Balloon Repair Station

Two go to France – Numero uno

Two go to France – Numero uno, Chateau Balleroy

When I was at school we had, for a short time, a brace of house tutors fondly called The Masefields. Turns out Mr Masefield was the grandson of John Masefield, the poet who wrote ‘Cargoes’ and ‘Sea Fever’. I’d known the poems ever since I was small. Apart from ‘Slough’ or Myfanwy, both by Betjeman, Sea Fever is one of me favourites. One Sunday he read the poem. It was pretty moving. I love the sea, its in the blood so I’m told. In later years it transpired that me dear old departed dad, who served in the Royal Navy on HMS Sheffield and, after the War, cruised down South America on a ‘goodwill tour’ collecting Nazis that had escaped by submarine or Lufthansa’s legendary flying boat service. Looking back through the family history they were all at sea, one way or another! From Thomas Dunckerley, who was a gunner in the Royal Navy and introduced the wobbly Freemason’s handshake to the humble sailor, through Thomas Dunckley Captain of ‘The John’, a galley slaver and hence the number of Dunkleys in the Caribbean to the old man there are loads of connections to the sea. Our family, right up to the old man, has forever fore-shortened the name, the last, before it became Dunkley, being a Northamptonshire vicar who left out the ‘c’! I meant to leave out the ‘e’ to maintain the tradition! Anyway, I am now digressing.

What the flying wotsits has this to do with Normandy? Well if you are summonsed to Normandy you can’t really fly there. It would be rude to fly there. Even Ryanair don’t have a Paris (Cherbourg) airport near so the only practical way is boat. Blinding. Love it. Jane gets seasick in the bath so no chance there! The only other alternative is under the Tunnel and drive. Too far, but maybe on the bike! Although John’s better half loves ships John too is a reluctant sailor. I therefore asked Computer Baz if he fancied a trip to France. I didn’t tell him where we were actually going or what was to be inspected of course, that may have rather put him off!

So it was we headed into the early dawn en-route to catch the high speed Cherbourg ferry from Portsmouth, a three hour crossing, all being well. It was a Sunday, the roads were empty and we arrived in time for a really delicious Costa coffee. So pleased I didn’t ask for a large one! The new International Terminal is cavernous but they haven’t renewed the speaker system so announcements were wasted on us dozen or so foot passengers. ‘ThubThub Seeseerbug flurywury remendydeedee for imbarstrationtiontion,’ echoed around the empty Hall. We raced to be at the front of the queue. “What you doing? We’re not ready for boarding yet”, came the stern order from the gate guard and announcer, “Be at least ten minutes”. No sense of humour Boarder Guards! The terminal is even closer to the Ferry now but you can’t walk to the boat anymore. A courtesy bus takes you in a fifty yard loop dropping you on the wrong side of the loading ramp where a bloke in a hi-viz jacket said it was too dangerous to cross the loading cars? Ah, progress!

The ferry idles out past the Royal Naval dockyard where you get glimpses of HMS Victory and a great view of Warrior. HMS Edinburgh was tied up flags a flying along with a couple of sad looking aircraft carriers. Past the Spinnaker Tower, visible if you fly from West Meon on a clear day and out around the Isle of Wight, sliding by moored freighters and the old Napoleonic War sea forts before the captain sets the controls for the heart of the sun and we accelerate into the Channel and set fair at a pacy 35 knots and rising for Bon Francais. Now Brittany Ferries are renowned for their food and coffee, but not tea. Barry discusses focus and various settings on his camera and clicks away at passing ships, I read a book by Diana Barnato Walker, an ATA pilot. Halfway across a pirate ship in full sail tries it on and there we are feet up on the front window cill, the Channel vanishing under the bows. Brilliant.

Cherbourg is a pretty impressive port by any standard. Originally commissioned by Louis XVI it remains the biggest artificial harbour in the world covering 1500 hectares with the outer seawall four kilometres from shore! Both Olympic and Titanic stopped here on their maiden voyages (the Titanic only once!) anchored in the ‘roadstead’, the outer harbour, and serviced by tenders. The Ocean Terminal, which we moor alongside, still carries its splendid art-deco ocean liner motif echoing a far more exotic past. A hi-level walkway runs out and us privileged foot passengers stroll to an awaiting bus. I love sea travel.

How is it, sometimes, everything is so well arranged and things go to plan? I guess that the vagrancies of the sea mean arrivals have a certain degree of error but there was our host Phil Griffiths along with his old friend Geoff , visiting from Southampton, waiting to take us onwards. Destination was his watermill, more on that in a later issue, where a decent coffee and snackette (bonjour baby) was awaiting. Dear Barry was aghast. Sensory overload maybe. The watermill was completely gutted when Phil and his missus Anna took it on some years ago. Being a bit handy he set about rebuilding it. Not as a house necessarily but as a working mill you could live in. That meant constructing everything from the water wheel to restoring the five kilometre mill race. No mean feat but today they open it once a year, mill wheat and make bread. The furniture has to be moved out for the day of course and despite occasionally flooding the local village, it is a well-loved local feature.

“Where exactly are we going?” asked Baz. Fair enough question. I told him that we were to inspect the Forbes, Chateau Balleroy Special Shape. “Blimey”, came the response, and that’s exactly what we did. First off the bottom end was checked. The original burner was an original Cameron Mk IV with drilled jets and welded coils, one of which had done what they do and cracked. Never understood why Camerons used square coils and then welded the straps. A hunt around the shelves produced a Mk IV Super. It fired up a treat and was duly added. Now there is a person who has always been associated with Chateau Balleroy and also Thunder & Colt, Sky and Lindstrands not to mention Camerons. A certain Francois. He has worked for the Forbes for years and co-ordinates most of the events there as a hobby. “Bonjour mon braves”, he greeted, “This way”, and out to the lawn we dith go. Barry’s jaw dropped and his camera came out, not necessarily in that order. In front of the Chateau proper, laid out flat was ‘The Chateau’. Now if ever there was an iconic special shape this was it. The day couldn’t have been more perfect. Chris Forbes, son of Malcolm, was there along with a spread of Forbes employees flown in from London and the US for a weekend of entertainment and feasting the like of which, I suspect, they had never seen before. All the Velcro panels were checked, the corners of the main building and wings examined for subsidence and the condition of the chimneys investigated. The fans were turned on and we ventured inside to check baffles, rigging and general stuffiness. The sun shone and a gentle breeze it did blow. Now the chimneys are getting a bit sooty and smelly, there is the odd bit of mildew here and there but nothing you wouldn’t expect in your average chateau. It had last flown at Metz and spends the rest of the time coming out for the odd flight or tether and kept stored on top of the Harley Davidson which is sadly beyond help! The inflation was smooth and gentle the Chateau wings soon catching up with the main rooms! A small child once asked Phil why it leant slightly. He explained that no one was staying in the East Wing at the moment.

A good walk round was done and a few signs of the stitching pulling on the far side lower corners was noted but nothing untoward. The corresponding front corner had already been strengthened in the past. There were now some quite strong gusts coming around the Chateau proper and the wind was forecast to pick up so the rip panels were pulled and the Chateau returned to the ground. They had hoped to fly it that evening had conditions been suitable but it is a handful and the last thing you want to be doing with a large building is find yourself in increasing winds! The Chateau, G-BTCZ, was built in 1991 and has done all of 43 hours so should go on for a few years yet. It replaced the first one, G-BKBR built back in 1982 and the first of the Forbes’ Special Shape Collection. It really is a fantastic bit of work, quite how those Cameron girls knew where everything went and to have sewn everything so perfectly is brilliant. I wonder how many panels it has got? A lot are quite small to ensure it looks the part.

The day wasn’t over yet as we still had the Globe to inspect and guests to fly. Officially called a ‘Sphere-105’ it is Planet Earth, all green and blue, G-BYJW was built in 1999 and has clocked up 65 hours. Its like new and is reserved for flying or tethering guests. Everything was declared good and Phil tethered it for half an hour giving rides to a few of the guests. The two other balloons brought in had already flown. We quickly got our passengers in and Phil asked if I’d like to fly it! Blimey what a privilege. Now I never got to go to the famous Chateau Balleroy Balloon Meets let alone meet Malcolm Forbes so to get asked if I wanted to fly a Forbes balloon, off ‘The’ back lawn, was an honour indeed. We had a lovely flight and were granted a fantastic view of the Chateau and village beyond, bedecked with lights as it was the Village Festival. The landing utilised a hedge to slow us and we arrived in a fine grassy field with Barry and Phil miraculously by the roadside. Champagne was drunk and our passengers returned to the Chateau for their evening feast. What a day, but it wasn’t over yet.

Now the Chateau has a guardroom each side of the entrance connected to the main house by tunnels. Guardhouse is a bit of an understatement as the lower floor is a fine vaulted room with a huge fireplace. Francois had the fire going and samples from the banquet upstairs turned up along with the chef making sure we were enjoying it! Naturally the fire was turned into a barbeque and sausages sizzled as you do. The drinks selection? Well there was and we did. Suitably mellow we eventually headed back to the Moulin (my French improves in proportion to drink) where some locally made Calvados came out. Joy.

Next morning a full English was consumed in the sunny garden by the millrace and then we inspected Phil’s own balloons, matching O-types. Anna was taking no prisoners and a late lunch of roast lamb was sent on its way accompanied by a delicious bottle of white. We were stuffed. Geoff, his missus Chris and their two kids, wonderfully called Teyha (ah! Yet! Backwards) and Zeanne (Ennaez, almost French), were setting off via Caen to Portsmouth, we were to be not far behind but heading in the opposite direction to Cherbourg.

There was only Barry and me on the foot passenger bus but once onboard the boat was quite fullish. Sailing out past a broken breakwater tower, apparently shelled by the Germans in the Second World War, the rain started and a sensible swell got up as we blasted out into Channel close on the heels of an earlier departed liner. The ride was on a par with a very bumpy plane flight. Through the gloom we did spot a couple of container ships making hard work of it but no sign of pirates this time, they’d run for Brixham. Then, as we rounded the Isle of Wight back into Southampton Water the sea calmed and the clouds started to break up. A hovercraft whizzed across our bows and drove straight up the beach and we slid past the Tall Ships Youth Trust’s, Challenger, quietly motoring in, the decks and crew looking very wet. Coming back into our berth we got a great view of a section of HMS Queen Elizabeth, the first of the new aircraft carriers, which had just come out of the assembly shed all wrapped up and ready to head north. Through customs and across to the carpark the sun came out and we managed a sunny unhindered run back. Consensus was that we should have taken the bikes, however we would have needed an extra day to recover and we were off to Germany in a days time. I resolved to ask them about the broken breakwater tower if I got a chance!

Many thanks to Anna and Phil for their hospitality, to Georges the manager of Chateau Balleroy for allowing me to fly their balloon and to Francois for all his hard work organising the crew of twenty plus that had the Chateau packed the away in a jiffy and the fine fare we all enjoyed.

Cameron Balloons built fourteen special shapes for Malcolm Forbes. These were all state of the art at the time and probably the most known shapes around the world. Following Malcolm Forbes death in 1990 the balloons were still flown occasionally but the mass gatherings at the Chateau ended. As far as we know only the last Chateau and the Globe are currently still airworthy.

Thanks to Tom Corten for the following list.
G-BKBR: ” Chateau de Balleroy ”
first flight: 1982 ( Chateau de Balleroy – France ) – out of service since: 1993
G-BKNN: ” Minaret Pakistan “year build: 1983 . first flight: 1985 ( Pakistan ) – out of service since: 1993
G-BLFE: ” Sphinx ”
first flight: 1984 ( Cairo – Egypt ) – out of service since: 1993
G-BLRW: ” Thailand Elephant ”
first flight: 1985 ( Thailand ) – out of service since: 2002
G-BMUN: ” Harley Davidson ”
first flight: 1986 ( Chateau de Balleroy – France ) – out of service since 2001
G-BMWN: ” Golden Temple ”
first flight: 1986 ( Chateau de Balleroy – France ) – out of service since 2002
G-BNFK: ” Faberge Rosebud Egg ”
first flight: 1987 ( Switzerland ) – out of service since: 2002
G-BNJU: ” Bust of Beethoven ”
first flight: 1987 ( Chateau de Balleroy – France ) – out of service since: 2003
G-BPOV: ” Magazine ”
first flight: 1989 ( Spain ) – out of service since: 1997
G-BPSP: ” Santa Maria ”
first flight: 1989 ( Spain ) – out of service since: 2002
G-TURK: ” Suleiman the Magnificent ”
first flight: 1988 ( Turkey ) – out of service since: 2002
G- BTCZ: ” Chateau de Balleroy ”
first flight: 1991 ( Chateau de Balleroy – France ) – out of service from 2002 – 2011
first flight: 2011 ( Chateau de Balleroy – France )
G-BRWZ: ” Macaw ”
first flight: 1990 ( Chateau de Balleroy – France )
G-BYJW: ” Forbes Globe ”
first flight: 1999 ( Chateau de Balleroy – France )
This is a clip of pretty much all the balloons at a Chateau Balleroy gathering.