What do Woburn Abbey, bi-planes, the best Sunday school teacher, Australia, and an old white bird have in common? Maybe not much for you, but for me there's a big connection. I discovered Woburn Abbey when I was 10 years old and living in Australia. The Duke of Bedford, hereditary owner of that great country house, was Down Under touring his art collection to raise money for a restoration. It seems that the Abbey had developed a plague of dry rot. His Grace shook my hand and signed a dedication in the catalogue which my mother had bought for such a purpose. The Duke impressed me so much that I knew Woburn Abbey was the greatest of all the palaces and castles in England and that I would one day visit it.
In the Duke's art collection was a painting of a cockatoo, a beautiful and noisy white bird found only in Australia. But the painting was made in Europe many years before Australia was discovered! Some hapless cockatoo had blown ashore a ship sailing in the far east and been taken to Europe as a curiosity. Centuries later its image was making the pilgrimage back to the land of its ancestors.
OK, that's one connection with Australia. The other has to do with my Sunday school teacher in Australia at the time when I met the Duke. I have kept in touch with that lovely woman over the miles and the years. Glenda is one of those rare intimate friends whose kitchen I can walk into after an absence of an hour or a decade and know that I'll find an unreserved welcome, a cup of tea, and the resumption of the running conversation we've been having for 30 years.
In recent years her husband, Kevin, has become wealthy enough to afford to take up flying as a hobby. Not just any kind of flying, but going aloft in Tiger Moths, that most famous of bi-planes, built in Canada by deHavilland. Bear with me, the Woburn connection is coming.
On a return trip to Australia a few years ago, Kevin took me to his airstrip and he took me up in his favourite bi-plane. We soared, we roared, we looped loops and did barrel turns. We flew up and up and up and straight up and purposefully stalled and re-started the engine only after we started to dive. In the air I was too thrilled to bother feeling queasy but back on the ground I was involuntarily green for half an hour as my inner ear rioted and I tried to subdue the adrenaline in my veins. It was a hell of a first date. It was love, I was hooked.
And Kevin mentioned "the Woburn Event." Every summer there's a fly-in of deHavilland Moths at Woburn Abbey which Kevin had been attending. He takes the wings off the planes, puts them in containers and ships the whole assembly by freighter to England. Much the same route taken long ago by the disoriented cockatoo.
So the next year I met Kevin and Glenda at Woburn Abbey. It was a long way from Sunday school. We were at the ancient home of the Dukes of Bedford, smack in the middle of - where else - Bedfordshire. For a few days I was part of the most exclusive convention I have ever attended.
There is no shortage of space for planes at Woburn. The estate is 30,000 acres, 5,000 within the 11 miles of stone wall around the deer park. Tiger Moths are not brutal tarmac planes, they're delicate little lawn planes. Their rear wheel is not a wheel at all, but a slider whose drag on the grass is a necessary part of the process of stopping the plane when it's landing. And they're very light: they're made of fabric stretched over thin struts. So a cordoned off portion of the front pasture of Woburn Abbey is the perfect place for the deHavilland Moth Event.
Woburn Abbey is a multi-purpose facility these days. There's a zoo, a pond with plastic boats, restaurants, picnic areas and of course the Abbey itself which is a repository of treasures from centuries of wealth. Most remarkable is that the majority of Woburn's priceless pieces are actually in good taste - surely a unique distinction for a great country house. One dining room (Woburn has are 22 dining rooms) has 21 real Canalettos, and there's a sitting room (Woburn has 32 sitting rooms) devoted to the memorabilia of the Flying Duchess. In 1937, in her 73rd year and her 200th hour of solo flying, the Duchess of Bedford perished when her Moth fell into the North Sea. No doubt that Duchess is present in spirit when the Moths gather on her front lawn.
The reunion of Moths has a similar dynamic to a dog or horse show. The owners are very proud of their beasts, a compliment to the animal (or aircraft) is graciously accepted as a compliment to the owner. There are pilots who have the roles of jockeys, but the only real stars are the Moths themselves. They have at least as much personality as dogs or horses, and although there is no betting, there is competition. Best in Show, Best Pilot, Best Aerobatics. The Duke doesn't show up, he's now living in France, but his son, the Marquess of Tavistock, comes, shakes hands, is his personable genteel self, and gives out trophies.
On the final day of the event I attended there was a display of formation flying by a squadron of Tiger Moths. It was a lovely aerial ballet in which the group used every dramatic device in the book. They grouped high and suddenly dispersed, they disappeared over the tree tops and re-appeared, low and loudly from a different direction. In the age of the Concorde and the Space Shuttle, these bi-planes were again masters of the air for a few minutes.
If you wonder how these aerial ballets are rehearsed, I can tell you. It's one thing for a dancer on a stage to crash into another and fall down, but you'd do more than rumple your tutu if you did that in a Tiger Moth at 1,000 feet. All the formations, all the grouping, regrouping, and complex routing were practiced beforehand. Immediately before their synchronized flight, all the pilots got out and walked around the grass runway in the same formations they were about to achieve a few hundred feet higher up. Nobody put their arms out to make wings, they were very serious and very intent.
And I did get a ride. Peter Colman, a British Airways pilot, took me up in his Moth. I strapped on the same headgear Snoopy wears to play the Red Baron and sat in the front seat (that's the passenger's place) with my face in the wind just behind the propeller. We roared up into the blue English sky. We soared over Bedfordshire and looked down on rooftops from the angle that the Flying Duchess and Mary Poppins would have seen them. I took a few snaps of the Abbey when I could bear to block my view with my camera and we saw the swarm of Moths on the green pasture far below.
My tour was almost the last fight of the event. When it was over the Moths lined up, cranked their propellers, and flew off in all directions. A few went home to Australia.