It was one of those bright blue summers that seemed to go on for ever.
In a cobalt sky, high above the North African desert, a young RAF pilot, fuelled by adrenalin, urged on his mighty Merlin engine as his Spitfire climbed in pursuit of prey.
But the more he chased the sinister Luftwaffe Junkers, the more its extra two engines pushed it out of range of the Spitfire’s cannons.
Frustratingly, the young man started his descent.
“Then I noticed the curvature of the earth. I’d never flown that high before – but now I knew what they’d taught me at school. The earth really was round.”
That school was in the wilds of rural Buckinghamshire and the young man was destined to become a high flier. Not in destroying but in creating.
His name was Luing Cowley and a few days ago, on a similarly heavenly day, he was able to reflect on those wartime memories as the Lord Lieutenant of Buckinghamshire presented him with a richly-deserved MBE.
But the award was not for exploits out of Africa and the Battle of Alamein, but for being a founding father of the new city of Milton Keynes.
For Luing, now 91, was one of those happy few who helped set up the new town... then stayed on to build a business and help build the city.
In a glittering career, he has been a magistrate and a mayor, a car dealer and a Conservative councillor. A wing of MK Hospital is named after him and many is the young musician who has him to thank for the support of the city orchestra.
And, oh, yes. He’s raised a family of four; which has now grown to include seven grandchildren and three great grandchildren.
This, the first of his medals to be collected, is something of which Luing is most proud. “I’m proud of Milton Keynes and how it is now.
We have got over a lot of snags and we learnt a lot in our early days. It’s no doubt the most successful new town since the war.”
So much so, that many of the original architects behind Milton Keynes have settled here. “I’m still in touch with Frank Henshaw and Bob Hill,” says Luing, who, since his birth in Calverton, has never lived further than three miles from the city.
His wartime adventures which took Mr Luing across India, Cairo and South Africa, after training in Florida to fly Hurricanes and Spitfires, meant that he missed the beginning of Cowley Wilson, his father’s car dealership firm. But after returning from a gruelling war, he took over the running and growing of the family Vauxhall business, before it was sold in 1980, just before Luing set his sights on becoming mayor of the brand new city.
As Milton Keynes continues to grow, Luing reflects on the city’s biggest accomplishments – “one of the best things to be set up was The Parks Trust. It means that the money has to be spent on preserving all of MK’s greenery. Sometimes things don’t work – the original plan was for the landscape to be flat, but the flat roofs had to be converted, there were too many problems.”
Luing’s MBE is not the only nod to his services. Milton Keynes Hospital’s outpatients unit carries his name. “Some of the younger staff don’t know the connection when I visit, but it’s good to see some of the doctors I helped to appoint still working there.
“I’ve seen a lot of changes, but I’ve enjoyed what I’ve done, although I was astounded to be recognised so late in life,” said Luing, who continues to be a full, and the only original, member of Bletchley Rotary Club, as well as involved with the city orchestra.
Relaxing in his favourite armchair at his home in Willen, Luing – still often in the cockpit of his car exploring local restaurants – looks proudly at his MBE citation and the boxed medal. Will he keep it with his war-time decorations?
“I never bothered to pick them up”, says the quiet hero.
“They were for destroying things. This one is for building a legacy.”