Postcard from the Midlands and the Peak District - August 2011

Motorbike riding north through the summer holiday traffic from London to meet with friends from Leicester, I took a scenic route through the Midlands and the Peak District; my return route included the site of “The Daventry Experiment”, where radar was first demonstrated, in 1933.

At Lichfield in Staffordshire (that calls itself “The creative county”), I caught a glimpse along a side road of the magnificent red sandstone cathedral: it dates from 1085 onwards, was heavily damaged in the Civil War and restored extensively in the Victorian era. Lichfield cathedral is unusual as it has three spires. I stopped to enjoy the cathedral's West Front, replete with statues; the calm of the cathedral close made a peaceful break after two hours on the busy motorway from London.

Motorbiking on to Ashbourne in the Peak District and nearby Dovedale: just a small fold in the hills but still preternaturally beautiful. My parents used to break the journey here as a treat on journeys back from my Father’s parents in Liverpool. I’m pretty sure that Thorpe Cloud, 287m, is the first bump that I climbed solo, probably when I was aged about nine: it towers just 155m above the eastern bank of the river Dove, now it looks pretty small to me.

There’s a Roman road onwards to the spa town of Buxton, (Latin Aquae Arnemetiae). It’s a fine ride across the High Peak country but there are lots of hidden dips in the road with many warnings posted to “Think Bike”.

Autumn was arriving early in Buxton, the leaves on the trees were starting to turn golden colours and to drop to the ground. The Buxton mineral water baths building and Buxton opera house glowed gloriously in the late afternoon sunshine.

Down the A6 alongside the River Derwent via Bakewell and Matlock. There were a few early bikers massing at Matlock Bath; then on to Belper, where I met with Pete from Leicester. At Derby, spots of rain started to hit us despite a forecast for clear weather: this summer seems to have been a particular challenge for the weather forecasters.

Past Derby on the ring road, we passed another CBR600FW bike like mine in Honda’s Tangerine and Titanium colours. Past Willington power station, now disused; then following the river Trent to stop at the Crewe & Harpur riverside pub at Swarkestone. Ben joined us, also up from Leicester, but unfortunately we had to sit indoors as there were still spots of rain.

Next morning, back down the A5 - the Roman road Watling Street - with a stop near Weedon at a field where the principle of radar was first demonstrated in what has become known as “The Daventry Experiment”. The text on the memorial states Birth of radar memorial. On 26th February 1935, in the field opposite, Robert Watson Watt and Arnold Watkins showed for the first time that aircraft could be detected by bouncing radio waves off them. By 1939 there were 20 stations tracking aircraft at distances of up to more than 100 miles. Later known as radar, it was this invention, more than any other, that saved the RAF from defeat in the 1940 Battle of Britain. The results of the Daventry Experiment convinced Air Vice Marshal Hugh Dowding to back development of the aircraft detection system predicted in the Watson Watt Memorandum.

This field was chosen because of the topography and the signal from Daventry short-wave transmitting station. Although the aircraft was required to be illuminated by the direct signal for the experiment, it was important that the receiving site was shielded by hills from the direct signal so that the receiving apparatus could distinguish between the weak reflect signal without being overloaded by the much stronger direct signal.

A short video about the memorial : The Birth of Radar - Arnold Wilkins Watson Watt Boffins Weedon BBC Daventry Experiment

Communications history interests satisfied, I proceeded carefully: Weedon is infamous for two serious railway accidents (1915 and 1951). There was also a serious motorbike accident today immediately before my visit: the ambulance and police were in attendance; the biker, bike and car were still in their resting positions at the crossroads—there’s a reason for those “Think Bike” signs and stickers that are now posted abundantly.

It’s not just about miles but that trip was around 350 miles (563km).