Cycling with Uncle Jack
My cycling day in 2002 dawned sunny and cool, but quite appropriate for early June. After a hearty breakfast I headed out to the village of Lady Hall, which was just down the road. Lady Hall is now a quiet little village with no stores and a pub that had just recently closed down. I’m sure there was more here in 1942. I tried to find the Whittaker family who had invited them in for tea, but I wasn’t successful.
I then rode around Millom Marsh and climbed up a short, steep hill to the High Cross Inn at Broughton, named for its location on top of a hill at a crossroads. It was too early for a pint, but I went in to the older part to have a look around. I wanted to find out if there had been many changes to the inn since the war, but I couldn’t see any older folk around that might know. Still, I knew Uncle Jack ate here, so he must have raised a glass somewhere in this older part of the inn. This was the first of many times on the trip that I would swallow hard to lose the lump in my throat. I don’t normally behave this way, but I took it as an indication that I was making connections to Uncle Jack.
After leaving the High Cross Inn, I rode through Broughton itself, then climbed out of the town on a road that was very steep. I had to gear right down on my 27 speed touring bike to make it up that hill. This brought mind the photos I had of Jack and his friends cycling with their heavy, steel, two-speed bikes, dressed in their air force boots and heavy wool clothing. Surely they had to walk up hills like this.
After climbing up onto the side of Broughton Moor hill I stopped to take a picture of a beautiful view looking towards Coniston. As I went about setting up to take the picture I heard the unmistakeable sound of a Second World War fighter airplane engine – the classic sound of a Rolls Royce Merlin. Given that my mind was entrenched in the 1940s at the time, I wondered if I was having one of those ‘experiences’ where the ghosts of the past make themselves known to you. I scanned the sky for several seconds and then saw where the noise was coming from. It was a single engine fighter plane that had dropped low above the valley and was flying towards Coniston. As it came closer I could see that it was a Mustang. I couldn’t believe it. There was nobody around to assure me that I was actually seeing the plane and it was too far away to get a good picture. I thought it rather poignant that such an airplane should choose that moment to fly down this valley. This 1940s World War II fighter plane flying through the air, just when I was trying to honour my Uncle on the ground was meaningful to me, even though it was just serendipity.
The green grassed fields and leafed trees of June covered the Coniston Valley. Hawthorne trees dotted the landscape with their white flowers providing spectral highlights to the green fields. Along the bottom of the valley I could see a dismantled railway line winding its way down the valley and imagined steam engines pulling a consist of passenger coaches up the valley from the junction at Foxfield, through Broughton and to Coniston. Uncle Jack travelled on this line a couple of times during his days at Millom. I’m sure it was a wonderful break from life at the barracks.
After looking around the little village of Coniston I cycled up a side lane to find the Sun Hotel where Uncle Jack and his friends dined several times. From the look of the reading room and lobby, not much had changed since the forties. I felt a little out of place in my cycling gear, but I sat at a table on the deck overlooking Coniston, ordered tea and a scone, and tried to imagine that it was 1942. I found this difficult. There were no uniformed men around, the lobby was full of tourists, and the collection of expensive automobiles in the parking lot did not give any indication to me what the austere conditions in and around the hotel were probably like in 1942.
I needed to take in some protein and found a butcher that made tasty pork pies, one of my favourites. After eating a couple of these warm and meaty beauties, I headed out on the next leg of my journey. At this point of my trip I was feeling happy about my decision to ride in Uncle Jack’s tracks. So far my experiences were poignant for me, but, at the same time, I was creating memories that will live with me for the rest of my life.
I tried to imagine the elation the boys might have felt looking out on the beautiful country side around Coniston. I am so glad that Jack had a chance to experience this before he got into the real battles. I also imagined that he, like me, would have returned to cycle these roads of the Lake District after the war.
The climb out of Coniston on the way to Lake Windermere was steep and long, but I was feeling fit and tackled that challenge with ease.
The next part of the ride took me to Lakeside on Lake Windermere. The sun illuminated the valley to give it an almost iridescent glow of emerald green. At Lakeside, I stopped to take in the sight of the same, old ferry boats Jack and his friends sailed on in 1942, plying their way up and down Lake Windermere between the village of Lakeside and the town of Windermere.
I rode alongside the lake, heading south for about 7 miles before turning west to head back to my B&B. I had to make a long steep climb to go over another pass, then I had an equally steep descent, ending back at the High Cross Inn at Broughton again, in time for supper.
I had ham and eggs just like Jack had on his last visit before leaving for his new posting. Again, I had hoped to meet an older local who could help me connect with the way the Inn used to be in the forties. Unfortunately, younger locals and tourists packed the place, so I sat back with my pint, closed my eyes, and imagined the conversational noise as that amongst air force personnel enjoying a day out, chatting up the local girls.
Today the barracks, near Millom where Jack was stationed, is an active prison. Just outside the prison, in the old Officers Club building, a museum, called The RAF Millom Aviation and Military Museum, has been established. I contacted the curator, who turned out to be the local bobby. When he found out that Uncle Jack had trained there, he was most gracious with his personal invitation to come to the museum where he provided a wonderful tour of the collection of memorabilia.
I hoped that there would be something in the museum to show that my Uncle Jack had been there. Some picture, or some list of names with a reference of Jack, would have been another good connection for me, but that was not to be. I didn’t even have an idea of which barracks Jack was posted to, so we couldn’t identify the physical building. The curator said the veterans that do return take great delight in seeing the actual buildings where they lived during training. I did what I could to take in the ambience of the place and came away knowing I had walked in Jack’s steps once more.
There is no doubt, since this tour of Uncle Jack’s rides and old haunts, I feel a more meaningful connection to my namesake. His departure and my departure from The Lake District had some similarities, but the thoughts of the future by each of us must have been very different. While I was able to step on the train to Carlisle and Scotland to do yet more cycle touring and relax in comfortable accommodations every evening, Jack stepped on the train to the south, to Oxford, then to his final posting at Syerston, Newark, to join his active squadron in the defence of the British Isles and put himself in harm’s way.
The next day I boarded the regular train service to Carlisle. As it made its way up the coastline of Cumbria, I looked out at the grey skies and the dull, calm ocean, and felt satisfied that I had honoured a short, happy part of Jack’s life and felt a little closer to my lost namesake. I was content.
Uncle Jack's Diary - April 5, 1942
Another day off. Bergquist and I took the train from Millom to Foxfield, and then cycled up to Broughton. We had breakfast at the Kings Head Hotel and then rode up to Coniston, Ambleside, Bowness, and Windermere. We had lunch at the White Lion Hotel, Ambleside, and dinner at the Sun Hotel, Coniston. We arrived home about 10 pm. We have 2 hours of 'fast' time now so it was light until 9:30pm. What a perfect day. No rain, cycled 50 miles, and saw some grand scenery.
Taking a break on the road to Coniston
The Sun Hotel, Coniston, Cumbria
Uncle Jack's Diary - April 18, 1942
Word comes through that Jack is moving to Oxford for the next part of training. The good news is that his friends, Bridgeman, and Akins are going there as well.
Our bunch has just been posted to Upper Heyford near Oxford. #16OTU. We'll be flying Hampdens. They are supposed to be obsolete. We leave Monday evening. We have to fly tonight on two flights. Bridgy, Akins, and I rode up to Broughton, had ham and eggs at High Cross Inn. We then rode into Broughton and met with the Babs to have cheese and tea. We took the 8:30pm train from Foxfield back to camp in lots of time for our briefing.
The High Cross Inn on the outskirts of Broughton