Falmouth (Penryn) to The Lizard, via RNAS Culdrose and St Mary’s (Isles of Scilly)

Day 96  Tues 5 July:  Many thanks to Nick, Floyd, Louis and Fran for inviting me to stay with you in your big blue Penryn house last night. A lovely bunch, great family team, top quality home cooked curry. Thanks again for making me feel so welcome. Hope to see you in Bristol next time you visit your Uncle David?

The now familiar post breakfast climb, this time up Hillhead Road towards Constantine, was one of the more severe, rapid height gaining starts. But as I move west towards the regular haunts around Mounts Bay, this territory becomes increasingly familiar. Great place names. From the top of the climb near Treverva, down to Brill, up & down again to Gweek. Don’t cross the Helston River towards Goonhilly! Up to the Culdrose plateau for the rendezvous with brother Neil, who has been allowed the privilege of landing his civilian light aircraft at the busy, active Royal Navy Air Station. Just to pick up his younger brother. Some RAF and RNAS bases have a long history and close association with the RNLI, making string pulling a bit easier. Many off-shore and coastal search & rescue operations have been carried out jointly, with their helicopter crews regularly exercising with local Lifeboats. In early 1968, as a young Air Cadet, before joining the RAF ‘for real’ I had the pleasure of being winched up into a Wessex helicopter of 22 Sqdn SAR, RAF Valley as part of an air crew training exercise. A most electrifying and memorable experience, mostly because I didn’t listen properly to the instructions. Having been told to ‘play dead’ and not to assist the winchman, I let him wrestle me into the yoke. The incredible noise, down-draught and then the sudden lift was too much for an unconvincingly dead cadet. I instinctively raised my not-so-limp arms and grabbed the winch cable above the insulating sleeve. Shocking behaviour. I momentarily earthed the static charge of a large helicopter. It was as if I had been struck hard simultaneously on both elbows with a hammer. That was a very long time ago. It still hurts.

Back in the here & now, approaching the Guard Room/main entrance to RNAS Culdrose I was delighted to be addressed as Sir, the first time since … ? ..  not that long ago really. The British Armed Forces have changed a lot. Much of the day-to-day running of a base such as this has been privatised. Parts of my old job as an airframe technician, including routine maintenance and repairs to RAF/RN aircraft have been passed on to private aviation engineering companies. A very nice civilian (ex RN) chap introduced himself as the duty airfield manager. I was a little early but he was expecting me and kindly escorted me to the Control Tower, offered to take care of Fondo and made me a cup of coffee. Within a few minutes, Neil touched down gently on the huge runway three zero, bang on time. Within a few minutes, I had been driven out to meet him, strapped in, engine re-started, waited for a pair of Hawk jet trainers to land, lined up on runway three-zero and was airborne. Levelled off at 1,500 feet, slight left turn towards Lands End, passing over Prussia Cove, Cudden Point, to the south of St Michael’s Mount. At ground level, I know no stretch of coastline better than this. From above, I’m always amazed and reassured to see how real those Google images are. Then, a moment of sober realisation when I notice we are directly over the precise spot, between Tater Dhu and Boscawen Point where, on the night of 19 December 1981, Penlee’s old Lifeboat, the Solomon Brown, came to grief with the loss of all hands, whilst trying to save those on board the stricken coaster, Union Star. A quick glance across to nearby Newlyn harbour where, since that day, the successive Penlee Lifeboats have been based.  There, at its berth is the tell-tale warm orange glow of the current Severn Class Lifeboat. That’s where I’m due to be tomorrow. That’s why I’m up here now with my very obliging brother, en route to St Mary’s on the Scilly Isles, the penultimate Lifeboat Station to visit before returning to the Lizard to finish the full circuit of the British mainland.

Less than 20 miles of blue above and blue below, between Longships and Wolf Rock lighthouses, before reaching The Scillies. We catch up with the Scillonian III, the regular passenger service from Penzance, as it turns to skirt the south side of St Mary’s. The occasional mild self-harm pinch to check that I’m not dreaming. I really am up here, in a small plane with just one other person, my brother. Above the meeting point of The English Channel and The Atlantic Ocean. How cool is that? How lucky am I?

The airfield on St Mary’s is a bit different to Culdrose. On a low approach, only half of the runway is visible. There is nowhere flat enough on the island to avoid building a runway on a hill. That’s ok. Neil seems to know how to land up-hill. Very casual Air Traffic Control. ..Golf-November Victor, vacate right, onto the grass…  So we did, parking next to another familiar light aircraft. Nick, Neil’s good friend and flying buddy, had just landed a few minutes ahead of us. Coincidence? No. Any excuse for a good flying day.

The Isles of Scilly are the southernmost location in the UK as well as the most westerly in England. St Mary’s, the largest of the five main Isles of Scilly, is still very small. All the usual Cornish attractions (beautiful coastline with sandy beaches, interesting history, ancient & modern, cafe & bar staff with a wide range of non-Cornish accents, part-time/second home in-comers, housing & job shortage for young locals) but much quieter and far less crowded. The peaceful resting place of Harold Wilson. The home to the St Mary’s All Weather Lifeboat Station. Being north facing, Hughtown’s sandy bay is well protected from prevailing south-westerlies and further sheltered from the west by the stone breakwater, creating a safe harbour for the many leisure craft, a few small working boats, the Scillonian III (now docked) and a Severn Class ALB on its mooring. In the centre of the sandy bay sits a large rock outcrop. On that rock sits a solid granite block-built boathouse. In that boat house sits a most unusual (for the RNLI) boarding boat. An open, inboard motor launch. A handsome boat but, as tactfully described by Phil, full-time Station Mechanic, it has its limitations. Plans are under way to modify the old boathouse, to accommodate a more versatile, considerably faster ILB. Thanks Phil for the tour, the signature on the chart and the giving of your time on this typically busy day. Good luck with the plans!

1945   Thanks of the Institution Inscribed on Vellum were awarded to Coxswain Matthew Lethbridge and Second Coxswain James T Lethbridge for rescuing 15 people from the torpedoed American liberty ship Jonas Lie.

1967   A Silver Medal was awarded to Coxswain Matthew Lethbridge Jnr, Bronze Medals to Second Coxswain Ernest Guy and Motor Mechanic William Burrow and Thanks of the Institution Inscribed on Vellum were awarded to each of the eight other crew members for rescuing the 19 crew and saving the yacht Braemar.

1970   A Silver Medal was awarded to Coxswain Matthew Lethbridge Jnr, Bronze Medals to Second Coxswain Ernest Guy and Motor Mechanic William Burrow and Thanks of the Institution Inscribed on Vellum were awarded to each of the eight other crew members for rescuing 10 people from the Nordanhav.

2004   Bronze Medals were awarded to Coxswain Andrew Howells and Crew Members Mark Bromham and Philip Roberts for the rescue of an injured man from a yacht on 29 October 2003. The rescue took place in north westerly force 8 winds, 12 metre seas and 40 miles from the station. Petty Officer Air Crewman David Rigg and Leading Crewman Graham Hatch were both awarded The Thanks of the Institution Inscribed on Vellum. The Shipwrecked Fishermen and Mariners’ Royal Benevolent Society awarded Coxswain Howells The Lady Swaythling Trophy for 2003 for this service.

A leisurely stroll along the beach, lunch: the local delicacy (Scillonian ham, egg & chips) and a cool beer (ground crew only, soft drinks for pilots) on the terrace of the Atlantic Hotel. Another short stroll back up to the airfield. A flying visit indeed. Return flight to Culdrose. Fond farewells. From here, separate destinations: Neil to Lands End airfield, about 12 mins flying time, me to The Lizard, about 40 mins pedalling.

Just a couple of dips & climbs, mostly quite flat along the top of this peninsula, all the way to the last remaining Cardinal Point of the British Mainland, the most southerly. Through Lizard village and down to the point. A quick look at the old RNLI boathouse, now closed. From here, on 17 March 1907 the Lifeboat launched to the aid of the stricken White Star liner SS Suevic. This became the RNLI’s biggest rescue ever. Along with three other Lifeboats, the Lizard lifeboat helped rescue 382 passengers, including over 100 children, plus 114 crew and two stowaways. “Blinded by  the fog, the Suevic hit rocks off the Lizard at 10.30pm. Her bow became wedged between jagged rocks and her bottom was holed. RNLI Lifeboats from The Lizard, Cadgwith, Coverack and Porthleven were called out. The volunteer crews had to face the appalling conditions of strong winds, crashing seas and pitch darkness…. The gruelling task took 12 hours. Every life saved.”

On that day, the Lizard Lifeboat was recorded as saving 167 of those rescued. Now at its new Station at Kilcobben Cove, just a mile or so to the east of the old boathouse, The Lizard Lifeboat is the only remaining of the original four flanking stations of 1907. On my last visit to the Lizard in 2010, Kilcobben Cove was a building site. I look forward to Tomorrow’s first port of call, the finished (now almost 5 yrs old) Lizard Lifeboat Station.

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