We set off early on Friday morning, not to beat the traffic but to arrive in time not to miss the last conducted tour. The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (BBMF) does not do weekends in the hangar at its home base at Coningsby in Lincolnshire. I stupidly asked ‘Why not?’ and then realised that they would likely be flying around somewhere in the wide blue yonder and this weekend was to be no exception.
Five of the N.E. Section had set out from various points in Tyneside at the crack of 08.00hrs. ish to cover the miles to Coningsby as fast as legally possible. Our first stop was well down the road at Barnsdale Bar to make all our acquaintances and enjoy a highly recommended second breakfast.
There were five of us all sharing an interest in bacon butties and classic aviation. Philip, whose idea this was in the first place: ex RAF and one time aircraft engineer/tech guy on the BBMF back in the day. He’s worked on a lot more modern stuff as well. Graham: ex adventurer and private pilot. Billy: a frequent flyer and collector of air miles. He’s spent so long on an airline seat he’s collecting air piles too. Ashley: spends his working days flying a big desk and bean counting and me, Phil, who, in an earlier life had shot down more aircraft than he cares to remember. Fortunately, they were all Airfix models dangling from his bedroom ceiling.
We turned off the A1 just after the main Newark junction, cunningly avoiding the usual snarl up at those horrible roundabouts and struck East across Lincolnshire. As we passed the famous Cranwell Flying School I noticed a sign for its museum and made a mental note for next time. A left turn after Sleaford saw us meandering North on the B1192 and at about 1.30pm….oops 13.30hrs. we were parked up and presented ourselves for the ‘two bob tour’. Just time for a cuppa etc. before the off.
It’s all carefully controlled of course. It just would not do to have civvies running amok in an aircraft hangar in a military establishment, so after a short briefing we switched off our mobile phones and promised not to touch anything. We then were escorted to the hanger for a visual feast. As (Sir) Michael Caine never said; ‘Not a lot of people know this but’, the BBMF’s Dakota owes its very existence to Philip. He was the crew chief who actually brought it into service when the Flight took it on. He knew the plane inside out and was able to add little snippets to the official guided interpretation which was delivered by a smashing chap who certainly knew his onions. Ex RAF of course.
We edged up the inner side of the hangar looking at various marques of Spitfire and Hurricane and a little Chipmunk…do not feed, but we all know where his nuts are because he was in for a service. There was one thing missing from the hangar but we needn’t have wondered where it was because there was to be heard the sound of four Merlin engines clearing their throats and coughing into life, Well, if I had any hair then the ones on the back of my neck would have stood to attention. Quick diversion outside and we were confronted with the glorious sight and sound of a Lancaster bomber with all four props spinning in a blur. We stood to starboard (the right hand side to you sonny) just behind the wing and she was blowing a fair old gale. We had to lean well forward in the prop wash. No point in talking, just enjoy. After five minutes of delight this majestic war bird throttled down and we could hear the feathered birds tweeting again. The tour was almost over except for a look at the infamous big bombs, the Tallboy and Grand Slam that the Lancaster used to carry. Too big even for America’s best: the massive Flying Fortress. The Lanc, aided and abetted by its heroic crew, managed to put one of these down the funnel of the Turpitz and other interesting places which meant that if you were within range of a Lanc there was no hiding place.
Well that was quite enough excitement for one day so we high-tailed it to the Premier Inn at Boston for a good meal, a few beers and a good night’s sleep. If it’s good enough for Lenny Henry then it will do for us.
Saturday morning saw us heading North on the A16 to the Lincolnshire Heritage Aviation Centre at East Kirkby (closed on Sundays) where for little money a decent breakfast can be had to fortify one for a busy morning of gazing at wonderful things. The first object of desire was another Dakota standing tantalizingly out of reach at the edge of the apron. Privately owned and in regular use….keep off! So into the hangar we go and wow! Before our very eyes, JUST JANE, another Lanc. The pride of the museum and rightly so. Two chatty chaps, paintbrushes in hand, attending to the tailplane, getting her ready for airworthiness…nearly there…can’t wait. She and the whole museum are owned by the Panton brothers who gave up farming cows and corn for chickens and eggs. Don’t ask which came first. They had a bit of spare cash, bought a disused air field and started collecting bits and pieces then it got out of hand. The Lanc was bought at auction as a non-runner but a dedicated team are bringing her back to full airworthiness. I can identify with this as my little collection of old BMW bikes will testify. Luckily an MOT certificate is much easier to obtain than a Civil Aviation Authority Certificate of Airworthiness. Possibly because there are fewer letters in it. …maybe not.
Just when you think you have seen everything, there at the back of the hangar, resplendent in grey primer is a Wooden Wonder, A Mosquito, the rarest of the rare. The owner is Tony Agar, A man of modest means but huge ambition who has spent every penny and all his waking hours on creating a complete aircraft from bits and pieces he has begged borrowed and bought. It’s a real bitsa but he reckons it will be in the air next year. Graham and I had quite a chat with his lady assistant whilst Tony busied away in the background bringing a radiator back to life. Both Graham and I thought we had seen another Mosquito at Elvington in Yorkshire and were marvelling that there should be two in existence but it turns out that they are one and the same. The poor thing was being neglected in Yorkshire and was offered a more secure home here at East Kirkby so it was taken apart and transported with great difficulty and expense but it now has a secure future. It seems there is no such thing as a hopeless case where WW2 aircraft are concerned. It’s a bit like the tramp who found a button in the street and knocked on the door of a house. When a lady opened the door he asked if she could sew a coat to it.
There are lots of other things to see here including some four and two wheeled period exhibits. A walk round the site engages you with a Hampden project and some Wellington wings which clearly illustrate Barnes Wallace’s Geodesic principles. Wallace was renowned for inventing the bouncing bomb of Dam Busters’ legend and the two massive bombs we had seen the day before at Coningsby.
Whilst we were sitting out having a well earned cuppa there appeared a couple of Honda Gold Wings crossing the apron and parking up for a photo opportunity under the Dakota. Well what’s good enough for the Gold Wing Club is good enough for the BMW Club and since Billy is a member of both, he was dispatched to see the gate man and open negotiations and the gate. Old silver tongue worked his magic and fifteen minutes later we five had ridden across the apron and indulged in some formation parking, just like the Red Arrows but slower. A lot slower. Cameras out, snap snap snap. Snap snap and snap again. Too good an opportunity to miss! No money changed hands but we’d happily have paid. It could be a good little earner for the museum so if you visit them and have to pay to get a photo of your bike in front of a war bird then you know who to blame for giving them the idea.
Five miles South of Coningsby on the B1192 is the Bubble Car Museum where we pulled in and spent an hour marvelling at how human beings were prepared to suffer in order to get from A to B. I’m so pleased to say that owning a motorcycle back in the day saved me from ever contemplating such a humiliating conveyance. Nevertheless they are worthy little machines and one of them (an Isetta) even sported a BMW badge. There is a section upstairs where rests a collection of micro cars powered by 50cc engines. I repeat 50cc engines! They even had two seats. I suspect that the passenger would be carried to help push when it came to a hill. There were a few 2 stroke Brit Bikes on show too but not the kind you would brag about owning but all good stuff and it generated a lot of discussion and incredulity. The museum has a lovely café and sells local produce too. Their little camp site provoked some thoughts of a camping weekend and that was enough to make the rain god angry so we cleared off before the bubble burst in a big way.
It seemed a shame not to visit the historic town of Boston and see the ‘Stump’ as the local church is affectionately called since it is sans spire. The fair was in town which made parking a little difficult but we got lucky thanks to Philip’s local knowledge and chained up in a back street with some misgivings for the safety of our pride and joys when we attracted a small crowd of onlookers who proceeded to talk among themselves in strange tongues, pointing and nodding in our direction. They were probably remarking that old age pensioners only rode mopeds in Poland. Whilst in the Stump the power of silent prayer ensured our bikes were exactly where we left them when we returned.
We rode to our billet through the drizzle and got settled in before the deluge. Our plan to walk into town that evening and have a Chinese or Indian meal was put on hold due to the fair and the weather not being fair and that wasn’t fair because I am rather partial to a curry. More Brewers Fayre then. Fair enough. Such hardship!
Sunday morning dawned dull and wet. The prospect was poor and we had a vague idea that we may buy the Sunday papers and drink coffee until things improved. For Billy there was no option. He had to get home or miss his flight to an exotic holiday location. We saw him off just after 9.00 hrs. He leapt astride his GS as the Colossus bestrode Rhodes which was in the same general direction as his holiday flight and off he rode with the sun on his back and hope in his heart and a tube of Preparation H in his top box, because the weather had suddenly started to improve. At that very moment we decided to get geared up and go for a ride.
Graham’s R1150RT started obediently having had the benefit of an overnight sleep nicely tucked up under its plastic cover. My K75 got going on the first prod in spite of a good overnight soaking. You can’t kill ‘em. Ashley’s R1150RT did its little annoying musical/morse code ditty as its alarm disabled and came to life but Philip’s Triumph Bonneville had other ideas. After a false start it died and refused to crank. Now this kind of thing would have most folks ringing their umpteenth emergency service but not our Philip. He produced a length of wire with a fag lighter plug at both ends and rigged an electrical transfusion from my bike to his. Clearly the K75 and Triumph Bonneville share a compatible electricity group because after what seemed very little time the Hinckley hooligan burst in to life and away we went to Lincoln in fine weather and warming all the while.
We took a meandering route and chanced upon the end of the runway at Coningsby where we saw the BBHF Lancaster warming up for take-off and she was off, and so were we, just in time for me to see her briefly in the air at the other side of the airstrip. Sadly, my three companions were not in a position to see her. We rode on seeing a Lightning Fighter and a Bloodhound missile in someone’s front garden. Well it makes a change from a goldfish pond. A little later we chanced upon the charming little Blue Bell Pub where the crews of the Dam Buster Squadron used to let their hair down. Philip’s intention was to visit the Bomber Command Memorial just outside Lincoln but we missed the acute left turn at the top of the hill so we cruised on to Lincoln Centre and rode around the Cathedral before parking up in its precinct which seemed a little more secure than the previous day. We managed to hit on the town centre cycle race. All roads cordoned off and pedestrian barriers everywhere. Impasse! So coffee and cake then back to the bikes. We negotiated some very heavy traffic and then down the hill, up the dale and turn right for the memorial we missed earlier and surprise surprise! The large car park was crammed full of motorcycles of every known variety. The count was 250 (+4) and they had all paid £10 for the privilege. That’s a few bob made for a good cause.
Today was the Dam Buster’s 75th anniversary and a group of riders had organised a charity ride-out which would eventually take in the Mohne Dam in Germany. All to raise money to help ex-servicemen.
The memorial stands as tall as the wingspan of a Lancaster and the names of all the aircrews are inscribed on steel screens around the base. The view over to the cathedral on the other side of the valley is spectacular and we were treated to a fly-past of a Spitfire which buzzed the cathedral for the enjoyment of the cycle race spectators. Sadly we had missed the fly-past of our Lancaster at the memorial. We had been too busy having refreshments in Lincoln and had no idea that there was even a treat to be missed. We paid our respects and left as carefully as we had arrived. How I hate gravelled car parks and this was a big one.
Time for a ride-round now which took in RAF Waddington where we saw the AWACS all nicely lined up on the runway. No need for dispersal these days, thank goodness. The gate guardian is a massive Vulcan bomber flying-wing and stands near the main road. Our route back to Boston took us by the BBMF hangar where all was locked up and quiet. Clearly the big bird had returned earlier after thrilling the crowds, and the crew had gone to the pub for well deserved refreshment.
We were just in time to catch the end of the Sunday carvery at the Brewers Fayre. The maitre d’ apologised for the fact that there was only beef remaining and the veg selection was a bit lacking and the the soup was finished too, so would we mind having a dessert instead of soup? Well, what would you rather have? A bowl of sludge soup or a big bowl of apple crumble and custard? I thought so! Since we were deemed to be the last customers for the Sunday roast the chef was instructed to carve the remaining joint of beef in to four. We tried our best to eat it all. Only Ashley succeeded but he needed extra gravy to do it. So after the Dam Busters we had the Gut Busters. I know we all ride in dread of a blow out but this is the kind I was delighted to experience. We all had fears of strange dreams, acid reflux and good old gut ache that night but upon comparing notes on Monday morning it seemed we had got off lightly. Only our consciences had suffered.
The time had come to leave Boston. Graham headed South to do a bit of family visiting so it was only three of us who headed North up the A16 and over the magnificent Humber Bridge. It’s a super biking road but sadly the experience is spoiled with excessively low speed limits which are rigorously enforced by sneaky static cameras and mobile camera vans. The plus side is that you get time to admire the scenery. After York it’s the A19 and home and time to reflect on our long weekend.
It had been a great experience for all of us. A chance to spend time in the company of friends, have a laugh, ride our bikes, meet some interesting and dedicated people, see some iconic aeroplanes and some silly cars but most of all, to remember those fallen heroes who gave their lives to make sure we could enjoy ours.