Stone Age Man in Britain

Anybody who was a child in the 1960s will remember the classic mini-hardback Ladybird books, which throughout that decade were priced at half a crown (two shillings and six pence or 12 ½ pence). The “Adventure from History” series (Ladybird 561) ran to fifty books and told the stories of such notables as William the Conqueror, Queen Elizabeth I, Christopher Columbus, Captain Cook, and Florence Nightingale. The first book, “King Alfred the Great“, was published in 1956; the last, featuring William Shakespeare, appeared in 1981. The series continues to attract great interest to this day, often bought second hand by parents for their children to provide an easy introduction to different periods of history.

Stone Age Man in Britain” was one of many titles I remember from my childhood, and when I saw this copy on a market stall I couldn’t resist paying a tenner for it. “Stone Age Man in Britain” was first published in 1961, though this copy appears to date to around 1970. My original copy featured the cover artwork on a dustjacket; this reprint has it printed directly onto the hard cover. The price is quoted in decimal as well as the old pounds, shillings, and pence – but the long-standing 2/6 | 12 ½ p has been overprinted with a ‘revised price’ of 15 p as the first effects of the inflation that became so rampant in the 1970s began to make themselves felt.

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I was interested to see how the book held up against what we know now. The answer, sadly, is not well at all. Indeed, it is not even a fair reflection of what was known in 1961. “Stone Age Man in Britain” would make a very poor introduction to any present-day child interested in the prehistory of Britain.

The book deals with the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods in Britain, although it does not name the former. Its description of the Mesolithic people, who arrived when Britain was still joined to mainland Europe, does not make comfortable reading. They were “covered in hair and had fierce animal-life faces”. They were “able to talk and think, though only in a very simple way”. They could make “some sort of clothes” but “had not yet learned how to build even the simplest houses”. On the other hand, it concedes that the cave paintings of their Upper Palaeolithic forbears in France were “amazingly well done”.

Until around thirty years ago, it was widely believed that archaic humans such as Homo erectus and Neanderthals were early forms of Homo sapiens. Behaviourally modern Homo sapiens arrived in a ‘human revolution’ 50,000 – 30,000 years ago, announced by the spectacular cave paintings and other artwork of Upper Palaeolithic Europe. We now know that both viewpoints are wrong: while modern humans could and did interbreed with archaic people, they were a separate species that was behaviourally modern at least 100,000 years ago and probably much earlier. Upper Palaeolithic (and later Mesolithic) people had the needle and thread; and often invested considerable effort in building sophisticated dwellings. While these are recent discoveries, the cave paintings have been known since the nineteenth century, and it is patently obvious that they were not the work of dimwits.

Yet this nonsense continues with a description of the arrival of Neolithic people in Britain. The Neolithic people “were much more intelligent than the [Mesolithic] people who lived in caves… the cave man’s brain was underdeveloped, and he didn’t think very much. The Neolithic men had better brains…”.

The date given, 7,000 – 6,000 years ago, is reasonably accurate, albeit the book incorrectly states that Britain was still connected to mainland Europe at this stage; in fact, Britain separated from Europe – the original Brexit – more than 8,000 years ago.

We are then led to believe that a British Neolithic genius called Quick Foot decided he was fed up with living in caves and came up with the idea of building a hut. He then went on to single-handedly invent the Mode V microlithic tool tradition. Other early Brits invented the needle and thread, tailored clothing, line fishing, pottery, the use of flints to start fires, and (having originally walked to Britain) boats. To be fair, the author of the book, Lawrence du Garde Peach, was likely attempting to convey the importance of these things to children rather than start a myth that they were invented by Ancient Britons.

The British Neolithic people are incorrectly described as having the ‘big four’ farm animals (cattle, pigs, sheep, and goats), but no crops. In fact, the first agriculturalists to reach Britain possessed a full mixed-farming economy of crops and animals.

The book is to be credited for what must surely be the most simplistic (and entirely inaccurate) speculation about how cereal domestication came about ever to appear in print. “Perhaps Quick Foot’s wife, or some other woman threw away some grass seeds beside the hut and noticed that they grew”. She then hit on the idea of growing some more seeds, cooking them with milk to make porridge, and then grinding them and cooking the resulting flour to make (unleavened) bread. “Everybody liked the new sort of food”.

We then learn how villages and exchange networks grew up, and how cattle rustling became a problem, leading to the construction fortified hilltop settlements, many of which can still be seen to this day. They do indeed, but they mainly date to the Iron Age, and none predate the Bronze Age. However, we do know that there was intercommunal violence in Neolithic Europe, with grim evidence of massacres, though the motives are unknown. Theft of livestock is certainly a possibility.

In the remainder of the book, we learn about Neolithic monuments including Stonehenge, the construction of which is described in some detail, and is attributed to a “wise and powerful” paramount chief who intended it as a temple for sun-worship.

The final page of the book explains how our knowledge of these preliterate times is due to the patient work of archaeologists. It concludes that “To-day we should call these early inhabitants of Britain savages. But although the Stone Age men were a very primitive race, every now and then there would be among them some man like Quick Foot who could think better than the others. Then some small advance would be made…. They were not savages. They were the dim beginnings of modern civilisation in which you and all of us now live.”

The words “very primitive race” certainly jar, as does the implication that with a few exceptions, such as Quick Foot, Stone Age Britons weren’t very bright.

Stone Age Man in Britain” teaches us rather more about attitudes to race in 1961 than it does about the prehistory of Britain. It was known that the Mesolithic and Neolithic people were modern rather than archaic humans. But the view was then widespread that some ‘races’ were simply smarter than others, and that people who live in traditional societies as hunter-gatherers or subsistence farmers must by their very nature be a bit dim. It was an era of casual racism: for example, children were taught a version of Eeny, meeny, miny, moe that featured the N-word, and blacks and Irish were openly discriminated against. We should therefore not be too harsh in judging a children’s book that was a product of its times.


Space suit used by Britain’s first astronaut Helen Sharman

Sheffield-born Helen Sharman was the first British astronaut and the first woman to visit the Soviet Mir space station in May 1991. The space suit she used for the mission has gone on display at the Hancock Museum in Newcastle as part of the Great Exhibition of the North.


Project Juno was a private initiative to send a Briton into space by purchasing a seat on a Soyuz mission to Mir. Helen Sharman, at the time employed by Mars as a chemist, was selected from nearly 13,000 who responded to an advertisement reading “Astronaut wanted. No experience necessary” which appeared in the British press in 1989 (other hopefuls included science fiction author Stephen Baxter).

Sharman and her backup Tim Mace underwent training at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre, Moscow (“Star City”), but the Juno consortium failed to raise the necessary funds for the mission and it faced cancellation. It eventually went ahead thanks to the personal intervention of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. However, the ambitious microgravity experiments planned for the mission had to be substituted for simpler tasks that could be performed with existing equipment on the space station.

Sharman was launched aboard Soyuz TM-12 on 18 May 1991, accompanying mission commander Anatoly Artsebarsky and engineer Sergei Krikalyov. She performed medical and agricultural tests, photographed the British Isles, and participated in a licensed amateur radio hookup with British schoolchildren. She returned aboard Soyuz TM-11 on 26 May 1991. Aged 27 years and 11 months at the time of her flight, she remains one of the youngest people ever to travel in space. The mission was one of the last to take place before the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Both Helen Sharman and Tim Mace were candidates in the 1992 and 1998 European Space Agency selection rounds for its astronaut corps, but surprisingly neither were chosen.

Helen Sharman was appointed an OBE in the 1992 Birthday Honours. She continued her scientific work and in 2015 she was appointed Operations Manager for the Department of Chemistry at Imperial College, London.

Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey

It is fair to say that President Trump’s visit to Britain has not been universally popular, but it did provide a bonus to what has already been a bumper week for aviation enthusiasts following the RAF Centenary flypast on Tuesday.

The Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey is to date the only tiltrotor aircraft ever to enter production. A tiltrotor is an aircraft with ‘proprotors’ mounted in rotating wingtip nacelles. For takeoff, landing, hovering, and low-speed horizontal flight, these are angled vertically and serve as rotors, allowing the aircraft to operate like a helicopter. As the aircraft changes to horizontal flight, they gradually swivel forward to serve as propellers, and the aircraft operates like a fixed-wing aeroplane. Tiltrotors and their close relatives tiltwings (where the whole wing swivels) are and old idea, going back to the 1930s, but none have previously made it past the prototype stage.

The Osprey combines the VTOL capability of a helicopter with the long-range, high-speed cruise performance of a turboprop aircraft. It first flew in 1989, but did not enter service until 2007. It is operated by the US Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps. To date, the only non-American operator is the Self Defence Force of Japan.

The Osprey is therefore an uncommon sight in Britain, but when a US President visits, aircraft of Marine Helicopter Squadron One (HMX-1) are deployed to the US airbase at RAF Mildenhall. HMX-1 is the USMC helicopter squadron responsible for the transportation of the POTUS and other VIPS. They use the MV-22B version of the Osprey.

Between the 9th and 13th of July, a flight of three Ospreys was repeatedly seen in the skies over London. They appear for the most part to have been operating in a mode intermediate between full helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft.

Royal Air Force Centenary flypast

The Royal Air Force (RAF) was established as a independent armed service on 1 April 1918 as an amalgamation of the Army’s Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS). It is the oldest independent air force in the world. To mark the centenary, a flypast was staged over London on 10 July 2018, in which over a hundred aircraft of all types took part. An estimated 70,000 people crowded the Mall and Trafalgar Square to see the show, while the Queen and other members of the Royal Family watched from the balcony of Buckingham Palace.

00b Punters

00a Punters

1. Chinook and Puma helicopters.

First up was a wave of Chinook and Puma helicopters. The twin-rotor Boeing CH-47 Chinook first flew in 1961 and remains one of the most capable heavy-lift helicopters in service over half a century later. The Aérospatiale SA 330 Puma is another venerable workhorse, which first flew in 1965. Both types have seen action with innumerable operators and in innumerable theatres of combat.

01 Chinook & Puma

2. Juno and Jupiter helicopters.

The Chinooks and Pumas were followed by two Juno H135s and a Jupiter H145. These are military versions of the Eurocopter EC135 and EC145 respectively. The civilian aircraft are widely used by police and emergency services. The RAF use them for training purposes.

02 Juno & Jupiter

3. Douglas Dakota.

The Douglas C-47 Dakota is one of the most successful aircraft of all time. A military derivative of the DC-3 airliner, it first flew in 1941 and saw extensive service with the Allies during WW II. Over 10,000 were built, many of which remain airworthy. This aircraft is part of the RAF’s Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, but as a multi-engine tail wheel aircraft it is also an important training asset for Lancaster aircrew and for Lancaster pilots maintaining their licences on aircraft of this type.

03a Dakota

03b Dakota

4. Battle of Britain Memorial flight.

The Dakota was followed by the RAF’s flightworthy Avro Lancaster escorted by three Supermarine Spitfires and two Hawker Hurricanes. These legendary aircraft need no introduction from me!

04 Battle of Britain

5. 120TP Prefect.

Next up was a formation of three 120TP Prefects. Built by the German manufacturer Grob, the 120TP is a two seat low wing turboprop monoplane with a composite airframe. It first flew in 2010. They are used as trainers by the RAF.

05 Prefect trainers

6. Tucano T1.

The Prefects were followed by nine Short Tucano T1 trainers flying in a tight diamond formation. The Tucano is built by Short Bros of Belfast under licence from Embraer of Brazil. It first flew in 1986 and production ended a decade later. They are due to be retired next year.

06 Tucano trainers

7. Shadow R1.

The Shadow R1 is derived from the Beechcroft Super Air King, a civilian utility aircraft that first flew in 1972. The Shadow R1 serves as an Intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance (ISTAR) aircraft.

07 Shadow R1

8. Hercules.

The Shadow R1 was followed by the first of the ‘big beasts’: a pair of Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules four engine turboprop transports. The ‘Herc’ first flew in 1954 and remains in production to this day, almost six and a half decades later. It is noted for its ability to operate from rough airstrips yet carry a substantial payload of 33 tonnes. The RAF operates the upgraded C-130J version, which entered service in 1996.

08 Hercules

9. A400M Atlas.

The ‘Hercs’ were followed by the mighty Airbus A400M Atlas. The turboprop-powered Atlas first flew in 2009. It can carry a greater payload than the Hercules (37 tonnes) and shares its ability to operate from rough landing strips. The Atlas entered service with the RAF in 2014.

09a Atlas

09b Atlas

10. Boeing C-17 Globemaster & BAE 146.

Two more transports followed: the Boeing C-17 Globemaster and the BAE 146. The Globemaster first flew in 1991 and can carry a payload of 45 tonnes. The BAE 146 is a regional airliner. It first flew in 1981 and is used as a VIP transport.

10 Globemaster & BAE 146

11. Sentinel R1.

The Raytheon Sentinel R1 is an ISTAR aircraft based on the Bombardier Global Express business jet.

11 Sentinel R1

12. Voyager.

The Airbus A330 Voyager tanker is based on the A330 airliner. In addition to its inflight refuelling role, it can carry 291 personnel and freight.

12 Voyager

13. RC-135 ‘Rivet Joint’.

The Boeing RC-135 ‘Rivet Joint’ is a large ISAR aircraft based on the venerable C-135 Stratolifter transport.

13 RC-135

14. Boeing E-3 Sentry AWACS.

Distinguished by its large rotating radar dome, the E-3 Sentry is an airborne early warning of AWACS aircraft. The airframe is based on the Boeing 707 airliner. The Sentry was produced between 1977 and 1992.


15. Hawk T1 trainer.

Nine BAE Hawk T1 trainers flying in arrowhead formation. The T1 is an advanced jet trainer introduced in 1976 to replace the Folland Gnat, which it closely resembles. It has now been superseded as a trainer by T2, but it continues to be used by the Red Arrows and is expected to remain in service until 2030.

15 Hawk T1

16. Hawk T2 trainer.

The Hawk T1 formation was followed by nine Hawk T2s, this time flying in diamond formation. The Hawk T2 entered service in 2009.

16 Hawk T2

17. Tornado GR4.

The Panavia Tornado is a multi-role combat aircraft that first flew in 1974 and remained in production until 1998. The GR4 variant is a ground attack aircraft capable of engaging any target on the modern battlefield.

17 Tornado

18. F35 Lightning II.

Making its first public appearance in Britain, the Lockheed Martin F35 Lightning II is a fifth generation multi-role stealth fighter. The type first flew in 2006. The British armed services are acquiring the F35B short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) variant, which will eventually be deployed on the aircraft carriers HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales as well as serving with the RAF.

18 Lightning

19. Eurofighter Typhoon.

The three Lightning IIs were followed by 22 Typhoon fighters, spelling out the number ‘100’. It took months of planning to fly in this formation, intended as a surprise to the huge audience. The Typhoon FGR Mk4 is an extremely capable fourth generation multi-role combat aircraft which first flew in 1994 and entered service in 2003. To date, 623 aircraft have been built.

19a Typhoon

19b Typhoon

20. Red Arrows.

Only the inestimable Red Arrows could follow the spectacular Typhoons, and their appearance, with trademark red, white, and blue smoke, drew a huge cheer from the crowd. Officially known as the Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team, the Red Arrows have been delighting the public with their aerobatic displays since 1964. To date, they have performed over 4,700 displays in 56 countries.

20a Red Arrows

20b Red Arrows

Heel Stone at Stonehenge


The sun famously rises over the Heel Stone at Stonehenge at the Summer Solstice. The alignment was first noticed by the antiquarian William Stukeley in the early eighteenth century, but it is not exact. The summer solstice sunrise, as viewed from the geometrical centre of the monument, actually occurs just to the left of the Heel Stone.  During the third millennium BC, when Stonehenge was constructed, the sun would have risen even further to the left. It is therefore likely that the Heel Stone once had a now-missing twin sited to its left, and the summer solstice sun rose between the pair.


It was the summer of 1969 and there was a mood of excitement at my school. Somebody had heard that Concorde would be making a test flight in the area later that day. The British prototype Concorde, G-BSST (002) had recently made its maiden flight at Filton, Bristol, a few weeks after its French counterpart F-WTSS (001). I didn’t give it too much thought: even if Concorde did overfly the school, we’d probably be in lessons. But I was wrong – it was the lunch hour, we were in the playground, and Concorde came swooping over the school.

Concorde had been in the news for as long as I could remember; I’d seen innumerable artist’s impressions of it in flight; like millions of others, I’d watched the live coverage of 001’s maiden flight from Toulouse – but now here it was for real, flying over the school.

I couldn’t wait to get home and tell my father I’d seen Concorde!

In adult life, living in London, Concorde became a familiar sight after it entered commercial service in 1976. It was always an attention-getter, in part because it was far louder than anything else flying, but in the main because it was utterly unlike anything else you were likely to see in the skies above London.

Almost three and a half decades after the British prototype made its flight over my school, most of my office in Fleet Street turned out to watch Concorde’s grand farewell as three aircraft flew in low over the Thames on their way to Heathrow and into retirement. It is the only occasion that I ever saw more than one Concorde at the same time.

I never got to fly Concorde – even the chartered trips around the Bay of Biscay seemed too expensive to justify, though I now regret not having taken the opportunity.

Fifteen years after its retirement, Concorde remains one of if not the most evocative name in aviation history. Almost half a century after its maiden flight, it remains the only passenger airliner to have flown the Atlantic in under three hours.

Only twenty Concordes were ever built, including two prototypes and four pre-production and development aircraft. Fourteen aircraft entered commercial service, seven each with British Airways and Air France. Further orders failed to materialise due to enormous cost overruns, and the restriction of supersonic flight to ocean crossings.

After the British and French governments wrote off the cost, Concorde was nevertheless profitable right up until the beginning of the twenty-first century. The end came with the Air France Flight 4590 disaster on 25 July 2000, which led to Concorde being grounded while safety modifications were carried out. This was followed almost immediately by the downturn in air travel following 9/11. Accordingly, BA and Air France decided to retire Concorde.

Air France’s final Concorde flight took place on 27 June 2003 when F-BVFC retired to Toulouse.

The British Airways Concordes retired on 24 October 2003. G-BOAG flew from New York while G-BOAF made a round trip over the Bay of Biscay, carrying VIP guests including former Concorde pilots, and G-BOAE made a round trip to Edinburgh. The three aircraft then circled over London, having received special permission to fly at low altitude. Witnessed by tens of thousands (including myself as noted above), they flew along the Thames before landing in sequence at Heathrow.

The last flight of any Concorde took place on 26 November 2003. Fittingly, it involved G-BOAF (216), which was the last Concorde to be built. The aircraft flew from Heathrow, going supersonic over the Bay of Biscay and performing a lap of honour over Bristol before landing at Filton, where it now forms the centrepiece of the Aerospace Bristol Museum.

Of the twenty Concordes built, all but two airframes still exist. F-BTSC (203) was lost in the Air France Flight 4590 disaster and F-BVFD (211) was scrapped in 1994 having been laid up since 1982.

There has long been talk of returning Concorde to flight, but to date nothing has come of any proposal. Sadly, the practical difficulties of getting even one of these iconic aircraft back in the air appear to be all but insurmountable.

Exterior of G-BOAF at Aerospace Bristol Museum, Filton.

Views of the cockpit and cramped interior. Note the tiny windows. On the other hand, the seats were upholstered with the finest leather.


Flight suit of test pilot Brian Trubshaw, who piloted the British prototype G-BSST (002) on its maiden flight on 9 April 1969.