I have walked Helvellyn – the third highest mountain in England – many times but this week, after heading to the Lake District for a few days break, discovered something I didn’t previously know.
Namely that, in 1926, a plane landed on it.
Which is astonishing and something I’ll get to in a moment - but first let me tell you about the walk, for it is worth briefly recounting.
I went with my friend – friend is a misleading term; we don’t get on at all but he’s the only person I know who can read an Ordnance Survey map, so needs must – who assured me that despite the grim inclement weather, there would be a cloud inversion (which is a sort of low-lying sea of cloud that, when one breaks through, reveals a brilliant blue sky and sunshine).
‘We’ll be wearing T-shirts and shorts on the top,’ he said, cheerily.
I began to question this when, half a mile or so into our hike, two men approached from the opposite direction. They were soaking wet and freezing and looked if not close to death then at least as if they’d shaken hands with him then run away.
“Erm, have you come down from the top?’ I asked nervously.
‘Yes,’ gasped the one who still had enough energy to speak. ‘You’re not going up are you? Make sure you’re well prepared – it’s hell.’
I was all for quitting there and then but my friend reassured me he’d read the forecasts and to trust him. Two hours later, as I huddled in a shelter atop Helvellyn, face battered by golf ball-sized hailstones, and worrying about losing several of my toes to frostbite, my mate shook his head and muttered, ‘forecasters must have got it wrong – definitely meant to be sunshine’.
My only solace came when, on the way back down, where the weather was still relatively calm, we passed and briefly spoke to an impossibly good-looking young couple just beginning their ascent. The male looked like a model and wore a Berghaus walking jacket unzipped to the belly button to reveal his chest hair, which obviously annoyed me.
‘What’s it like on top?’ he asked.
“Absolutely beautiful, you push on,” I replied. “In fact you should take your whole top off, it’s like Hawaii up there’.
Granted I would have felt a pang of guilt had I later discovered two young walkers perished that afternoon, but I’ve not seen it anywhere in the newspapers so hopefully they made it down…
But back to the airplane I was talking about, the one which touched down on top of Helvellyn in the 20s.
I found this astounding. I mean planes back then were so flimsy and primitive that when Charles Lindbergh became the first to fly solo across the Atlantic (from New York to France, propelling the unknown 25-year-old to instant worldwide fame), he had a wicker seat instead of a regular pilot’s seat. Now I don’t know about you but if I wandered onto an Easyjet and saw that, I’d have serious doubts about continuing with my trip to Lanzarote.
Before the Great War (1914-18, on the off-chance you skipped every single history lesson at school – or you’re just a bit thick), barely anyone had seen a plane. They took off, so to speak, during the conflict and so many were built that in 1920 the English air force auctioned off 10,000 surplus planes.
But a lot of the early designs were flawed and hugely unreliable and there were hundreds of crashes and fatalities. Planes literally fell from the sky every week – and so it was with some surprise that, near the summit of Helvellyn, I wandered past a smart plaque informing me that in 1926 a pilot (who was either very brave or very mentally imbalanced) had successfully landed and taken off again (kind of crucial that second bit).
Naturally I did a bit of further reading and discovered the pilot in question was a chap named Bert Hinkler. He flew – for the plane buffs among you – a two-seater Avro 585 Gosport from Woodford Aerodrome near Manchester to Helvellyn for no other reason than as a publicity stunt, so the aircraft manufacturer could boast it was the first plane to land on a mountain in the UK.
It’s important to point out here that they didn’t just rock up and land on the mountain. They did do a bit of forward planning, identifying the safest place to land, clearing the area of any rocks and boulders, and opening a check-in desk and a Costa coffee shop just near the trig point (that last bit might have been a fib).
Hinkler made two attempts, on December 15 and December 21, but both times gave up because of bad weather and windy cold conditions (to be honest, if the cold was a problem they could probably have picked a better month than December). Undaunted Hinkler tried again on December 22. It proved third time lucky and the landing was surprisingly straightforward - the plane stopped quickly on a steep slope and into a strong headwind … though presumably any ramblers out that day got the fight of their lives when, halfway through supping coffee from a flask and eating a corned beef sandwich, they watched an aeroplane swoop in and land.
The take-off almost ended in disaster. Travelling up the slope and unable to gain much speed, the plane sort of fell off the edge of the cliff like an elderly man on a diving board and narrowly missed Striding Edge before just about wobbling its way to safety with a no doubt hugely relieved pilot inside.
Sadly it was only a temporary reprieve for Hinkler. He died six years later when attempting to beat the record for fastest solo flight to Australia, he - rather unfortunately in terms of his chances of beating the record - crashed into a mountain in Italy and died.
Still, he did set a marvellous little piece of history on Helvellyn, which nearly 100 years after it happened, I finally know about. And now you, dear reader, do too.