As we look ahead to the centenary of the end of the Great War, in November, we should pause to celebrate one of its most extraordinary survivors, a man who was probably the greatest explorer of the 20th century
On St Valentine’s Day, this year, an anniversary passed, unremarked by the wider world, but one to which many yachtsmen and mountaineers, across the world, tipped their hats. On that day, had he lived so long, H W ‘Bill’ Tilman would have been 120 years old.
Had he lived! Well, given the nature of the man, his extraordinary toughness, combined with a hard-edged frugality, he might well have reached the ton at least. And, though laconic to the point of muteness, he might for once have been muttering at length, at all the fuss being made by friends and family.
But Bill Tilman died at sea, drowned somewhere off the coast of South America forty years ago this autumn, on his way, in his eightieth year, to Smith Island in the Antarctic. His last mission – and he knew it would be his last, whatever the outcome – was to help others climb a mountain he had, unusually, failed to reach in 1966. He had gone reluctantly but he had promised the inexperienced young skipper, Simon Richardson that he would, and Bill never broke a promise; whatever the cost.
Tilman is in the top rank of explorers of the twentieth century – an era he had increasing contempt for. Arguably – and I would strongly argue it – he was one of the greatest British explorers ever, on a par certainly with Shackleton and, probably, Davis; ‘polar’ explorers both. In an age which deals hyperbole as casually as a card game I do not stake my claim on his behalf lightly. Mindful, too, of his lifelong pursuit of personal obscurity, writing these words gives an uncomfortable sense of his legendary contemptuous snort for any pretension on his or anyone else’s behalf.
His truly great explorations were made on land in the 1930s in the Karakoram when he combined quite extraordinary feats of surveying with legendary treks and bagged Himalayan peaks with the casualness of Sunday walkers in the Lakes. The rediscovery of Snow Lake – the ‘polar’ region of the Himalaya – and his subsequent work with Eric Shipton and others in mapping a vast territory using only their navigating skills, and as few native porters as possible, have ensured him a permanent memorial among both geographers and mountaineers. Tilman is a Royal Geographical Society Gold Medallist as well as a Fellow of the Royal Institute of Navigation.
The Shipton and Tilman climbing partnership – a meeting of opposites if ever there was one – is typified in the famous exchange, told by both, in which Shipton asked Bill, after years of close collaboration, why he persisted in still calling him Shipton. Reluctantly Bill finally muttered ‘Because Eric is such a damn silly name.’ The two pioneered – forty years ahead of time – the commonplace of contemporary high altitude climbing that you go very light indeed and take only photographs, leave only footprints.
Given his need for endless challenge it might seem strange that it was only relatively late in life that he came to the sea and sailing. He had dabbled a little in dinghy sailing during and just after the Second World War but the turning point had been his realisation that he could no longer keep to his own austere standard in Himalayan climbing. As he put it ‘The best attainable should be good enough for any man, but the mountaineer who finds his best gradually sinking is not satisfied.’ He quotes Beowulf who said ‘Harder should be the spirit, the heart all the bolder, courage the greater, as the strength grows less.’ And his final comment on his climbing career was ‘If a man feels he is failing to achieve this stern standard he should perhaps withdraw from a field of such high endeavour as the Himalaya.’ This was the man who had led the 1938 expedition to climb Everest from the Tibetan side and had, despite a lifelong affliction to altitude sickness, had got to within 1600 feet of the summit. Stern standards hardly come sterner.
Tilman became the man he was through his experiences in the First World War, into which he was plunged before his eighteenth birthday as an artillery officer. He won the Military Cross twice, was seriously injured but, most significantly, survived two and a half years of front-line action at a time when the average life expectancy of officers was measured in weeks and months. In many respects, the rest of his life was an expiation of the guilt of that survival. It explains why an outgoing youth, who loved dancing and had an easy way with girls of his age, turned for fourteen years into a recluse in Africa, between 1919 to 1932, and then turned toward the remote places on earth to continue a search for peace and tranquillity. It explains, too, why Bill had little time for complainers and none for those who, in his terms, failed to hack it, whatever the circumstance. His was a tough school, the toughest imaginable. Bill had to be a survivor, had to stay tight shut to our increasingly psychologically soft age because, had he not, he would have fallen apart. The film Regeneration, based on Pat Barker’s book, explains better than I can, what happened to men constantly under shellfire. Tilman, who was an exceptionally good writer, might well have been a poet or a novellist, had the war not intervened. It is of the greatest significance that he never wrote about the First War although he wrote a lot about the Second, in which he also played an important and heroic part. It is also of some significance that, on his last voyage, when asked by fellow young crew what they should call him, replied ‘Tilly’, the name his men in the trenches nicknamed him.
That he was also an exceptionally funny, witty man, a good and kind uncle to his nieces and their children, and a devoted brother to his sister, can easily be overlooked as those who remember him now are increasingly the people he sailed with late on, by which time he was decidedly cranky, in part a product of arthritis and deafness. Many of his last crews were products of the sixties, looking for adventure alright but bringing with them a set of youthful values Bill simply could not fathom. Not that he tried all that hard. One of the most astonishing things about Bill was his almost total lack of interest in who he picked to go sailing with.
He was indifferent, as you might expect, to any consideration of psychology. He also believed absolutely what people told him. One of his crew wrote to say he had crossed the Atlantic hundreds of times; Bill told him to hie him hither. He subsequently found out the man had been a bass player in a passenger liner dance band. As it turned out this man was a success. Other individuals, as one might expect, were disasters. The last voyages, by and large, were all desperate affairs; but, by then, Bill simply could not get off the merry-go-round he had so insouciantly started.
It all started out very differently when Bill fell in love. He was by then 55 and, apparently, a confirmed bachelor. Then he met the mature ‘woman’ who undoubtedly became the love of his life. She was called Mischief and she was a clapped out Bristol pilot cutter, laid up in Mallorca. The love grew slowly because his most urgent need at the time was transport. Just after the second world war Bill had wanted to make a crossing of the Patagonian Ice Cap, one of those then still very remote mysterious romantic places that always appealed to him. In the book he wrote after this voyage (Mischief in Patagonia) he gleefully relates the legend that the natives’ heads steam if they eat marmalade. Best of all, though, he pointed to the word inesplorado on the local charts. Having been thwarted in 1946 through currency regulations and post-war transport difficulties, now, footloose in the 1950s, he was determined to sail there. Mischief was to be the instrument.
What began as a platonic friendship grew into passion. If the casual reader believes I exaggerate in this comparison, I would point only to the eulogy Bill wrote, and had privately printed, when Mischief sank off Jan Mayen island in 1968: ‘it was much more than the loss of a yacht…a friend [with whom I] had broken faith’. Elsewhere he wrote ‘I shall never forget her.’
In 1954, when he took possession of Mischief, Bill’s sailing experience was very limited. He had to get help to get her back to England and the voyage threw up many of the problems Bill subsequently had with his crew. It was on this first foray onto the ocean that Bill vowed never to have a woman on board again for any length of time, as the only female member of this crew (the former owner’s wife) and ‘Grace Darling’ to Bill, did not endear herself to him at all. ‘On the passage [to Gibraltar], the relations between Grace Darling and myself had been strained although I had been self-effacing, as an owner should be and silent as usual. Perhaps one of the few remarks I had ventured had not been well chosen. We took it in turns to cook and the day after Grace Darling’s turn, when one of the crew who knew how to cook was officiating, I thanked God aloud for having on board one whose presence ensured our having good meals on at least one day in five.’
Bill had limited experience of women but could be the epitome of charm. Curiously perhaps, for a man whose attitudes were Edwardian, Bill could never abide ‘girly’ women. His favourite niece, Pam, who looked after him after his sister died, was a champion glider pilot, a fact Bill never tired of telling people. Pam, famously, once threw a gravy spoon at Bill’s head when he complained at the slow start to supper back at home, in North Wales.
His experiences in finally getting Mischief back to England through a succession of equinoctial gales, convinced him he was not ready to make a long passage south that year and the first great voyage Mischief made with Tilman came in 1955. He was lucky with his crew – all old pals – including the effective skipper this time out, Bill Proctor. Two Royal Artillery officers came, along with a Dutchman whom Bill was delighted to find was called van Tromp.
They left from Lymington which was to be Bill’s home port for 20 years. ‘The engine did not start immediately, ‘said Bill later, ‘but it did as soon as we had turned on the petrol.’ After some fun and games in Falmouth harbour they sailed south, learning ocean navigation on the way. One tradition Bill began at once: they carried no form of radio, an attitude more than anything related to Bill’s lifelong belief that in exploration only you and your team should expect be involved. It was to lead to controversy on more than one occasion and, given today’s obsession with instant communications everywhere, and under any circumstance, it looks like a conceit. It wasn’t; it was just the way of the man.
The Patagonian voyage was entirely successful; the climbing team, including Bill, successfully traversed the ice cap. In that they were helped by a young Chilean climber called Jorge Quinteros who Bill had taken on because he kept bees – ‘like Hillary… and this seemed good enough.’ There were suitably hair-raising moments as well as ones of high farce. Perhaps the best of the latter was their departure from Punta Arenas.
‘By then a large crowd of friends, admirers, and no doubt some critics, had assembled to see us start…we hoisted the jib so that her head would sheer away from the jetty, and cast off the remaining warps. For some as yet unexplained reason the jib promptly fell into the sea and the next minute saw us stuck hard and fast by the stern less than a ship’s length away from the waving crowd.’ At about that moment a picket boat from a Chilean cruiser approached, a sailor standing to attention in the bow. ‘Either by seamanlike intuition or at the instance of the loud instructions from the crowd, her helmsman grasped the idea that we wanted pulling off. Perhaps he thought we wanted shoving off, for putting her helm hard over, with little diminution of speed, he rammed us fair and square, projecting the still rigid, well-disciplined bowman half-way up our shrouds. It was a Saturday afternoon and one could almost hear the happy sigh of the crowd as they realised how wise they had been to spend it on the jetty.’
After the ice cap they sailed north up the Chilean coastline, on through the Panama Canal, reaching Lymington on July 9th, 1956, a year and a day from setting out. ‘I will not pretend that at all times throughout this 20,000 mile voyage we were a band of brothers. But we were old enough or sensible enough to bear and forbear, and to put the ship and the enterprise in hand before our own feelings,’ Bill wrote. It stands as his manifesto: to sailing and to crew.
He achieved this happy state a few times on other voyages, but this first epic expedition, for which he won the Royal Cruising Club Goldsmith Award for deep water voyaging, remains an unalloyed triumph in all senses. Bill went to the far south again: in 1957/58 circumnavigating Africa; in 1959/60 getting to the Crozets in the Southern Ocean. He then turned north, to Greenland in four consecutive voyages. His choice of Greenland was severely practical – it was so much closer and crews would be willing to sail for a summer rather more than they would for a whole year or more.
In fact, Bill sailed to the far south two more times, once with a group of Australians to Heard Island, once on his own account to Smith Island, on a voyage which saw one crew member lost overboard and an increasingly desperate situation with his remaining crew. That was in 1966. From then on Bill only voyaged north.
The loss of Mischief off Jan Mayen island affected Bill badly. Rationally, at 70, he should have drawn a line under his sailing career at this point. He found he couldn’t, so he came home and bought another Bristol pilot cutter, Sea Breeze, which he sailed to Greenland four more times before she hit a rock in Sermilik Fjord in 1972 and sank. The following year he bought his third cutter, Baroque (still afloat). With her he made his last trips north. In 1977, quite badly ill, and with a crew who genuinely believed he was incapable of making rational decisions, Baroque finally arrived in Reykavik. There Bill was forced to give up and fly home. Baroque was eventually sailed to Lymington the following year and laid up.
It was a sad end to an extraordinary sailing career which had, in the end, gone on far too long. Bill blamed his crew quoting Conrad: ‘Ships are all right, it’s the men in them’. It was too harsh a judgement and, having wrote this, his last published words pull back from the brink of unkindness by quoting a poem by Humber Wolfe which ends:
where the ships of youth are running
close-hauled on the edge of the wind,
with all adventure before them
and only the old behind
This was not quite the end to a career of exploration in mountains and across oceans, spanning nearly fifty years. In 1977 Bill was asked to go on a voyage to Smith Island with a young and largely inexperienced crew, whose skipper had been inspired by sailing with Bill some years before. The vessel chosen was a tug-to-yacht conversion, En Avant. He felt obliged to say yes, in the end, although we can only speculate that he knew, one way or the other, that he would not be coming back.
En Avant left Rio on November 1st. Bill had written home to a friend before they left: ‘The gear is too heavy for me and I find it difficult getting about the wide deck with nothing to hang on to. Still it would have been a mistake to refuse Simon’s pressing invitation.’
Bill Tilman was a stoic; he expected the same from others. No doubt death, when it came would be seen by him as a door opening on a new adventure, not closing on one. He was a romantic, witty, clever man who might have lived a very different life had it not been for the carnage of Flanders. Pam Davis, his niece, said he was the embodiment of Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘If…’ In other mouths that would be a cliché but she was a Tilman through and through and, from her, it stands out, like a pennant in a stiff ocean breeze, hard and true.
The Last Hero, a biography of Bill Tilman, written by me, is newly re-published by Endeavour Books as an ebook, and is available on Kindle and other ebook formats right now.
(…that is the land of lost content, I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went and cannot come again.
– A. E Houseman)
Surveyed from my eyrie in The Chilterns, right at the very end of the Metropolitan Line, the quarter century I lived in London seems embedded in another era, maybe as much as a 100 years ago. How the place has changed. All great cities change – rise and fall, live or die. London today is far more cosmopolitan – and far dirtier and noisier. More knowing, less forgiving; a world city but growing heartless, sadly more and more like New York.
It used to be said that London was a collection of villages. When I lived there, respectively, in the villages of Blackheath, Bloomsbury and Islington (or, rather, Barnsbury, which really was is a tiny village tucked inside the madness of Islington), I’d have said that was a simple and obvious truth. I am not so sure now. My last sojourn in the capital was in Bermondsey (anyone spot an aspirational pattern yet?) but that was rapidly changing, principally around the exponential growth in living space prices. It all happened too fast.
It was an earlier version of this current boom that allowed us to escape to the country, so I should complain. And explain.
I don’t live in London anymore but, of course, it still defines whole swathes of my life. I still visit the centre once or twice a week (my current editing work is in Victoria). I note, however, that these days, my behaviour is not what it used to be. But, then again, like an old relationship that flares rarely into bickering or passion, London behaves differently, too.
For a start, a few years ago someone plonked a bloody great bicycle wheel down by the old GLC building, itself now an aquarium and an hotel. The wheel can be seen from the Serpentine, poking above the Treasury. Now here’s a thing: I remember a hot summer’s late Bank Holiday, after a lunch in Shepherd’s Market with a girlfriend, slipping across the waters of that urban lake in a sailing dinghy, hired from the same people who hired out rowing boats and pedaloes. Few believe me, but it is true. They used to keep a pair of Heron dinghies; if you could rig one, you could hire it. Simple, sound common sense.
The magic of sailing in the heart of a great city, on that particular night, will never leave me. We left the dinghy behind and went on to the Proms, I recall. In those days (we are talking 1979) it was the classical music audiences craved. Today – yet this can hardly be a surprise when Paul McCartney and the like are included as classical composers – it seems to be an opportunity to take flash photographs, to clap whenever there is a second’s silence and to be reminded in the intervals, to turn off mobile phones with their own ‘classical’ ring tones competing against the orchestra.
Some things, I suspect, will never change. Horse still canter along Rotten Row; there remain a surprisingly large number of horses in central London. Where we lived in Barnsbury was close to the old metropolitan mounted police school. I only ever rode in central London once – courtesy of a friend who had access to the Civil Service Riding Club. Their stables were then in Buckingham Palace Mews and so, on a late December Sunday, I found myself riding a horse out of the back of Buck House turning left so we could make our way up Constitution Hill to Hyde Park Corner – making our way, in short, right across the front of the palace. Tourists duly clicked their cameras at us.
Hyde Park Corner was a breeze to go around on a horse (there were five of us) because being on horseback gave us both a better view of the traffic, and the traffic a healthy respect for our mounts’ capacity to kick the living shit out of their shiny cars – and black cabs. Everyone gave us a very wide berth indeed.
London’s traffic has changed out of all recognition. I still drive in occasionally but all the old certainties (if I leave Knightsbridge now, I’ll be able to meet you at Kings Cross in 25 minutes) are gone, probably forever. My own cameo of that change also involves horses but in a roundabout way.
I used to teach at a college south of the river – near the Elephant and Castle. One year I had no lectures on a Thursday. My mother-in-law ran a stable in the Chilterns, and she had a ride going out on a Thursday but with no one to lead it. Without much thought, one day I said ‘I’ll take it out’. So, every Thursday at half past eight I would drive in my riding kit out from Barnsbury to the Chilterns, pick up the ‘housewives special’ at ten and ride for 90 minutes in the countryside. I’d then head back into town, arriving at the Eagle pub, tucked in behind the ugly sprawl of that part of south London, dead on time at one for lunch (teaching was scheduled for the afternoon; these were, indeed, civilised times).
I would not even dare contemplate committing myself to that, today. The stress of the driving would destroy any of the fun. And it was fun, not least the sense of mischief in setting my cap at the system. I would have to say that I don’t believe London is as much fun as it used to me – for anyone. There is a sense of everyone pushing themselves too hard: to work, to play, even to have fun; and it shows on their faces. Yet, I would be the first to agree that Tate Modern is fun and the Millennium Bridge – forever wobbly in my mind – is pure fun, as well as being stupendously purposeless.
Part of the fun I used to have in London was walking around it. I taught an American student once who told me she had walked back from King’s Cross to Kensington, as the night was so balmy, and she didn’t want to plunge into the fetid heat of the underground. She had felt perfectly safe all the way (I can date this exactly: it was 1985). I still find pleasure in walking from, say, Marylebone station to Victoria ( a few months ago), but once I walked from Islington to the Elephant – and back.
Today’s traffic spoils much of that – you have to pick the routes so much more carefully and – this is more difficult to define – in taking some of the back streets there is an edginess, just at times, as to whether, even in the daytime, it is safe.
Great cities rise and fall: there is no sense yet in London of falling, not even a tremor right now. But, perchance, a new terror attack of, say, anthrax scattered in the streets, and all could change. A 1940s government test of anthrax spores kept the Scottish island of Gruinard closed for 50 years. I caught myself, just the other day, while walking in town, pondering on that – and the vulnerability of cities.
Like those of its inhabitants, London’s is growing and the innocence of just a few years ago is, I fear, departing. I no longer flinch when I see armed police in the streets. It forces me to recall the time when I was living in Bloomsbury and we heard the distant but quite distinct boom of an IRA bomb (it had gone off four miles away in the West End). Those were the days of anxiously inspecting fellow travellers on the tube for any sign of the mark of terrorist Cain about them. Well, we’re back there alright so maybe, just maybe, other, better things will return.
I mourn however that, like the nightingales of Berkeley Square, the sailing dinghies of the Serpentine, are gone forever.
On March 23rd in 1995 I crashed my aeroplane.
Written down bluntly, boldly, just like that, it seems a flat uninteresting statement. The experience was anything but; if it didn’t change my life (and, sorry, it did not), it has led to a healthy respect for the physics that govern flying, as well as a lasting understanding of the climbers’ epithet: ‘gravity never sleeps’.
In 1995 I was then flying a flex-wing micro-light; you know those hang-gliders with engines you occasionally hear or see high above you. I was fortunate enough to have my own airstrip, courtesy of my mother-in-law, who had farm land in The Chilterns. But there was a problem. The strip ran nearly north-south where the prevailing winds in the UK are generally from the south-west. There was a wood on the western side and, at the northern end there was a line of trees. Right beyond that, was the Metropolitan underground line, running here on the surface.
Thus, any approach as near to into wind as was possible on this strip, had to be from the north, over that railway cutting and over the trees, meaning a steep sudden descent, one that had more than a few of my passengers yelping with fright. Landings were often tricky events to manage, even in the best of conditions.
On the day in question, I had taken off alone and flown westwards for what amounted to a training flight. I hadn’t flown for a while, and I wanted to get some airtime in. The flight out and back was uneventful. But when I returned to my airstrip I made what I considered a bumpy, rather scrappy landing from the north; the wind was getting stronger, more gusty and changeable in direction. I taxied to the end of the strip and brooded over that landing, not the wind that embraced it.
I always had my radio tuned to the nearest general aviation field when I flew off on a local flight. It let me know what they were up to and, if there was any doubt about possible conflict in the air, I would call them and tell them what I was doing. They knew where my strip was and pilots would fly clear of it.
As I sat on the ground, my engine still running I heard the Denham tower say to a pilot under their control ‘be advised, we’ve just had a gust of 38 knots go through.’ Denham was about five miles from where I was sitting. Somehow the key part of that message did not fix itself in my brain.
I elected to take off, make one short circuit around my strip, a standard pattern, at 500 feet. And so I did. If memory serves me right, I recall the take off as short and sharp, another indicator of the strength of the wind.
The turns, all to the left, were uneventful. I was over Carpenter’s Wood at 500 feet. I turned left again over fields, then left again onto the approach. And then I made my terrible mistake. Given the wind strength, I should have aimed deep into my airstrip, clearing the trees with plenty of height, then dropping onto the grass. I would have pulled up quickly, given that same wind on my nose, using my wing pulled hard back, to help brake.
Instead I made a standard approach, which meant I cleared those trees with a matter of feet below my undercarriage. I felt a giant hand – rotor over those trees, like breaking surf. It slammed my tiny aeroplane down onto the runway. There was, of course, far too much energy in the system for it to stay on the ground. The undercarriage flattened, then released, acting like a gigantic spring. We shot back into the air, completely stalled, by now a good 30 feet or more above the grass.
I heard a voice say ‘shit’ mild stuff in the circumstances, then we fell back to earth. The starboard wing dug in first followed by the nose on my open cockpit; then we were inverted. I felt my shin hit something- that really hurt – and my left thumb dislocated but, fortuitously, popped right back.
More serious, the engine was still running, now above my head, as was the fuel tank. I could not reach the switches to turn it off. I remembered at that exact moment, oddly, that no one at the farmhouse had known I was going flying. No one was going to come to my rescue. The world slowed to an agonizing post-crash elongated moment, which went on and on.
Somehow, though, I reached those switches, managed with great difficulty to extricate myself from under the wreckage. I walked off back down the strip toward the farmhouse. I rang my wife and said ‘I’ve just crashed the aircraft’. She was distant, unsympathetic. I think it hardly registered with her what had happened; why should it? After all, it’s not a very common conversation to have on a mobile phone.
I decided I ought to check myself into the local A&E, but when I got there the place looked like a war zone, and it occurred to me that were I to explain to the receptionist what had just happened to me, standing there, basically uninjured, if somewhat shaken, she would simply assume I was one of the sad and mad, and I would have a very long wait. I left.
The crash never put me off flying – after all, it was all down to pilot error – and after a few more years flying microlights, and more conventional aeroplanes, I switched to paragliders.
Every landing in a glider is an emergency landing – as there is no engine, there can never be a second chance. Paragliding, though, is pure flying: once you take off, if you want to stay airborne, you have to find thermals to give you lift. You fly like – and frequently with – the birds.
They say there are old pilots and bold pilots, but never old, bold pilots. I’ll drink to that.
On the morning of July 4th, 1994, I held my microlight aeroplane at the hold point, at the end of my tiny airstrip in the Chilterns. It was overladen, well over its official all-up weight limit, and the atmosphere was heavy, too, with nervous anticipation. I felt my co-pilot shift slightly behind me, her nervousness palpable, like mine.
It was time to go; months of preparation distilled to this moment of truth. I opened the throttle fully, steadied the wing, probably gritted my teeth a little, as we all too slowly began to roll. There was, I recall, only a very light wind that hazy morning, not helpful in gaining us the airspeed we had to have to get airborne.
A few of the horses in the field beyond my boundary fence gazed at us as we gathered speed. Ten knots, twenty, thirty, now we were running downhill slightly on the strip, charging that boundary fence. Forty, fifty knots, but my ‘ship’ was heavy with the extra fuel cans strapped to the sides of the cockpit. It did not want to fly. Then, in seconds, it had to be now or never.
I pulled in the bar, we bounced a couple of times and then G-MYRT staggered, rather than rose, into the air, clearing the fence by a few feet. I held her low, as she gathered more speed, and then we were, at last, climbing away.
It was a huge leap into the unknown: in so many ways too ambitious, too bold, a flight too far. There was always the danger of hubris; as it turned out, fortunately, there was no nemesis. But that summer’s day, we broke a world record , one that stays unbroken, for what it’s worth. All that was a little later on.
The Trans-Europe Microlight Expedition of 1994 was born on the wings of a book proposal, about the Celts, the first ‘proper’ Europeans, and another story, not the one to be told here. From that proposal came another, to fly across a large part of Western and Eastern Europe, using a flex-wing microlight, the ones where you fly the wing, in effect a motorised hang-glider.
The aeroplane chosen to undertake this 13,000km route was a Pegasus Quantum, then the most sophisticated model on the market. The equivalent today, a huge beast of a machine costs around £40,000 for basic machine; ours cost around a third of that. She took the registration G-MYRT, Romeo Tango to anyone who flies, and her fuel was two-stroke mogas, which ought to have given us an early pause for thought. We were pioneers, explorers, and like so many before us, ahead of our time, planning for something too ambitious.
But the beginning was good, after that uncertain take-off and we flew uneventfully south, clear of the London control zone, before edging our way east along the M25 and then on down into Kent and Lashenden aerodrome, at Headcorn, for a fuel stop.
On take-off from Lashenden, with the sun now blazing down out of a clear blue sky, we should have turned for Dover, thence across 22 miles of The Channel, and back along the French coast, all the way down to Dieppe, our destination airport for that day, the place where our earlier dispatched ground crew were waiting for us.
But the day was turning into a classic English summer’s day and I had determined already on the ground, after we had refuelled, and with my co-pilot’s consent, that we could cut out a huge amount of time by flying directly to Dieppe. We would take our departure from the English coast at Hastings. The distance was a mere 75 miles over the water, about 90 from Headcorn.
We climbed slowly to 4,000 feet, the altitude at which we crossed the coast. I remember thinking, as we left England behind, how vast the sea ahead looked, the same sea I had sailed so very often, between England and France, taking up to 18 hours. We expected this journey to last no more than a little over an hour.
In the event, it took us 90 minutes, the last thirty of which was agonizingly slow. In the crossing, mid-Channel cloud, and a little drizzle, had forced us down to 800 feet, at which point, when the horizon ahead appeared to be above us, and the ships in the sea also appeared to be higher, we had seriously discussed what would happen if we had to ditch.
Mercifully the cloud lifted and we were able to climb to 1,500 feet, then to 2,000. It was about this point that the compass a d the GPS disagreed on our heading by about 30 degrees. It took a moment’s thought – this was 1994, and small GPS units suitable for aircraft were in serious contention over their accuracy – but I chose to follow the GPS.
A short while after the black line that denoted the French coast came into view, dead ahead. When we swept over the cliffs we could see Dieppe airport dead ahead. We had called already to announce our arrival (we had filed a flight plan from Lashenden so we were expected). ‘You’re number one,’ the tower told us, and didn’t we just feel it.
Landing, shortly after, on a huge runway, we felt like the gadfly we in truth were. But that record stands, as far as I know, for a flex-wing two-stroke engine powered microlight. I hope, of course, that it will never be beaten.
I cannot end this memorial piece without paying a huge tribute to my co-pilot, the coolest person ever to have in an aeroplane when things get a little fraught. Not because of the Channel crossing, but because of another time in the air and then, thankfully, on the ground; she knows when, where and why.
Flying: as the UK licence states ‘the privilege of the pilot’. Therein is a simple but apt truth. To be able to soar high above the earth, freed of its bonds, even for a short while, is an extraordinary privilege.
In the course of the past three months I have had the opportunity to indulge in four of the ‘high risk’ sports I like: ski mountaineering, paragliding riding and caving. As usual, friends have all asked me in turn why I still get an adrenaline rush from activities like these. Each time I’ve been asked I say ‘it’s not the adrenaline’, then wonder if I’m not just in some kind of denial about that.
Yet, yet… having given the matter some thought, I have concluded that – for me – and I suspect for many others it is not the rush of what is now officially epinephrine (yup, we’ve adopted the US name). It is much more complex than that. I am not saying a rush isn’t what one can experience. My new friend, Matt Gough, who gave up BASE jumping this spring, after a near death experience from his last jump would, I am sure, list the rush as high on his list of why he jumped in the first place.
And I would be the first to put my hand up and say that that rush can be a part of any of the activities listed above. It is just that it is not the reason I do it, not the principal feeling I get. If you like, that rush, if it is present at all, is a bonus, and not always a welcome one because it frequently tells me I am well over what ever edge I hoped simply to teeter on, into a serious danger zone. Back for a moment to Matt because, the way he tells it, absolute danger was very much in his mind when he jumped: not just from the canopy not opening, but from the illegality of what he was doing. But then, he is just 25; I’m a bit older, if not in my head, by the book.
So, I have been asking myself recently, what motivates me to go on wanting so badly to do what I do: what is at the heart of it?
First and foremost, and critically important, it all keeps me young at heart, if not always in body. It is in my soul, it reminds me I am alive. Second, it keeps me fit, and wanting to be fit – fitter, if the truth be told, than I am. It provides an ever moving goal of pure fitness, if you like, something constantly to strive for, in order to carry on.
Then – and this may sound odd to anyone who doesn’t push their physical limits – there is the ‘no pain, no gain’ aspect, something that you have to live with as you grow older. But it is an absolute truth. For instance, when I was ski mountaineering in the Picos de Europa, in March 2013, the sheer physical effort of dragging oneself up a mountain, in order to ski back down again, was intense. We mostly did it in harsh sunny conditions, so there was a lot of sweat as well. It hurt, by God it did. But that, my friends, was very much part of the point.
Similarly, in southern France, in June, on the occasion we flew from Rabou (some of my readers will instantly know where I am talking about) the longer your flight off the hill, the longer the schlepp back up, lugging your glider and harness with you. But, at the end of that day, I felt – we all felt – a deep sense of achievement. You get it, of course, every time you make a mountain summit, anywhere. I’m not alone in thinking the pain is worth it: ask any top athlete or sportswoman.
Then there is skill, often undertaken in less than perfect conditions, not a groomed tennis court for me, but the rough ground of a mountainside, to ski, to climb, to take off or land on. Not a broken down school horse, but a wild mount, known to be a problem child, grown quiet under my experienced hands on the reins, my modulated voice, my carefully controlled leg movements.
In paragliding the real skill is in feeling the invisible air all around, what it is doing, where the lift is, and thus the sink, what the distant clouds mean, where turbulence will be found, how to cut through this mysterious ether, to locate, then use the landing area, and to step easily down to the ground, after having experienced life thousands of feet higher.
And with those varied skills goes the kit, a point made recently to me when I was halfway up a beech tree, using our tried and tested methods in what we deem to call arbreseiling. ‘You love using all this kit, don’t you?’ Yes, indeed I do, it is an integral part of each of these particular sports, paragliding, climbing, caving, sailing, skiing, whatever it might be. The kit lists are all different, the techniques often at variance, the need to understand how to use each element vital to safety and success.
Finally, there is exploration: it is perfectly possible to find means to explore, right on your doorstep. The obvious places are under the sea through deep diving – but also in caving. In the UK, right now, there are systems being uncovered that no man or woman has ever discovered before. Near where my eldest son, Olly, took me in 2013, in the Peaks, the largest shaft, Titan (at nearly 500 feet deep) ever found in the British cave was only uncovered in 1999. New caves, even complete new systems, are being found all the time.
So, you see, in all this adrenaline has but a small part to play. As for the elements of risk, well I have often been heard to say that the riskiest thing I ever do – and try to avoid at all costs – is driving round the M25 on a wet Friday afternoon. Now that really is a danger to life and limb.