It’s not all sun, sea and sand - or is it?
Building the Vulcan Village on Bournemouth beach in 2011.
Event Manager of Vulcan to the Sky Trust, Ian Homer, reports on a rather unusual assignment for the team and gives a fascinating insight to what is involved in setting up a ground presence in support of XH558.
This was our third season with the Vulcan Village concept and with the knowledge and experience of previous years, we knew Bournemouth was a special case quite unlike any other air display location we do ‘on the circuit’.
The majority of the crowds enter near the main pier, right where it is heavily pedestrianised and there is no available flat grass on which to pitch our marquees.
That leaves us with the beach area immediately next to Harry Ramsden’s large restaurant, so without any other option, a quick pitch booking was made and with the kind support of the local council organisers, we set about making our plans.
How exactly do you secure a large marquee to soft sand I thought? I had seen many before with rigid sides and complicated exterior weight structures, all obviously well outside our budget. The answer lies in a solid floor, with a built-in frame to which the whole structure is then secured. This was outside the scope of our normal contractor, so I began a search of local companies who might have had experience. Within a day, a company based in Poole had kindly offered us a solution based on a footprint of 18metres deep x 9metres wide, with two side pods of 3metres square to act as the Information Centre and Flight Simulator room. So, that was the main task completed in good time, but now we had to pull together the required teams and prepare our supplies and equipment ready to ‘dress’ the Village as we do at every single show where we have a merchandising and information point.
Thankfully, work on available volunteers to staff the Village was well advanced due to the excellent work of Phill Jones and his team based in the Bournemouth area. You may not be aware, but we have a central meeting point within the main Club membership forum, where we are able to confirm details, advise on who is available, whilst discussing specific details on travel and accommodation. It’s all rather straight forward but kept out of the public domain, because quite frankly, it’s the nuts and bolts of what goes on in the background and would be quite boring to the layperson. It is however, an essential online resource when so many people need to communicate on a special project like this one. The same facility is used to help establish other Trust and Club events all over the country.
With the staff all covered, logistical work begins well ahead of every show, so when we have weekends back to back, it really is a highly pressured situation, making sure we keep sufficient stock, replenish supplies, sort out all the personnel, passes and the legalities of Risk Assessments and Insurance documents.
Two key people come into the story at this stage. They are Bob Jackson and Barry Hunt. Bob helps with the merchandise and web store at Hinckley, and Barry not only helps load the stock, but often drives hundreds of miles each season in the hired Luton van we need to transport everything.
Both also spend many hours acting as part of the Village team and are my immediate helpers in co-ordinating everything that is needed to deliver what the volunteers and public see as a finished Vulcan Village, wherever that may be.
For Bournemouth, preparations began on the Monday, with the team assembling at Hinckley to start loading. This was the first show after a short break in the display schedule, so feeling refreshed, we were all keen and looking forward to the upcoming weekend, with myself and Barry looking after Bournemouth and Bob helping the club with supplies at Shoreham. XH558 had not flown for those few weeks either, so we had an added incentive in seeing her display many times over that week – Dawlish and Bournemouth Press Day on the Thursday, with two displays booked at Bournemouth on the weekend, two at Shoreham and another at Oxford on the Sunday. The Twitter feed would certainly be busy that weekend - or so we thought!
On Tuesday, a fully loaded vehicle was driven down to Bournemouth, so Barry could stop overnight in accommodation kindly offered by local supporters, ready for an early start on Wednesday – the day of set-up. Myself, I had a half day to finish off the News Bytes copy, before packing my bags and awaiting the arrival home of my wife Debbie, who also volunteers from time to time to help as part of the team. We could then travel down ourselves later that evening, with the plan to arrive by 9.30pm.
With breaking news that the aircraft had developed a leak in a fuel tank, the agreed messages prepared had to be totally scrapped for a different story. By 4pm a new script was ready and signed off by the team, so by the time the newsletter was built and published, it was well after 5pm before I even started to pack. So much for finishing early and being ready for a quick get-away.
As it was, it was just on 7.30pm before we left home, with an expected three hour drive being indicated by the Sat Nav. Not good, especially when we promised the landlord of our small Guest House we would be there on time and we had still to eat. Pausing at the services in Oxford, we made a telephone call to advise him of the delay and we were told not to worry, so quickly grabbed a light snack. He was there waiting patiently when we finally arrived at 10.30pm.
With such a radical change to the structure of the Village and a new team of contractors, the plan was to meet them on the beach at 8.30am, so we could decide on the final position and best orientation given the pitch available. You will have to remember, although I was familiar with the general location from last year, my best guess to date were from looking at Google Maps, so it is often best to see exactly where the organisers have marked our pitch and then make best judgement on the day, based on the likely pedestrian traffic flow and then, best elevation for ‘front of house’.
When we arrived, the contractors had already been there since 7am! I found out they had three more marquees to erect that day, so with ours being the biggest project, they wanted to get cracking. The timber flooring sits on and between metal channels, which fortunately for us it would turn out, they started to lay down facing towards the sea (but more on that later), so there were gaps about a metre wide to correspond with the width of the flooring sections that fit above them. Working in three metre bays, the metal structure has small upright posts that take the upper frame and all is bolted together like a giant ‘meccano’ kit. It is purely the weight of the metal channels, added with that of the floor that secure the whole marquee, although I was also shown a few token large spikes driven well into the sand just for an added bit of security.
Once I was happy everything was coming together in the right place and we confirmed the location of the smaller units, there was little we could do, other than make a few phone calls and arrange the set up team to arrive by about midday, as originally planned. So far, so good, then we could start installing all the branding and stock. It would be another couple of hours before everything would be finished and the roof sections in place, so time for a quick walk through the Winter Gardens towards the town for a little bit of retail therapy with a coffee break in the middle.
Returning back through the gardens, we paused for a moment to admire the extensive well tended flower beds that included a floral tribute promoting The Red Arrows that lay on a slight incline for all to see. Little did we know that events were to unfold over the next few days affecting both the grounds we were in and of course, the Red Arrows themselves.
It was now getting close to 11.30am, so time to move back to the seafront where several local Club members had already arrived ahead of the allotted time to help begin building up, or as we call it, ‘dress’ the Village.
All this of course depends on our trusty Van driver Barry turning up on time, which after a quick phone call, was confirmed to be the case. Within minutes, we could start unloading most of the contents ahead of actually getting the clearance to begin work. At that time, the contractors were busy putting up the roofing panels, so access to the floor area was still restricted.
The first item to be unloaded is always the extremely heavy diesel generator. Although most of our electrical items are of low consumption, the 3KW kettle takes priority with the team, not only now during the set-up, but of course, during the long hard days of an event - and is certainly the most prized piece of kit we carry!
My wife was quickly on the case and soon had a hot cuppa’ ready for all those willing helpers, with the generator still on the pavement. Here, was our first unexpected challenge. Airshows are usually conducted over nice grass fields, when the generator is just rolled off the tail lift directly into position. We couldn’t leave it near the pavement for obvious fear of theft or indeed noise to passers by. It needed to go right on the other side, nearer the sea. We couldn’t drive the van on the soft sand, so our only option was to use two of the heavy duty tables to act as a ramp, that just ‘happened by design’ to fit perfectly across the slight incline between pavement and the marquee floor. It was then a simply a case of rolling across the width of the Village to lift into a final position with the help of four or so burley volunteers. (Well, three at least, we don’t count Barry as burley!)
Luckily, the generator usually sits in a fabricated box made from uPVC planks designed to cut down some of the noise from what was billed in the sales literature as a ‘Silent Generator’. The lid to this box now had to form the base, to prevent the generator shaking itself several feet below ground, while we found an old PVC banner to wrap over the top to give some sound deadening and protection from the elements.
With all that sorted, we could begin laying out the cabling, then start on putting up the internal banners, while others could look at putting up the large exterior ‘goalpost’ frame that supports the front banner and flag poles. Here we then came across problem number two! Whilst we were away, a PA company had been out and about putting up poles to which they attached two tannoy speakers. One was right outside our front entrance just about six feet away so as not to block entry, but in such a position to make it impossible for us to lift up the frame structure in one piece - as we normally do after assembly on the ground. This time, we would have to do it in-situ, piece by piece like a mecanno set, ten feet in the air! We were not too happy and it took double the amount of time.
It was now getting towards late afternoon, and there was little more we could do in the way of stock placement, as due to lack of security, all the merchandise would remain in the van overnight, meaning it would need to be placed out first thing in the morning – not the ideal situation, but one we would have to deal with.
At least we were able to say our goodbyes relatively early, secure the marquee and make our way up the steep incline back to our hotel, to freshen up to change ready for our evening meal. We would all meet up again at 8am in the morning.
Thursday morning arrived and it was looking very overcast, but we were able to make our way down to the Village without any major worries. The whole team arrived and it was all systems go in unloading the Van to stock the tables. The skies continued to darken and slow spots of rain began to fall onto the roof, which is quite a distinctive sound in a tent as most of you can imagine. Within minutes, the view out to sea was lost altogether and the heavens opened. First, it was nothing more than heavy showers, but certainly enough to dampen the expected crowds.
As we approached lunchtime, it became nothing sort of a monsoon - heavy and prolonged, with thunder and lightning. No one could be seen, it was desolate - everyone was seeking shelter.
It was all rather eerie and here were a dozen folks out in a large tent on a lonely beach! Looking out of the front panels we could see water cascading down the steps forming a wide river from the Winter Gardens down to the sea. At the far side of the village, it was although a river was running directly underneath us. To the side nearest the pavement, I could see several pipes jutting out of the concrete retaining walls – they were storm drains, designed to carry water away from the high ground above us. They were now throwing all that water right at us! It was then I thanked our lucky stars that the under floor beams were facing in the direction of flow, leaving little resistance. If the contactors had laid the flooring the other way, it was not beyond the power being unleashed to send the whole structure out to sea as a giant raft! HMS Vulcan would have certainly made the headlines!
During an occasional respite, reports came in from our limited visitors of a flooded town centre, chaos on all the surrounding roads, a Winter Garden under several feet of water, while a double-decker bus had been knocked over by sheer water power from a blown manhole cover underneath. It was not looking good at all.
By 2pm it was clear the weather was set for the rest of the day and we heard over the tannoy that the whole day’s activities had been cancelled. There would be no flying. Needless to say, sales were a mere fraction of what we were expecting and once again, very unusually for an air show, we had the opportunity of an early departure back to the hotel. Of course, that was only after all the stock so carefully laid out that morning had been duly loaded back into the van, with hardly any items being sold.
Friday dawned a totally different day, with blue skies and a hint of sunshine breaking through early on that was to expand out to a lovely late summer’s day. This time, the Village was packed from early on and as usual, before we knew it, it was time to pack all the things away again ready for a hectic weekend. As is often the way with a Vulcan Village, I can’t offer you a report on the flying displays, as we simply don’t see them! We are far too busy networking with visitors, telling them how they can become more involved, or simply selling merchandise to raise valuable funding. We had the added task here of course, in explaining what was wrong with the aircraft and roughly how long we expected the repairs to be. The day really did go quickly.
One constant problem we had not encountered before was the constant ingress of sand off people’s feet. Thankfully, Michael Trotter, the Trust’s Business Development Director had mentioned the day before he thought sweeping up was quite therapeutic, so on provision of a large broom courtesy of Harry Ramsden’s restaurant just over the way, he had soon volunteered to sweep out the entire floor!
On Saturday, we had rather an unusual addition to the Village, with a promotion team coming to us from The Dorset Tea Company who would be doing a special promotion on price, whilst donating some of the proceeds back to us. It was good to promote a locally blended product that of course we had to sample. Needless to say, we were suitably impressed and came away having purchased several boxes for our own consumption at home.
That afternoon, there was only one act that could empty a full Vulcan Village (our Vulcan of course being absent due to the fuel tank issue). Having just seen them perform a fantastic new manoeuvre over Lake Windermere, I was keen to see it again, so several of us managed to stand on the front doorstep to watch The Red Arrows as they performed just after lunchtime.
Sadly, of course, it was later in the day we began hearing reports of a Red going down after departing the shoreline. We tried various avenues in the search of news, only to find it was still patchy with conflicting reports of what exactly had happened. As with all things aviation, you hope for the best outcome, but it certainly altered the mood in the camp for the rest of the day. As yet, the public outside seemed to be unaware of any incident, as it later transpired to have happened on the final break to land overhead Hurn Airport. It was only on returning to our hotel room after 7.30pm that evening when we learnt the full horror as breaking news on the BBC.
I‘m sure all those interested in reading this have a keen enthusiasm for aviation and such is the profile of the Red Arrows, that I need not say how devastated the whole team were on arrival that following Sunday morning. We vowed to make a special collection towards the memorial fund we heard had been established. Straight away, we went off to buy a large stock of Red Arrow pin badges, thus making a small contribution with others who had descended on the RAF enclosure right outside the main pier.
We immediately offered these for sale at twice the price within the Village with all proceeds towards the fund. No one batted an eyelid at the increased £4 cost.
We had heard from the organisers of a special one-minute silence in honour of Red 4 – Flt Lt Jon Egging, before the flying activities of the day were to commence. Well before the allotted time, we made an announcement to make sure the Village became empty in order for our team to stand outside to observe the silence. Apart from when XH558 is flying, this is the only time we have shut down the Village completely. Right on time, a message broadcast over the public address system told the assembled crowd of the plan, and of course, silence and contemplation settled over the gathered spectators as a video was shown on the giant TV screens. A very sombre, yet moving tribute.
The council opened a book of remembrance within the Town Hall, so on behalf of everyone at Vulcan to the Sky, Richard Clarke, a trustee and PR representative for the Trust, kindly offered to make his way over there to sign and leave a message. I’m happy to report now, that as a result of the dedicated sales and general donations on the day, the Trust were able to make a good donation towards the fund later that week.
So, it was back to the Vulcan Village after the commemoration, when it was perhaps only fitting that we maintained ‘the show must go on’ attitude with an added attraction that day of a group of people who would dress up as characters from Star Wars. This was something new for us, yet they all proved very popular with adults and children alike. Darth Vader even insisted on having a taste of Dorset Tea, proving quite a marketing coup for my subsequent announcements when using the megaphone in the Village. (As drunk by Darth Vader!) Many photographs were taken with the characters with a small donation being requested by a bucket shake for every one.
Thankfully, Sunday was another glorious day weather wise, so the crowds continued to pack the marquee for the rest of the day. It was not quite a carnival atmosphere by nature of what had happened, but certainly it had a great family atmosphere to us and was certainly something totally different to our normal experience at an air show.
The flying activities finished at around 5pm, so immediately after this, we set to work breaking the whole Village down. With such a great local team of volunteers, what usually takes anything of up to two or three hours was now condensed down to 90 minutes. We were all now so well drilled from putting everything away each night! We said goodbye to our visitors from the Dorset Tea Company, then the re-enactment group who both made valuable additional attractions that helped generate income for us.
By around 7.30pm, we had the last items loaded in the van and a final check round assured me all was well and we could leave the marquee in and ‘as found’ state ready for the contractors to remove the next morning.
With a long drive back home after a gruelling few days, we know from bitter past experience, (that’s another long story) not to push ourselves too far. The adrenalin and excitement you get when working in a Village - with all the bustle and tasks on hand - keeps you driving through the day, often, with time just blinking past in a flash. Rest assured, as soon as you slow down, the drain on your energy reserves hits you fast and you know you have just done a two, or in this case, a four day solid stint. I think RIAT to Farnborough in 2010 was my longest ever-single stint - lasting some twelve continuous days from supply, build, the show days to a return home. That time I borrowed my brother’s motor home for the convenience of transport and accommodation.
For this reason, we decided to stay overnight locally to travel back on the Monday morning after a lie in and a good hearty breakfast. It was of course, just pure satisfaction to walk back down to the sea-front again, when local life had already returned to normal with delivery lorries busily stocking up the traders on the pier and to our surprise, at only 10am that morning – a completely barren area where once stood a busy and visually attractive Vulcan Village. Yet again, the contractors had come in early and cleared everything away!
Those who have volunteered to work at a Vulcan Village before will appreciate how much of a team effort it is. This is only my take on what is involved and I hope it gives those who are not able to offer their services for whatever reason, be it health, distance or purely because it is not their thing, (which is fine), a greater understanding of the hard work and dedication committed to the cause by a whole variety of people from all parts of the country. It’s fair to say that we would not be capable of putting on such a good presence on the ground if it was not for this effort from so many like minded individuals all with a common goal – trying to keep XH558 flying for as long as possible and spreading the word to the public.
My thanks have to go to this core team throughout the season. To all those who come and help out at their local show and of course, in this instance, a special mention to Phil who pulled together all the locals (and the not so locals) for Bournemouth Vulcan Village 2011.
My special thanks have to go to my long suffering wife Debbie, who has to put up with all the long hours I put in, not only with my daily responsibilities for the Trust, but as a volunteer across a wide range of promotional activities to help keep interest in XH558 going from strength to strength.
Let’s do it all again bigger and better in 2012! (Are we mad?)
Many, many thanks,
Note: Some pictures will follow, very soon..... it must be Christmas!