An informal report for the MNASSA
By Hilton Ratcliffe
On Saturday, 24th November 2007, I landed at Heathrow airport on the adventure of my life. Let me tell you very quickly how it was that I came to be standing at the Hertz car rental counter a few weeks before Christmas, feeling excited in a way that hadn’t been matched in my experience since Christmas Eve 1956, when my Bond-like excursion into the milking shed had revealed that I was about to get my first bicycle.
In July 2007 my book The Virtue of Heresy hit the shelves, and shortly afterwards was reviewed by the magazine BBC Sky at Night. Somewhat unusually, Sir Patrick Moore himself did the review, and I wrote to thank him for a fair and balanced appraisal. He wrote back on his 1908 (truly!) Woodstock typewriter, and said that he would like to meet me. I needed no second bidding! My plan was to spend 9 days in England, starting with a visit to Sir Patrick’s West Sussex 16th century home, Farthings.
Although I had made arrangements to meet and stay later on with my as-yet unmet friend, nuclear chemist Dr Geoffrey Stapleton of the Rutherford Laboratory in Oxford, it was a rather tenuous arrangement because I had no idea if I would actually be staying with Sir Patrick, and if so, for how long. My only other plans were to drop a letter off with legendary rock guitarist Eric Clapton (nothing to do with astronomy); to witness at first hand the operation of the legendary Harrison clocks at Greenwich; and to try somehow to wangle a visit to Queen guitarist Brian May . Brian, Patrick, and Oxford astrophysicist Chris Lintott had co-written a book published in 2006 called Bang! A Complete History of the Universe—a title that made me a little apprehensive. I knew that they were great pals. I’ve been a Queen fan since those bad old days of rebel concerts at Sun City, and regard Brian as the greatest electric guitar virtuoso in rock history. I was prepared to leopard crawl over rusty fishhooks to get to have a chat with him. As it turned out, my elbows were safe…
The drive down to Chichester was easy, like stringing a necklace together where the road is the string and the roundabouts every 25 metres are the beads. I followed the sign to Selsey, and duly found myself pressing the buzzer at Farthings at about 13h30. I was ushered inside by a bright young lady I later established is Teresa, one of the 24/7 care-givers that nurse Sir Patrick in his infirmity. I walked into his wood-panelled, book-laden study with the same feeling of awe I had when I first went into the Sterkfontein caves. Somehow or other, I knew I was a small part of immense history.
“Sir Patrick?” I asked, putting out my shaking hand. What a silly question. I now know why Stanley said, “Dr Livingstone, I presume?” all those years ago in Darkest Africa when there was not the remotest possibility that it could have been anyone else. I mean, what else do you say? Howzit? ‘Sup, dude? I was told that Patrick Moore is the most recognised person in Britain outside of the royal family—that means he beats David Beckham, think about it—and let me tell you, you cannot make a mistake. He took my hand firmly in his spin bowler’s grip, and looked me straight in the eye.
“You must be Hilton,” he said rapidly, in a slightly slurred posh accent that is as recognisable as his bulldog posture, “I’m very pleased to meet you. Did you have a good trip? Do sit down. Teresa will make you something to eat. You must be starving.” Patrick turned towards his guests. “Please meet my great friend, the very well known South African astronomer, Professor Hilton Ratcliffe.” I blushed to the roots at this introduction, but I had to get used to it. Despite my protests, this was how I was introduced to all of Patrick’s eminent acquaintances. I think he does it on purpose, for what reasons I’m not quite sure. Not that anyone I met was toffee-nosed or patronising. On the contrary, I must say that I was received throughout with the utmost courtesy and respect. It was wonderful.
I am sure you can understand that as interesting and authoritative as they might have been, my attention was not on the guests that flowed through Farthings almost incessantly. Some were famous; others were more like me. I will mention a few of them by name, but I am trying to resist the temptation to name-drop. A common thread bound all of us: An abiding passion for astronomy, and the greatest respect for the man himself. Patrick turned to me again. “Now listen here, young man, I want you to know that you can stay with us as long as you like. Teresa has prepared the end room for you, there is a bathroom there, and you are most welcome for as long as it suits you.” I ended up staying five days.
Patrick immediately set about formulating an itinerary of things I just had to see. He is a real action man, and doesn’t leave anything for tomorrow, so perhaps it would now be as well to fill you in on his state of health. As a result of war wounds to his back (he was in the RAF during WW II, a navigator in the notoriously dangerous Lancaster bomber raids on German cities), he has lost most of the use of his arms and hands. He is practically wheelchair bound, and does not go outside the house any more. Sky at Night production crews travel down from London to shoot the programmes at his home. This is all terribly frustrating for him, and it must be so depressing that he cannot even go into the garden to look through his beloved 15-inch Fuller. Of that, more later…
His phone lines were by this time radiating infrared as he reeled in his contacts and instructed them to entertain me. So far it was: Sunday afternoon at the South Downs Planetarium in Chichester (created by Patrick out of the defunct Armagh planetarium in Ireland, which he also founded); Monday I had set aside for Eric Clapton; Tuesday was allocated to the Herschel Museum in Bath; Wednesday morning to the Royal Greenwich Observatory Science Centre at Herstmonceux Castle; and Wednesday afternoon to a special visit by Prof Steve Wainwright, who was motoring all the way down from Swansea.
But Patrick wasn’t finished yet. “You must see Jodrell Bank. No question about that. Let me see now…” I had been in the company of this remarkable man for no more than a couple of hours, and his hyperactivity was making me dizzy. He was on the phone. “Hello, Bernard? Patrick here. How are you? That’s good. Listen old chap, I’ve someone staying with me I’d like you to meet, the famous South African astronomer, Dr Hilton Ratcliffe. Splendid chap. When would suit you? Good, well here he is.” Patrick shoved the phone into my clammy hand. “Hello?” I said in a voice that squeaked like a teenager whose gonads are about to drop. On the other end of the line was Professor Sir Bernard Lovell, OBE, FRS, driving force behind serious radio astronomy on Planet Earth. I was gob smacked. He was charming, and quite understood when I explained that Patrick had jumped the gun just a little bit because I simply did not have the time to get up to Manchester on this trip. With a firm undertaking to visit him next time around (I hope—he is 94 years old!) I gave the phone back to Patrick and drew in a deep breath.
On Sunday morning I realised to my dismay that I didn’t have a photograph of Brian May and I together, and had not had the opportunity on Saturday to really talk to him. I asked Patrick for his number and called him to see if I could go to visit him at home. He didn’t sound keen, with good reason: He was busy in the studio with the re-formed Queen (recording the single Say it’s Not True), and didn’t have much free time, which in any event he preferred to spend with his children. We chatted freely about cabbages and kings for about 45 minutes.
I spoke mainly about his doctoral thesis on the motion of interstellar particles (he has finally been capped, some 30 years after starting his research, and was recently appointed Chancellor of John Moores University in Manchester). Brian was very interested in my take on quasars. Obviously, music was high on the agenda, as was Brian’s environmental work. He is a completely down-to-earth person, and very easy to talk to. Tailpiece: I was astonished and flattered when Patrick passed me the phone on Wednesday afternoon. It was Brian; he was calling to say he was sorry we couldn’t get together again, but definitely next time…
On Sunday afternoon I went to the Chichester planetarium, and met Dr John Mason, who runs it and has offered to help us in Durban with our planned planetarium. As I walked through the door, I was flabbergasted to see Patrick Moore standing in the foyer, hale and hearty! I had left him at home about 20 minutes earlier, looking decidedly immobile. Only when I got close enough to talk to him did I realise that it was in fact the statue from Madame Tussaud’s waxworks that has been transplanted. Spooky! Sunday night we had a visit from about 10 or 12 members of the Worthing Astronomical Society. What a great bunch of people! I made some firm friends before the night was out.
Patrick Moore has been a Moon and Mars man since the earliest days of his observations (he was elected to the British Astronomical Association at the age of 11, and made director of the Brockhurst Observatory at 14). In view of his inability to go outside and view, we decided to fire up the famous Fuller 15-inch scope in its Heath-Robinson green hut in the back garden, and take photos for Patrick of both the Moon and Mars, and hopefully also the bizarre comet Holmes. We were in an historical part of England, that much was certain. I could tell by the salty Anglo-Saxon expletives used to help the unfortunate soul atop a rickety wooden ladder as he struggled to open the viewing trapdoor in the dome roof, using a broken garden rake and a bread knife. We opened it. I think it is still open. We got some lovely pictures of the Moon (you can see the actual pictures on their website www.stargazerslounge.com), but Mars was too close to the Moon, and Holmes had by that stage become very diffuse. All in all, everyone concerned had a thoroughly laughter-filled time. For an astronomer, there can’t be a better way of spending an evening than that.
On Monday I was determined to deliver my letter to Eric Clapton. Armed only with his autobiography and an AA road atlas to show me the way, I set forth. I knew that his mansion was called Hurtwood Edge, and that it was somewhere on the 8 mile track between the tiny villages of Shere and Ewhurst in very rural Surrey. However, finding it was considerably easier said than done, which I am sure was the foxy Mr Clapton’s explicit intention. He really doesn’t want to be found. Ah, but I am a farmer’s son. Such things are my daily bread. I found Ewhurst. I found the ancient single track road humping through the forest towards Shere. I found Shere. I shouldn’t have found Shere, of course, because that meant I had gone too far. I resorted to the GPNS (Global Pub Navigation System), and decided to ask directions at the Duke of York. The landlady at the Duke of York was very helpful. Her brother is the postman for the parish of Shere, and she soon had him on his cell phone (even Postman Pat has a mobile these days). “What you need to do, luv,” she told me earnestly, “is go back a-ways towards Ewhurst. You’ll see a wine bar called the Windmill on your right, I think, or it might be on your left, but you won’t know that ‘cause there’s no sign up.” I expressed my gratitude in Afrikaans, and went on my way. I found a Chinese gardener back in Ewhurst who could speak no English at all, and that’s considerably more than I can say for my Mandarin. Notwithstanding our east-west communication block, he beamed like a quasar on steroids and showed me the way to “Elik Crapton”. Mr Clapton, bless him, wasn’t home, but I did get to go inside and leave my letter and a very cheeky message with his housekeeper. He didn’t call me back.
On Tuesday I left at 6am for the 3-hour drive to Bath and the Herschel Museum. My thinking was that if I left early, I would avoid the morning traffic snarl-ups. Hello? Where did I go to school? All that I achieved is that I varied the location of the traffic jam. If I had left at 8, I would have hit it at Chichester. Instead, I enjoyed the exhaust fumes around Salisbury. Anyway, Prof Peter Ford, who lives in Bath and works at the university (and spent 6 years at Wits), met me there. We walked around the historical city in the morning, going to places where William Herschel had performed as a musician, and took in the museum after lunch. It really is something. It is located in the very house that William and his sister Caroline lived in before they moved to Slough to be nearer the King. It was going to be knocked down for a new development, until Patrick Moore stepped in. Enough said! There is a replica there of Herschel’s 7 foot scope, and we went into the beautifully preserved back garden where he discovered Uranus using that instrument. The music room still has Herschel’s tiny piano and oboe, and all the while his eerily astronomical orchestral compositions are played over speakers in every room. In order to become an astronomer, William had first to become an instrument maker, and he was by all accounts one of the best. Leading off the garden is his workshop, with his tools of the trade. William Herschel was a remarkable man.
On Wednesday morning Patrick checked with Herstmonceux that arrangements were solid. “He will be arriving at 11-30. Will you have someone to meet him?” Patrick pestered them over the phone. “Very good. His name is Professor Hilton Ratcliffe. Very well known South African astronomer. Look after him, will you?” They certainly did that. The Science Director himself came out of his office to personally show me around, and they gave me copies of all their related books and brochures with their compliments. This amounted to a gift of tens of pounds (an unspeakable fortune in our money and I was overwhelmed by their kindness and hospitality.
The Royal Observatory, Greenwich, was moved to this rural location in the 1950s because of light pollution and atmospheric grime in London. The historic telescopes made the journey to Sussex, and were installed in 6 bespoke, green-painted domes. Observation commenced. It was henceforward known as the Royal Greenwich Observatory, or RGO for short. The official residence of the Astronomer Royal moved for the first time, from Flamsteed House at Greenwich to the castle itself at Herstmonceux, with only a couple of miles of the mysterious Pevensey Levels between it and the Sussex coast near Eastbourne. One of the first Astronomers Royal to move into the castle was South African, Sir Richard Woolley. Woolley rapidly achieved world renown upon his arrival in London to take up the post of Astronomer Royal in 1956, not for his astronomical work, but for the classical faux pas he committed in a press interview. “What do you think of the idea of space travel?” they asked him. His reply is famous. “Utter bilge!” he declared without batting an eyelid. One year later, the Russians launched Sputnik One. Oh dear…
The South African connection with the RGO was further cemented in 1959 when it took on the Royal Observatory in Cape Town and ran it as a department of the RGO until 1972. In 1969, the RGO also took over the running of the Radcliffe Observatory in Pretoria, and thus became part of the new South African Astronomical Observatory, with RGO astronomers entitled to observing time in South Africa. Woolley is fondly remembered by the old-timers I got to chat to there, and I was regaled by some of the astronomical folk legends that emerged from that era of good, clean mischief, sometimes involving putting things into the moat that are not supposed to be in a moat. By 1990 however, astronomy had changed so much that the observatory was moved to Cambridge University, and unfortunately the transplant cost the RGO both its name and function. It no longer exists. Patrick has never forgiven them for that. “It’s an appalling case of bureaucratic vandalism,” he muttered to me over supper. “It should never have been allowed.” The original Greenwich telescopes remained at Herstmonceux to become exhibits in a fascinating astronomical science centre and museum. It’s a must-see.
On the way back to Chichester, the A27 bypasses the town of Arundel. It is a lovely village perched on a hill overlooking the river Arun. On either side of the hill the standout landmarks are a magnificent castle on the side nearest the river, and on the other a spired cathedral or abbey. When I got back to Farthings, I mentioned this lovely place to Patrick, and his response was swift and deadly. “Arundel Castle? That’s my old friend, the Duke of Norfolk; I’ve known him for years. Why didn’t you tell me you were going there? I’d have given him a call and fixed it for you! Did he give you tea?” I stammered that I hadn’t actually gone to the castle; I had just noticed what an interesting place it was. Later on, when Geoffrey Stapleton and I went past Buckingham Palace, I remarked that it was just as well that Patrick didn’t know we were there. I can just imagine the conversation: “Hello, Your Majesty? Patrick here. I’ve an old friend staying with me that I really think you ought to meet—the famous South African astronomer…” My word! Can you just picture it?
Steve Wainwright was waiting for me when I got back to Farthings. He is a professor of medicine at the University of Swansea, and a high-level amateur astronomer who had read my book and keenly wanted to discuss it. It was during our chat with Steve that Patrick, buoyed slightly by a couple of glasses of wine, amused us with some of his amazing anecdotes. The conversation soon revealed that Patrick has met absolutely everybody! Like Albert Einstein, for example. Patrick met Dr Einstein at a reception dinner at Princeton, and after the meal the great relativist announced that he would give an impromptu recital on his violin, which he happened to have brought along. He had obviously heard that Patrick was an accomplished musician, because he declared to the delighted guests (and here Patrick did an Oscar-level German accent), “I vil play ze fiolin, and Mr Moore vil accompany me on ze piano!”
Despite being desperately unfamiliar with the piece Einstein had chosen, Patrick hammed his way through, and it apparently all went off rather well, although no recording contracts were forthcoming for the unlikely duo. I was to discover during my stay that there is much more to Sir Patrick Moore than meets the eye. It seems, on the other hand, that not everyone is aware that they have met Sir Patrick. He told us of the occasion he gone into the dark depths of the Lansdowne Forest to view the Moon. There had been some ghastly crimes committed there, and on his way home in the early hours of the morning the police stopped him. He quickly explained what he was doing there, and their reply is famous: “Oh really! And who do you think you are then—Patrick Moore?”
Thursday morning saw me make an emotional departure from Farthings. “Now you stay in touch, young man,” Patrick told me as I shook his hand, “and remember, you are always very welcome here.” There were tears in my eyes as I turned my car towards Oxford. Patrick is 84 years old. Will I ever be able to see him again and shake his hand once more? I can’t say. The lasting legacy I have is the book he suggested the title of—The Static Universe—and that we are now collaborating on. Every time I phone him (he stoically refuses to entertain email) he urges me to speed up the process. It seems we are in a race against time.
My stay in Abingdon with the Stapletons was marvellous, and Geoffrey organised the last remaining item on my itinerary: A visit to Greenwich to see the fabled Harrison clocks with my own eyes. We went by coach from Oxford to the Victoria Street station, and cabbed through Westminster, past the Abbey and Big Ben, to the Victoria Street pier on the Thames. From there, it was despite the cold wind a fascinating 50-minute boat ride through historical London to Greenwich. For me, seeing the Harrison clocks (invented by John Harrison between 1729 and 1770 to enable the calculation of longitude at sea) was the culmination of a long-awaited pilgrimage. They are magnificent beyond words. I’d love to tell you the Harrison story, but that will have to wait for a suitable fireside moment.
My trip was richly rewarding beyond my wildest expectations, and I will carry these fond memories and cultivate the firm friendships I made there until the day I die. Isn’t it strange, therefore, that at the end of it all, I just couldn’t wait to get back to South Africa? When I alighted from the plane at O R Tambo, and jostled my way into third world queues, I was genuinely happy and breathed a long sigh of relief. I was home again, under Southern Skies. You just can’t beat it.