The BBC is currently running a short series of programmes about British motor racing legends. The first, last night, was about Sir Stirling Moss and allowed Sir Patrick Stewart an escape from the responsibilities of commanding the Enterprise to share driving a Mercedes SL300 Gull-Wing around the Florence area with his boyhood idol. The history of Stirling Moss was uncovered by the programme in a steady flow through his career from his first drives until the crash at Goodwood in 1962 that ended his career. One thing that became clear is that Moss remains a driven man. He certainly doesn’t sit on his laurels. However, the other thing that became clear was his absolute commitment to racing. When asked by Stewart whether the accident in 1962 had effectively saved his life, he suggested that had his new Ferrari car arrived in time for the event he would not have crashed. Indeed, throughout the programme he made it clear on several occasions that none of the accidents that he was involved in were his fault – all of them were down to deficiencies in the vehicle. That may sound arrogant but I suspect he speaks the truth. Racing cars and drivers on the circuit are seeking perfection in both machine and man and those who have reached the pinnacle of that profession do so by not crashing due to driver error. However, it is difficult for an average driver like myself to equate with that level of supreme confidence that even today Moss conveys.

So I looked at the upcoming programme tonight – Sir Jackie Stewart (or so the BBC website tells me). But Radio Times tells a different story – Colin McRae. Now that is weird and the Radio Times suggests that this is a three programme series. Given that McRae is no longer with us and that both Moss and Stewart are still alive, one assumes that the third programme will also be about a living British racing driver. However, neither Radio Times or the BBC website are listing that third programme.. strange.

It gave me food for thought. During quite a bit of the Moss story it was made clear that Motor Racing is a dangerous sport and that in Sir Stirling’s era 3 – 4 drivers were being killed every season and sometimes spectators were also involved. Moss claimed that it was the danger that attracted him to the sport and as I listened to his responses to Patrick Stewart’s questions it became more clear that he had absolute faith in his own ability to drive his cars to their best. It is a fact that he is still held in the highest reverence within the motor racing community despite never winning the World Drivers Trophy. That tells me how good he was. But, that absolute belief in one’s infallability does raise a few hackles with me…

You see, one of Britain’s great racing drivers was Graham Hill. There is no doubt about his driving ability – He would have been the Crowned Prince of Monaco if it didn’t already have one! So I have to ask what he was doing trying to land a twin-engined light aircraft in thick freezing fog at Elstree in 1975 – an act which cost him and five other people their lives. Was it that belief in personal infallibility which made him carry on when other pilots would be running for an open airfield, any airfield, elsewhere? I learnt to fly some years later and whilst I had a reputation for being willing to fly in bad weather you’d never get me airborne when there was a risk of fog. So how bad was it on the night Hill crashed? I was at Peterborough that evening watching the trains, or at least those trains that I could see. Anything on the opposite side of the station was invisible and the high intensity signal lights were struggling to reach halfway along the platforms! Almost all the ttrains were running late as drivers applied due caution in the conditions.

Colin McRae? He killed himself and 3 others by crashing his helicpoter whilst carrying out ‘unnecessary low level manoeuvres’… Another case of belief in infallability?

You can read the official report into Graham Hill’s accident at http://www.aaib.dft.gov.uk/publications/formal_reports/14_1976__n6645y.cfm

A Foggy Morning at Andrewsfield - plenty of time to eat a Full English Breakfast while waiting for it to lift...
A Foggy Morning at Andrewsfield – plenty of time to eat a Full English Breakfast while waiting for it to lift…

A Schoolboy’s Journey.

Much of my story writing on WordPress until last Tuesday has been from direct personal experience with the exception of the occasional scene setting paragraphs drawn from filmed material that suited the tale I wished to tell. The odd one out was my brief flight of science fantasy in my ‘The Delivery’ post.

Works of Science Fantasy / Fiction don’t usually require a huge amount of research when they are set ‘in a Galaxy far, far, away’. In fact all I had to do was think up a likely scenario, come up with some plausible names for planets, systems and people. And finish it off with some with some basic ship descriptions and action to keep the reader interested. Programs like Star Trek on the other hand, have consistently used projected developments of our current scientific understanding and theories to bring a degree of realism and continuity to their created future. I don’t know whether I did a good job or not of Sci-Fi – it probably wasn’t in an area that most of my readers interests lie but I do like to experiment.

So, my latest small piece of fiction was a step back in time to a period that some of my readers might recall. Some knowledge was essential as was a bit of research…

Peter – our hero for want of a better word – is a schoolboy catching the train to the nearby town of Hatfield. Presumably, therefore he is attending a Grammar School. The reference midway through to his short trousers is based on the fact that until the beginning of the 1960s schools required boys to wear shorts regardless of age. It was only in the 1960’s that schools at the Secondary level of education started to allow long trousers to be worn and different schools allowed this practice at different times. He still carries the traditional satchel – replaced by briefcases by the time I went to school and now in a slight reversal, replaced by backpacks (a satchel by any other name?).

The station is a small country halt at the start of the 1960’s before the slash and burn policies of the Beeching era destroyed such things and, in some cases, the rural communities surrounding them as well. It might be Wheathampstead or Harpenden East on the Welwyn to Luton branch. Such small stations were often run by a single person acting as Stationmaster, Signalman, Ticket Clerk and Telegrapher.

The horse drawn milk cart is not a figment of the imagination – some of these continued into the 1980’s in rural areas (often operated by a local farm) though in major cities the delivery of milk had long since become the province of the electric milk float or the ubiquitous Bedford CA.

Peter had hoped to see the local goods. Most branch lines were served by a pick-up goods train that started at a set time but fitted in between other services on the line as it collected wagons along the route. Its arrival time became less predictable the further along the route it travelled as the amount of goods to be collected varied from one day to the next. In this instant the goods must have been asked to wait to allow the passenger train to pass – passenger services being required to run to time. The days of wagonload freight were numbered by the early 1960’s and as such loads shifted to the roads the pick-up goods died out. In future the railways would concentrate on bulk cargoes.

The arrival of a diesel on the train was a sign of the times. The English Electric Type 1’s were the first of the mainline locomotives ordered under the modernisation plan to enter service – the first was delivered in 1958. They were also to prove to be one of the most reliable and a few are still running, albeit in a refurbished form, on our main lines today! This is the one part of the story drawn from direct personal experience. When I was around 5 years old during a family picnic at Hadley Woods I saw one of these locomotives come out of the tunnel there, pushing smoke from a preceding steam train before it. It left a lasting impression.

The lack of heating on the train was a common issue on local rush hour services in the 1960’s from Kings Cross. As skilled steam locomotive crews became scarce and maintenance quality dropped, diesels often were called upon to do jobs that they weren’t intended for. The English Electric Type 1’s were supposed to be freight only, used on local trips like the American Switcher locomotives. But, when nothing else is available, needs must. The loss of skilled steam crews, withdrawal of steam locomotives and unreliability of other diesel locomotive types more suited to passenger services that were introduced in the rush to get rid of steam, often saw the English Electric Type 1’s, which had no ability to heat trains, used on suburban services just so that the passengers could be got home. Ironically, in the late 1970’s through to the mid 1980’s the then Class 20’s were often used in the height of summer for Saturday services from the midlands to the seaside resort of Skegness, drawing a heady mix of holiday makers and railway enthusiasts 😉

Peter’s travels to Hatfield would switch to the bus or car in 1965 when the line closed to passengers on 24th April. The last train was, fittingly, hauled by EE Type 1 D8046.

English Electric Type 1's at Bescot
English Electric Type 1’s (Class 20’s) at Bescot, slogging away at their real job – hauling freight in 1982!