The speed king revisited
Fifty years after Donald Campbell’s death, Jeremy Taylor retraces the national hero’s final journey
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.ruskinmuseum.com; 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; http://thegilpin.co.uk), 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