Just down the road from Skelwith Fold is Coniston Water, a beautiful and peaceful spot. Historically though, the water was used for water speed record attempts. This included the infamous run by Donald Campbell in 1966 on Bluebird which ended so tragically. With celebrations of Donald Campbell’s life held recently, it seemed appropriate to mark the occasion ourselves. Please enjoy the article from local photographer Marcus Pomfret below, including the great photos.
Donald Malcolm Campbell 1921 – 1967
‘A thoroughly unjustified risk’
During the winter of 1966 Donald Campbell returned to Coniston with a bid to set a new Water Speed Record but technical problems and the fickle Lake District weather were to play havoc. On the15th December 1966 the weather closed in again and Bluebird was confined to her boatshed. 5 days later Bluebird sat trapped in her boathouse, which had partially collapsed under the weight of rain and snow, while outside, the water conditions were perfect, It was as if Campbell was being taunted by fate. It was now close to Christmas, and the timekeepers and press were getting restless. Campbell was forced to postpone the attempt until the 28th of December. The team made there way home for the holidays, but Campbell chose to stay at Coniston, almost as if he could not escape its grasp. Fate played two more cruel tricks. On Christmas morning, the lake was like a mirror. Campbell could not resist the temptation, and with the aid of a few local helpers Bluebird was afloat and two quick runs in excess of 250mph were completed.
Coniston has long held a fascination for me due to the heroic efforts of Donald Campbell and his pursuit smash the World Water Speed Record. As a boy I walked the mountains and sailed on the Lake but there was always a sense of discomfort. When I looked into the water and it was tinged with sadness with the knowledge that whilst attempting to break the water speed record in 1967 Donald Campbell had crashed and was killed. His boat, the beautiful ‘Bluebird’ lay crumpled on the lake bed and Donald Campbell’s body had never been found. This was all to change in 2001 with the recovery of the boat and Donald’s remains. Donald is now at rest in the village grave yard and somehow for me the water now has a more tranquil look to it.
Fast-forward to Christmas 2016 – 50 years on from the fateful crash. I put together a plan to visit Coniston with a long term friend and fellow boat – speed enthusiast to pay our respects and to capture some unique images. Like Donald Campbell I scanned the weather forecast over Christmas anxious for perfect conditions. Ours wasn’t a mission of outright speed but one of quiet reflection and admiration for a hero. The weather reports were mixed, and one has to be mindful of the Lake District’s unique micro climate. To coincide with 50 years to the day and go on the 4th January 2017 was always my preferred option, but conditions were not looking good.. The Bank Holiday, 2nd January 2017 looked like the perfect opportunity with minus temperatures at dawn and next to no wind so the decision was made to try and be out on the lake at approximately the same time Donald would have launched and to create a memorable and unique experience.
2nd January 2017 – Bank Holiday
05:45 The 4×4 is somewhat reluctant to start due the temperature hovering around -4 degrees bathed in thick layer of frost. Out into the lanes and the road ahead twinkled and glistened and I was glad of the cosy heated seats. I rendezvoused with Tom Harrison my guide for the day and we head north on a quiet M6 Motorway chatting about the task ahead and our hero and his exploits.
The minor roads that lead to Coniston are perfect driver’s roads, but in the dark can catch out the unwary. Our headlights pick out large tree trunks and jagged stone walls, and corners spring upon us with dips and blind crests all waiting to punish for a loss of concentration. As we press on through the darkness I could imagine Donald Campbell gunning his beautiful blue E Type Jaguar along the lanes heading to the Sun Hotel, revelling in the twists and turns as the ‘straight six’ motor purred along.
07:15 Arriving at the launch site we leave the warmth and comfort of the vehicle and step into the crisp, still dawn air. Under a blanket of stars we unload the inflatable craft and began to assemble our boat. Illuminated by the powerful Jeep headlights, we scurry head-torches ablaze, pumping, blowing, pushing and shoving. A layer of frost quickly forms on the rubber skin. The material is cold, stiff and bad to manage. With rehearsed team work the trusty vessel quickly takes shape as the first rays of dawn begin to break over the Southern Grizedale fells. Despite the unearthly hour we were not alone on the shore. By torchlight a lone fisherman is preparing his tackle hoping for an epic dawn catch. We give him the obligatory nod of encouragement and a few words were exchanged. I couldn’t help thinking he was bonkers up at that hour to go fishing, but then I had a look at what we were up to and concluded that he probably was thinking the exact same thing!!
On the morning of 4th January 1967 Donald arrived down at the lakeside shortly after 7.30, parking his Jaguar E-type in its usual position beside Pier Cottage. ‘Another bloody false alarm,’ he remarked, ‘but let’s just have a look and see how quickly we’ll be back for a proper breakfast.
07:45 We haul our craft down to the waters edge and quietly slide her into the inky black water. With camera equipment, and the obligatory Thermos flask loaded onboard, with a push we silently slip away from the shore. Once in deeper water my skipper lowers the outboard and after a couple of swift pulls the motor fires up and we are away. Almost 50 years to the day since Donald Campbell Launched Bluebird for what would be the final run and at almost the same hour we were motoring out into darkness and onto Coniston Water. It is with a slight feeling of guilt that under the still of dawn we shatter the peace with just 5 horse power, and we are the first of the morning to make ripples on a virgin lake surface. One finds it hard to comprehend what must have been in Donald’s thoughts as he fired Bluebirds Orpheus Jet Engine and unleashed 1000s of horse power on the lake…………
Donald walked to the end of the jetty with his binoculars to study conditions in the half-light before the sun finally rose behind the Grizedale fells. Scanning the lake, Donald saw the ‘smooth’ lake surface for himself. In no time, he had located Leo Villa, and asked his chief engineer to get everyone out to their stations and get Bluebird launched.
07:50 Motoring across the lake and onward North with no moon it is still almost dark. Photography is challenging in a moving boat with no tripod but the sky is getting a little lighter and the last stars are fading away.
07:55 Our first objective is to try and locate the timing markers on the eastern shoreline. I had visited the site of the Southern timing markers some 30 years ago and was not too sure where in my memory they were?! Tom; my skipper and guide for the day knows Coniston very well, growing up exploring every inch of the shores and water of the lake in real “Swallows and Amazons” fashion. We cautiously edge towards the Eastern shore peering through the black darkness looking for anything recognisable and being careful not to run aground in the shallower waters. The shoreline is shrouded in trees but through the murky almost monochrome dark something man made stands out. Two “V” shaped posts appear around 6 feet high. A pair of swans join us floating gracefully past. These angled metal posts set in concrete we believe are the Southern timing markers for the flying kilometre required for the timing of the record run. Once located we leave and head out onto the Lake and point our bow due North.
08:10 Coniston Old Man is now bathed in a beautiful warm glow from the rising sun and we see Fairfield in the distance has a dusting of fresh powdery snow. Conditions are perfect with next to no wind and the lakes surface is glass like. We motor on and Tom gives her full power. With just 5hp on a 3.4m boat the GPS tells us we are making some 6.7mph. We shift around moving our weight forward to flatten and “trim” the boat. It works and we are now making 7.9mph!! Even at such a low speed the wind from forward motion only is icey cold.
Donald stepped into Bluebird’s cockpit just after 8.10, still some 25 minutes before sunrise proper. With a smile and his usual wink, Donald donned his leather helmet and began to do up his 4-point safety harness. The boat was lowered down the slipway and pulled round to the edge of the jetty once she had floated free of her cradle..
08:30 Our run from the timing markers and within the measured kilometre has been somewhat steady, but we estimate we are over the point where Donald lost control of Bluebird for the final time. We stop the motor and sit quietly taking in the scene. Poignantly a white feather appears on the surface of the lake and drifts peacefully past.
At 8.40, Donald asked for a conditions update from Leo and Keith and received positive responses Campbell commenced the first run of his last record attempt at just after 8.45. Bluebird moved slowly out towards the middle of the lake, where she paused for a brief second as Donald lined her up. Here we go.. Here we go…. With a deafening blast of power, Donald applied full throttle and Bluebird began to surge forward. Clouds of spray issued from the jet pipe and after a few hundred yards, at 70 mph, Bluebird unstuck from the surface and rocketed off towards the southern end of the lake, producing her characteristic comet’s tail of spray. OK we’re up and away … and passing through er … tramping very hard at 150 … very hard indeed … FULL POWER … Passing through 2 … 25 out of the way… tramping like hell Leo, I don’t think I can get over the top, but I’ll try, She entered the measured kilometre at 8.46. Leo Villa witnessed her passing the first marker buoy at about 285 mph in perfect steady planing trim, her nose slightly down, still accelerating. 7.525 seconds later, Keith Harrison saw her leave the measured kilometre at a speed of over 310 mph. FULL HOUSE … and I can’t see where I am … FULL HOUSE – FULL HOUSE – FULL HOUSE … POWER OFF NOW! … I’M THROUGH!! …
08:55 We leave the crash site floating around waiting for the rising sun now illuminating the Coniston mountain Range and creeping down the hill to illuminate Coniston town. After what seems like forever the cool rays of morning sun finally hit the lake and present many a perfect photo opportunity. For nearly 22 hours we have been the only craft on the lake. With fingers and toes now feeling the cold we call it a day and head for the pier in Coniston and of course to The Bluebird Cafe.
10:15 At the Bluebird Cafe we are the first of the days many customers and we walk in looking slightly strange in full weather sailing gear. The cafe is warm and inviting and we settle on a full English breakfast each. Tucking into breakfast we reflect on our mornings run. Our little craft has performed well and we have some fantastic images in the can. We certainly haven’t broken any records, but under near perfect conditions for a record attempt we re-traced Donald’s route and paid our respects to a true gentleman and English legend.
50 years ago sadly Donald never made it back to Coniston for his breakfast that morning, but he left his mark on the world of record breaking. – ‘RIP Skipper’.
Marcus Pomfret 2017
Marcus Pomfret is photographer based in North Lancashire. His business provides photography and film services to a variety of businesses across the Uk and beyond. For more details visit www.artimage.co.uk
Historic information inserted in this document in italics is courtesy of http://www.bluebirdproject.com/index.php?id=24