IN AN age in which it seemed Britain could still lead the world, Donald Campbell stood head and shoulders above almost everyone.
While London swung and Concorde took shape in a hangar, it was Campbell and his demolition of eight speed records on land and water that stood as the pre-eminent symbol of the nation’s supremacy.
The name Bluebird was synonymous with his own. His father, Malcolm, had been setting records since the 1920s in a succession of craft bearing the name.
And when Donald set out on Coniston Water in the Lake District, exactly 50 years ago, in what some said was a publicity stunt to promote his vision of a supersonic rocket car, it seemed as though anything was possible.
Yet within hours, the dream was over. Bluebird K7 somersaulted at 328mph and broke in two. All they found was some debris and Campbell’s mascot, a teddy bear called Mr Whoppit.
It would be another 34 years before his body was recovered, his race suit still intact.
Today, the anniversary was marked at the site of the crash. His daughter, Gina Campbell, was among a small party who travelled by boat to the site and laid flowers on the lake at the exact time of the tragedy.
During the journey she clutched Mr Whoppit.
Later, as crowds gathered for a public remembrance service at his memorial on the village green, Ms Campbell, who lives in Thorner, near Leeds, described the day as “bittersweet”.
She said: “My dad did not do things for public display but I think he would be delighted to see the public here today.”
Speaking earlier at Coniston Water, Ms Campbell said: “This is the site of 50 years ago where he met his Waterloo. Luckily there is a lot of people that still support his achievements and it is very humbling for me to be able to be here and represent my family and pay my own respects to my father.
“It is really hard to describe one’s emotions. For me the biggest one is humility. I am just so proud to be my father’s daughter and to have witnessed what he did in his life, and that people are still following him here today is fantastic.
“His life lives on through on a lot of other people’s imagination and their own courage.”
Holding her father’s teddy bear mascot, she said: “He survived the accident with my dad. He has got his life jacket on today because we don’t want any more emotions in the water.
“He was with my dad through all his achievements and through his death so I thought he had better come along today and relieve the moment.”
After she laid a wreath at her father’s graveside, she spoke of feeling “pride” at the public recognition of “a true hero”.
She said: “It was beyond these days of risk assessment and health and safety, and he went out and he did what he did. He did it most times with huge success.”
The Rev Canon David Peacock focused on the importance of risk as he led the anniversary service at the Campbell Memorial.
He said: “I have no doubt that Donald Campbell was fully aware of the risks he was taking on the many occasions when he set out to break both the land and water speed records.
“He knew that the risk of tragedy was just as great, if indeed not greater, than the possibility of triumph and yet he still went on.
“And from that we ourselves need to note that there is no innovation, there is no progress, without risk.
“An old nun once said to me many years ago ‘Take a risk a day, feel the fear and do it’.
“Donald Campbell, it seems to me, was prepared to do just that in order to transcend the bounds of human endeavour and achievement.
“What better way is there to honour his memory today than for us in our turn to dare to risk to be risk-takers. Not in any foolhardy or arrogant sense but with the purpose of proving that more is possible than any of us might ever dare to think of or dream of.”
Tony Robinson, president of the K7 Club, whose members include friends who assisted Campbell in his record exploits, also spoke at the service in Coniston where Campbell set four of his records between 1956 and 1959.
He said: “All of us who knew the skipper well will be aware that he was not a person who hogged the limelight for himself - rather, the opposite is true.
“He was a team player through and through. He also had the greatest respect and regard for all those who were competing for the same elusive goals.
“It is the measure of the man that I knew that we are all gathered here today to pay our respects to him and preserve his legacy, but he would wish us to remember all those brave and courageous men and women who went before him and have followed since. Chasing their dreams and pushing the boundaries, sometimes paying the ultimate sacrifice.
“To all those sill chasing their dreams today, to wish them God speed and every success wherever in the world they are still aiming for the summits they have set themselves. All have in some way been inspired by Donald Campbell’s example. A very fine gentleman.”
The anniversary events were jointly organised by the K7 Club and the Speed Record Club, with more commemorations planned in the village this week and at Ullswater where Campbell set his first water speed world record when he broke the 200mph barrier.
Campbell was posthumously awarded the Queen’s Commendation for Brave Conduct.
It is hoped that Bluebird will be restored by next year and will take to Coniston Water again before it finds a permanent home in the village’s Ruskin Museum.