Mid april 2019 and 25 veterans huddled around in mobs pretending it's spring.
Men from different walks of life brought together in a beautiful Leicestershire river valley - we all have one thing in common - we all served queen and country and got injured in the process - we have to live the rest of our lives trying to be better for ourselves while doing better for those around us.
Today is hotly anticipated - not only do we get to meet like minded men and women and share our stories, we have been invited to the global brand headquarters of the legendary Norton Motorcycles at Donington Hall.
The brews and banter are flowing freely, many broadsided jokes launched.
There is much small talk about recent developments at Norton and many of us remark what secrets will be revealed today as the British Bike Brand goes from strength to strength - and the Brandmaster himself Mr Stuart Garner playing his cards very close to his chest all the time.
We meet at the Sales Suite - formerly the stable block to the 18th C Stately home that is Donnington Hall. What better place to house thoroughbreds?
Right away it's a little surreal - we are half expecting to see stiff spined ants running to and fro - like a factory should be - but everyone is so normal, polite and kind.
The servicing staff literally drop spanners and fall in on the kettle to make the brews while we try our hardest not to dribble all over the stunning machines ranked left, right and centre. We are waiting for a few minutes as our tour guide "just popped out" to road test a customers bike - quality of service here is a huge value.
Just then a Norton 961 Street comes roaring into the stable yard and a chap called Ray swaggers in and humbly introduces himself as our tour guide. Blimey, he just rode right in on one of the machines - so he will certainly know all about the bikes - not just a powerpoint ranter :-)
The tour starts with a brief history of the site, how the buildings were bought as a near defunct airline complex - how the brand and an unfinished design was bought in pieces by a young and daring visionary entrepreneur and snatched from the jaws of oblivion literally on a next day plane ticket to Canada.
We cruise quickly past the almost secret Race Prep Workshop where a pair of 650 Superlight works racers are being prepared for this years Isle Of Man TT races. The 'Jack in the pack' of the resurrected racers. A fully faired 650cc water cooled twin being prepped to meet the demanding specifications of a race over 150 miles on the fastest real road circuit in the world.
Next the pack meanders way down and around the factory to a complex of new buildings. This is the future of Norton we are told. We all start whispering about ‘bloody machines and computers’ we come to the Fabrication Department to be greeted again by pheasant pluckers and happy people - yes everyone working here is happy.
The shop manager gives us all an overview of what they make and a little of how they make it. To everyone's surprise there are very few - if any - machines in sight, it's all highly skilled craftsmen making state of the art and object d'art machines here. He shows us how the aluminum tube frames are made. Then he tells us about another piece he holds up - a V4 swing arm (single sided) says it was a 17 kg block of billet and now its 4 kg and well it feels like a lot less - hollowed out and braced so deep its a triumph of design and engineering.
He asks all us smart asses “why do we make things from billet?” queue a lot of muffled guesses but no answers then he roars with an ear to ear grin “because its cool!” Carrying the craft made ethos of Norton as far as can be, where anything is made here - there is a person involved - if not heating, bending, polishing or fitting then loading, guiding, inspecting and every part has a hand not a machine to put it in its final place.
Then we stroll into the main factory building, well even this is not like a long line of drones and robots - more like a custom bike show!
Then we are all drawn like zombies to the Sword In The Stone - The mighty V4RR - the 'Ace in the pack' of Norton Motorcycles. 200 mighty British horsepower and Chrome Carbon Fibre all over. All face and race. In a world where every race replica motorcycle will have a full fairing, tank and seat unit and sleek aerodynamic profile - Norton have actually given the new generation bikes a “character” - the bike has a face, a mischievous smiling face. I heard one fellow say “it's got a British grin”
Racing is king here at Norton and it's not a crown won easily. The steady and sure growth of the reborn brand here at Donington Hall is relentless and with so much going on from a tight and dedicated team it's hard to imagine they have time to redevelop the race bred heritage which Norton was built on. Well, they most certainly do, in fact it's true to say that Nortons are the only motorcycle built for and developed by racing on real roads not just racetracks and nothing has changed there. That road is the fearsome Isle of Man Tourist Trophy - 37 miles of British roads raced in whatever the weather can be from sunny sea level street to misty mountain and back again - the Senior TT is 6 laps - a total of 226 miles at breakneck speeds. That is race bred heritage nobody can deny!
From the unstoppable Stan Woods to the Norton SG race bikes.
This year Norton is right there on the frontline and signed the world's fastest riders for 2019, John McGuinness, Peter Hickman and even Josh Brookes bringing back the fighting superbike legend that is the Norton rotary to this years TT with Wiz Norton Racing - this is a racing team with a history to be proud of and eyes set firmly on future glory.
Not all the bikes here are high end machines worthy of not only purchase but investment. There was a new line launched recently and another concept brought back from the annals of history. The Norton Atlas range. Both an affordable and competitively priced mid weight bike at sub £10k and showing oodles of what is becoming Nortons hallmark - build quality. Sharing much of the 650cc twin Superlight engine and pumping out 84 HP this is a seriously hot bike. More on this range at a later date...
Well, it's a British bike factory so we all just, well - had tea and cakes with the boss like you do. Stuart Garner looks a very very busy man and I have met many important and influential people in my lifetime from Royalty to rock stars and senior military leaders but I must say I have never met anyone who took the time to be so utterly endearing and was un hastened with everyone, he would not be hurried and he spoke with the utmost sincerity in every matter.
He was most humble in his manners and put everyone at ease. He does not need to blow his own trumpet when his people are happy and his Nortons are so much in demand that limited editions are worth more in their first year then when they were new. In all my years I have never heard of any motorcycle like that.
From a concept in a box to living breathing road machines to state of the art bespoke Cafe racers to highly sought after investments Norton is not only back but here to stay with strong leadership and a dedicated team handbuilding every bike to perfection.
Long Live Norton!