Chelsea Pensioners set the pace!

19th October 2020

When lockdown was first on the horizon, the Royal Hospital wanted to find activities that would keep the Pensioners interested and occupied, without putting them at risk. The Army drill of pace-sticking was suggested and not only has it proved extremely popular, the Chelsea Pensioner pace-stickers held their own against serving soldiers when they visited Sandhurst for the annual pace-sticking competition. Due to the exceptional circumstances this year, the usual international event was replaced by the first-ever tri-services contest.  

First steps

Captain Frankie Howell, who describes himself as the team manager, explains how the pace-sticking team was formed:

“We asked Pensioners for things that we could do even during lockdown. Pensioner Tony Judge said ‘Why not do pace-sticking?’. Myself and the Regimental Sergeant Major, Ross Martin, had both done pace-sticking as Guardsmen and thought it was perfect. You’re two metres apart, you’re out in the fresh air, it’s good for exercise, it’s good for the brain because you listen and react to commands, dexterity and coordination come into play– and you feel good after every session. So we ordered 12 pace sticks and it’s been a very good investment.”

Now and then – Pensioner Dave Coote and his pace stick
Pensioner Dave Coote – who practised pace-sticking in the Grenadier Guards and was a drill instructor at Sandhurst – was recruited as the team’s instructor. He explains what their starting point was:

“The oldest member of the team was 85 and the youngest was 66. Apart from myself, no one had ever carried out a drill movement with a pace stick and all team members were suffering from arthritis of one sort or another. Another major factor was the scarlet coats, which are tailored to below the knee and tend to get in the way when you are marching. Last but not least, we did not have a drill square or any pace sticks to practice with. This notwithstanding, we threw our hearts and souls into the mix and slowly but surely, things started to come together. East Road was turned into our drill square, pace sticks started to arrive in the post, daily practices were conducted, blisters were proudly shown, and before you could say ‘Charles the Second’, we were a team.”

Holding their own against serving soldiers

The pace-sticking team has come on by leaps and bounds, practising at least five days a week throughout the summer. Pensioner Brian Connor, who has been photographing the team since they formed says:

“When they first started were a right ramshackle lot – pace sticks all over the place and out of step. It started off as a bit of fun but it grew to the point where they were going to go along to the inter-company competition at Sandhurst, not to compete, just to show themselves. And then the next thing I knew they were doing a final dress rehearsal at Wellington Barracks and on 13 October they went to Sandhurst for the tri-service competition.”

Eight teams took part in the contest, which was won by the Grenadier Guards. Holding onto their title as winning international team was the Pakistan Military Academy, who flew over and quarantined especially so they could take part.

Although the Chelsea Pensioners were not there to compete for prizes, the judges did go through the process of assessing them and they did extremely well, particularly as their team of was twice the size of the others, meaning the drill was more complex.  Captain Howell says their performance was extraordinary: 

“The judges actually picked out Pensioners Dave Coote and Dave Godwin for being really good pace-stickers and it wasn’t a sympathy vote – they’re both outstanding. They actually showed up some of the serving soldiers. Me and Ross felt very proud of the team – the hairs on the back of my neck were standing up when they were doing it. Next year they’ll compete as a proper team. We know that they’ve got a chance of being in the top three or four. In the meantime, they’re rehearsing for the Festival of Remembrance here at the Royal Hospital”

Chelsea Pensioners Pace Sticking at RMA Sandhurst
Performing with pride

The pace-sticking Pensioners take a great deal of pride in what they do. Even when lockdown stopped them from getting together as a team, they practised individually as team member Pete Turner explains:

“I’d try to get out every day and work with my pace stick because you have to keep the muscle memory going and keep your kit up to scratch too – a bit of time and a bit of spit and polish!”

The oldest member of the team, 85-year-old Patrick Cody also prepares every detail in advance, as Captain Howell observes:

“Every morning before pace-sticking he lays everything out on the bed. His shoes are all buffed and his pace stick is shined up  - he absolutely loves it. What the Pensioners really like is putting their Scarlets on and being part of the veteran community. At the international competition at Sandhurst those guys were representing the Royal Hospital and felt really proud of it. When they marched on a few of them had tears in their eyes.”

On-site activities are vital for boosting Pensioners’ health and wellbeing, particularly during the Covid-19 crisis and lockdown. Find out about the Royal Hospital’s new Activities Centre and how you can support it.


Royal Hospital Chelsea Newsletter

Stay up to date with what's going on at The Royal Hospital by signing up for our e‑newsletter.


View the archive

Brompton Cemetery Seed Sowing
Sowing wildflowers in memory of past Chelsea Pensioners

On 6 May, Chelsea Pensioners and members of the Royal Hospital’s grounds team joined representatives from the Royal Parks, the Royal Parks Guild and the Friends of Brompton Cemetery to sow a patch of wildflower seeds in Brompton Cemetery as part of the Battlefields and Butterflies initiative.

Chelsea Pensioner Centenarians
100 years old and still going strong

Recent research backs up the anecdote that Chelsea Pensioners not only live considerably longer than their peers outside (by over five years, on average), but that their lifetimes once they come to the Royal Hospital are extending, year on year. This strongly suggests that the care and community here contribute to greater longevity – as well as improving quality of life. 


Follow @RHChelsea