Rupert Hipwell shares his story...

"Have you ever tried participating in a live radio interview on BBC Radio to discuss ataxia while at the same time rolling up 250 dates and chestnuts in strips of streaky bacon? I have, and it's not easy. Fortunately, most of the listeners to Chrissy Jackson's programme on Radio Norfolk were probably still hung over and fast asleep at 11 am on New Year's Day, but it's just possible that one or two of them stumbled across my interview and heard me stumble my way through a brief explanation of Friedreich's ataxia and the work of Ataxia UK. The main purpose of the interview was not so much to broadcast my ignorance of the subject matter as to encourage as many people as possible in south Norfolk to turn up on Bawburgh village green at midday, either to jump into the icy waters of the fast flowing river Yare or to cheer on others who were foolhardy enough to do so. To that extent, my brief sortie into radio broadcasting was worth the effort. The New Year's Day Charity Dip in Bawburgh is now in its 15th year.

It started when a friend in Bawburgh died suddenly, and too young, from Leukaemia, and we decided as a village to raise some money for a Leukaemia charity. Since then, other cancer charities have benefitted, as has the Children's Hospice in Quidenham just down the road. With the usual organisers away on holiday, Betty (who edits the Bawburgh News) stepped into the breach and asked which charity might benefit this year. Our daughter Holly, aged 19, was diagnosed with F.A. 10
years ago, and during that time we have been the grateful beneficiaries of various donations to help her with mobility, travel abroad and academic studies. So I casually suggested that this year we might "target" ataxia, something close to home and close to our hearts. No pressure of course, but, long story short,  Betty agreed.

You must understand that the Bawburgh Charity Dip is not a big deal. We don't pretend to compete with the London Marathon when it comes to raising money for good causes, but what our parochial little event lacks in fund-raising potential, it makes up for in an eccentricity which generates a surprising amount of interest among the old and the young, the bleary-eyed and the stone cold sober, the exhibitionists and those who like dressing up for fun. This year I estimate there were about a hundred of them assembled on the green, of which 16 took the plunge. Not bad for a village whose population at the last census was less than 500. 




We'll never know for sure what prompted this surge of interest. Maybe the overnight thaw which melted the ice of the previous three days; maybe the smell of bacon rolls, home-made mince pies and mulled wine wafting across the road from the Old Post Office where we live; maybe the colourful bunting (normally reserved for the summer fête and duck race) strung up across the green; maybe the dulcet tones of one of the organisers on Radio Norfolk an hour earlier; maybe curiosity generated by the sight of an ambulance parked strategically next to the mill pond into which several people (who really ought to know better) would shortly fling themselves. I like to think it was just an outpouring of festive good will and charitable intention.

A word about the ambulance though. A paramedic called Tracy, had kindly agreed to attend and keep a watchful eye on those of a certain age who might turn blue as they emerged from the water. Tracy went one better. She arranged for a colleague to turn up with the "company car" and for the colleague himself to go into the water to fish out any casualties. Tracy and colleague were not alone in ensuring that everything went smoothly. Someone brought a pile of warm towels; my son, bless him, brought a large plastic box full of hot water (this was intended to warm the soles of the feet and the cockles of the heart, but not, as someone suggested, to raise the temperature of the river Yare by a few degrees to render the water bearable); and finally Terry Molloy (aka Mike Tucker of The Archers) who agreed to act as Master of Ceremonies.


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With help from collection box shakers and Terry's promise of free mulled wine and festive nibbles afterwards, swimmers and their supporters dug deep for the cause and then watched as a motley collection of individuals, some bare-chested, some in ill-fitting wet suits borrowed for the occasion, some dressed as giant Penguins, took to the water. They were all  counted in and all counted out again, so mercifully Tracy's professional services and support team were not required. Then, guided by the Ataxia UK balloons which festooned the Old Post Office and lured inside by the log fire and sweet aromas, most, if not all, of the participants came to commune, to guzzle their way through 16 litres of mulled wine and to part with what was left of their small change.

At the end of a very long day, we had collected the princely sum of £750, helped in part by a lady in the village who was about to move house and decided to set up a "garage sale" in our garden, with all proceeds being donated to the cause. OK, so it's not a King's ransom, and it's certainly not going to fund an overnight breakthrough in the search for a cure for ataxia (of the Friedreich's variety or any other kind), but, as they say, from little acorns...

As important as the raising of funds was the raising of awareness, and whether it be due to or to the publicity provided by Radio Norfolk, or to the lovingly crafted bacon rolls and mince pies provided by the caterers, it is safe to say that there is at least one small part of south Norfolk where people who had never heard of ataxia, let alone understood its cause, symptoms and implications, are now better informed.

With thanks to Ataxia UK and to all the participants and donors for their gratefully received contributions.

Rupert Hipwell