IT took a brush with death for Simon Leonard to obtain the drive and passion to put on one of Colchester’s most popular annual events.

In 2011, during a widely-reported epidemic, he was struck down with the H1N1 virus – better known as swine flu.

He was first admitted to Colchester General Hospital with breathing difficulties, but within two days was placed on life support.

His lungs had completely failed.

Days after his admission to hospital, his family were told to expect the worst.

His only hope rested with treatment via a complex Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation machine.

The machine essentially acted in place of his heart and lungs, removing blood from his body, oxygenating and heating it, before pumping it back in to his body.

He remained on this machine for 12 days at Leicester Glenfield Hospital and required 24-hour care from two specialist nurses.

After his eventual transfer back to Colchester, his road to recovery was long and difficult.

But he was left with an inescapable desire to give back to the people who had helped to save his life.

And so the idea for Invasion Colchester was born.

Simon, already an active member of charity costuming group Star Warriors, enlisted the help of his network of friends.

With the help of friend Kerrie Williams, who has run Colchester’s ACE Comics for 25 years, he staged the first Invasion Colchester.

Halstead Gazette:

Founders - Kerrie Williams and Simon Leonard in the Batmobile at this year's event

The first event raised more than £2,000 for the two chosen charities - St Helena Hospice and Colchester and Ipswich Hospitals Charity - and Simon was overwhelmed by the number of friends and supporters who turned out to help.

“Not many people know this story,” he said.

“Kerrie has a little wall behind ACE Comics and I collapsed behind there - I was still on crutches and my lungs were still not working to the best of their ability.

“I was taken down by surprise. There were a lot of people and a lot going on.

“They all turned up in their masses though it was, of course, nothing compared to the numbers we see now.”

The event has grown exponentially since then, attracting the support of businesses across the town and drawing visitors from Europe and the United States.

Simon credits the event’s success and growth to organisers’ rigid adherence to three key factors.

He said: “Number one it is to raise money for the two causes, two it is to bring people into Colchester town to see what it has to offer.

“Number three it is to give families a free, fun day out where they can meet their heroes.

“Every year we work to tick these three boxes over and over again.”

And tick the boxes they have.

This year the event is expected to have raised more than £14,000 for the two causes, with thousands flocking to the town centre.

Lion Walk staged a Harry Potter zone, the Mercury Theatre promoted its upcoming production of Oliver, Colchester’s Park and Ride offered free travel to anyone in costume and musicians were given their chance to shine.

More than 25 show cars were on display, including the Batmobile, the Ford Torino from Starsky and Hutch and the Jeep made famous by Jurassic Park.

Simon said: “Culver Square and Fenwick have been involved for a few years and Marks and Spencer are a big supporter – they food and water our guys.

“To have big companies like that involved it shows you how supportive they are of an event which keeps people coming into town.

“Towns have become a community’s face.

“People are shopping online, wanting to get best deal possible and it impacts on the shops in town and the High Street. They are not how they used to be.

“Invasion thinks differently and uses the town as a community space.

“The colourful characters and costumes get people to do a double take and look again when they pass.

“It is that shock factor. If people haven’t seen advertising for it and suddenly they see a stormtrooper or a group of princesses they might stop and see what’s going on.

“There’s the poor child who’s been dragged along to do the Saturday shopping and they get to meet their heroes. It is so rewarding.

“I think that is something no other event really offers to the same extent.”