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The work to restore Donald Campbell’s Bluebird in Coniston

PUBLISHED: 00:00 09 September 2015 | UPDATED: 19:05 13 April 2016

Alan Cox at The Ruskin Museum showing visitors Christine and Dave Trotter the latest progress photo of Bluebird's restoration

Alan Cox at The Ruskin Museum showing visitors Christine and Dave Trotter the latest progress photo of Bluebird's restoration


Progress is slow but steady in the spectacular Lancashire village of Coniston, writes Mike Glover

The Coppermines valleyThe Coppermines valley

IT may have something to do with The Old Man which looms 2,634 feet above the village, but Coniston certainly likes to take its time.

The restoration of Bluebird, the boat which so spectacularly crashed killing speed king Donald Campbell, has so far taken 14 years and will probably take at least a couple more.

Award-winning Coniston Brewery has been in operation for 20 years, and has only just reached capacity while the copper mines that dominated the local economy for centuries are finally being recognised as a site of industrial heritage site more than 30 years after their potential was first spotted.

You don’t have to dig too deep in this Lancashire Lakes village of just 1,000 residents to find a link between the three projects. That link is, of course, Donald Campbell.

Owner, Ian Bradley (right), and brewers, Glann Todd (rear) anf Ian Waring at Coniston Brewing CompanyOwner, Ian Bradley (right), and brewers, Glann Todd (rear) anf Ian Waring at Coniston Brewing Company

It was on January 4, 1967, that his Bluebird K7 soared and flipped at around 300mph before disappearing beneath the surface of Coniston Water. The aluminium alloy boat sank into the silt, where the lake is at its deepest, along with Campbell’s body.

For 34 years the village followed the family’s wishes to leave it as a grave but towards the turn of the millennium Campbell’s daughter Gina was aware that diving technology had advanced and there was a risk it would be plundered.

So when Tyneside engineer Bill Smith came up with a plan to recover the boat and with it Campbell’s body, Gina agreed, saying: ‘Find dad, so we can put him somewhere warm.’

This was achieved in 2001 and Campbell was buried at Coniston cemetery. Having raised the boat, there was the dilemma of what to do with it. The family, Smith and the Ruskin Museum decided it should be restored and displayed in Coniston, its spiritual home.

The Heritage Lottery Fund paid for an upgrade to the museum in 1999 and the team thought it would support the extension needed to house Bluebird. It didn’t.

Despite numerous attempts, the plan was finally rejected in 2006. In true Coniston-style, Vicky Slowe, the curator, didn’t give up. She raised £675,000 for the building and its fittings, with the help of various individuals and organisations. Villagers also raised £60,000 so in 2008 the extension was built.

The restoration of Bluebird itself has taken even longer. There were 80,000 rusty rivets to be removed and replaced. All parts were in imperial measure while most manufacturers had gone metric. A third of the boat has had to be built from scratch. The rest has had to be lovingly restored by volunteers. And Bill begs and borrows, mainly from the Lancashire aeroplane industry.

This summer he got to the stage of having completed the parts that had to be built from scratch and wanted room to work on the hull and cock-pit which are in a good enough condition to restore.

About a third of the boat in volume, or a half in weight, was moved from North Shields to Coniston. The two restored spars, some of the fairings and replicas of the boat’s four-metre long sponsons now rest with the engine on the footprint of the whole Bluebird, in the museum extension. It is already causing a stir.

‘This is a real labour of love. If Coniston does something, it likes to do it properly and if that takes time, then so be it,’ said Vicky, who thinks it will be another couple of years before the parts are returned to Tyneside for the whole to be put back together, and returned for a trial on Coniston Water again, before being housed in the museum.

Donald Campbell and his father and fellow world land and water speed record holder, Sir Malcolm, had many links with Coniston.

One was the Black Bull Inn and Hotel, run by their friend Connie Robinson in the 1950s. Her son, Anthony was on the Campbell team on that fateful day in 1967.

The Black Bull was later taken on by Ronald and Susan Bradley, who opened a small brewery at the back. Their son, Ian, went to college to learn the basics of brewing and, with the help of consultant David Smith, created only the sixth small brewery in the Lake District. There are now 46.

The first two ales were Old Man and Bluebird, with just 400 gallons a week brewed in 1995. ‘The word spread and soon we were supplying pubs in most of the nearby villages,’ said Ian. In 1998 Bluebird was voted the best beer in Britain, and in 2000 they started bottling it.

The brewery doubled in size and there are now 12 beers. The hotel employs 20 staff, with Ian, his wife Helen and six staff employed in the brewery, now producing 40 barrels, or 2,000 gallons a week. ‘We are at capacity and we have no room to expand further,’ said Ian.

Anthony Robinson is now President of the K7 Club, which meets once a year for a dinner and a five-minute annual general meeting. It started as a support group for Campbell. It now ensures the continuation of the Water Speed Records Week, held on Coniston Water every autumn.

Its treasurer is Phil Johnston, founder and owner of the Coppermines & Lakes Cottages company. Originally from a Manchester family who loved climbing, he got to know the Lake District as a mountain guide when a teenager.

He became a trained estate manager and was at the forefront of architectural salvage. In 1982 he came to Copperstone Valley outside Coniston and found that hundreds of years of history had been left to go to rack and ruin. There had been copper mines since Elizabeth I’s day but all that was left were a heap of stones, recalls Phil.

He had a dream of converting the old saw-mill into four holiday homes. For 12 years he fought the planners, ending up in the High Court after three public inquiries. He won and soon other owners started coming to him to ask him to run their properties.

He now has 85 on the books, in Coniston, Torver, Hawkshead, Sawrey and Langdale.

Not only does the company use local suppliers and tradespeople for all their maintenance, it also takes a proactive approach to potential problems like rubbish collection and parking and traffic management, buying up little pockets of land for his customers to park on instead of the streets. ‘I am a great believer in putting things back into the community,’ said Phil.

Meanwhile the copper mines, which once employed 500 people, producing 3,000 tons of copper a year, and had 28 miles of water courses and 18 water wheels, each 25 foot in diameter, have been recognised as an ancient monument.

In addition, the geology is so interesting that English Nature has had it declared a Site of Special Scientific Interest and the Lake District National Park Authority, which once opposed Phil’s rescue plan, is investing in a Heritage Lottery Fund bid to commemorate its industrial history.

So even if progress can be slow in Coniston, thanks to a doggedness of its people with vision, it is steady.


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