in his sixties, in June he set out from Land's End. Nine hundred miles and forty-nine days later, Ben arrived in John O'Groats, having walked the length of Britain. As if that were not enough, the next year he did the walk again - in both directions in a continuous trip!

However, it was in 1982 that Ben had his greatest triumph. At 66 years old, he broke world records when he did the triple walk, marching from John O'Groats to Land's End, back to John O'Groats, and south to Land's End again, before turning for the last time to walk home to Smethwick. The walk was gruelling, as Ben battled with sweltering heatwaves, pouring rain, a sore foot which caused him to limp for over 2,000 miles, a weight loss of two stones, and a heavy rucksack. The rucksack contained a sleeping bag and groundsheet, which came in useful as for fifty nights on the trip, Ben could find no accommodation and was forced to sleep under the stars. Nevertheless, he still managed to clock up between 20 and 25 miles every day, completing the 3,000 mile round trip in 153 days. Along the way, Ben was sustained by a few pints of beer every day, to boost his spirits, and the many kind-hearted and interesting people he met. These included a kindly milkman in the wilds of Scotland, Walter McGowan, the ex-flyweight champion of the world, an elderly lady who had been captain of England women's cricket team in her youth, and a memorable Word War I veteran.

After completing the walk, Ben was greeted by a civic reception at West Bromwich Town Hall, having raised over £10,000 for charities for the blind. In her capacity as patron of the Royal National Institute for the Blind, the Queen sent Ben a letter of congratulations.

In 1984, Ben achieved another amazing feat, although rather closer to home. Raising yet more money for charity, over the course of several months Ben did over 15,000 circuits of the pool in Smethwick Hall Park, clocking up over 4,000 miles in the process!

Just ten years ago, and despite being in his late seventies, Ben chalked up another feat when he walked to the Rhineland in Germany in aid of Age Concern. Over the years, he has raised tens of thousands of pounds for various charities. "When I was asked to do a walk, I never refused," he says simply.

Ben admits that he has had some incredible experiences in his lifetime, including being introduced on the pitch at his beloved Hawthorns, being guest of honour on the QE2, reading the lesson in the bible class led by the much-missed Bert Bissell, being interviewed by Jimmy Saville for the BBC, being named Top Pensioner in the Midlands, and becoming firm friends with the boxer Pat Cowdell. " I've walked a fair few miles and had a fair few blisters," he muses. "I've met some really lovely people, and had some experiences that I'd never thought I'd have."

And if this colourful character is ever in danger of letting his successes go to his head, his understanding wife Stella, at home in Valley Road, and his five children, fourteen grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren all keep his blistered feet firmly on the ground!

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