Hopes that wrangle over Donald Campbell's Bluebird could be resolved as family and well-wishers mark tragedy's anniversary
When it came, the silence was almost as deafening as the roar.
On a still ribbon lake at the basin of the quarry-scarred valley of Coniston, Donald Campbell fired up the turbojet engine of his custom-built hydroplane. Within seconds, the clamour echoed all around as it accelerated rapidly.
But as Bluebird K7 approached speeds of nearly 330mph, the craft began to shake and violently lurch from side to side. It vaulted across the water, with the force of the impact smashing it in two.
As the curtain of spray subsided, what remained slipped from sight below the surface. Those onlookers who stood cheering only a moment before were suddenly hushed, as they witnessed the tragic end of a life spent in pursuit of the next thrill.
Now, some 55 years to the day after Mr Campbell perished while attempting to obliterate his own world water speed record of 276mph, his family and wellwishers will today gather at the shoreline of Coniston Water to pay their tributes.
His daughter, Gina, will be among those to lay flowers and wreaths at a memorial to the 45-year-old, before attending a short service at the graveside of the only man to have ever simultaneously held the world land and water speed records.
The memorial event will also mark the internment of the ashes of Mr Campbell’s widow, Tonia, who died last year aged 84 at her home in Palm Springs, California.
For those in attendance at the Lake District beauty spot this morning, it will doubtless be a sombre occasion, yet one which will also bring a fragile optimism for the year ahead.
After a protracted and often bitter dispute over the ownership of Mr Campbell’s ill-fated hydroplane craft, there are hopes that it will finally be brought back to the body of water where, for a few exultant seconds on 4 January 1957, it looked set to race into the history books.
Ruskin Museum, based in the Cumbrian village, already has a dedicated Bluebird wing, replete with memorabilia, photographs, interactive displays, and an Orpheus engine used by Mr Campbell in his land and water speed record runs.
At today’s service, Gina will also unveil a new addition to the permanent collection. Jeff Carroll, the museum’s vice-chair, described the under wraps exhibit as “exciting” and one which “should prove popular with real Campbell connoisseurs.”
That may be the case, but it will not be the crowning glory everyone is hoping for - the Bluebird K7 itself, which remains conspicuous by its absence.
The high-powered boat was recovered from Coniston’s depths in 2001 by diver Bill Smith, who has spent much of the past two decades painstakingly restoring it to its former glory.
Mr Smith, together with his organisation, the Bluebird Project, has been embroiled in a long-running dispute with the museum over the boat’s future.
The restored craft has been made seaworthy again at his workshop in North Shields, and during test runs in 2018, achieved speeds of up to 150mph on Loch Fad in Bute.
But the trustees of the Ruskin point to the fact that in 2006, Gina gifted the wreckage to the museum on the understanding Mr Smith would restore it.
The stand-off saw Mr Smith and his team start to dismantle newly-installed parts of the craft. Only last month, they stressed that an agreement was reached in 2013 for them to operate and maintain the boat, with the museum displaying it.
The Ruskin, however, argues that no agreement was ever reached, and no deed was ever signed. Last summer, the museum announced that it had taken the “last resort” and was considering taking legal action against Mr Smith, noting that the relationship had “irretrievably broken down.”
For her part, Gina has expressed hope that the museum will gain possession of the Bluebird, and has said Mr Smith can either return the craft as it is, or send back the parts of the partially disintegrated vehicle which were raised from the lake’s depths.
"It's a tragedy that such a magnificent endeavour ends in this rather sad way,” she said in 2020. "The museum has every desire to see the boat back on the lake. But it has to be returned to Coniston."
There are hopes that a new year could bring about a long-awaited breakthrough between the parties that will see the iconic hydroplane return to the scene of its most daring record attempt.
The Bluebird Project said last month that it is prepared to mediate, noting on Twitter that it hopes 2022 “brings the exciting progress we’re all waiting for.”
In an update on the museum’s website, Mr Carroll said it had spent last year trying to make progress to resolve what he described as a “vexing situation” around the boat.
“We have the best interests of Bluebird K7 at heart and we have the absolute backing of the Campbell Family Heritage Trust in our actions,” he explained.
“Hopefully 2022 will see the matter progress towards the right outcome where Bluebird K7 is in what is indisputably her spiritual home, only a few hundred yards away from her skipper.”
Only time will tell if that scenario comes to pass. Coniston Water remains silent. It has been for 55 years. But the museum’s trustees have said the running of the vessel is “desirable,” signalling that if and when it does return, it will not be as a static display.
Could the idyllic valley bear witness to the thundering might of the Bluebird once again? As Mr Campbell once proved, sometimes the impossible is almost within grasp.
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