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Stage 8 – Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire - 8 and 9 July 2020

From the notes of Ambassador Libor Sečka:

My colleague Ondřej and I arrived in Darlington by train from London around half past seven in the evening. The only movement in the vast, empty hall of the railway station was a wayward gust of wind. The reputation of this place as a major regional transport hub seemed debatable to us. Waiting for us in the parking lot was our driver, Lukáš, who had already handed over supplies to the Consulate General in Manchester. Even before we could put our luggage in the car, we had spotted a pair of shouting and menacingly gesticulating drunken young men. “It’s rough here in the north”, Lukáš muttered under his breath, then we were on our way. He had inadvertently created his own parallel to the famous statement, “You guys should get outside London and go to talk to people who are not rich remainers”, with which Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, told reporters where they ought to look to find the country’s real problems. Acknowledging and understanding such socio-economic differences and the promise to equalize regional disparities was, incidentally, one of the keys to the electoral victory of the Conservatives and Boris Johnson last December. We were in the north and were looking forward to continuing our Never Forgotten programme: Due to the coronavirus crisis, nineteen long weeks had passed since our last expedition. 

We began our journey to visit the graves of Czechoslovak soldiers the following morning with a visit to a small cemetery in Catterick. The grave of Sergeant Josef Gutvald, who calamitously crashed during a training flight in May 1941, was decorated not only with a flowerpot of small yellow roses, but also a swath of golden mushroom caps, like a scattering of ducats. We tidied the spot, paid tribute to the soldier, and continued on to the famous spa town of Harrogate. When you’re in Harrogate, it’s obligatory to stop at Betty’s — an iconic café with a famous tea and pastry shop. Betty’s connection to the town is as strong as that between Karlovy Vary and its spa wafers. In the century-old tea shop we found the atmosphere to be both outdated and also very contemporary. The grey-haired saleswoman was so acutely aware of current health safety directives that she pressed the payment card reader up to her side of the protective plexiglass. There was nothing to do but follow her lead on my side of the safeguard. The magic didn’t happen. I bought tea only after the credit card and the reader met in the real world. Waiting for us at the local cemetery was Tomáš Kostečka, an initiator of educational and social activities among our compatriots, especially in the Leeds area. Together we honoured the memory of Sergeant Jiří Bleier, who had met a similarly tragic fate as Josef Gutvald.

We got a big surprise in Hull. Dougal Keith, the co-owner of a network of Škoda dealerships in the north of England, had decorated the local branch not only with Czech flags but also with symbols of our common fight against fascism. Were it not for his unmistakable northern accent, one would have the impression that he was an ardent Czech patriot. His father, who took part in World War II, had opened a Škoda repair shop in the mid-1970s in nearby Leeds, which launched the now successful family business. Together we laid roses at the grave of Lieutenant F. Shulz. Then we heard the tones of trumpets delivering a military stanza, which my host had arranged. I felt the festivity of the moment and also emotion. For the sake of completeness, I must add that we don’t know much about the fate of the soldier resting here. Perhaps only that he was born in České Budějovice, served in the medical service of the British Army and died at the age of 29. He is buried beneath the typical stone denoting British war graves. We know much more about the life — a colourful one, I must say — of Břetislav Kincl, a Czechoslovak soldier buried at the cemetery in Worksop. During the First Republic, he allegedly operated a dining car on an express train between Belgrade and Paris. He sold the dining car in France and then lost the money at a casino in Monaco. He was enrolled in the Czechoslovak foreign service in April 1940 in Marseilles. He died in hospital in 1943. Many today would envy his romantic story. I bowed to his memory together with Bibiana Horváthová, the leader of the Czech and Slovak Society in Sheffield, a woman of inexhaustible energy who regales you with a boundless waterfall of words. Hanging over Sergeant Kincl’s grave were twigs punctuated with black cherries. They tasted bittersweet.

We spent the night in the picturesque town of Woodhall Spa. This town became notable as the base of the 617th Squadron of the RAF, whose mission during World War II was to destroy strategic enemy targets. Heavy bombers attacked ports, industrial centres and German battle cruisers. They shattered dams with shots that skipped like frogs across the surface. Hence the nickname “Dambusters”. Then we enjoyed our morning tea at the Revesby Estate. The reason for our visit was a letter I had recently received. From its contents, it seemed that the current owners have both a family connection to the Czech Republic and also an interest in cooperation. We wanted to get to the bottom of it. We were greeted by a group of three men and three women. The moment we arrived, avalanches of information started flowing, in English and in Czech, from every direction and angle. I tried to grasp, understand and put it all together, but the intensity with which the participants told us their stories, and how one unfinished story immediately led to another, did not allow for it. I just sat quietly amid the constant chaos of information and was glad to feel something that is certainly not common in England, wholeheartedness. It was pleasant and amiable.

In the end, it was possible to put together only a mosaic. Mrs. Stanislava Židlická, who emigrated to Britain in 1968, married Gavin Wiggins-Davies. Together they have two sons, and one of them, Peter, now runs the business activities the estate. Stanislava’s father, who was killed at Tábor in a British Mosquito plane in 1949, had gone through training in Britain, and the family maintained an ongoing relationship with his instructor. The uncle of Mr. Wiggins-Davies had fought in the Battle of Britain alongside Czechoslovak pilots. And the couple’s son Peter, who feels himself to be half-Czech, is building a successful business enterprise from the estate. In the course of 300 years of uninterrupted ownership, the family lost the right to use noble titles. Nevertheless, today the estate delivers game, particularly venison, to the royal court. I could continue, but the important thing is that we have discovered further allies and partners with an interest in strengthening Czech–British cooperation.

Together with Jan Kováč — a top Czech cardiac surgeon, professor and a great patriot — in the afternoon we visited the graves of Czech pilots František Vocetka, Antonín Kašpar and Emanuel Krajina at the cemetery in Cranwell. All three died in tragic accidents in the air or on the ground. We stopped briefly at the grave of Private Francis Tandler in Nottingham so that we would be able to close our pilgrimage at the charming country cemetery in Scropton. Here rests the entire crew of the Wellington Mk Ic Z8854, which crashed and burned while returning to its base in October 1942. Six men — František Fanta, Miroslav Mucha, Rudolf Jelínek, Emil Turkl, Václav Obšil and Josef Hrala. Six matching tombstones along the cemetery wall. We were feeling sadness, but also calmness and strength. In the persistent cold rain, we returned to London with the feeling that that time 80 years ago was almost yesterday.

London, 10 July 2020, Libor Sečka


Gallery Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire