When, a hundred years ago, Edward Wakefield built a prototype seaplane, the Waterbird, and tested it on Lake Windermere, Winston Churchill, who was then First Lord of the Admiralty, jumped in beside him. With their combined weights the rickety machine could only just get airborne and it limped to a maximum speed of 38 mph. That flight was pivotal in creating Churchill’s enthusiasm for what was to become the fleet air arm, which was to play such a vital role in two world wars.
But the testing of the Waterbird led to an almighty row, because Beatrix Potter, after making a fortune writing children’s books, had recently moved to the area from London and violently objected to her rural idyll being disturbed by the noisy flying machine. Together with Canon Rawnsley, who went on to found the National Trust, she started a campaign against them. Not surprisingly, as she was up against Winston Churchill, she lost that battle, but her war was eventually won when the National Park Authority, with the support of the National Trust, imposed a 10mph speed limit, in the face of vociferous local opposition.
One of the consequences of the speed limit is that one hundred years after the first ever successful flight of a seaplane, the event can’t be commemorated with a flight by a replica Waterbird. At a lunch today to celebrate that centenary, the heroism of the pioneer aviators was shown to be in stark contrast to the bloodless men who are now in charge.