Tag Archives: travel

Jungle Reset – Dateline Malaysia and Borneo

The Fourth Parallel North, or Four North, runs round the globe just above the equator. Tracking it from the Greenwich Meridian, it heads East into Africa, passing through the Gulf of Guinea, Cameroon , the Congo, South Sudan, Uganda, and through Lake Turkana in Kenya, from where it routes through Ethiopia, and Somalia, crossing the Indian Ocean, passing through the Maldives and through the island of Sumatra. Crossing the Straits of Malacca and bisecting the Malaysian peninsular, it then streaks off over the South China Sea, over the third largest island in the world, Borneo, from where it crosses the Pacific, over Micronesia, eventually making landfall at Malpelo Island in Colombia. It then sneaks through Venezuela, the town of Roraima in Brazil, Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana, then crosses the Atlantic making the west coast of Africa just south of Cape Palmas in Liberia.

Why am I telling you this?

Well, if you are a regular reader of my not too regular posts, you will know that I am partial to a good cup of coffee, and instead of writing in my usual haunt of a local branch of Costa Coffee, I am sitting pretty much on the fourth parallel, on Mabul Island.

To be precise, and for those that really want to know, my position is 4°14’48”N 118°37’52”E. This is the Scuba Junkie Diving Resort, and I am slurping absolutely delicious coffee from a plastic mug, whilst contemplating life.

Since coming to Malaysia for a long break, I have taken in the sights in Kuala Lumpur, visiting Chinese Temples, and Muslim Mosques; I have eaten in fabulous street restaurants in Penang, (Try the Kapitan Indian Restaurant in George Town for a real treat) and from Hawker Stalls in Jalan Alor. I have stared out over the multifaceted city of Kuala Lumpur from the observation deck of the KL Tower, watching it disappear into the mist shrouded Malaysian Peninsular.

I have seen the struggling species of orang-utans, and seen the excellent work being done by the folk at the Sepilok sanctuary. I have been close to the wonderful yet so endangered Sun Bears too.

I have stayed in the Bornean Jungle, been privileged to see elephants, orang-utans, proboscis monkeys, macaques, giant kingfishers, silver leaf monkeys, herons, egrets, huge butterflies.

I have visited remote caves inhabited by swiftletts and horseshoe bats, and watched in wonder in the darkness, at the life that crawls through the inches deep carpet of droppings; Cockroaches, beetles, venomous millipedes, centipedes, spiders, crabs and even small flying lizards.

I have witnessed tropical sunsets, and towering thunderheads, illuminated from within by lightening spikes that compete with the dying orange globe of the sun, as it dips slowly into the South China Seas.

I have observed first hand, the abject poverty of the sea gypsies, and the living conditions that are their lot.

So now I sit here contemplating.

Looking around me at the slender Malay people, emphasises my decreasing height to weight ratio, I am definitely under tall for my 94 kilos. Back calculating, I see that I should be a shade over 2.08 metres tall, or about six feet ten in real money. Well, that’s never gonna happen.

So. I have to shed some of my blubber. I have to stop the regular uptake of alcohol, and get a bit more active – more riding my bicycle, and more walks. I have to also modify my work life balance. I have been sitting in possibly one of the most beautiful places on the planet, and I have been worrying about work for two weeks and wondering how I will cope on my return to the office.

Clearly this is not acceptable. Something has to be done. But what?

I need to address the work/life balance. Coming to 4 North has initiated a reset, Clear Alt Delete at a personal level. So, work less, laugh more, maybe earn less, but be time rich.

I may never own my own jet, but I have a sweet little microlight, on a rural farm strip, so I need to readjust my aspirations and expectations, and spend less time focused on working, and more on regaining my fitness, and enjoying doing not a lot.

Its going to take some careful planning, but the journey is beginning.

I wrote this about two years ago. Since then, I am pleased to say that I now weigh a trifling 89 kilos, so I only need to grow by another 2 cm and I am good to go! I also decided to retire from my previous role, and do something more enjoyable. Now I just have to shed a further 9 kilos. Well. Everyone needs a challenge, right?

The Sad Plight of the Modern Train Commuter

The train squealed to a grudging stop at Liphook Station, where I stood waiting at the tired platform. The electronic chimes announced that the door interlocks were released, and so I duly stabbed the button mounted on the carriage door.

After a few seconds pause, presumably for the system logic to decide that the command was lawful, the doors sullenly opened, to enable me to climb aboard.

The seating area was packed; every seat taken by a dismal commuter. A sea of open laptops, and furrowed brows. The slight, tinny and insistent twitters of headphones pumping banalities into disinterested earlobes.

I leaned against the side of the carriage, contemplating how things had changed. I used to be a regular train commuter back in 1975. It was definitely different then. No rose tinted glasses in my reminiscing. My first experience as an adult going to work – October 1975

I used to board the 0715 bus from East Grinstead Railway Station in West Sussex, which would be filled with sleepy travellers, each muffled up against the autumn chill. Conversation was muted, even amongst regular fellow travellers. I would see Kathy and Sharon, with whom I would flirt outrageously, and the aged double decker would lurch and sway through the Sussex and Kent Weald, enroute to Tunbridge Wells.

Kathy and Sharon were both on a course at West Kent College – Nannies and Nurses One, and I was a fresh faced apprentice – a journeyman attending the same college to pass my exams as a communications engineer.

The old 291 bus would wheeze it’s way through Tunbridge Wells, finally stopping at Tunbridge Wells Central Railway Station. It would then be a mad rush for us students to cross the road and get down onto the platform to catch the 0836 – if we were lucky.

The train was old school. Slam doors, and grim, noisy and dirty. I would stand in the door area, and look into the carriage where I would regard with awe, the denizens within. Wreathed in cigarette smoke, a sea of newspapers, each edition shrouding its reader in the news of the day.

It would be the same on the way home, with the carriages filled with smoke, and returning office warriors, each unwinding with the Evening News, or unfinished crosswords.

Those bygone commuters thought they had it bad. The lonely pre dawn walk to the station, the tedious journey to a London terminal punctuated by a myriad of stops at middle class oases – Places such as Haslemere, Milford, Godalming – and Clandon and Effingham Junction, all bastions of middle class existence.

The modern commuter is definitely a different animal. They still “enjoy” the same commute, but now they travel in well it comfort, generally air conditioned. Today though, their bleary eyes are focussed on spreadsheets rather than broadsheets, Word documents rather than crosswords.

Sad intense faces, hunched over, fingers feverishly bashing away at their keyboards, buried against distraction, wringing out an extra one hour ten minutes on their way in to work for a nine hour day. Then to repeat the ridiculous exercise for the hour and ten minutes of travel home.

Almost eleven and a half hours of work, and get paid for seven. A cool extra two days a week.

Idiocy? Exploitation?

Welcome to brave new world…

Mark Charlwood© 2018

Have a Safe(r) Flight!

So, you are going on holiday. Fabulous! You have packed your clothes for your two weeks away, you’ve bought your travel insurance, reserved a rental car, and still have a sore arm from getting the necessary inoculations and vaccinations.

But how much thought have you given to your personal safety on board the aeroplane?

If you answered “none” to this question, then you are part of the huge majority of air travellers who arrive at the airport blissfully ignorant of the potential risks attached to their chosen mode of travel.

Air travel is an extremely safe and efficient way of getting to distant places. Statistics seem to support this, including the oft-quoted “You are safer flying than you are driving in a car to the airport”  Whilst this may have a degree of accuracy, the fact still remains that aircraft accidents do still happen, some of which are serious. With a little care and forethought, you can reduce your exposure to these possible risks, by taking some simple steps yourself.

So, back to my question. How much thought have you given to your personal safety on board the aeroplane?  Or, to put it another way, when do you start thinking about your on-board safety?  A week before travelling? The day before? When you are sitting in your seat, waiting to take off?

Modern airliners are generally very reliable, but there are phases of flight that are more dangerous than others. Interestingly, more aircraft accidents occur during take off and landing than at any other time of flight. This is particularly true in some of the less developed countries around the globe, where flight safety is degraded as a result of under-investment.

In the highly unlikely event that the aircraft should suffer a serious in-flight problem, an emergency landing may be needed, and it may be necessary to “abandon ship” down the escape slides. There may be limited time for the cabin crew to prepare you for doing this, so you need to think a little about the slides.

The slides are made of a very tough neoprene, and are inflated automatically should a door be opened once the aircraft has left the gate. Naturally, you will have been requested to watch the safety demonstration, and refer to the safety card, but the vast majority of you will have been far too busy reading the newspaper, and listening to your iPods to have done so!

The reason that I mention this here, is that despite the instructions to remove high heeled shoes, and to leave bags behind during a slide evacuation, some individuals still place more value on their laptop computer and their bottle of duty free than on their own lives, or those of fellow passengers!

Amazingly, during a fairly recent evacuation of a Boeing 777 in Houston, passengers were observed jumping down the escape slides carrying their wheelie bags, bottles, and other bits of variegated hand baggage. Selfish and stupid in equal measures!

You may then have to walk across broken glass and damaged suitcases once you get off the slide.

For that reason, you should consider what you would wear on the flight. Stout, flat-soled yet comfortable footwear such as Deck Shoes, Moccasins, Training Shoes, and Flat soled business shoes are a must. I recommend that you resist the temptation to remove these shoes and put on the in-flight socks until the take off and climb is completed and the aeroplane is safely in the cruise.

Approaches and landings carry a higher statistical risk of emergencies, so you should put your “sensible” shoes back on at the top of the descent. This is normally indicated when you hear the engine note diminish as the power is reduced, about 30 minutes before arrival time. You may also hear a passenger announcement from the pilots at this point.

I also recommend that you invest in a simple body belt, so that you can carry your passport and travel documents easily. Its more practical than carrying them in a shirt or blouse pocket, and it may save you being delayed if you do have to evacuate the aeroplane.

Those passengers who have footwear and a passport may be swiftly re-booked onto another flight. Those who don’t will probably have to wait for some time in the airport until their passports and belongings have been collected by airport staff.

Your last consideration before leaving home for the airport should be the rest of your clothing, and the material from which it is made. I recommend that you wear clothes produced from natural products, such as cotton.

These materials may burn in the event of fire, but they will offer you more protection from flames than man-made fibres such as Nylon, which is highly flammable.

Now, lets consider your flight. You have boarded the aeroplane, and have been welcomed aboard by a smiling Flight Attendant. Soft background music will be playing, and you will shuffle to your allocated seat. This is easy in a well-lit cabin.

Now imagine the same cabin, darkened, filled with smoke and full of passengers. Your ability to see will be severely limited. Therefore, you should count the number of seatbacks that you pass on your way to your seat. This will enable you to locate the exits in poor lighting conditions should you need to escape from the aeroplane in an emergency.

Once at your designated seat, you should stow your carry-on baggage in the overhead lockers.  Nothing could possibly go wrong with this.  Or could it?

This is an area for concern. The overhead lockers are not designed to carry very heavy items, yet passengers are often observed struggling to lift huge sports bags and holdalls, boxes, and even very heavy cases into the overhead locker above your seat.

In the event of a forced landing, these lockers may deform, resulting in the doors springing open, thus allowing the contents to fall on the passenger below – in this case you!

If you feel unhappy about the load in the overhead stowage, talk to a crewmember and ask, or even insist that the bag is removed from the overhead, placed in another locker, or put in the aircraft hold.

Now, before you sit down, you should use the opportunity to have a quick check of the area around your seat. Find the lifejacket stowage, and check that there is a lifejacket in it!

It may surprise you, but it is a sad fact that every summer, I witness passengers walking off aeroplanes with life jackets stuffed in their hand baggage. Not only is this a criminal act, it is also a very selfish one, bearing in mind that the jacket is safety equipment, and could potentially mean the difference between survival and death.

It is a legal requirement that a life jacket is available for each seat, and the aircraft will not depart until you have one – even if the only water you will fly over is the Manchester Ship Canal!

Most reputable European, North and South American and Australasian airline’s aircraft engineers will always check that every seat has a life jacket before the aircraft operates its first flight of the day. However, you may be flying on the third, sixth, or even the twelfth sector, so its always possible that someone has stolen the jacket as a souvenir since the engineering safety check.

Furthermore, you may be flying to a remote region on a carrier operated by a small and under-developed country. There is no guarantee that these checks have been performed, so you should take a peek to make sure that you have a lifejacket.

Once the aircraft is safely away from the gate, and starts taxying to the runway, the safety demonstration commences. This will consist of either a pre-recorded film, or a demonstration given by the cabin attendants.

I strongly urge you to watch the film or demonstration. You may be a regular traveller on a Boeing 737, or an Airbus, but each airline will have a different seating layout, different emergency lighting systems, and different types of safety equipment, so assuming that you don’t need to watch the demonstration is dangerous complacency.

Numerous safety items are covered on the safety demonstration; how to fasten and release your safety belt, how to use the drop down oxygen masks, and how to fit and secure a life jacket. You will also be advised to read the safety card, which will either be contained in the seatback pocket, or in some cases, riveted to the seatback in front of you.

The reason that you are instructed to read the safety card, is that it will contain information that the safety demonstration doesn’t cover. This will include how to open the doors and emergency escape hatches, and how to adopt the correct “brace” position in the event of making an emergency landing.

Pulling this card out to read it as the aircraft is skidding to a stop in a field is a little late in the day – so please read the information on the card whilst you are taxying out.

You may feel justified in ignoring the safety demonstration for numerous reasons. I was recently presenting a safety course and I asked a frequent flyer why she chose to ignore the demonstration. Her response was a common one: “It’s a bit patronising – any fool knows how to fasten a safety belt” Her frequent flyer colleagues all nodded their agreement.

Most passengers will be highly familiar with the operation of a seat belt, as they use one every day whilst driving the car. Think about where the belt release is. Its down by your hip.

Now, where is the belt fastener on an aeroplane? Its in the middle of your stomach.

Bodies have been recovered from wrecked aircraft, bearing trauma wounds to the hips, where the victim’s hands have been scrabbling to find the belt buckle that was in fact sitting in the middle of their stomach.

Some of these individuals survived the crash, only to be suffocated in smoke because they were unable to undo their seatbelts. Reviewing the operation of the seatbelt in the safety demonstration is done to remind passengers that the belt is different to the ones that they may be more familiar with.

You will also be shown how to put on and use the cabin emergency oxygen system.

Aircraft are pressurised to give a comfortable environment similar to normal air pressure at about 8,000 feet.

Very occasionally a fault may cause a drop in cabin pressure, and the air may become too thin to breathe comfortably. Therefore, oxygen masks will automatically drop from cubbyholes overhead each passenger seat. It is important that you put the mask on quickly, as it is possible to lose consciousness for a brief period if you don’t.

Many aircraft use chemical oxygen generators to produce oxygen, as it saves the requirement to carry large metal tanks. When activated, these generators combine two chemicals to produce oxygen, which is then delivered by a plastic tube to the mask. A by-product of this reaction is heat.

The generators are located in compartments built into the overhead lockers. Over time, they will be covered in a layer of dust. This dust heats up, and creates the smell of burning. This may create panic, as some passengers will assume that the aircraft is on fire.

So, what may happen in reality?

You may feel a slight popping in your ears and the cabin may start to become quite chilly. This is to be expected if the cabin altitude is rising. At some point the safety systems will detect the falling pressure, and the oxygen masks will automatically drop out of their stowages under the overhead lockers.

You may hear a pre-recorded passenger announcement that reminds you to put your mask on, and informs you that an emergency descent has been started.

If you have paid attention to the safety demonstration, you will have already grabbed the nearest mask, and will have put it on. The air flows as soon as the rubber tube is pulled.

Don’t worry about pulling the mask out of its connection to the air supply – the rubber tube is very strong and secured very tightly, and you do need to pull the mask firmly in order to start the oxygen flow.

Whilst this is going on, the Pilots will be doing their emergency drills. They will have donned their masks, and will have immediately put the aircraft into a fairly steep descent to get the aircraft quickly to an altitude where the air is breathable.

Modern aircraft wings are designed to create as much lift as possible, but lift is now the last thing that is needed. The pilot will have extended the speed brakes, which are large hydraulically operated panels located on the top surface of the wing.

Once these are lifted up into the airflow, they interfere with the lift, and the rate of descent is now much faster. They also cause some turbulence and noise, and this may add to the sense of alarm in the cabin.

However, you must remember, that the apparent feelings of being in extreme danger are deceptive, and whilst this is an emergency situation, you will be quite safe. Aircraft depressurisation is practiced by the crews regularly in the flight simulators, and is relatively easy to handle and resolve.

The last item that is normally demonstrated is the use of the lifejacket. Lifejackets are generally similar in operation regardless of manufacturer or airline. They will be simply placed over the head, and either tied around the waist with canvas cords, or secured with nylon webbing and plastic snap fasteners.

They are inflated by pulling a toggle on the front of the jacket, which discharges a CO2 cylinder into the jacket.

Although lifejackets are designed to have no “inside” or “outside” they are best worn with the CO2 cylinder outside, as the metal cartridge becomes very cold after discharging the gas, and may cause burns if left touching the skin. It is imperative that jackets are not inflated inside the aircraft cabin, as they will either get ripped, or will cause obstructions in a densely packed cabin.

Should you forget this, and fire your jacket early, you may deflate it easily by unclipping the inflation tube (the one that is normally used for topping up the jacket by mouth) and pushing your finger into the tube end. Inside is a Schrader valve similar to that used on a car tyre. Simply press the stud in the middle and compress the jacket to deflate it. Once outside the aircraft cabin, two or three deep breaths should re-inflate the jacket to the point where it will support you in the water.

If you are instructed to put on your lifejackets, then there will be an element of panic throughout the cabin. I strongly suggest that after you have donned your jacket and tied or buckled it up, you briefly release your seat belt and stand up!

It will be too late to discover that you have tied the jacket (and yourself) to either the seat frame, or your fellow passengers once the aircraft has ditched. Doing this ensures that the jacket is secured, and that you can still exit the aircraft when required to!

Aircraft typically have an approach and landing speed of anything from 150 knots (130 mph) to about 120 knots (105 mph) but in an abnormal or emergency situation this could be higher. As you will appreciate, under the rapid deceleration of an emergency landing, anything not secured in the cabin will become a projectile, and will travel through the cabin at very high speed. This will include unsecured items of hand baggage, food carts, and other pieces of aircraft equipment.

Aircraft structures are designed to withstand loads of up to nine times normal gravity, but under a crash landing scenario, these limits may be exceeded, and the cabin may start to deform during the deceleration.

The safety card will contain details of the correct brace position to be adopted should a forced landing need to be made. The brace position is designed to minimise the whiplash effects of rapid deceleration, and to protect the head from injury.

Some authorities suggest that bending forwards, and clasping your arms under your thighs will offer the best chances for survival. I personally prefer the brace position used by British Airways. This brace position is adopted by leaning as far forward as possible, and placing your hands over your head.

You should then place your feet flat on the floor, and move them backwards until they touch the baggage restraint bar under your seat. This will guarantee that your feet are behind the line of your knees, thereby ensuring that your legs won’t swing forwards under deceleration loads, and smash your shins into the seat structure in front of you.

I also suggest that although it is a natural tendency to interlace your fingers when you place your hands over your head, that you don’t do it!

If you are right handed, place your right hand on your head first, and then protect that hand by placing your left hand over the top of it. This will make certain that even if the baggage lockers above your head collapse onto your hands, you will not have all your fingers broken and will still be able to unfasten your seat belt, and still have the use of your good hand.

Taking your dream holiday trip of seeing Orang-Utans in the wilds of Borneo or Indonesia, may well involve a considerable amount of flying with air carriers of dubious or unknown quality. You wouldn’t travel without insurance or vaccinations – so surely investing fifteen minutes to watch and understand a safety demonstration is time well spent!

Now, its time to take a reality check.

According to the UK Civil Aviation Authority, during the period from 1992 – 2001, UK airlines carried 802 million passengers with no fatalities!  Quite an impressive record in fact.

The biggest UK Airline operates 285,000 flights per year. Over the last five years, they have only had to evacuate an aircraft on two occasions. These evacuations were only conducted as a safety precaution, rather than as the result of a cabin fire. This means that statistically speaking, you stand a one in 712,500 chance of having to evacuate an aircraft.

To put that further into perspective, The UK’s Health and Safety Executive estimate that the chances of you dying as a result of an aircraft crash are one in 125,000,000 passenger journeys. In fact, they calculate that you stand a one in 16,800 chance of being killed in a road traffic accident.

So, you are relatively safe in the air – but how safe are you once you check into your hotel? Do you know the risks? Have you thought about your welfare? This will be covered in a later posting.

 

Forced to Wear a Cycle Helmet? I Don’t Think So!

I was sitting in the office the other day, when I overheard a conversation between two of my colleagues.  Now, I should probably explain here, that one of the protagonists is a keen cyclist, and commutes to work by bicycle every day, regardless of weather  – a distance of some thirteen miles.

The other party to the discussion was a self-confessed petrol head, and drives a very powerful, sporty muscle car.

He was remonstrating with my biking colleague, criticising him for not wearing a cycle helmet.  Quite rightly, in my opinion, the cyclist was defending his position by saying that there was no legal requirement for him to wear a crash helmet, and as such he wouldn’t.

This got me thinking.  Over the past three or four years, there has been some serious lobbying by some safety motivated pressure groups[1] to make it a legal requirement for cyclists to wear crash helmets whilst riding their bicycles.

As a free thinking adult, and a free spirit, I normally baulk at any sort of legislation that attempts to regulate aspects of my private life, and this includes the “Nanny State” mentality of coercing me to stop engaging in activities that are perceived by others (in all possibility non-participants in those activities) to be either dangerous or unhealthy.

So I decided to conduct a little research into the subject, and this is what I came up with.

Statistics.  Lots of statistics, all of which can be distorted and twisted to put a particular slant on a story.

However, I have done my best to strip the spin and hyperbole from the stats and explain it as it is.

Firstly, one has to first understand why a cyclist may need a crash helmet.

Advice to wear a helmet, means that the person or organisation offering the advice feels that there is a great risk that a head injury may be sustained by the individual when taking part in the activity – in this case the relatively safe pastime of riding a bike.

So, to put this into perspective, there is a need to assess the element of risk associated with cycling, and compare it with other common activities.

A little research throws up some interesting facts that the proponents for mandatory crash hats don’t tell you.

Firstly, according to Her Majesty’s government, there were over four times as many pedestrians killed on the roads in 2016 than cyclists[2]. If we are to accept the pro helmet lobby’s argument that helmets should be mandated for the riskiest activities, then they should be advocating that pedestrians should be compelled legally to wear helmets!  This is obviously ludicrous.

Bicycle helmets manufactured to comply with the older BS 6863 are designed to protect the rider from falling from a stationary riding position – not for crash impacts with vehicles moving at speed. The newer standard – EN 107, has progressively weakened the requirements due to lobbying from the manufacturers themsleves!

Naturally, everybody wants human activity to be as safe as is reasonably practicable.  However, there is a fine balance between protecting people and demotivating them from being involved in an activity.

The health benefits of cycling are well known; excellent for cardio-vascular fitness, aerobic fitness and the development of muscle bulk and stamina. Add to that the psychological benefits of riding a bicycle  – greater hand/eye co-ordination, a very good stress buster, and a great sense of personal freedom and independence, and you have a formula for good health.

Using the World Health Organisation’s Health Economic Assessment Tool, Cycling UK estimates that a UK-wide helmet enforcement law would result in an extra 263 deaths per annum as a result of the decrease in physical activity resulting from a reduction in cyclists. This would lead to an estimated increase in public health costs of £304M to 451M per year.

Given these stark warnings of an impending obesity epidemic, it would appear to be common sense for governments to encourage as many people as possible to ride a bicycle, not only as a leisure activity, but also as a means for commuting, and even a way of conducting commerce.

A second great driver for the encouragement to cycle is the government’s commitment to comply with EU emissions reduction targets.

Reduction in the use of hydrocarbon-powered transport is central to this theme, and increasing the number of bicycle journeys is an excellent way of both improving national fitness levels, and reducing pollution and greenhouse gases.

To facilitate this, there have been a number of initiatives set up to encourage cycling in the UK.  Boris Johnson, when he was Mayor of London, launched a public cycle hire scheme, now administered by Santander Bank – still colloquially known as Boris Bikes, to encourage Londoners to cycle.

This has proved to be a great success, with over a quarter of a million active members[3] and this has now been complemented by the provision of a London-wide cycle network, consisting of Bicycle Super Highways – with an orbital route, and cross city routes.

Sadly, all of these initiatives may prove to be worthless, should the pro-helmet lobby get their way, and legislation is passed to enforce cycle riders to wear crash helmets.

The statistics indicate that in every country that has instituted compulsory helmets for cycling, there has been an immediate and irreversible reduction in the number of active cyclists on the roads[4].

For example, in Perth, Western Australia, cycling rates plunged by 30 – 40% immediately after the compulsory wearing of cycle helmets became law.

Statistical analysis emphasises that the benefit of cycling, in terms of life years gained through better health against life years lost as a result of serious injury risks is a factor of about 20:1.

To put this into context, in the U.K., there is one cycling death per 29 million miles cycled – so tiny as to be almost irrelevant.

In fact, in 2012, an average person was three and a half times more likely to be killed in a road accident as pedestrian than riding as a cyclist!

I have to confess that I do wear a helmet – occasionally.  The big difference is that I make the decision whether to wear one based on my own assessment of the risks associated with the type of ride I am about to embark upon.

If I am about to ride down a well-maintained canal towpath, or ride on relatively quiet country lanes then I most definitely leave the helmet at home. However, if I am riding in a busy city, commuting to work, or riding in a cycling event, then I grab the bash hat from the cupboard, and reluctantly wear it.

Some charity cycle events insist that a helmet be worn by participants, despite there being no legal obligation to wear one on the public roads of britain. At busy and well subscribed events such as the London Bridges Bike Ride, or the London to Brighton Bike Ride, I will wear a helmet, as I believe that the risk likelihood of coming off as a result of the density of riders is high.

Conversely, on smaller, rural rides, I will wear a bash hat at the start to comply with the organisers requirements, and as soon as I am under way, I stop, remove the helmet, put on my cloth cap, and ride accordingly.

If legislation were enacted tomorrow, then I admit that I will consciously disregard it, and continue to ride without wearing a helmet when I think it appropriate to do so.   I have ridden bicycles since I was five years old, and as an adult have suffered numerous cycle crashes, where I sustained injuries to arms, legs, and knees, and in most of them I was not wearing a helmet.

I was in fact wearing a helmet when I sustained a particularly bad knee injury, (having lost control of a mountain bike, and being unable to unclip from the pedals before impact) but it was as useful as an aqualung is to a buffalo

More recently I survived a near fatal cycle accident – and in this case I was yet again not wearing a helmet. Furthermore in all of my accidents, wearing a helmet would have had no influence on the outcome.

We also need to consider the financial costs of the introduction of such a law. Cycling UK has calculated that initial costs for helmet acquisition could be around £180 million, and subsequent renewal costs of about £45 million every year – all of which falls onto the rider to provide.

An unintended consequence of this, is that there may be a degree of social exclusion, with poorer members of society not being able to afford a helmet, and therefore being prevented from gaining the health and cost effective travel benefits, or continue to ride without a crash helmet, and face being criminalised for committing an offence.

The same logic applies to,wearing a high visibility jacket or tabard.  There is currently no robust supporting evidence to suggest that wearing a high viz jacket will actually prevent a collision.  Evidence so far seems to suggest that whilst a high viz jacket is useful to a cyclist being seen by other road users in daylight, they are only 15% effective at night.

The use of high intensity stroboscopic lights fitted to a bicycle will make the rider 47% less likely to have a daytime collision with a vehicle, and at night, the use of frame mounted lights  together with flashing lights built into anklets or fitted to pedals make the rider 90% less likely to be killed or seriously injured.

So, as far as I am concerned, I will continue to wear sensible brightly coloured clothing, and ride a well-lit, and well-maintained bicycle, taking into account where I will be riding, and at what time of day.

Time for Nanny State to take a back seat!

[1] www.headway.org.uk/get-involved/campaigns/cycle-helmets/

[2]  www.gov.uk/government/statistical-data-sets/ras30-reported-casualties-in-road-accidents

[3] www.tfl.gov.uk/corporate/publications-and-reports/cycle-hire-performance

[4] www.cyclinguk.org/sites/default/files/document/2017/11/helmets-evidence_brf.pdf

 

Fast Food, Aeroplanes and Problems with Bicycles

As those who occasionally read my postings will know, my normal writing haunt is a local branch of Costa coffee, sipping at a medium skinny wet latte with an extra shot. 
Just so that I don’t come across as boring and predictable, I am sitting on my friend’s terrace in Coto De Caza, a small community of houses nestled around a golf course and country club, tucked away in the foothills of the California Hills, not far from Rancho Santa Margarita. 
Instead of my normal coffee, I am drinking a chilled bottle of Betty IPA, made by the Hangar 24 micro brewery based at Redlands, CA. This has proved to be a very good choice. America now has a thriving micro brewery sector, all producing some excellent ales. This one caught my eye for no other reason than it was packaged in a box with a picture of a B-17 bomber nose section, complete with a nose-art pin up girl. The aircrcraft was called Betty, so being a total aviation person (Anorak) I just had to buy it.  
Unusually for Southern California, it is, what we Brits call “pissing down” and the temperature is so cold that I am almost considering changing from my shorts and tee shirt into trousers and fleece. 
I have been up to LA today, and spent some relaxing time visiting Hollywood Boulevard and Sunset Boulevard. Having checked the hand and footprints outside the Chinese Theatre, I am surprised to see that I have bigger hands and feet than Tom Cruise, and the same sizes as Arnold Schwarzenegger. I guess that working out doesn’t make your feet bigger, just your chest and shoulders. 
On the other hand, Vin Diesel makes me look like a dwarf, and Clint Eastwood is only marginally bigger than I am. This made my day (Punk) and I felt lucky all the way back down to Sunset, looking for a certain burger joint in which to have lunch. 
Now, whilst I am not a regular user of fast food outlets, I still use them from time to time.  It’s odd that in the UK we have a very limited selection. We have franchised MacDonalds in virtually every town and city and a home grown chain called Burger King, and that’s about it if you want a burger. I have to say it – MacDonalds in the UK (rather than in the USA) compares unfavourably. 
Mind you, it’s not all bad news for MacDonalds. I was on a business trip a while ago, to Bandar Seri Begawan in Brunei, where I enjoyed a very nice halal chicken burger at the MacDonalds outlet. On another trip to the Far East, I watched an elephant and rider use the Maccy D’s drive-through in Bangkok with no problem, despite the fact that a few years ago, I was banned from riding my humble bicycle through the MacDonalds drive through in Staines-upon-Thames on the grounds that I would “hold up traffic”. 
Always up for intellectual debate, I took issue with the rude attitude of the guardian of the “Drive-Thru” The spotty faced manager was quite explicit and refused to accept my argument that as all vehicles passed through the drive-through at less than walking pace, I was hardly holding up traffic. I also explained to the simpleton that a bicycle was in fact a vehicle and that I had to obey the road traffic act like all other road users. He countered this by saying that it was for my own protection as I may have an accident. 
Really?  
Oh, I guess I could drop my chips, or maybe spill my drink. I couldn’t conceive of any circumstances in an almost stationary drive-through, in which I would be placing myself in a hazardous situation. I stood more risk of getting a serious dose of e-coli from the lad with an obvious sebaceous gland problem than I was of facing imminent death or injury from vehicles.  
By now, I really was holding the traffic up, so I did eventually get served, and wishing him a cheery “Have a nice day” I went on my way. 
I noticed that a few days later there was a sign banning bicycles from using the drive through. This is the mentality of immature management and justification of stopping a safe activity on the grounds of health and safety.  
Anyway, grumpy old git rant over, and getting back to the plot…

The very best burgers on the planet are served at any branch of “In’n’ Out Burgers”. This is a very small chain of burger shops, indigenous to only Southern California. I discovered this best kept secret a few years ago, when visiting the same friends for a vacation.
I had taken a day out to do some light aircraft flying out of Santa Ana (Orange County) International Airport, also known as John Wayne International. I had rented an Evektor Sport Star light aeroplane from Sunrise Aviation, and had spent a happy few hours cruising up and down the west coast, from John Wayne to San Diego, and then back as far up the coast as Santa Barbara, flying overhead Los Angeles International. America is a fabulous place for a private pilot to fly. Try overflying London Heathrow at 4000 feet, and you’ll probably get shot down!  My routing then swung inland, to potter along past the Hollywood sign, and thence back to land at John Wayne. 

Above: The Evektor SportStar after my West Coast flight.

I landed, settled my account and as I was now officially ravenous, I jumped in my hire car, and headed onto the highway. I found In’n’Out by accident, but with some help from the counter staff I ordered a Double Double (Double burger, double cheese, double onions ) and I was recommended to have it “Animal” style. This involved having a special sauce and relish applied. I also ordered fries and a coke. 

I have to say, the place was heaving. I got issued ticket number 61. After a ten minute wait, they were calling tickets 43 and 44. I kicked back and filled in my log book, carefully adding the hours and minutes. 
At last, my number was called, and I was passed a neat red tray, measuring about 18 inches by 12 inches, upon which were a cardboard tray of fries, and a nicely wrapped burger. The flavours in the burger were excellent, and the burgers themselves were made of proper minced beef, rather than the compressed and reconstituted meat that fills so many other burger buns.  

The fries were crisp, and the whole meal was not only good value, but stuck in my memory as being of very good quality. 
I wasn’t disappointed today either. The In’n’Out on Sunset was overwhelmed with customers, and it was only 11:50. I had to wait again, but the wait was worth it as the quality was still very good. And the cost was just under seven bucks. 
And so,I’m sitting here, in the gathering gloom, typing this blog, prior to making a report on trip advisor. 
Thanks to the very hard working youngsters on duty today… you Rock!

Education And Aiports – Are we Losing the Plot?

Grumpy – And With Good Reason!

It may be because I am getting older, and therefore less tolerant of the idiocy of others, or it may be that other people really are becoming more cretinous and idiotic.
To prove my point, let me share some thoughts with you.
A few weekends ago, I had to make a short train journey to meet up with some family members for a genteel lunch, at a beautiful quiet country pub, nestled snugly in the Surrey countryside, in a fold of the peaceful and wealthy Surrey Hills.
In order to enjoy my journey to its fullest extent, I made a quick excursion into the pleasant little town of Haselmere, where I was to catch the train.  I left myself time to take a gentle stroll into the quintessentially English High Street where Costa Coffee is located, so I could buy my usual Skinny Wet Latte with an extra shot.  

Meandering back to the station, I popped into W H Smiths and bought a paper to pass the time.

Standing on the sun dappled platform, I began to peruse the news of the day.  Amidst all of the hysteria about the forthcoming General Election, and the sad stories relating to the earthquake in Nepal, I found some cause for an element of grumpiness, which cheered me up considerably.
It seems that London’s Goldsmith College have banned Caucasian men from attending an “Anti Racism” event, because according to the “Diversity Officer,”  in order to attend you have to belong to the BME. It appears that the BME, far from being some supremacist group, stands for “Black Ethnic Minority”. 
Mind you, there is good news here as well, because the event also positively welcomed those who are “non-binary”. 
You could be forgiven for thinking this was some form of computer phobia, or an inability to count in base ten.  
I was a little amused to discover that those amongst us who are “Non Binary” do not know what sex they are.
Is it not somewhat ironic, that an event that is intended to break down barriers, and stop people discriminating against others based on racial background should fall into the trap of banning others from attending because they come from a different racial heritage.
You couldn’t make it up could you?
I did have to chuckle at the next article, concerning yet another bastion of the British Education system –  this time Queens University in Belfast.  Why has such a respected seat of learning become the target of my grumpiness (albeit mirthful grumpiness)?
Well, the scholarly leaders have decided to ban a conference on Free Speech, Self-Censorship and the Charlie Hebdo killings.

Who employs these people?  Are they specially selected for being stupid, so as to make the scholars feel clever?

So, it was with a mood of cheerful grumpiness that I met up with my family, and enjoyed an excellent lunch, with good company and good food.
Having to a certain extent, forgotten the previous evidence that modern educationalists are sillier than primary school children, I awoke the following morning early, as I had to take a trip to London to attend a business meeting.
Driving to the station, I grabbed a coffee, and picked up a Metro free newspaper at the station entrance.
Skimming through it, – amongst the latest daily doses of pre election hyperbole and more sad stories of the earthquakes and avalanches around Everest I spotted what I was subconsciously looking for…..my morning fix of idiocy to fuel my impish inner self.
Now, I work in the aviation industry, and have done for the best part of my working life, having previously served as a security officer, VIP services manager, an aircraft cleaner, a passenger services executive, and have been flight crew.  I have been exposed to much witless behaviour on many occasions from both passengers and colleagues, but I did draw a sharp intake of breath at the story published.
It seems that a little boy, of four years old was travelling through East Midlands Airport with his family, who were flying out to Lanzarote for their holiday.
All would have been well, but for the four year old carrying a plastic toy gun. It was promptly confiscated by airport security staff because “it posed a security risk”. A spokeswoman for the airport apparently said “No items may pass through security that resemble a prohibited item”
Having seen a Nerf gun in a photograph, it’s quite difficult to see what part of a bright yellow and orange plastic toy could cause anyone but a certifiable lunatic, (or maybe a user of psychotropic drugs) or someone of less than normal eyesight and common sense to mistake it for a real weapon.
Are these people actually recruited for their simplistic interpretation of a regulation that is obviously designed to stop people wandering round the departures lounge with replica AK-47s and similar.  
Mind you, a few years ago I  personally witnessed another situation whilst passing through to airside as a passenger.  The lady in front of me was asked to cover up her tee shirt….it was camouflaged and had an image of a Hand Grenade on it.  
She was justifiably irritated, but was told that the image could be distressing to other passengers.
We live in a very strange world these days, where reality is skewed to accommodate flawed thinking, and four year old children can’t take their favourite toy with them on holiday.
Welcome to brave new world.
Discuss! 
Mark Charlwood © 2015.  Mark Charlwood holds the intellectual property rights associated with this article. Please contact me if you wish to use it, or quote from it.

Airport visit

This is another one from my back catalogue. I wrote this whilst working as a part time crew bus driver, when I was raising money to pay some big bills. The scene was London’s Gatwick Airport South Terminal. The Northern terminal wasn’t built at the time of writing.

I found it in a folder whilst unpacking some boxes that I took out of the loft.

So here it is…..

Airport Visit

Yellow sodium lights, string upon string, row upon row,
Casting a yellow aura onto the pregnant clouds,
Whilst the world slumbers, this is a land of insomnia,
Never sleeping, teeming with life

I pass through the doors, into this concrete and chrome citadel,
It’s artificial warmth engulfs me, bright neon and noise,
Smells of stale burgers and stale humanity, crowded yet empty,
A different world – an alien place

Wandering through this manmade canyon, yellow stalactites offering directions,
Avoiding the endless cleaners, driving their powered brooms, scarabs of the night,
Ever watchful, vigilant, evading mobile cages of luggage,
Destined for who knows where?

Dante’s hell here, tens of sentient corpses, in limbo,
Strewn like victims on stereotype couches – the un-dead,
Awaiting their flight into the future,
The cheerful obnoxiousness of a giant orange kiosk, serving processed juice.

Musical, the chimes demand attention, the disembodied voice,
Reaching into the furthest nooks and crannies – no escape,
Calling the faithful to the altar of travel,
A tired policeman, gun on hip, drinking plastic coffee from a cardboard cup

As I walk by a party of arrivals dribble from the customs hall, motley collection of searching faces,
Meeters and greeters surge forward clipboards held aloft like religious talismen,
Their overspill of emotion floods me, drowning me, relief, tears, tiredness all at once,
The elderly couple tightly embrace, oblivious to anyone but each other

Deeper I penetrate into this strange land, my eyes assaulted by TV screens that force feed data,
Boldly, I step onto the rubber walkway, driving me into the maw of the machine to be processed,
Journeys end! Departures, and I go to the check in desk,
The uniformed clone launches a computer designed smile at me, chants a litany of questions to appease the gods,

I’ve passed the test, and weigh my bags,watching, devoid of emotion, disengaged,
They lurch away, into a dark oblivion, nostalgia hits…will I ever see them again?
I stand and appraise my fellow travellers; the lady in the two piece, face taut, fearful,
The drunken louts in suits with Nikons round their necks

I see a weary figure, a foreign lady, pushing her cleaning cart like a mobile penance,
How many toilets has she cleaned today, how many will she clean tomorrow?
Will the pretty girl ever see the soldier she’s kissing goodbye again?
The future seems so uncertain, and I share their insecurity

I am alone. No one to wave farewell to, no one to miss, or send a card,
A piece of business flotsam, jostled by the tides of commerce,
Cast wherever the capricious winds of profit blow me,
Oh no – A loud stag party with braying laughs and cowboy hats,

Happy and sad, birth and death – it all happens here,
The total gamut of human emotions and life; deceit, betrayal, love and loyalty,
But emotions can’t be X Rayed, or found by customs – prohibited articles?
Just people, all suffering the common condition of confusion

At last we’re moving towards the rubicon,
Passport in sweaty hand, boarding pass clamped between gritted teeth,
Shuffling like convicts towards the scaffold,
A bored security guard barely glances at me or my papers as I pass through,

Out of the warm cloying fugg, and into the drizzle, the smell of kerosene in the air like mist,
The sleek belly of the aircraft, illuminated by intermittent flashes of Amber and red,
I’m dwarfed by its size, and the impatient whine of its power,
The raindrops hit me, disguising my tears, as I shuffle forwards to embark

The night is then ripped apart, as I stand at the hatch, mesmerised,
A cluster of lights race past me, rotating, clawing their way up the fabric of the night,
Suddenly absorbed by the clouds, with only the lonely baying of jets to testify to it’s existence.
I turn, and see yellow sodium lights, stirring upon string, row upon row

Mark Charlwood© August 1989

Mark Charlwood holds the intellectual property rights of this work. It is prohibited to copy, republish, or distribute this work without the written permission. If you do want to use it, please contact me.

Dream Holiday

Dream Holiday

The city traffic hum, is reduced to a murmur,
Washed away by the sounds, flooding from the taverna,
The strong heady aroma, of Ouzo, Retsina,
On the wings of a zephyr, spread across the marina.

When I arrive, I know that you’ll meet me,
With crowds of old friends, who’ve turned out to greet me,
Away from old London’s pollution and lies,
To relax on the beach, under warm Grecian skies.

Hand in hand we wander, through quiet olive groves,
Or tramp for miles on the white, dusty roads,
And when too tired to wander much farther,
We sit with cold beers, on the wall of the harbour.

When I arrive, and the sleek jumbo lands,
I’m minutes away from your warm, golden sands,
Away from the smog, London’s urban disease,
To relax on the beach, with its azure blue seas.

Then I come to, with a frightening shock,
Realising I’m still in the travel agents shop,
My heart is still with you, a powerful call,
Propelled by the picture of Greece, on the wall.

So, alone I wander, back out of the door,
The Oxford Street traffic a deafening roar,
The strong heady odour of fumes, and decay,
Make futile my plans for a Greek holiday.

But all is not lost, for with coming of night,
When I climb into bed, and turn out the light,
Once more in the darkness, my spirits at peace,
As my ‘plane touches down, and I’m with you in Greece.

Mark Charlwood © November 2014

This work is the intellectual copyright of Mark Charlwood. Unauthorised publication or distribution prohibited. Please contact me if you would like to publish elsewhere

Airline Loyalty Programmes. Good For You – But Better For Them?

Member of an Airline Loyalty Programme?
Good for you – But better for the Owner!

If you are a regular airline traveller, you have special cause for celebration on the 1st May each year.

For on this date thirty seven years ago, American Airlines launched it’s Aadvantage® programme, the first ever integrated Frequent Flier Loyalty scheme.

In 1978, just prior to the launch of the then unique programme, the US Government had enacted the Airline Deregulation Act, and the US air carriers were in a state of turmoil.

Against a backdrop of recession and economic uncertainty, airlines were struggling to contain costs and make even meagre yields, so great thought was given to enhancing the profits from existing customers.

It is said that it is six times more expensive to generate a new customer than it is to hold on to an existing one, so the ability to retain customers was seen as being a high priority.

Executives at American Airlines created the Aadvantage Programme, a system that rewarded loyalty by offering free upgrades to either business or first class, or free tickets, based upon the number of air miles that the passenger travelled.

Prior to the launch of the programme, American’s marketing department trawled through their SABRE reservations system for bookings with recurring telephone numbers. The 130,000 most frequent flyers were selected as the initial members of the Aadvantage programme, closely followed by the 60,000 members of the Admirals Club (American’s Airport Lounge Club).

Naturally such a scheme was hugely popular with passengers, and United Airlines launched their own loyalty programme called Mileage Plus the following week. Subsequently most large airlines have launched similar programmes.

So, the passenger may enjoy a free Business Class ticket from New York to London for every 50,000 miles travelled. That’s certainly a good deal, but what’s in it for the Airline.

Firstly, the Airline can build up a profile of an individual’s travel behaviour, seat preferences, times of travel, and class of travel booked.

Such statistical data is gold dust for a marketing department, and the information may be used to make decisions related to routes, departure and arrival times, and size and type of aircraft to be used on various flights. These decisions could make or lose the airline millions.

Loyalty programmes are good – for the owner, but British Airways made an inspired development of the AA system when they launched the BA Credit Card,

Once the programme was launched, passengers were given a double incentive. Book the ticket on BA, and get airmiles for the flight, and pay for it on the airline’s credit card, and get bonus mileage!

The passenger obviously benefits from this, but not as much as the airline.

Consider this – The passenger buys his ticket on BA, using his BA credit card. He then rents a car through the BA booking system (getting some airmiles bonus of course), and then pays with his airline credit card – for more bonus mileage.

When he gets to the airport, he buys some duty free liquor, a Mont Blanc pen, and some Chanel perfume for his wife. He then orders some Lalique Crystal, and some Caviar from the Caviar House.

Having finished his shopping, he takes his trip, and whilst abroad uses his Airline credit card for further purchases, enthusiastically hoovering up bonus air miles, all to be redeemed with the airline for future flights, which of course, he will pay for with his airline credit card.

Now, the passenger thinks that the loyalty programme is basically for his benefit. Not so!

For the company is now building up a comprehensive profile of the passenger, logging his purchases, and his shops of preference. The marketing department is creating a whole new armoury of tools to use on the passenger.
You, the passenger, may not realise the stealthy gathering of data, and may be quite happy amassing your bonus airmiles.

It should be said, that there is nothing sinister in the gathering of such information. Many corporate E-commerce websites make no secret of the fact that personal details will be used for marketing purposes.

The airline gains far more than the passenger, mainly because air transport ticket prices have fallen in real terms over the years. They make profit on the ticket cost; they then make profit on the interest generated on the credit card. But most valuable of all is the comprehensive demographic information they glean.

Long-term analysis of the passenger’s buying behaviour enables the marketing department to design incentive packages targeted personally at the individual, and thus generate more business.

Further examination of the flights booked may help the airline’s network analysts to plan new routes, or revise timings of existing routes.

This type of programme promotes exceptional loyalty, and ties the passenger more effectively to the airline. A passenger who is mishandled for whatever reason is more likely to stay with the airline if he has amassed a significant number of airmiles.

Global economic problems and the huge costs involved in operating an airline has led many airlines to form commercial alliances. These alliances allow airlines to pool resources, share booking systems and flights. In most cases, they will also honour the redemption of airmiles gained on another alliance members loyalty programme.

Many airlines have invested in hotel chains and car rental companies, and these will also offer airmiles for the airline, generating further profits – and all for the cost of a free ticket for every ten return trips London to New York.

Compared with the total spend made by the customer, the net gain is heavily loaded in favour of the airline.

These programmes have proved so successful that many high street chains have embraced the idea with great enthusiasm. Tesco’s have their Clubcard; Sainsbury’s have the Nectar card.

Interestingly, ASDA, which is part of the US Wal-Mart group do not operate such a scheme. Their philosophy is that low prices at the time of checkout ties the customer more effectively to them rather than the promise of money back later. It must be a successful business models, as Wal-Mart is the world’s biggest employer.

It may be argued that Low Cost carriers such as Ryanair and Easyjet drive loyalty through low prices, but this seems to be a less powerful argument, as service standards are much lower than that provided by legacy full fare airlines.

The only other loyalty programme that doesn’t seem to translate very well into the world of air transport is that operated by the Co-Operative Retail Group.

The Co-Op as it’s popularly known has been running a loyalty scheme for many years, and is known throughout the UK as “dividend”, or just plain “divi”. Put quite simply, customers were encouraged to become members of the Cop-operative.

They purchased a share, which then enabled them to receive a percentage of the profits generated. This scheme has been running for decades, and has been very successful in keeping customers loyal to the brand despite enormous competition from much bigger rivals such as Tesco and Sainsbury’s.

So – Loyalty programmes are good for the customer, but not as good as they are for the provider!!!

A Trip to Colditz Castle – A World War Two Remembrance

Chris, Barrie and I had last flown together when we decided to fly to Ostend in Chris’s Light Aircraft.

The purpose of that trip was a simple one. All three of us shared an interest in military history, and all of us had relatives who’d served in Passchendaele and Ypres during the First World War.

That trip was the subject of a prior article, but suffice to say, on the way home (feeling quite subdued and humbled by the experiences) our conversation turned to other potential trips.

We all decided that the Normandy Beaches were fairly high on the agenda, as was a suggestion to fly into some of the French airfields that the Luftwaffe operated from during either or both of the two world wars.

I happened to mention that I’d heard somewhere that Colditz Castle had been re-opened to members of the Public.

Now, for those that don’t know, Colditz was used as a maximum security Prisoner of War camp, predominantly housing repeat escapers. This generated quite a bit of interest, as we had all grown up reading about the exploits of the escapees, and we all revered these men as heroes during our respective youths.

Colditz was also a very successful BBC TV series, and I remember watching every episode, so I was greatly interested in going.

Nothing more was said, but then one afternoon in early March, I received an email from Chris – he had been doing some research into making the proposed Colditz trip a reality. The big question was – how could we schedule it? Chris is a 777 Captain, I work shifts in the Flight Crew Training Centre as an instructor, and Barrie is a “Gentleman of Leisure”.

Eventually we decided to fly out on the 3rd April, Easter Saturday, and come home on Easter Sunday.

It was a grey and overcast day as the Ryanair 737-800 touched down at 1030 local time at Altenberg Airport. Altenberg, like Colditz is stuck in the middle of nowhere, which is probably why Ryanair chose to operate there. Leipzig is about 54 miles south, and Colditz is about 40 miles in the other direction.

Looking out of the window as we taxied to the terminal, we could see the hardened concrete aircraft shelters that twenty one years ago would have housed MiG 21 fighters of the East German Air Force.

Today they are dismal looking and overgrown with weeds, a sad casualty of the outbreak of peace.

Disembarking from the aeroplane, we joined the meandering crocodile of passengers casually wandering towards the low concrete building of the terminal.

This was a stark difference from the way things are done in the UK. At home, the passengers would have been bullied and shepherded by airline staff all in high visibility jackets; however, to be fair, the Ryanair flight appeared to be the only aircraft on the tarmac that morning.

We had arranged to be met at the Airport by Peter Werner Taxis, and the forty minute ride would cost about 45 Euros each way to take us to Colditz Castle.The driver of the cab spoke no English, but we managed to communicate by virtue of some schoolboy German that Chris and I had learnt 40 years ago.

We all bundled into the people carrier, and sat back and enjoyed the scenery – Small well kept villages, pretty towns, and thick greenwoods. The road, whilst obviously a minor rural thoroughfare was extremely well-maintained, with no potholes. Maybe we could send some of our local councillors here to be trained in civic amenity management.

Eventually, we arrived in the outskirts of Colditz, where the taxi driver generously agreed to let us drop off our bags at the small hotel we were staying in. Once we had dropped the bags off, the taxi drove us the short distance to the castle itself.

Looking up at the castle which sits broodingly crouched atop a rocky crag, it was easy to imagine the feelings of those Prisoners of War who were marched up the steep incline to the castle entrance.

Colditz Castle has been associated with incarceration of one type or another for many years. Building was started in 1158 AD, and by 1694 it had expanded to become a 700 room castle, and was the home of regional royalty and nobility.
During the early 1800s it was destined to become a workhouse for the poor, the ill and local criminals, and became quite run down.

From 1829 until 1924, it became a sanatorium for the rich, with some notable residents, including Ludwig Schubert, the son of Robert Schubert the composer, and Ernst Baumgarten, one of the inventors of the airship.

In 1933, the Nazi Party came to power, and they swiftly saw the potential of Colditz as a prison for Communists, Jews and other dissenters, and by 1939 it had become a Prisoner of War Camp for Allied prisoners.

Due to its remote location the Wehrmach decided that they would use Colditz as a holding camp for troublesome prisoners, and those prisoners who made repeated escape attempts. It became known as Oflag IVC (Offizierslager –Officers Camp), and housed Douglas Bader, Pat Reid and Airey Neave to name but a few.

The camp Kommandant and his guards appeared to be relatively humane, accepting that the prisoners would attempt to escape, and operated fully under the terms of the Geneva Convention.

The prisoners were also under a sworn duty to escape, and used the hours of captivity to dream up ever more sophisticated ways in which to make their way out.

These included tunnelling out, walking out disguised as German officers, and exit by subterfuge. In order to support these attempts, a sophisticated support network was created. Counterfeit papers were produced, fake uniforms and civilian clothes manufactured, and diversion tactics employed.
We were all looking forwards to wandering round, and seeing for real the places that we had read so much about.

The castle is accessed through a pair of doors into a steeply sloping cobbled courtyard. A small door leads into the official entrance, and we entered the cool interior. Climbing the stairs to the first floor, we arrived in a well lit room housing a small gift shop and ticket desk, which led onwards into a well lit area containing museum exhibits.

Glass cases displayed a great selection of artefacts ingeniously fashioned by the prisoners; digging implements, printing equipment, and even a wooden typewriter!

The size of the museum is quite small and occupies only a tiny percentage of the castle itself. The only way that access can be gained to other parts of the building is by using the services of an official guide.

Chris had thoughtfully organised a guide for us, and at just 45 Euros for 2 hours, Steffi was great value. She was extremely knowledgeable, and had a great sense of humour, the result of spending three years living in London no doubt.

Under Steffi’s guidance, we were led out into the courtyard, and were shown the impossibly tiny coal hole that Airey Neave hid in during one of his breakout attempts.

From Steffi’s explanations, it seems that after the war, and the Soviets took over the administration of the region, the history of Colditz was totally ignored, and local children like Steffi grew up accepting that the Castle was nothing more than a mental asylum.

The Soviet government chose to do nothing with the castle, which became more and more decrepit and derelict as the decades marched on.
The worst case is that of the Chapel, which is virtually derelict. As guests of a tour guide, we were actually allowed in, and could see that prior to the war, it would have been a beautiful building, but for the neglect.

Having come back into the bright light of the courtyard, I asked Steffi if we could see the loft where the glider was made. She sighed theatrically, and told me that due to Health and Safety we couldn’t see that part of the castle as it was being renovated.

I then asked if it would be possible for us to visit the theatre where the prisoners put on plays as part of the diversion strategy to keep the guards occupied as they conducted escape activities.

She smiled at that, remarking that we were the first group of visitors who even knew of the theatre. This surprised me, as I would have thought that many of the visitors to the castle would either be ex-military or as interested in military history as we were.

Anyway, suffice to say that she led us up the stairs and along some gloomy corridors that were still decorated with the original flock wallpaper, and with an all-pervading smell of mustiness and damp.

Once into the theatre, we chatted amongst ourselves, discussing the scene in the Colditz film where prisoners put on a show to disguise the noise of tunnelling and excavation whilst an escape attempt was in progress.

The inventive chaps put on a play, and invited the German Officers and senior NCOs, and whilst they were on stage, some of their brother officers were making good their escape.

“Is there any chance that we could stand on the stage” Chris asked. “Ja, of course you can” grinned Steffi. “Would you like that I take your picture?”
We gleefully mounted the stage, and adopted a group theatrical pose, and She snapped away.

Having exhausted the inside of the Schloss, We were led outside into the grounds, where the places where the prisoners played football were pointed out, and where Michael Sinclair was shot trying to escape.

He was the only prisoner to be shot escaping from Colditz. This in itself was a sad accident.

According to Steffi, he attempted to run during a football match. The guards ordered him to stop, but he continued sprinting away. The guards opened fire, and a bullet hit him in the elbow, and then ricocheted into his heart, killing him instantly.

Eventually, Steffi bought us back to the courtyard where the tour ended.
We thanked her profusely, and gave her a handsome tip – she had done a splendid job, and we left the castle in far better spirits than some of those men from 70 years ago.

We strolled down to the town, and wandered back to our hotel, where we enjoyed some excellent German cuisine in the deserted restaurant.
By now, we were all quite tired, and so after a couple of beers in the bar, we said goodnight, and retired to our rooms.

Next morning our taxi arrived promptly, and we meandered our way back to Altenberg, catching the flight back to Stansted.

Our weekend was both historically rewarding and great value for money. Our Flights were £135.00, accommodation was £35.00, Entrance fees and tour guides £35.00, £30.00 taxi fares, and £35.00 food. A total of £270.00 for an incredibly interesting and moving weekend.

I wonder where our wanderings will take us next.