Travelogue: Taking flight in a WWII Spitfire, dining at the Atheneum

"My" Spitfire.
“My” Spitfire.

Home at last – if a bit early! Owing to the ankle, I caught an early flight home, skipping Belgium and Germany – I look at the bright side and consider it’s saving something for next year!

The wi-fi broke down in the flat in Covent Garden, so when I last wrote, William and I had just been to the concert at the Wigmore Hall and John, Jeff and I had just visited the Silver Vaults. The next day, Tuesday, was the Really Big Day I had been waiting for for years: a flight in a real, restored, WWII Supermarine Spitfire!

We took the train to Orpington, then taxi to the historic flying field at Biggin Hill, during the war one of the foremost airfields in the Battle of Britain. Now a civil airport, there are still historic RAF buildings to be seen, as well as the dispersed bunkers the pilots lived in. It’s almost sacred ground, where “The Few” defied the Luftwaffe for the long summer of 1940, from the end of June into October – and held, changing the course of the war.

Now the Biggin Hill Historical Hanger restores primarily Spitfires – I believe they have four in various stages of restoration – but we also saw a Messserschmidt ME 109, the Luftwaffe’s answer to the Spitfire, and a Hurricane. The Hawker Hurricane was a slightly slower plane than the Spitfire, but accounted for some 60% of the air victories that summer, having been produced earlier and thus in greater numbers. There are several other planes as well, and two Jeeps!

“My” Spitfire was one of a small number converted to a two-seater configuration, for instruction – which made my flight possible, as the “Spit” is a one-seater. There were two flights – each about 30 minutes – before mine: Two elderly gentlemen, 92 and 97, were before me – both had flown Spitfires in the war, and one was a Wing Commander, DSO. It was a very great honor to meet these two remainders of the ever-fewer “Few,” and I was humbled by what they had done.

The flight was beyond amazing. First, the sound of a 1400 HP Rolls Royce 12-cylinder Merlin engine! With a flight helmet, the noise-canceling earphones reduced the high-pitched roar to a minimum, but watching the flight before me take off, the noise was just short of overwhelming.

We taxied out to the runway, jinking from side to side, as the notorious long nose of the Spitfire means the pilot cannot see the ground directly in front until the tail is up. Then the roar, and in an amazingly short run, we were airborne and climbing fast into clear skis, dotted with a few fleecy clouds, over the Home County of Kent, fields and villages and hedges spread out below in the afternoon sun – just such a flying day as much of the Battle of Britain was fought in. We banked, flew towards the Thames, and the toward London, the pilot keeping up a running commentary all the time. At about 20 minutes in, he asked me if I’d like him to do a barrel role – YES! So a shallow dive to gain speed, then nose slowly up – and roll over left into a barrel, or “Victory” roll! For a moment I’m afraid my stomach was in my mouth, but I’m not ashamed to say I was moved to tears by the whole experience, which was all too short.

Jeff and John were there to take pictures when we landed, I hit the souvenir shelf and bought a section of a duralumin wing spar taken out of a Spitfire during restoration – and into the taxi and “home” to Covent garden, my heart full of thanks for the incredible experience and all the kindness and work of the staff at the Historic Hanger. I will remember the flight for the rest of my life, made easier by the cockpit video I was handed after we landed.

The morning room at the Antheum.
The morning room at the Atheneum, where Trollope used to write his novels during lunch breaks from his work at the post office.

Back in London we quickly changed into suits and joined Robert Gage at his club, the Atheneum, for drinks in the morning room, and a superb dinner with even more superb wines. The Atheneum is one of London’s older clubs, and has long been known as the club of bishops and scholars. Its membership includes more Nobel Prize winners than any other public body, and aside from its dining facilities, the club contains a very serious research library. In the drawing room is a book I have always admired, called the “Question Book.” Members who are doing research and have reached a dead end, write their question in the book. Other members periodically review the questions, and if one knows the answer, he jots it down on the facing page. Given the level of scholarship at the club, this is a valuable resource!

Outside the club is a mounting block to aid elderly gentlemen climb onto their horses, which bears the inscription “This Horse Block was erected by desire of the Duke of Wellington, 1830.”

The next day we slept in. The Atheneum wine may have played some small part in this, but when John and I emerged from our beds, Jeff had already been down to Paul, a patisserie just down Bedford St, 100 yards from our flat, and brought back fresh bread and croissants – and was preparing three perfect omelets. Always travel with a friend who likes to cook, and is very, very good at it. Paul is well worth a visit – several visits – and does outstanding breakfasts (and lunch and dinner) as well as cooking all kinds of bread that must come straight from heaven.

Thus fortified, I spent the day gathering my appetite for dinner with John, Jeff, Robert, William and Stephen Tucker, the retired rector of Hampstead Parish Church, at Clos Maggiore, King St, Covent Garden. William felt that the dinner at Rule’s two weeks ago, was marginally better and even better served. We will not part company over it, but I believe Clos Maggiore is the best restaurant I have ever eaten in, and the opening scallops were perfection, and made me, in the words of Bernard Levin (“Enthusiasms”), “understand why it is that sheep if they have a never-failing supply of fodder and are allowed to stay by it, will go on eating until they have eaten themselves to death.” The rest of the dinner was superb as well, and William’s choices of wine, from a wine list that ran from expensive to National Debt level, were judicious and delicious, though strangely for such a place, they were out of his first choice!

Clos Maggiore dining room.
Clos Maggiore garden room.

Clos Maggiore: Eat in the garden room (pictured) – it’s amazing. Our party was too large, so we sat in the very comfortable dining room.

Being out of things, by the way, seems to be one of those lovable but frustrating English muddles: The pub down Floral Street toward the opera house, which advertises its pies, was out of pies all three evenings when we ate there. (The name of the pub will be concealed – they draw a good pint, the waiters are wonderfully friendly, and goodness knows, the pies, when they have them, are good!)

Jeff left on Thursday after an excursion to Stratford-on-Avon to see the Royal Shakespeare Company’s “Cymbeline” (superb, he said, and showing by live broadcast in a theater in Bellingham on Nov. 13 – we’re going), and on Friday, John and I went to the new “Cosi fan tutte” at the Royal Opera, which was as good a Mozart performance as I ever hope to see or hear. A modern production, but one that really worked and illuminated the plot and characters – as opposed to the all-too-common “concept” productions that blot the opera scene and do nothing to illuminate anything, other than the ego of the producer, who generally knows better than Mozart, or Wagner, or Verdi, but has never read the libretto or, it seems, bothered to hear the music.
A scene from “Cosi” at the Royal Opera:

Sorry – “concept” productions are one of my bêtes noires. “Cosi” was what an evening in the theater should be: wonderful and varied sets and use of the stage elevators; one of the world’s finest opera orchestras; singing which ranged from very good to Daniel Behle’s once-in-a-lifetime Ferrando; a tenor who could reduce his sound to the quietest thread in “Un aura amoroso,” sustain it, sustain it unbelievably long, and still be heard all over the house. Shades of Richard Tauber. I am grateful to have heard Behle. And what stage work. At the start, the four romantic leads walked down the isles dressed for an evening on the town, and at another point, Don Alfonso (Johannes Martin Kränzle) sang to the stage from part way up the left isle. A delightful evening – capped by a mad rickshaw driver who took us the three blocks back along Floral Street against the traffic, dodging in and out – as, to quote John le Carré, “God, as a punishment [perhaps for enjoying the opera so much?], had removed all taxis from the face of London.”

A last dinner with William and John on Sunday, and as the ankle was by now almost impossible to walk on, home on Monday. As a last extravagance, John and I booked a taxi to Heathrow, as I simply couldn’t face al the walking needed to get to the tube, or dealing with baggage while on crutches. At Heathrow, I was wisked through all the obstacles of modern air travel on a wheelchair – and nine-and-a-half hours later was met at the airport by Jeanne and Stan Fowler, newcomers to Edmonds and great friends – and learned all about the hurricane that wasn’t.

Next year: Back, though probably by plane, and this time I’ll make it not just to London, a place I simply need to be, but also Belgium and Germany. It has been a very good trip, and a pleasure to share with readers.

— By Nathaniel Brown

Edmonds resident Nathaniel Brown taught and coached cross-country running and skiing for 16 years before joining the US Biathlon Team as wax technician, switching to the U.S. Cross-Country team in 1989. He coached at three Olympics and 14 World Championships, edited Nordic Update for nine years and Cross-Country Skier for two. He has written three books on skiing and training. He owned and operated Nordic UltraTune, an international freelance ski tuning service, until retirement six years ago

  1. I just received the flight certificate from my half-hour in the Spitfire, and thought readers might enjoy reading what it has to say about the airplane I rode in:

    “Spitfire MJ627 was built at Castle Bromwich in 1943 as an LF MK IXc and entered service with 441 Squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). MJ627’s first operational sortie was flown on 25th September 1944 from advanced landing ground B.70 in Belgium. In service, MJ627 carried the Squadron code letters of “9G” and was painted with invasion stripes as it is flown today. On 27th September 1944, only two days after entering service, MJ627 destroyed a Messerschmitt Me 109 over Arnhem while being flown by P/O Sidney Bregman.”

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