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Duchess of Bedford air tragedy, HMS Gorleston, and a boundary meeting revival

PUBLISHED: 20:48 25 August 2017 | UPDATED: 20:48 25 August 2017

The Duke of Bedford at Caister Holiday Camp in 1972 to address members of Yarmouth's North Sea Petroleum Wives Club. With him are (l-r) president Mrs John Bloom, vice-president Mrs Sam Hereford and programme chairman Mrs Roy Fox. Picture: MERCURY LIBRARY

The Duke of Bedford at Caister Holiday Camp in 1972 to address members of Yarmouth's North Sea Petroleum Wives Club. With him are (l-r) president Mrs John Bloom, vice-president Mrs Sam Hereford and programme chairman Mrs Roy Fox. Picture: MERCURY LIBRARY

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So often one thing leads to another, the latest example being my feature a fortnight ago about the Duchess of Bedford, an ardent pilot who died when her aircraft inexplicably flew over the North Sea and crashed in 1937.

The body of the 71-year-old was never recovered but parts of her aeroplane were washed ashore at Great Yarmouth, Gorleston and along the coast after a vain nine-day search for clues.

My column brought a reminder that her son, a successor in the family line, twice visited this area as guest speaker at the North Sea Petroleum Wives Club in 1969 and 1972.

He was the extrovert aristocrat constantly in the headlines and national gossip columns, often concerning his controversial decision to turn the family seat, Woburn Abbey, from stately home into a lowbrow and hugely popular public fun attraction to generate income to offset the heavy financial burden it had become.

The Duke, a former national newspaper journalist, told his 1972 audience at Caister Holiday Camp that opening Woburn Abbey to the public taught him one of the most important lessons of his life: “It is the happiness you give to other people that makes you happy.

“It’s seeing people happy and enjoying themselves, and being able to share beautiful things with them.”

I do not know whether or not the club still exists. And I wonder if the Duke realised he was addressing the wives’ club in the neighbourhood that was the centre of that massive prolonged search along East Anglian beaches for clues as to the fate of his aviator mother’s De Havilland Moth before the war.

Decades later, while the Bedfords were staying at Sheringham Hall, it was revealed that “the flying Duchess” had so liked the place when she flew over it once that she unsuccessfully offered to buy it from the Upcher family.

The 1937 death of the pilot Duchess reminded me of another woman aviation pioneer, the famous Amelia Earhart who disappeared during a long trans-Pacific Ocean flight in 1937 and was never seen again. She had been the first woman to fly across the Atlantic.

Among the many ships involved in the unsuccessful search along her Pacific route was the American Coastguard cutter Rasca which, in 1941, was one of the five similar craft handed by the US to Britain under the war-time Lease-Lend Agreement... and was renamed HMS Gorleston by the Royal Navy.

The renaming was a tribute to Gorleston’s long association with Coastguard Service - the US equivalent of our lifeboat stations.

As a result of an appeal by Gorleston’s vicar, the Rev D T Dick, the townsfolk sent HMS Gorleston’s crew comforts, including books, gramophone records, football gear... and the borough coat-of-arms carved in oak.

HMS Gorleston distinguished herself as a convoy escort and headquarters ship before re-crossing the Atlantic to resume her pre-war duties in the United States.

And from the Bedford dukedom and HMS Gorleston to Hardley Cross, a recent topic here.

That is the isolated tall structure in Broadland where the River Chet joins our Yare and marks the ancient boundary between the jurisdictions of the City of Norwich and Yarmouth, intended to limit disputes between the two authorities.

In June I mentioned the 1971 restoration of the cross by Reedham stonemason Derek Pond, witnessed by long-serving Peggotty Joe Harrison with photographer Les Gould, and wrote I could find no record of that traditional annual Yarmouth-Norwich meeting after a 1966 cutting claiming it had been discontinued because it was too time-consuming.

So I was interested to read only a month later that Yarmouth Mayor Kerry Robinson-Payne and Norwich Lord Mayor David Fullman had shaken hands at Hardley Cross, resurrecting the tradition.

I wonder if my June column spurred the Broads Authority into coming to this happy arrangement... or had the little ceremony been revived for a year or two?

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