Sunday, 27 May 2007

Paines-Taking Triumph

My white bicycle. I miss it
My business partner and good mate Matt Paines has been blogging his two-wheeled odyssey to Le Mans for the Moto GP. You can read his story here.

I'm envious. He's been in one of my favourite countries, doing something I can't do anymore. There are several things I can't do anymore, but motorcycling is the only one I can confidently say that Matt can still accomplish. His Triumph Daytona is always indecently clean and gleaming - I also envy his patience; every bike I've ever owned has developed a patina of road film and insect corpses.

As the weather improves I'm missing my Buell. OK, they're not the fastest bike on the planet - in one dimension. It's an American 1000 with the straight-line performance of a Jap 600. But go playing in the twisty bits and you come back with flies in your teeth and a grin like James Coburn. And the noise! It's like Louis Armstrong accompanied by the zipper on the fly of God Almighty. Sadly, that famously powerful front brake couldn't quite rein it all in before we hit the tractor.

Matt's sat-nav dramas brought to mind yet another triumph of fashion over sense. Why are the latest TomToms wide screen? OK, I can see the sense of a widescreen TV. I'm less convinced by widescreen computer monitors. But widescreen sat-nav? If your car had headlights that illuminated the fields each side of the road you'd get a similar effect.

So Mr T. Tom, go and pick up one of your new models and turn it through 90 degrees. See? Yes, tall screen, that's what we need. Rotate your screen display and give us something practical instead of fashionable.

Then go and sack that designer with the plasma screen telly.

Hello, Who have I telephoned please?

Obsession with security has taken over our lives. On Friday I received another of those bizarre promotional phone calls, this time from Orange. A couple of days before I'd had something similar from Sky TV. In fact it's happened a few times now. The telephone rings and a strongly accented voice says "Hello, is that Mr Shaw?"

"Yes, speaking"

"Hi Mr Shaw, this is XXX from YYY. Would you mind confirming your address and postcode please?"


"So that I can confirm your identity."

"And how do I know who you are?"

"I'm XXX from YYY."

"So you say. Would you give me your date of birth and home address please?"

"I'm sorry Mr Shaw, I'm just trying to confirm I'm speaking to the right person."


I'm not a big fan of identity theft, but I can't see the threat in someone else getting my spam phone calls.

Friday, 18 May 2007

I'm a CAA Approved Test Pilot!

Old Buckenham's CFI, Gerry. A great pilot, but clearly not in my class

Forgot to mention this; had an unusual phone conversation with Gerry Honey yesterday. My phone rang and Gerry's crisp, Battle of British crackled over the airways. "Hi Gerry Honey here, do you know much about Stearman 26?"

26 is my brother's Stearman, that was parked upside down by another pilot two and a half years ago. I admitted some knowledge of the matter. "For various reasons, the CAA won't accept the test flight that I did," said Mr H, "They say that they want you to do it."

Gerry has over 1,000 hours on Stearmans alone, so I'm understandably flattered that my aviation skills are so highly rated by the CAA. They may, however, have overlooked the fact that I lack a couple of the necessary certificates. A license for example.

"That's great Gerry, I'd be delighted. But, er, I don't think you've phoned who you think you have."

"Who's that then?"

"Martin's brother"

****LONG PAUSE****

"Well, hello old boy, how the devil are you?"

You probably had to be there.

Stampe Fly-in

A Stampe: It's sort of a Tiger Moth, done properly

Received some interesting posts from Caroline in Belgium. She alerted me to the site on - well worth a look, and the Stampe Fly-in looks like the place to be this weekend. There's also a Chipmunk meet in Zoerst from 16-20 May. Details on
Caroline's looking for CDs by Amazing Blondel. I thought I was the only person who remembered these guys. I used to go to see them in the 70s. Very British, with a faux-Elizabethan style. I thought they were great, but I also rated the Incredible String Band and Lindisfarne so don't be guided by my tastes. It was AB and ISB that gave rise to my collection of flageolets. We were a folk-rock band called Fern (v. fecund) and later Summatz Grappen (v. stoned) and I used to emulate my multi-instrumental heroes by switching from guitar to ukelele to mandolin and other more obscure instruments. I'd often do this in a single song, to the acute bewilderment of the audience, most (or sometimes both) of whom I knew.

Le Mans or Bust

Matt's bolide, ready to roll. probably

Matt Paines, my co-director in XSEO, the search engine optimisation specialists, is off on an adventure of his own this weekend. He's saddled up his Daytona and headed for Le Mans for the MotoGP. The Daytona decided to eat its own instrument lights yesterday. This is less than ideal for a night trip. By six o'clock last night the front of the bike looked like John Hurt after his unscheduled caesarian in Alien.

He's bought a sat-nav for the journey. He's going to need to learn to spell Le Mans (heh heh)

Check out Matt's blog here.

Madeleine McCann

This needs no further comment from me. Do everything you can. If you're outside the UK call +44 188 373 1336

Thursday, 17 May 2007

The Flapping Rapide and the Dove that Doesn't

It looks lovely. Pity so much of it fell off on the way home

That last post was actually from last week. I've caught up now and this is today. Interesting week. Classic Flight has a new Rapide. Romeo Papa has a good pedigree and Jon and Trevor flew confidently down to the south west to collect it. It looked v. pretty on approach, but as it taxyed in I couldn't help noticing that the fabric on the sides was flapping like a beach towel. Captain Corley looked like he'd limped a flak-damaged Lancaster back from Dresden. "It needs a bit of attention" he muttered, looking at the holes left by the bits that had fallen off on the flight home.

Not quite up to our standards of maintenance this one. Off to the engineers for some TLC.

We have an at-home day at Coventry this weekend. The public can walk around the planes and point, and they can try a ride over Warwick Castle in the Dakota, Rapide, Twin Pin or Prentice. We've been hoping to add the Dove to the list. It's been in the hangar for extensive maintenance for some months so it was great to see her rolling out into the afternoon sunshine.

Yes I know it's really a Devon. Your anorak's undone

She's in fine looks. The Dove's a very pretty plane, and it looks amazingly modern for a 40s aircraft. This is an ex-military version, so strictly speaking it's a Devon, but only people who wear Kangol and speak like John Major really care. (Oooh I'm going to get some stick for that comment).

The right-hand engine burbles happily to life, but the one on t'other wing isn't interested. Apart from a few flatulent chuffs (not the sort Bill Oddie watches) it just doesn't want to burn petrol.

We're going to be a Dove down this weekend.

Thank You Exeter!

It worked! People are telephoning and requesting their Exeter Shopper discount. Suddenly the rainwater down the back of our necks seems worthwhile. Given half-way decent weather this weekend we should take a few people flying...

Wednesday, 16 May 2007

Waterproofing Exeter

Having collected Will (designer extraordinaire) from Kidderminster at some ungodly hour, I was feeling fairly sanguine about the whole giving leaflets out deal. Exeter is considerably closer to the equator than Stafford, so there's plenty of time to eat Welcome Break breakfasts, subject young Jarman to my eclectic musical taste, and try to digest Welcome Break breakfasts.

We reach Exeter more in the form of a splashdown than an arrival. The sky's sprung a leak. God appears to have left the bath running.

We find the Guildhall Shopping Centre and go bravely to work. I hand out leaflets to strangers, Jarman forms several deep and meaningful relationships and appears to have more fun. Then security chuck us out for dirtying their lovely Devon floors with our nasty Midland shoes. We withdraw to the deluge and within an hour we're squelching up to bemused shoppers and handing them unidentifiable pieces of papier maché.

At lunchtime we join the rest of the guys who've brought the Dakota and the Rapide down from Coventry. The cockpit of the latter isn't completely water-resistant. Jon would have arrived with drier feet if he'd come down on a bike. The passenger compartment's dry and snug though. Nobody bothered too much about the driver in the thirties.

We complete the afternoon by pushing wet blotting paper through 500 Exeter letter boxes. I'm sure they didn't bite back when I was a paper boy. We retire to the pub with bleeding knuckles. Everybody in the bar is nervously polite.

Wednesday, 9 May 2007

Why Doesn't Exeter Like Flying?

It's the 70th anniversary of passenger flight from Exeter International Airport this weekend. The first aircraft to land here in 1937 was a deHavilland DH86. There aren't any of those left outside museums, so the nearest equivalent today is the DH89 Rapide. Classic Flight now has three of these magic biplanes in flying condition so it made sense for the mayoral recreation of the event to use some of Coventry's hardware.

A Rapide, A Dakota and some sort of Volkswagen

Tango Mike, Classic Flight's blue Rapide is one of my all-time favourites. She's a lovely old girl with a sweet nature and an amazingly comfortable cabin. She's going down to Exeter with her old friend G-AMPY, our Transport Command Dakota. We're offering pleasure flights to all comers for just £65 a head. Usually you have to fight people off with a mucky stick, but this weekend - where's everybody gone? We've done the advertising, the press releases, the radio interviews... And the forward bookings look like the AGM of the All-Sahara Apathetes League. On a wet Tuesday.

As I'm in charge of marketing, this is slightly more than mildly embarrassing.

So I'm driving to Exeter tomorrow morning with a car full of flyers. I'll be handing them out to shoppers, smiling, cajoling, pleading and, if necessary, buying them a flight.

It's a bloody long way to Exeter, so all you lot in the South-West, make sure you appreciate what I'm doing for you.

Because if you don't come and fly with us we'll fly over your house and drop bombs.

The steery bits of the Rapide. If you came to Exeter this weekend you could even waggle some of them

Sunday, 6 May 2007

Easter at Classic Flight

If you're of a certain age you'll remember those press-out cardboard models you could buy. When I was three my elder brother made a whole fleet of cardboard aeroplanes of the day. His favourite was a tiny de Havilland Vampire that he crafted with ten-year-old dedication and I burnt with three-year-old vileness. The guilt has pursued me ever since.

When I started working with Classic Flight I mentioned the fact that they fly a restored Vampire. Martin replied "Bloody hell, they'd better not let you near that."

Over Easter weekend I was able to pay back the debt. With the kind co-operation of Classic Flight and conspiracy from Jon Corley, their chief pilot, we were able to get Martin aloft in the Vampire.

Maiden Flight: Bruce Dickinson at the controls of the Twin Pioneer

And what a great day it was. There were pleasure flights in a DC3 Dakota, a Scottish Aviation Pioneer (with Bruce Dickinson at the controls), a de Havilland Dragon Rapide and a Percival Prentice. It was a real thrill to see war veterans step out of the Dakota with tears in their eyes. One ex-paratrooper commented that he's taken off in a Dakota lots of times, but this was the first time he's landed in one.

Jon and Martin put the Vampire through its paces in the afternoon sun, finishing with a low, high-speed fly-past that drew a few gasps from the crowd. It's easy to say that the Vamp's not fast by modern standards, but not when it comes by you at 50 feet, doing around 400mph. Martin gets out grinning like James Coburn.

I scuttle around getting on everyone's nerves with Jon's video camera and put together a little film to remember a great day

It needs music. I ask my son Adam to put his musical talents to work and he comes up with a stunning semi-classical piece. I edit it in wide-screen and then realise that YouTube operates in 4:3 format. One day I'll find the time to re-edit it, but in the meantime at least it makes everyone look thin.

Saturday, 5 May 2007

Epilogue: I Can Still Break Your Toys!

There's an important job still undone. At least, I think it’s important. The whole flying experience has been vicarious for me; now I can have a turn. I buckle into the front seat of the Cub; at last, I get to play with Mart’s new toy. Now, shall I scribble on it with a biro or just throw it in the fire?

After 2,000 miles, it's my turn at last

The take-off is… interesting. Adrian’s at the controls – not something you’d usually have any concern about. The initial roll is a little wobbly, but the wind’s not straight down the runway, and this is a Cub after all.
Then it turns sharp left. Within a second we’ve got one wheel on the grass, meanwhile the tailwheel has dropped, leaving us with minimal visibility ahead. Adrian, fearing unseen edge markers, puts the Cub up on one wheel. We gather speed, recover our dignity and rise a little raggedly into the air. “Sorry about that old chap”, says an unruffled voice from behind.

Meanwhile, on the ground, everyone’s assuming it was my fault. “How many hours has Jem got on taildraggers?” is the question on everyone’s lips. “No more in my bloody plane” is Martin’s clenched-teeth answer, his mind dragged inexorably back to all the other toys I’ve broken.

A hint of untidiness on take-off
Meanwhile, overhead, I’m having a very good time. Adrian has handed over to me and we take a gentle afternoon cruise over Norfolk. He tries to correct my inability to recognize anything on the ground and I finally manage to identify Martin’s house and the runway at nearby Shipdham.
Returning to Old Buck my sky blindness returns. Adrian’s talking me back towards an invisible runway. As I cut the throttle for turning final, I still don’t know where we’re going. It’s something of a relief when “I have control” crackles through the intercom.
In the last few weeks we’ve seen old pilots, cold pilots, even bold pilots. Finishing with an old blind pilot burying the plane would be just too much of an anti-climax.

AHC admits it was all his fault

As we touch down (silk-smooth greaser from AHC, no wonder we all hate him), there’s a row of interested faces along the railings. Everyone wants to know exactly how I screwed up the take-off. We decide it would be best for Adrian’s air-cred if I take the blame, but he can’t cope with the mendacity and owns up. He puts it all down to rotating too soon, possibly with a binding brake. He’s been noticing a certain amount of wobbling and swerving in Mart’s take-offs, and now he understands why.
All I know is we walked away from it, and the plane didn’t pick up any tarmac rash. There were edge markers along the runway, any one of which could have pulled a wheel strut off and tipped us over.
On that basis, the boy done bloody good in my book.

Two of the nicest guys I've ever known. And Martin
The only problem now is, what next? I’ve spent a series of extended weekends in the best company anyone could ever wish for. We’ve fallen in love with a country that does nothing to deserve the reputation we choose to give it. Our adventure might have lacked the glamour of a Bugatti Veron screaming through French tunnels. But Clarkson didn’t get the chance to meet the people we did. Jean and Mary’s eccentric but warmly genuine hospitality, Ully’s gloriously bad taste in humour, Robert’s generosity, and the welcome we found virtually everywhere we came to rest.
It’s an experience I’ll never forget.
Thank you guys.

Day Two: Dieppe to Old Buckenham

As dawn breaks I go in search of a boulangerie for breakfast. We recce’d several last night and ascertained that they open between 6.30 and 7.00. It’s 7.15 and they’re all shut. I eventually locate the only one that doesn’t lie about its opening hours and buy fresh chocolate croissants, warm raisin bread and some outrageous pineapple tortes. The Cub’s going to be heavily overweight today.

Adrian goes to get the meteo

Weather at Dieppe is looking OK, and improving rapidly. The Cub just might be going home today. It’s cold but clear, and the angle of the windsock steadily decreases as the morning breeze settles down.

We’re seeing the birth of a perfect flying day.

Clear skies and a drooping windsock. The trip is on

Flying over water in a single-engined plane calls for thorough preparation and a healthy regard for procedures. When everything within gliding distance contains fish, the last thing you want is an embarrassing silence from up front. Adrian and Martin are always conscientious about safety checks, but today there’s a definite sense of added thoroughness.

Adrian checks whether there's any fuel in the water

We’ve got starting down to an approximate science, so AHC confidently pours a sightglass-full of fuel into the right front inlet manifold. After only 20 minutes of cranking we’re rewarded by the mechanical clatter of a happy Continental.

Adrian risks a few more fingers

The Cub taxis away and I climb into the Jeep, pausing to watch the little yellow kite make its characteristically lazy ascent into a violet sky. As the Continental snores into silence I point the Jeep’s nose homeward.

Take-off from Dieppe

I’m alone with the Grand Cherokee. It’s a strange mixture; the 2.7 litre diesel pulls it along at a highly creditable gallop, and you can’t fault the comfort or equipment. It’s just a shame that the steering seems to be transmitted through knicker elastic. I had a 1960 Morris Minor that required almost this much sawing at the steering wheel. The built-in Traffic Master system would benefit from a little more thought. “Your route of 476 miles will take you along the…” by which time you’ve missed the turning and it has to recalculate. Then it says it all again, by which time you’ve missed another turning. I turn on my TomTom and the two squabble all the way home.

Mart announces imminent arrival at Le Touquet. Or Margate

Up above, navigation’s a more straightforward affair. Adrian’s contention is that technology can go wrong; maps can’t. This pre-supposes that you can recognize ground features. My own abilities in this area are modest, so I’m always impressed when pilots convince me they aren’t really lost.Whether they’re secretly using their GPS receivers or not (they’re carrying one each – so traditional), Le Touquet comes up on the nose

Notice to Airmen: The right-hand runway is a bit soggy
I get a call as I approach Le Touquet. They’re on the ground and refuelling for the cross-channel leg. The Cub’s behaving beautifully and they’re enjoying perfect flying conditions. They’ll be airborne again before I get there.

I’m settling down with the Jeep’s directional numbness and finding considerable diversion in Martin’s choice of on-board CD entertainment. I descend under the channel to the accompaniment of the Malcolm Sargent/Huddersfield Choir version of the Messiah. I know it’s not authentic; I know purists say the choir’s too big; I know Handel didn’t use clarinets. Know what else? I don’t care. Elsie Morrison knows that her redeemer liveth, and right now she’s got me convinced.

Those cliffs are twenty miles away - much too far to glide

Life jackets in place, the boys start the crossing. The Continental O-170 is a wonderfully simple – and hence reliable – engine. It’s extremely unlikely to fail, but the channel still looks very, very wide. I can attest from personal experience that when the big fan on the front of a Cub stops turning, the plane has more of a trajectory than a glide angle.

As soon as the French coast falls behind, the engine note switches to automatic rough. Every change in noise, revs or glide angle is suddenly keenly noticed.

Martin see something slower than the Cub

At 75mph there’s plenty of time to look around. The channel’s one of the world’s busiest sea ways, so there’s always something on the surface to look at. The Cub can race ships. It can even beat some of them.

D'you know, I think we're catching him!
The Continental snores happily over the channel and Dover’s soon passing under its flared nostrils. The hop fields of Kent slide smoothly by as the nose turns towards Headcorn.

Overhead Dover. Normal respiration resumes

The landing strip at Headcorn has the consistency and colour of thick Bisto. The cub slithers to a halt in a corner of some English field, covered in most of it. Floats might have been a good idea.
As I pull out of the Eurotunnel terminal I receive a text to say that Adrian and Martin are on the ground at Headcorn. The Cub’s back in England!

Headcorn - quality English mud

Pilots and plane need refuelling. Adrian celebrates his return to Blighty with a bacon and egg sandwich in the airfield café. You can tell a good one by measuring how far up your elbows the yolk runs.

French cuisine may lead the world, but sometimes your arteries need a good British breakfast.

International gourmet and his bacon and egg buttie

I’m back on British motorways. You can tell because everyone drives on the right. I sit in the interminable fast-lane traffic and yearn for French roads. The Cub’s on the last lap, heading for its new home in Norfolk. As usual I’m behind and, impressively quick though it is, this Jeep hasn’t quite got the power of the trip one and two conveyances. They’re going to beat me again.

I pull into the car park at Old Buckenham. No sign of the Cub. A scout round the apron, hangars and bar confirms it: they’re not here yet. Is everything OK?

Ten minutes later, a dot in the sky resolves into a yellow crucifix. G-BFBY is coming home. With his club mates watching, Martin takes extra care with the landing and produces a creditable greaser.

Lots of man-hugs and back thumping ensue. The odyssey is over, and the Cub has a new home.

We did it! The aircrew at Old Buckenham

Cub Trip Three: Jeepster

Diaries have intervened and it’s been difficult to get the team together for our third-time-lucky attempt. Martin’s had several opportunities to bring the Cub home thanks to other flying friends, but he’s held out so that the original three amigos can complete the job. What a splendid chap.

We’re back with General Motors for this trip. We’re using Martin’s Jeep Grand Cherokee Overland. It’s an interesting package, of which more later.

Did I mention we’re videoing this? We’ve carried a video camera with us through all of the trips with a view to recording the experience for the future boredom of dinner guests. Martin tries to do a piece to camera on the Eurotunnel train, but it’s impossible because of a deaf van drivers’ outing immediately in front of us. They stand next to their transit with their faces three inches apart, bellowing obscenities and emitting barking laughs throughout the journey. If the rumours are true, and the English aren’t popular abroad, then the reason why is parked 6 inches in front of us.

Mart primes a hand-grenade for the transit drivers

On the previous visit I attempted to find Dieppe airport by programming TomTom with the latitude and longitude. It failed due to TomTom using Celsius for co-ordinates, while I’m more used to avoirdupois. AHC and Shaw senior were unsympathetic. Mart tries to demonstrate his superior technological grasp by programming our destination correctly. Our route provides us with unparalleled opportunities to take in the Bois de Boulogne, the Ruhr Valley and Easter Island.

Martin achieves level 2 on Super Mario Brothers

Eurotunnel runs smoothly this time and we’re soon sub-Manche and southward bound. My unerring directional talent puts us on the road for Paris – after all, I’ve done this trip a few times now.

But we’re going to Dieppe.

The few moments of irritated silence soon dissipate and within a few minutes we’re singing Tom Tom Turn Around again.

Adrian has an old-fashioned belief in maps. He has no sense of adventure.

AHC identifies where they went wrong in 1944

Martin’s at the helm as we head down past Le Touquet. The weather’s fine, but gusting to 30mph. Each time we pass a truck or cross one of those astonishing French valley-spanning viaducts, the Jeep lurches alarmingly across the carriageway. The steering-wheel swerves like a slowed down Michael Schumacher in-cockpit video.

There’s plenty of room in the back so I perform a few druidical sacrifices to various weather gods. It’s a 4x4, so it’s easier to hose the blood out than it was in the Bentley. I set aside the liver of an unblemished goat for Adrian’s tea.

The original Willis version had rather less wood and leather
We’re back in Dieppe in time to visit the Cub. It’s still sitting where we left it, looking expectantly at the hangar door. There’s a definite expression on its face. If it was a spaniel it would have its lead in its mouth and a look of pleading. Weather permitting, we’ll go walkies tomorrow.
What’s this? L’Auberge Clos du Normand is fermé! With tears in our eyes we go in search of an alternative. It’s off-season and the choices aren’t extensive. We eventually locate a small hotel in the centre of Dieppe. Not picturesque, but clean, friendly and serviceable.
Time for a cold beer. The Pirate Bar in Dieppe harbour has beer so cold it hurts the back of your neck. It also boasts a pleasantly pneumatic barmaid who endures our unsubtle geriatric slobbering with charm and balance. Music’s alright too.

Who invented the riff? The Beatles, Stones or Chuck Berry? Discuss
Hungry now, we begin the customary quest for vegetarian food in a country that believes you can get a good meal out of a pond. After examining every menu in Dieppe, Hall-Carpet nominates one as being the pick of the bunch. We’ll go in, explain to the patron, and he’ll cook us something delicious. We try it. It’s true! There really is a Gallic shrug! The restaurateur helpfully offers three choices: meat, fish or someone else’s restaurant. He directs us to a pizzeria. It’s shut.
We’ve now walked every street in Dieppe. Hall-Carpenter is looking at pigeons and licking his lips. Of all the lives in all the world, he had to get involved in ours. We try to cheer him up by pointing out that he’s no longer Monsieur Vrai, having been wrong about the restaurant. But every time we point at him he bites our fingers.
Desperate, tired and ravenous we return to our hotel. We reason that, as we’re guests, they have to feed us. I ask the waiter if he has anything for vegetarians. He turns the menu over and shows me the vegetarian options.
AHC just ate the table display, and people are staring.

Dusk in Dieppe. A good city to walk around. We know this.

Day Four: Defeated Again

Once again, the weather gods have farted in our general direction. It’s even worse than yesterday, so we’re going home on tarmac once again. My hopes for flying across the channel are dashed, and Martin’s Cub still can’t come home to Blighty.

At least the train works this time

As we’ve come to expect, the French aviation guys are terrific. Gerard, the tower controller, assures us that the Cub is welcome to hangar space. He’s embarrassed that he has to charge a landing fee because the airfield is owned by the chamber of commerce. It’s far cheaper than Britain, but he discounts it anyway.

As we sit dejected in the tunnel train (which works this time), we realise we can’t wait to get back to this fantastic country.

Trip three beckons us.

Day Three: Dieppe to... Dieppe

I left the French doors (What do they call them I wonder?) onto the gallery open and I'm awoken by the dawn chorus. I'm absurdly warm and comfortable and watch the day develop through the frame of the curtain. Meanwhile Martin uses the single bath-full of hot water that the aging boiler can provide. My swimming-pool sized corner bath is to go unused. I sluice myself with an icy jet from the shower and seethe inwardly.

Like a bleaker version of Morecambe in February

The weather is appalling. The windsock is horizontal and the clouds are shouldering each other aside in their haste to dump icy rain down the backs of our necks. Flying today is as attractive a prospect as eating a spaghetti dinner with John Prescott.

We tinker with the Cub’s radio then put it away and prepare for a day’s R&R.

Lunchtime in Dieppe harbour, and we’re importuned by a restaurateur in a rococo shirt. It’s magnificent – a shiny turquoise-purple with swirls and arabesques of metallic thread. The collar points are half way down his chest. He assures us that our gastronomic perversion is no barrier and cooks us a great leek pie. A few glasses of vin de maison and we’re feeling gloriously relaxed. Martin doesn't drink so he qualifies automatically as nominated driver.

Another great meal. I love this country

Unfortunately the restaurant is closed tonight, and Le Clos Normand doesn’t serve dinner on Mondays. Monsieur avec le chemise magnifique offers to open it for us specially. He’s just flown in from the States and is seriously jet-lagged so we let him off. He recommends the Restaurant du Port.

After stooging around Dieppe for the afternoon we arrive at the Restaurant Du Port. Shirtman has phoned ahead to let them know we’re coming. If anyone ever criticises the French again in my hearing, I’ll hit them. Sadly, the meal is… bad. Adrian’s sea food platter looks impressive, but he reports that it tastes more Birds Eye than briny. Martin and I get some cold boiled vegetables and a plate of soggy chips. Ah well.

See the green phone box on the end? It's less inspiring than it looks
Planning for tomorrow includes the suggestion that Martin or Adrian drives the car so that I can get some time aloft. Now we’re talking.

Day Two:Coulombiers to Dieppe

Dawn breaks over the Crewe Cruiser and Crew

It’s freezing cold, but clear and still. Looking good for the flight home. We load up the Bentley and take our leave of Le Centre de Poitou, knowing we’ll see it again someday.

It’s still early when we arrive at Niort and Martin and Adrian start layering up to withstand the cold.

Two old, cold pilots

Robert arrives, ever cheerful and unlocks the hangar. The Cub’s snug and safe, and Robert has had his mechanic change the oil and re-route a couple of HT cables that were in danger of chafing. He absolutely refuses payment for the service work or hangarage – un vrai gentilhomme.

Robert demonstrates true entente cordiale
We already know she can be a bitch to start. Today she really doesn’t want to get out of bed. After two hours of sweating, Adrian (by now christened Monsieur Vrai) concludes that fuel doesn’t flow uphill. He removes an inlet manifold and squirts some petrol up the pipe. The Cub starts second pull.
AHC (Monsieur Vrai), about to make another correct guess

They’re airborne and I’m allowed to get to know the Bentley without distraction. It’s lovely. There’s this gigantic, unhurried 6.7 litre V8 purring gently to itself up front. Back here on the bridge I’m surrounded by the finest cow wrappings, highlighted tastefully with polished rain forest. The chromed ventilator knobs slide home with an indecently tactile schluck. I find The Best of Fleetwood Mac in AHC’s CD changer and spend a happy 100 miles in duet with Stevie Nicks.
The boys beat me to Le Mans, refuel, and press on north to Bernay. I programme the TomTom with Bernais and head determinedly south. It’s 20km before I realise my mistake, by which time I’m heading the wrong way down a toll road. I pull off, negotiate the péage booth, turn round and get back onto the same toll road, ready to pay again.
In an attempt to catch up, the Bentley and I violate French airspace at speeds somewhat in excess of the 130kph speed limit. I love driving in this country; the roads are uncrowded and the standard of driving puts our own lane-hogging pig-ignorance to shame.
Once again, the airborne bath chair has won the race. Martin and Adrian land in Dieppe a good half hour ahead of me, even after the illegal velocities.
TomTom doesn’t know where Dieppe airport is. I call Adrian who asks the locals at the aero club. I’m in Martin Eglise, about five miles away. They can’t give me directions from there as it’s too difficult. Later, they recommend an auberge in Martin Eglise, to which they give us detailed, concise directions. Am I the only one who can see the logical inconsistency here?
But I’m being churlish. Once again, we find the locals friendly, welcoming and accommodating. They volunteer hangarage for the Cub; We explain that we’ll be back tomorrow. They tell us that the club will be deserted - and give us the keys.

Auberge du Clos Normand
The president of the aero club recommended Auberge du Clos Normand. And he was right. It’s a beautiful old building, with the guest rooms in a separate galleried farm building. The chef-patron is welcoming and congenial, and once again, vegetism is no problem. The meal doesn’t quite soar to the gastronomic heights of yesterday, but it’s a damned close thing. I somehow bag the best room, with a gigantic corner bath, but we all have a view of the river and garden, and the birdsong is world-class.

Cub Trip Two: The Bentley

Day One: Norfolk to Coulombiers

Engines, start your gentlemen

It’s 8.00am on Saturday, and a venerable Bentley crunches the gravel outside Martin’s house. It’s a 1993 Turbo R, lovingly preserved by Hall-Carpenter as part of his campaign to show what we British could build before the Germans finally conquered us. Adrian has added me to the insurance so that I can take charge of her. I’m flattered.

I like music, OK? So I need a lot of CDs. Adrian doesn’t understand why the six-stacker isn’t enough for the miles ahead. Hall-Carpet, you have no soul. He tells me that the 217 essential CDs I’ve pre-selected have to be reduced to avoid infringing import/export regulations. Does he think I’m that gullible? I’ll check when we get back…

The last time Adrian was ever wrong

This time we’re all travelling together. Adrian takes the con down to the Eurotunnel, then hands over to me. We’ve booked ahead to save time, but computer says no. The terminal’s on all systems crash and it’s every man for himself. In the confusion we somehow arrive at passport control before being issued with tickets and get turned back to the terminal. We all need food and caffeine by now, so I’m all for buying it at the terminal. Adrian is confident that there’ll be full facilities the other side of passport control. My contention that there weren’t any when I was here two weeks ago falls on deaf ears and, ticketed up, we head for customs. Again.

This time they search us out of revenge.

Tunnel-side there’s, of course, nothing. AHC finds a coffee machine, but this doesn’t qualify as refreshment facilities. This is significant – it’s the only time I’ve ever known him to be wrong. The relief to find he’s human after all is profound.

I’ve been extolling the virtues of the Eurotunnel. It’s slick , it’s reliable, it’s cheap…

It’s broken.

This is one tunnel that would have defeated Charles Bronson
After an hour and a half of minimal information delivered by a surly youth with more pimples than IQ we’re told we’re being “rotated”. What does that mean? The shrug may be Gallic, but the accompanying “Dunno mate” is pure Essex. Ah, how Europe has made cosmopolitans of us all!
It transpires that rotation means moving to a train that isn’t broken. We park for a further thirty minutes on the platform while Adrian does some telephone research and begins to explain the concept of customer service to Eurotunnel. Apparently their terms and conditions relieve them of any responsibility actually to convey anyone anywhere. The typing in the background sounds like an infinite number of monkeys preparing their next legal waiver of common sense.
With 100km to go before Niort we take to the back roads, once again in search of the elusive quaint auberge. This time, in Coulombiers, we find it. It’s called l’Auberge Centre de Poitou.
l'Auberge Centre de Poitou. Go there. Now.
First impressions of my room are favourable. It’s small and cosy, with comfortable sofas and homey décor. I open what I take to be the door to the bathroom. And find the rest of my suite. Vast, indecently comfortable bed, beautiful bathroom, separate bog. Nice.
Downstairs in the restaurant we broach the subject of vegetarianism. Pas de problème m’sieur! We leave it to the chef as suggested. Madame brings us a huge basket of fresh truffles to sniff. The wine list is distinguished, service is cheerful and attentive. This is good. We like this. The food is just glorious. My starter is delicately herbed scrambled egg, with generous shavings of fresh truffles. Martin declares his vegetable soup to be the best he’s ever tasted, while Adrian earns charlatan Brit points by requesting Tabasco with his oysters.
The main course for the cranky veggies is an astonishing assiette de légumes. It’s made up of individual delights like warm pickled red cabbage with chestnuts, unbelievably light and crisp potato slivers and an astounding creation of leek strips with more truffles. All this accompanied by a lovely, light, cherry-flavoured red Sancerre (A little too light for AHC - he likes wine that congeals. I suspect that he fears sunlight). Adrian’s lamb and foie gras folded inside a cabbage leaf comes close to challenging the principles of les vegetablistes.
Food, wine and service of this quality are rarer than steak tartare and we begin to fear the bill. They've seen the Bentley haven't they?
L'addition comes to 300 euros, which seems eminently reasonable for food of this quality. Then we realise it includes the rooms and breakfast.
This place is very special. It's one of those hotels that you look forward to visiting again. And again.

Day Five: Dunkirk Again

This is double-plus ungood. The weather has closed down and we wake up to landscape as grey as John Major’s maiden speech. Drizzling, chilling rain, biting wind and scudding leaden clouds. Manchester would look sub-tropical by comparison.

Sky the colour of a church roof - not ideal

Flying today is out of the question. The only high spot is Robert’s kindness. Of course the Cub can stay in his hangar – he’ll get his mechanic to look it over to make sure it’s in good shape for when we return. A dejected trio piles into the car and we start the retreat. Dunkirk lives again – the Brits are defeated.

But we’ll be back.

Day Four: Berdoues to Niort

Oh, but look how pretty...
The head’s feeling a little battered this morning. The boys were righteously abstinent last night, so they’re well fettled for the flight. Jean and Adrian continue the argument they started last night about continental navigation. If this was a school playground, we’d be marking the height of the urine stains on the wall.
As a diversion we wheel the Cub out into the chill February air. Time for detailed pre-flight checks. No need to check for condensation says Jean, there isn’t any in his hangar. Adrian does a discreet fuel check anyway. Old pilots, bold pilots…
Loose struts aren't a problem. On the ground
We find a loose jury strut. Not actually as big a problem as it might sound, but much nicer to discover with your feet on tarmac.

The Cub was built in 1943, so she’s looking pretty good for an old lady. Ully Shuhmacher has looked after her with devotion and there’s a definite un-Teutonic wetness to his eyes as he watches the preparations. Ully is a great John Cleese fan and keeps mentioning the war. Anyone who says Germans have no sense of humour has never heard Herr S in full spate. I laugh until my head hurts (even more).
Ully Shuhmacher mentions the war

This is an L4 Cub, the military variant of the J3, so it has much more glazing in the cockpit than the civil version. It was used extensively in WW2 for artillery spotting. This involved flying very slowly and predictably above enemy anti-aircraft guns. Heroism is far too small a word. It’s widely acknowledged as one of the world’s sweetest-flying aircraft, with an honest simplicity that’s hard to resist.

747s have more dials than this. So does my watch
The last dogfight in WW2 was won by a Piper Cub! Nicknamed Miss Me, it was an unarmed L4 whose two-man crew attacked a German Storch with pistols. They forced the enemy plane to crash-land, landed alongside and took its crew prisoner. Nowadays, when someone rescues a trapped kitten, we call them a hero…

Healthy morning exercise, Piper style
Herr Shuhmacher admits sheepishly that she can be “a bit of a bitch to start” An hour later, when everyone’s arms are aching from swinging the prop, we’re all too knackered to hit him.

Finally, the old girl decides we’ve suffered enough and deigns to give a stately cough, a discreet belch and the daintiest of farts. A puff of white smoke marks the transition from lifeless metal to 65hp of unbridled muscle. That’s about the same power output you get from a Nissan Micra. Or a Flymo.

A slow grin spreads across Martin’s face, Ully’s head emerges from his collar, and Jean explains that we should have listened to him from the start.

The engine warms and settles to a steady, well-maintained beat. Ully steps forward to pat the Cub’s tailfeathers affectionately as she taxis gently out to the airstrip.

And zero she flies as the morning sighs (with thanks to Al Stewart)

The Cub’s not a rocket ship climber when solo, and with Adrian’s six feet four crammed into the back seat (he actually can’t get into the front at all), plus fuel, maps and hand luggage, the climb-out is decidedly leisurely. AHC gives us a laconic wave as Martin settles down to get the feel of his new baby.

I’m trapped for another hour by Jean and Mary’s fantastic hospitality. Last night’s urinary competition reappears when Jean insists that the guys were lost from the moment they took off. They followed the wrong river, he insists. I nod stickily through the home-made marmalade and perfect coffee.

As it turns out, the wrong river leads to the right destination, and I get a call from Adrian to say that they’ve reached Ste Foy Le Grande while I’m still driving out of Berdoues.

It’s Sunday. I’m in rural France and low on fuel. This slowly turns from a worry into a problem. Then it pales into insignificance as last night’s minestrone, basil and garlic make a bid for freedom.

Dites en français: There are few petrol stations; there are no public toilets.

Suddenly sunlight breaks through my mental thunderhead: Kaz’s survival kit! Andrex to the rescue! A lay-by with a hedge and… there is a corner of some foreign field that is forever England.

Feeling more complaisant by far I find a petrol station that, through some oversight, is open. I roll in as the final fumes are sucked through the injectors. As I fill up I remember the fifteen gallons of gas in the jerry cans in the boot.

I’m now well behind and the guys arrive at Niort over an hour ahead of me. This is to be our overnight stop. Jean has called ahead to his friend Robert who kindly finds us space for the Cub in his hangar.

Robert kindly finds the Cub a room for the night

Another publicity photo - an hotel as characterful as a community centre
Time, once again, to find the elusive characterful auberge. The Hotel les Ruralies comes highly recommended so we book in from the airfield. If concrete has character, then this place has plenty of it. It has three stars, but then, so did Game For A Laugh. It also has the similarity that no sane person would ever spend a night with any of them.
We go in search of vegetarian food. Adrian is ready to eat road kill. We eventually find a pizzeria with fantastic three cheese pizza. Martin and I trough two each. A modicum of vin is consumed and it’s back to the hotel and bed by 9.30. Such party animals.