As we followed the twisting road down into Pendine, I could feel that I was nervous. This seemed a little odd as I’d been told I would be very welcome in the village and I was on route to do something that I do fairly regularly as an amateur photographer interested in motoring heritage - I was on my way to photograph a car. My partner Chris had taken charge of the driving that morning as he knew this was an appointment I wouldn’t want to miss. With nothing to do but look out of the passenger window, I could barely sit still as our car drove into Pendine and on towards the Museum of Speed and the beach that lay beyond.
We’d come a long way to be here. I’d left my beloved Scotland and travelled over 500 miles to be in this exact place, on this particular day. The anticipation had simply built as we’d got ever nearer and then there it was – my first glimpse of that unmistakable blue and I knew exactly what it meant – Blue Bird was here and so was I.
Pendine, Blue Bird, me, here. I couldn’t quite take it in. As I walked towards the beach slipway, I couldn’t really see Blue Bird properly for the many people walking around her. Instead I got the quick sight of a wheel here and a hint of blue bodywork there. It was a real tease.
I’m slightly embarrassed to confess this now but two years ago I knew very little of land speed records or Bluebirds. In September 2013, my partner Chris & I took a short break in Cumbria and how my naivety on the subject was all about to change.
We opted to visit the Lakeland Motor Museum in Ulverston and it was a good choice. I spent a satisfying afternoon happily wandering around, minding my own business and photographing lots of lovely cars. Soon it would be closing time but there was one last section of the museum to visit. I walked through the doors of the museum’s Bluebird wing and saw in front of me an enormous bright blue car that seemed to fill the room. I’d never seen anything like it. This was a full-scale replica of the Campbell-Railton Blue Bird, which in 1935 took Sir Malcolm Campbell to over 300mph and the pinnacle of his record-breaking career. I walked around this striking vehicle, taking in both its size and unusual shape. I didn’t fully understand its design but I was certainly curious.
We then looked at the large collection of trophies, photographs and paintings that lined the room but for all the impressive memorabilia, and to my surprise, it was some black and white footage on a television that really got my attention. Here I saw Bluebird K7’s crash for the first time. Despite not knowing much about what I was watching I immediately felt sick when I saw the plumes of white water reach up towards the sky as the craft impacted upon the lake. I felt like my world had stopped and I felt very sad. In my hands I held a faithful camera that goes everywhere with me but I took not a single picture in the Bluebird wing. I somehow felt it would be disrespectful and then closing time came and we had to go.
Distraction came from the rest of our holiday but the footage had stuck and with it came numerous questions – what exactly was K7 and why had it been going so fast? Who had been driving when it had lifted out of Lake Coniston and what happened afterwards? Had anyone ever dared to go that fast on water again? And most importantly, how had the crash ever happened? It bothered me.
The need for answers led me to a familiar habit – I sought out books and began to read. I started with The Fast Set by Charles Jennings and instantly became fascinated with the world of the land speed record and the attempts made by Sir Malcolm Campbell, John Cobb, George Eyston, Henry Segrave and John Parry-Thomas. I quickly learned the names of many record-breaking vehicles – Blue Bird, Babs, the Golden Arrow, Thunderbolt, the Railton Mobil Special and a 1000hp Sunbeam known as ‘the slug’.
I’d had a good general introduction but I was curious to know more of the people involved in land speed records and their reasons for doing so. This was when I remembered the 1935 replica Blue Bird I’d discovered in Ulverston and at my local library I requested My Thirty Years of Speed by Sir Malcolm Campbell.
This book and the old photographs inside it absorbed my attention for weeks. At the time I was working in a very monotonous job and commuting a long-distance to do so. Each day I looked forward to getting the bus home and whilst hidden up amongst the back seats, I was transported to the likes of Brooklands, Pendine Sands, the Verneuk Pan, the Bonneville Salt Flats and Daytona Beach. I learned how complicated achieving a speed record was – from technical difficulties to bad weather and beyond – it was a wonder anyone could persevere!
One day I read a story from Campbell’s youth of how he’d constructed his own aeroplane and then accidentally bought it back from himself whilst trying to increase its value at auction. To the bewilderment of my fellow passengers, I laughed out loud as if Sir Malcolm had been re-calling this tale whilst sat next to me on the bus.
I also read of his various treasure-seeking pursuits around the world and of the beat-up planes he’d fly back to Britain as a ‘ferry’ pilot during World War I. These stories made a real impression on me. It struck me as strange that, if the date marks on the first page were correct, then this old library book had been tucked away in storage since 1983. I was born in the November of 1984 and if that were the case Sir Malcolm’s book had sat waiting until I was 28 to be read again. My new interest appeared to be somewhat niche.
Afterwards, I went on to find answers on the jet hydroplane K7 in Neil Sheppard’s book Donald Campbell, Bluebird and the Final Record Attempt before adding to it with Daughter of Bluebird by Gina Campbell. I visited Coniston, the Campbell family became an inspiration to me and I continued to learn more and more on speed records. Whilst all this had been going on, I’d always imagined that my first sight of a Bluebird would be an uninterrupted one, perhaps in a quiet museum somewhere, so it was strange to meet the 350bhp Sunbeam in the midst of so much activity at Pendine.
I naturally began to gravitate towards the car but my partner Chris noticed a group of marshals gathered around a dapperly dressed chap and directed me towards them instead. I quietly joined the back of the group and began listening to instructions being given out for the day ahead.
The instructions were being given out by Don Wales, grandson of Sir Malcolm and holder of several land-speed records in his own right. Today this particular Blue Bird would take to Pendine Sands in celebration of the 150.76 mph record set by Sir Malcolm Campbell 90 years ago. I needed to listen carefully as a few weeks beforehand I’d volunteered to help Don out as a photographer. The last thing I wanted was to get in anyone’s way or be flattened out on the sand!
Don concluded by asking if anyone didn’t have a specific job to do. As always I had my camera in my hands and I was ready to help but I wasn’t sure where I was to be or what specific photos were needed. I knew I’d have to put my hand up and as I did so, Don quickly spotted me.
“Is that Gillian?” he asked.
In new situations I have a natural tendency to be shy. Shyness, shyness, shyness and then I blushed. “Yes, hello.” I managed back. Clearly he’d seen through my disguise of a flat cap with goggles on top with relative ease. It seemed like the most appropriate thing to wear to a 1920’s land-speed celebratory event. I was keenly aware that I either looked the part or like an idiot. Then I noticed Don was wearing Plus fours and I guessed I was probably in good company.
“Everyone this is Gillian and she’s our ‘pet photographer’ for the day.” Don said to the group, many of whom looked in my direction. A man lifted his camera and started taking pictures of me and I just blushed all the more. The group discussed things a bit further and then parted. Don started to head for the beach.
Meanwhile I was introduced but still unsure how best to help. I didn’t want to be shooting the wrong things or wasting people’s time and consequently I realised I’d have to go after Don. I thought to myself how Pendine was a place where many people had found some bottle and now it was time for me to do the same.
I ran after Don and asked him what he specifically wanted me to do. He was perfectly lovely and polite – why had I been so unsure of speaking to him? General, atmospheric shots of the day and what I thought might work became my brief. Having already seen some of my work, Don seemed confident that if I just did what I’d normally do as a photographer that would be good. I accepted the challenge and wished him well with driving Blue Bird. It was clear I had the far easier task. Shortly Don would have to drive a legendary land speed record car in front of the national media and hundreds of expectant people. I genuinely hoped it would all go well for him.
I began with some general shots of Blue Bird whilst she waited for her afternoon ahead. Various mechanics from the Beaulieu National Motor Museum were busy checking all was well as she sat on the ramp for the beach. Other photographers with large cameras buzzed around and curious people looked at the car. There were no barriers in the way. This was incredibly trusting and I was surprised to be allowed to get so close to the Sunbeam.
Don and some helpers then rolled and guided Blue Bird down onto the sand. Myself and many other photographers followed, walking hurriedly alongside. Blue Bird came to a stop and Don climbed inside, quickly becoming occupied with doing interviews and answering an array of questions.
I watched all that was going on and made my way to the front of the crowd that was building up around the car. Don spotted me again and I went to take his photograph. It was then, as I readied my camera, that I noticed the similarity between Don and his grandfather. Through the viewfinder I saw Don, then Sir Malcolm and then Don again. It was striking. Of course Don was sat inside Blue Bird and wore the correct attire - re-creation was the overall idea of the event after all - but it was mostly in Don’s face that I saw the resemblance. In that split moment I could’ve been fooled into thinking this was 1925 and somehow I’d managed to step into one of the grainy pictures from My Thirty Years of Speed. Don said something about the photograph and as soon as he did, I pressed the shutter. There were many journalists behind me wanting to do the same, likely with urgent deadlines to adhere to, so it was a matter of giving Don a quick thumbs up and getting out of the way, heading down shore for some alternative pictures of the event.
It wasn’t long before my camera and I were called upon. Autocar journalist Steve Cropley had brought a Ferrari FF with him and he required a photograph of this sleek supercar together with Blue Bird for the magazine. With some perseverance I was able to get some images of Steve and Don chatting together as the two vehicles sat side-by-side.
The Ferrari then backed out of shot to trade places with a 24-litre Napier Railton, in which John Cobb had set the 1935 Brooklands Outer Circuit Lap Record of 143.44mph. It was a very purposeful and elegant car, the surrounding activity mirrored on its reflective bodywork. Meanwhile, whilst I’d been busy the starting gantry had been assembled and many people had brought their own cars down onto the sands where they now lined the course.
Two mechanics stood hunched in front of Blue Bird, waiting for their cue to crank her 18.3 litre V12 into life. From behind the dash fuel was hand-pumped through and then the two mechanics moved in unison to give Blue Bird the start she needed. I saw them do this and tensed a little, remembering my dad’s tale of how he’d broken his thumb and wrist when an engine he’d cranked had kicked back.
Blue Bird fired into life. Flicks of flame and blue smoke vented from the many exhaust pipes and thankfully no one came to any harm. Suddenly the air was filled with the roar of Blue Bird’s engine. It sounded much louder and more complicated than any other engine I’d heard. I knew before Blue Bird had even turned a wheel under her own power that I would not be forgetting this in a hurry.
There was a brief pause as Don called for some of the press to come back closer to the start. It was too risky for them to be that far up the course. It would be good to have some run-off should anything go wrong with the car.
With goggles down and much anticipation in the crowd, Don set off. I got what I could with my camera, silently cheering him on as I watched him go by. I wondered what Sir Malcolm would have thought. Now spectators were straining to see as the Sunbeam turned to come back. There was a good variety of people there – older chaps comparing notes with one another, individual people with their cameras and lots of families. Young kids pointed at Blue Bird as she got nearer and they were really excited. Blue Bird glided past, doing around 50mph. She was making easy work of her performance and it was clear she had much more to give. Don returned to the start and the crowd applauded. It was a great atmosphere.
Blue Bird continued her celebratory drives, taking it in turn with the Napier Railton to go up and down Pendine Sands. Land Rovers drove alongside both cars whilst film crews hung out of windows and hatches to capture the action. Meanwhile, I was running up and down the beach trying to catch Blue Bird from different points along the course. One photograph I was particularly keen to take was a modern-day equivalent of an image I could remember from My Thirty Years of Speed. In this particular sepia snapshot Blue Bird had been photographed just before she crossed the start line at Pendine. To my delight I was able to get something very similar as well as some scenic shots of her whilst looking out to sea. I might not have been as experienced as many of the other photographers present but I was certainly trying to do what I could.
The afternoon gradually came to a close and Blue Bird was once more taken up to the ramp for the beach. She was shortly due to appear in a live television interview with Don. I caught up with my partner Chris whilst Don spoke to the team who’d been assisting during the day. I was hopeful he might be free again for a few moments as I was keen to express my thanks in person. I spotted an opportunity and ran across to talk again.
I shook Don's hand and said something along the lines of “I just want to say a big thank you for everything today. You did great and Blue Bird was amazing. I’m just so happy.”
In my hands I held a brown bag. Inside was my copy of The Fast Set, which had first informed me about land speed records as well as a gift for Don.
“I brought you a gift.” I said as I took a dark green and blue tartan scarf out of the brown bag. “This tartan is called Black Watch and it’s closely associated with the Campbell family. I thought you might like it.”
Don graciously accepted the scarf and signed the book for me. Now that my nerves had dropped there was so much more I wanted to say – your family have been an inspiration to me and this was the best way to see Blue Bird and Pendine Sands for the first time – but Don was being prompted for the up-coming interview and I decided the tartan scarf would have to do. I really felt like I’d got a taste for what it must have been like back in 1925 when Sir Malcolm Campbell achieved his record of 150.76mph. Don & I hugged and I hoped that he could tell from how happy I was, that in motion and upon the legendary Pendine Sands, Blue Bird had been the most inspirational thing I had ever seen.
Super special thanks to Don Wales for allowing me to join in with the run of the 350bhp Sunbeam Bluebird, driven to 150.76mph in 1925 by Sir Malcolm Campbell on Pendine Sands. Despite being incredibly busy talking with fans, doing interviews, posing for photos and doing the all-important task of driving a legendary land speed record car in front of thousands of expectant eyes, Don was kind enough to give me both photography suggestions and confidence in the midst of chaos. You couldn't meet a more smashing chap! Thanks also to the folks at the Beaulieu National Motor Museum for sneaking me a high-vis jacket and Chris Russell for helping me to get to South Wales. Finally, sincere thanks go to Blue Bird herself for simply being glorious. I was so happy to see her on the move that I could have just cried. Wonderful!