By Harry Mottram: A packed church with standing room only for the 50th Anniversary Memorial commemoration for the Swiss Air Disaster witnessed a dignified and reflective service led by the Reverend Ken Brown.
On April 10th, 1973, the Invicta International Airlines Flight 435 flight from Bristol Lulsgate (as it was known then) crashed into a forested and snow-covered hillside near Hochwald, Switzerland, while on its way to Basel-Mulhouse Airport. It had onboard 139 passengers and six crew members with a large portion of the passengers from Axbridge, Cheddar, Winscombe, Wrington, Yatton and Congresbury. Only 37 people survived with many suffering injuries while 108 died. The passengers included members of the Axbridge Ladies Guild, women from the Cheddar Mums’ Night Out group, skittles players from Wrington and Congresbury, plus friends and relatives.
The service was introduced by the former Vicar of Axbridge Ken Brown who welcomed the congregation with these words: “It is appropriate we remember those who died and for those who survived today.” His brief reminder of why the service was held was followed by the hymn O God, our help in ages past.
The Mayor of Axbridge and town councillor Pauline Ham spoke (at times with emotion in her voice) about the way the disaster had socially ‘impacted on Axbridge and the surrounding villages.’ She said: “It was supposed to be a happy day out but in fact turned to a tragedy when the aircraft crashed. Many children were left motherless, and husbands left without their wives. Only 39 survivors came home and some of them had a sense of guilt having survived but they were welcomed back. Local businesses, local people and social groups came forward to give them their support. Many were buried here in Abridge which serves as an important memorial to those who died.”
Soloist musician Bob Foster then played on his clarinet Pie Jesu (Pious Jesus) by Andrew Llyod Webber in what was a haunting and evocative performance – with many in the audience clearly moved. The hymn Judge eternal throne in splendour followed with the former mayor and current town councillor Mike Taylor reading Psalm 23 the Psalm of David, The Lord is my Shepherd, with the lines, ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.’
The Rev Ken Brown then addressed the congregation saying that despite the tragedy that some good had come out of the disaster by creating a greater sense of community in the town. The hymn Guide me, O thou great Jehovah followed with the famous lines Bread of heaven, feed me now and evermore, sung with a gathering volume by the family, friends, relatives, survivors and those like me who are new to the town but can vividly remember the disaster.
To give a sense of the magnitude of the affect the plane crash had on the collective national conscience you need to consider the way the Aberfan coal tip disaster or the Grenfell fire tragedy has had on people across the country and the world. As the Rev Ken Brown said the scars of 50 years ago are still raw but we need to keep the story alive and not let the memories fade so future generations can understand what happened.
Almost every family in the town knew someone who had died or was injured 50 years ago as well as those in Westbury-sub-Mendip, Claverham, Draycott, Uphill, Redhill, Wedmore, Weston-super-Mare and Bristol. The combination of young women and a wide catchment area of the passengers have led to the tragedy being so personal to those in Somerset in particular.
Cllr and Mayor Pauline Ham then unveiled a brass plaque memorial erected by the Axbridge PCC and the Town Council at the rear of the church to mark the anniversary. The words engraved included: “Many who died were members and friends of the Axbridge Ladies Guild with others from surrounding villages. Some are buried here in the churchyard.”
There was then a touching moment as members of the congregation came forward to light a number of tea-lights or small candles in memory of those who lost their lives. From Axbridge some of the women who died were in their early 20s with several children amongst the dead including a boy of 7. A full if unofficial list of those who died was published by Peter Forrester in his book on the subject Wings over Somerset, with his list on this website http://swissairdisaster.uk/passengers-and-crew/.
There were also words of comfort from the current priest in charge of the church the Reverend Alistair Forster while the organ was played by John Bodiley. The Lord’s Prayer followed with the final hymn I vow to thee, my country. As the congregation numbering several hundred slowly made their way out a collection was made for a fund to plant a memorial tree while single daffodils were available to lay on the row of graves of the victims in the churchyard. A reception was held in the town hall afterwards for friends and families to further talk and swap memories and news.
On a bright spring day with sunshine and sudden showers it was a moving and beautiful service with a great deal of thought put in by the organisers from the church and town council to ensure the right and authentic notes of remembrance were sounded. A sad day but also a day when the community of the town came together in solidarity for those who died and those who were affected. In good days and bad, Axbridge seems to always to be able to do the right thing.
Note: I’ve tried to quote the speakers but have also paraphrased them in the spirit of their words.
For more details about how and why the accident occurred there is plenty on this Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invicta_International_Airlines_Flight_435#:~:text=Invicta%20International%20Airlines%20Flight%20435%20(IM435)%20was%20a%20Vickers%20Vanguard,108%20people%2C%20with%2037%20survivors.
For more on the church in Axbridge and for a list of the services visit http://www.stjohnthebaptistaxbridge.org.uk/
To join the Friends of Axbridge Church who raise money to protect and restore the 13th century historic building visit http://www.stjohnthebaptistaxbridge.org.uk/foacmembership.asp