A force to be reckoned with
For more than 10 years, Carol Vorderman has been an ardent supporter of the British Armed Forces. She tells Meriel Fox what drives her to do her bit
For 26 years, she was the face of Countdown: the statuesque woman with the vowels, the consonants and those devilishly difficult numbers. Currently, she is a co-host on ITV’s Loose Women.
But Carol Vorderman is also one our greatest supporters of the British Armed Forces. ‘It’s a lot to do with the fact that my best friend, Amanda Prowse, is married to a soldier and that gave me an insight into the life they lead,’ Carol tells me. ‘Also, my involvement with the Pride Of Britain Awards means that I met some amazing people from the Forces. I’ve been involved with the army now for about a decade and for about seven years with the RAF.’
Carol also does a great deal of work with The Royal British Legion and was invited to travel on the charity’s boat during the recent Jubilee pageant and says it was a remarkable day. She was joined by X Factor winner, singer Joe McElderry, and says that once they got to Battersea Bridge, they decided they had to get out in the wet.
‘We got completely drenched, but carried on singing all the way. It was wonderful – one of those bonding days. When we got to Tower Bridge, we were yards away from the Queen, but we could barely see her through the driving rain. It was chucking it down; we were absolutely sodden. But it was fantastic!’
Carol’s friend Amanda, is also doing her bit towards helping The Royal British Legion. Her book, Poppy Day, is a compelling love story about a young soldier’s wife, Poppy, who goes to rescue her husband when he is taken hostage while serving in Afghanistan. The proceeds from sales of the book go to The Royal British Legion’s Battle Back Centre, which helps injured service personnel.
Yet another of Carol’s Armed Forces-related events this year has been the naming of a locomotive engine after the Battle Of Britain Memorial Flight. Squadron Leader Stuart Reid (Rtd), who flew the Lancaster Bomber for the last 11 years of his career, first put forward the proposal for the train naming and it was he who invited Carol to unveil the train at the National Railway Museum in York, with thousands of people watching. The York to Peterborough line runs down the east coast of the country and speeds straight through Lincolnshire, ‘Bomber County’. Bearing the RAF Battle Of Britain Memorial Flight insignia and the ‘Lest We Forget’ motto, the train will act as a huge reminder to all who see it pass by.
‘It is important to get the message across,’ says Carol, ‘and if one child standing on the platform sees the engine and asks what it is named after, that is a good thing. It cannot be forgotten.’
The naming was accompanied by a triple fly-past by the Spitfire, Hurricane and Lancaster – first individually and then as a three-ship fly-by passing over York Minster at very low level. Carol says that everyone fell silent and it was a ‘hairs standing on the back of your neck’ moment.
Another of Carol’s major efforts for the forces this year was her support for the Bomber Command Memorial in London. It culminated in the dedication and unveiling ceremony by the Queen on 28 June, when veterans and their families from around the world gathered to remember their fallen comrades. Many years of hard work have gone into achieving this remarkable memorial.
‘Without the input of the late Robin Gibb from the Bee Gees, and Jim Dooley of The Dooleys, it would never have happened,’ says Carol. ‘They were great fund-raisers for the cause. I tried to help them in any way that I could to bring in donations.’
Squadron Leader Tony Iveson DFC, AE, who is currently Chairman of Bomber Command Association and was a member of Squadron 617 (better known as the Dambusters), helped to launch the appeal by taking to the skies at the controls of a Lancaster Bomber, at the ripe old age of 89, the oldest person ever to fly the famous aircraft.
Carol was deeply involved in the planning of the event. ‘Due to the geography of the memorial, it was not possible for everybody to gather around,’ she says, ‘so we decided to have a stage with choirs, singers and Jane McDonald singing to keep everyone entertained. We had about 5,000 seats lined up and filled. Some good souls were smiling down on us as it was the one day in June that the sun shone.
‘The Duke and Duchess of Cornwall wanted to speak to as many of the veterans as possible and so we spent an hour lining them all up for them to meet. Several of the families had recently lost their fathers who were members of Bomber Command, so they were wearing their fathers’ medals. It was all really moving – a golden day.’
I asked Carol how she thought the veterans and their families felt about the long delay in this memorial being erected and the long wait for recognition of the heroism of these young men.
‘Obviously, it should have happened decades ago,’ she says, ‘but the veterans and relatives and all the volunteers who have worked towards this are thinking “at last”, and glad that it is finally there. After the wonderful day, a few of us went to the memorial at about one in the morning, as it was a beautiful, balmy night. There was no traffic so it was very quiet and the sculptures were lit up. It is a stunning tribute and a poignant moment.’
As well as being close to an army wife, Carol grew up being taught to respect those who had laid down their lives for our freedom and those who still do. Growing up in the small town of Prestatyn in north Wales, Carol, as a child, would run up the hill to the small war memorial and she learned the ‘Going down of the sun’ epitaph carved on it by heart. She did not know her father, but she discovered that he had been a member of the Dutch Resistance and her grandfather fought in the First World War.
‘I hate it when people take our freedom for granted,’ says Carol. ‘We only have it because those young men and women won it for us and we all need to remember that. We go off and do things like work in telly or banks and never have to offer the ultimate sacrifice that they did and still do. We need to instil the respect and discipline in our young people. I think that the Forces have a role that is not just the practical one they fulfil, but the moral role and the example for everyday life.’
Both of Carol’s children are involved, too. Her daughter, Katie, is a member of the University Air Squadron at Cambridge, where she is reading physics, and her son, Cameron, is a member of the Combined Cadet Force.
Carol says she feels as if she is living her life backwards and now doing many of the things she should have done years ago. A feeling I think many aged 50-plus share.
When Carol was at Cambridge, she studied engineering in order to become a pilot. However, in 1978, when she knocked on the University Air Squadron door, they were having none of it and told her that women could not become pilots. Recently, visiting her daughter in Cambridge, she saw photos of a couple of her male peers as pilots in the Air Squadron and felt frustrated. ‘At least now I have the opportunities and contacts to allow me to try many of the things I would like to have done,’ she says.
She still loves flying and has flown in the Lancaster and with the Red Arrows. In fact, her love of flying is so great that as soon as we finish talking, she leaves for America with her daughter to gain the American equivalent of the private pilot’s licences.
Through her involvement with the Red Arrows, Carol has been invited by Dr Emma Egging to host the first Red Ball, to be held on 31 August in Bournemouth. This is to remember Emma’s husband, Flight Lieutenant Jon Egging, who tragically died at the Bournemouth air show last year, while displaying with the Reds. Emma and Jon’s friend, James Godley, aim to raise money for the Jon Egging Trust, set up to provide young people with opportunities to help them achieve their potential. It will be an evening of top-class entertainment, champagne reception and a three-course dinner that Carol is very much looking forward to hosting. It will include an auction offering the opportunity to fly in a former Red Arrows Gnat aircraft and ‘behind-the-scenes’ experience days with the current Red Arrows team.
‘I try to do my little bit for all the Armed Forces as I am so grateful to them,’ says Carol. Maybe ‘little’ is something of an understatement.
For more information about the Red Ball (tickets are £60) or to make a donation: 0844-576 3000, www.joneggingtrust.com
Poppy Day by Amanda Prowse (TIP, £8.99) is available from Amazon, Waitrose or The Royal British Legion Shop (all proceeds will go to The Royal British Legion): www.poppyshop.org.uk
Daily tip from the lady archive
“A GRACEFUL walk is a great asset, for sometimes it can create an illusion of beauty where little exists.”The Lady. Pleasant Exercises for Grace. 2nd April 1931