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Updated: Nov 6, 2018

England, 02-07 October.

Picking up the story to date … we spent the previous nine days in Scotland, and after dropping Nat off at Edinburgh airport, headed south. As with Scotland, I had planned to write a daily blog, but this was not to be. Following is a composite story, so that the main elements don’t get lost.

And in the middle of the trip, an emotional discovery, personally very significant. That discovery has given its name to the title of this blog post. Read on …

Day 1 – Bridge of Weir (Scotland) to York (England) - 03 October

I always knew that today was going to be a big driving day. According to Google maps it was something like a 430 klm day. In Australia that’s maybe a 5-hour drive at best. What I did not allow for is the endless English traffic and the even more endless roundabouts of gargantuan complexity. I think that I have now seen every roundabout layout possible, from the very simple 3 and 4-road circular constructions where you either go left, straight ahead or right, to spaghetti-shaped monsters with figures-of-eight in the middle of them controlled by 4 sets of traffic lights, where you need an PhD in advanced geo-spatial design to work out how to get into the thing, what lane to stay in or move into, and then what exit to take.

We dropped Nat off at Edinburgh airport about 10am, took the very last of our “Team Zodiac” selfies, and some 100 kilometres and almost two hours later stopped at the Scotland-England border. Hmmm.

Adios Natalia ... see you back in Oz.

Hullo to Mother England!!

After another 230 kilometres of driving, driving, driving we eventually made it to York at around 3:00 pm. Hmmm again. It was a pretty drive, and the timings weren’t helped by my exploratory drive through Durham, where I got hopelessly tangled up in the absolute pedestrian centre of town. But fun.

The York Minster

The reason we were heading to York is that travelling companion Helen really wanted to visit the York Minster, the ancient cathedral which dominates the centre of that town. The cathedral starts closing to visitors at 4:30 pm, and so we needed to get there by about 3:30 pm latest to use our time wisely. As it was we entered about 4pm, and were very helpfully directed to the parts which were going to be shut down shortly. It is a magnificent building, no doubt about that. We were advised that the Quire would be shut down at 4:30 for Evensong, and that we should start our visit there. I wandered slowly but purposefully, aiming to be through this section of the cathedral before it started to close. Just made it. As I then sat in the main Nave, near the central tower, I saw the choir filing in. A little later the choir were to produce one of the two great surprises of the Minster.

Nothing like a bit of scaffolding to muck up a picture of a 1,000 year old church ... but the choir, secreted behind said scaffolding, were amazing.

The undercroft museum also starts closing at 4:30pm, so we hurried down there before it was roped off. What a find. The crypt of St William of York, canonised in 1227, lies there. From the little I’ve read he seems to have been an intriguing character; and I like the irony that a Catholic archbishop and saint lies venerated beneath one of the Anglican Church’s great cathedrals.

The other great surprise, given the walk we had recently completed in Portugal and Spain, was the display in the museum on pilgrimage. The display asked the simple but deep question of Tourist? Traveller? Pilgrim? This was a question which I had contemplated quite deeply as I walked the Camino Francis and then as I prepared to write An Impossible Dream. In the three years since I completed that walk, and indeed in the almost two years since I wrote the book my views on the spirituality of a camino have shifted a little, in part due to some reflections on the recent Portuguese Camino, so it could almost be destiny to be confronted with this question at this time, in this place.

Given my ponderings and writings over the last couple of years, what a great question.

The main part of the undercroft museum houses an intriguing historical display. It recreates, in a few ways, the story of the cathedral from its Roman times, including the very significant engineering works carried out in the last century to preserve the building (being built on ancient Roman foundations it was I danger of collapse).

Returning upstairs I was rewarded with the heavenly sounds of the choir practicing for Evensong. I couldn’t see them, but the acoustics of the old building carried the beautiful harmonies the length and breadth of the church. I sat quietly for a long time, just listening.

Eventually leaving the old cathedral we wandered for a while before returning to the night’s accommodation and then heading out again for an evening meal. Quite a day. And while I was not yet to know it, another even more amazing day was to follow.

Day 2 – York to East Kirkby, Lancashire - 04 October

East Kirkby was, for me, the focal point of our trip to England. Those who have read An Impossible Dream, or other of my musings, will recall that I have long wondered what impact the second world war must have had on my father, and flowing through him, on me. (As an aside, I was once told, by a therapist, that it takes three generations for the effects of war to flow through a family. I’ve never really attempted to validate this statement, but it intuitively feels right to me. I have no doubt that my father’s traumatic experiences influenced his very way of being, and that in turn, as I reflect on it many years later, played a key role in my own personality development, and that in turn had an impact on my daughter’s own development. Powerful stuff.)

So, enter East Kirkby. East Kirkby is now the home of the Lancaster Aviation Heritage Centre (LAHC), but 75 years ago it was one of the very many Bomber Command airfields along the east coast of England. It housed both 57 and 630 Squadrons. 57 Squadron was a RAF squadron which comprised many Australian (and Canadian and New Zealand) airmen. 630 Squadron was a RAAF squadron based in the UK. My father flew 25 missions in 57 Squadron. So not only is East Kirkby the “home of the Lancaster”, which he flew, it was his actual base. Today they have an operational “Lanc”, J Jane, at the field. She no longer flies (although I’m told that they are working towards getting her airworthy), but twice a day, on certain days of the week, she does a “taxy run”, where she taxis under the power of her own four rolls-royce engines from outside her big hanger out onto the runway and back again, to the amazement of the assembled crowd.

I had planned this part of the trip around getting to the airfield in time to see the 11am taxy run. The 150 or so kilometres should in theory be an easy and quick drive, but having learnt from yesterday’s experience we headed out of our lodgings in the centre of York around 8am, planning to grab some breakfast along the way. A three-hour margin should be sufficient, I reckoned. What I didn’t allow for was inner-city York traffic, difficulty finding a car park near the chosen breakfast spot, or me leaving a precious item of clothing back at the lodgings. So, in a flap we eventually left York around 8:45am. Should still be sufficient time!!

The drive through the English countryside to get to East Kirkby, although frustratingly long, is very pretty. For a relativity short drive it seemed endless. But we made it. Just. 10:50am. Very little margin for error, as the gates to the centre are locked just before the taxy run starts, as the exhaust from the engines points directly at the entrance from the car park. I reckon another 5 minutes and we would have been locked outside for the duration of the run. Anyway, we weren’t.

Words and pictures cannot adequately describe the scene. The old Lancaster is quite magnificent, even in the context that it was once an operational killing machine. I acknowledge that but did not look at it through those eyes. I stood imagining my father sitting up at the controls of the aircraft way back in 1944 as a 21-year kid from Adelaide. The awful responsibility. The fear. I wasn’t particularly emotionally impacted (that would come later), just amazed by what stood in front of me and what it all represented, at so many levels.

J for Jane ...

The LAHC is more than just the Lancaster. Inside the hangar is a significant display. I found pictures of one of Dad’s old buddies, Jack Hoare, who I have met a couple of times over the years. The old control tower has been recreated to represent how it would have been set up all those years ago. (The last time I met old Mr Hoare he told me, with a glint in his 90 year old eyes, how on returning from one mission he’d “buzzed” the control tower, I gather just for the fun of it.) It was marvellous to stand in the top floor of the control tower and imagine that.

I had made contact with the LAHC folk before our visit, and they had kindly dug out some of Dad’s old records. Some photos, not very good quality, follow, of a selection of the operational details with which he was involved. Labelled “SECRET” they are listed on a form innocuously headed “Detail of work carried out”. They show aircraft details, crew, location and description of mission, times departed and returned, bomb load and success or otherwise of the mission. Occasionally they record the non-return of a plane – one entry simply reads “Missing. (11th Sortie)”. My father’s crew was always the same (him, Pilot; Sgt A Sawyer, Flight Engineer; Warrant Officer R Johns, Navigator; Flying Officer E Crate, A/B (?); Flight Sgt E Fitzgerald, W/Op (also?) and the other Aussie in the crew; Sgt E Weaver, M/U (?); and Sgt P Davison, Rear Gunner). It wasn’t all dropping bombs - on 8th May 1945 the entry reads “Sortie completed. Twenty four ex. P.O.W’s brought back from Juvincourt and deployed at Dunsfold.” Funnily enough, I found that one a particularly emotional entry.

We stayed for the second taxy run, ad 1:30pm, and then headed off to explore the district.

The logs below aren't all that easy to read, but the picture they paint is dramatic.