For a balloon meet to have been run on a purely amateur basis by a private balloon group, without a break, for 41 years is an amazing achievement but amazing is what The Icicle always is. Whether its frosty-chilly-cold or blown-sideways-rained-out balloonists and enthusiasts come for miles to enjoy a very relaxed social gathering and lovely flying (weather permitting). This has a lot to do with the ethos of The Icicle in that it never cancels, the briefings are at a very respectable 0800 (with attendant catering van) and flying is always at the pilots’ discretion. Proper job.
The first Icicle ‘organised’ by the Dante Group was held at David Liddiard’s farm at Marsh Benham over the weekend of the 6th and 7th of January 1973. Amongst the antics that year John Noakes from Blue Peter was filmed in Beatrice, G-BAGY, it was the maiden flight of the first Thunder-built balloon, G-BAIR, the first hot-air airship G-BAMK sagged across the skies and London Pride II ended up in trees and had rescued by the local tree fellers, or was that three local fellas! A special cover was carried on a flight by G-AZIP flown by Phil Dunnington and recorded as ‘a flight of 25 minutes ending at Mount Prosperous, Berks’. The crew were A. R. Burnell and C. J. Smith. The following year it blew a gale but Pete Bish’s notebook records that 16 balloons flew amongst which Dream Machine (of Joe Philp fame) collided with a tree and G-AZRN became a victim of curlover and ended up ‘contacting’ power wires and a tree. By 1975 the meet was well established and set to run over the first weekend of the year. A respectable 38 balloons flew, albeit from the Savernake Forest launchfield on account of strengthening south-westerly in spite of which the first hang-glider drop was made (from 12,700 feet). Possibly a few lessons had been learnt as on the Sunday flying was deemed unwise by all on account of the, by now, very strong winds and low cloud so no-one braved the skies. The following year the bravado had clearly returned (or the wind dropped below 25knots) and although gales threatened to wreck the meet once again 38 balloons flew, with Thunder G-BDOR and the, then un-registered, first Cameron Viva G-BDNV making their maiden flights! Reading the history of the meet the pattern of adventures and firsts seems to be pretty consistent!
The first Icicle Meets were held at Marsh Benham but when David Liddiard retired in 1993 it moved to his son James’ farm at Savernake Forest. The Dante Group have always organised the event, headed up by Pete Bish until 1987 with Mike Drye taking over in 1988, but all the Group are very much involved. The social site of the meet involves a Trade Show and Saturday night meal (good excuse for a natter) and was originally held variously at a hotel in Newbury and The Elcot before moving to The Hilton at Swindon for a few years before returning to the Elcot Park Hotel in 2008. Over the years a fair spread of cups, prizes and awards have been presented from the furthest travelled balloon to the Oldest Balloon Inflated (and flown). This then is a true balloonists’ and enthusiasts’ meet with something for everyone, a winter version of the Grass Roots if you like.
We always try and get down to the Meet during the course of the weekend, if for nothing else, to enjoy the social side of things, however 2013’s Icicle was starting to look quite promising weatherwise, according to the long-range and Celia Kunert had convinced me that it would be nice if we provided the after-dinner speech so we had half a mind to take the hopper but it was very apparent that the ground was soaking wet and, along with a rush of stuff to do on Saturday, it turned out we weren’t going to make it in time for the flying anyway.
A new launchfield opposite the farm was in use and despite being very wet earlier in the week had dried out considerably by the weekend much to everyones’ relief. The weather was fine and 14 balloons flew mainly ending up on Hungerford Common and were all safely retrieved with no problems reported. Back on the launchfield there was a fair amount of enthusiastic tethering going on along with a good turnout of spotters, enthusiasts and spectators enjoying the antics. Amongst the balloons that flew free were G-CHEL, an Icicle stalwart flown by Richard Parry who always wins the map-reference-total-equals-year prize, G-ODAY one of the BBM&L collection and the exceptionally fine G-BSON, a home-built one-manner built by Jerry Green and flown by his father John (who makes the little model balloons given out as prizes each year).
We finally got to the Elcot around three o’clock by which time there were plenty of visitors to the trade show and a respectable turnout at the bar. Manufacturers Cameron Balloons were represented by Nick Purvis and Colin Wolstenholme whilst Don himself was spotted wandering around inspecting the balloon pin display and various stands selling balloon related memorabilia. Richard Penney was there with a lightweight Ultramagic on display which was attracting a lot of attention. Crispin Williams was also busy promoting the Kubicek range. Mark Pacan had a fine collection of his paintings on show and on the door was Jenni and Richard d’Alton busy press-ganging visitors into joining the BBM&L and if Jenni didn’t get you then Jonathon Harris was equally active recruiting for the 3-4-40 Region. The British Balloon and Airship Club were notably absent. As time crept on we adjourned to the bar with the Atwoods (Tony used to organise the Silverstone Meets) and had a drop of Dutch courage ready for the evenings’ talk. Now the bar at The Elcot is the only thing that lets it down, no real beer on draught but luckily they had bottles of London Pride so all was not lost. Come the appointed time the washed and spruced up gathered for dinner. The menu was sorted by Celia Zebedee and it was very nice indeed. Prawns for starters, Pork for main and Chocolate Profiterols for pudding plus coffee, cheese and biscuits if you had any room left. Pete Bish addressed the throng and praised the ‘young’ contingent that had turned up for the nosh. The raffle draw was made and then we were on. We had pontificated all week on what to talk about but finally, on the way down, drew up a list of really stupid (daft) things we’d got away with. That would do. Pete asked us not to go on for more than two hours and we were off. Sadly we didn’t break the speech duration record but didn’t get any plates chucked our way so we deemed the performance a success!
The following morning disappointingly dawned damp and foggy. The closer you got to Warren Farm the foggier it got. The briefing was brief, the bacon sandwiches and tea delicious and Roger the Roadie soon got busy packing away the PA system. Once or twice the sun showed as a dull disc but all too soon the fog/mist/low cloud rolled back in. Reports were that, not far away, the weather was sunny and nearly quite clear but the Icicle factor ruled and all around balloons were being tethered and a few positioned for low-level restrained hops across the field. A total of 13 tethered and hopping balloons, a surprising number being hoppers, were recorded by Sandy Mitchell. Jamie Edwards and his army inflated his latest special shape, the Panasonic battery, Mike Scholes’ girlfriend Debby inflated G-WHAT and under the watchful eye of Dave Court got her tethered flight signed off in her training logbook and G-BLPP, Peter Gooch’s old Cameron V-77 from 1978 now owned by Whoa Gary Davies was inflated making it the oldest balloon there. Rumour was that Phil Dunnington de-camped down the road where the sky was clearer and carried out a check flight with 17 year-old Chris Leatherdale who passed with flying colours. Sadly this wasn’t technically from the Icicle Meet so he missed out on the ‘Newest Pilot’ award but congratulations nevertheless.
Eventually as the murk showed no signs of lifting it was decided to head back down the A4 via Hungerford to the Elcot for prize-giving and see who had turned up for the Trade Show. The Function Room was buzzing and come prize-giving, at one o’clockish, the place was full. Amongst the awards and prizes Jonathan Harris got the coveted Marsh Benham Trophy for services rendered to ballooning in Berkshire having spent most of the weekend recruiting members to the 3-4-40 Club, The Pete Hornfleck Trophy for the smartest balloon went to Gary Davies’ 1978 G-BLPP and, as already mentioned, the Elcot Park Hotel Prize (this year the six figure grid reference for the landing adding up to 41) once more went to Richard Parry. No records had been broken but as always the Meet was exceedingly well attended. Many chose not to fly because of the wet ground conditions and the likelihood of having to pack away a wet balloon until March, if last year was anything to go by, but the turnout was good. For our part we would like to thank the Dante Group for allowing us to sit at their table, inviting us to speak and their hospitality, it was a privilege indeed.
Next years Icicle will be held over the weekend of 4-5 January 2014 and the first briefing will be on Saturday morning at 0800 at Warren Farm. See you there.
Saturday 5th January 2013. Tethered Balloons G-CEYD, G-BSON, G-AZKK and G-ODAY hopped to the next field.
Free flights by G-BULB, G-BYMW, G-CHEL, G-OKEW, G-TSWZ, G-ULIA, G-ONIX, G-SNOW, G-PSAY, G-BZBJ, G-OUMC, G-BTUH, G-BXPP, G-BXXG.
Sunday 6th January 2013. Tethered G-SMIG, G-BLPP, G-BFOZ, G-JHAA, G-BWHD, G-BVRL, G-WHAT, G-CEYD. Tethered and 4 restrained hops across field.
http://www.icicle.org.uk home of The Icicle Balloon Meet and includes a comprehensive history at http://www.icicle.org.uk/?page=history
Pics courtesy Pete Bish and Jane. Balloon details courtesy of Sandy Mitchell.