Updated: Nov 5, 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.
East Kirkby is tiny (a few houses, one pub (closed), the b&b we were staying at, that’s about it). We drove along a country lane and chanced upon an old Lincolnshireman walking his two border collies (of course) and asked him where the nearest pub was. That led us to Horncastle (famous for its horse fair, a horse trading market which first started in the year 1231, and lasted until just after the war). We almost ended up in the Red Lion for a drink, but Janet spied the Kings Head, a delightful 600-year-old thatched roof pub with Tom, the owner’s charming son, tending bar. The Aussies were in town – we settled in.
That's Tom behind us. Shy sort of a chap!!
Tom told us about the Red Lion at East Kirkby, and the historical table in one of the back rooms. The airmen at the base used to carve their names in the table, we learnt later as a rite of passage after they had completed 30 missions.
Returning to East Kirkby we checked into the b&b and then headed off to the Red Lion for dinner. It’s a pretty basic pub. The new owners haven’t had it long. It’s only open from 6pm until about 9pm – after all the owners make up about a quarter of the population of the town (not quite, but you get the picture), and so there’s not a great deal of custom. I went exploring to find the table which Tom had told us of. One of the local’s sons was doing his homework on it, and after a bit I got chatting with the local. He told me, with much disgust, that the previous owner had had the table sanded back, and so only about two engraved name still exist. He declared that that was an act of vandalism on the previous owner’s part, and I cannot but agree with him.
The airmen's table, "restored" ...
This was likely the airmen’s room all those years ago, and around the wall are a few photos left over from that time. I scanned them, and was stunned and amazed to find my father staring back at me from a group of nine other men, all in uniform. I was speechless, tears in my eyes. I couldn’t talk, so had to prod Janet, who was nearby, and show her. Her immediate reaction “that’s your Dad”. She never met him, but knew immediately who he was from other photos. Even now, some weeks later, as I record this, I find myself choked with emotion at the thought of that moment.
On the right, F/Lt Tony Campbell 417618 ...
The fellow I had been talking to (the “vandalism” man) was equally blown away. I think for a moment the story become the talk of the town. [And as an aside, I have made subsequent email contact with a fellow from the base – again the local historian I gather - who is going to see if he can scan a copy of the photo for me, as well as checking for any other records he might have.]
As we were leaving the next morning our b&b host asked which squadron my father had belonged to. I told him and he pointed across the road, near to an old windmill in a state of disrepair, and said “that’s where all the 57 Squadron men were housed”. The big paddock, obviously now devoid of the Nissan huts which once filled it, had been recently harvested of whatever crop it held, and I stood there and imagined the row upon row of huts and all the activity which would have surrounded it.
Leaving East Kirkby ... the field on the left being where all the 57 Squadron Nissan Huts once were.
I think, on reflection, that this day was the highlight of the whole five weeks away (I say that as much as I love Spain and elements of that walk). Remarkable.
Day 3 – East Kirkby to Nottingham - 05 October
We went back into tourist mode today. Travelling companion Helen was keen to visit Chatsworth House, so even though it was a little of a backtrack, we headed north-west to that estate in Nottinghamshire. It was a slightly backwards journey, but an intentional one as a more direct route would not have got us to East Kirkby on a taxi run day.
From the outside Chatsworth House is magnificent, but I didn’t really have an inclination to walk around its innards, so Janet and I settled instead on an outside stroll while Helen went inside. It certainly is a magnificent estate. Our plan was to simply wander around the estate and to find a coffee, first stop being a pretty flash helicopter parked outside to have a squiz.
I saw that it had a royal crest on it, but that didn't necessarily mean anything, especially to an uncultured Aussie, so I asked the bloke (he's the one on the phone in the photo) "is this a charter aircraft?" No, he says, "it's one of the royal fleet". In good antipodean style I then say something like, "I don't suppose you'll tell me who you're transporting, or then you'll have to kill me", or something equally smart-arse. Yes, says he, "it's Princess Anne. Their travel is all one the public record - you can look it up on the web". So then we had a good old chat, and he said that the only ones who don't declare their travel are William and Harry because they are concerned about security. We yacked about the airfleet, that HM the Q prefers to travel by train and not by air, and all sorts of stuff. Nice bloke. Then the pilots turned up, and we had a brief chat to them.
Turns out that PA was leaving at 1430 (direct advice from the pilot), which was the time we had arranged to meet our companion back at the fancy-pants house. So we wandered up to the top of the estate for the restaurant and farm shop, had our coffee and a little after 2pm headed back down for the royal, and our, departure. At about 2:15 the whole place went into lock-down - men with ill-fitting jacket with lots of bulges under them talking into their sleeves, you get the picture. We stood around by the gate to the house, because all the roads were shut anyway, so we couldn't have left even if we wanted to. And waited and waited and waited.
Eventually the Royal Rover emerges from the gates (one couldn't possibly walk the couple of hundred metres to one's chopper, not with one's subjects nearby, could one?, he asks with just a hint of sarcasm) and drives PA to her waiting bird, with barely a look at her waiting subjects, I found that odd, but then I’m hardly a dedicated royal watcher, so I don’t know how these things work.
Someone important inside ...
I guess that whatever she was doing in the house was important (there were lords and ladies and mayors with chains and all sorts of important people present), but I would have thought that a little acknowledgement of the small assembled crowd wouldn't have been too much to expect. Maybe that's why her generation of royals are largely regarded as being out of touch.
But the helicopter was very nice ...
Freed from the Royal shutdown, we headed off to the home of Robin Hood and the Sherriff. It’s only a short drive (the whole day in total was our shortest in England), and time was on our side. Helen had discovered that the town of Denby, home of the makers of the lovely (and very expensive in Australia) pottery/stoneware which both she and we have a number of pieces of, is very close to Nottingham, so that called for an unplanned detour. Detour is in many ways the right word, because I missed a key turn to the village of Dendy, and a U-turn became a very impractical option as the line of vehicles into which we would have needed to turn and join was miles (literally) long. We were again staying near the city centre, and getting to our digs in what turned out to be almost a private, walled estate, was quite an exercise in twists and turns.
Having settled in to our overnight digs we headed off to find “Ye old trip to Jerusalem”, reputed to be the oldest inn in England. Legend had is that King Richard and his knights made this their last stop-off in England before heading off to the crusades. I know not the truth behind that story, but it makes for a good yarn. The pub is certainly ancient. It’s sort of cradled in the base of the walls of Nottingham Castle, with multi-levels and tiny rooms behind twists and turns. I wandered out to one of the small rooms out the back to find a very handsome Robin Hood sitting there. I felt it only chivalrous to introduce Janet to him. As you can see from the photo, she was rather taken with him.
Helen's doing her best Julie Bishop death stare impersonation ...
Someone was quite taken with Robin ...
Our time in Nottingham was short, but quite fun. Dinner that night was at a Michelin starred Indian restaurant – an extravagantly fitting end to a varied day.
Day 4 – Nottingham to Oxford - 06 October
Today marked Day 37 and our second last day away. Various commitment were starting to call at home, but that didn’t mean I was ready to leave. But reality is reality, so we packed up late morning, including some secure packing of our various Denby purchases for safe transport home, and following a very circuitous route exited our walled estate and set course for the two hours or so to Oxford.
Oxford was really no more than an add-on//bonus for the trip. It was designed to safely break up the bigger trip into Heathrow – to give us a comfortable margin for error to get to Heathrow in time for our flight early on the Sunday evening.
That said, I was looking forward to visiting this historical town of academic excellence. It’s an expensive place to stay, so for once we weren’t staying in the city centre, but a couple of kilometres out of town, on one of the main arterial roads. That presented us with a great opportunity to walk around a bit and take in this famous city. We found out that the Oxford Half Marathon was being staged the following morning, which rather spoiled the walk, as there were pedestrian barriers being erected everywhere. But no matter – we had a lovely stroll around, including a trip to Blackwell’s, the famous bookshop which was founded in 1879. In keeping purchased with my ever-increasing interest in the intersection of Christian and Islamic cultures over the millennia (and the art, science, literature, etc), I purchased a copy of the recently released Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities by Bettany Hughes. It’s proving to be a wonderful read.
And to add to the little bit of culture ...
Day 5 – Oxford to Heathrow - 07 October
Today was marathon, driving and departure day, so in many ways not all that much to report. Our hire car was trapped in our lodgings until after midday due to the marathon, so we spend a few hours wandering, then wended our way down to the scramble-ation which is the Heathrow airport precinct. Interesting that you are expected to return your hire car with a full tank of fuel, but there’s no service station within coo-ee of the airport. A minor inconvenience, and in any case we had heaps of time.
I think herein ends this blog. Written well after our return to Oz, we are safely home and back into “normal” routines. Will this blog ever become more than what it presently is? Probably not. Another book? No, not yet. In total (that is, including the Portugal and Spain legs), it was an enlightening experience. Mostly it was lots of fun. Not always. Has it changed me? Yes, of course … and significant journey is likely to have long-lasting impacts.
I guess these words will sit in the electronic ether somewhere, to either be stored in perpetuity or lost to time, as fate determines.