40th ANNIVERSARY of the visit of HMS AJAX to the TOWN of AJAX, ONTARIO
Day 1 Tuesday 23rd August
After all the trip planning the departure day finally arrived. Alan & Diane Styth were already there on part two of their honeymoon and Lee & Elizabeth Hayward along with Elliot & Jake had gone out the day before to stay with friends. The main group, Alf Larkin, Mike Fox, Dan Sherren, Doug Harris, Nigel Masters, Dennis Talbot, Judi & I along with ten year old grandson Joseph, mustered in Terminal 2 at Heathrow for our on-time 1205 Air Canada flight. Glyn Seagrave was flying later the same day from Manchester.
With the time difference we landed mid-afternoon to be met by Debbie Steer and the hired 12 seater mini bus that thankfully had a very large luggage space for all our cases; the way to go next time.
A relaxed trip from the airport to Ajax on the tolled Freeway 407 was in stark contrast to fighting through the permanently congested 401 last time and we arrived at the Hilton Garden Inn, where we stayed in 2014, in good time to unpack and freshen up before Debbie collected us to take us to Councillor Pat Brown’s house. Many of you will know Pat who has been a staunch supporter of the Association and once again she had laid on an informal garden reception for us. The Mayor Steve Parish and wife Rose where there along with Councillor Colleen Jordan and other Town staff and it was particularly lovely to meet up with dear friends Cherry and Reid Sevigny and Jackie Lumsden who again many of you will know from old – they were away early next day on holiday so it was great that we could catch up. It was Pat’s birthday the next day and Nigel presented flowers and card signed by all along with a rendition of “Happy Birthday”. It had been a long day so we departed at a sensible time.
Day 2 Wednesday August 24
Any thoughts that we were on holiday were shattered when the alarm went off early to allow a quick breakfast before mustering at 0800 for departure to Niagara Falls with Debbie. Richard and Ron also offering their services as drivers to give everyone a little more room. We stopped off at Hamilton for an organised tour around HMCS Haida, the last remaining Corvette that served in the Royal Canadian Navy 1943 until 1963, which the sailors amongst us in particular found very interesting. Lunch in Grimsby followed. Interestingly many of the towns around are named after English towns and we mused whether when they were choosing a name they turned to one of the workers and enquired where they came from!
Arriving at Niagara we off-loaded at the Keg Fallsview Hotel where we were dining later, with the added attraction that they parked the vehicle for free as we had a reservation. Down the nearby inclined funicular railway took us to the top of the Falls and saved a walk. The Falls were spectacular, as always, as most made our way along to catch the Hornblower boat that takes you up close to the Falls. Nobody volunteered to go on the zip wire! Queueing for the tickets I got the exact money ready, $19.95 each, only to find it was somewhat more: the refrain ‘not including tax’ became a standing joke for the rest of the week. The queues moved quickly and we soon boarded with past knowledge coming in handy to get a spot right at the front. However, as we set off we drifted backwards and confusion reigned when I asked for confirmation from the sailors present that we were at the sharp end; we were! It was a really hot day so getting soaked, even in our supplied capes, was refreshing. Back at the Keg Fallsview the group formed one large table for dinner with a backdrop of the Falls lit up by coloured lights as darkness fell. We arrived back late at Ajax after a long, tiring but most enjoyable day.
Day 3 Thursday 25th August
We knew that the week’s programme that Debbie, Nigel, Judi and I had put together was going to be a busy one so my alarm was set early to allow Joseph and me a swimming session, sounds very energetic but I actually spent much of the time in the spa!
0900 Debbie arrived for the first duty of the day, taking Judi, Joseph & me, along with two of Debbie’s children, Greg and Julia, to the Go station for us to catch the scenic train in to downtown Toronto. The rest travelled with Debbie in the mini-bus and we all met up at the Mariposa quay for a cruise on Lake Ontario. We joined up with the group just as the excitement died down; Glyn Seagrave had recognised Gerry Francis, former England Football captain and a photo call was arranged leading to the now famous inadvertent photograph of a pair of Gerry’s legs plus one of Nigel’s. The story was to be re-told many-a-time, embellished exponentially to the beers consumed: I won’t even begin to repeat Glyn’s story of why he didn’t take the England manager’s job but it involves racing pigeons!
Back on land the next organised trip was around the Steam Whistle Brewery at 1500 allowing the group to do its own thing in the meantime. Greg, Julia, Glyn, Judi, Joseph and I opted for the CN Tower. Joseph initially had said he wouldn’t want to go but had mellowed but still said he wouldn’t go on the glass floor. Off we went up the very fast elevator to the first observation platform at 346 metres; as we exited the lift operator pointed out to Joseph that he had been standing on the glass floor section of the lift! We all managed to walk out on the glass floor section, me for a lot longer than the last time and my bribe must have worked because Joseph even laid down for his photo call. However, he wasn’t too keen when we went up to the top platform at 447 metres. From here the views are stunning especially as we could look down to the platform where we had been below and see the daring/mad people below who had paid $195 + tax to be hung over the edge facedown for a few seconds: Glyn was musing aloud that he would have like to have done it but …
The Brewery tour involved free samples so most were happy especially as Steam Whistle had become the beer of choice. We did, however, end up with a few more beers for as we went to leave the heavens opened and were forced to retire back to the bar to try and sit it out. The clouds shrouded the Tower and skyscrapers and the thunder rattled off the buildings and we all got wet making our way later to the nearby Rogers Centre for the Toronto Blue Jays baseball game against the LA Angels; fortunately the roof was closed. Ian Darbyshire made the game having just flown in. The Canadians with us understood what was going on whilst the rest of us just took in the atmosphere and theatre of it all. We must have jinxed them for although they are heading up the league they lost 6 – 3. A dry journey home was a bonus.
Day 4 Friday August 26
We lunched at Port Perry meeting up with Ian and Mandy Cunliffe and Mandy’s mum Mary Hodges. Mandy’s dad had been Al Hodges the Town Clerk who had been involved in the original Frigate trip 40 years ago. Ian was then a young Ajax sailor who fell in love and later married Mandy and by great coincidence today was their 38th anniversary. Back to the hotel to get ready for the first event of our three official days where we met up with Lee & Elizabeth Hayward and Elliot 4 & Jake 1 who had transferred to the hotel the evening before. Everyone was very smart as we travelled to Harwood Veteran’s Point Gardens where a wall containing over 4500 names of all those who had served at The River Plate, as well as the names of those who had served during the war in Ajax, plus those who were on the Frigate for the 1976 visit, was unveiled. A great honour for all those mentioned and I was particularly touched that my father, Joseph Collis (after whom grandson is named) who had served on the first commission, was a special inclusion as was Dennis Talbot. I was also delighted that our chairman Peter Danks appeared on the list for the Frigate even though he was an earlier commission; they had explanatory asterisks. It was my pleasure to present to the Town on behalf of the Association a bench near to the wall. The bench was later put to good use by pokemon hunters! Nigel Masters then presented “The Tubby Squires Award” to the Royal Canadian Sea Cadet Corps Harwood, accepted by Lieutenant (Navy) Ross Mounsteven. Nigel had personally commissioned the award following the recent death of Vice Admiral Squires who had been the ’76 Ajax Captain,
The Hercules C130 was bang on time for its fly-pass. An informal picnic allowed time for all to circulate and socialise.
‘Magwyers’ restaurant was spelled a little too differently to Joseph’s ‘McGuire’ for even Glyn to try and get a free meal that evening but we all enjoyed the food and company that included Mayor Steve Parish, Pat Brown, Colleen Jordan and another supportive Councillor, Joanne Dies.
Day 5 Saturday August 27
Today was street dedication day so down to the Town Hall to board the Town bus.
First stop was a visit to Collis lane to show Joseph his great grandfather’s street that had been dedicated in 2014, before moving on to London Lane. Many of you will know Jim, HMS Exeter River Plate, as he unveiled the NMA memorial in 2014 and also helped out at this year’s NMA service in April. London Lane was in the very early stages of construction so the Mayor presented Jim’s street sign in the sales office, received by Dennis Talbot who read out Jim’s acceptance speech.
Larkinly Lane (Alf Larkin) and Masterson Lane (Nigel Masters) were next but as their streets were still fields again the presentation of street signs was also performed in that sales office. Foxtrot Lane (Mike Fox) and Coates-of-arms Lane were nearby but not yet at the sales office stage so these two signs were presented under a gazebo with Nigel Masters accepting Fred Coates’ sign and reading out a message from Fred.
Refreshments at the Kinsman Heritage Centre included ‘special announcements’, the presentation of street signs to those who are to get streets but not yet allocated. Seagrave Street, Stythinson Street (Alan Styth), Cunliffe Street and Danks Ridge Street (Peter Danks); were presented (the ‘street’ ending may change should the developer chose to do so). I accepted Peter’s sign and read out his message.
Next stop was rather special; there was already a Hunter Drive, unbeknown to Stuart ‘Jock’ Hunter who had crossed the bar some years ago and now grandson Lee Hayward, a serving CPO, was there to dedicate it. Lee contacted us a few weeks ago and hurriedly joined the Association and arranged for the family to visit and I think it is fair to say he and Elizabeth were bowled over by the experience, especially when friends and a large group of residents gathered to join proceedings.
Last stop of the day was to dedicate an existing street, Darbyshire Court in honour of Ian Darbyshire. Again a group of residents appeared and one in particular stepped forward and asked to say a few words. Vanessa Falcon delivered a heartfelt thanks to all that served and expressed her pride at living in a street with such a close connection to HMS Ajax especially at the rather mature tree stood in her front lawn. She then invited us to take cold refreshments. For me this final act of the day epitomises the warmth and regard shown by all Ajax residents towards the HMS Ajax’s crew: I was to refer to this kindliness several times in later speeches.
Evening entertainment was in the form of a BBQ at Debbie’s with son Terry cooking great tasting beef and chicken. Steve made Joseph’s week by taking him in his Dodge Charger stopping off at the local classic car gathering in a nearby parking lot. Ian Darbyshire produced a bottle of Pusser’s Gunpowder rum for all to have a tot and at 54.4% proof it lived up to its name!
A great time was had by all and some of the lads entertained us with some sea shanties. The busy schedule was catching up on some and we drifted back to the hotel by various forms of transport.
Day 6 Sunday August 28
The final day of the Town events saw us down at the Town Hall for a tour before joining the public ice cream social prior to the march. The visiting able sailors lined up behind Alf with the Association’s Standard, amongst the marching bands, for inspection by the Mayor; he also inspected Dennis and Doug in their private carriage, a military Willys Jeep. The squad gave an eyes right for the saluting party & later they gave eyes right to the group of young “bomb” girls! The march ended outside the Royal Canadian Legion building where the Frigate anchor lays. The short re-dedication ceremony concluded with Mike Fox and Dennis Talbot laying two wreaths. The Town invited me to present the French D-Day Legion de Honour to Terry Michaels Ajax River Plate who lives in Pickering. The Legion provided a formal lunch followed by a short display of cutlass prowess by a small group of Sea Cadets to whom I presented Battle of the River Plate first day covers. Following a few words by the Mayor he presented the Association with a Town flag. I thanked the Town for their tremendous support and friendship both past and present and donated items from Gordon Humpleby and Robbie Robinson with Nigel Masters presenting his signed ’76 cap and tally. Lee Hayward presented his grandfather’s cap tally and ‘crossing the line’ certificate. Alf Larkin had managed to obtain from the family a rather splendid silver vase presented to Captain Squires by the crew when he left Ajax, which he now donated to the Town. Ian Cunliffe had commission a superb painting of the Ajax from his professional artist brother many years ago but now thought its rightful place was in the Town Hall; he also handed out to the Association Visitors smaller versions of the painting produced by a graphic designer, another brother.
Ian Darbyshire and Nigel Masters presented a magnificent inscribed carriage clock, with batteries, to the person who had made it all happen, Debbie Steer.
Mike Fox thanked the Legion for their usual generous hospitality and presented them with various items and Ian Darbyshire presented his CPO uniform. Dan Sherren also made presentations to the Legion and Sea Cadets.
Day 7 Monday August 29
Whitby Yacht Club had generously offered to entertain us today. En-route we stopped off at Talbotshire Street for a quick photo shoot before continuing to the club. We were welcomed by Ken Armes, who had arranged the day, and the Commodore and shown around the club grounds. Back in the club house we were each allocated one of the three boats, Lost Buoys, Mad Hatter & Don’t Ask, before making our way over to the pontoons to climb aboard. We cruised along Lake Ontario to Oshawa where Ajax had docked in ’76. Whilst the surroundings may have changed the actual quay looked as if it hadn’t and many happy memories were brought back as those that had been here before, reminisced. The Rev. Deacon Derek E. Skelton on board Mad Hatter delivered a short memorial service over the radio before Alf Larkin laid a wreath on the waters of Lake Ontario.
Back in the clubhouse we were wined and dined at the conclusion of which Alf thanked the Club for putting on a splendid day enjoyed by all. The presentation of the Frigate pencil drawing, HMS Ajax plaque and HMS Whitby plaque and cap & tally by Alf was particularly pertinent as his first ship was HMS Whitby.
I presented the three skippers, Jim, John & Frank with River Plate ties.
Day 8 Tuesday August 30
Despite the packed itinerary the week had flown by and it was with heavy hearts that we mustered for the final time in the hotel foyer with our cases. Debbie was there by midday and a private presentation was made. The first consignment of later fliers were deposited at Debbie’s house while the two earlier ones, Glyn & Nigel were taken straight to the airport where Nigel bumped in to his footballer friend again.
Well done to Judi who had made a superb job of wrapping up the street names that wouldn’t fit in suitcases (most of them) together with the Standard saving us the additional expense of another excess bag. We all checked in electronically and the street names and standard thankfully went through the x-ray machine without challenge – it had so much duct tape around it and would take an age to unwrap for inspection.
Our flight was on time as we took off to the spectacle of the lights of Toronto heading home.
I’m sure I speak for everyone who went; we all had a brilliant time and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and were overwhelmed by the warmth of our reception. As I said to the Mayor, plenty of forthcoming anniversaries can be engineered so expect a return trip in the not too distant future.
Thank you Town of Ajax.