The Scene: St. Pharts Home for Old Aviators somewhere in Middle England. Squadron Leader James “Biggles” Bigglesworth (retired) tiptoes discretely into the common room to be greeted by his old pal and fellow resident, Ginger Hebblethwaite.
Ginger: I say Biggles where have you been all afternoon?
Biggles: Shh! Been To Bedfordshire. Might be knocking on a bit Ginger but not lost the spirit of adventure! Sneaked out when Matron wasn’t looking. Ginger (puzzled): Wooden stairs to Bedfordshire? Bit sleepy, eh? Not surprised after that double helping of spotted dick for lunch.
Biggles: No, no. Bedfordshire. The fine county of. Went to a little town called Biggleswade. Ginger: By jove Biggles, old boy – they’ve named a town after you? How spiffing!
Biggles: Seems so, Ginger. Mind you, I have to say it’s quite an unremarkable place – I don’t think anything of note has happened there since the 22nd of July 1661.
Ginger: And what was that?
Biggles: That old cove Samuel Pepys stopped in the town to buy a pair of warm woollen stockings!
Ginger: Ha ha – I’ll wager the good burghers of Biggleswade couldn’t contain their excitement. But my dear old thing, how on earth did you know that?
Biggles: This is the modern world Ginger – read it on the interweb. That encyclopedia thing.
Ginger: Wiki …. wotsit, er, Wikileaks?
Biggles: Well yes, it does as it happens. One of the joys of growing old but stop changing the subject.
Ginger (puzzled again): So all that’s really happened in Biggleswade in the last three hundred and fifty years is that some fellow who kept a diary bought a pair of woollen stockings there? In July. Strange. Global warmage must be worse than I thought – wouldn’t need woollies in July nowadays. (Long pause)
Biggles: Ooh, there was something else – the Shuttleworth Collection.
Ginger: A shuttleworth collection, how splendid! I used to love a game of the old shuttleworth. Any racquet sport and I was your man.
Biggles: Ginger, old chap – “Shuttleworth” not shuttlecock. Fabulous place, old grass airstrip and sheds full of old planes and cars. All our era, Ginger, and earlier. An old Blériot monoplane, would you believe – the oldest kite in the world still flying. Lots of planes from the first dust up with Jerry – they’ve even got a Sopwith Camel, and a Sopwith Pup and a Triplane! And stuff from the second show too, like Hurricanes and a Lizzie. Remember the time we flew Lysanders into France right under Jerry’s nose?
Ginger: I’ll say! What a close scrape that was. But …. you say they’ve got a Sopwith Camel?? Well, cover me in tinsel and call me Christmas, the old Camel, eh? Now that was a tiptop old crate, wasn’t it Biggles?
Biggles: Certainly was, old boy. Wouldn’t old Algernon have loved to see that?
Ginger: Ah yes. Dear old Algy. Always regretted that last adventure in Canada. Bit past it, weren’t we?
Biggles: Possibly. Poor old Algy (sigh) …….. (he continues sadly) Algy met a bear.
Ginger : The bear met Algy.
Biggles: The bear had a bulge.
Ginger: The bulge was Algy.
(Pause while they reflect on their dear old chum, Algernon Montgomery Lacey). Eventually:
Biggles: He never was the same after he pancaked in that Spit and cracked his head on his joystick.
Ginger: He thought the bear was his old nanny.
Biggles: Monstrous hairy old beast.
Ginger: The bear was quite frightening too………….
Biggles: Anyway, fancy a game of croquet before tea?
Ginger: Why not? You lead the way, old thing.
Biggles: Righty-ho. Chocks away!
Exit. Not pursued by a bear.
The above may need some explanation for some! Biggles is a fictional character – an English pilot and adventurer created by author Captain W.E. Johns for young readers. Biggles, along with his pals Ginger and Algy, was the subject of about 90 books written by Johns between 1932 and 1968. Biggles never seemed to grow old as he fought in World War I, World War II and then had a career as a flying detective in the post-war years! He must have eaten a lot of turmeric but strangely, Johns never mentioned this in the books.
The Shuttleworth Collection is very real and, as Biggles says, it’s a fabulous place. Based at the Old Warden aerodrome just outside Biggleswade, the collection comprises about 60 old aircraft, 40 or so cars (many seriously old), motorcycles and agricultural machinery. There is also an ornamental garden – the Swiss Garden – and a grand old house. Most of the exhibits work as they are supposed to – flying or driving or tractoring or thrashing or whatever. Special events like airshows are frequent. I have been several times over the years including a memorable visit for a twilight airshow. This was held in the evening when the air was at its stillest so they were able to fly (or attempt to fly) the oldest and most frail exhibits – including the old Blériot, just like the one in which Monsieur Blériot made the first flight across the English Channel in 1909. On a warm summer’s evening with everyone sitting around on picnic rugs and Daisy the cow interrupting proceedings occasionally by wandering onto the grass airstrip, it was wonderfully atmospheric.
Samuel Pepys (pronounced “peeps”) is also real and is famous for the diary in which he recorded his daily activities between 1660 and 1669. The diary is an important historical record of life in England during that period – for example, it includes an eyewitness account of the Great Plague of London and the Great Fire of London and also an insight into where the best stockings could be purchased in the 1660s.
I delivered a van to Biggleswade on Monday which prompted this post but, unfortunately, I had no time to visit the Shuttleworth Collection nor did I buy any stockings (funny that). I’m afraid I have to report that the town is as unexciting as Biggles suggests.