Lunch with Mr Whoppit

Lunch with Mr Whoppit

I remember my youthful fascination with a picture and short description on a souvenir box of matches. The subject was a sleek blue boat, Donald Campbell’s Bluebird. As any typical young boy, I enjoyed tales of British adventure and endeavour, and the Campbell family represented this perfectly. Sir Malcolm, his son Donald and his daughter Gina all set land and water speed records in the Bluebird series of vehicles. I encountered stories about them on and off, but the tale that inspired me most was not about speed records, but about buried treasure on the famous Cocos Island. The island has attracted treasure hunters for nearly 200 years, since the Lost Loot of Lima was supposedly deposited there by the crew of the Mary Dear. The best account of one of these expeditions was that of Sir Malcolm Campbell, who sailed to the island in 1926. To cut a long story short, if I was to go looking for this treasure, I wanted Gina Campbell to be involved.

I looked around for contact details for Gina, and stumbled across a story that described how she had lost a St Christopher medallion that had been given to Donald Campbell by Sir Malcolm, in 1940, during the darkest days of the second world war. The medallion had a long history. It had been worn by Donald during all of his speed record attempts, had sunk with him after his well-known crash, been recovered after 34 years and finally been lost again by Gina. She was obviously very upset by the loss, as this was perhaps the most personal and precious item in the whole of the Campbell collection.

Following the loss, Gina had done everything possible to find it. Members of Bill Smith’s team (that had recovered Bluebird K7 from Coniston Water) had been recruited to search Gina’s large garden. People who were familiar with police finger-tip search techniques had looked carefully. Gina had even drained a huge pond by hand and sifted through the silt on the bottom, in vain. She had spent a year on and off, with a metal detector left by Bill Smith, looking for the medallion, with no success. She had pretty much given up.

It seemed very sad and unfair to me that the St Christopher should go missing after the amazing adventures it had been on, and above everything I wanted to help Gina if we could. When I finally managed to track her down, she was most positive. I arranged to visit her on a cold, dark and blowy November day at her home in the open countryside of the North of England. As part of the discovery process, I asked Gina to relax and cast her mind back to the day that she had lost the medallion. We went through everything, she had taken it with her when she played golf, came home and worked in the garden. I asked her to visualise and tell us every little detail. Gina doesn’t like to sit still so it was quite some work to keep her relaxed and focussed.

On that day we had a cursory look around the garden, to get the lie of the land and to make preparations for the big search. It was freezing cold and a north wind was blowing across the hills, so we resolved to return in better weather, and when we had enough free time. That wasn’t to be until Friday June 7th, 2013.

As we set off across Gina’s garden, I felt some apprehension. It was pristine, the lawn was as perfect as any golfing green, the flower beds neatly arranged and immaculately tended. We’re good at keeping things neat and tidy when searching for treasure, and carefully replacing turf and plants as we find them, but this was going to be tough. As I was carrying my favourite spade (nicknamed “Excalibur”) and various paraphernalia for digging, Gina was clearly more than a little concerned about what might happen to her lovely garden.

Of course I had my trusty metal detector. I’m not a big fan of using metal detectors, but it was essential for this job. It’s not particularly fancy, it just works well. It’s not even mine. It’s on indefinite loan from my father. We have a lot of faith in it, it doesn’t beep more than it needs to, it doesn’t have too many controls, but it is a “discriminating” type, it can differentiate between ferrous metals (iron) and non-ferrous (like aluminium and gold), and beeps a different tone accordingly. It has been involved in some interesting discoveries, but I’ll save those for another day…

Gina showed us all of the places in her garden where she might have lost the medallion. I’d thought about this a lot, and took notice of all the places she said, but we kept walking. In total, the garden covers more than two acres, and there is potentially one acre where the medallion might have been lost. But I had one spot in mind, my prime choice. At the far corner of the garden, Gina has an arrangement with a local farmer to tip garden cuttings over her fence into his field. The area has a few trees, so was a pleasant shaded spot on a day like this one, when the sun was beating down. This was my favoured location because it’s more difficult to spot a small object dropped there, and in manoeuvring, it was likely that the medallion could have broken free from its cord.

While we were searching, we were being gently smoked by the smouldering grass that Gina was dealing with. We moved lots of grass cuttings from place to place to get good access to the soil, and I found lots of small pieces of aluminium – frustrating work, but necessary.

In total, I made three sweeps of the garden waste area with the metal detector. Eventually I gave up and asked Alison to continue to sift through the grass cuttings while I went off to search the rest of the garden. It was disappointing, I felt that the waste area was our biggest hope and that had come to nothing. I had a cursory search around the flower beds and pond, with very few promising targets. It just didn’t feel right. On the verge of giving up, I headed back to the waste area to see how Alison was getting on. She was still working away with the trowel, sifting through cuttings. She said “now that I’ve moved some of the cuttings back, you should try again.”

I looked where Alison had been moving things around, with no joy. I then stood back and considered the terrain. The corner of the little wood sloped towards a couple of major trees. If anything small and dense had dropped, it seemed most likely that it would gravitate to that area, so I increased my search area a little. Among the dull beeps of scrap pieces of iron, I caught a quick beep that indicated non-ferrous metal, possibly gold. Once more, I swept my own gold ring across the metal detector to check if the tone of the beep in the ground was the same as the one caused by my ring. It was the same. There was something interesting here, not visible on the surface. I carefully dug away at the earth, and checked for the beep again. It was still there. I dug down a little further, and sifted the soil in my fingers, and glimpsed a discernible regular shape, clearly a man-made object. Too small to be the medallion, and certainly not shiny at all, but it was something interesting. It felt thin and worn, so I thought perhaps it would be an old coin.

I said to Alison “Look at this. This isn’t it, but it’s a nice little thing.” Then things started moving quickly. I licked my finger and rubbed the disc to remove dirt and see if an inscription appeared. I saw a slender string of engraved script appear – “from Dad”. In that split second, my brain had still not made the connection. I was simply touched that I had found a gift from some unknown father to child, for some reason, I don’t know why, I had pictured this child as being a little girl. Then things began to happen really quickly. In the next couple of seconds, I approached Alison, cleaning the disc more as I walked. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Gina appearing from up the hill, in the garden, and I simultaneously read and spoke out the words to “to Donald from Dad”, quietly to Alison. Gina shouted “I don’t suppose you’ve had any luck?”. I shouted back to Gina “Come here. See if you recognise this!”

In a split second, Gina’s face expression went from one of puzzlement to shock. Her jaw dropped. She uttered a single word, “F…!” I don’t think that any of us felt as though we were in the real world at that point. Gina came forward and hugged me. “Let’s go and have a glass of wine!”

As it turned out, we opted to have a big mug of strong tea instead, along with a delicious lunch quickly prepared by Gina. It was then that I spotted a teddy bear on a shelf. I knew that bear. “Is that Mr Whoppit?” I asked. Mr Whoppit is iconic. He was the mascot carried by Donald and Gina Campbell during their adventures. Gina plucked him up and sat him on the table in front of us. She explained that he was normally kept in a safe, but as it turned out she needed him for something around that time, so he was free. He looked resplendent in his bright red jacket, with a little bluebird sewn on to it. Gina told us that she had sewn the bluebird on herself, from one of Donald’s “fancy shirts”, which he always had embroidered with this bluebird symbol. Mr Whoppit’s arms were raised in the air, almost triumphal.

In her kitchen, we carefully began to remove the black patina from the outside of the medallion. At first, it came up silver-looking, and I assumed that the medallion may originally have been silver, plated with pure and fragile gold, but as we cleaned the medallion, something entrancing began to happen. The silvery colour was replaced by a stunning red gold lustre. St Christopher and child appeared, the symbol really was beautiful, and the full inscription on the back appeared, good as new: “To Donald from Daddy November 1940.”

As I cleaned the medallion, I began to contemplate. What a journey it had been on, streaking across sun-bleached deserts and eerily still lakes, always next to the heart of Donald Campbell, a heart that must have been beating so fast as it registered things that few humans are brave enough or fortunate enough, or just special enough to experience. It had waited in the silent, ice cold depths of Coniston Water for 34 years, then plucked into the light, only to disappear again, resting alone in peace beneath the dappled shade of a tree, a million miles from the roar of an Orpheus jet engine and the cheer of crowds.

I also contemplated how small the medallion was, significantly smaller than I had imagined. If I had known it was so small, I may not even have attempted to find it. I assumed it would be quite large, and still shiny even after one year, hence relatively easy to spot, so would not be in an obvious place like in the grass or flower beds. However, now that I thought about it, it really could have been anywhere, on the golf course, in the huge garden. Scientifically, we had optimised our chances, by using logic to think about its potential resting places, and using the right equipment. Nonetheless, on reflection, with the objectivity that comes with time, the chances of us finding the medallion were so small, perhaps a thousand to one. As it transpired, having turned up beyond the scorched heaps of grass cuttings, it was almost literally like looking for a needle in a haystack. Logically, it didn’t make sense that we should find it. Was there something more than this? Was it that Donald Campbell was ready to let his daughter have the medallion back? We think so.


In subsequent conversations, when we discuss the St Christopher Medallion and Mr Whoppit, people often suggest that they were perhaps not so lucky mascots after all. They didn’t protect Donald from the fatal crash, they didn’t stop Gina from crashing. Well… in 1984, against the odds, Gina survived a powerboat crash at over 120mph, having just broken the Women’s World Water Speed record at Holme Pierrepont in Nottingham, She went on to break this record again in 1990 in New Zealand, achieving 166 mph in a three point hydroplane. Then let’s look at Donald. He was perhaps most famous for his spectacular and fatal crash, but his achievements are outstanding. The crash occurred after he became the first person to exceed 300mph on water. He is still the only person to have broken both land and water speed records in the same year. He broke records many times, persevered in the face of huge difficulties and put Great Britain on the record-breaking map, rightfully earning his place next to his father, Sir Malcolm. And all that time they were with him, the lucky mascots, Mr Whoppit and the St Chrisopher medallion. How much had they seen him through, how close had he come to death before? Give them a break. Even mascots need a day off every now and again.

Alison with Mr Whoppit, Shaun with trusty metal detector, and Gina Campbell QSO with the famous St Christopher medallion