Moon landing at 50: Sussex's favourite writer relives meeting Neil Armstrong

Neil Armstrong and Richard Williamson
Neil Armstrong and Richard Williamson

Fifty years on from Apollo 11 space landing naturalist and author Richard Williamson relives the special moment he met the first man on the moon.

The year following the momentous occasion Richard, who has written for this newspaper for more than 50 years, met the astronaut at a conservation event in the autumn of 1970, organised by the World Wildlife Fund: a 'Royal Gala Cabaret and Dinner'.



The conference was titled All Life on Earth: Second International Congress of the World Wildlife Fund and was attended by a Her Majesty the Queen and a list of other royals.

Richard said: “The personalities who were there included Neil Armstrong and the reception was attended by all the crowned heads of Europe, there was a whole bunch of them."

“Duke of Edinburgh, Princess Ann, the King of the Netherlands. Neil Armstrong was one of the speakers. We had a two day meeting in London and had lectures by prominent people.

“The whole thing was being chaired by Sir Peter Scott, who had invited my father to write a whole series of articles in the Daily Express."

The first in the series of articles written by Henry Williamson for the Daily Express

The first in the series of articles written by Henry Williamson for the Daily Express

Richard's father, Henry Williamson, known for writing Tarka the Otter, wrote four articles for the newspaper.

Richard continued: “Peter Scott said to my brother John Williamson, who was a British gliding champion, ‘would you like to meet Neil Armstrong’.”

Unsurprisingly, John said yes. The pair had a lot in common and were able to discuss their time as glider pilots, during which they had both achieved the highest level of proficiency, Diamond C status.

“As they chatted, I stood next to John, and when they had finished we looked at each other and I put out my hand and shook it.”

Richard described the astronaut as a ‘remarkable envoy’ for the United States and said he was interested and talkative during the conversation.

“He was very friendly and absolutely charming - smiling all the way through. This is hindsight, but I did think ‘how long can this guy go on shaking hands?’”

During Neil Armstrong's speech, Richard made notes in the back of the congress programme.

They read: "The earth is a deep blue with lacework of clouds and with tans and browns of the continents beneath showing through. The moon surface is dead and dreary. But it shows evidence of continuous evolution. Craters are rolled and eroded, sharp edged, once a molten state. What I saw was a single snap from a motion picture of planetary life.

"Planet and stars are in continuous evolution. Life of man is as the single visible spectrum change. The Earth high overhead when standing on the surface of the Moon is very remote and very small.

"You might dismiss the Earth as very unimportant. But the Earth is the only island for Man. Protecting the Earth from its own population is of the greatest importance. Removing remote areas will occur this century.

"So how can the technology we have now acquired be used to help the earth? Tracking animal movements to understand their ecology will help to understand how creatures fit into the pattern of life on Earth.

"Fossil fuels will be used to the end of the century but atomic fusion power thereafter together with hydro-electric and harnessing other natural powers.

"Among the other world personalities giving suggestions as to how life on Earth could continue were Sir Bernard Lovell, Jacques Cousteau, the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Bernhardt, Guy Mountfort, David Attenborough, Sir Julian Huxley, Sir Peter Scott."

Across the planet, an estimated 600 million people watched as Apollo 11 first made contact with the moon’s surface.

One of those people was Richard.

He said: “We didn’t have a television but there was a tractor driver in Chilgrove, he and his wife went upstairs and we sat and watched the whole lot.

“We were on the edge of our seats, absolutely thrilled. Sir Patrick Moore gave a brilliant commentary throughout and he was absolutely thrilling," Richard said.

“We knew we were never going to see something like that again.”

Tomorrow will mark the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first stepping foot on the moon.