When the airshow world came to Lancashire

Barnstormers. A word that will register on the metaphorical internal Geiger counter of anyone interested in aviation history. And a word one wouldn’t necessarily expect to see as the name of a pub in a suburb of a town in northern Britain.

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The Red Arrows presenting the shape called Apollo at the BAe Lostock gala in June 1995. There are eight Hawks here, rather than nine, due to pilot illness. Photo: Mark Broadbent

 

The name stands out among the more run-of-the-mill Red Lions, White Harts and Railway Inns, as does the pub’s sign high on the wall, a little red biplane towing a banner with ‘Barnstormers’ on it.

The pub’s location. on Lostock Lane in Horwich outside Bolton, is far removed from the romantic image of somnolent American Midwest towns where, during the Roaring Twenties, pilots set down their aeroplanes and enthralled locals with their flying circus antics.

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An RAF Gazelle brings in the Red Arrows’ manager at the 1996 show. Photo: Mark Broadbent

 

Nearby, the M61 motorway and the train line between Manchester and Preston pass through and just along the road from the pub there’s a big steel works where structures were built for the O2 and the Olympics stadium in London, Blackpool’s Big One rollercoaster and airports in Paris and Hong Kong.

Why the name then? It is, quite simply, a nod to the link between this unprepossessing northern road and the aviation world. For directly across the street from the pub, there once stood a de Havilland propeller factory – reputedly the largest aircraft propeller plant in Europe when it opened in 1937.

After the Second World War, the factory moved into producing missiles and was part of what eventually became British Aerospace Dynamics. Much later, after BAe sold off its weapons systems business in the 1990s, the aerospace presence on the site diminished in size, although an MBDA factory remains. Much of the old site has been redeveloped into business units.

Driving along Lostock Lane and past the old factory’s entrance, there aren’t, apart from the Barnstormers pub, many clues to the aviation connections of this place. Neither is there a clue to the fact that every summer up to the turn of the century, on the sports ground next to the factory, there took place a unique local event.

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A Harrier displaying at Lostock, near Bolton, in 1993. Photo: Mark Broadbent

 

A gala and airshow, rather more grandly called the Bolton Air Show and Gala in its later years, was put on by the factory’s sports and social club each June. It was one of the largest events in the Bolton area, one year attracting 17,000 people according to the local press.

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Not just an airshow #1. The advert for the 1993 Lostock airshow and gala day appeared in the local press before the show, and then in the event programme.

 

Entry was a couple of quid. Looking back today at the A5-sized programmes from the event prompts nostalgia. There were stalls, dog agility displays (the ‘K9 Dog Display Team’ appeared one year), arena shows like marching bands and motorbike riders racing through tunnels of fire, and helicopter pleasure flights in a Jet Ranger.

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A Jet Ranger undertaking pleasure flights from the Lostock site. Photo: Mark Broadbent

 

There was a fairground, a mini-steam train, Punch and Judy, donkey rides and you could abseil from towers and crawl under nets on an assault course. The air smelt of cut grass, burgers and fried onions with the occasional bit of ale wafting over from the beer tent. The prevailing sounds were chatter, yelps from the fairground, music from the radio roadshow and the sound of the PA.

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Not just an airshow #2. From a Red Arrows display to a marching band, the Lostock gala was a varied event as the centre-spread of the 1996 programme shows. (p.s. I suspect ‘SkyDanger’ is a typo and they meant ‘SkyDancer’.)

 

In short, the gala was the archetypal local carnival, fete or show. Not without incident either. One year I remember a firecracker went off in a medieval re-enactor’s hand. Quite why he was holding the firecracker I can’t recall, but I do remember the thing going off before he instantaneously dropped his Middle Ages character act, shouted ‘sh*t’ and ran to a first aid tent.

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Motorbike display teams were a regular feature of the gala. Photo: Mark Broadbent

 

(An aside: Maybe it’s me, but I sense some people today, although by no means all, might regard things like the gala as a bit passé, a bit twee in our latte-quaffing, staring-at-the-mobile, the-internet’s-fast-so-why-isn’t-everything-else culture. But I digress.)

The air ]show was the day’s highlight. Aircraft displayed over farmland to the east of the sports ground. As airshows go, Lostock was very small, typically consisting of around half a dozen flying displays each year, but nevertheless the venue had appearances by all sorts of aircraft and displays.

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Black Lanyards parachutist. In the background is Winter Hill. Photo: Mark Broadbent

 

There were historic aeroplanes like Spitfires and the world’s only flying Bristol Blenheim and aerobatic teams leaving smoke trails in the sky. There were parachutists, noisy fast jets – most memorably, in 1993, a Harrier – and there were appearances one year by the army’s helicopter team, the Blue Eagles, and the Red Arrows on a couple of occasions.

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Cadbury’s Crunchie Flying Circus wingwalking in 1993. Photo: Mark Broadbent

 

It all took place at a location in Manchester Airport’s TMA (Terminal Manoeuvring Area) which obviously required considerable co-operation between the display’s co-ordinator, Phil Holt (who provided a radar information and flight information service on the day for the display pilots), and Manchester Air Traffic Control.

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A Harrier goes into the hover at Lostock. Photo: Mark Broadbent

 

As noted in an ‘Operational Briefing’ article published in the programme for the last show in 1999, the ground rises by 600ft within 1 nautical mile of the display area and the Winter Hill TV mast – the principal TV transmitter for much of north-west England – is 3 miles to the north. Likely the location and the display area proved challenging, or at the very least interesting, for the pilots who flew there.

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A Sukhoi Su-26 displaying at Lostock. On the other side of the hedgerow in this photo there is now located the training ground and academy of Bolton Wanderers FC. Photo: Mark Broadbent

 

Today, nearly 20 years on from that last event, the ground where the gala was held is now occupied by recently-built houses (the main street on the development is called Harrier Close) and some of the land over which the aircraft displayed is now home to Bolton Wanderers FC’s training ground and academy (the club’s Macron, formerly Reebok, Stadium home is half a mile away to the west).

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An admittedly awful blurry picture of the Crunchie Flying Circus displaying in 1993, included to give a sense of the display line’s location at the venue. Photo: Mark Broadbent

 

The developments mean any trace of this local event, and indeed the big BAe factory (known simply as ‘Aerospace’ to some locals), are gone. People go about their business, working at the different companies around and about, Wanderers fans parking up on a Saturday or midweek night before walking the short distance to the Macron for the match.

This doesn’t matter – the world moves on and, as Al Stewart put it, time passages – but sometimes it’s good to remember your local history and memories linger of the times when the airshow world came to this corner of Lancashire.

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A photo summing up the Lostock gala – events in the air and on the ground. This is from the 1996 event. Photo: Mark Broadbent

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The original iteration of the Red Arrows’ Corkscrew manoeuvre during the Lostock show in 1996. Photo: Mark Broadbent

 

(The pictures on this page were taken by me as a young lad back in the 1990s so are clearly appalling in their quality, but they are included to give a sense of the venue.)

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Beside the seaside

This is the peak season for seaside airshows in Britain.

In the next few weeks there will be events in Blackpool, Eastbourne, Herne Bay, Clacton, Rhyl, Bournemouth, Ayr, Portrush, Guernsey, Jersey and Southport. (There have already been shows this summer in Torbay, Weston-super-Mare, Swansea, Sunderland and Newcastle in Northern Ireland.)

In addition to these big airshows, some other events held beside the seaside around the British coastline over the summer such as carnivals and regattas are set to have an aviation element to them, such as an appearance by the Red Arrows, the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight or an aerobatic team.

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The Red Arrows displaying at Scarborough in June 2013. Photo: Mark Broadbent

 

Seaside airshows are popular. According to TSA Consulting the total attendance at the seaside events where they managed the flying display in 2016 was over two million people.

Other coastal towns (Southend, Dawlish, Lowestoft, Margate, Dover and Swanage) have hosted airshows in the past. A new event in Great Yarmouth planned for this year was cancelled and there is a proposal to put on a new show in Devon.

It is little wonder there are so many of these events. Airshows by their nature are a draw for a day out, and are therefore an ideal opportunity for local authorities to promote a town and its surrounding area. There’s clearly a big potential benefit for local businesses, too. I was once told a restaurant in a seaside town got a five-figure boost in income when the airshow was on.

I suspect seaside airshows hold little appeal for some aviation enthusiasts, especially those who have largely spent time attending airshows at airfields. There is a view that seaside airshows, compared to airfield events. are second-rate, an airshow equivalent of fish and chips and a cup of tea compared to a fillet steak and a glass of Malbec.

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The Red Arrows performing the Python at the Southport Air Show. Photo: Mark Broadbent

 

Personally, I like seaside airshows. I enjoy how these events tend to have a variety of displays, ranging from historic aeroplanes to aerobatic aircraft and the Red Arrows. One seaside venue, Jersey, attracts interesting historic aeroplanes that by and large don’t tend to appear at other airshows in Britain.

My opinion is likely influenced by the fact I’ve attended seaside airshows for a quarter of a century, more or less. Looking back on my childhood as an early thirty-something, I have a bank of memories from Southport, which for the best part of 20 years has been the closest airshow venue to home.

I remember vividly the excitement I felt during one Southport in the days when the spear in the Red Arrows’ Heart was made by a manoeuvre called the Cascade, where jets passed through the middle of the heart, descended towards the crowd and then flew directly overhead.

I recall the sight of red and white Royal Navy Gazelles leaving orange display smoke over the sands and these helicopters’ distinctive engine noise, and one year the brightly-painted Stearman biplanes of the Aerosuperbatics wingwalking team (then sponsored by Cadbury’s Crunchie) landing on the beach and parking up.

I have a memory of white smoke trails left by Team Toyota, a trio of an Extra and two Pitts, standing out against a dreary grey backdrop above the sands. (It was a pleasure, years later, to interview that team’s leader, Nigel Lamb, and in a sense complete a circle back to childhood.)

I remember feeling the beach shake from the noise of a Harrier hovering. I recall the ‘massed helicopter approach’, when all ten helicopters involved in the display one year (a Sea King and two Gazelles from the Royal Navy, a pair of RAF Wessex and the army’s Blue Eagles team of a Lynx and Gazelles) arrived en-masse and landed on the beach.

I suppose because going to Southport has left all these impressions, and many others, the idea of a seaside airshow doesn’t feel strange. Such events are, and always have been, part of the airshow furniture for me.

A mix of the seaside, a wide expanse of sky, a picnic, aeroplanes and then maybe a meal and a stroll on the beach?

Clearly, this is not to experience aviation in the way you can at an airfield or when visiting a museum. But I think of these events as simply a day at the seaside with a few aeroplanes thrown in.

To repeat the analogy earlier in this blog, fillet steak and Malbec is great. But fish, chips and a cuppa is nice too. I hope this year’s seaside airshows all do well.

Comfort food

I’ve blogged before about Provenance Food Hall and Restaurant, and the other evening I had another great meal there.

The new year has brought a slightly revised menu, but I’m pleased to report the standard is as good as ever.

I went for one of the new additions on the menu – the salmon lattice. This is salmon, spinach and cream cheese wrapped in puff pastry, served with green beans and mash.

Simple but tasty, comforting and filling – ideal for the chilly conditions recently – but not over-facing either. The best sort of comfort food, I guess.

I’ve written here about the Cartmel Sticky Toffee pudding, so no surprise I opted for that again.

New on the menu, though (and something one of my companions picked) was a chocolate orange bread and butter pudding with a blood orange sorbet.

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As you can see, it looked quite pretty. Tasted good too, I’m told.

And people on neighbouring tables seemed similarly satisfied with what they were having.

Of course, everything with food is highly subjective but on the evidence of that visit Provenance is doing well – and that’s nice to see.

Food and memories

Some people were not happy recently over Cadbury Roses. All the different chocolates now come in the same shape of wrapper.

There are many people on social media who were very annoyed by this. One comment I noticed on Twitter even described the wrappers as “the work of Satan himself”. Another said: “Cannot fully describe horror at new wrappers. Sad to see iconic brand being destroyed.”

It is the second time in just a few months that a long-established chocolate brand has attracted consumer ire, after Toblerone changed the distance between its peaks.

Let’s be honest – these complaints are first world problems. But even so, when brands change things, or a beloved product is discontinued, people get upset all the same. So, it’s worth asking – why?

I think it’s to do with memory. All your life is marked by shapes, sounds, colours, tastes, smells, people, events and experiences. All sorts of things stick in the mind. Things that might even be forgotten about completely then come to front of mind unexpectedly years later. Those things will differ for every one of us.

The marketing of confectionery plays with these emotions.

Why does one person buy a KitKat? Or a Mars? Or a Boost? Or a Picnic? Why do some people (I’m one of them) prefer Quality Street over Roses? Or vice-versa? Or another brand?

It’s partly because people just like what they like. But partly, too, I think it’s because the marketing of all these products plays (sometimes consciously, often more subtly) on those deep-seated memories and emotions.

Those emotions are not just related to the product itself but those far more evocative memories and feelings about shapes, sounds, colours, tastes, smells, people, events and experiences.

And this, maybe, is why people get upset when established brands change things round too much.

Sticky toffee puds

So then, the Cartmel Sticky Toffee Pudding. I recently had one of these for the first time in a while – accompanied by a nice dollop of vanilla ice cream, of course – and, well, it was delicious as always.

Now sticky toffee puds are common sights in cookbooks and on menus up and down the land. Unless you’re in the mood for something lighter and refreshing, there’s arguably no dessert that finishes off a meal out quite like a sticky toffee pud.

But, without wishing to sound like one of those supermarket ads from a few years ago, in my experience there tend to be sticky toffee puds and then other sticky toffee puds.

The Cartmel Sticky Toffee Pudding falls into that latter category. It’s not often I taste it – although this blog probably makes me sound like I’m scoffing them all the time (I’m not) – but there is a difference.

It’s difficult to explain, but it has a different level of sweetness, richness and well, stickiness. I don’t quite know why (I’m no chef nor food expert) and I know that’s a completely untechnical way of describing it, but that’s how it tastes to me at least.

Being a historian by training I tend to look at the backstories of things. And the sticky toffee pud, despite often being categorised as ‘classic’ or ‘traditional’, is a bit more modern than some might think.

The recipe, it seems, was popularised in the 1970s by Francis Coulson of the Lake District’s Sharrow Bay Hotel, who himself apparently adapted a recipe of a Mrs Martin of Cumbria, who according to the food writer Simon Hopkinson herself got the recipe from a Canadian friend. Hopkinson says these origins across the North Atlantic makes “perfect sense” as the recipe “is much more of a batter mix, like a muffin, than a classic English sponge”.

I find it interesting how the sticky toffee pud, from the Cartmel product to the recipes used by restaurants and home bakers, is a relatively recent arrival when it’s typically categorised as a ‘traditional’ dessert.

I suppose this shows how the right recipe, developed at the right time, marketed in the right way, can enter the mainstream regardless of its provenance.

Land a plane on top of a mountain?

Seriously? Deliberately land a plane on the summit of one of England’s tallest mountains?

Yep, it happened – no less than 90 years ago this week.

On 22 December 1926 John F. Leeming, the then chairman of the Lancashire Aero Club, and the Avro test pilot Bert Hinkler put down a humble Avro Gosport biplane on the summit of Helvellyn in the Lake District.

They landed on the wide, rocky summit, jumped out and asked an unsurprisingly startled fellwalker – an E.R. Dodds, a Professor of Greek at Birmingham University – to sign a hastily-scribbled statement to confirm what he’d just seen.

They then took off over Striding Edge and headed back to their starting point, Woodford in Cheshire.

There’s a stone tablet on Helvellyn that notes this remarkable bit of Lake District and British aviation history.

The very idea of landing a plane on top of a mountain seems remarkable nine decades on, still less the fact that it happened – perhaps that is reflective of the fact that ours is a very different age.

Not that there was a unanimously positive reaction to the event at the time, despite newspapers countrywide delightedly reporting the landing with typical tabloid gusto. An editorial piece in one Scottish newspaper, the Dundee Courier, was highly critical.

If I’m perfectly honest I sympathise with that view. Even though I write about aviation, I can’t say I’m sold on the idea of landing an aircraft in an otherwise unspoilt, natural and peaceful place like a mountain summit.

Equally, though, I can understand the impulses behind why it was done – to prove the potential of aviation, which after all back in 1926 was still very much a novel form of transport.

And if nothing else, it’s simply a good tale. I was pleased to research and write about it for a recent issue of Aeroplane magazine.

The story has the qualities of an old-fashioned ripping yarn – there’s a dash of bravery, a lot of skill, a bit of luck and our characters battling against obstacles (in their case appalling weather and technical problems) to fulfil their quest.

I suppose those qualities still endure all these years on, even if the event happened so long ago and is extremely unlikely to ever be repeated.

#LancashireDay – Provenance Westhoughton

Today (27 November) is Lancashire Day. A great opportunity, I thought, to blog about something completely different – food and drink – and give a shout-out to a good local Lancashire business in my neck of the woods.

Provenance in Westhoughton, outside Bolton, is a food hall and restaurant that has risen quickly up the ranks of the places to eat and drink in Lancashire.

It has plenty of praise on TripAdvisor. A few weeks ago, it was listed in the 2017 edition of the prestigious Good Food Guide. It was also highly commended in the Lancashire Life Food & Drink Awards 2016.

Good going for somewhere that’s only been open 18 months.

The food hall has got a nice butchery (lovely sausages), a bakery, and a deli (good choice of cheeses). You can get things that are out of the mainstream – the nougat I’ve bought a couple of times (it’s Italian, I think) is really nice.

And what about the restaurant? I’m hardly a food critic, but having had everything from a bowl of soup to a Sunday roast and a full three-course dinner, I can genuinely say that every meal I’ve had has been good.

I suppose they’re not in the Good Food Guide for nothing. And the Tuesday Steak Night – steak, chips and a drink for a tenner – can’t be grumbled at.

Provenance stresses quality and traceability in the ingredients sold and cooked there. From speaking to its proprietors over the months, I get the sense there is a genuine pride in what they’ve created.

I should disclose that I’m a regular. I go in the restaurant just for a coffee or a drink (I think it’s the only place round about where you can get an Aperol Spritz) and I occasionally pop into the food hall for a hot sandwich (sausage and onion for me).

But I’m also Westhoughton born-and-bred. In the large and small provincial towns in this part of the world, on the hinterland of the region’s big cities, changes in retail over the years have gradually stripped away the soul of high streets to a certain degree, with shops shutting down and Identikit town centres and retail parks.

So, having somewhere like Provenance on the doorstep – a place to get a few bits (as we Lancastrians say), a place to have a good meal or a simple coffee – is positive.

Simply – it’s just good to have a nice place like it around.

On Lancashire Day, that’s something worth highlighting.