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From The Grave to the Cradle

As the rebuild of K7 advanced steadily we always kept looking ahead to what was next, what we were going to need, what we must plan for, and one glaring missing item was something to actually put the finished boat on.

When not afloat K7 needs to be correctly supported on an appropriate structure to take her weight and spread her load, and it’s important that we get this right as the boat goes into her future; this is to be no artsy-fartsy museum display, this is to be a living, breathing, two and a half ton turbojet hydroplane and her support is an integral part of the craft.

So, what to do? For a long time here the hull was suspended in the rollover jig, but she couldn’t dangle in mid-air forever; this isn’t the Cutty Sark and you won’t be having your expensive corporate dinner while sat underneath her shiny grey underside. We have our own simple cradle that we’ve moved the boat around on, built for the original recovery and extended in later years once the front of the boat was reattached, but while we got her around the block and ran an engine on it, that simply isn’t up to the job of seriously transporting, launching and ultimately displaying the whole boat.

Clearly a bespoke item was required and of course, just such a thing has existed before. When the boat rolled out of the Samlesbury factory all shiny-blue and brand new in 1954 she was sat on a bright yellow four wheeled cradle built by transport firm Adams Brothers Ltd of New Malden, Surrey.

This original launch and recovery cradle- hereafter just referred to as ‘the cradle’- was originally drawn by Ken Norris himself in October 1954 and was a pretty hefty steel structure that stayed with the boat for her whole life, travelling the world and finally of course being left empty one morning in January 1967. As with the boat herself the cradle evolved over the years, with bits added and bits taken away, and later on it got painted blue for good measure- but not the same blue as the boat ended up, of course. The cradle with the boat tied onto it was craned on and off ships, loaded in and out of aircraft, and trucked all around Australia, America and the UK; it was dunked in and out of the water countless times as the boat was launched and recovered and it’s in virtually every single photograph taken when the boat is not afloat; it is totally integral to the overall look of the thing.

Clearly then it was imperative to have the right thing- but where was it?

While items recovered immediately post-crash such as the original sponsons turned into a myth- i.e, ‘they were buried’ (No they weren’t- they were scrapped- we have eyewitnesses, so deal with it!) and the smaller pieces were gradually picked over and given away or sold off in subsequent years, the cradle was left at Pier Cottage in Coniston and sat there for years to come. Here it is about a decade after the crash-

It’s a convoluted tale but it seems that eventually, the cradle was taken south- to Cornwall, as it happens- before it too was eventually scrapped. So, it was gone and needed recreating and as if there wasn’t enough to do already, we had yet another project within a project.

I volunteered to take a look at the job and upon fetching out Ken’s original drawing, the first problem was immediately apparent- the real cradle and the drawing were nothing alike.

Sure, the basic dimensions are there- length, width, height, wheelbase, and a couple of other dimensions that actually made it to the finished job, but that was it. The construction method was different and the overall finished look of it differed wildly as well. We’ve been used to the drawings differing from the actual boat before, but at least in this case Ken’s drawing is kind of free; in his own way, the notes actually say ‘here’s what we roughly need, make it a bit like this please’; so seemingly, Adams Bros. did just that.

Job one was to take the basic dimensions and start using that outline to fill everything else in after studying the many, many archive photos. One or two items made it from the original drawing to the actual cradle, such as what were called the jacking pads at each corner- Ken’s dimensions for these scaled perfectly onto the photos, so clearly that was a start. Over weeks and months hours were spent pouring over the archive photos and scaling each part and rough scribbles slowly became slightly better drawings as I developed my understanding of it all, and then for my own savage amusement and wanting a decent look at the thing, I started drawing it out using centimetres for inches; needless to say, I ended up sticking quite a few bits of paper together!

I carried on developing this drawing, and then doing further, better drawings for the many items that bolt onto the cradle; lifting points, lashing points, random brackets, parts that were redundant by 1967 but still on there, and so on. All along I was keeping an eye on the continuity of the thing, too; did you know that one side has one of the braces removed later on? Or that there’s a small bracket on one side at the back that isn’t on the other? Or that the big lifting plates are made of different thickness steel front and rear? What about all the criss-cross bracing inside the cradle, or the four transverse frames where the final one is cut away for the rear planing wedge, or the arrangement of the multiple axle heights.? Or the two inch thick oak planks that run the full length of it? And how did it steer? The detail in the thing was boggling- the more you look, the more you see. And of course, it has to be ‘right’, visually at least, missing braces and all. (Or at least, ‘right enough’- there’s only so much one can do)

So that was me, for hours at the workshop and considerably more at home, making piles of paper drawings.

Now I need to interrupt myself and rewind a long, long way- because before I commenced all the above, I also set off on a mission to identify a very important part of the thing- the wheels! The cradle had the same wheels fitted throughout its life, with the rear ones being moved from the transport/launching axle to the steering turntable when needed. The wheels were clearly aircraft in origin, but what type? Cutting a very long story short, online help eventually matched them (more or less) to the nose wheel of a Vickers Varsity, a transport aircraft from the 1950s. So then began the quest to actually find a set- with only a very small handful of the type surviving, and all of them rather in need of their wheels, it was looking like a tall order. Meanwhile, Bill had spoken to someone who had seen the original cradle before it was broken up and they gave us an interesting nugget of information- that the wheels were ‘Saunders Roe’. Of course! The S.R.A.1, the jet flying boat that had supplied the original Beryl engine for Bluebird; sure enough, the beaching gear for that had exactly the right kind of wheel, so we think that’s where Donald’s originals may have come from.

But again, with the sole-surviving aeroplane likely to fall over if we pinched the wheels and someone bound to notice, we were back to hunting for our own set. Eventually- very eventually-we made contact with a nice chap who owns a Varsity (as you do) and one murky day Bill and I headed to the East Midlands Aeropark to pick up a set of wheels. Finally, after months of effort, we had some!

And then, two days later, this happened.

Proving that you absolutely could not make our story up if you tried, we became aware that two of the original cradle wheels had not only survived, but had not long been handed in to the Lakeland Motor Museum. What are the odds? I don’t normally believe in fate, but..!

These wheels had been left on the dismountable turntable, which was taken off as soon as Bluebird arrived in Coniston in November ’66 and left outside the boatshed. Separate from the rest of the cradle, they never went south; it seems they were cut off the axle as keepsakes and stayed in local hands for the next however many decades. Needless to say, Bill was straight on the phone, tracking down the right people to speak with to gently point out that the wheels really should go back under the boat; Gina Campbell added a letter of support too and eventually, there was a little presentation at the Lakeland and the wheels came home.

They were in amazing condition, and thanks to some original paint splashes it was even possible to match which one went on what side from the archive photos.

So with two originals in hand, were able to get two of the Varsity wheels altered by ‘Clever’ Barry Hares to match; Donald’s wheels have a straight bronze bush and a grease nipple in them, whereas the aircraft examples used taper roller bearings.

…and most of this was concurrent with trying to solve another problem- the tyres! Two of our Varsity wheels came with the more normal radial tyre as used for runway operation, but Donald couldn’t have had any ordinary aircraft tyre on his wheels could he, oh no, they had to be made of pure rubberised rocking horse poo. The size was no bother- Dunlop still list 26 x 7.75 x 13” for all sorts of things, including Harriers and later Spitfires, but getting them with the correct square block tread (for operating your aircraft from grass airstrips, apparently) was another matter entirely. We could fork out thousands and have a large batch made new, but that didn’t seem like the best use of your hard-donated funds so we elected to hang on and hope for the best as we kept looking.

After a while we came across a single example on the internet, still fitted to the wheel and undercarriage leg from a DeHavilland Vampire. The owner was contacted and a meeting arranged in a huge cold shed that was full of tanks, jeeps, and other assorted bits of old machinery, but we just weren’t prepared to weigh over the four figure asking price to a somewhat curious type of chap who was so attached to his undercarriage leg that he’d fixed it to the ceiling by three different means and gazed up at it lovingly while he endlessly repeated that he didn’t really want to part with it at all. Weirdo…

So, we waited. Then a friend of ‘Barry from Grimsby’ who knew what we were looking for was at an aerojumble one day and spotted a pair of the right tyres in awful condition, for the bargain price of a fiver each!

The treads were worn, the beads separating, the wires hanging, but this was all just details to us and we set about restoring the tyres just as we did the boat; we saved what we could, let in repair sections of bead culled from other tyres where necessary, and used a superb caulking product that basically comes out of your squirty gun and adheres like hell and sets to a hard black rubber consistency- virtually a tube of instant tyre.

It didn’t take all that long before we had two correct tyres which were almost as good as new and built up onto Varsity wheels, and holding pressure-

So at least we have four matching tyres for static display though we’ll use some of the radial ones for the heavy work. Meanwhile, while the two donated originals had been nicely and sensitively cleaned to static museum standards we of course need them to actually function once again. They’d seemed abnormally heavy when we brought them in but it wasn’t until Richie stuck an inflator on one that the penny dropped- the bloody things were full of water!

The tubes were carefully removed and drained while we pondered the mystery; surely it can’t have been to aid traction, as the wheels weren’t driven, and the all-up weight of the boat and cradle combined was substantial enough anyway. In Australia in 1964 (and at other times previously) the boat was launched by putting the cradle straight down a beach and into the water on its main wheels-

-but we can’t for a minute imagine that a full tube’s worth of water could get in through the valves, while the air also had to get out! The best theory is that perhaps they wanted to be sure that the cradle didn’t become buoyant and move about as the boat floated off it. Well, just in case it was a sample of the ’64 vintage Vin du Dumbleyung, we saved a couple of bottle’s worth and then set about repairing the tubes (which were dated 1946- fitting nicely with the first flight of the S.R.A.1 in 1947).

Back to the cradle itself…something else rather fundamental was also needed…someone to actually build this thing! We could have easily done it ourselves but didn’t really have the room or the time, and so we had a word with our friend Phil at Ivanhoe Forge, the local company who helped us many moons ago with the parts for the rollover jig. Phil took one look at my scribbles, laughed, said that yes, they could make it no problem, but that it would need to be drawn in CAD first. We’d sort of expected this so the next job was for our Al to start doing just that.

Gradually, working together, my months of work deciphering the photos and understanding all the various parts started to come to 3D life on what I call the ‘magic box of coloured lines’-

As we went along we also converted everything from imperial into metric, rationalising all the steel sizes to make sure it could be bought off a 21st century shelf. This CAD model in turn went through the hands of the boffins at Ivanhoe until they were finally ready to cut steel- and after all our efforts, they turned the thing around and had it built and delivered inside of a week!

It was quite something to see it for real, and we’re hugely grateful to Ivanhoe for their support- although it was something of a five minute distraction to them, it was a bloody big deal for us!

Of course, this was just the basic structure and there were still all manner of extra parts to be laser cut (by our long term friend Ronnie at ARC Laser), welded and fitted, as well as fitting the top decking and everything else. We followed the notes on Ken’s drawing for the decking- 2” thick oak for the full length, and other bits besides!

With Scotland looming we worked on the cradle like demons- there were eight of us working on it one very sweaty Saturday- until the happy day came that we were able to lug it out and stand it on its wheels-

Here it needs more bits adding yet and a coat of paint of course, but we were on a deadline so we soon had the boat hanging from the roof (a tremendous laxative) and down onto it’s new home-

So there we go- one cradle. A project within a project, and another reason things have taken a while- but we’ve succeeded in willing it back into being from no more than a few photos, and it will be supporting the finished boat long after we’re all gone.


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