Thursday, 17 June 2010

Christmas Present

Last year whilst looking at a photo I had taken long ago, I happened to mention casually that the particular aircraft in the picture was one of my favourite machines. I was absolutely delighted, when last Christmas, I received from The Better Half (TBH) an ‘Experience’ token for my Xmas present, which was a flight over London in that type of aircraft, a DeHaviland Dragon Rapide.

The flight is from Duxford air museum in Cambridgeshire, which is not a long way away from home, but a bit too far for people no longer used to getting up before seven AM and negotiating rush hour traffic.
We were getting all set to go and worked out how we would travel across county, stay in a guesthouse and then arrive in time for the ten AM flight, when The Son-in-law (TSIL) needed to go into hospital for a minor op which whilst day surgery, could leave him groggy for a day or two and anyway, required someone to deliver and fetch The Granddaughter (TG) to and from school at least on the day and probably longer. Since we did not know how long TSIL would be incapacitated and that week was the original booking for the flight, it was postponed to another date, something the flight people were happy to do.
As it happened, TSIL recovered rapidly and we could have got to the flight but since it was postponed, we had to wait for the new date.

Because we were going to be close to the part of the country that some of my father’s side of the family lived in several generations ago, we decided to go early and spend a day looking at tombstones in the local church yards to see if we could find any with my father’s family name on them.
Whilst this was interesting, it did not produce any of the names I was looking for but ironically I found some family names that I was not looking for. This was my mother’s name but it is unlikely to be her immediate family because they all came from a different part of the country.
Whilst we were in a place called Eye, we stopped off for a drink at the Blue Boar, a pub that was once owned or leased by a great great ancestor. The front has not been changed much, but behind it has been altered considerably since my ancestor's time, being enlarged and recently modified and seems very nice.

Yours truly stood outside the Blue Boar

This sign above the local dentist in Eye amused me

That evening, we took the picturesque route down to a small town called Melbourn where we had a booking for one night at the Riverside Guesthouse. The river was one of those English oddities you come across now and then where what I would describe as a ditch, or maybe a stream, is named a river by local custom. My definition of a river is something you cannot step over. It was well populated by ducks and despite my quibble over the tendency for some places to call a stream or a ditch a river, altogether it was quite a picturesque place. The name Melbourn contains an old English word for stream or river, ‘bourn’. This word crops up all over the south of England in place names. Many places are called Something Winterbourn, or Winterbourn Something, which means that the river there only flows during the winter, so Mel – bourn does pertain to some kind of water feature.

The Riverside Guesthouse with river

The view from our room, showing the sign for the next village of Meldreth. I don't know what dreth refers to but like Mel- bourn Mel-dreth is constructed from another old English word

The Riverside Guesthouse was not too far from Duxford so at a leisurely pace, we ate, checked out and drove on to the airfield.
Duxford was once an important airfield during the Battle of Britain, where such famous names as Douglas Bader flew from, but many years ago was turned into an air and military museum, as well as the venue for pleasure flights.

We arrived about fifteen minutes too early, before the place had opened, so with several other early birds, sat in our cars and waited. Soon a couple of coaches full of school kids arriving prompted us to get to the head of the queue since we only had fifteen minutes after they opened the doors to get to the Flights office and get breifed on what I had to do. This office was a longish walk from the entrance. TBH was not coming with me on the flight, since she has a slight problem with flying even in a stable high-powered jet airliner. The thought of rattling along in ana ircraft that was actually older than her does not appeal.

The Rapide was originally designed and flown by 1934, so is a little crude by modern standards but is a lovely looking aircraft being a bi-plane with streamlining. It was half way between the stick and string era and all metal bullet shaped aircraft and so has a bit of both.
This one was built in 1943 so was quite modern, and not actually older than me by a very small margin.

There was a short wait whilst all the passengers arrived and were checked in and during this time we were entertained by a wonderful display from a restored Spitfire doing stunts and flypasts, with the fantastic sound they make as the old Merlin engine driving it thrums in that smooth and powerful way they do.

All the passengers who had booked this flight, were prepared and briefed and then made to sit in certain of the eight seats in the passenger cabin. You were distributed by weight, having weighed each passenger as they arrived to check in. The heaviest of us had to sit towards the rear because, we were informed, too much weight near the front would make it nose heavy and it would tip over onto its nose on take off or landing, so they made sure the weight was distributed correctly. This gave me a wing seat, so I had to move around considerably to get pictures that were not half wing or strut.
Leaving TBH with a camcorder that she had never used before, I waved goodbye and we took off.

The twin engines give a very different sound to the Spitfire, more like a giant lawnmower but soon we were bouncing along the runway and suddenly the ride becomes smooth and you know you are in the air.

This smoothness did not last long as we gained altitude we came into the stronger breeze and the ride started to become quite interesting. TBH would definitely not have enjoyed the lurching, bouncing, tilting progress we made through the air. I am not subject to motion sickness so I was quite happy watching the world lurch by from around five hundred feet. Fortunately no one else aboard were troubled in this way although one lady seemed a little subdued.

We were heading for London, to do a bit of sightseeing from the air. The man sitting opposite me was from London, and had seen the Rapide flying over on several occasions and had found out what it was and booked himself a ride.

We could just about make ourselves heard above the engine noise which was better than some small aircraft I have ridden in before. We pointed out landmarks to each other as we flew by them. The first landmark was the M25 motorway and then we were over London and the first intended landmark was the site of the 2012 Olympic village being built ready for the Olympic Games coming to London.

Several times around this we then went on to central London and were able to spot several different famous buildings, including Tower Bridge, the Houses of Parliament and the London Eye.

The Houses of Parliament with Big Ben to the right

The London Eye with Waterloo station across the river

Tower Bridge in the distance with Saint Paul's Cathederal in the foreground

In this view you can see Nelson's Column in Trafalga Square right at the bottom and the British Museum, with Admiralty Arch leading into the Mall, which then runs all the way up to Buckingham Palace. The green area to the left is St James Park with Horseguard’s Parade, the open sandy coloured square at the bottom. I once worked in a building close to there and when we had a fire drill we all stood about in Horseguard’s parade until told to return.

We could not fly too far East, because the wind direction caused the flight path for City Airport to be using that route, so I did not see another of my old workplaces near Tilbury. But we circled around and I snapped picture after picture.

After about half an hour of circling around, we headed back to Duxford and landed. TBH was waiting for me and we then went and had a coffee and a bun each and I told her all about the flight.
It was really brilliant and I think it was the best ever Christmas present I have ever had. The only shame is that TBH could not come and enjoy it with me, but had to sit around for an hour whilst I was off having fun.
After coffee, we then did a tour of the museum until sore feet and exhaustion set in. It is vast, and has so many aircraft one day is not enough to do it justice, there is so much to see you have to be selective.
We did get to see Concorde. It was one of TBH's unfulfilled ambitions to fly in one of those, so it is a sort of substitute and we now have a picture of TBH inside Concorde, but it was a poor substitute for the real thing.


  1. Fantastically interesting post, Pete -- love your stories!

    Ooh, you are lucky getting inside the Blue Boar. When we went it was closed for renovations. Did you see the grassy area out back? I think it was mentioned in one of the censuses (censii?) as being a place where they kept cows. I wonder if they served fresh milk in those days, or just ale!

    I think I would have been on the ground with TBH, hugging the camcorder, rather than up in that plane with you. I can imagine you enjoying it, but I would have been far too sick, and probably screaming for someone to get me out of there! But I am envious of your photos - they are awesome!

    Considering the outcome of the Concorde I think it would have felt a bit freaky to be inside it - even if it was on the ground!

  2. Really interesting post, Pete. I would have joined you in the flight. I'm not sure I know the history of the Blue Boar. I'll have to get Kay to tell me. Of course I may have known it and have forgotten it. There must be a vast deep hole with a mish-mash of all the things I've forgotten, somewhere. I can never get over how green everything is in Britain -- and other places too.
    Carlsbad is pretty good about keeping the city green and flowering, but the green isn't as lush as yours. In the spring as we're driving we often remark "Oh look at that beautiful green hillside! when really it only has a watercolor wash of green over it.