When the churchgoers of Blackford Parish north of Carlisle welcomed their new vicar in 1897 they wouldn't have known that he would turn out to be a forerunner of today's elite endurance athletes.   After filling the Cambridge stroke's seat in three succesive varsity boat races he entered the church and headed to Kobe, Japan as a missionary.  There he indulged his athletic prowess in all manner of events from rowing and cycling to hurdling, pole-jumping and hammer.

Arriving in Cumberland he whetted his appetite with a non-stop 250-mile cycle ride over rough roads to Inverness.   This was followed by one of the earliest completions of the Land’s End to John O’Groats challenge and a pioneering cycling circuit of Syria. A few years later, and just turned 40, he set off on his hardest challenge yet, planning to ride from Carlisle to London's Euston Station in time to catch the overnight train back home.  Arriving 301 miles and twenty four hours later, and having consumed only a pound of raw sausages on the way, he found that the express had departed three minutes earlier.  

Moving to Crosby Ravensworth in 1905 he turned his hand to other challenges, initially with a practical slant.  First he designed and built stone-cutting machine for local masons Parkin and Sons who had been involved for thirty years in restoring the parish church.   Then he built a splendid, timber, box-girder footbridge near Crackenthorpe Hall for Lady Valda Machell.  The bridge stood proudly astride the river until the great floods of 1968 when it suffered the same fate as the sandstone bridge at Langwathby.  

Sidney's tenure at Crosby Ravensworth coincided with the early days of aviation and he soon had designs on becoming a flying vicar.  Generous prizes were being offered to pioneering pilots who could keep their machines airborne for longer and longer distances.  The Daily Mail was at the forefront of this, offering £1,000 for a British mile-long flight.  Jam millionaire Sir William Hartley matched this for the trip from Liverpool to Manchester.  Sidney initial efforts were not equal to the task but he pressed on, determined to challenge for another Daily Mail prize, this time £10,000 to soar between London to Manchester. 

Sidney intended his machine to be designed, built and tested locally.  He sketched out his idea for a biplane and set to work in his coach house.  Two seamstresses were engaged to cover the wings with fabric, stitching industriously in the vicarage drawing and dining rooms.  Meanwhile the search was on for a suitable local take-off and landing strip.  A forty acre field in the vicinity of Meaburn Hall was identified and requisitioned, along with a large marquee recently purchased by the Crosby Ravensworth agricultural and horticultural show committee.  The marquee served as a hanger for Sidney's flying machine.  

Aeronautical engineering and the physics of manned flight were both in their infancy but Sidney managed to get his contraption airborne for a distance of some thirty yards before returning to earth sharply.  The plane was intact, its impact broken by a 'noble sheep' which suffered fatal injuries.  A modern observer would probably ascribe the failure to insufficient runway length and the familiar error of the unfamiliar aviator - a stall caused by endeavouring to climb too fast in order to clear an obstacle.  

Sidney was not best-pleased and gave his contraption a fiery funeral while retaining enough of his wits to salvage key components before the immolation began.  

Having begun his sporting life on the water, and perhaps thinking boats to be safer than aeroplanes, Sidney was to take up further aquatic challenges before he was through.  In September 1911, aged almost 50, he rowed a skiff across the English Channel from Dover to Cap Gris-Nez in 3 hours 50 minutes, a phenomenal record that stood until 1983.  Interrogated about his voyage Sidney responded with a question of his own: ‘Have you ever sat on the back of an unbroken nervous colt, that may jump across the road sideways, dash forward or start back without warning? If you have, then you know what it is to put out in an open sea in a small river-racing boat.’

Sidney spent more time in Cumbrian parish life at Levens and Morland, separated by a stint as an ambulance driver in the Great War.  At Levens he met Theodosia, the wife of Captain Josceline Bagot of Levens Hall and struck up a friendship which, after their spouses' sad deaths, led eventually to marriage.

His love affair with the bicycle continued right until his death, which was caused by complications after a fall from his mechanical steed broke his thigh.  



Reverend Sidney Swann chased records by boat, bike and aeroplane