A Final Voyage

YOU can see Scafell Pike – the highest mountain in England – from the forecourt garden of the terraced house in which I spent my early childhood. From the back garden of the bungalow the family moved to when I was eleven, which is on the other side of the village, stretches a panorama of Lakeland fells, from Black Combe in the west to the edge of Helvellyn in the east. Few finer views exist . . .

I’m standing in the garden now, trying to fasten a saltire to a flag staff. I’ve never attempted this before, and I know that if my father’s watching he’ll be laughing and shouting the names of obscure maritime knots he taught me about forty years ago. But he can’t because he’s just died and that’s why I’m wrestling with the flag.

I suppose it’s the sort of thing you do when your father dies. After the initial shock, you pick yourself up and put on a brave face. Only it’s not a brave face – it’s a futile gesture that’s supposed to demonstrate that normality will resume and life will continue as before. But deep down – in fact not so deep down – you’re aware the world has changed, tectonic plates have buckled, and things will never be the same.

People fall into two categories: those who have lost their father and know what this is about, and those who haven’t but are aware it’s going to happen sooner or later. I suppose there’s a third category: those who have never known their father – but that’s complicating things and I’m not in the mood for complications.

I’m still struggling with the saltire when my brother arrives. Together we get it sorted and hoist it to half mast. It flaps like hell in the evening breeze, with the Lakeland fells – their high ground shrouded in mist – and cold northern skies forming a fitting backdrop. Thank God no one has found a CD with Flower of Scotland on or Danny Boy because that would be too much.

Emotions are strange things. I’ve been angry all day. Seething. Fathers aren’t supposed to desert their families. Fathers are the figurehead, the foundation, the provider, the defender. And it doesn’t matter that I’m 55 and my brother’s 53. He had no business slipping away in the early hours like a border reiver. And I’m angry at myself for being 100 miles away on the other side of the country at the time, and angry at my complete inability to have any influence over events. I can’t even fasten a sodding flag to a flag pole, for Christ’s sake.

And after the anger – which doesn’t quite dissipate and returns in bouts – come periods of quiet reflection, when you appreciate just what an adventurous, colourful and fulfilling life your father led. It was a life that took him into farm service in the hills above Sanquhar, to the Far East and war in Korea, and camping holidays in the Highlands and islands in the days when travel up the west coast was punctuated by a series of ferry crossings. He was a fell walker, fly fisherman, motorcyclist, home-movie enthusiast, gardener and – most memorably – an obstinate and argumentative Scotsman who after sixty years in exile retained his accent and national identity right to the end. If you’ve got nothing else to do, let me tell you a little bit about him.

First fell walking expedition – Coniston Old Man in 1976

My father once sailed through the heart of a tropical cyclone in an aircraft carrier. The reason for this, apparently, was that while the smaller and faster escort ships could get out of the way and did, aircraft carriers are slow and numb so there was no escape. Of the 1,300 men on board HMS Theseus during that storm, only four weren’t seasick and turned up in the galley for their dinner. My father was one of them.

My father was an aircraft handler, or “chockhead” as they are known. A chockhead’s job is to wrap his body around the chock under the wheel of an aeroplane while it’s revving up ready for take-off from a carrier flight deck. On a certain command, they roll out of the way, pulling the chock with them and allowing the plane to hurtle off with its deadly payload. There’s an element of timing to this.

My father was also involved in rescue and firefighting operations. We have a picture of him pulling an airman from a crashed plane. I suppose that makes him a hero. It does in my eyes, anyway.

He was also proud, as older men are when talking to those younger than themselves, of being escorted back to his ship by Maltese police after a drunken incident down The Gut in Valletta, of being put on a charge of “dumb insolence” for not paying sufficient respect to an officer, and being rushed to hospitals in Lossiemouth and Valletta for emergency surgery on duodenal ulcers, brought about by too much drink. I suppose that makes him a sort of hero too. Quite how he was awarded a Good Conduct medal is a mystery.

Chockheads wrap themselves around aerolplane wheels on board HMS Theseus

Bottoms up. Dad on top

All in a day’s work

This is a famous picture of HMS Theseus and the one used on Wikipedia. My dad’s in the letter H, in the top right-hand corner

My father, right, upholding a family tradition – and one he celebrated right to the end

This was taken at Eglinton just outside Derry, in Northern Ireland. Dad’s the one on the far right

Previous to his eight years in the Royal Navy, my father was in farm service up the Crawick, a river valley that climbs above Sanquhar into the Lowther Hills. Traditionally, he should have gone down the Gateside pit – but with his own father being killed in a roof-fall at the age of 33, he was steered in another direction.

He didn’t tell me the details of his farm service until quite recently. We were wandering around my allotment and I was showing him my kale plants – an Italian variety called cavalo nero. Scottish farmers grow kale as winter cattle feed. He wasn’t impressed with my Rick Stein recipe for cooking cavalo nero in oil with sliced garlic. “Kale? It’s fur the beasts.”

My father walked from Sanquhar one Sunday and arrived at the farm late that night to report for work. The family were eating their supper. Because he had not contributed to the farm’s production, he was not invited to join them and was shown to his room instead. The room was the void between the slate roof and the rest of the house. There was nothing in the void except another young lad in a bed shivering beneath some old coats. No heating, no bed clothes, no supper. That was farm service in the late 1940s, in a Britain supposedly fit for heroes. And that was why, after a raw winter snecking neeps and cutting kale for the beasts, he joined the Royal Navy.

My father was a trier. He tried to ride his motorbike and sidecar over Hardknott Pass from the Eskdale side with my brother, me and mother in the sidecar. When the front wheel of the bike (which I think was an Ariel Red Hunter) lifted off the ground and we all screamed, he turned round and retreated. Likewise, when he drove our primrose yellow Anglia Estate to within sight of the summit of Bealach na Ba on the rocky road to Applecross and the trailer ripped the back end off the car, he was forced to retreat again for a big welding job in Lochcarron. But at least he tried.

But there were times to savour and remember. A two-day drive from Furness to Thurso, split by the hiss of a paraffin lamp and dancing moths in a tent near Perth; a Ford Consul – his first car – being slung aboard the St Ola with ropes and derricks in the days before roll-on ferries; a horrendous crossing to Stromness during which everyone on the ship was seasick except my father; fishing for trout from a boat on a black loch in the Orkneys; the remains of the German fleet in Scapa Flow and my father pointing out fascinating features and telling us about the tragedy of HMS Royal Oak; and the following summer, the entire family bedding down in the Anglia Estate after waiting three hours for a late-night crossing on the Strome ferry; walking in the hills above Loch Reraig and looking for golden eagles; catching a salmon in the Nith; buying fresh rolls from the bakery in Sanquhar and the smell of bacon, eggs and haggis frying in a pan in my gran’s kitchen. Scotland as it was and will never be again. I don’t know whether that’s a bad thing or a good thing.

On the summit of Harrison Stickle in the Langdale Pikes, November 1977

In 1976 I introduced him to fellwalking. He’d been staring at the hills from the back garden for long enough, and I’d been climbing mountains for just over a year. So off we went up Coniston Old Man on a fine summer’s day – and he was hooked. Along with my mother, he went on to climb most of the Lakeland peaks and walk the Cumbria Way from Carlisle to Ulverston.

Nearing the summit of Black Combe, December 1977

On the top and time for a fag. You can see our ‘ouse from here, our Alen

On the summit of Skiddaw, 1979

Our best day on the hills, the one with the fondest memories, was Skiddaw. We ascended the traditional tourist route up the southern slopes from Keswick, then dropped down the back to Skiddaw House to spend a pleasant hour sitting in the paddock in the afternoon sun, gazing out across the emptiness to Great Calva and the northern fells.

Twenty years later, I sat in the same place with my own son. That’s probably why the memory has come to mean so much. I suppose I should sit there with my granddaughter – but she’s only two so I’ll give her a couple of years to get into boots.

So that was my father, Danny McFadzean. A life condensed into 1,600 words and a few pictures. The end of a voyage. The memories will live on.

Daniel McFadzean. Born in Howies Road, Sanquhar, 1932. Died in Furness General Hospital, 2012. Sail on

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About McEff

Alen McFadzean. Journalist. Recently made redundant from The Northern Echo when my job was transferred to Wales to be done by people on lower wages. Former shipyard electrician. Former quarryman and tunneller. Climb mountains and run long distances to make life harder. Gravitate to the left in politics just to make life harder still.
This entry was posted in Camping, Chockhead, Climbing, Death, Hiking, HMS Theseus, Korean War, Life, Mountains, Sanquhar, Walking and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

45 Responses to A Final Voyage

  1. beardedgit says:

    I’ll not deny that I’m welling-up after reading that, Alen. Folk like your father leave a big hole when they depart, my nan used to say that hole’s a good place to keep your proud and fond memories.

  2. swanscot says:

    What a very moving tribute to your dad. How wonderful that you introduced him to fell walking and this was something he enjoyed along with your mum. I smiled at the photo of him in the yellow cagoule with the jacket over the top. That’s Dad-style! But the final picture made my eyes fill up again – he looks so full of life and ready for adventure. and yet we know, from what you’ve shared, that he experienced difficult and dangerous situations.

    • McEff says:

      Thanks for those kind words Sheila. And thanks for making me smile. Yes, the jacket over the cagoule. That’s the sort of thing dads do. I must start doing that myself, just to embarrass my own son.
      Cheers, Alen,

  3. mandala56 says:

    A wonderful tribute, I enjoyed reading every word. My dad’s been gone ten years, and I never take a hike anywhere without him with me, noticing things and telling stories. All the love of hiking in me came from my dad.

    • McEff says:

      Thanks Jeanne. I think that’s going to happen to me too. In the few days since he went I’ve found myself talking to him. I can still hear his voice, as if he was sitting next to me now.
      Cheers, Alen

  4. geoff says:

    Alen please accept my condolences.
    I’ve lost both my parents, my mother quite recently, so I understand how you’re feeling. The anger and pain does diminish, but be prepared for those unexpected times when you think you see them in a crowd, or think you hear their voice, it can really take the wind out of your sails.

    • McEff says:

      Thanks Geoff. Talking to people who have been through this is really helpful. I know everyone goes through it sooner or later, but I was really unprepared for the magnitude of it. I still can’t get my head round the fact that when I dial his phone number he won’t be on the other end.
      Cheers, Alen.

  5. qdant says:

    Hi Alen, he won’t be on the other end because he’s now already with you !
    I’ll raise tonights glass to you both – Danny

  6. rthepotter says:

    You’re right, it’s surprising how vulnerable you feel when your parents go, and how life suddenly turns and changes in that moment – but after all they have been the ground on which we stood for ever. Sounds as if there are lots of stories to remember, which helps a bit – bet he had some good ones about his matelot days. Best wishes.

    • McEff says:

      Thanks. Yes, you’ve put your finger on something I was trying to find. They are the ground on which we’ve stood for ever. And now it feels like it’s shifted.
      Thank you, Alen.

  7. Alen, so sorry to hear about your Dad – very difficult times for you. From your post, it looked like he had an enjoyable and interesting life. My father is a very similar age and their generation was brought up in such a different era. Looking at the photos of the Navy, reminds me that our generation was fortunate never to really know war. Your father in Korea, mine in the Air force, in Suez,Kenya and Aden, terrifying as I am sure it must have been at times for boys just turned young men, the experience shaped them as people and the close friendships that were forged during those times are something that strangely I suppose is missing from our lives and to be envied in a way.

    I particularly like the photo of him in his yellow smock with the jacket over the top – no Gortex in sight !!
    All the best
    Mark

    • McEff says:

      Hi Mark, and thanks. Yes, different times and different experiences – shaping different people. And you’re right about those close friendships. People and values were different in those days. I’ve met many of my parents’ friends from their Navy days (mother was in the Wrens), and they’re all great folk.
      If I remember correctly, the yellow cagoule was mine – but I’m not owning up to the jacket, gloves and Army and Navy Store seaboot socks.
      Cheers, Alen

  8. Paul says:

    A moving tribute to a wonderful man, I like many, are touched & moved by your words and photographs.

    Please accept my condolences Alen

    • McEff says:

      Hi Paul. Thanks for those words. That’s very kind of you. Like you, he loved the Lakes. His last few days, before he went into hospital, were spent in front of the window just staring at the fells.
      Cheers, Alen

  9. Hanna says:

    Dear Alen. I’m so sorry for your loss. Best wishes to you and your family.
    Hanna

  10. scott says:

    I’m vexed to read your news Alen. It’s more than fifteen years since I lost my father, and although – of course – Sam wasn’t without his faults, I wish I could have expressed my thoughts on his passing like that. I’m sure your words do your Dad justice.

    Aye – raise a parting glass, eh?

    Orrabest, Scott

    • McEff says:

      Hi Scott. Fifteen years ago we didn’t have the resources to do this. The great thing about the internet is that for the first time ordinary people have a means to publish their thoughts to the rest of the world. But I must admit, I was a bit dubious about writing this post at all. What swung me in the end was I did a Google search on my father’s name and came up with an absolute blank except for the death notice in the local paper. So I thought: here we go – I’m going to bloody well fire him up there into cyberspace.
      It doesn’t do him justice, and he had his faults, like your father Sam. But he was special, as all fathers are. And I’m only just beginning to realise how true that is.
      Thanks now. He was a man for the whisky (malt or blend, it didn’t matter) so a parting glass is what he’d expect.
      Cheers, Alen

  11. My sincere condolences Alen. There are no words that adequately convey sympathy. I’d lost my Father quite a number of years ago and I feel the loss. Your tribute is fitting and beautiful. I thank you for sharing. My mother passed last Autumn. The torch is passed and now we are the adults.

    • McEff says:

      Thanks ever so much for that. That last line, “The torch is passed and now we are the adults”, is something I’ve been dwelling on for the past few days. The world keeps turning and time doesn’t stop. We all shuffle up the ladder another rung.
      Cheers, Alen

  12. Greg. says:

    Really sorry to hear about your dad Alen. Hope you are Ok over the next few days.

    • McEff says:

      Hi Greg. Thanks for that. Yes, some quiet contemplation up in the fells is what’s required now, I think. Fresh air and open views. I need to recharge the batteries – and the best place to do that is on the western side of the Pennines.
      Cheers now, Alen

  13. Mick says:

    Lovely Post – Gulp

  14. Kev says:

    Very sad news indeed, Alen and I’m sorry for your loss. I’m one of those folk that believe that nobody truly dies until they’re forgotten by the living. By telling your dad’s story, you’ve ensured he’ll live on for a long time yet. I had a wee smile at the St Ola reference. Chances are that your dad’s car was under the watchful eye of my uncle, who served on the Ola for a good few years and went on to Captain her replacement. An Orkney resident, he loved fly-fishing and a decent malt. He passed away last year so, if your Dad finds himself up that way, he’ll be in good company :)

    Take care, man.

    • McEff says:

      Hi Kev. I’ll go along with that: no one truly dies until they are forgotten by the living. I had something along those lines buzzing around in my head when I started this. And as for the St Ola, your message made me smile too. We have a picture somewhere of the Consul being swung aboard. And I sailed across in the replacement, which I think was also called the St Ola, about ten years later in 1977 while hitching around the Highlands and islands. That second trip was much calmer and more pleasant. Perhaps your uncle had something to do with it.
      Cheers, Alen

  15. Kev says:

    There’s every chance as he served aboard at least two Ola’s and then her replacements after that. He was a good man and I’ve nothing but fond memories of him. I think it’s remembering the good stuff that gets us through these things. Takes time tho’.

  16. That is very sad and you have my sincere condolences. Your words show so much sensitivity and are wonderful tribute. It is good that you managed to share so much together, both giving each other something to feel passionate about. I hope you are well and are coming to terms with your loss. Best regards, Colin.

    • McEff says:

      Thanks for those words, Colin. It’s heartwarming to know there are so many kind people out there.It’s greatly appreciated.
      All the best, Alen.

  17. jcmurray1 says:

    Alen, I’m truly sorry for your loss. I’m also sorry it’s taken me so long to leave you a note but I was struggling as to what to say. I’d only just arrived home from visiting my parents, both of whom turn 86 this year, when I read your post, and my Dad is pretty ill. I’d travelled down with my son and had listened with a smile as they regaled him with stories of their youth. Especially his Grandpa, (whose first name he inherited), who despite being poorly, told some great tales of his exploits in the airforce in India as we trawled through old, grainy, black and white photographs of ridiculously young boys from the country riding elephants. I guess I’ve always known that the end is close and getting closer but maybe I’ve been in a bit of denial about it all. But having read your tribute to your father it made me think that it’s time to start focusing on those memories, even recording them perhaps, instead of focusing on the inevitable. We’ll see. Look after yourself and I hope you find some comfort and healing in the great memories – and the hills of course!……….J

    • McEff says:

      Hi John. What you have described about being in a bit of denial is exactly how I have been for the past few months. Right up to the end I was doing things like cleaning his greenhouse out ready for him planting his tomatoes because I just couldn’t accept that he wasn’t coming home. My head sort of knew he wasn’t; but the rest of me couldn’t comprehend a world without him. Even now, a couple of weeks later, it hasn’t fully sunk in.
      I wish you and your family well for the future. I don’t know whether anything can prepare people for the inevitable, but I do wish is I’d spent more time with my father over the years. But I suppose everyone says that – I should have said this to him and I should have said that. Perhaps no matter what you do, it will never seem like enough.
      I would urge you to start recording your memories, as you suggested, even if it’s only mental notes. Since his death, I’ve learnt a lot about my father from other people recounting their memories of his childhood and youth. It struck me that if I’d been more attentive when I had the chance I could have leant many of these things for myself.
      Take care. And yes, the hills help a great deal. Alen.

  18. Laura says:

    It’s been almost fifteen years since my father passed away and I’d like to thank you for bringing back some good memories for me today with your post.
    Please accept my condolences for your very recent loss. I hope you can find some peace of mind by re-living your experiences with your Dad and by sharing your thoughts and feelings with all of us that have read your words. I found it a very moving tribute to him.

    • McEff says:

      Thank you very much for those kind words, Laura. They are greatly appreciated. And I’m glad this post stirred some happy memories of your own father.
      Cheers, Alen

  19. beatingthebounds says:

    Hard to know what to say in these circumstances Alen. It seems that your Dad lived his live to the full. He must have been quite a man to inspire such a moving tribute. All the best.
    Mark

  20. David says:

    I am really sorry to find out about your Dad Alen. That is a lovely tribute to him and if these are just a few of the many milestones in his life he certainly led a remarkable one. Thank you for sharing some of your memories.

  21. Rob says:

    Just read this, Alen. You did him proud.

  22. Diddy David says:

    Hi Alen, we were all very sad to hear of your Dad’s death. Surfing through the internet we “stumbled” on your article, which we have read with great interest. Boredom was definitely not in his repertoire! Our thoughts are with you all.
    That was Germany calling!

    • McEff says:

      Hi Cousin. Thanks for that. Good to hear from you after all these years. Hope the family’s well and thriving. I was talking to your mother a couple of weeks ago and trying to work out the last time me and Anne saw the pair of you. I think it was up at Ulpha, about 1988 or 1990. Anyway, it was a long time ago. I talked to Gayle and Martin at the funeral – but I must admit I didn’t recognise them at first. We had a right good natter.
      Yes, my dad always kept active. He was never bored. Always on the go. And always arguing. That kept his mind active, right up to the last. I miss him a great deal.
      We really should try to meet up sometime. It’s long overdue.
      Love to Heidrun and Thomas.
      Alen

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