The Yellow Gate

About 20 years ago I penned a short story for no other reason than I happened to be in the mood to do so one evening. It was simply meant as an account of the circular nature of life and successive generations; of childhood, fatherhood and the way that in an ever changing world some things (happily) remain constant.

By complete coincidence a letter appeared in the EDP a few days later asking for any memories/anecdotes/photographs relating to the tenure of Lightning interceptor aircraft at RAF Coltishall here in Norfolk. The chap requesting all of this was writing a book about this cold war beast and so I sent him my story. He happened to like it and used as an end piece which he thought perfect for documenting the transition from old to new. To date this is the only missive I've ever had published in a mainstream book......and I didn't receive a penny.

No matter. I'd pretty much forgotten about the piece, but found it lurking in a folder together with a few other well intentioned but ill fated attempts to write a cohesive tale. For what it's worth I reproduce it below, and note the irony that the base has now closed and the Jaguar itself retired from service. The ghosts of the aircraft, airmen and women live on though. If you stand by the old runway you can sometimes see them. Hope you like it.


Ironically it is mostly very quiet and peaceful at this place. At the moment there is little sound apart from the seemingly ever present but unobtrusive song of a Skylark somewhere up in the wide blue heaven above us. It is pleasing background noise, a perfect companion to the dozy warmth of a summers day upon which my son has accompanied me to a small unfrequented country lane some 6 or 7 miles north of where we live. Progress along this particular lane is terminated abruptly after a few hundred yards by a bright yellow gate beyond which is the vast expanse of the air base. There is little sign of life on the base but through the shimmering heat haze, on the far side of the expanse, we can discern the distorted and disembodied image of the brisk, relentless swirling radar: the planes are flying. The planes are why we are here, me with my arms resting on top of the gate, my young son clambering up so he can sit beside me astride the top bar, legs swinging idly. We are here to see the jets, to experience the thrill of witnessing several tons of high tech avionics hurtle through the air not 50 yards from where we stand and somehow make contact with the tarmac runway and remain in one piece. It is a thrill we share now and again when the mood takes us and we can spare the time to lounge in intimate contact with this yellow crash gate in anticipation of that exhilarating few moments when an aircraft comes in to land. 

A few minutes later as I scan the distant horizon for the umpteenth time I see a small speck which can only be our quarry. I trace with my practiced eye the line of its approach from the edge of the runway through the tall sentinel landing lights, across the flat open country and eventually to its slowly enlarging image. “Hey James ! Here comes another one.”

 “Where dad?”

 “Over there look, you can see its light”. 

What began as an infinitesimal speck in the far distance is now appreciably larger and a faint smoke trail can be seen in its wake. The bright lights shining powerfully from its nose wheel flaps provide a disproportionately large reference point to track its progress. There is no noise as yet but as the seconds pass the image enlarges and more detail can be made out; it is soon possible to discern the distinct shape of a modern jet aircraft. Perhaps 30 seconds pass, a passage of time that seems far, far longer as the anticipation mounts.

“What is it dad?”

“A Jag I think”

Its approach seems much quicker now but it is still strangely silent until it almost pounces upon us and zooms past with a tremendous cacophony of sound. Within moments it hits the ground at over 100 miles an hour smoke flying from its tyres on impact. My lad has his hands over his ears but I can see he enjoys the moment. We note the checkered blue and yellow markings of 54 squadron, watch the air brakes flare and listen to the thrust bring reversed with a terrific roar. Sometimes a pilot will show off and allow the plane to cruise along the runway for quite some distance with its nose raised before allowing the front wheel to make contact with the ground - I suppose it’s a question of if you’ve got it flaunt it.

The Jaguar levels out and recedes into the distance along the runway and is soon lost to view. Silence imposes itself over the scene, its return made more poignant by stark contrast with the ear-piercing interruption of a few moments ago. But the loud sounds are the things that I suppose really impress, that and the evocative smell of spent aviation fuel. I love it and I doubt the excitement will ever pale.

There is now a lull in the action, and whilst my young lad contents himself with munching a sandwich I begin to think back to when I first discovered this place in the late summer of 1968. I can still remember the day vividly, the day when we first encountered a real jet, the magnificent, magical and majestic Lightning....

My friend and I, my very best friend the inseparable and unquestioning kind you can only really make as children, had gone fruit picking with my parents. We were unimpressed with this obviously overrated pastime and decided to seek our fortune elsewhere. We chose Coltishall as the honoured destination of the day for no other reason than we had never been there before and were curious as to what it was like. The road sign declared it to be 5 miles away, a distance that meant nothing to our young frames; we were used to walking and took the distance literally in our stride.


We eventually arrived at the village which was, and still is, a place of great charm, a well worked mixture of warm red bricked Georgian cottages complete with abundant displays of multi coloured roses and hollyhocks nestled between somewhat larger and more imposing properties of various designs overlooking the tranquil river. More importantly to our youthful frames was the existence of a local store. We pooled our meager resources to purchase a drink and some sugar laden provisions and it was whilst consuming these goodies that we first heard the thunderous roar of a Lightning. We realised that we were close to the famous RAF base where the war time hero Douglas Bader had flown Spitfires and it at once became an irresistible lure. We resolved therewith to follow the red-bordered road signs and get a closer view, if we could, of the powerful monsters that now inhabited the station. 


We walked further along the then almost deserted country lanes, all the time the sound of the jets got louder and louder and our expectations proportionately mounted. As we arrived at the western end of the runway where the landing lights straddle the road we stopped and watched for the first time one of these magnificent silver machines come in to land. So loud, so fast, so exciting. This was real fun! We just had to get a closer look.


Our years of birds nesting and rambling had rendered us immune to barbed wire fences and their implications. Such symbols of authority, prohibition and possession held no sway with us and we wasted no time in climbing the one such bordering the roadside. It was high summer and I can even now capture the sights and sounds that assaulted us as we swam through a sea of corn. Here we were temporarily side tracked as we paused to admire a beautifully constructed nest of a field mouse we found woven intricately amongst the stems. It was a real adventure, complete abandon; we had no care in the world. 


We emerged from the field to be greeted with a sturdier barrier erected by the MoD to stop more sinister intruders than us. Undaunted we walked around the airfield perimeter until we came to a small lane which seemed to lead towards the heart of the base itself. There were no doubt signs warning us not to trespass on MoD property but I cannot recall seeing them, and if they were there we certainly took little account of the legend printed upon them. We had come so far that nothing was going to stop us now. Presently we came to an area close to where the large jets cruised by on their way to take off. We climbed a nearby oak and for the next 30 minutes or so had a great time wedged side by side, safe and secure, in the boughs of the sturdy tree waving to the pilots as they taxied by. One or two waved back which gave us great encouragement and I suppose hastened our inevitable downfall.  


There comes a point in every adventure where your luck runs out but on this particular occasion ours didn’t just run out - we gave it a pretty hefty kick out the door!  But we were young and full of exuberance and because of this determined that we would get closer still to these wonderful aircraft. We set out on a stroll across the airbase!  Needless to say we didn’t get far and looking back we were extremely fortunate to only find ourselves explaining our presence on the hallowed ground to a somewhat bemused RAF sergeant whose powerful shouts had brought us shamefaced into his realm. It could have been much, much worse - I have nightmares wondering where we would have ended up if we had not been spotted! Anyway having decided the likelihood of us being communist spies was small the RAF man took pity on us, dumped us in the back us his truck and deposited us at the main entrance (exit in our case) of the air base.  This was a mixed blessing, on the one hand we had escaped the firing squad but on the other we had an extra couple of miles to walk home. On balance we decided we had probably gotten off lightly and resigned to our fate tramped home. 


Far from deterring us, this episode only served to spur us on; from that moment we were firmly hooked. Over the next couple of years we made regular excursions to the base discovering various vantage points from which to watch the planes.  Most of these spots ended in a yellow crashgate to which we gave numbers - I think we found three in all, but there may have been more. We recruited a third member to our merry band and made all subsequent trips by employing the advantage afforded by two wheels rather than just two legs - the more expedient method of bicycle. My trusty green racing bike is the epitome of that era for me. It was my first real bike, a metallic green racer, and I knew that it cost my parents a lot of money, more than they could actually afford. It was a truly treasured possession. I’ve still got that bike, it stands forlorn and neglected in the garage, its tyres flat and its paint work a little tarnished. But it is still a good looking machine and I will never let it go.


Although our excursions were restricted to school holidays, small things like the seasons bothered us not in the least. We visited the base come rain or shine and I particularly remember one freezing cold crisp mid-winters day when every time a Lightning plummeted to the runway and passed  low overhead we held out our numb hands to gratefully receive a blast of warm air. To think that we were so close that the hot air from the exhaust could temporarily alleviate the numbness brought on by the cold.


For a time we lived Lightnings; we watched them, made models of them - whole squadrons adorned our bedroom ceilings - drew pictures of them, took photographs of them and probably bored our friends stupid with our talk of them. But it was good, it was harmless and it gave us a focal point upon which to channel our ever increasing need for mental stimulation and practice our creative talents. 


But then it all changed - we “grew up”. There was suddenly a very urgent need to disassociate ourselves with any pastime that could be linked with childhood.  More serious obligations began to impose themselves upon us and in our 16th year of existence we left school and largely went our separate ways. The cycle rides to RAF Coltishall like so many other simple fun filled things ceased and were never resumed. 


I think it was shortly after leaving school in 1973 that the Lightnings were replaced by the Jaguars, an event that I recorded as no more than a marginal note against the main text of my life. I was basically too busy making the sometimes painful transition from the boy to the man. Life evolves. I found work, began earning money, became independent, left home, married and ‘settled down’. 


After a while the interest in aviation rekindled and I began visiting airshows whenever time allowed. It was whilst enjoying the hospitality of the USAF at Mildenhall  in 1988 that I, and many others, last saw a  Lightning fly. The beasts had been kept in service all that while and to my everlasting shame I had hardly given a moments thought to them for the preceding 15 years. Looking back it seems almost terrifying to think of the way in which one takes things for granted. I didn’t realise at the time that this was the last I would ever see of the old war-horse which had given me so much pleasure and had been such a feature of my life all those years ago. Its subsequent fate - I’ve seen the photos of rusting, vandalised, dismembered hulks - almost makes me sick.  


My son was born later that year, he is unlikely ever to see a Lightning fly, he will never feel his stomach throb with the sheer power thrown out from its engines and he will never witness its ability to ascend straight from take off vertically towards the heavens until it is lost from view. A red hot silver bullet fired from a cold war gun. For me one era ended that year and another began.           


I am brought out of my trance by the approach of another Jaguar and although in its way it is a worthy aircraft I can’t help thinking it is a poor replacement for the silver beast. As frightening as it is unexpected an unwelcome longing has bubbled slowly to the surface. I feel as though the breath has been knocked out of me. The memories of those now extinct halcyon days of the 1960s are at this point so vivid I could almost touch them. I can recall wild laughter as we cycled along, the wind streaming through my hair, fever pitch excitement as we got closer to the yellow gate, legs pounding the pedals in a desperate attempt to be the first to reach the goal; always a race to see who could reach it first.

My son catching something of my sombre mood, says “Come on dad lets go home”. I help him down from the gate and take his hand in mine. As we walk away I take a look back over my shoulder at the yellow gate, and there for a brief instant I see the image of three young lads sitting astride their bikes propped against the gate laughing and joking together. They turn to look at me and they smile and raise their hands in greeting. I almost raise my hand in response but then see only the yellow gate, it is still there unchanged in 30 years, smiling at me in the sunshine.



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