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Battle of Britain Memorial Flight in the Upper Derwent Valley

PUBLISHED: 07:00 27 December 2014

Thousands flocked to the hills to see the Battle of Britain Memorial flight Lancaster 'Thumper' lead 'Vera'

Thousands flocked to the hills to see the Battle of Britain Memorial flight Lancaster 'Thumper' lead 'Vera'

Robert Falconer

Robert Falconer heads to Derwent Edge to catch a glimpse of the Battle of Britain Flight

The crowds get any vantage point they can to see and photograph this once in a lifetime occasion.The crowds get any vantage point they can to see and photograph this once in a lifetime occasion.

It was only last year that thousands of people flocked to the Upper Derwent Valley in the Peak District to pay tribute and mark the 70th Anniversary of the Dambusters. No one there could have imagined in their wildest dreams that just a year later they could witness the sight of two Lancasters flying down the Derwent Valley over the dams.

It has been at least 50 years since more than one Lancaster Bomber has been seen in the skies over the UK. The only plane still flying in Europe is a Lancaster known as ‘Thumper’ that is owned by the ‘Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’. Although ‘Just Jane’, which is also based at East Kirkby in Lincolnshire, is allowed to make local ‘taxi’ runs.

However, there is another Lancaster still flying. Affectionately known as ‘Vera’, it is owned by The Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, and rumours started to spread through the enthusiast network in early spring that the Canadians were considering flying it over to team up with ‘Thumper’. It seemed far too risky a plan for such an important aircraft to make the hazardous journey but the rumours turned into fact and the plan to fly over in August for a six-week stay was announced. They left Hamilton on 4th August and after passing Goose Bay, Narsarsuaq in Greenland and Keflavik, Iceland, they arrived on a typically rainy day at RAF Coningsby, the home of ‘Thumper’, on 8th August.

Flying in formation with ‘Thumper’ they set off on a tour of Britain that captured the public imagination. Thousands of people flocked to see them everywhere they went, many air shows were sold out with record crowds. I was lucky to attend a number of these events, the sight and sound was like nothing I had ever experienced before.

The BBMF Hurricane followed the Spitfire getting the crowds excited before the main eventThe BBMF Hurricane followed the Spitfire getting the crowds excited before the main event

At the back of my mind I wondered if they would get the chance to fly over the dams in the Peak District where the brave crews practised for the Dambusters raid and which is a living memorial to the Lancaster Bomber.

On Sunday 7th September the pair was to undertake an ambitious schedule of flying to shows in Scotland and Northern Ireland before flypasts in the Lake District and over an event in Holmfirth, and then appearing at a few venues close to home in Lincolnshire, including a historic event at East Kirkby flying over ‘Just Jane’.

As Holmfirth is a stone’s throw from Derwent Dam and with the weather very clear and sunny I made the trek up onto the hill above Ladybower Reservoir in the hope they would pass by on their way back to Lincolnshire. I was not the only air enthusiast up there and excitement mounted as my sister, perched on the opposite hill, sent a text: ‘I can see them!’ Sadly they skirted Howden Moors and expectation turned to disappointment. I could only hope there would be one more chance before ‘Vera’ had to fly back to Canada.

I did not have to worry for long. To my amazement on 16th September they announced on the ‘Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’s website and social media, that in collaboration with Severn Trent Water and Derbyshire County Council the two Lancasters would be flying down the valley on their way back to base, after a display at Southport Airshow.

People from all over the country vowed to make the journey to the Peak District. On the day my brother and I made an early start for Ladybower, arriving just after 8.30am in bright sunshine and parking near Ashopton Viaduct. After a climb to my chosen vantage point there was just seven hours to wait before the valley would be filled to the sound of eight Merlin engines.

As the hours passed we could see more and more cars heading up to Derwent Dam before the road was closed off in the middle of the day. People filled all the vantage points around and excitement built as the time drew closer for the appearance of the Lancasters. A friend texted me the flight route and times and the great news that they would be doing three passes over the dams.

Then at 3.30 pm the roar of two Merlin engines could be heard as the Battle of Britain’s Spitfire and Hurricane came in low over the water. They passed over Ashopton Viaduct, banking sharply to the left and flying up over the back of Derwent Edge before making a second run down the valley and then off down towards Hathersage. Then, right on time, the unmistakeable shapes of two Lancasters could be seen over the distant moors before they lowered down into the valley and roared round the corner towards us. An emotional and exciting sight, they passed by and down over Bamford before turning to head back for a second pass. It was well worth the wait.

There was one more chance to see these two historic aircraft over the Peak District before they headed off out of sight and over Chatsworth before flying back to Coningsby. We could see them rise up over Howden Moor before making a sharp turn and descending behind a distant hill. They came round the corner much lower and appeared to be heading straight for us as they made their way along Ladybower Reservoir. At that moment a shaft of sunlight cascaded down onto the aircraft highlighting the wings against the dark background.

They came past almost at eye level and you could see the crew inside working hard to keep their formation surrounded by the Derbyshire hills. As they disappeared down the Hope Valley I knew this was a moment that would live with me forever.

The only problem now was getting home. People dispersed off Derwent Edge in all directions like an army of giant ants heading across the moor and descending to Snake Pass. We headed towards Sheffield and, using back roads, made it home in an hour and a half but I did hear that it took some people two hours just to drive from Derwent Dam to Ashopton Viaduct.

By nightfall the Upper Derwent Valley was quiet once more and now ‘Vera’ is safely back home in Canada, perhaps never to return to these shores again.

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