Private jets and treeless islands - Robert Murphy's quest for the history of the ss Great Britain

I looked out of the porthole of the millionaire’s private jet, Miami disappearing into the distance, and couldn’t quite believe how I had got there.

It was just a short hop from Florida to Freeport - the main city on Grand Bahama. There, I was due to meet Sir Jack Hayward. The entrepreneur who had paid for the ss Great Britain’s 1970 return to Bristol - and for my trip in this small plane.

Looking down as Miami’s beach strips gave way to the turquoise waters of the Bahamas, I really did have to ask myself ‘how has searching for the history of the ss Great Britain brought me up here?”

It had started with a chat to my boss in a planning meeting at ITV News West Country in Bristol weeks earlier.

“Can you speak with Sir Jack?” she’d said. “Would he give you an interview?”

I was pitching a series of features about the importance and history of the ss Great Britain to tie in with the 40th anniversary of her return. This was in 2010.

I wasn’t sure even where to start. He was 87 now. He’d made his fortune in the Bahamas, and still spent most of his time there. Even though, as a proud Brit, he loved being called ‘Union Jack.’

So I called Wolverhampton Wonderers, the football club Sir Jack had once owned. They put me in touch with his ‘representative in England’ – Rachael Hayhoe Flint, the former women’s cricketer and latterly Baroness Hayhoe Flint of Wolverhampton.

She chatted to Sir Jack and came back with an offer – if you can get to Miami, Sir Jack will fly you in his plane to the Bahamas and put you up for you to do the interview.

The home of Sir Jack Hayward - who paid for the ss Great Britain's return to Britsol in 1970 - in the Bahamas.

I was used to covering Swindon and Trowbridge. Sometimes Warminster. Lovely places, but not Grand Bahama.

Sir Jack met me at the airport with his companion, the delightful Patti Bloom. He put me up in a beautiful apartment he owned overlooking the sea.

As I often do, I was operating the camera myself. A slight worry when the camera developed a fault an hour before the interview. My English kit didn’t like the Bahamas’ humidity. It felt like a long way from tech support. So, for the first time in years, I found myself using a hairdryer - on my camera.

Camera dried, problem solved. Sir Jack was delightful company. He showed me around the island, his office and was generous with his time. I dined with him, Patti and their family and friends in the evenings too. He was charming. Nobody’s fool, but charming.

Robert met Sir Jack Hayward as part of his quest for the history of the ss Great Britain.

Next stop - the Falklands. But not quite.

A night’s stop-over in Santiago in Chile, drinking wine in the foothills of the Andes (remember - I was used to the Swindon beat) and a flight to Port Stanley.

I couldn’t work out why the Falklands looked so different to Britain. On the coach trip from the airport to Port Stanley, I couldn’t put my finger on it. It seemed familiar - green fields, undulating land, clouds and rain. English place-names. Yet it was strange, somehow. And I couldn’t think why.

Later, I would learn there are no indigenous trees on the Falklands. You take trees for granted in England. And that is why islanders wanted the ss Great Britain. With no local timber to make storehouses, her Brunellian hull made a brilliant storeship.

Robert in the Falkland Islands

I was in the Malvina House Hotel for a few nights. A lovely backdrop with appalling Internet speeds (in 2010 at least.)

And my days were spent interviewing the fantastic men who helped the ss Great Britain’s salvage in 1970, taking a boat to Sparrow Cove and filming pieces to camera in the capital.

A return via Ascension Island, then home. With my camera tapes full, ideas for edits fizzing around my head, and the promise that I would be back covering Swindon soon afterwards.

This year, I had plans to re-tell the story of the ss Great Britain for the fiftieth anniversary. No foreign travels, but focused on Bristol. Covid put a stop to that. But this gave me a perfect excuse to dig into our archives and remember my trip to the Falklands via the Bahamas a decade ago.

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