For many years my mum and dad would take me and my sister to visit relatives in Middlewich, Cheshire. I suffered with car sickness until my mum read about an old housewives remedy in Woman’s Weekly - that sitting on a newspaper eliminated sickness. It worked and I didn’t feel vomit bubbling up the sides of my tummy again.
On the way home we’d drive through semi-rural Cheshire country lanes in darkness with the silhouettes of copses, barns and detached houses on the horizon. My mum was would always tell us Jodrell Bank Observatory was coming up and me and my sister would sit up (no seat belt laws or head rests in those days) to see the mammoth dish across the fields taking up the skies. It seemed much bigger in the 1970s.
I thought I’d look for the grave of the man who got the world-famous dish built, Bernard Lovell. When he died I can remember reading that he lived in the Cheshire countryside so I thought I’d seek out his grave. He was a big family man and I soon found out his burial place was private. I can guess where it is but didn’t like to intrude but as I was going through Cheshire to seek out other graves I thought I’d call in at Swettenham village where he lived and the funeral service was held.
When I read up on Bernard I couldn’t understand much about his world of physics. I’m so thick I couldn’t understand what he uncovered scientifically to see what led to him developing the telescope (I can’t do long division, didn’t know what a cumquat was until I was 48, can’t understand the off-side rule and can’t untangle a Newton’s Cradle – I’m that thick.) There were scores of bright people around involved in academia in those days but I don’t quite know how Bernard stepped out of it to build this huge legacy in the Cheshire countryside.
I guessed wrongly that he was the kind of man who was born and bred in Cheshire but he was born in Gloucestershire. He gained a first-class degree in physics in Bristol University and was only 20 when he obtained his doctorate in Physics. While World War Two raged was invited to help the war effort by improving radar and telecommunications. After the war he became a professor at Manchester University and devoted himself to the research on cosmic rays from deep space. He showed the world how radar techniques used in the war could be used to detect cosmic-ray showers from meteors were detected, and a number of long outstanding problems in meteoric astronomy were ingeniously solved.
Aged 24 he married Mary Chesterman and they went onto have a happy marriage, three daughters and two sons. Aged 33 he earned an OBE from his work and book of radar work Echoes of War.
Aged 37 he designed and began building the largest rotatable radio telescope in the world, the Lovell Telescope (still in use.) Perhaps he was naive or very bright as he proposed it would cost£60,000 to build Jodrell Bank Observatory. Building work started in 1950 and by the time it was finished it had cos £670,000 (£21 million now.) Bernard was headstrong and mounted a one-man war against workers strikes, bureaucratic delays, delivery failures, escalating costs and hot debates in Parliament.
He was 43 when the telescope finally commenced operation on 2nd August 1957. Timing was fortuitous and the critics were silenced when only weeks later Russians Soviets launched Sputnik (the first ever artificial satellite) and Bernard’s 250-foot-diameter dish was the only telescope in the western hemisphere that could track it. More importantly this was the time of the Cold War and the dish could watch parts of the sky American astronomers could not watch and it acted as “early warning” device in case of nuclear attack.
The deep-seeking telescope woke the world up to the chasm of endless space, how we viewed the universe and what was happening out there. It was Bernard who revealed that although American astronauts landed on the on the moon in 1969 the Russians had attempted to land their own unmanned space probe beforehand (but it crashed.)
Away from science Bernard was also a talented organist, author of several books and lecturer.
Aged 48 he was awarded a knighthood for his important contributions to developments of radio astronomy.
Aged 50 he went behind the Iron Curtain and may have been subject of an assassination. The Russians knew all about his telescope and its use of as the first "early warning device". In 1963, at the height of the Cold War, he visited the Deep-Space Communication Centre in Russia. He claimed the Russians used a radio telescope to bombard him with lethal radiation, leaving him ill for a month. Though they may not have been trying to kill him they were probably trying to remove his memory as they’d taken him to their defence nucleus on the Black Sea coast. Many of his compatriots who went to the Soviet Union in those days never returned or returned and didn’t live long. He said he was “jolly glad to see the lights of London on one return journey." He lodged a detailed account of his Cold War exploits in a safe at Manchester University, only to be released after his funeral (it hasn’t appeared so far.)
Thankfully he survived and the old brain-box was still turning up to work at Jodrell Bank every day until ill-health prevented it. He’d lived a full and fulfilling life until he died aged 2012 aged 98, probably the worse bit being the loss of his wife in 1993. He left 14 great-grandchildren and a huge dish in the Cheshire Countryside.
I found myself driving toward Swettenham village one Sunday afternoon. I could see it was small on the map and seemed to have trouble getting into it. The church on the horizon told me I was getting close but the Sat-Nav was sending me down a dirt road. It was about 7 feet wide and heading exactly in the direction of the church. I decided against it and continued on the countryside but the Sat-Nav took me on a big circle and returned me to the narrow dirt track. Though my car looks like a giant breadbox it’s brill on dirt and snow so I got the two front wheels on the track. However I still wasn’t sure about this. I’d passed two women on horses about fifteen minutes ago and suddenly they were on the road to my right.
“I don’t think so, matey” one said and when I turned my head I saw the women were the police on police horses. They knew this area and told me to follow them and led me up a road my Sat-Nav had ignored.
“It’s up this way,” one said pointing. I willingly followed them. Women wearing spray-on jodhpurs who are ordering me about with leather horsewhips is heady stuff I can tell you.
Swettenham was mighty small and didn’t even seem to have a convenience shop, Bengal Tiger tandoori or Tan-Tastic tanning salon. There were a few expensive houses scattered about, a diary, boarding kennels, farms and sprawling fields. I found the compact St Peter’s church where the funeral service had been held. Not many graves. I tried the handle of the church: locked. Bummer. It had been packed with Bernard’s family and associates. One of his sons’ gave a speech and Clementine Lovell, his granddaughter, gave a moving performance as she sang Pie Jesu from the Requiem. He’s buried a few metres from the drive leading up to his home, The Quinta (which means “a large house in the country” - which it is.) You can’t see it from the road unless you stick your head in the bushes.
Not many people build an observatory or have a road named after them…
The pub at the back of the church has a suite names after Bernard…
Bernard’s grave is a few metres from home “The Quinta”…
Swettenham Cemetery is small and not well occupied (in 2017 anyway)…
Here’s Bernard’s legacy…
I had the day in darting about the Cheshire countryside and, as usual, I ensured I came back via Goosetree so I passed Jodrell Bank. Conveniently there’s a section where you can pull in and see the resplendent huge dish against a resplendent setting sun.
Just check out the sunset….
I liked how the sun picked up on that puddle, made look a bit like ectoplasm…