Coachlines - March 2024

29.03.24 Freeman David Barzilay

Donald Campbell’s Bluebird K7 returns to Coniston

Pictured above: Gina Campbell, daughter of Donald Campbell CBE, and Freeman David Barzilay with the Bluebird

Donald Campbell was fatally injured in his hydroplane Bluebird K7 while attempting the world water speed record on Coniston Water on 7th January 1967, writes Freeman David Barzilay.

Since then, the boat and the body of its famous skipper have been recovered. Donald Campbell CBE is buried in Coniston Churchyard but the boat which has been restored has returned to Coniston.

For me, the first three weeks of March were some of the most intense, exciting and stressful in more than 40 years of public relations and journalism. But also, some of the most rewarding, being part of a team which included the Ruskin Museum and the Campbell family.

We all had one aim – to get Donald Campbell’s Bluebird K7 back to Coniston, and into the wing at the Ruskin Museum which had lain empty for more than 10 years while arguments went on about who owned the boat and whether it should be given back.

Those arguments are now over. Bill Smith, who recovered the boat and who with his team restored it to a high standard, has given the boat to the museum.

As Director of Communications for the museum it was my job to get the message out that the boat was returning home – but I wasn’t expecting the global response.

On Saturday 9th March the famous hydroplane returned to Coniston, but the media interest has not stopped.

Bluebird K7 is now on display with thousands of artefacts which tell the story of the boat, its speed records, the crash in which its famous skipper was fatally injured and the raising of the boat by Bill Smith.

I was part of the team that went to North Shields to pick up the boat and then travel back with it to Coniston. Throughout its 147-mile journey people lined the route, gathered on motorway bridges and at roundabouts and when it finally entered Coniston more than a thousand people were there to welcome it – what a homecoming.

Gina Campbell and partner Brian Eastham lead Bluebird into Coniston. Picture credit: Neil Draper

Media interest from around the world has been intense. Our press room received calls and emails from more than 1,000 journalists in over 70 countries in the past two weeks, asking for information and interviews.

Coverage included ITN/ITV, BBC, and Sky main news bulletins and part of the BBC’s One Show came live from the museum. It was the first day that Bluebird was on show to the public with more than 400 people queuing to see the famous boat. This was exceeded during the week.

Part of the task was to dispel some of the myths that have surrounded the boat for the past few years, and what would happen when it returned to Coniston. Well, the boat will run again on Coniston and the team is hoping to make that happen in 2026 – but there is a huge amount of work to be done between now and then. A new engine must be installed and tested; negotiations must take place with the National Park so that the boat can run at more than 10 miles an hour – but it won’t be doing anything like its record-breaking speed. The logistics of having thousands of visitors visiting a small village needs serious planning. There is lots to do but it will happen at some point, and I am privileged to be part of the team that got the boat home and that will make it happen.

The museum is now building a team of engineers to look after the boat going forward, and is seeking help from gas turbine engineers and from industry. If you or your company can help, then please let me know.