Chapter XV: Aerial Tour
Chapter XV: Aerial Tour
The large auxiliary petrol-tank had been removed from the cabin of my Gull and a comfortable passenger seat fitted, complete with arm- and head-rests. As it was early April we decided to fly to North Africa in search of sunshine. Our holiday was to include a flight round Spain, with a visit to the Balearic Islands. We planned to return to England via Marseilles and spend a week in Paris.
On April 9, 1936, we took off from Hatfield Aerodrome, and landed at Gravesend Airport to clear customs and obtain a weather report. We had a considerable amount of luggage with us, including four suitcases, a valise, and a rug, for it was to be a leisure flight, and we expected to be away about two months.
The Gull was well loaded when we left England, and as I intended to make our first stop at Bordeaux, 560 miles away, we had a considerable amount of petrol aboard.
After we had crossed the Channel and passed over Le Touquet we flew southward. Intercepting the Seine near Rouen, passing over hundreds of miles of peaceful pasture-land, until the broad sweep of the Garonne camepage 204into view, we glided down to a landing at the aerodrome at Bordeaux four hours out from England. News travels fast, and as if by magic, although I had not notified any of the aero clubs at the cities we intended visiting, wherever we landed lavish hospitality was extended to us. The fact that a daughter was flying her mother on an aerial tour seemed to catch popular imagination. In Spain people were in turn astounded and delighted to see the Señora and Señorita flying together, and although I planned a quiet tour and did not seek publicity we received an amazing Press at each place.
We met only one bad storm, and this was when crossing the Pyrenees from Toulouse to Barcelona, when low clouds and heavy rain obscured the pass near Perpignan, and I had to climb the Gull to 10,000 feet to escape the violent down-draughts from the snow-covered peaks.
I was delighted that my mother had agreed to accompany me on this flying tour, as it showed her faith in aerial transport and aviation in general. The weeks that we spent on the flying holiday were among the happiest in my life. We made many friends, and in Valencia met Señor Ibañez, brother of the famous novelist, and editor of a Valencia newspaper. He sent me armfuls of the most exquisite roses. I learned afterwards that when the war broke out he escaped to Italy by disguising himself.
One day we drove to an orange-grove near Valencia where the panorama which presented itself was an unforgettable one: acres of orderly trees, their green leaves almost hidden by the gorgeous golden colouring of thepage 205fruit, with high purple mountains forming a perfect set-ting for the scene, over which floated the exotic perfume of thousands of orange blossoms.
From Valencia we planned to visit the Balearic Islands, as I had heard and read so much about Majorca that I wanted to see for myself if the island was as enchanting as it was reputed to be. There was a landing-ground at Palma, but no hangar or any facilities. As I was reluctant to leave the Gull exposed in the open overnight with no one to guard it we decided to leave the machine in Valencia and travel by one of the small boats that run between Palma and Valencia.
We spent nearly two weeks exploring the island, which I thought was wondrously beautiful. Wild flowers grew in abundance, and some of the giant trees in the olive-groves were nearly a thousand years old. We learned that at one time there was a tax on olive-trees, and to avoid this the islanders kept the old trees alive by grafting. The result was that some of the trees gained enormous proportions, and many are still to be seen with girths as big as those of the largest oak-trees.
On one occasion we drove high up into the mountains, negotiating a series of astounding hairpin bends and passing through most beautiful scenery. At last we arrived at the monastery at Valldemosa, where Chopin and George Sand found short-lived happiness. It was a wonderful experience to see the actual piano in the small, stone-flagged room where Chopin composed many of the preludes. I felt almost awed as I stood in that tiny room, which was bare of furniture save for the master's piano, a table, and a few chairs, and realizedpage 206that it was in this very room, high up in the solitude of the mountains, that Chopin composed the "Raindrop" Prelude.
Long, happy days were spent on the silvery beaches and in Palma, Formentor, Soller, Mirimar, and all the other delightful villages on the island. So enchanted was I with Majorca that I thought at one time of taking a villa there for some months, but this was not practicable in view of the big programme I had planned.
On the way back to Valencia we also visited the little island of Iviza.
On the flight to North Africa we experienced beautifully sunny weather, and sighted the rock of Gibraltar fifty miles away. Even as we crossed the Strait to Tangier we could still see the lovely white line of the snowcapped Sierra Nevada in the distance.
One of the highlights of the tour was at Seville. To fly in the comparatively calm atmosphere and escape the bumps which one usually meets when flying over such mountainous country we arrived at an early hour over the city. Imagine my consternation on finding about twenty-five bulls grazing on the aerodrome. "There doesn't seem to be anyone there!" I shouted to my mother above the roar of the engine, as I pointed to the large hangars, which were all closed. After flying over Seville several times I returned to the aerodrome, but there was no sign of anyone to move the bulls. Gliding down I flew over the herd, which scattered in all directions, until at last I managed to round them up into one corner. Landing the Gull on the cleared area, I asked my mother to watch the bulls as I taxied aspage 207fast as possible towards the hangars, silently thanking Providence that the machine was not red.
"If they start running towards us give a shout, and we will take off again and return to Africa," I told her. Fortunately this was not necessary, for the hangar door opened and some Spanish mechanics wheeled the Gull to safety.
We had breakfast with Comandante Esteve, who was in charge of the Tablada air base, and who never ceased to chuckle about our experience, and thought it extremely funny that after flying the Atlantic I should fear los toros. "They are not ferocious," he explained. "Los toros graze quietly on the aerodrome in readiness for the bull-fight on Sunday."
The aerodrome at Seville was an excellent one. A profusion of flowers grew round the officers' quarters, casino as they called it. This was a typically Spanish building in stucco with a cool, blue-tiled courtyard. The hospitable Comandante insisted on sending his adjutant to escort us in his car to the Hotel Christina, where we were to stay. A guard of honour was formed, and we drove in triumph from the aerodrome, crossing the Guadalquivir river to the city.
Shortly after our arrival the Aero Club of Andalusia held a vino in our honour, at which the British Consul was present, and we met charming little Señorita Cueva the Spanish airwoman, whose husband was stationed at Tetuan, in Spanish Morocco. The vino is the Spanish equivalent of the cocktail party, and we made many friends as we sipped the excellent wine.
A banquet also was given by the Comandante of thepage 208base and his officers, at which the charming Comandante spoke in halting English, and I had the temerity to make a speech in my elementary Spanish.
We found Seville a most colourful city, and greatly enjoyed the time we spent there. The Alcazar was a revelation, and we walked through the great palace admiring the exquisite Moorish architecture with its gorgeous colouring, the beauty of which was almost unbelievable. In a tiled courtyard of the palace surrounded by a profusion of beautiful flowers, orange-trees, and palms we were shown an ingenious fountain, evidently designed to amuse some monarch of olden times. This consisted of a number of tiny jets concealed in the pathway. When turned on, as it was for our benefit, the jets would suddenly send forth many fine sprays of water or, as rumour has it, scent, presumably to the astonishment of the señoras and señoritas strolling in the courtyard. One could imagine the startled cries of the ladies and the laughter of the perpetrator of the practical joke.
We were then shown through the now deserted palace, and were greatly impressed by the beautiful lacy carving of the Moorish archways inlaid with gold-leaf and coloured the most wonderful shades. There were some lovely tapestries, and one of our friends proudly showed us the gold telephone used by ex-King Alphonso.
Just as we were leaving the sound of a horse's hoofs was heard on the cobblestones, and a uniformed courier galloped up on a jet-black steed, carrying an immense bouquet of flowers. Reining his horse, he dismounted,page 209saluted, and, presenting the Comandante's compliments, handed me the flowers. Within a few seconds he was away like the wind, leaving me with a great armful of roses and an even deeper appreciation of Spanish courtesy.
There were very few, if any, taxies in Seville, but any amount of horse-drawn carriages, which seemed to be the fashion. The rate of hire was only two pesetas an hour (about one and fourpence), and we used to take a carriage and ride in the large gardens, which were filled with a profusion of gaily coloured flowers and palms. There had been an international exhibition in Seville, and many countries had built representative pavilions in the gardens, but owing to the cost they had never been dismantled. It was amazing to ride quietly along a tree-lined avenue and suddenly come upon an Indian temple, a Canadian log cabin, or a Swiss chalet. There was also a tiled Italian pavilion with two full-sized porcelain figures near by. "An adjunct to any city," a Spanish friend explained to me, when I made this international discovery in the heart of Seville.
During my stay I had the interesting experience of broadcasting for Radio Seville in Spanish.
One evening before we left we had a unique opportunity of seeing the Sevilanas and Flamencos, among other dances, performed to the exotic and colourful music of Mossorgesky and De Falla by the beautiful girls of Andalusia. It was a great sight to see these girls with their gaily coloured frilled skirts whirling to the music, to hear the click of the castanets and littlepage 210crimson heels stamping the floor in rhythm with the music.
We were loath to leave Seville, and reluctantly took off one morning and flew over the city escorted by a squadron of aeroplanes from the Tablada air base and set off for Madrid. As we flew towards the Spanish capital I recalled my flight over Spain on the way to South America when we passed over the great mountain ranges and occasional villages.
Madrid lies on a high plateau about 2000 feet above sea-level, and we had a good comprehensive view of the great white city as we circled it before landing at the aerodrome of Barahas. As we drove into the city with some members of the Aero Club we passed a procession of tiny boys and girls singing. All the children were dressed in red, even to the ribbon braiding the girls' hair, and I learned that they were Communist children. There was a very fine Plaza de Toros near the city, where I later saw a bull-fight, which I failed to appreciate owing to the broiling sun, which burned down with fierce intensity while the elegant matador or toreador—I forget which—skilfully baited the bull, who on this occasion never seemed to have a chance from the commencement.
We stayed at the luxurious Palace Hotel, and I heard later that it was destroyed by an aerial bombardment, which also demolished the beautiful new University City, over which we were shown.
There were many interesting sights to be seen in Madrid, and during our stay we witnessed the May Day celebrations and met the Mayor. We spent many hourspage break page break
in the famous Prado, inspecting the priceless works of Velasquez and other Spanish masters. A photographer from one of the Spanish newspapers obtained permission from the authorities to photograph me beside a lovely Goya.
The flight to Barcelona was an interesting one, and we flew over high plateaux, passing several lovely sapphire-coloured lakes, which from above looked like great jewels, before we crossed a high range of mountains to the coast. We had a wonderful view of the big city as we flew over Barcelona before landing.
I had been warned in Madrid to land only on the grass part of the aerodrome of Prat, as the large clay patches were filled-in shell-holes. The small two-way landing-ground appeared to be all clay, so, thinking it might be very soft, I landed at the equally small aerodrome of the Aero Club of Catalunya. Later I took the Gull over to Prat to clear customs for France.
The Barcelona people, we found, were most hospitable, and we had soon made many friends. Several tours were arranged so that we might see the sights of the city. Our hotel faced the Plaza de Catalunya, and the famous street Rambla was near by. At a reception I was made a member of the Aero Club of Catalunya.
During our stay in Spain we noticed that few women in the cities wore traditional Spanish dress, although many still affected the mantilla, mostly worn without the comb.
Barcelona seemed very modern, and as we strolled along the Rambla we passed a theatre advertising Charlie Chaplin in Tiempo Moderno, and another withpage 212Marlene Dietrich in Deseo. I was sorry later that we missed seeing a film in Spanish. There were some wonderful churches in Barcelona, and we visited quite a number in the course of our sight-seeing. Several receptions were given, and I had the pleasure of broadcasting from Radio Barcelona.
It was May 1936, and I left Barcelona and flew to Paris to receive the cross of the Legion of Honour, which it had been arranged should be bestowed on me at a banquet to be held on the evening of May 7. Mother had also taken a great liking to Majorca, and she decided to return and wait in Palma for me.
I flew to Paris via Toulouse, where I stayed the night at the home of M. Marcel Doret, the famous French pilot, and his wife. In brilliant sunshine I landed at Buc Aerodrome, Paris, the following day, to be met by representatives of the Aero-Club de France and greeted by my friend Mile Suzanne Deutsch de la Meurthe. A luncheon was given at the hotel at Versailles, after which we drove to the Prince des Galles, where I stayed. That night at a banquet given by the Aero-Club de France I was decorated with the cross of Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur, and felt that my cup of happiness was indeed filled to the brim.
The following day the newspapers reported the fine flight of the Graf Zeppelin to Lakehurst, and I never fail to smile when I think of an incident that occurred that morning. When we were passing Bagatelle a friend of mine, who was driving, remarked that the roses in the garden of that little jewel of a palace were exquisite and blooming in profusion.page 213
"What!" I replied. "Roses blooming in the open in early May! I can't believe that, even of this magic city.
"We will see them with our own eyes," my friend remarked, turning the car and driving back.
I thought the concierge looked slightly surprised when we asked to be directed to the Rose Garden. As we hurried along the paths my friend remarked on the myriads of the multicoloured tulips which adorned the gardens with their stately beauty.
"Yes, but I want to see those roses you were so sure about, as I don't believe there are any," I insisted as we walked on, both confident that we were right.
"There," he cried, "is the Rose Garden—beyond that hedge."
The garden was there all right, but not a rose to be seen. With a look of consternation my friend asked a gardener working near by if there were any roses out yet. The aged gardener told us that we might find a few at another part of the garden to which he directed us. With renewed confidence my companion walked quickly to the spot, while I, growing increasingly sceptical, followed him. There was a delighted shout ahead as my friend located a tiny pink bud—the only one in the whole garden that had the temerity to appear so early. "Yes, it certainly is a leader," I said. "And now that we have wasted nearly two hours searching you may as well see the name of the hardy and gallant bud that has saved your reputation for integrity." He bent and disentangled the label from the leaves, and we both read the single name—Eckener.page 214
On flying back to London I read in the news of the riots and shipping strikes which heralded the civil war in Spain. A strike at the docks in Barcelona seemed imminent, so, fearing that my mother might be cut off on the island of Majorca, I sent an urgent telegram asking her to take the first boat and wait for me in Barcelona.
Flying to Spain from London I experienced the most atrocious weather, and landed at Toulouse in a deluge, proceeding to Barcelona the following morning. I stayed only one night in Barcelona, and next day drove to Prat with my mother, accompanied by some of our Spanish friends, including Sefior Canudas, Director of Civil Aviation, and his wife. When I had cleared customs good-byes were said, the luggage carefully stowed in the machine, and Mother took her place in the cabin surrounded by bouquets of roses. I gave the Gull full throttle and took off for Marseilles.
We crossed the Spanish border to France and followed the broad sweep of the Gulf of Lions, passing over quaint little villages. In brilliant sunshine we flew over the Bouches du Rhone and landed at Marignane Airport, on the shore of Lake Berre, where we were met by my old friend M. Fournier and invited to lunch at his home with Mme Fournier and their family.
Our stay in Marseilles was a happy one. I particularly wanted to show Mother the Chateau d'If, from which Edmond Dantes, the Count of Monte Cristo, made his spectacular escape after long, weary years of imprisonment. The island was some miles distant from Mar-page 215seilles, and we travelled in a small open boat. As the Mediterranean was in one of its boisterous moods we were drenched with spray as the tiny vessel ploughed through the white-capped waves. The Chateau has all the traits of a medieval fortress, with its high stone walls rising sheer from the white rocky shore, its ramparts and dungeons. It retains all the romantic atmosphere of adventure that has thrilled the youth of all countries. We climbed the many stone steps leading to the great oak door of the Chateau, and after seeing the tower and the view from the ramparts we groped our way through the gloom to the cells. The French guards brought an oil-lamp, which accentuated the eerie darkness and picked out the names and inscriptions which had been carved on the stone walls by prisoners in olden times. Holding the lamp above his head, the guard led the way, and in one cell showed us the exactly spot where the Count of Monte Cristo spent years chipping away the stone in his endeavour to escape.
Before flying back to London we spent a few days in Paris, where we were entertained, and again experienced the most lavish hospitality. At one luncheon we meet the Vicomte de Rohan, President of the Automobile Club de France, and the President of the Aero-Club de France, Lieutenant-Colonel Wateau. Mlle [sic] Suzanne Deutsch de la Meurthe was there also. In company with the Marquise de Noailles we drove to her lovely home at Chantilly, and to see the beautiful castle where peacocks strutted on the wide lawns.
On our return to London I decided that the time had arrived for me to achieve what I considered as thepage 216ultimate of my ambition—the first solo flight to New Zealand. Consequently I commenced preparations for the flight, determined that the organization should be perfect right down to the smallest detail. Before my previous long-distance flights I had undergone a period of training, and to break the monotony of the usual skipping exercises and daily walks I planned a novel interlude. This was to be a walking tour along the South Downs, over which I had flown so many times, but had seldom had a chance to explore from the ground. I acquired large-scale Ordnance Survey maps and plotted out a daily schedule, selecting the most suitable inns at which to stay. As it was to be a walking tour we had to keep the amount of luggage we proposed taking down to a minimum. "We are not flying this time, and we won't need a wardrobe trunk," I would say, laughing heartily at the vision of myself toiling past Chanctonbury Ring in the midsummer heat bowed down with the weight of our luggage.
When Mother saw the schedule I had planned, allowing for a walk of ten to fifteen miles a day, she diplomatically reminded me that she happened to be older, not younger, than myself. "If you think you are old you will grow old," I said. "It's merely a state of the mind, and you are as fit as I am, and your spirit is just as young." Nevertheless, I thought that if the tour proved too strenuous we could always rest for a few days somewhere.
On a glorious midsummer day in July we took the train to the delightful old-world village of Amberley, which nestles snugly in a valley where the downs partpage 217to let the river Arun flow to the sea. Clad in light tweed costumes, soft felt hats, and stout walking shoes, we were untrammelled by any luggage save a small bag each with the barest necessities and two silk rainproofs. To acclimatize ourselves we stayed for two days in the peaceful village, with its thatched cottages and "jasmine-muffled lattices."We climbed the slopes of Mount Amberley and rested on the scented downland turf, drinking in the beauty of the scene as the green downs, dotted here and there with fields of golden corn studded by crimson poppies, rolled gently down to the sea.
Walking, I think, must be the greatest tonic, and it is one within the reach of all. Those who have felt the springy turf of the downs under their feet and filled their lungs with the crisp fresh air will agree with me. As you walk all the petty little worries and doubts that sometimes crowd the mind disappear, and in Nature's soothing presence new thoughts and inspirations come as if by magic.
We made good progress, and on our walk passed through Steyning, Poynings, Lewes, Newhaven, and Seaford. By the time we reached the Seven Sisters one scorching day we were able to take them in our stride and arrived at Beachy Head well pleased with things in general.
At this stage my presence was necessary in London in connexion with the flight preparations, for I had already set the cogs of organization into motion before leaving. Mother appeared not at all disappointed at the interruption in our tour, and was, I believe, secretlypage 218grateful for a few days' respite from the rigorous walking.
When I returned to Eastbourne we continued our journey, walking on via Hastings and Fairlight. We left the downs at Pevensey to cross the Romney Marshes. Stopping at the quaint old towns of Winchelsea and Rye and Lydd, we went on through Dymchurch to Hythe, from where we returned to London by train, having walked approximately eighty miles on the tour.
The Gull was hangared at Hatfield, where we had taken a cottage quite near the famous old Hatfield House, home of the Earls of Salisbury, where Queen Elizabeth is reputed to have been staying when she received the news of her accession to the throne.
It was indeed gratifying to find that my name was included in the Birthday Honours of 1936, and that I was to be made a Commander of the British Empire. At the first investiture held by King Edward VIII in July I was present at Buckingham Palace, and received the decoration from the King. This decoration was an exquisitely wrought gold and ultramarine enamelled cross, topped with a tiny gold crown and worn with a royal purple bow. I placed it proudly alongside my French and Brazilian orders.
At this time I was very busy with preparations for my forthcoming flight, although, following my usual procedure, intended making no announcement until I was almost ready to depart. The Gull's Certificate of Airworthiness had been renewed, the engine overhauled, and the large eighty-gallon auxiliary tank replaced in the cockpit. I indulged in the extravagance of a self-page 219starter, as there was usually a considerable amount of time lost starting the engine by swinging the heavy metal propeller by hand. I had completed a series of tests, and when I flew the machine to Lympne to clear customs felt quite confident of reaching my objective, Auckland, in New Zealand, 14,000 miles away. Bad weather was reported over the Continent, so I stayed a day at Lympne waiting for better conditions.page 220