So, midweek, sometime in April, we get a phone call from a bloke named Bill. We get calls from blokes named Bill fairly often, mainly though they are asking questions about balloon rides or whether we can build an arch out of multicoloured balloons for their daughter’s wedding in Basildon. Opening gambit this time though was that the chap commented on how hard we were to get hold of! Daughter immediately sacked for not picking up the messages.
Then he said.
“I got your number from Cameron Balloons.”
“Can you make a flame come out of Big Ben on Jubilee Night? We’re at Tylers Green.”
Fair enough we thought, should be fairly straightforward.
“No worries, pop round when you get a mo.”
Bill turned out to be a tall (everyone is compared to me) retired builder who had a vision. A vision! It truly was, he’d come up with this idea over a year ago. As visions go it was awesome, but not quite that straightforward.
What you need to understand is that Tylers Green is the hub of a quite a large local community that encompasses quite a few villages, nestling in the picturesquew Chilterns. It has a decent pub and a duckpond along with a proper village green with a shop and tearoom come Deli on its perimeter. Its called Tylers Green after the medieval tile making industry that surrounded the area, some, so folklore has it, adorns Westminster Palace and Windsor Castle. Sort of rural come commuter area but nice with it and only a lob’s throw from High Wycombe which isn’t. What Bill had already done was organise a reverse Olympic Torch Run. He got a rake of locals, young, through sensible, to old to bring an Olympic torch back to The Green. They did it in a day including a detour round Buck Palace and through Windsor Great Park. Any road down a long run, they achieved the task. The lighted flame went into Bill’s garage and was kept going ready to light the village beacon. This formed part of a much bigger plan that would span the Jubilee holiday weekend.
Now just when you think it seems his idea was a tangible achievement, you need to appreciate that he intended to build a replica of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament on The Green. The Green isn’t that big.
‘The Houses of Parliament will be the stage’, he’d mused, pacing about driving everyone nuts.
“Big Ben needs to be at least as tall as the trees.”
Bill doesn’t do planning, strategy or ‘whatifs’. Simple questions like “Can it be done?” don’t feature. Our sort of chap as it turned out. Blimey if the Houses was going to be the stage how big would Big Ben have to be? More to the point Bill, how are you going to build it? Clearly such trivia was not a concern. See, faith is all that you need. Of course they did it, a great scaffolder bloke Neil who runs the local scaffolding firm Flex Scaffolding, not the best choice for a scaffold firm’s name I would guess, was approached, pondered the problem for a moment, and said,
“Not a problem mate, how big do you want it?”
He went on to explain that a short pole is such and such so that’ll be the length of the sides and then created the framework out of scaffold and ladders. It was going to be impressive.
What they achieved was blooming brilliant. Being a retired builder Bill had a good grasp on the practicalities of the task. Back home the garage contents were chucked out and work commenced. Goodness knows where they got the sheets from or how they actually managed to pre-fabricate such a fantastic construction in a garage but they did. Emulsion paint and a bit of creative sprayed shadowing got the replica looking believable. The Royal Ballet Stage Crew would have been proud. This started in January, the depths of winter. Amazing. Anyway where were we?
Life moved on and our man Bill had some ideas for the beacon. He wanted it to come out the top of Big Ben. He envisaged the top falling open top reveal a roaring brazier. Clearly that wasn’t going to work as it was well-likely the entire structure would be on fire before the roof came open. He’d seen balloon burners so figured that was what he needed. An idea formed. He’d buy a burner and stick it up on the top. He called Camerons who, very politely, suggested that would be a tad expensive for a one-off! Admirable. They consulted their oracle and gave him our number as being the nearest that may be able to help.
It was a drizzly day when he called by, on the off-chance, having given up on the phone option.
“What sort of flame does a balloon burner produce?” he quietly asked.
As luck would have it we were testing a burner that we’d just repaired and gave him a quick demonstration. He was quiet for a moment.
“Cripes, that’s just what we need.” he enthusiastically responded, as the whisper burner took out a pigeon sheltering on the ledge in the Crendon barn opposite, to me dog’s delight.
“Can you do that again so I can get some pictures?” We obliged. Dotty readied herself for another pigeon.
“We can get it a lot better than that.” we offered, gob working before brain.
In the following weeks we sawed up an old Colt C2, realised the airflow was too ragged and found a trollied Cameron MkIV Super, courtesy of Andy Rawson. At last, a reason why Cameron produced square burners! The can was the perfect shape, mimicking Big Ben. I know, the Tower isn’t called Big Ben, its actually called, surprisingly, The Clock Tower and it will become Elizabeth Tower in the future, I believe, but who actually gives a flying fig. Its Big Ben, OK?
Moving on swiftly, a cow burner chucked out a fairly respectable flame but we needed more. We decided to remove the coils and fit a bit of tube to the blast valve where the coils originally connected to the bottom bit (technical talk mon amies). We fired it up. Spectacular. Most of the propane didn’t ignite and then did, falling to the ground well on fire! We shut off the cylinder and ran for it. Eventually, after finding a longer bit of pipe and progressively sawing it off, we found a happy medium that meant unburnt liquid propane should fall back into the conflagration (great word) and ignite giving us an impressive fireball. We rigged it up to the fork lift, hoisted it up into the air and got a small child to try it this time. One has to say it was truly spectacular. Sadly it was seriously hot, radiant heat worse than a Sirocco and also you could hear the gauges moving towards ‘Land now’. Some fine tuning was clearly required.
With a fair proportion of hair and eyebrows missing we adjourned to The Swan to discuss the contraption further. By next morning we had decided that the pilot would be used to light the whisper burner and the whisper would become the pilot for the new-fangled main burner. We’d leave the whisper running to keep everything happily burning. We sawed another inch off the blast tube (new term?), crimped it a bit tighter to give a bit more of a spray, and gave it a go. Well, enough to say it was absolutely fantastic and just a bit awesome, verging on unexpectedly successful, and that was just at ground level. The resident roosting doves and pigeons decided to migrate thinking it was for them and me dog was disappointed. Raw propane rained down and ignited as planned and the effect was superb. Pulsing produced a flame reminiscent of the closing scenes of Quatermass and The Pit. A bit more fettling and a way to light the whisper just prior to the main sorted. Now we had a proper ball of fire. All would be well, provided the burner was high enough above the tower.
Time passages escape me now but if I recall Bill called by mid-May and asked how it was going. We gave him one of those well-disguised confident smiles which seemed to put him at ease but decided not to demonstrate the creation. He would have had a flying fit trying to complete a risk assessment!
“Brilliant, all done, when do want us to come over and test it?”
“YOU CAN’T TEST IT! ITS TOP SECRET!” He said, rather confusing things. This was starting to look a little suspect. They hadn’t yet finally assembled Big Ben. It appeared that less than half a dozen people (including us) knew what was going to happen when the lid came open. When it actually came to just how big the flame would be only we knew! Fortunately we were in the dark as well as we had no idea of quite what they really wanted (neither had Bill) and the measurements of the surrounding lid or what it was constructed from were still unknown. Hey ho, in for a pound, it was the Jubilee so who gave a jot. It would be more than fine on the night. No question. We were dealing with a man with a vision and we reckoned even he’d be surprised.
Saturday 2nd June was meet up day. It was raining, it was dull, and we arrived late thinking, for some reason, he had said it was at Winchmore Hill. Never mind we arrived on site and Big Ben was truly grand. When friends come to visit and want to go to London we direct them to Parliament station. For so many reasons not least architecturally and the fact that the works now means the Clock Tower leans by about eight inches at the pointy bit, it is truly the best Underground station on the network. Having risen through the subterranean depths you come up into the booking hall. Now, take the Westminster Bridge exit and don’t look up. When you come into the daylight then look up and Big Ben is there towering above you. Its great. This was akin to arriving on The Green at Tylers Hill. It was a magnificent structure barely hiding behind the trees. We reckoned at least thirty foot. Stuff metres, it was at least a house high and there was Bill, all smiles and expectant, exuding confidence.
We hauled a Lindstrand V30 and Worthington up the four landings along with the Mark X burner (fitting number, always liked Jags) and arrived under the lid. Apart from the superb scaffold frame it was completely wood. Not just wood but a wood frame clad with wood all held up by a fantastic, by any standard, scaffold frame, the scaffolder had built an interference fit holder for the burner. We were well impressed, the scaffolding was rock solid, not at all Flexy, a fine testament to a man and his craft. Fit for a Queen. We got the burner into place, clamped it down and reckoned the roof would clear it as it swung open. It seemed high enough, well, not quite level with the top of the wooden frame! Quite what the radiant heat would do remained to be seen but with a dozen fire extinguishers all ought to be alright. Do you know what? As I sat there under the lid I suddenly realised that everything we’d asked for, and the measurements given, had all been taken into account. We were dealing with professionals here. This was going to be simple and awesome. I hadn’t felt this good since I drifted past the upper windows of a block of flats in a boat in Bristol and wondered how I would complete a claim form if I hit it.
Come the evening we turned up, as agreed, at nine and enjoyed the band. Bill seemed relieved! There were over 3,000 rocking the night away on The Green and down the road. Not a bad turnout considering Bill reckoned he’d be happy if two or three hundred turned up! The weather was perfect, the sky clear and no wind. We tried to get some sense of the order of things but opted to play it by ear. The beer and burgers had run out and the pub’s stocks were getting low, everyone was having a ball. The atmosphere was great. The band broke for a moment. The Reverse Olympic Flame arrived to great cheering. A fuse was lit at the base of Big Ben by the oldest and youngest of the village using the Olympic Flame which fizzed away until it vanished inside. A countdown ensued. At the count of two Tall Craig pushed the lid open and, at one, the burner came on. It was dynamite. From inside we appeared to be surrounded by a huge ball of yellow fire heading skywards. Craig said something quite appropriate meanwhile, down below, Bill had convinced the lead guitarist, Nigel, to get up on the roof and play ‘God Save the Queen’ followed by ‘Rule Britannia’. The guitarist was reluctant to go without a tune-up.
“Get on with it” the crowd roared.
The first notes of God Save the Queen twanged out. We had half an idea we’d do sixty blasts on the burner but the riff took over, we lost count and before anyone, including us, had any idea we were rocking the flame to ‘Rule Britannia’ then a final really long burn with around 20 litres of raw propane lighting up the sky in as many seconds. We shut down and, seemingly as if well rehearsed, fireworks erupted from the school playing fields behind and a huge lazy moon sauntered above the trees. It was really quite emotional. Tall Craig and I congratulated each other and peered over the edge of the lid. Cripes, there were truly a lot of people there that was for sure. The lid swung shut and we disconnected everything and scrambled down. We needed a beer. To the pub mon braves where we met a really nice bloke called Jim who maintained very serious compressors for the oil industry, and complimented us on producing a really bad flame!
“Not easy to do that.” He said.
We were ecstatic. Roll on the 70th Jubilee Celebration.
Many thanks to Tylers Green for letting us be part of their celebrations and really big ones to Bill Sadler, a man with a vision, Tall Craig, the lid-flicker, Neil the scaffold, and everyone who helped make this such a great Jubilee weekend for Penn and Tylers Green. As a footnote it appears that, having now seen the footage, it does seem the Tylers Green Beacon was actually bigger than the National Beacon. Whoops.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NqYY9Bxdu5s – brilliant film of the eruption
http://www.flickr.com/photos/v6fes/sets/72157630058726470/ – great pictures