FEATURE: Monks Eleigh couple share stories from 3,500-mile trip in three-wheel car to raise money for charity
Engulfed by surging crowds, garlanded with flowers, and treated like celebrities, ... for a retired couple in a three-wheeler car, it was an astonishing reception.
But then Pat and Alan Braithwaite – married for 50 years and both in their 70s – are no ordinary couple. And their black and yellow three-wheeled Morgan is no ordinary car.
They have just driven almost 3,500 miles across India, raising £100,000 for charity with the prospect of £100,000 more.
Sweltering in a car that, for all its quirky charm, rattles your bones and blasts the ears with the roar of its two-litre engine.
Weaving through India’s notoriously chaotic traffic. Swerving round potholes like “craters on the moon”.
But also revelling in the sights and sounds of India, the beauty of its historic landmarks, the inspiring work of their chosen charity and the warmth of their welcome.
“Now we say thank God we did it, and thank God we got back all right, but what on earth were we doing? reflects Alan a week after getting back to their Monks Eleigh home. “We must have been insane.”
Selling their specialist logistics business in 2017 was the starting point of their amazing adventure.
They fell in love with India on a visit a few years earlier – drawn to the country through Alan’s family connection. His grandfather was home minister as British rule neared its end in the 1940s.
With more free time, they went back and were struck by people’s love of unusual vehicles.
Alan is a long time Morgan enthusiast and the idea of driving one of the vintage-style cars round India was born. Then they thought ‘why not a three-wheeler’.
What could have been just a road trip slowly mushroomed into a huge fundraising challenge after they discovered the Indian charity Goonj, which helps deprived communities across the country.
But their plans were cast into doubt last summer when Alan had to have a double heart bypass and valve replacement. As it was, it meant just a few months delay.
“I was determined to get well enough to do the challenge, and now I feel 100 per cent fit and really lucky,” he said.
“One of our pledges – when we’re able to – is to take the car to Papworth Hospital, where I had my op, and talk to them.”
Pat and Alan flew to Mumbai on February 1. It was only when they boarded their plane at Heathrow that they finally found a name for their car.
“It was a Dreamliner, and its name was Queen Bee. The car’s yellow and black and we thought, that’s it,” they recall.
They left Mumbai with an escort of six outriders on India’s favourite Royal Enfield motorbikes – organised by a school near their hotel where they took the car to show to pupils.
“The children were so excited and screamed so much you couldn’t hear yourself speak,” says Pat.
Then the gruelling drive began in earnest. “Some days, we were driving seven hours on bad roads in 35 degree heat,” she says.
“There were times when we crawled out of the car at the end of the day. We got through it with loads of water and drinks, and factor 50 sun cream.
“We became a bit of a traffic hazard because everyone wanted to look at us.”
Alan continues: “Once we got east of Hyderabad, the road quality was dreadful, and the poor car was really shaken up.
“The potholes were like craters on the moon. I learned to swerve around them, but had to remember there’s a wheel in the middle at the back.
“Avoiding them was not always possible. I hit one so hard the engine cut out and had to be reset at the roadside.”
But Queen Bee came through with flying colours and only broke down three times.
“Just before we got to Agra, the fuel pump failed – the fuel quality is dreadful,” says Alan. “We got towed 100 miles on a six foot wide road at 50mph by one of our support vehicles. That was a bit exciting.”
Pat’s memory is rather different. “It was terrifying,” she says.
They arrived late in Agra, and had to find a back way into their hotel to bypass security around two other visitors there to see the Taj Mahal ... Donald and Melania Trump.
Pat also had a scare near the fabled pink city of Jaipur when a snake charmer approached the car and a cobra popped its head out of his basket.
“I can’t stand snakes,” she says. “I blame my brothers who used to put slow worms down my back when we were children.”
Seeing the work of Goonj, which helps around 500,000 people, was awe inspiring. “We saw all sorts of projects – they believe in a hand up rather than a hand out – and were completely blown away by what they do,” says Alan.
And their welcome was overwhelming. “We were very surprised our visit was so important to them,” he adds. “In one place, they had made a bamboo model of the car which they gave to us. There were just so many magical moments.”
They visited Dharavi, where Slumdog Millionaire was filmed. “There are 1.8 million people living in the space of 500 acres,” says Alan. “But all the prejudices you carry about the idea of a slum get blown away.
“It’s a thriving economy, not a place of deprivation and destitution. They do all sorts of recycling, leatherwork and pottery.”
All through, support was on hand from their team – two cars with drivers, a media manager, film director and Pramod, their indispensable fixer and guide who deftly negotiated any bureaucratic obstacles.
One very personal highlight was being welcomed to the house in Delhi where Alan’s grandfather lived, which is now the HQ of the Congress Party.
“Pramod managed to get us invited inside. We had tea, and were shown round all the rooms. We saw the lawn where my older brother played as a two year-old. It was a very emotional moment,” he says.
The couple got back to the UK – elated but exhausted – just in time, before travel restrictions were imposed as a result of the sweeping coronavirus outbreak.
“Since we’ve been back, we’ve both been sleeping 10 or 11 hours a night,” said Pat.
They hope to raise another £100,000 for Goonj through a documentary filmed during their travels, Alan’s planned book and – when coronavirus allows – visits to fetes and festivals.