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A Summer Fly-in at a Country Airfield

The sky was an azure bowl, and the scent of new-mown grass lay heavy in the mid-morning sunshine. The playful breeze toyed with the surrounding tents, causing them to billow and sway, like an insane troupe of Turkish Belly Dancers.

I wandered along, past ranks of parked aircraft, each one trembling slightly at each soft breath of wind. To the other side of the runway stood a mediaeval cluster of tents, gazebos and stalls, each accumulating untidy gaggles of pilots and aviation enthusiasts.

The subdued hubbub of conversation was suddenly overwhelmed with the electronic hiss of the public address system. The disembodied voice of the commentator rolled across the airfield, bouncing back from the surrounding hills, the echoes garbled and distorted.

The announcement was garbled, but I caught a few words and realised that a lost boy was being held at the First Aid tent. I wondered idly where his parents were. At the Burger Van? The Mobile Bar?  Or were they queuing to use the lavatories?

The murmuring was quiet at first – almost beneath the threshold of hearing, but it gradually became persistent, growing in volume and engorging with tone. Suddenly the day was split apart with the thunderous yet melodious note of three vintage aeroplanes flying in perfect formation – appearing low over the trees at the Eastern end of the airfield.

The staccato high-pitched whine of motor-driven cameras was just audible above the palpable growl of the engines. Every spectator looked skyward, envying the superb airmanship shown by the pilots.

The flight swooped majestically around the airfield, the sun glinting on the polished cowlings, refracting off wings as they looped and rolled above the South Downs. They were gone as suddenly as they arrived, and peace reigned once more.

As I continued my ramble towards the end of the runway, I heard the much softer note of another aircraft engine. I spotted a single light in the sky, which grew steadily until it metamorphosed into a small aircraft.

With its engine at idle, the aeroplane passed me, sighing softly as it touched down on the bumpy grass, its nose nodding up and down, affirming a good landing. As I watched, it slowed to walking pace, and taxied sedately towards the low Nissan Hut housing Air-Traffic Control.

A sallow youth wearing a very grubby High Visibility Tabard, stood glumly at the head of a vacant parking slot, and  began to unenthusiastically wave his arms at the pilot, marshalling him into the vacant position.

More incoherence from the Tannoy indicated something would soon be happening. Looking up, I faintly recognised the profile of an aeroplane, obviously at high altitude – a ghostly insect crawling across the window of the sky.

Suddenly, the blue fabric of the sky was cross-stitched with a web of pristine white trails, each creating patterns of gently expanding white.

Blossoming into multi-coloured parachutes, each action-man figure oscillated like a small pendulum, expanding as they approached the white cross laid on the grass.

With a graceful pull on their control lines, each man arrested his descent, landing as softly as thistledown. An appreciative crowd clapped, as the team collected their deflated chutes.

Shadows were lengthening as I drove out of the car park. A Spitfire suddenly howled overhead, just in front of my car, its wheels already tucking up into its belly, its sides bronzed and gilded by the setting sun. Disappearing into the heat shimmer, it left only the echoes of its engine to testify to its existence.

End

Mark Charlwood MRAeS MISTC)©

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English Culture Motorcycling Motoring Nostalgia Old Friends Reunions Transport Uncategorized

Facebook – A Modern Time Machine

Social Media is a wonderful thing.

A few years ago, when my dear old Father was still alive, I recall a gloomy conversation that I had with him about friends. He lost touch with many of his school day friends, mainly as a result of being evacuated to different parts of the UK during the war.  He was expressing his sadness about how he had never been able to find those old friends of his lost and damaged childhood. 

Friends Reunited, and Facebook arrived too late to help my Dad, and so he died having never found those boys he grew up with.

I am very privileged. Using Facebook,  I managed to reconnect with a number of old friends, some from school, and some from my apprenticeship and college days. I am happy to say that I am still firm friends with all of these individuals , despite the passing of the years. It just needed the catalyst of social media to re-ignite old friendships.

I was sitting in my man-cave the other day, when my IPad softly chimed, indicating an incoming message. Putting down my mug of tea, I opened the app, and read my message. It was from a very old friend, Mark 

Now, I should perhaps explain here, that Mark was a year younger than me, but his Father had been my headmaster, a man who is still fondly remembered by many of my friends, if their comments on social media are to be believed. 

Mark and I used to be regular members of the local youth club, the Wallis Centre and both of us developed a passion for motorcycles – a passion encouraged by the leader of the youth club, a middle aged eccentric who loved bikes, and was a skilled photographer. I have many black and white photos of my bikes, accompanied by either my girlfriend of the moment, or in some cases, me!

At the time, in the mid nineteen seventies, there were a number of cliques in my youth club. There was my age group – seventeen and eighteen year olds, and a number of older members who were already in their early twenties.

However, under the wise management of Stef, we made the transition to adulthood with a soundtrack provided by the Mighty Status Quo, Lynyrd Skynrd, Thin Lizzy, Led Zeppelin and the Stones. We all got along, and grew up together.

I remember the thrill of taking my first real motorcycle up to the Wallis; a metallic blue Suzuki GT125, and then as the years passed, of riding up on different, ever larger machines, from my ponderous Honda CD175, to my agile and nimble Suzuki TS185, the TS250,  The Yamaha RD200, Suzuki GT380, GT550, Yamaha XS750, and so on.

Friday nights used to be almost a ritual. Black fringed leather jacket.  Check. Levis. Check. Despatch rider boots. Check. White tee shirt. Check. Denim cut off with badges and patches. Check.

Bikes would be washed and polished – never knew when Stef would have his camera out. A gentle potter up to the Wallis centre and park up – along with maybe twenty or thirty other bikes.

The disco would be in full swing, and the sounds of rockabilly, rock, and rock and roll would be pounding.  Black ink stamp on the back of our hands.  Helmets and jackets everywhere. Long lines of guys n girls stomping out line dances to the Stones and The Quo.

All of these leather jacketed “bikers” in a polite and orderly queue, buying bags of crisps and bottles of Pepsi at the tuck shop – no alcohol allowed in the youth club. 

Summer evenings, outside, with your girl, enjoying a snog and a hug. Quiet conversations over a cigarette, helping mates through the pains of a break up, or helping them to screw up the courage to ask a girl out.

Bad Ass people us motorcyclists.

At ten o’clock sharp, we would be unceremoniously ordered out, and we would tumble out of the doors, a happy throng, and jump astride our bikes, kick them into life, and a stream of Hondas, Yamahas, Nortons and Triumphs would make their way into the High Street, where we would park up by the war memorial.

Laughing and joking, we would all pile into the Public bar of the Rose and Crown, where we would have a few pints and shoot some pool.  Once the pub turned out at eleven o’clock, we would wander across the road, and sit down on the steps, by the memorial. There we would sit, smoking, laughing and talking.

This would go on until the Town’s local police car cruised past us for the third or fourth time. Eventually, the car would stop, and PC Rain would casually walk over.

“Evening Lads” he would say. All of us would respond, “Evening Sir”. A little banter would ensue, with gentle insults traded in both directions.

It would normally end with “Plod” heaving a deep sigh, saying, “Goodnight lads. I don’t want to see you here when I next come past”

He would then climb back into the little sky blue and white Ford Escort, and slowly drive off down the town.  We knew from previous experience that he would drive down to the fire station, turn around in their car park, then come back up the town, via the cinema. 

About ten minutes.  He was always very reasonable, and we all liked him. 

Within five minutes, we would be helmeted, started, and gone, leaving only the smell of burnt two stroke oil, and a slight haze to testify to our existence.

We would be back in place by ten o’clock on Saturday morning. We would sit on the steps and chat, and maybe take a wander round the market. By noon, we would descend on the Wimpy Bar, where we would take up residence for the afternoon, drinking tea and coffee until we were unceremoniously booted out at five o’clock

This went on without issue for months, but apparently, somewhere, somehow, we had managed to irritate someone.

We only discovered this, when someone wrote to the local paper, complaining about anti social motorcyclists gathering by the war memorial. The East Grinstead Courier were delighted with this, and the headlines screamed out “Top of the town motorcycle gang causing concern”

Really?  A bunch of bored middle class kids enjoying a cigarette and each other’s company? I never witnessed any problems – not even dropping litter. Yes, we may have got a bit loud sometimes, but we were never villains. I think I still have a copy of that headline. 

Eventually, we all grew up.  Moved away. Had kids. Got divorced.  Got back into motorcycles.

So, within the last three or four months, my old friend had got in touch with everyone he could think of who used to be part of this notorious “gang of n’ere do wells”.

And so it came to be – the Rebirth of the Top of the Town Bikers. Forty years since it all began.

As a result, if you venture up to the top of the sleepy West Sussex town of East Grinstead at ten o’clock on a Sunday morning, you are likely to see fifteen or twenty middle aged men and women, on a selection of bikes from sports bikes through to customised cruisers.

You will witness much laughter.  You may be in time to see them mount up, and start their machines, the ground shaking, and the peaceful high street woken up with the noise of engines.  Then they will be off, majestically sweeping off down the town, off on a ride out somewhere. Probably back to 1976. Who knows?

I was with them on the most recent ride out – there must have been 12 bikes, including 6 Harley Davidsons, and the rest sports bikes.  We rode down to Goodwood motor racing circuit, and enjoyed ourselves in that uninhibited way that only long time friends can.

 

Happy days…thanks to Facebook!