When I popped an e-mail over to Cotswold Life offering them a few snaps and some airfieldy musings, I didn’t really think they’d publish them. But they have. May edition and a whole double page spread too. I’m delighted. It’s so good to see some of these old WWII bases getting the sort of recognition they’ve deserved for so long.
Big thanks to Candia and all the team at Cotswold Life.
I fancied a ride this evening. It’s spring. It’s light. It’s Wednesday. It’s been a bitch of a day in the office.
That’s good enough for me.
I had to drop our entry fee for the Village Quiz in at a neighbour’s house so thought I’d call by on the Ural.
As I set off, there was still enough light not to worry the eccentric Ural electrics and the lanes beckoned. The edges of the sky were just starting to crinkle and dim, but that was it.
Living in Bampton has a tendency to resemble The Archers from time to time. This was one of them.
I arrived on Helene’s doorstep just as another neighbour and fellow rider, Reece, got there too. Both of us clutched our Quiz cash in our hands. I knocked. We exchanged bike chat as we waited for Helene to answer the door.
After a few minutes, Helene flung the door open, clearly somewhat flustered. There she stood, in her nightgown with a towel around her head, Read more…
It was the rain that did it. That, and me buggering off for Christmas, leaving the Ural alone, outside under its cover. By the time I’d got back, half the UK’s annual rainfall had found its way into the carburettors. The Ural has two, one for each cylinder. Most of the water was, of course, in the left carb. “So what?” ask readers unfamiliar with combos imported into the British Isles. The left carb is wedged between the sidecar and the bike. Getting to it requires the skills of a contortionist India-rubber keyhole surgeon, a long-handled screwdriver and patience. By the Law of Sod which so carefully governs our lives, this means the left carb is always the one to fill with water, go out of balance, acquire a mouse nest in the float bowl…
But, actually, it’s all my fault. And it shows precisely why Urals are not, as some believe, rolling manifestations of unreliability. Instead, it illustrates that there are only unreliable owners.
Thing is, modern stuff and Urals are fundamentally different. Modern stuff is all about sealed units, electronics, modules and zero interaction. You get on a modern bike, thumb the starter and it goes. No fuss, no bother – and absolutely no need to interact with the machine. The mechanics powering its engine and drivetrain are as much a mystery to you as the interior of your microwave.
A Ural is different. And that means Ural owners need to be different too. Starting procedure… if you have any mechanical sympathy at all, you’ll turn the engine over a couple of times with the kick-starter, just to give the top ends a fighting chance of getting a bit of oil heading their way. Then you’ll need to open the enricheners on the nasty, cast-in-purest-cheese Pekar K68 carbs. Of course, you’ll already have checked their float bowls are free from water, remember? Then, clutch in and hit the starter. This assumes you’re not one of the significant minority of Urallists who eschew electric starting.
And that’s the point. Urals are about interaction, about knowing how, about getting involved with the machinery. And that’s why they need the right sort of owners. Anyone who thinks they can just get on and ride an older Ural like a Modern is in for a very oily, spanner-related wake-up call.
My pal Alex’s new Triumph horrified him by being supplied with just a 5mm allen key. That was it. But it has more computers powering the fuel injection system than ran the whole of the Soyuz I mission. And you’re not allowed near any of them. In fact, modern bikes discourage interaction of any sort apart from the throttle-twisting kind.
That’s fine, although I’m old fashioned enough to think that if you’re going to trust your neck to something you should understand how it works and be able to fix it. A Ural comes with a tool kit that’s comprehensive enough to rebuild the engine, fix the cycle parts and probably construct a Bessemer converter with what’s left over.
If you jump from a Honda to a Ural, and treat it with the sort of neglect Hondas lap up, it WILL be an unreliable heap. That’s because a Ural needs maintenance in the same way a Honda needs petrol. It’s part of the ownership experience.
Maintain a Ural, tinker, fiddle, get to know it and it will be (as mine has been) stone reliable. It will get you home – always. That’s because you’ll know what to do with the countless little things that niggle on a Russian machine that defines the concept of simple mechanics.
That means you need to be a certain sort of person to own a Ural for the long term. The sort of person who has a set of metric feeler gauges and knows what they’re for. Who understands, at least broadly, how a carburettor works. But most of all, who takes to heart the WWID technique of maintenance and repair.
WWID stands for “what would Ivan do?” Ivan being the mythical, Everyman Russian Ural owner with basic tools, no training, but a self-taught understanding of how mechanical things work. For example, Ivan would cheerfully use a strip cut from a drinks can as a shim. As Pirsig points out, it’s perfect shimstock – and Ivan knows it. He knows when to step back, put down the spanner and think. And his life is richer for it.
So when someone takes a pop at ‘unreliable’ Urals from the electrically heated saddle of their new K1600GTL, I’m happy to smile. That’s because I know that if their self-levelling headlight circuit develops a fault, their entire bike’s systems will shut down in self protection and they’ll be trailered home. If my Ural’s headlight fails, as it did a couple of years ago, there are only two options – the bulb or the fuse. Takes two minutes to sort either and get on with riding. I like simple. Simple’s best. Ask Ivan.
All across the Cotswolds, if you stop for just a few minutes on hilltops, you can find strips of broken concrete, grass growing in the jumbled cracks. Red brick buildings with peeling, grey render and steel framed, glassless windows. Today, they’re derelict, but these World War II RAF bases were once crammed with life as they brought Britain’s war effort to the peace of the Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire countryside.
RAF Broadwell – closed, March 1947. A few seconds off the A361 between Burford and Lechlade. Now mostly farmland (although the control tower still stands), Broadwell saw clouds of Horsa gliders take off for the D-Day beaches and Arnhem. The main runway that launched the glider fleets is now a minor road linking the A361 and Kencot. You can ride along it.
RAF Kelmscott – closed December 1946. A few minutes walk from William Morris’ home in the village, in early 1944 it resonated to the shouts of Polish paratroops as they drilled endlessly for D-Day. Today, all that’s left is a grass track, some open fields and memories.
RAF Windrush – closed in late 1945. You can glimpse few still-standing buildings as you flash past on the A40 to Cheltenham. Late in the evening of August 1940, this is where trainee pilot, Sgt Bruce Hancock, practicing night flying in his unarmed Avro Anson, rammed an attacking Luftwaffe Heinkel out of the sky. He killed both the crew of the HE111 and himself. He was 26. To this day no-one’s sure whether he rammed the German plane deliberately or as part of an evasive manoeuvre. Sgt Hancock is buried at Hendon. The German airmen were laid to rest with full military honours at Northleach.
RAF Stanton Harcourt – closed in 1945. Churchill flew to the Casablanca Conference in January 1943 from here. Its runways are broken up and submerged under feet of water in gravel pits now. The only remaining length of them, where once Whitleys and Halifaxes clawed their way skywards, lies hidden and unregarded next to landfill mounds near Dix Pit, West Oxfordshire’s municipal rubbish dump.
The names of the bases read like poetry: Stanton Harcourt, Southrop and Akeman Street, Enstone, Chipping Norton, Down Ampney and Little Rissington. But there are few words to mark most of them today. Some dusty maps, station record books and faded grey photos in the RAF Museum Archive at Hendon.
I suspect there are many more photographs in musty family photograph albums – sepia shots of an uncle or a grandfather in RAF blue, a set of wings proudly on his left breast. The outline of a badge, showing Pegasus and Bellerophon for the British Airborne Forces, on the shoulder of a young man in the corner of another curled-edge shot.
The story of these bases is really the story of the thousands of young men who lived, flew and trained to fight on them. For some of those men, the glimpse of an RAF base through the closing door of a Normandy or Arnhem-bound C47 Dakota aircraft was the last they saw of England.
Few are marked with any memorial. Most are slowly being demolished for building and track hardcore, used for storage and farm machinery or simply left to rot. In no case are there gates, entrance fees or guidebooks. Anyone who is interested can walk in on the footpaths and see history for themselves.
For me, exploring them is a chance to feel this history first hand. To get a sense of the places that were – and are – so significant in our country’s past. It’s easy to think of them as abandoned, forgotten even, but they’re far from it.
I’ve been lucky enough to have conversations with some of the men who flew from them. Their memories are still bright and sharp. And, even as the bricks and concrete decay, more people are learning their history. It’s that history I’ve tried to capture in the pictures I’ve shot and words I’ve written. It’s the story of the thousands of men and women, as ordinary as us, who became extraordinary because of what they did. That makes it a history well worth telling.
As I sit here, waiting for my molten-hot Turkish coffee to cool to a temperature that won’t induce third degree burns, I’m watching my teenage years ride past. More accurately, it’s the smell of the passing two-wheeled scenery in the fluorescent lights from the restaurants that’s most evocative.
Mingled with the coffee and the heavy evening jasmine is the sharp-edged aroma of two-stroke oil. I’m straight back to the evening in 1985 when I handed over £80 in hard-earned waiting-table fivers and got, in return, the keys to a metallic red Suzuki A100 that was my introduction to motorcycling.
It’s 30 degrees in the shade here in Turkey, and they don’t ride in leathers.
They don’t ride much in the way of big bikes either. The largest I’ve seen has been a lone R1200GS. The rest? Much, much smaller. 125 is the norm, with everything from obscure Chinese reverse-engineered CG125s to the occasional Jawa.
But almost everyone rides. I’ve seen 9 year olds gunning faded and scraped 50cc Motobecanes that must have been shipped here in 1959. There are leathery-tanned old guys with half the family plus shopping and a gas cylinder on a Honda Melody. And there are teenage girls looking cool-as on their no-licence-no-tax electric bikes, mobile phone clamped to their ears.
No leathers, no gloves, no helmets. Heat stroke is a certainty, a crash a mere likelihood. Theft isn’t much of a concern. Keys left left in so long they seize in place. There are bikes propped up everywhere and they’re the staple way of getting around and transporting anything you like.
All you do is ride the wrong way down the one way street (ideally with your girlfriend/boyfriend/wife/husband perched casually on the back), bounce up the pavement, flick the stand down and walk away.
Alternatively, stop in the centre of one of Dalyan’s main streets, park up and chat to your pal as the last-legs Renault 9s and shiny white Tata Fiat clones weave slowly around you.
A We-know-bestminster parking stormtrooper would be filing a personal injury claim for ticket-elbow in about three minutes – just before the local population quietly explained that we don’t do it that way here and isn’t it time for an apple tea or two?
But some things are absolutely no different.
I watched a lad on one of the comparatively rare Vespas this morning. Standard-issue kit of flip-flops, sun-faded t-shirt, shorts and a grin. He was on one of the stretches of Tarmac, and, as it opened out he did likewise with the throttle. Pulling back on his battered moped’s bars, he executed a series of perfect, ski-style carve-turns, the tyres digging into the soft bitumen as he swung the bike from side to side. As he rode, swooping, towards me, I could see his smile of pure joy on his face. He passed, with a yelled “merhaba!” and a gravelrash-risking, casual wave. I waved back with a grin just as big and watched him snake his way up the mountain road out of sight, still flicking his machine from side to side.
It really doesn’t matter what you ride.
I sat in the airless reception area with its cheerful, exhortative corporate posters and thought of communist Russia. Dark wood. Grey, worn carpet. Grey fluorescent lights. Every so often, there would be a sharp, electronic bleep and the door would get pushed open. A grey-suited figure would scuttle past and the door, on its spring, would creak slowly shut. I thought affectionately of WD40.
Waiting on the single, plastic seat so kindly provided for visitors, I thought too of the sunshine I’d left behind as I picked up my visitors’ badge at Reception. I resolved, as soon as I got home, to get the Ural’s keys off their hook and out into the evening lanes.
By the time I’d dug under the wire and out of Stalag Corporate, the sun was thinking about a stiff G&T and putting its feet up. But, at this time of year, the shadows seem longer and richer in the evenings. And Read more…