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Adventures on the road

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Chattie had to tackle Lincolnshire and Yorkshire on her own without the Sprinter. We did a splendid 619 miles. The weather was wonderful. It was ALL wonderful. Ah. Except for a few little hiccups on the way. We travelled the first 170 miles to Steve and Heather Hardwick’s house near Lincoln. Then Chattie refused point blank to start when I tried to put her in the garage. She was as relaxed about it as the cat, but something needed to be done.

A piece of string connected to the starter motor lever and a quick trip to MG Raw’s excellent garage, where they fixed the problem for no charge – may they prosper! – enabled me to make the three fantastic visits to RAF Scampton, Coningsby and Digby.

KWIK WHAT?!

Yorkshire2webThen to Yorkshire, where on returning from seeing Ack Greenwood’s grave with friend Roger Gill, we spotted a flat tyre.

No problem, there was a Kwik Fit garage nearby. We pumped in enough air to get her there; but this was a fast puncture and she wasn’t going to get me to Church Fenton or my evening accommodation. The wheel had to be changed, and I had no jack. “We can’t touch it” was Kwik Fit’s response. I explained that the wheel spinners could be knocked off and I had the correct copper hammer in the car, but didn’t have a jack. “We can’t do it,” was the response, “We don’t know the correct torque setting, and can’t let you go without that because the wheel might come off.”

“My understanding,” I said, “Is that the spinners tighten themselves as the car moves forward, though I haven’t done it myself.”

“Yes, but you don’t know the torque setting so we can’t touch it,” was the response

“Would you just jack it up for us so my friend here can do it?”

Again, the torque argument came again and Kwik Fit felt they would be responsible if the wheel fell off. I asked if there was perhaps an older KwikFitter who might have had some experience with wheel spinners in the past, but the present KwikFitter took it as a personal insult to his expertise and ability; which is not what I had meant at all.  In the end, he did put some air in the tyre for me so that Chattie could limp further down the road into the shade of a tree while I called out my excellent breakdown service. While we were waiting, a gentleman came out of the house behind us, offered help, gave us a cup of tea, gave a donation to the RAF BEnevolent Fund. He had served in the RAF many years ago. How nice that was.

Yorkshire1Then the breakdown van came. Callam, pictured here, was the absolute opposite of Kwik-Fitness, and said, ‘Wow! What a lovely car! I’ve never done one of these, but it’s great to have the chance.’ I offered the copper hammer, but he was already reaching for a rubber hammer in the van, and had the wheel off in no time. Turned out he had two family members in the RAF, and he also donated to the RAF Benevolent Fund before he went. (He didn’t bother about any mythical torque problem, being younger and wiser than the Kwik Fit man.) May his career prosper!

SINGING IN THE RAIN

Yorkshir5wdb Yorkshire4webSo, saying goodbye to Roger, I set out under a brilliant blue sky for Church Fenton, and thence to Jennifer and Ian’s house for the night. Jennifer is Deryk Hollinrake’s Goddaughter (Dad’s Radar Operator during the war), so I guess that makes us Godsisters. Half way there, the sky blackened and soon I was in the middle of a raging – and I mean raging – thunderstorm; lightning flashes like strobe lighting, and monstrous rain slapping and bouncing off everything; the air thick with it.  Like almost every other car on the road, I got off it as quickly as I could, taking refuge with the crowd in the doorway of the Sweet Basil restaurant at a service station (though I think I was wetter than most!). Would they serve anyone coffee while we waited out the storm? No. Though there were tables aplenty, though the conditions outside were freakishly impossible and continued so for about an hour, they would only serve those eating a meal. Thumbs down, Sweet Basil.

Yorkshire3webI only had about 20 minutes’ driving to go. I set out in a break in the rain, only for it to pound down again. My all-weather clothing didn’t cope with this and soon I was drenched. A little basin of water sat in my lap where I had draped a plastic cloth. Remembering my lovely ‘Aunt’ Monica, who was daunted by nothing the weather could possibly do, I sang my way there, working my way through rain songs and laughing at the sheer scale of the drenching. I was a drowned rat when I arrived. Jennifer set a bath running straight away and lit the bathroom with scented candles: what a fantastic greeting! It was just lovely to stay with her and Ian, and talk about our two Dad’s and their wartime friendship. The sun smiled on us: metaphorically speaking, for our evening together over a LOVELY meal; and literally in the morning.

BACK TO SCHOOL

Every airfield has its surprise, and so had the journey down to my mother’s house in Ilkeston. I set the SATNAV to avoid motorways. What a pleasant trip that was! Down country roads, old long Roman roads almost empty of traffic, through towns and villages, while occasionally I could see the motorway running parallel to my left or right, chock-a-block with cars. Negotiating Doncaster was a doddle. Along the way I had the sense of the country and its life: what was farmed in the fields, the type of villages, the different stone, the variation between rustic or industrial, the old mining towns and villages. On the motorway I would have had the monotony of that plain tarmac ribbon cut off from the world. I don’t know if I’ll ever travel that horrible stretch of M1 again after this.

BestwoodwebBut the greatest surprise was when I suddenly and completely unexpectedly found myself in Bestwood Village, and there was ‘School Lane’ and the primary school where my father was headmaster for many years before he retired. I hadn’t seen it since the 1970s. A man walking a dog was kind enough to take the picture, and for my mother and me both, this last adventure of the road brought a tear to our eyes.

Back home. Chattie, you are full of gifts and surprises. We did it, girl, and what a great journey!

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Airports and Stations – Liverpool, Lancs and Cumbria coming up!

This week’s tour of four airfields, starting tomorrow, 7th August, includes two modern, active airports and an airshow. Two of the four where my father’s serving stations in 1941-42:

Friday 7th: Liverpool John Lennon Aiport and the Crowne Plaza Liverpool – John Lennon Airport Hotel

Saturday 8th: RAF Woodvale, where my father was stationed as a night-fighter pilot from June to December 1942

Sunday 9th: RAF Silloth in Cumbria, where my father landed in January 1942 in a Boulton Paul Defiant.

Monday 10th: Blackpool Air Show – Chattie will be on display on the famous Promenade, overlooking the beach where, according to a report from the man who was in the gun turret at the time, my father in his Boulton Paul Defiant ‘hedge-hopped the piers’ below the height of the Woolworth’s clock!

Tuesday 11th Blackpool Airport (ex-RAF Squires Gate), where Dad was stationed from November 1941 to June 1952 – in the company of aviation historians Russell Brown and Joe Bamford (both extremely knowledgeable about 256 Squadron and RAF Squires Gate), and Graham Berry, who is 2nd cousin to WWII ace Joseph Berry DFC**, my father’s close friend in both 256 and 153 Squadrons.

It promises to be packed with memorable experiences.  See SCHEDULE for timings.

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Tommy Hunter’s final resting place

imageIt’s a peaceful spot, Blackhall Colliery cemetery, hidden on a gentle slope of hill side behind back-to-back houses and allotments. It’s beautifully kept, and Parks Superintendant and Cemetery Supervisor Antony Peace was already waiting for me on a bench near Tommy’s grave when I arrived.

Antony had dug out documentation relating to Tommy’s grave, that show he wa buried here in October 1941, some weeks after his death at the end of September. The documents mention Mullion Cove in Cornwall, so that may be where his body was washed ashore, and there may be archive records down there relating to that, and possibly to an inquest.

His mother, Catherine Hunter, is buried in the same plot; she died aged 48 in March 1942, only six months after Tommy was killed; so here is another tragedy. Tommy’s father, John, died aged 77 in 1968 but his cremation took place in Nottinghamshire. Five years after that, a lady from Southwell in Nottinghamshire bought extra land and extended the plot and, it seems, erected the monument as it is today; so we think John’s ashes are interred here, alongside his wife and son.  It is very sad to think that John lost his wife and son in such close succession. It is touching that in death his ashes were brought back here to be with them.

Touching also to think that Tommy’s body does not after all lie lost at the bottom of the sea but lies here in his Northumberland home: his final resting place.

There is also a stone urn for flowers on the grave with the words ‘from Mary, Connie and Irene’. What I have learned today gives me new leads to follow to try and trace some of Tommy’s relatives. Thank you, Antony, for your kindness and help here today.

Antony Peace, Parks Superintendant, at Tommy Hunter's grave, Blackhall Cemetery

Antony Peace, Parks Superintendant, at Tommy Hunter’s grave, Blackhall Cemetery

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Norfolk and Derby tour

I have just uploaded my latest schedule calendar and itinerary for Norfolk and Derby, 4th – 7th July 2015.  Some changes still being made, so please watch for updates.

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June airfields

More photographs and information on airfields visited on my Where They Served Facebook page HERE.  Please take a look there, while I play catch-up between airfield tours!

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RAF Manston

I was privileged to be invited to stay at the Mess at Manston, and I have had a truly delightful stay thanks to the hospitality of Wing Commander Chris Thorpe. This photograph tells its own story: here I have learned to think about the critical importance of understanding fire and the use of fire-fighting equipment and breathing apparatus for the armed forces. Intensive training in this area is carried out here. The recruits who are further along in their training are on the left of the picture, with the dirtier clothing.

It is struck me forcibly while spending time here that I am in danger of looking back almost exclusively to the past combat period of the Second World War, as I remember my father; but I should not for a minute lose sight of the fact that soldiers, air crew and sailors have almost continually been laying their lives on the line – and laying them down in too many cases – in the service of our peace in all the 70 decades since then. They are doing that today, as I sit here writing this. The Second World War just happened to be the bit of it in which my father served.  So, to all of you serving in our armed forces today, I salute you for what you are doing.

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Kent and Midlands tour ahead

An exciting week is ahead of me, but the past exciting week still feels as if it is following me behind, and somewhere in between the two my brain is trying to keep up with things!

For more regular updates, snippets and photographs, you follow me on Facebook and Twitter while I am away http://www.facebook.com/wheretheyserved and twitter @wheretheyserved.

Ahead of me this week is a trip to RAF Manston, one of the earliest airfields, first used in 1915 by the Royal Flying Corps. Here Barnes Wallis spent time testing the ‘dambusters’ bouncing bomb nearby. From here one of the bravest and most poignant moments of the second world war occurred when six Fairey Swordfish biplanes, under the command of Lieutenant Commander Eugene Esmonde, RN, of 825 Squadron took off in a desperate mission to try and stop the passage through the Dover Straits of the two German battle cruisers, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. They were about the only unit available in the sudden emergency. Promised fighter cover of five squadrons of Spitfires did not materialise in time and with only 11 Spitfires in escort they gallantly but hopelessly flew into the fray. They were set upon by Fw190s and Bf109s, and flew through smoke screens into a tremendous barrage from destroyers, e-boats and battle cruisers. There were only five survivors.  Esmonde was not one of them. The full story should be read, as it is astounding from many angles. Please have a look at this if you can: http://www.channeldash.org/swordfish17.html

The most touching, for me, is the fact that the CO at Manston, knowing that Esmonde and his crews were taking off almost certainly to their deaths, stood on the runway and saluted as they went.

The history of Manston is awaiting me, and I will be meeting Joe Bamford,(instigator of Dad’s memoirs being written) who is currently writing a series of books on that subject. I can’t go wrong!  Much to look forward to!

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Filton – pinning the butterfly?

I am struggling to start writing about my visit to the old RAF Filton. In January 1943, my father picked up a brand-new Bristol Beaufighter from the factory here and flew it to Africa. My guide in April 2015 was Oliver Deardon, a Trustee of the Bristol Aero Collection, and I was touched by his courteous, comprehensive and thoughtful tour of this complex site, personalising it specially for me along the way. “Your father’s Beaufighter,” he said, “Would have come out of the building at the top of the site up there, and been brought down that hill; the street is wide enough, as you can see, to accommodate the aircrafts’ wings. And then it would have gone across the railway tracks, the only instance of a level crossing for aircraft use. That would bring it down here where your father would have received it and finally taken it onto the runway here and taken it way with him.”

In his memoirs, my father wrote: ‘On 7th January, along with ten other crews including Joe Berry and Ian Watson, Ralph and I went by coach to Filton near Bristol to collect a brand new Beaufighter from the factory: no. V8633. It was like taking my old car to a car dealer and then part-exchanging it for a brand new one. I felt sheer delight in flying the plane back to Lyneham. However, the bad weather didn’t allow us to carry out the consumption test on it until January 13th: an all-round trip around the coast from Cornwall to Blackpool and beyond that took 5.05 hours. The results were good: petrol consumption 80 gallons per hour; air miles 2.44 per gallon; range 1,448 miles; and the full endurance of the aircraft could be 7 hours 36 minutes. All very pleasing.’

Now I stood on the side of the runway space where that exciting event in his life took place. Every airfield, I am discovering, has its own atmosphere, and this is no exception. The sense is of an industrial-scale site, where the wide runway leans upwards insistently towards the horizon. Concorde stands to the left at the far end, nose pointed to the runway like a silent sentinel, and on the sloping hill to the left of that, and running all the way in parallel to the runway, is the Airbus production site with its huge factory sheds both old and modern. Opposite me in the distance, across the wide expanse of the airfield proper, are some large old hangars, one of which is to be preserved to house the Bristol Aero Collection. Next to it a new building is to be erected to house Concorde.

This whole site and its history is surely one of the most important in the development of British aviation technology. Sir George White, the Bristol magnate and entrepreneur whose vision and business acumen founded it all before the First World War should be better known, but as he declined to give his own name to the company and to the aeroplanes it made, preferring to name them after the city of Bristol itself, his name is unknown by the general public.

This site impresses as a whole, and speaks as a whole by its visual layout and its scale. The line of connection between production and flight is clear to me as I stand here, taking it in. But already a tide of new housing appears on a rise at the far side of the airfield, beyond the designated hangar reprieved for the museum. When that tide breaks, it will overrun the grass, the concrete runways, and even that take-off point to my far left where the pilots, my Dad included, took their new aircraft into the beyond. For the future there will be an Aerospace Heritage Centre, housing an important collection of archives and exhibits. But it will be cut off by that sea of housing from the living production site on the hill. The wholeness and integrity of this site will be lost for ever. I laud the building of a new Centre to remember the past, but I can’t help lamenting the loss of the reality as it passes away.

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Singers at Hawarden and Cows at RAF Calveley

I was delighted to finish off my visit to Hawarden with a meeting of Singers – a trio, in fact. Bob Francis and friend Ken arrived at the Airport in their two beautiful Singers: one a Le Mans a year older than Chattie and the other a Roadster from the 1950s, both in immaculate order. Thank you to you both so much.

Hawarden4webWith the friendly helpfulness I am constantly experiencing from vintage and classic car owners, they offered to lead me in convoy out of Hawarden and across Chester towards my next airfield, Calveley. Ken had to leave us after Chester, but Bob came with me to Calveley, and helped me find what is left. Like High Ercall, the land is claiming this one back. Unlike High Ercall, its remains linger in dishevelled neglect. A rough, rutted track leads to buildings which are instantly recogniseable as RAF Calveley, but time and chance have definitely happened to them all.

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Afternoon tea and a whale of a time at Hawarden

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I met my uncle and aunt, Chris and Angie at Hawarden Airport (pronounced ‘Harden’), at the Chocks Away Cafe. What a treat! We ordered afternoon tea, and saw the sandwiches being prepared to order. A true afternoon tea with tiered cake stand with delicious crustless sandwiches at the bottom, scones with clotted cream in the middle and cakes atop the rest; pot of tea served in flowery cups and saucers and as many refills as required. All this served with a smile and a view of the airfield.

Highly recommended.

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John Phipps at Cokebusters with a Rolls Royce Merlin engine

Chris is one of my father’s half-brothers, and himself spent time here at Hawarden (as also at RAF Valley) in the meteorological station here. After tea, we crossed the airport to the office of John Phipps of Cokebusters, in one of the oldest buildings on site, dating from wartime days. Cokebusters is a live engineering company but also operates a charity from the Normandy Veterans – see  www.d-dayrevisited.co.uk . The office was indeed reminiscent of wartime days, and the walls were covered with things relating to those days. Pride

of place, however, went to a Rolls Royce Merlin engine, which powered such a large part of the RAF’s total fleet of aircraft: Spitfire, Hurricane, Lancaster and the Boulton Paul Defiant being but a few on the long list.

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Airbus ‘Beluga’ taxiing to runway.

Today, Hawarden is dominated by the Airbus facility. I was stunned to see the Airbus’ aptly-named ‘Beluga’ – a huge whale of an aeroplane indeed. Imagine a large jet with the top sliced off and replaced with an enormous humped back, dwarfing the original cockpit which just peeps out below. Imagine such a ponderous creature moving along the runway and slowly, smoothly pushing up improbably into the air, angling towards the clouds as if being hooked out on a line from the earth by a celestial whaler. It’s an astonishing sight. And the reason for this unlikely feat of engineering? It has all been designed and constructed to carry the wings of the Airbus to Toulouse (I believe) where they are to be fitted to the fuselage. Until today I had never considered that such large planes might be made in pieces countries apart, and if I had, I would never have thought about how such large body parts might be brought together. Now I know.

During the war? Well, the modern Airbus follows in the tradition of the shadow factories, of which there was one here. Nearly 5,500 Vickers Wellington bombers were build here, and over 200 Lancasters. It had a maintenance unit (MU), and also housed No 3 Ferry Pilot’s Pool, Air Transport Auxiliary: it was for this reason that Dad was here on 10 February 1942, in a Dominie, on his fortnight’s stint the ATA.

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