The speed king re­vis­ited

Fifty years af­ter Don­ald Camp­bell’s death, Jeremy Tay­lor re­traces the na­tional hero’s fi­nal jour­ney

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

VICKY SLOWE re­mem­bers the day in 1967 when Don­ald Camp­bell died at­tempt­ing a new speed record on Con­is­ton Wa­ter in Cum­bria. She was at school in nearby Hawk­shead and heard the an­nounce­ment on Ra­dio Car­o­line. It was mid morn­ing on Wed­nes­day, Jan­uary 4, and Mrs Slowe was in a crowd of fel­low pupils around a tran­sis­tor ra­dio. ‘There was a pal­pa­ble sense of shock. Camp­bell was a hero to peo­ple in the Lake District—it was a hor­ren­dous mo­ment.’

Mrs Slowe is now the di­rec­tor of the Ruskin Mu­seum in Con­is­ton, a new wing of which will soon house a fully re­stored Blue­bird K7, the jet-pow­ered craft Camp­bell was driv­ing when he lost con­trol at more than 300mph. ‘I’d seen Camp­bell test­ing Blue­bird when I stayed with friends by the lake. He was bril­liant with chil­dren and vis­ited schools to speak about the great­ness of Bri­tish en­gi­neer­ing. He would talk of up­hold­ing the fam­ily name and pa­tri­otic hon­our.’

The boat and his body were fi­nally re­cov­ered from the depths of Lake Con­is­ton in 2001, af­ter sev­eral failed searches, and the speed ace was buried in a blue cof­fin at nearby St An­drew’s Church, a day af­ter the World Trade Cen­ter at­tack. ‘Ter­ror­ism dom­i­nated the me­dia that Septem­ber, so most of the press was tied up on that story. Camp­bell’s funeral re­ceived very lit­tle cov­er­age, but, in a strange

way, that made the day more per­sonal for the peo­ple of the Lake District,’ re­calls Mrs Slowe.

It’s 50 years since Camp­bell climbed into the cock­pit for the last time with Mr Whop­pit, a teddy-bear pas­sen­ger he car­ried on ev­ery wa­ter- and land-speed record at­tempt. He re­mains the only per­son to hold both records in the same year. Many in Con­is­ton re­mem­ber Camp­bell’s blue E-type Jaguar speed­ing through the town, en route to the team base at Pier Cot­tage. He would parp-parp to the lo­cals and wave at any­one who recog­nised him.

I’ve been fas­ci­nated by this man’s ex­ploits since I was a young boy and, with the Ruskin Mu­seum (www.ruskin­mu­; 01539 441164) pre­par­ing for the re­turn of Blue­bird, I’ve jour­neyed to Con­is­ton in an E-type to try to re­cap­ture the essence of a great Bri­tish hero. Be­side me in the pas­sen­ger seat is my own Mr Whop­pit, bought at an auto jum­ble sev­eral years ago. I’m hop­ing to find out why we still feel the need for speed and why some peo­ple pay the ul­ti­mate price for do­ing so.

‘Had Camp­bell been al­lowed to join the RAF dur­ing the war, there’s no doubt he would have as­pired to be a Spit­fire pi­lot,’ ex­plains Mrs Slowe. ‘Un­for­tu­nately, he failed the med­i­cal with a heart mur­mur and wasn’t al­lowed in. I think there was a lot of pres­sure on him to suc­ceed be­cause his fa­ther, Sir Mal­colm, had also set land and wa­ter speed records in the 1920s. Try­ing to live up to that rep­u­ta­tion couldn’t have been easy for Don­ald.’

Walk­ing around Con­is­ton, there are many re­minders of the speed king. The in­scrip­tion on his grave­stone reads ‘whose achieve­ments in world speed records de­pict his courage in life and death’. There is also a me­mo­rial plaque in the town cen­tre, ded­i­cated to Camp­bell and his loyal chief me­chanic, Leo Villa. His team was based at the nearby Sun Ho­tel, where the mem­o­ra­bilia and cut­tings from his 1967 at­tempt are framed on the wall.

Pier Cot­tage—a wa­ter­side prop­erty, which is now a pri­vate car­a­van park—was rented to Camp­bell as a base for Blue­bird by owner Fay Lakin’s grand­mother. ‘He would park his Jaguar by the side of the cot­tage and the team would of­ten work late into the night,’ says Miss Lakin. ‘It’s 50 years ago now, but we still get lots of en­quiries from peo­ple who want to see the spot. Ac­cord­ing to those who knew him, Mr Camp­bell was a tremen­dous char­ac­ter.’

En­gi­neer Bill Smith, from North Ty­ne­side, is the man in charge of the Blue­bird restora­tion pro­ject. His div­ing team spent five years try­ing to lo­cate the wreck, us­ing sub­mersible craft on the bed of Con­is­ton Wa­ter. ‘Since we raised Blue­bird, this restora­tion has taken over my life. We have a team of about 20 vol­un­teers who of­ten work through the night at the work­shop in North Shields. Some of them travel from as far away as Som­er­set and Cheshire to be in­volved. It’s a labour of love.’

Mr Smith says that, over the past 17 years, he’s got to know the boat in­ti­mately. Ev­ery nut, bolt and rivet has been over­hauled or re­placed—the Bris­tol Or­pheus en­gine came from a jet that used to fly with the Red Ar­rows. ‘I’m more fas­ci­nated by the en­gi­neer­ing than Camp­bell him­self. That’s not to say I don’t have great re­spect for the man. What he achieved was re­mark­able. The prob­lem was he pushed the bound­aries too far.

Blue­bird was de­signed to travel at 250mph max­i­mum, not 300mph.’

Mr Smith says there’s no set date for when the pro­ject will be com­pleted. ‘We’ve run the en­gine at 65%, but there’s still a lot of work to be done on the body­work. It will be a huge day for all of us to see Blue­bird on the wa­ter again.’

What it must have been like for him to fire up Blue­bird’s rocket en­gine and push the throt­tle to max­i­mum, we will never know. How­ever, to­day, it’s pos­si­ble to fol­low the same route at a more leisurely pace. Steam yacht Gon­dola, built in 1859 and re­stored by the Na­tional Trust in 1980, trav­els up and down Con­is­ton Wa­ter dur­ing the sum­mer months, with a com­men­tary on the lo­ca­tions re­lat­ing to Camp­bell’s record at­tempt.

It’s a mov­ing ex­pe­ri­ence and, that night, I take a room at nearby Gilpin Ho­tel & Lake House (01539 488818;, where there are sev­eral books about Camp­bell on dis­play in the lounge. I’m just open­ing the cover of one when the ho­tel concierge, Al­lan Buchanan, who was a po­lice­man on duty at the funeral—the body was car­ried through Con­is­ton on a car­riage, drawn by two Cleve­land Bays—com­ments: ‘It was a very mov­ing day and rained hard. Then, just as they were low­er­ing the cof­fin, the sun came out. Don­ald was a great Bri­tish hero from a dif­fer­ent era. We don’t have many of those left.’

‘era. Don­ald was a Bri­tish hero from a dif­fer­ent We don’t have many of those left’

Be­low: Don­ald Camp­bell. Right: The ter­ri­ble mo­ment Camp­bell lost con­trol of Blue­bird, flip­ping out of the wa­ter at 300mph and fa­tally crash­ing back in

The author in his E-type Jaguar, al­beit in a dif­fer­ent colour to the one owned by Camp­bell

The steam yacht Gon­dola trav­els up Con­is­ton Wa­ter in the sum­mer months, with com­men­tary on the key lo­ca­tions re­lat­ing to Camp­bell’s doomed record at­tempt

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