Aeroplanes And Odd Water

It is nearly a month since I last wrote a letter that could also be posted to the website, hard to believe. It gives me a new respect for bloggers and newspaper columnists. How do they manage to churn out a 1000 words a day, every day, for weeks and years at a time?

While it has been an very interesting month I have not achieved as much work as I wanted. The themes have been aircraft, time out and odd water, which, come to think about, it are not bad! Since I was a teenager I have wanted to learn to fly. This desire is quite hard to explain as aircraft were not part of my childhood. When we arrived in Swaziland there was not even an airport, the small planes used to land on the 9th hole of the golf course in Mbabane. I did not get on a plane until I was 19 and heading for university in the UK. In those days the 747s, (which was a new aircraft), took off from Johannesburg, landed in Nairobi to refuel, then travelled on to London. On my first journey I was with two friends who were seasoned air travellers. They ‘kindly’ told me they would let me know when to change into my pyjamas on the plane.

I was bought a voucher for a trial flying lesson for my birthday back in March. Finally in mid-August I booked the lesson. The plan was, provided I did not throw up on the instructor, find myself unable to distinguish up from down or in anyway disgrace myself, I would book some flying lessons. I really enjoyed the lesson and so have started learning to fly. It will take some time, I guess at least nine months and possibly more. The good news is hours in the UK count in South Africa and vice versa.

The Norwich School of Flying teaches their pupils on an aircraft called a Piper Tomahawk. It is an American two seater plane designed specifically for training. It takes off at about 60 knots per hour and the cruising speed is about 90 knots, so it is slow and tolerant. There is a picture of me standing proudly by the plane on the website. Their plane is definitely, from a cosmetic point of view, frayed at the edges. The plastic trim in the cockpit is worn and broken and the exterior needs a paint job. Mechanically it is sound though. While all the lessons have been interesting and challenging I have been astonished by just how long and how careful the pre-flight checks are.

The plane is easy to fly and I am having great fun. We take off from Norwich and head for the coast where we carry out the lesson’s exercises. So far we have been lucky with the weather, beautiful sunny days with scattered clouds. Learning to fly one stays low, at between 2000 and 4000 feet. The mix of measures is interesting, the aircraft flies in units of speed called knots. A knot is one nautical mile per hour, which equals 1.852 kph or 1.151 mph. The height is measured in feet above the ground, but the altimeter has to be set according to the pressure and this can change, even during a one hour flight. The time used to record the flight and period in the air is Greenwich Mean Time.

Also remarkable has been learning how close to the financial margin the industry operates. This school, the one that has been at Norwich the longest, has two planes. One is being serviced and has been out of commission for months. It seems odd to have such a major capital item not available. The instructor is self employed, paid per lesson, so no flying no pay. The other day the wind was blowing across the runway and it was not safe to use the Piper, so we went to visit the control tower instead. Effectively the instructor was experiencing a day without any income! There is a constant turnover of schools. But for the trainee it is not cheap at all. The minimum requirement is 35 hours of flying (and of course passing all the exams) for a National Pilot’s License and 45 hours for a European Private Pilot’s License. In addition each landing costs £9.

The instructors organised a dinner for their pupils at a local restaurant. It was fascinating. I think there were about nine people who had learnt or are learning to fly and we divided into three groups: the boys who want to become pilots, their average age was perhaps 18; those of us with a bit of time and some spare cash who have always wanted to do this; and people who scraped together every spare penny to cover the costs of lessons. There was one woman who took five years to get her licence. All talk planes incessantly and I am not sure it is my natural home.

Oddly when we went away for a few nights this week we ended up staying in a very beautiful Yorkshire village which is adjacent to a Royal Air Force Training base complete with airfield and all that goes with it see . At the gate of the base was a sign with their mission statement: “To train tomorrow’s fast jet-crew”, alongside the ones warning you not to enter etc. The cottage we were in was not very far from the end of the runway. There was a fairly constant stream of aircraft doing circuits and bumps which is what I hope to be doing soon! There was also the firing range! A military equivalent of a dawn chorus!

The village had the unpromising name of Linton-on-Ouse (the Ouse being a major Yorkshire river). To me Linton is attractive, bringing to mind ethereal beauty, but Ouse just drags you down in the sludge! The cottage was a converted barn at the back of a house belonging to an older couple who have lived there forever. He had been a farm worker and is a keen gardener. They had two superbly appointed cottages each with two bedrooms. At the back was a large games room which had a pool table, darts board and ping pong table as well as a range of other activities, clearly there if the weather was not good, but well thought out. The garden must have been about one and half acres and was planted with the most amazing variety of trees from all over the world.

Getting to the village one had choices, but the quickest way involved going over a toll bridge at a village called Aldwark, the alternative route is 25 miles. This little bridge on a very minor road is one of the last private tolls in the UK. We were told when the toll is put up it has to be done by the Secretary of State. We went over it about six times, paying 40 pence each time, to a range of elderly weather-beaten Yorkshire men who staff it. Actually I think they may have been trolls who only came up onto the bridge when they heard a vehicle approaching. Apparently it is not manned 24 hours though, even trolls have time off.

We had days in Knaresborough, York and Harrogate. In Knaresborough the main attraction is Mother Shipton’s Cave and Historic Park which claims to be England’s oldest visitor attraction. This may mean it attracts old visitors! According to legend Mother Shipton, England’s most famous Prophetess, lived in the cave during the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. Beside the cave is the Petrifying Well, this is a little steam with a great deal of dissolved lime which fans out into a small waterfall. As the water falls over the edge it deposits small amounts of lime and this, similar to the development of stalactites and stalagmites, builds up. Apparently as early as 1538 people started travelling great distances to bathe in the waters as they were believed to have miraculous healing properties.

Water was also the theme of the visit to Harrogate which is a Spa Town. This is beautiful and has an expanse of open area called ‘The Stray’, it would be called common land in other settings. It was developed around the Spa waters, which contain iron, sulphur and salt. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries these waters were a popular health treatment and lead to an influx of wealthy but sickly visitors. The pump room is a museum (not visited), but on the outside is a tap so visitors can taste the water from this spring. It is totally disgusting, it smells and tastes of rotten egg, and the tang lingers at the back of one’s throat. Just walking past the tap one gets a whiff of the rotten egg. It is quite astonishing how the bad smells and tastes were assumed to have restorative properties.

The summer is over. Driving up to Yorkshire it was hot and sticky. Norwich was really dry and we desperately needed rain. On the Wednesday afternoon a front swept across the country, tipping rain everywhere. Thursday morning was very wet and when we drove back on Friday it was cool and grey. Some varieties of trees are already loosing their leaves. This seems quite early, but may be due to the stress of a long dry spell. There is no doubt it was a glorious summer.
The school year starts on Monday and this is a really critical time for Douglas as he has GCSE exams to get through. Rowan enters her second year of University. I have a book and five articles to complete before the end of the year as well as heading back to Durban and take up the reigns of HEARD again. Of course that does mean that in October I will be going back to the Southern Hemisphere summer, so I guess I come out of this as winner, not having had the Durban winter – not that it is really cold. Even my time in Cape Town in July was pleasant.

I feel I have been really lucky this sabbatical because I have seen most of a northern spring and summer, and will see some of autumn. My year began with the end of winter and first few days of spring in Ottawa. By the time I depart the first frosts will be here. It is, strangely, a privilege to enjoy the seasons and see how the land and wildlife reacts to the changes. Being in Yorkshire on the cusp of autumn was deeply fascinating. I don’t think seasons are usually so clearly demarcated, and it is not something I take a lot of notice of normally. We are isolated in our various urban settings.