Bedford – 8 May 2011

15-mile round trip from Bedford yesterday in cloudy sunshine along the Ouse, past the backwater where John Bunyon was baptized, Viking long boats, marinas for argee bargees and noddy boats (with sheds), canoe slalom, business park. Then, having lost my reading glasses – it’s a long, & tedious, story – under a motorway past an 18C cross and over a Victorian bridge to the village of Cardington. We had a look at  graveyard where there is a  memorial to 48 people killed when the R101 airship crashed in France. The air ship sheds still dominate the landscape – the scale is pretty awe-inspiring to use a much overused expression – but think ocean-liner or, appropriately,Titanic of the air.

The walk was through mainly arable farm land often along old green lanes or drove roads full of blossom and flowers. We saw not a soul – or to be more accurate we saw a couple of dog walkers at a distance and the odd farmer, ditto, during the seven mile loop beyond Cardington. So the walk scored very high on the tranquility scale. No busy roads or flight path either just birdsong – the larks were, well, deafening. Also heard yellowhammers and saw martins collecting puddle mud for their nests. Saw swifts, herons, lapwings, goldfinches, rooks.
Cardington was once home to the UK’s airship programme it was from one of these hangars that the R101 set out on its trials and its last flight. The airship was 770ft long and 130ft diameter. It was covered in doped linen and filled with hydrogen gas which is lighter than air but highly flammable. Modern airships – Goodyear have a fleet of them for advertising and football commentary – use helium which has many benefits, not least of which is that it is not hydrogen. Especially as it is not entirely unknown for people to take pot shots at them from the ground, apparently. One of the Goodyear blimps was refurbished at Cardington at the beginning of the present century.

Power to the R101 was supplied by five diesel engines and the gondola, suspended from the airship contained fifty passenger cabins over two floors and included an asbestos-lined smoking room so that passengers needn’t be deprived of their post-prandial Havana by the small matter of being suspended ten thousand feet in the air from a balloon filled with highly explosive gas. Even before the disaster the airship programme was not without critics. A writer in the influential magazine, The Engineer, in 1929 speculated that the ships would be obsolete before they were even built. After the disaster there was speculation that the programme had been rushed to make a political deadline. The R101 may not have undergone enough test flights when it set out for India in October, 1930. The cause of the crash was never definitely established – though bad weather and human error may have played some part. The final message was relayed just after midnight. There was little sign of the fate that was just about to strike.

“To Cardington from R101. 2400 G. M. T. 15 miles S. W. of Abbeville. Average speed 33 knots. Wind W. S. W. 35 m. p. h. Altimeter height 1500 feet. Weather: intermittent rain. Cloud nimbus at 500 feet. After an excellent supper our distinguished passengers smoked a final cigar and having sighted the French coast have now gone to bed to rest after the excitements of their leave-taking. All essential services functioning normally. The crew have settled down to watch-keeping routine”.1

It crashed just south of Beauvais just after 2:00am on Sunday 5th October 1930, though not at any great speed. Most of the passengers are believed to have survived the impact but perished in the conflagration which was its inevitable result. It brought an abrupt end to the airship programme and to the lives of the forty-eight passengers and crew commemorated on the memorial in the quiet Bedfordshire churchyard.

Lincoln’s Inn – 6 May 2011

Forgot to mention that I went on guided tour of Lincoln’s Inn on Friday 6th (first Friday of month: £5). So got to see inside the Old Hall, and the Great (Victorian) one and the chapel, which I had seen before with its coats of arms (treasurers of the Inn) and fantastic stained – or to be pedantic as our knowledgeable guide informed us, enamelled glass windows, one by Abraham Van Linge depicting the Inn itself in the background – the undercroft of the chapel is clearly visible, as is someone walking a dog on the inn lawn (not one to try today, I’m guessing) –  sitting in the middle of an arcadian London.

The chapel is 17C, built to a model by Inigo Jones. John Donne laid the foundation stone in 1620 and preached at the Inn before going on to become Dean of St. Paul’s. The chapel bell is thought to be the inspiration for the famous lines “send not to know / For whom the bell tolls” as the bell traditionally was rung at midday on the death of a bencher of the inn.

Two windows were lost on October 13, 1915 when a bomb dropped by a zeppelin fell in the old square killing the steward of the common room of the inn, who had been there since 1886. “His head was blown from his body.” A detail not reported at the time, but helpfully supplied by the Guardian some years later. The raid accounted for the lives of 71 Londoners, mostly in the theatreland around Aldwych and the Strand.

At the back of the chapel is a book of remembrance for the dead of the Inns of Court Regiment in two world wars. During WW2 the surviving chapel windows were removed to a mine in Wales for safe keeping, though the Inn, miraculously suffered little damage.

Lincoln’s Inn has counted, according to a resident who was taking the tour with us, 15 Prime Ministers among its members, including Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair – there are portraits of both in Lincoln’s Inn. In fact it is the first official oil portrait of Blair – he’s wearing a poppy which is a nice touch for a PM synonymous with unnecessary and pointless military adventures: it’s by Jonathan Yeo, the son of the conservative MP- perhaps he had an axe to grind.

In the Great Hall there’s a rather more interesting art work – a mural by GF Watts – the Damien Hirst of his day – which took seven years to complete and depicts various law makers from history under the watchful eye of Truth. Truth is winking, which is apparently a bit of an inn-joke.  If you are called to the bar of Lincoln’s Inn, you are probably not going to the Blue Anchor in Chancery Lane: but here, to the top table under the mural: “Justice: a Hemicycle of Lawgivers.” It was completed in 1859. Hemicycle is not a collective noun – it refers to the horse shoe shape of the debating chamber.

The Old Hall is a fantastic 15C survival (though restored in 20C), now the backdrop to corporate events, weddings, barmitzvahs etc. it is sometimes used by students at the inn for mock trials and so on. There are several historical connections – most notably to Thomas More – but the most famous literary connection is Dickens. He set the opening of Bleak House here,  “at the very heart of the fog” – it is where the court of Chancery sat in his day – the old gate house of the inn opens on to Chancery Lane – still the backbone of the legal quarter today.

This 15C hall was also where my Great Uncle and his friends – new recruits to the Inns of Court Officer Training Corps in September 1915 – undertook their Attestation swearing to serve King and Country. Nine month’s training later they would once again be at the very heart of the fog. A different fog of course but equally opaque, equally stubborn, equally all-consuming. The fog of war.

“A Safe Little Earner”

In the common room adjacent to the Great Hall where members might take coffee and mayhap a ferrero rocher after dinner or gaze at the street drinkers in Lincoln’s Inn Fields are two particularly interesting portraits. One is Pitt theYounger  who became Prime Minister at the tender age of  24.  Pitt witnessed the Gordon riots whilst he was training for the bar at Lincoln’s Inn in June 1780.  But the picture is not the one that originally hung here. The original, a Gainsborough, was stolen along with a Reynolds by a gang disguised as removal men who knocked the porter unconscious on a quiet Sunday in September 1990. (I’m beginning to get the impression that working at the Inn is a dangerous occupation if you’re not actually a barrister.) The paintings turned up at Sotheby’s a couple of  years later in a black bin-liner. An innocent antiques collector at Bermondsey market had paid £85 for the Gainsborough and £60 for the Reynolds. The deal was a goodun as they say. At that time the legal title to anything bought at the market (it was a market ouvert) between dawn and dusk could not be questioned. With the insurance pay out, the Inn bought back the Reynolds, but they were unable to agree a price for the Gainsborough. It now hangs in the National Museum of Havana. The Market Ouvert loophole was sadly closed in 1995. Today if you mention market and Southwark most people will think of Borough Market which doesn’t sell antiques or stolen art work although the prices are still defiantly criminal.

Note to self: I must try and get through a whole blog without mentioning violent fireballs or indeed zeppelins. It’s gonna be tuff.


1 ConstructionAndDestructionOfTheR101


Lincoln’s Inn

The air raids on london:hitherto unpublished details the streets and buildings that were hit The Manchester Guardian (1901-1959).  Manchester (UK):Dec 18, 1918.  p. 5  (1 pp.)Document URL:

Bargain-hunter finds stolen art with shrinking price tagJohn Mullin.  The Guardian (1959-2003).  London (UK):Mar 6, 1993.  p. 1  (1 pp.)Document URL:

A safe little earnerPeter Lennon Saturday March 15 2003 The Guardian Document URL:



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