In the slip­stream of the Lake District’s he­roes of speed

Jeremy Tay­lor pi­lots an E-type Jaguar around Con­is­ton Wa­ter, where the gung-ho spirit of the record-break­ing Camp­bell fam­ily still lingers

The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday - - Walks & Dives -;

Leg­end has it that Don­ald Camp­bell changed cars as reg­u­larly as he changed his shirt. For a dash­ing speed record­holder, a Jaguar E-type was the ob­vi­ous choice in the mid-Six­ties. De­scribed by none other than Enzo Fer­rari as “the most beau­ti­ful car ever made”, the sleek Jaguar epit­o­mised the ex­cite­ment and glam­our of the era. Camp­bell couldn’t re­sist. His Se­ries I model be­came a com­mon sight in the Lake District as he pre­pared for what would be a fi­nal record at­tempt in Jan­uary 1967. The snarl of the light blue E-type’s straight­six en­gine was of­ten ac­com­pa­nied by a cheery wave to the lo­cals as he sped through Con­is­ton. The for­mer cop­per min­ing town was his base for a bid to smash the 300mph wa­ter speed record. Camp­bell died mak­ing the at­tempt when Blue­bird K7 flipped at full throt­tle on its re­turn run down Con­is­ton Wa­ter. His mas­cot teddy bear, Mr Whop­pit, was found al­most im­me­di­ately but Camp­bell’s body and jet-pow­ered boat weren’t re­cov­ered un­til 2001. Even to­day, the drive from Lon­don to Con­is­ton re­quires at least five hours on clear roads. It’s im­pos­si­ble to imag­ine Camp­bell eas­ing off the ac­cel­er­a­tor in his 4.2-litre E-type, de­spite the 70mph na­tional speed limit in­tro­duced in 1965. Af­ter all, he had es­tab­lished a new land speed record of 403mph in Aus­tralia just three years ear­lier. I’m steer­ing a later V12 E-type up the M6. It’s dif­fi­cult to com­pre­hend the drama of touch­ing the top speed of 150mph in this 1971 car. My Se­ries III has power steer­ing and im­proved brakes but I would still need the length of an air­craft car­rier to bring it to a halt in the out­side lane. This yel­low coupé is on loan from Turo, which hires out pri­vately owned clas­sics to wannabe speed he­roes like me. Strapped to the beau­ti­fully pati­nated dash­board is my own Mr Whop­pit, found at an au­to­jum­ble. Camp­bell’s orig­i­nal mas­cot is now al­most cer­tainly worth more than the E-type it­self. De­spite a long bon­net, an E-type is nar­rower than most modern cars, at 5ft 6in. A cur­rent VW Golf is al­most 5in

It is dif­fi­cult to com­pre­hend the drama of touch­ing this 1971 car’s 150mph top speed

wider. That helps makes the Jaguar sur­pris­ingly nim­ble along the B5284, head­ing west from Ken­dal. Even in April, Win­der­mere is awash with tourists and I’m keen to press on past Trout­beck Bridge and bustling Am­ble­side. It’s easy to miss Ch­esters, a sen­sa­tional café fur­ther on at Skel­with Bridge. The short­bread alone would have brought Camp­bell screech­ing to a halt, ready to con­tem­plate life as he sipped tea be­side a tum­bling river. The fi­nal few miles along the A593 to Con­is­ton are bor­dered by dry­s­tone walls. These ap­pear to squeeze in when­ever a ve­hi­cle ap­proaches from the op­po­site di­rec­tion. There’s lit­tle room for er­ror, a fact high­lighted by the oc­ca­sional scrape of paint at the nar­row­est junc­tures. The Camp­bell fam­ily is highly re­garded in Con­is­ton, even to this day. Don­ald’s fa­ther, Sir Malcolm, had set his own wa­ter speed record here in 1939, record­ing 141mph. The town isn’t as choco­late box-pic­turesque as nearby Hawk­shead but in some ways re­mains all the bet­ter for it. The Ruskin Mu­seum in Yew­dale

Road is my first port of call. John Ruskin was an art critic, phi­lan­thropist and great so­cial thinker of the Vic­to­rian era, whose ideas on sus­tain­abil­ity and the en­vi­ron­ment are still rel­e­vant. A se­ries of ex­hi­bi­tions here chron­i­cle his life and the history of Con­is­ton it­self. The Blue­bird wing tells the story of the Camp­bells and their var­i­ous record at­tempts. The build­ing houses the tail fin of Blue­bird K7 and will even­tu­ally be­come a per­ma­nent home for the boat re­cov­ered by divers in 2001. The craft is cur­rently un­der­go­ing a painstak­ing restora­tion in the North East. From the mu­seum it’s a short walk up Sun Hill to the Sun Ho­tel, where Don­ald Camp­bell’s team was based over the win­ter months of 1966. Thwarted by the weather and me­chan­i­cal is­sues, by the time Camp­bell an­nounced his bid the press had started to lose in­ter­est. Nestling un­der the Old Man of Con­is­ton, a 2,634ft fell with clearly marked foot­paths, the ho­tel fea­tures flag­stone floors and a slate bar serv­ing ex­cel­lent food. The walls are hung with mem­o­ra­bilia from Camp­bell’s record at­tempt, in­clud­ing a news­pa­per cut­ting show­ing his fi­nal mo­ments. Ig­nor­ing the temp­ta­tion of a pint of Blue­bird ale, I wan­der back down to the vil­lage green, where a memo­rial plaque hon­ours the speed king and his trusty chief me­chanic, Leo Villa. Camp­bell’s be­lated funeral took place here on Septem­ber 12, 2001. De­spite a down­pour and the fall­out from the World Trade Cen­ter hor­ror the pre­vi­ous day, hun­dreds turned out to watch. Camp­bell’s blue cof­fin was trans­ported by horse and car­riage to his fi­nal rest­ing place, at St An­drew’s Church. The in­scrip­tion on his grave reads “whose achieve­ments in world speed records de­pict his courage in life and death”. Blue­bird was launched from Pier Cot­tage, now a pri­vately run car­a­van park, about a mile from the cen­tre of Con­is­ton. A pub­lic foot­path passes nearby but I’ve ar­ranged to visit the spot where Camp­bell parked his E-type for the last time. Af­ter pulling on his hel­met, he tucked Mr Whop­pit into the cock­pit be­side him and waved good­bye to his team. On a calm day, it’s easy to imag­ine the scene as Camp­bell was towed out into the lake to start his rocket en­gine. There’s an eeri­ness about Con­is­ton Wa­ter that de­fies de­scrip­tion but later, watch­ing a film about Camp­bell in my bed­room at the Gilpin Ho­tel, I can imag­ine the enor­mous pres­sure he must have felt to suc­ceed. The fol­low­ing morn­ing, I’m greeted by a concierge as I load the Jaguar. Allan Buchanan was a po­lice­man on duty at Camp­bell’s funeral. “It was a grim day but ev­ery­body who turned out was re­spect­ful and waited silently,” he re­calls. “Don­ald was a great Bri­tish hero from a dif­fer­ent era. We don’t have many of those left to­day.”

Sum­mit meet­ing: look­ing down from the Old Man of Con­is­ton; the town, be­low, is where Don­ald Camp­bell’s team was based for his fi­nal record at­tempt in 1967

Trib­ute: Jeremy Tay­lor guides the E-type through the Lake District with his own Mr Whop­pit mas­cot on board

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