Tag Archives: travelling

Plane spotting can be a crime

On Saturday 4th June 1977, five young British men – all members of the West London Aviation Group – were released from jail in Athens. They were accused of spying and had spent ten weeks in prison for plane-spotting. Their original sentence was ten months but they were released after ten weeks on the condition that they would pay heavy fines. The men were simply interested in planes. The Greek police and courts did not understand that collecting serial numbers of aeroplanes was a hobby.

The Greek authorities could not understand what these young men – all in their twenties – were doing. Each had to pay a fine of £555 to obtain their release. Other plane spotters have had similar experiences.

Apparently Greek agents had tailed the spotters’ rented car as it travelled from airbase to airbase, parking on public highways as the occupants noted down aircraft numbers.  When they swooped on the departing Britons, the security police accused the men of taking notes which might describe the layout and features of the military runways they had visited. The five were immediately taken for interrogation by the Greek central intelligence agency.

“It was good cop, bad cop, just like you see on TV. One interrogator would be quite nice and then the other one would turn nasty.”

After 48 hours of questioning, the five were put on trial.
“We were very nervous. We had no idea if they were going to release us or put us away for 20 years.”

During their brief court appearance, the spotters attempted to convince Judge Stephanos Matthias that the taking of aircraft serial numbers was a genuine hobby in the UK (likening it to the Greek passion for football) and that it was not a cover for espionage.
“How can this silly, tasteless and costly game be a hobby?” retorted the judge.
While even Wing Commander Ioannis Marinakis – chief of air force intelligence and a prosecution witness – said the group acted “amateurishly”, all of the defendants were found guilty of violating security regulations under article 149 of the Greek penal code.

“They wanted to make an example of us. They didn’t want us going home and telling other plane-spotters about all the great numbers we had collected. That would have opened the flood gates.”

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It began with a visit in 1876

John Ruskin was a leading English art critic of the Victorian era, as well as being an art patron, draughtsman, watercolourist, a prominent social thinker and philanthropist.  He wrote on subjects as varied as geology, architecture, myth, ornithology, literature, education, botany and political economy.  He also penned travel guides and, on Sunday 23rd April 1876, he wrote a piece about the city of Peterborough:

‘In comfortable room with horriblest outlook on waste garden and vile buildings; Italian architraves in brick of coldest mud colour – cretinous imitation.  A Bridewell or Clerkenwell with Genovese cornices travestied!  The Cathedral here for a wonder, spared.  Bitter black day yesterday so cold I could neither stand to look at it an instance, nor at the beautiful old inn at Stilton.  Road here from Cambridge very flat and dull and in the black days, nothing but gloom over distance towards the Wash.’

Not very pleasant but – in 1858 he had opened the Cambridge School of Art. The art school grew to become Anglia Ruskin University, and it’s still at the heart of the modern-day campus in Cambridge.  But that was just the beginning – over the years, a number of colleges and institutes have become part of Anglia Ruskin. This now includes the Cambridgeshire College of Arts and Technology and the Essex Institute of Higher Education.  At first these colleges combined to become Anglia Polytechnic, and then Anglia Polytechnic University in 1992. It has been known as Anglia Ruskin University since 2005. As well as Cambridge, they have campuses in Chelmsford, London and Peterborough.  The campus at Guild House, Peterborough opened in 2011 and is a dedicated healthcare site where they train many of the region’s nurses and healthcare professionals.

It took time but maybe the City is forgiven it’s looks in 1876!

The day that Eddie Cochran died

This year – 2017 – Easter Sunday falls on 16th April.    In 1960, Easter Sunday was on 17th April – the day this then teenager, and many others across Britain and beyond, remember as the day that Eddie Cochran died.  His death, in St. Martin’s Hospital, Bath, came as a result of injuries sustained in a car crash just outside Chippenham, late the night before.

Eddie and his great friend Gene Vincent had been touring the UK since mid-January on a package tour that had created a sensation amongst UK rock n roll fans.  By 1960 the first flush of raw rock’n’roll was long gone – much to the regret of many of us.  I had virtually all of Gene’s and Eddie’s discs at home.  They were well-hidden though because Dad had ‘accidentally’ damaged some Bill Haley 78s at Christmas.  Eddie & Gene were not going to have the same treatment.

Often described as ‘James Dean with a guitar’, Eddie had everything going for him. A young, good-looking guy, a hugely talented musician, who as well playing stunning guitar, could also handle bass and drums and most unusually for those times, also wrote his own songs.  Two of which – ‘Summertime Blues’ and ‘C’mon Everybody’, had been huge hits and today – nearly 60 years on – they are regarded as classics of the genre.
Eddie had arrived in the UK to join a tour that had started before Christmas.  Promoted by Larry Parnes the acts and musicians were all under contract to him and included Billy Fury – another of my idols – Joe Brown, Georgie Fame, Vince Eager and Johnny Gentle. The tour had a punishing schedule through a typical British winter – something California-resident Eddie was used to!  By the time the group reached the Bristol Hippodrome on Monday 11th April for a week-long residency, Eddie and his songwriter girlfriend, Sharon Sheeley, were looking forward to going back home.

After the final Saturday night show they collected their things from their hotel. Sometime after 11.00pm, a Ford Consul driven by George Martin, with Eddie, Gene, Sharon and tour-manager Pat Thompkins, set off for London.   Eddie, Sharon and Gene sat in the back, with Thompkins next to the driver.  This was pre-M4 days and Martin chose the A4 down through Bath.  However, it was a bad road, especially at night, so he chose a short cut round Chippenham.  Pat Thompkins later recalled: “You come out from under the viaduct and come across a bridge in front of you. On your right is the A4 and then the bridge and on your left is the A4 to London. Well, he saw the A4 and turned right, going the wrong way. When he saw the milestone, he realized he was going the wrong way and hit the brakes.”

Martin lost control on the Rowden Hill bend – then a notorious accident black-spot – and spun backwards into a concrete lamp post.  The impact sent Eddie up into the roof and forced the rear door open, throwing him onto the road.  Martin and Thompkins were able to walk away from the wreckage uninjured but Gene, Sharon and Eddie were lying on the grass verge.

The noise brought local residents onto the scene and the police were called to the scene.  An ambulance from Chippenham arrived soon after, in total darkness and the three were taken to St Martin’s hospital.  Gene had broken his collarbone but Sharon only suffered shock and bruising.  The injuries to Eddie would prove fatal.  He had suffered severe brain damage and never regained consciousness.  He died at 4.10pm that Sunday afternoon.

Like Buddy Holly who came our way two years earlier, Eddie Cochran had a profound influence on young aspiring British musicians.  Joe Brown has often said what a great and innovative guitar player Eddie was, introducing styles and techniques that had never been seen here before.   Georgie Fame credits Eddie with introducing the music of Ray Charles to a mainstream UK audience, through his playing of Charles’ songs in his stage act.  Shadows drummer Brian Bennett, as a member of Marty Wilde’s band who were loaned out to Eddie for some of the live dates and his BBC radio sessions for the Saturday Club show, recalls Eddie showing him some great drum tricks. Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey both idolised Eddie and of course, ‘Summertime Blues’ was for years a Who stage-favourite.  Ironically, the biggest UK hits for Eddie’s songs ‘C’mon Everybody’ and ‘Somethin’ Else’, came in 1979, when The Sex Pistols took both of them to number three in the charts.

George Harrison had seen Eddie when the tour played Liverpool and even acquired an important  piece of Eddie memorabilia: ‘In 1999 I worked on a radio series for the BBC World Service with Paul McCartney, looking back at his early rock’n’roll years.  Paul recalled the-then unknown Beatles touring Scotland backing Johnny Gentle in 1960.  Eddie had given Johnny his stage shirt after the Bristol show and following a week of pestering by the young Beatle, Johnny eventually passed it to George.  Johnny came to one of the Eddie Cochran Weekender events in Chippenham, where I interviewed him live on air. He too said what an amazing talent Eddie was, and also said he wished he’d kept that shirt!’

When someone dies young, it’s always the eternal question – what would they have done in life?  In the case of Eddie Cochran, I think there can be little doubt he would have been the first ‘guitar-hero’ of the sixties, with Clapton, Beck, Page and Hendrix queuing up to play with him.   Jimi always said he wanted Eddie Cochran played at his funeral, and he got his wish.  What makes this whole story even more poignant is how young Eddie was when he took his seat in the car that night – just 21.

Today, that dangerous bend at Rowden Hill, Chippenham has long since been made safe. There is no longer any physical reminder of the tragedy, except for one thing – a plaque on the grass verge in memory of Eddie.  To this day that plaque marks the spot where he Eddie died.  It was erected by fans and unveiled at one of Chippenham’s Eddie Cochran Weekender events by Sharon Sheeley, on what was her first visit since that fateful night at Easter 1960.

PS: Included in the police team that came to the crash was a young Wiltshire cadet called Dave Harman.  Not too long after he changed his ‘name’ to Dave Dee and became a highly successful pop star himself.

This has been a much longer piece than I would normally post – and is being posted on both of my blogs [talkinghistoryblog & beejaytellingstories].  Wikipedia has a broader story of Eddie’s life and death.

It is quite possible that the story is either new to you and/or not something that presents any interest to you.  To me it is a part of my late teenage years.  I have most of Eddie’s work on disk or tape and, until quite recently, I still had my guitar from that long ago youth!

PPS: At a different time at a different place Gene Vincent would step on my fingers – but that’s another story!

My shock – and the story of a Balloon

Sunday 21st March 1999 proved quite a shock to me when I was trawling for snippets to write. Why? Because it was on this day that the first non-stop round-the-world balloon flight was completed. It was a two-man balloon and one was Bertrand Piccard – no real surprise there. It was the other that amazed me because his name was Brian Jones! I just do not remember doing this flight – and I certainly would remember it because I just have NO head for heights! I think I need learn more about this man with my name – and I have.

This Brian Jones is younger than me, was born in Bristol and served in the RAF for 13 years.  The balloon in question was ‘Breitling Orbiter 3’ which had been built by Cameron Balloons of Bristol and stood 180ft tall when fully inflated.  It was powered by propane gas that fuelled six burners containing 28 titanium cylinders mounted in two rows along the sides of the gondola. There was some concern about fuel consumption so the team added four additional propane containers prior to take-off.  As it turned out these additions proved necessary to complete the trip!  The two set off on Monday 1st March from Château d’Oex in Switzerland.

The daily routine called for each man to spend eight hours alone at the controls, eight hours working with his crewmate, and eight hours in the single bunk. There was a unique pressure-operated toilet curtained off area at the rear of the craft. Despite the use of heaters designed to maintain a cabin temperature of 59 °F (15 °C), temperatures occasionally fell so low at night that drinking water froze and the ice had to be carefully chipped away from delicate electronic circuitry on the interior walls.

They landed on this day in Egypt after a 45,755 kilometre flight lasting 19 days, 21 hours and 47 minutes.
For his achievement, Brian Jones received awards including the Hamon Trophy, the Hubbard Medal, the FAI Gold Air Medal and the Charles Green Salver.

The gondola is now on display at the Udvar-Hazy Center of the National Air and Space Museum in Dulles Airport outside Washington D.C.

A conversation on a train

A CONVERSATION ON A TRAIN

“I’m 200 years old today. It’s my birthday.”

The man who spoke sat in the opposite corner of the compartment. As people do, we sat as far away from each other as space would allow. We were the only two in the compartment and had been travelling for some 20 minutes. In this time we had not even acknowledged each other. As he spoke I looked at him for the first time.

He was small, perhaps no more than 5 feet 3 inches, with sparse, sandy hair. His brown suit was obviously old and well-worn but showed the unmistakable signs of having been carefully looked after. His footwear was similarly well-worn but polished and presentable. With his clean, white starched collar he looked a typical clerk; the type of man who diligently, and unambiguously, works out his life in the services of the same master in some commercial backwater.

His face was unremarkable until you looked into his eyes. They were a very pale grey and seemed to have vast, hidden depths. As I looked I seemed to see in them experience and understanding far beyond normal understanding.

“Yes,” he said, “I calculate I’m 200 years old today.”

“Oh,” I replied, feeling that I had to say something but not quite knowing what.

I looked at him again – more carefully. Apart from his eyes I would have credited him with little more than 40. But those eyes – they seemed to contain so much more than could be accumulated in a mere 40 years.

“Well, you certainly don’t look 200,” I finally managed to get out.

I had come to the conclusion that the man would need humouring, something I felt disinclined to do, so had decided to let the conversation die away as quickly as possible. However, in responding in the way I did, I seemed to have provided him with the necessary stimulus to speak.  His voice sounded tired, like the sound a well-fitting door makes when it slowly drifts shut in a carpeted room. Even so it came clearly to me over the rattle of the train wheels on the track joints.

“Yes, I suppose I don’t. After all, I was only 40 when I stopped aging. That was 160 years ago and for the past 50 of them I have regretted that fateful day. Yes, regretted it but done nothing about it. Now I’m tired and have come to the end.”

Definitely a man to be humoured, I convinced myself, and settled back to be a martyr to someone else’s needs.  The man sat back in the corner with a far-away look drifting into his eyes: as if he really was thinking back over so many years gone by. After a while he went on in his soft, tired voice. A voice that now had a far-away quality about it as well.

“It’s a strange gift, immortality,” he began. “When it first came to me I was overjoyed. So much time was mine. I had time to do anything and everything I wished. At first I rushed about doing all the hurried, urgent things that one does when confronted with unlimited choice. I had unlimited choice and unlimited time as well but I could not grasp the idea and control myself.

“It took me perhaps ten years to really grasp and accept the fact that I was immortal; that I had no need to hurry anything. It gradually dawned on me when I saw my reflection in the looking glass day after day. My features did not change. For 10 years my face had stayed the same. A little tanned from travelling in sunny climes perhaps, but still the same me. It was then that I slowed down. I could watch change take place. For a while inventions fascinated me. I watched them introduced, often with a great to do, come into common usage and then be overtaken by the next invention.

“I watched people. Great men appeared. Their careers and fame grew, blossomed into full glory and, in time, died. Sometimes their fame lived on, but more often it died with them. Countries appeared and developed from previously unknown corners of the world. Some took their place in world affairs; others sank back into the oblivion that had been theirs.

“I watched this ever-changing pageant with an absorbed interest, sure in the knowledge that I would outlast it all – and I have. But now my interest wanes and I grow tired. Old age is not just a physical thing; it is a mental thing as well.”

He lapsed into silence. Despite myself I had been intrigued by his story. Whether the story was true or not was something I could not tell, but he certainly believed it.  As he sat there in silence my curiosity got the better of me.

“How did you come by this immortality?” I asked.

He looked at me, almost as if he hadn’t seen me before. He studied me with eyes now shrewd and all-knowing. For perhaps a minute he studied me, looking critically into my eyes and at my face.

“The face tells the true story of its wearer” he murmured quietly to himself.

“Yes. How does one come by this gift of immortality?” he repeated, louder but still to himself. Almost as if he was asking himself the question. After a pause he looked straight at me; almost through me.

“I was travelling in the East when it came to me. I did a lot of travelling in those days. I had attached myself to a camel train heading eastwards; roughly in the direction I was aiming. For three days we trekked across the desert.

“During that time I talked often with another itinerant traveller who did not belong to the train either. He, in fact, came from the mountainous lands to the north of India but had spent a long time travelling the desert wastes, never settling for long in one place or with one group of people.  He was presently heading back to this mountainous homeland, there, he said, finally to die. He had one last secret to pass to another and then he could rest in peace.”

Again the man stopped in the telling of his tale. Silence descended on the compartment, broken only by the click-clack of the wheels on the rails.  In a while he took up his story again.

“After the three days we reached an oasis where a number of desert tracks met. The camel train was heading north-east from here: my new found colleague, south. As I was heading nowhere in particular I elected to join him and together we set out, aiming for the mountains of his homeland.  He was a pleasant companion, seeming to have an unending fund of stories of strange parts of the world. His knowledge of the desert seemed limitless, unerringly picking watering places out of the vastness of the wilderness in which we travelled.

“Over the days of travelling we got to know each other very well. One night we had made camp and were sitting beside our small fire before finally settling down for the night. As was usual we were telling stories of our travels and the strange and interesting places we had visited. I remember that my story was of a visit I had made to the Holy Land a few years previously.

“His story went back longer than that – two centuries to be exact. He told me of a meeting with a holy man all those years ago in the land they now call Tibet. There, in the snowy fastness of those mountainous lands, he had spent a winter with a small community of holy men and their families. It appears that he made a very favourable impression on these holy hermits during this time. As the spring came and his departure drew nigh, the head man of the little community called him into his sparse cell.

“There he had told my travelling colleague about the small holy band. Since time immemorial they had lived there – six holy men with their families – untouched by the happenings in the vast world around them; untouched by illness or by old age: immortal.  Their children matured slowly as befitted the children of immortal parents. With no natural death to control their numbers it was important that they did not overpopulate their valley. To avoid this it was laid down in their laws that as a child reached maturity, at 100 years, the oldest of that child’s sex within the community must die.

“That was the problem that now confronted the head man. One of the young men had reached his maturity last summer and now wished to take his place in the community. So the oldest man, the head man, must die. Their law said that he could not leave the valley nor, because of his immortality, could he die in any normal sense of the word. The only way they could end their life was to give their immortality to another living being that was not immortal.

“This they achieved by telling the secret of immortality to one of the animals that lived in the valley. In the telling of the secret the gift of immortality was passed to the other. Having told their secret they aged and died. Provided they told an animal that had not reached breeding age, the balance of nature in the valley was never upset.  The head man, however, had long ago resolved to pass his secret to some other human. During the winter he had decided that their guest, my present companion, should be the receiver of the gift, the first human from outside the valley to become immortal. In the telling of the secret my companion had been given immortality, whether he wanted it or not.

“The head man had then hurried him on his way. The years would now rapidly and irrecoverably catch up with the head man and within hours he would be dead and the young man of the community would take his place.

“My companion had then found himself ushered out of the cell and into the bright spring day. His few belongings had been bundled together and these, together with a quantity of food, awaited him. One of the young men escorted him to the edge of the valley and directed him to a path that eventually led to the desert in which we were travelling.

“When we first met, my companion had been heading back to the valley to return the gift. However, the days we had spent together had changed his mind. His wish now was to pass on the gift to another dweller of the world. In telling me the secret the gift was given again. Like him before me I had had no choice.”

The man grew silent. In the time it had taken him to tell the story he had aged ten years, or so it seemed. After a while he spoke again.

“As I said, at first I was overjoyed. But now I feel old and I am tired and want to rest. I have had enough.”

He stopped speaking just as the train jerked. It was coming into a station, the first stop on the journey. That jerk of the breaks brought me back to reality and I shook myself as a dog does after getting caught in a shower of rain. As the train pulled to a halt the man stood up and reached for my hat and coat from the rack above the seat.

“I believe this is your stop for this journey,” he said as he handed me my things. I automatically stood up and took them. I climbed out of the carriage and for a moment stood on the platform looking back at the story teller. He smiled at me with a tired smile and spoke as he pulled the door closed.

“Take care of the precious gift of immortality. It is yours now, guard it well.”

The train pulled away from the platform and the man was lost to my sight. I stood on the platform and watched the train disappear into the distance. I stood on the station, slowly realising that I was immortal, and my erstwhile travelling companion would soon be no more.

It was in 1854 when I stood on that platform with realisation dawning. Now I too am tired of this ever-changing world and want to rest.  I cannot wait for 2055 to arrive. I cannot bear the burden of immortality for 200 years. Things now move so much more rapidly than they did when I had the conversation in the train. I believe that 150 years is now the limit a soul can take.  I have come to the end so ….. Take care of the gift of immortality for it, now, is yours.

Guard it well.