The Longest Day in Gloucestershire (Part I)
Well it started with a phone call from Howard at First Choice Balloon Flights, just before 7pm on Saturday 14 June 2008. Perfect timing, as we were on our way out to an evening of unmissable humour courtesy of Howlers Comedy Club at the Wheatsheaf pub in Leckhampton.
“Fancy going ballooning in the Cotswolds tomorrow?”, came an urgent voice on the other end of the mobile. Well it was a no-brainer really – a lovely summers evening floating over the Cotswolds. I was just about to say “I suppose so, go on twist my arm a bit more”, when Howard said those sobering words, “It’s in the morning, you need to be here by 5.30am”.
A few moments passed before the monosyllabic reply slowly left my already open mouth, “Oh”.
“See you then – be prompt!” and Howard had gone.
The plan prior to the call had been simple. Go to Howlers Comedy Club with some friends, have a few drinks and enjoy a night of comedy and wake up in the morning with a cuppa brought to me by the kids, before being whisked off to Kemble Air Day 2008 and spoilt – well it was going to be Father’s Day after all!
Howlers Comedy Club at the Wheatsheaf
Supping away at my two pints of shandy, I didn’t have to force myself to enjoy the evening’s entertainment at Howlers (bearing in mind I had to be up at 4.30am!), as the acts were sensational.
First time at Howlers, compere Vince Atta led the way and warmed everyone up for the first act Nick Page (used to be on BBC daytime TV presenting one of those property programmes, until he was convicted of fraud – as he openly declared in his act). His fast, quick-witted, life-based anecdotes and stories went down a storm, and I especially enjoyed the one involving replacing his dad’s car horn!!!
After a quick break we were strummed into non-stop laughter with one of my favourite musical comedians, Rob Deering – a guaranteed hit with all audiences. I think there’s something about his happy, smiling and energetic personality! This was the third time I’d seen Rob perform and with his unique, high-octane musical humour, once again made me and everyone else agree that at just £10, Howlers Comedy Club really are an ENTS company going in the right direction – UP, and that was where I was going early in the morning too!
Not being a party-pooper I managed to last until one in the morning, at which point bed beckoned – but it wasn’t until sometime after that I drifted off to sleep (eager anticipation of the balloon flight keeping me awake no doubt).
After a three hour sleep and a twenty minute drive along rabbit-ridden country lanes, I arrived at ballooning HQ, parted with my car and hopped into the Landrover along with Howard and four fellow balloon travellers to our destination – Sudeley Castle.
Sudeley Castle were holding a competitive Balloon Grand Prix and we were to be part of it. On arrival the field was filled with vehicles with the balloons on trailers, but it was remarkably quiet. Not for long. After a pre-flight briefing in a marquee, Howard whizzed back and along with numerous other pilots doing the same thing, jumped into the ‘Landy’ and joined the convoy of 4x4’s with a variety of trailers and headed off back into Winchcombe.
Taking off from Winchcombe School
By the time we reached Winchcombe School – now the launch pad, several balloons were already dissembled from their trailers and hot air was blasting into their canopies – was it a race to be first off? Did I care? No. For once my competitive nature gave way to the pure excitement of the eagerly awaited balloon flight over Winchcombe, Sudeley Castle and ultimately the Cotswolds.
As our balloon became bloated with hot air we (the lucky passengers) jumped into the basket and before you could say “Lift off!”, we were ascending effortlessly into the abyss of the sky above.
“Wow”, the buzz that was in me lifted like the balloon and it was then that I took in the breathtaking views on all sides in what must have been the most beautiful blue sky of the year, which, we were now part of.
Friends and family of the fellow travellers (mine were in bed) were fading dots on the land below as we gently rose and headed southwards over Winchcombe and towards Sudeley Castle.
Looking back to Winchcombe, Vale of Evesham and Malvern Hills
Why were the balloons dipping into the grounds of Sudeley Castle ahead?, I thought. It soon became clear when nearing the once home of Katherine Parr (Henry VIII’s sixth wife) that part of the ballooning challenge was to throw a marker as close as possible to a huge ‘X’ marked out in an adjacent field to the Sudeley Castle – and from above you could see the whole splendour of the 15th century building and it’s magnificent gardens.
Our flight path took us right over the ‘X’ and we would have won no doubt, but our marker had vanished!
So back up we went, high in the air and high on adrenaline we glided over the stunning Cotswold scenery, rising above the escarpment and over the endless fields and copses interrupted occasionally by a Cotswold hamlet.
No one really spoke during the flight apart from the odd comment about the deer fleeing from the strange object above, or remarking on the grand houses below and waving to our ‘retrieve’ (recovery vehicle) winding through the country lanes beneath. No words were needed though as everyone within the wicker basket was without doubt, appreciating the ‘must do’ once in a lifetime experience.
Exploring from the skies the beautiful breath-taking Cotswold scenery
The descent was fairly fast and abrupt, as the wind had picked up during the flight and was only really noticeable as we neared the ground looking for a field to land in. Hitting the ground softly with the basket staying upright – a quick pull on the ‘Crown Line’ (opens a vent at the top of the balloon to let the hot air out) and we were safely on ‘terra firma’. Although apprehensive of heights (‘scared’ is a wrong assumption by many people) at no point during the flight, at lift off, whilst we were sailing the skies above the Cotswolds, or during the landing did any doubts cross my mind regarding the slight problem I have with ‘vertigo’. A huge thanks must be handed to Howard our pilot, as his professionalism and confidence really made the flight amazing and of course safe.
Ah, I almost forgot...
The landing, although text-book perfect had one minor flaw – un-be-known to us we had touched down in the Cotswold equivalent of Colditz - a field whose gate was not only locked but had barbed wire attached, farm machinery blocking the entrance, along with two huge blocks of stone – oh, and a four foot wide ditch didn’t help the cause either.
Despite looking for alternative exits we reluctantly took the balloon, then the gas cylinders and finally the basket to the entrance, and with the help of the ‘retrieve’ and family on-lookers (not mine, still in bed no doubt), we were able to lift over the fortified gate. Although this sounds like a nightmare, good team spirit made light work of this and made the adventure more rewarding. Thanks Howard, Helen, Ade, Nick and Claire – it was a great time.
By the time we arrived back at Balloon HQ in Woodmancote, we were all tired. Fellow passengers hinting that they might go back to bed, but for me the day had only just began.
to be continued…
22 June 2008
The Longest Day in Gloucestershire (Part II)...
Photography credits: Adrian Mason
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