Balloon Repair Station

We nearly went to sea

… or Four go wild at the seaside (nearly)

As you have already discovered this is not a site dedicated to balloons. We like them obviously but we are easily distracted so when our Trevor decided he needed to get some more bits for his Vivi moped and I needed to get the Magpack on the Mercette sorted following its demise trying to get to the High Street the other week, a trip to a man that knows and has was needed. Fortunately he lives near Ipswich and that meant two potential visits, The Squadron at North Weald and Pin Mill.

The M25 can be a bit of a carpark but Dick the Spanners is politely seventy something so ‘early start’ doesn’t really come into his vocabulary and Barry has to travel a bit to get here, so it was a close vote that decided we left at 7.30, first stop breakfast at The Squadron on North Weald airfield. Trevor was a travelling salesman in a past life and tends to drive enthusiastically, so it was no surprise when we arrived at North Weald a tad shy of half eight.

North Weald was established in 1916 by the Royal Flying Corps before becoming RAF North Weald in 1918. It came to the fore during the Battle of Britain in 1940 operating Hurricanes and Blenheim night-fighters under the control of the Bunker at Northolt, where we visited a couple of years ago, before being joined by Spitfires. Although heavily bombed on a number of occasions its fighters still managed to operate round the clock during the Battle of Britain and later over Dunkirk. There is a lot of history here along with many surviving buildings of the period and a fine collection of old and rusty aeroplanes. Somewhere is a museum but it only opens at weekends I believe.

The Squadron is one of those well kept secrets. Based in a genuine WWII hut and adjoining Nissan Hut, amongst other things it is home to one of the very best airfield cafes in the country, and an old A and B telephone. The gents sports a panel from a B-17 complete with artwork and bullet holes. The staff are always welcoming and friendly in a NAAFI-type of way. Jolly banter gushing we strolled into the café past the concrete sandbagged barbeque emplacement and pillbox. Whenever we fly up this way we always try to find an excuse to call in for a breakfast and the morning greeting is always consistant.
“You’re too early, you can see I’m not ready and anyway you look scruffy.”
She was correct on all counts. We pushed the scruffiest, Dick, forward to sort her out and negotiate the possibility of tea while we waited. He in turn swiftly found something to look at out the window so it was left to Trevor to ask. I remembered a similar more severe greeting a few years previously when we were waiting outside the door when it was unlocked! Trev used his best salesman smile and miraculously four teas appeared. Spurred on by his success and thinking she was off-guard I decided to brave the ordering of the breakfast question.
“Er, when you’re ready could we order some breakfast please?”
She turned to me brandishing a very big frying pan and casually flicked a lighted Swan Vesta over her shoulder which immediately ignited the gas ring with a fairly impressive ‘whumpht’.
“That’ll four Full Englishs then.”
Dick, trembling in his tatty shorts, explained he’d eaten before he’d left and only wanted toast. The look was long and calculating.
“Well that’ll be three Full Englishs then. You’re not from round here.” It wasn’t a question.

We quietly escorted Dick outside before any permanent damage was done and took in the morning air. The day was warming up nicely. Just behind the Squadron they were busy restoring the old air-raid shelters and slip trenches, maybe in preparation for other early morning visitors! A small, very posh, Piper thingy taxied up and the pilot, with the help of one of the Squadon’s groundstaff, proceeded to cover the half acre of perspex with a sun-sheet. Job done he strode towards the entrance. Fortunately the tannoy wasn’t working but the cry of “Scruffy people. Three Breakfasts” blasting through the doorway nearly had him over, “and a toast” completed the task. For a laugh we thought about sending Dick in to collect them but he’d probably have ended up wearing them. As always the plate was well full, a feast of a meal, and as we stuffed ourselves the airfield got busier and busier. A Jet Provost was being readied, small aircraft started to taxi about, On the far apron a drive-it day was taking place, all watched over by the two rather lovely but sadly neglected DC4’s parked down the M11 end of the field.

The story goes that the DC-4’s were brought over by Aces High in 2002 to star in ‘Candy Bomber’, a film about Berlin Airlift pilot Gail Halvorsen who dropped candybars attached to parachutes during Operation Vittles on his approach to Berlin Tempelhof Airport. Other pilots took up the practice and sparked Operation Little Vittles. By the end of the Airlift over 20 tons of confectionary had been ‘parachuted’ to the children below. Gail became known as Captain Wiggly Wings, a practice he employed to identify his arrival. N31356 was built for North West Airlines in 1946 and ended up as an insect spraying aircraft in Africa. N44914 was supplied to the US Army Airforce in March 1945 before being converted to a C-54 in 1962. Both aircraft were made airworthy by Aces High and flown from Tuscon via Iceland to Great Britain in 2002. Rumours that they would fall to bits on landing were unfounded but sadly the funding for the film wasn’t forthcoming and it was cancelled in 2009 with the aircraft being put up for sale for $400,000 each. We stopped by them on the way out gave old Wiggly Wings a salute and then had a quick look at the Essex and Herts Air Ambulance in its hangar.

A cross country route was chosen for our jaunt to Ipswich and the main purpose of the trip. Mark Daniels is ‘the man’ when it comes to mopeds and autocycles. He runs Mopedland Spares, is one of the main chaps running the EACC (East Anglian Cyclemotor Club) with the rather amusing motto knicked from Mae West “If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing slowly” and edits the IceniCam Internet magazine, a veritable fount of pedal-pedal putt-putt information. His house and garage is a treasure trove of mopeds, bits and pieces and re-manufactured stuff. If he hasn’t got it he’ll probably know where you can get it or a man who might have it. Dick was in his element but we made him promise to keep his hands in his pockets. Barry chose to snooze off his breakfast.

The workshop was chockers with mopeds and substantial bits of them hanging from the rafters. We spotted a Mercette, sadly with a blown engine, and a poorly Vivi. After much rummaging about and a fine collection of tuts, intakes of breath and hmmmms from Mark the items required slowly got ticked off. There is only so much rummaging a bloke can do so finally after an hour or so and an in-depth discussion on the non-merits but huge chuckle appeal of the Mercette the Mag-pack was left for sorting and we bade our farewells. It had been an education. Once on the road Barry admitted that he had managed to get a few pictures of Aladdin’s cave for the records and seemed reasonably inspired for a Moto Guzzi owner.

Ipswich is served by a large impressive bridge which carries the A14 over the Orwell making it quite easy to bypass the place, which is a mistake as it is still a working port and well worth a visit despite the frankly bonkers high carpark charges. The Butt and Oyster lies on the south bank. We were on the north. Going south over the bridge the easiest way to get there is to head back into Ipswich at the first junction thence along the B1456 through Woolverstone then turn left in Chelmondiston down the lane to Pin Mill. Muppethead decided we could get there via the A137 without the aid of map or Tomtit. Well we did but it took a while, however there were some benefits as we ended up going through Holbrook, home of the outstanding architectural landmark which is the Royal Hospital School, an exceptionally well laid out private school and village overlooking the River Stour. The School was designed by the Birmingham Arts and Crafts architect Herbert ‘Tudor’ Buckland and opened in 1933. Most of the buildings are now Grade II listed and the only thing you can really say about it is that it is seriously impressive, very hugely seriously impressive with no sense of scale, its just huge. Along the roads are the masters’ houses all laid out in a garden city way. You could walk round it all day but sadly we didn’t.

I first came by the Butt and Oyster in Arthur Ransomes book ‘We didn’t mean to go to sea’ as a kid. This was the second book after Swallows and Amazons which is my favourite book. Many years later when we did the Suffolk Show we went for a look-see. The first time we visited there were at least half a dozen Thames barges tied up, all in various states of disrepair. It didn’t disappoint and every time we are down that way we go visit. It is about as good as it gets for a pub location and it doesn’t seem to get overrun by tourists, probably does at weekends and Bank Holidays though. The best thing is the public Hard that runs out where all sorts of boats moor up at high tide. As the tide retreats the Hard appears and moored craft ground. It isn’t unusual for the odd Thames barge to be alongside and, treat of treats, there was one to oblige. There is a carpark attached to the pub that tends to fill up or a pay and display on the way down but no other parking available. When we arrived the tide was in and the Butt had water slapping right up against it. At its mooring alongside the Hard was the Thames Barge Melissa, brown sails reefed. Should it be written Thames’ Barge? The ones that plied the Thames and out along the Essex and Kent shoreline were technically called River Barges it was only when they escaped to the Thames Estuary they became Thames Barges. The single jetty played host to Generation-Journey a once smart two-master named after the charity and on the other side a converted motor barge. The sun was shining and some rather scruffy little urchins were playing in the shallows trying to ground a jellyfish and all was well. On the submerged Hard a tender was busy trying to get a Cornish Oyster Catcher into a cradle before the tide turned. It was a pleasantly busy, timeless scene.

As we walked into the bar Barry’s look turned to shock. No beer pumps apart from the standard Eurofizz stuff. We pointed behind the bar at the row of barrels. Big smile. The full range of Adnams was on offer. Its worth having a wander round the pub as its various rooms and snugs are decorated with some very interesting old photos and pictures of the pub and the boats that frequented it. We left Trevor and Dick inside. The sun was a bit bright for the chap and to be honest it was well past his knapping time having been up well before sparrows. Through the window another Thames barge under full sail was sliding towards Ipswich at quite a respectable pace. Pints in hand Barry and I hurried outside to wave.

When the tide turns here it goes out at quite a lick. Within half an hour the sea was lapping round the bow of the Melissa and by the time another pint of Broadside docked on the table the Cornish visitor was hanging in its sling and the tractor heading down to tow it up to the shipyard. While Dick took himself off to have a snooze in the car we wandered down to get a closer look at the boats. There are quite a few of the old Thames barges along the riverbank, now disguised as house boats, some more so than others still, with Dick snoozing, it would have rude to have abandoned him altogether and taken a trip down the moorings. Next time maybe.

For me the Thames barge is a thing of functional and visual joy. I love them. Turns out Melissa was built in 1899 by J.G. Fay, Woolston, Southampton, as one of a batch of twenty eight steel-hulled sailing barges, ordered by E.J. &W Goldsmith of Grays in Essex. She worked until the seventies generally carrying ballast before becoming a houseboat. How strange, I did Len Goldsmith’s TRE flight the other week, wonder if he’s related? These beautiful workhorses were designed to be operated by a crew of two and with masts that could be folded flat they served London and the east coast. As reliable marine diesels became available many lost their masts and sails and became motor barges. During the Second World War many were used to carry the rubble left by the Blitz out to ports along the East Coast to be used to built the runways of many of the wartime airfields. Melissa was no exception. Eventually the Webb family, owners of the adjacent boatyard, purchased her and started restoring her to her former glory. She finally sailed again in 2009 and won the 48th Pin Mill Barge Match. There is a lovely chat by Derek ‘Spearo’ Ling on the olivecottage site below on the last working voyage of the Melissa when the engine blew-up. Spearo was the last working barge skipper in England. Melissa is now a resident of Pin Mill.

As for the Generation Journey it seems the story was that having circumnavigated England, Wales and taken a short cut through Scotland in 2008 with disadvantaged children on board it eventually arrived at Pin Mill where its been ever since and is now up for sale. Originally it was a Russian-built Dutch Sailing Barge dating from 1888 named Goede Verwachting. It was extensively rebuilt in Maldon and converted back to sail. The hull is the original iron riveted one but a bow thruster was fitted making it look a bit odd once the tide went out. We speculated on the price then decided that as it was probably going to cost more a year to run and as it didn’t have wheels Dick wouldn’t be interested so we didn’t bother calling the owners to haggle.

While Barry took some nice piccies Trev and I got chatting to a woman guarding her dingy. Her and her husband were off to take their yatch round to the Stour for a few days. Last time they went out, while they were away parking the car, some urchins stole the dingy, provisions and all and went off on an adventure. The dingy was never seen again but every small child with trousers rolled up and a fishing net pretending to be crabbing is now treated with suspicion so when a gaggle of them came up and offered to hold their new inflatable the conversation stopped briefly while they were told in good old Anglo-Saxon parlance to ‘bugger-orf’. Cruel I know but I couldn’t help laughing. Here nothing really changes. Swallows and Amazons could still rule.