It is some thirty years since my maternal grandfather died. It is from him that my mother has inherited an encyclopaedic memory of history, a capacity to recall the oral traditions of the family, and a wide range of recollections of post-war life in our small corner of England.
In a conversation with him one day, she had told him that she remembered seeing an airship.
“How do you remember that, Ruby, you were only two? I had taken you out to Aller with me on the bicycle. On the way back, we were at Whitehill when it went over. I stopped and we stood and watched it for a long time.”
It was a story that had often been questioned. Was it imagined? Was it a retrojection of a later moment? One local telling of it by a man in the village had embellished the story to the point where it was said that Adolf Hitler had flown over.
Sitting with my mother on a blustery May afternoon, I decided to attempt to verify the story. The British airship experience had ended in the early 1930s, the famous German airship the Hindenburg had ended in flames in 1937. How had there been an airship over Somerset in 1939?
A search of the web confirmed that a German Zeppelin had flown over Yeovil in 1939. Reconnaissance pictures it had taken included photographs of the Westland aircraft factory.
“One day, when your Dad and I were out on the motorbike, we went up to Bristol and I saw Filton airport. I said to your Dad, ‘I saw the Brabazon take off there.’ He didn’t believe me, I told him that Harold Bennett had brought us up in his van.”
The Brabazon was one of those heroic pieces of British engineering that was a complete commercial failure. An eight-engined airliner, only one of which was built, its cost meant it never went into production. The maiden flight was on 4th September 1949.
“Harold Bennett’s van was a long Bedford. There were three seats across the front and he had benches down each side in the back. Harold sat in the front, Glady sat in the middle, and Grandad at the other door. Man and the seven of us were in the back, four on each side.”
An online search revealed that 10,000 sightseers gathered to watch that maiden flight. A further search found a green van similar to the one my mother remembered.
Undoubtedly, in the future every fact will be recorded somewhere, but will there be the storytellers to put those facts together?