Friday, 28 January 2011

Wrexham, Shropshire, & Marylebone Railway folds.

The UK rail company with the best customer care ethic has failed. Wrexham & Shropshire ran a superb service between Wrexham and Marylebone. They were not a franchisee, but an 'open access' operator backed by German Railways (DBS).

I used it a few times between London and Shrewsbury, and their First Class was equivalent to charter train fine dining - quite exceptional on-board service and food quality. Chris and I returned from London on it after Claire's graduation last summer and enjoyed, in First Class, an excellent 3-course lunch and a nice bottle of wine. As we dined, the Chilterns and Oxfordshire slipped past the big picture windows of our superbly upholstered Mk 111 coach.

The last train leaves Marylebone at 18:30 tonight, for Wrexham. I'm told ALL the WSMR staff are aboard! I bet the wine will be flowing in First and Standard class, and that there's a real party atmosphere on board. WSMR were like that.

Not the fastest way to get from the Capital to Cheshire, but by far the most pleasurable.


Here's a link to a tribute to WSMR on Charlie Hulme's excellent North Wales railway site:,htm

Thursday, 27 January 2011

The Bonnie wakes up...

I've just returned from a brief (cold!) ride on the Bonnie (Triumph Bonneville 750cc T140D Special). It was the first ride since November, so the first since the big freeze in December when she got thoroughly cold-soaked in the garage. Here's how it went....

I wheel it out of the garage, put it on the centre stand, turn on the fuel taps, set the chokes on the carbs to 'rich', ignition 'on', then kick it over. Nothing. Kick again and it bursts into brief life and dies. Kick again - one cylinder fires up. I catch it on the throttle and then the second cylinder reports for duty as well, but the engine isn't happy yet. I knock the chokes off and prevent the engine dieing by giving it some throttle (running these old twins over-rich washes the oil off the cylinder walls - not good). Once it sounds healthier I slowly close the throttle.... and it ticks over, if a tad raggedly.

Helmet and gloves on, and away we go, gently, the engine still missing and hesitant for the first few hundred yards. Then it gets happier. By the time I've fuelled up and got a few miles under the wheels she's in her element - pulling hard, pulling smoothly and evenly with a nice steady engine beat. Round the back of Alderley, up Artist's Lane over the Edge, back down into the village with its stop / start traffic which is always a test for the Bonnie. But god it's cold! My hands are turning to ice, my legs despite the heavy protective trousers are getting well chilled.

Twenty miles later I'm home again. I put the bike on the side stand, remove helmet and gloves, and rev the engine a few times. It picks up immediately, with the usual rattles and clatters but no noises that shouldn't be there. Not a sign of smoke of any colour from the twin exhausts, either on revving up, over-run, or tick over. So I switch off.

She sits in the garage again but no longer the cold lifeless lump she was an hour ago. She emits that lovely smell of hot oil and petrol, tinking and clinking as she cools. But after this post-winter post big-freeze resurrection, I know that next time she'll burst into life far more readily. Can't wait!

Thursday, 13 January 2011

So farewell then, Peter Price....

You liked a laugh

and to fly
very low
and so do I

Peter Price at Barton in 1981 with Citabria G-BGGA, which we had just
flown to Manchester International and back.

Peter Price died on 2nd January 2011 peacefully in hospital, only weeks from his 85th birthday. He joined our Chipmunk group at Barton soon after it started, in 1979, and for most of the 1980s and into the early 1990s he was a regular flying companion of mine until ill health robbed him of his pilot's licence. We had many flights together, mostly in the Chipmunk, and Peter's good humour and adventurous approach to flying always made such flights memorable. He was an excellent 'stick & rudder' pilot, if not one who was always happy to follow procedures! Correct radio technique and following of complex joining instructions at fly-ins etc were not his forte. This is perhaps also reflected in the other major passion he'd followed when he was younger - competitive motorcycling, where he competed in the Isle of Man TT among other achievements.

On one flight to a busy flying rally at Cranfield in Bedfordshire for which the organisers had issued an Air Information Circular (AIC) defining a procedure by which several hundred small aeroplanes would be able to land safely in a short space of time, Peter was navigating and doing the radio and I was flying the aeroplane (for the return journey, we'd swap roles). "Just head for that lake, turn left, and land" said Peter. "And you can do the radio now", he added. I was a bit busy watching other aeroplanes who didn't appear to be using our inbound routing, so I didn't query his handing over this responsibility to me, and pressed the transmit button:

"Sierra Lima is downwind to land, passing the lake"

"Sierra Lima do you have the AIC?"


"Then I suggest you read it!"

I broke off the approach, handed the aeroplane to Peter, and asked him for the AIC which I then read, and guided him to follow its carefully defined inbound routing!

He had an uncanny knack of reading weather; sometimes he would phone up suggesting a flight the next day, and I'd say "but the weather's going to be awful!". Amazingly, the next day would be a really good flying day. "They didn't forecast this" I'd say. "I forecast it!" would be Peter's reply.

And he had a wealth of aviation lore going back to World War Two. He'd joined the RAF late in that war and trained as a flight engineer on the Halifax and Lancaster heavy bombers and was expecting a posting to India when the atomic bomb brought hostilities to an end.

So he didn't see active sevice, but he had vivid memories of a long gone world of post-WW2 aviation; the shoestring airlines operating poorly-maintained ex-military Avro Yorks and DC3s, Shropshire being so full of training airfields that circuits overlapped and there were many mid air collisions, especially at night, and numerous examples of flying under bridges and down small town high streets, the sort of thing for which by the time I started flying, they'd lock you up and throw away the key. It was always fascinating to hear his tales - it was as if he was from a completely different age, an age before radios and controlled airspace; which in a way, he was. But we still enjoyed zero-height beat-ups of Southport beach, flying around, between and hopping over the big hangars at Hawarden after 'Black Jake', the dour airfield manager, had gone home, and dodging the sheep on the moors north of Bolton! Compared to today, it was still a relatively free and easy environment in flying 30 years ago.

It is to his credit that on one of these flights, aged 70, he was reported for low flying at Southport. The magistrates deemed he had flown closer than the legal minimum of 500 feet from the pier (that' s 500 feet laterally, not 500 feet above, of course - the law is no closer than 500 feet to any person, vessel, or structure), and he was fined. What a star!

Today was his funeral, at Manchester Crematorium. Funeral parties arrived every 40 minutes, a 'conveyor belt of death', to be processed by this functional but depressing municipal establishment. What a contrast to the freedom of the air, to sunlight, and the joyous adventure that was endemic in Peter's soul. Still, he wasn't there. Just his physical remains in a wooden casket. The man has gone, but he lives on in the many happy memories he leaves behind.

A photo I took near Rochdale in 1986 looking back from the front seat of
our dH Chipmunk to
Peter in the back seat

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Pilot's licence revalidation flight

Even though my ancient Civil Aviation Authority-issued (1979) Private Pilot's Licence is 'for life' (unlike the later EEC Joint Aviation Authoruty - JAA - licence whicn replaced it and is renewable for a fee), under a rule introduced by the Authority several years ago it now has to be 'revalidated' every two years. There is a requirement to have completed at least twelve hours of flying and a flight of at least one hour with a flying instructor in the last year to revalidate 'by experience'. If these conditions have not been met, revalidation can be by flight test.

I met the 'by experience' 12 hours requirement and by a happy co-incidence had also met an old friend, Bob Knight, who came on one of my Nimrod tours late last month. Bob used to have a share in our dH Chipmunk and is a flight instructor and examiner; and he readily agreed to do my revalidation flight which, as our flight would be for at least an hour, would then include the 'one hour flight with an instructor'.

The weather forecast was good for today, so I'd arranged to meet Bob at Liverpool John Lennon airport at 11:00 this morning. The intention was to leave the Liverpool Zone at Kirkby, then route east towards Lancashire Aero Club's airfield at Kenyon Hall Farm near Wigan for some practice forced landings, then south into the Manchester Low Level route to re-enter the Liverpool zone at Oulton Park. However, when we got airborne off Liverpool's runway 27 and turned north towards Kirkby, it became obvious that the weather was not in co-operative mood!

The cloudbase was variable but never above about 1,200 feet and in some places almost down to the ground, especially over the ridge near Skelmersdale which was on our track. So I routed south of east, calling Liverpool to ask if it was OK if we re-entered their zone due adverse weather. This was not a problem to them, and as we crossed the M6 abeam St Helens I reported clear of the zone.

We groped about in the murk at a few hundred feet, but it became obvious that any meaningful forced landing practice at Kenyon Hall, even if we could reach it, would be out of the question. We therefore turned south to pick up the Low Level Route through the Manchester Control Zone where the weather looked considerably better. I flew across to my sister's house at Hatton, and while Bob flew the aeroplane I took some photographs.

The house just off the wingtip, tennis court to the foreground.
The plumes from Fiddler's Ferry power station are visible in the background.

If you click twice on this image to maximise the size and resolution, you can see the grotty weather to the north, behind the power station, that we endured before turning south.

The house from the front, showing the small lake in the garden.
The larger lake at the top left of the picture is Appleton Reservoir

The house from the east.
The tower of Daresbury Laboratory and the Mersey Estuary can be seen beyond

We continued south in the Low Level Route passing Northwich and Winsford before I called Liverpool for a zone re-join via Oulton Park. After holding at Delamere and Helsby we touched down on runway 27 one hour and ten minutes after we took off.

Job done! We hadn't managed to do anything instructional, such as those practice forced landings or polishing aerobatic maneuvers, but the main objective had been achieved. My licence is now valid for another two years!

Southbound in the Manchester Low Level Route. The plumes in the distance are from the chemical works at Winnington near Northwich.