Just 120 feet . . . and history was made

One hundred and twenty feet, that’s all. Insignificant? Hardly, yet it’s less than half the length of a Boeing 747-800.

It was however the distance of the first ever powered flight, in an aircraft designed, engineered, and built by Wilbur and Orville Wright, near Kitty Hawk on the coast of North Carolina on 17 December 1903. The flight lasted a mere 12 seconds, but it would change the face of transport forever.

This must surely be one of the most famous photographs ever taken, of that historic flight.


What’s even more remarkable—and depressing at the same time—is that just over a decade later, aircraft had become serious military machines and deployed on both sides in the First World War.

Well, apart from an overall general interest in all things ‘aviation’, why this sudden interest of mine in the pioneers of powered flight?

51Esm+pkCSL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_Among the books I recently received for Christmas was one by American writer and historian David McCullough. Published in 2015 by Simon & Schuster UK (ISBN-10: 1471150364; ISBN-13: 978-1471150364) The Wright Brothers: The Dramatic Story-Behind-the-Story is a lively account about how two brothers from Dayton, Ohio, designers and manufacturers of bicycles, developed an interest—obsession even—to design and build their own flying machine and, in the process, to become the first persons to fly a powered, heavier-than-air machine. Remember also that they had no flying manual to refer to. They wrote it, had to work out the dynamics of flying, and really did learn to fly by the ‘seat of their pants’.

McCullough’s writing style is entertaining and inviting, and I found myself romping through the fascinating story of these brothers from their humble beginnings (their father, Bishop Wright, was an itinerant preacher) to world fame.

Wilbur Wright (in 1905)

Wilbur Wright

Orville Wright (in 1905)

Orville Wright

I learned things I had no inkling about, and what the Wright brothers achieved. Beginning with gliders, then transitioning to powered aircraft, it’s amazing to discover that the brothers built almost everything they needed from scratch, their early engines, even a rudimentary wind tunnel. Their test flights were conducted in the relative secrecy of the North Carolina coast on sand dunes, buffeted by the reliable wind needed for lift, and providing a relative soft landing should something go wrong. Which did from time to time. But the brothers picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and began again. It’s a tale of focus and perseverance, and utter belief in what they were achieving. And if something went wrong at Kitty Hawk, then they would just return to Dayton (a round trip of about 1500 miles), manufacture a replacement, and carry on.

I found two aspects of their story particularly fascinating. First, how little they spent (of their own money), about US$1000, to bring about this first flight. In contrast, a failed competitor program under the head of the Smithsonian Institution that had received financial backing from the Federal Government, spent more than USD 70,000 (that’s about USD 1.9 million today). Second, the astonishing incredulity with which their claims for flight were received: in the media, among government agencies, and fellow aviators (especially the French) who thought they were charlatans. Undoubtedly they were quite secretive until they were confident that they had conquered powered flight, and some patents granted. Eventually they were hailed as heroes and recognized as the true pioneers of aviation.

By 1909 they had demonstrated the possibilities and advantages of flight, having flown many different courses and for varying lengths of time. Increasingly, they carried a passenger. It was on one of these flights at Fort Myer, in September 1908 that Orville Wright crashed just after take-off on a demonstration flight for the US Army, and his passenger, Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge became the first aviation fatality. Wright himself was badly injured and took months to recover.

Sadly, Wilbur Wright died in 1912 from typhoid and never saw the full potential of aviation. However, Orville lived until 1948, and saw the sound barrier conquered just a year earlier.

Delving into the extensive Wright archive of letters (the brothers and their sister Katharine were avid correspondents) and other records, McCullough has written a wonderful tribute to these famous Ohioans. They were successful, and obviously proud of their home state, as Wilbur is quoted as saying: “If I were giving a young man advice as to how he might succeed in life, I would say to him, pick out a good father and mother, and begin life in Ohio.”

The Wright Brothers: The Dramatic Story-Behind-the-Story is one of the most interesting reads I’ve tackled in a long time. Even if you have no interest at all in aviation, there is plenty in this book to hold your attention. I found it a page turner.


Industrial heritage is all around . . .

The legacy of the Industrial Revolution is all around here in north Worcestershire, and I am reminded of it almost every day.

Bromsgrove lies on the Birmingham-Bristol (and all stations to the southwest) main railway line, at the bottom of the Lickey Incline (the longest and steepest sustained gradient of 2.65% for two miles on the rail network). It’s just under a mile east of where I live.

Because of the steepness of the gradient it’s not uncommon today to see two diesel engines pulling and pushing a long freight train. In the days of steam, a specially-designed locomotive (the Fowler 0-10-0 Big Bertha) was stationed at Bromsgrove to help through trains up the Incline.

As I write, 175 years after a station was opened, Bromsgrove is having a new station. In fact, construction has been ongoing for almost two years now. After failing to meet a November 2015 schedule to open, the new station is expected to open by May this year. Maybe.

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When I took the train occasionally into the University of Birmingham in the 1980s, there was only one platform, on the up line. The current station is just round the bend on the photo above. Trains arriving from Birmingham had to cross from the down line on to the up line, drop off or pick up passengers, then re-cross to the down line south of the station. Not really advisable. You can see the switch just behind this train heading south yesterday. Then a new platform was added on the down line. The main problem is that the platforms are short, and can only accept three-coach London Midland trains that stop at Bromsgrove., So with the growing commuter traffic into Birmingham, something needed to be done.

And that’s how the new station came about. It will have four island platforms, and trains stopping at Bromsgrove can be diverted off the main lines. Doing so will allow more trains to run per hour. Also, the line will be electrified as far as Bromsgrove, connecting the town into the wider West Midlands electrified commuter routes as far north as Lichfield. Freight trains heading up the Lickey Incline can wait in the branch on the left of the photo until they can have a clear—and slow—run at it. Sometimes in the summer, when we have the bedroom window open, and the wind is in the right direction, it sounds as though some of these freighters are headed right towards us. The rails on the extreme right have yet to be laid, and that can’t happen until the new station is open and the existing platforms decommissioned because the switch of the main line has to begin about where the current down line platform ends. That’s scheduled for October 2016, and the lines will be closed for 10 days while some major track engineering takes place, signalling is installed, and presumably the electrification completed.

The bridge where I took this photo is on one of my regular walks, so I have been watching progress over the past 21 months. I wish I’d taken photos more often. But what has been interesting to observe is the impressive kit that the engineers used to lift old track, lay new ones (that branch on the left replaced several different sidings), excavate culverts that had collapsed, and the like. Part of the delay in completing the project in 2015 was the need to decontaminate the site that had been an oil terminal for a major engineering works formerly alongside the railway, and reroute signalling and an underground stream that did not figure on any of the plans available to the engineers. There was a further delay, and a need to apply again for planning permission when it was discovered that the bridge connecting platforms would have to be raised just 14 inches to conform to EU regulations concerning the distance between a bridge and overhead electrification wires.

The Ribblehead Viaduct

Access to sophisticated equipment today really puts in context how the railways were first constructed, almost 200 years ago. And although much of the work would have been carried out by gangs of navvies, I guess by mid-Victorian times engineers would have had steam-powered machines available. Nevertheless, the construction of embankments, tunnels, and viaducts is surely an impressive feat of human enterprise. It was hard, dirty, and dangerous work in isolated locations where temporary communities sprang up—and men, women, and children died and were buried. This account of the Settle-Carlisle line and the construction of the Ribblehead Viaduct gives a sense of the isolation and hardship of building this railway.

These communities are being celebrated, if that’s the right word, in a new drama that started to air on the commercial ITV channel from 7 January.

Before the trains . . .
The rail network in the UK today is a shadow of its former glory, having been deliberately dismantled, maybe I should say restructured, in the 1960s by Dr Beeching.

But, to my mind, there’s an even more impressive example of civil engineering that began half a century before the railways were built.

I’m referring, of course, to the canals, and their construction began in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. And what’s particularly impressive, is that they were dug mostly by hand, by gangs of navvies.

Just a little over a mile to the east of the Lickey Incline is the Worcester and Birmingham, that has just celebrated its 200th birthday. Begun in 1791, it was finally completed in December 1815. I find it fascinating that construction of this canal wonder took place while Europe was in turmoil through the Napoleonic Wars and the final defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815.

At 29 miles long, the canal connects Worcester with Birmingham, climbing 130m (428 feet) over the same topographical feature that would tackled on the Lickey Inlcine half a century later. There are 58 locks; the Tardebigge Flight of 30 locks is the longest in the UK, raising the canal some 200 feet in just five miles between Stoke Bottom Lock to Tardebigge Top Lock. You can explore a detailed map on the website of the Canal & River Trust.

In addition to all the locks there are five tunnels, with a combined length of 2.4 miles.

The channels were dug by hand, and then lined with mud to make them ‘waterproof’ so the water did not leak away. A series of three reservoirs provide a constant supply of water, and at Tardebigge there is a disused pump house, once powered by steam to raise water to different levels in the Tardebigge Flight.

As I’ve mentioned in other blog posts, sections of the towpath along the canal from south of Stoke Prior and Tardebigge are some of my favorite walks in all seasons. Here is a selection of photographs that I have taken over the years. In some of them you can see the details of canal and lock construction because on a number of occasions sections of the canal had to be drained for maintenance. I always feel inspired and full of admiration for those hard-working labourers who set their backs to dig the Worcester and Birmingham Canal over 200 years ago.

Screaming like a wounded badger . . .

Well, I’ve never heard a wounded badger, but that’s what one of my neighbours told me I sounded like.

It was a week ago yesterday, Friday 8 January, just after 08:30. I’d just finished my breakfast and saw there were a few items of rubbish to add to the recycling bin that was already outside the house waiting for the bin men later in the morning. So I took them out.

We’d had a frost overnight, and I could see the frosted roofs. What I didn’t see was the black ice on the pavement. And the next thing I knew I was on my back, looking up at the sky, and screaming at the top of my lungs. From the intensity of the pain in my right foot I knew something wasn’t quite right.

I had waved to our neighbour Pat across the road who was working at her kitchen sink, but she apparently didn’t see me go base over apex. So it must have been a minute or so before she saw me on the pavement and came out to investigate. By then, my next door neighbour Kath and her daughter Sophie were on the scene. As my wife Steph has a hearing problem, she hadn’t heard the racket I was making, and had to be fetched—utterly bewildered. But ever the committed blogger that I am, I asked her to quickly fetch the camera and record the goings-on for posterity!

Now Kath is a theatre sister at the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital in Birmingham, and Sophie has just finished her nursing training. They were great, fetching blankets from the house to keep me warm, and contacting the emergency services for an ambulance.

An ambulance arrived after about five minutes, and it very quickly became clear that I would need a trip to Accident and Emergency (A&E) at the Alexandra Hospital in Redditch, just under nine miles away. Little did I expect the further drama that would ensue.

The two young ambulance technicians quickly had me inhaling laughing gas (nitrous oxide, N2O) while they removed my slipper and sock. From the odd angle of my foot it was clear there was a dislocation. But what other damage had I done?

A second ambulance was called, because the crew of the first were not licensed to administer morphine. And, in any case, they jokingly said I was too heavy to lift off the ground. The second ambulance with two male crew quickly arrived, and before I knew it I was lifted into the ambulance, a number of ‘vital signs’ checks accomplished, accompanied by liberal puffs of laughing gas, and we were headed to the Alex.


On arrival at A&E I was immediately wheeled into a bay and attended to. I knew that my ankle was dislocated. I didn’t realise then that there was also a fracture. But before they could do anything else, they had to get my foot straight. And this is what I’d been dreading. One of the nurses showed me how to inhale the laughing gas for optimum effect, taking deep breaths and holding the gas in my lungs. As they could see it taking effect, and on my third deep breath, one of the doctors took hold of my foot, and swiftly jerked it back into alignment. They then proceeded to wrap my foot, ankle and leg in plaster. Pain? It certainly brought a tear to my eye. Then, with a cannula inserted into my wrist, they gave me a strong dose of morphine and things seemed to settle down. I was sent to X-ray twice, and by about 2 pm a bed had become available on Ward 17 (Trauma and Orthopaedic).

20160112 002The Mark of Zorro
Funnily, one of the first things they did in A&E was to draw a large arrow on my right leg, just above the knee, in permanent ink, just so everyone knew exactly which side had been injured. And although I knew I’d fractured the fibula, what I had not expected was an operation to sort this out.

I’d last eaten and had something to drink just before 08:30, so I was kept on a fast—NBM (Nil By Mouth) for the rest of the day, with the expectation I would go to theatre later on Friday. By 9 pm it was clear that my operation would not take place, so I was permitted a cup of tea and something to eat. Tuna mayo sandwiches have never tasted so delicious! However, I went back on to NBM at midnight so I could go to theatre early on Saturday.

IMG_1351My operation was continually delayed throughout Saturday because other higher priority patients had been admitted for emergency treatment. Anyway, my turn came around just after 8 pm. By then I was climbing the wall I was so thirsty and hungry. I was back on the ward just after midnight, operation apparently successful. The surgeon inserted a 10 hole steel plate to repair the fractured fibula, and also tied together the tibia and fibula low down where I’d damaged all those ligaments, to provide additional strength. My leg is in another heavy cast.

And so it will remain until I return next Tuesday to the fracture clinic at the Alex when I hope to have this plaster cast replaced by a ‘boot’ that will be lighter and very strong. The consultant has to remove the plaster cast in any case as he needs to observe how well my incision is healing, on both sides of my leg.

I came out of hospital on Monday afternoon, and have been getting around the house with the aid of a Zimmer frame. It’s not easy and you don’t realise just how much you rely on two fully functioning limbs to accomplish even the simplest of tasks. Fortunately we have a large three-seater leather sofa (that we purchased in Costa Rica in 1976) that is comfortable to sleep on, and with a duvet wrapped round me, and with my usual pillows, I’m as ‘snug as a bug’ each night. We have a downstairs toilet and wash basin, and the dining room/kitchen is just a few hops away. So I’m all set here on the ground floor, not exactly waited on hand and foot by Steph, but she is looking after me very nicely, thank you.

I’ll be like this for the next six weeks at a minimum, and the surgeon already told me it could be as long as 12 weeks before I’m signed off. There’s going to be many weeks of physiotherapy once I’m able to put some weight on my ankle. Hopefully it will be possible to arrange physiotherapy appointments at our local Princess of Wales Community Hospital here in Bromsgrove rather than having to travel each time to the Alex.

And talking of the Alex, let me get a couple of things off my chest that came to mind as I was lying there on Ward 17.

The Alex is part of the Worcestershire Acute Hospitals NHS Trust (along with hospitals in Worcester and Kidderminster). It’s fair to say that in the past couple of years, the Alex has been in and out of the news, for all the wrong reasons.

Opened in 1985, the Alex has 360 beds, serving a population over 200,000. Due to problems in staff recruitment, the maternity unit was temporarily closed last November, and all expectant mums are now sent to Worcester. There has been a stream of criticism over poor patient care and cleanliness in the Alex. In February 2015, four A&E consultants resigned. Clearly there has been some sort of crisis, although I haven’t kept up to date with what has actually been going on.

All I can say is that the treatment and care I received at the Alex, from the first minutes in A&E, in X-ray, on Ward 17, in theater, and physiotherapy, was fantastic. I was treated with respect, with compassion, and continual good humour. On Ward 17 the staff couldn’t do more for the patients. I observed good levels of hygiene; patients were never neglected, and response to call buttons was almost immediate.

The other issue that came to mind very early on is that the Alex could not function—in all departments—without the services provided by EU and non-EU nationals who have come to this country and contributing to make it a better place. And I should add, persons of many faiths: Christian, Hindu, Muslim, and probably several others. It’s about time Nigel Farage and his Ukip morons as well as those right-wingers in the Conservative Party accepted the immense contributions that immigrants are making to the well-being of this country of ours. It’s time to stop denigrating them as a group of spongers only interested in benefitting from our welfare system.

So although I would never choose to spend four days in hospital, it was a positive experience, and made me appreciate the selfless service, through long hours, that staff in the National Health Service provide. Hopefully I can build on those positive thoughts to help me through the next few months of recuperation. I hope it won’t be too long before I’m able to get out and about and enjoy our National Trust and English Heritage visits once again.

After three months (1 April)
Today, it’s exactly 12 weeks since I had my accident. Three months! How time flies when you’re enjoying yourself.

I am making great progress. And that’s no April Fools’ prank.

Last Tuesday (29 March) I attended my last Fracture Clinic appointment at the Alexandra Hospital. The consultant surgeon told me I was making good progress, and there would be no need to return—unless something untoward crops up. So, for the next three months I have an ‘open appointment’. The surgeon explained that the swelling in my ankle and leg is likely to persist for up to 12 months! And I do need to take care when out and about. It will still be a slow rehabilitation. Nevertheless, he has discharged me. I’m walking (with a stick) but without my ‘moon boot’, and now up to about 1 mile each walk (longer when I used the boot). I think I’ll be using the sticks for some months to come because the pavement here are so uneven. And I do fear twisting my ankle. That would certainly set me back.

He told that I could now drive, provided I feel comfortable with that, and in using the brake in an emergency there’s no pain. I’m also allowed to fly, so can begin to think about my travels this year.

So, yesterday, taking advantage of the beautiful weather, Steph and I went out for a short spin in the car, to The Jinney Ring Craft Centre, a few miles southeast of Bromsgrove, near the village of Hanbury. The drive was fine; no discomfort. Later this morning I have another physiotherapy session, perhaps the last one. Onwards and upwards!


Since I posted this blog in mid-January, I also wrote several updates, listed below.