Sad news in La Palma

Mike Watson just pointed me to some sad news from La Palma – legendary taxi driver Lionel has died.

Anybody who has observed on the Isaac Newton Group, or any other La Palma telescope, will remember Lionel. He was always the guy who drove you up the mountain to the Residencia, and sometimes other places too. He drove alarmingly fast but with perfect efficiency and was a friendly guy who loved feeling a part of La Palma’s famous observatory. La Palma is so achingly beautiful, its almost a mystical experience travelling up the mountain. The addition of large centrifugal force round those beatiful bends just made it all the more memorable. A trip down with Kieron Leech once took several times as long as normal, as Kieron had to get out to be sick once every three or four bends. Lionel smiled at me and shrugged.

Any other stories welcome.

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16 Responses to Sad news in La Palma

  1. Steve Warren says:

    Lionel was a wonderful chap, full of enthusiasm. It was always a pleasure to be in his company. But it was a mystery to me how he seemed immune to the large g forces as we hurtled around the hairpins. I always felt decidedly queezy on the trip and took some time to recover. It certainly wasn’t a mystical experience for me, more a question of survival.

    And talking of wonderful chaps, who is this reasonable, affable, patient impostor who has usurped the blogspace of Mike Merrifield. Your audience is clamouring for the release of the genuine volcanic article.

  2. Michael Merrifield says:

    Sorry, Steve, this sad news leaves me in a distinctly non-eruptive mood.

    I well remember my wife’s first encounter with Lionel’s driving when she came out for a Christmas observing run with me. She does not get travel sick, and laughed at my suggestion that she should make an exception on this occasion and take a travel sickness pill. Her ultimate shade of green was one that I have never seen before in nature.

    The funny thing is, though, although he always drove fast, Lionel was never in a hurry. There was always time for one more sociable coffee before setting out down the mountain, and on one occasion he was quite happy to stop in the forest on the way down and humour me in my search for the perfect giant pine cone to take home for my little boy. His smile when we found it was almost as big as my son’s.

  3. I went observing once, on La Palma, and was driven up and down the mountain by Lionel. I have only been seasick once in my life, and generally don’t suffer from motion sickness, but I had to ask him to take a break a bit more than half-way up.

    On the way back, I survived the trip down, but as it was warm, I had taken off my shirt and left it in the taxi. At the airport, I realised that my passport was in the pocket. Fortunately, there was some time until the plane arrived, and after a couple of phone calls Lionel brought me my shirt and passport to the airport.

  4. Nick Cross says:

    I was fortunate, I didn’t feel too sick, but I was surprised when half way up the mountain Lionel stopped the car, got out, and came back in with some wild grass like plant that was growing by the road. He passed a few stalks to me and then started chewing on the ones he kept for himself. Deciding that he probably knew what he was doing, I tried some myself. It tasted a bit of anaside, or liquorice.

  5. Alastair says:

    I was sad to hear this news too. I always enjoyed being driven up and down the mountain by Lionel (much like one “enjoys” a good rollercoaster!). I always made sure I sat in the passenger seat.

    Lionel had an amazing knowledge of the traffic going up and down the road. I remember one early morning drive down, Lionel turned to me and said the staff minibus would pass us before the next kilometer marker. Indeed two corners later, there it was! A remarkable man.

  6. andyxl says:

    Just remembered another story of my own. I was in Santa Cruz once when they were having of those mad La Palma street parties – not the one with the giant heads, or the one where the streets are filled with foam, but the other one where people walk round with suitcases throwing talcum powder at each other, as well as generally dancing and drinking a lot. It was really fun, but I had to leave it and go to bed early because I had a 7.30 flight, and I’d booked Lionel to pick me up from the San Miguel at 6am. Next morning, there he was, spot on time, but looking rather more dishevelled than usual, shirt hanging out and hair tousled. Ahh, I realised … he hasn’t actually been to bed… Anyhoo, the drive was as smooth as normal.

    • Michael Merrifield says:

      Ah, yes, the talc-based festivities. Try explaining to your spouse why you have arrived home looking rather the worse for wear, with a whiff of cheap perfume still lingering! Now you mention it, even though I didn;t book the taxi through the ING, it was Lionel who showed up the morning after the night before, punctual as ever.

  7. Chris Evans says:

    As I said to one of the LPA engineers when I heard the news, the sums are impressive: 20 years, an average of ~3 trips a day (I think the most he did once was 7), 100 km round trip, 365 days a year, conservatively that’s well over 2 million km on *that* road. At least one of his Mercs went round the clock (>1 million km) – just imagine the ad campaign Mercedes could have built around the story…

    • He once said to me that he’d watched the clock as it went from 999999 to 000000. Like everyone, I have good memories of this amiable and patient man, but I was too car-sick just then to enjoy the fact that he’d just told me he’d driven a million km.

  8. kw says:

    Chris’ comment reminds me of an interesting anecdote: I was observing once in France (the 2m at Pic du Midi, using Musicos), when there was this German guy who said he had been given special permission to stay overnight at the observatory to watch what we were doing. I though this was a bit odd, but i didn’t mind him looking over our shoulders. He turned out to be a very friendly chap, and he was very interested in our work, asking lots of questions about what we did. At the end of the night he told us why he was there – and who he was: he was a director and producer of high end commercials for high-end cars. He made commercials for Mercedes, Spyker, Ferrari etc. He said for one commercial they used several helicopters to film the very expensive, not-yet-in-production car driving along the roads in the Pyrenees around the Pic du Midi. He used a lot of shots where you see the observatory and domes and the expensive car driving very fast along the hairpin bends. He thought of this idea as he was a keen amateur astronomer. As a thank-you for this publicity the observatory gave him a nice tour and this night observing with us. It was great hearing the stories from this guy (his name was Wolfgang), and quite funny that he was as jealous of us doing astronomy as we were of him working with the latest Ferraris!

  9. MikeW says:

    I was driven up to the Roque this morning by Carlos, one of Lionel’s sons. Carlos told me that his father had no idea that he was unwell until shortly before he died. If I understood correctly, he was in hospital for only a week or so before he passed away – from pancreatic cancer, not driving round too many bends.

  10. Derek Ives says:

    I remember coming down the mountain with Lionel and he insisting that we stop at his own vineyard where he made his own wine. Well, we had a few sips and then he thrust a couple of plastic bottles filled with the stuff into my hand and insisted I drink one and carry the other back for Pete Bunclark, at RGO. I had a glass of this very young wine and thought Pete’s not going to miss this so left it in the hotel room for the next visitor.

  11. andyxl says:

    Anyone tried following the “possibly related posts” link ? A strange stream of words about the INT and Paul Murdin has leaked through a wormhole from 1979, it seems. In case the auto-link disappears, here it is.

  12. Roger says:

    Nice to see people remembering him other then his family. I have nothing to do with the observatory but knew Lionel personally as I live at the island.
    @Andyxl this party you mention is called “Los Indianos” and is part of carnaval, you´re lucky he showed up ;)

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