Spurred on by a desire to discover when I first flew a Cloudhopper I have found a couple of my missing logbooks whilst sorting out old OS maps and, co-incidently, following a visit to the re-opening of the Oxford University Natural History Museum talk swung to a rather magical and, on the face of it, an unlikely flight I made from Crystal Palace. Now this is the sort of thing that gets treated with polite disbelief but assuredly it did happen and as luck would have it is recorded in my logbook. Back then I think we did actually tend to log most flights! The exact details of what we were actually doing there escapes me but I think it was to support an American Football Series that Budweiser were sponsoring. We certainly spent a season going to these rather bizarre events where the cheerleaders and players always seemed to outnumber the fans. Some were better than others and on one occasion, at Fulham’s ground if I recall, we ended up in a corporate suit with goose and draft Budvar imported from Czechoslovakia or whatever it was called then. Then there was a match at Chelmsford where the office, proud as punch, told us CBS would be turning up and wanted to do an interview. Two things of note happened there. As we watched two blokes nailed a shed together with the window removed in the top of the stand and then proceeded to hang a sign board proclaiming ‘Chelmsford Broadcasting Service’ across the front and it occurred to us that the interview was not going have the same world wide audience that HABCo’s Press Office was expecting then later, whilst tethering the mighty Budweiser Can and breaking a tether line which meant we ended up over the Stadium and had to cut free, which in itself wasn’t too disastrous, but landing after a ten minute flight across housing estates and not being found for an hour wasn’t brilliant. The upside was that we were away and homeward bound earlier than planned. Then there was a rubbish tip that we had to tether the Can on but that’s another story.
Back to the dinosaurs. Now I remembered the flight but I hadn’t realised that we made two flights that day. The Crystal Palace National Sports Centre was hosting a match between two American Teams I seem to think, hours trawling the wibbly wobbly hasn’t helped mind, anyway it was part of the Budweiser season and we got there with a brief to tether the Can prior to the match on the site of the old Crystal Palace itself and during half time inflate the hopper in the arena. Well as it happened the morning was glorious and we arrived well early and decided that we ought to do a hop across the vast expanse of the Crystal Palace grounds and go and have breakfast. Its always best to get these things out the way so once we’d decided which way the wind was blowing ten minutes later G-BPFX the Budweiser Thunder 21 was up and away. Now on the journey down I had said that the one thing I’d really like to do whilst we were there was to go and find the dinosaurs that lived in the lake. These days you only need go on Google Earth type in Crystal Place find the Stadium and immediately to the south and at the west end of the lake you will see them. Imagine that, seeing dinosaurs from space! Sorry, back to August 1989 when we used OS maps and as there was little or virtually no wind I thought I’d go up a bit and have a look round, like you do over densely populated areas. Do you know how many miles of houses and stuff there is around Crystal Palace and how high the TV Towers are? I was so gobsmacked taking in the view, picking out the pattern left by the remains of Crystal Palace itself, trying to spot the site of the old Crystal Palace High Level Station, exactly where the elusive dinosaurs were in the lakes and whether or not I could spot Auntie Marlene’s house that I sort of forgot the intention to stay in the Park and now at a good 1000 foot I was drifting towards the Arena itself and away from the grassy area.
When the Great Exhibition finished in London’s Hyde Park the Crystal Palace that housed it was dismantled and moved to Penge Common next to Sydenham Hill and re-opened in 1854 the local area soon becoming known as Crystal Palace. The Dinosaurs were commissioned in 1852 to be part of a hugely expensive and elaborate Garden and Park that would surround the substantially rebuilt and enlarged Crystal Palace. Joseph Paxton, the designer of the Palace was involved with the scheme and so got in Edward Milner, his former apprenticed gardener from Longleat, to sort the Park where amongst other things he designed an Italian Garden, a huge Maze and two spectacular 250 foot high fountains along with cascades fed by two huge water towers designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel after the first one collapsed. The London-based Italian sculptor Raffaele Monti set about designing and building the majority of the stonework for the fountains along with a wide variety of statues, urns and vases that were scattered about. Why Raffaele, famous for his fine veiled sculptures including ‘The Veiled Vestal Virgin’ which featured in a Procol Harum single some years later when she left with 49 others and headed for the coast? Well he was a mate of the Duke of Devonshire who lived at Chatsworth House where Paxton had built the greenhouse that led to him winning the contract for the Crystal Palace in the first place. To top it off another luvvie, sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, was commissioned to create a lead mine, limestone cliff and supply 33 life-sized models of recently discovered dinosaurs and other extinct animals to adorn the park under the scientific direction of Sir Richard Owen, the main man in his day when it came to fossilised remains, which he knocked up just down the road in his Sydenham Studio. Hawkins was well-respected in the scientific world as he had mounted the first dinosaur skeleton in the world, a Hadrosaurus, to go on public display. Although by modern standards the portrayal of these fine creatures leaves a little to be desired you’ve got to bear in mind Benjamin was casting them, initially in concrete, then over a framework of steel and brick some six or seven years before Darwin published his theories. There is actually a bit of a myth that a slap up New Years Eve dinner was held inside the Iguanodon in 1853 but it turns out that it was inside the bottom half of the mould. It says so on the information board in the Park but I prefer the myth. Just as interesting is the Pneumatic Railway that served the Station they built but that’s not for this story. It did seem for a while that the collection would decay to such an extent that it would be lost forever but in 1973 they were classed as Grade II listed buildings then they were extensively restored in 2002 before being finally upgraded to a Grade I listing in 2007 and before you ask why there isn’t a T-Rex in residence, its because he hadn’t been discovered then.
Returning swiftly to the story, there we were about to depart the Park so a big handful of red line and I was dropping handsomely towards the middle of the pitch and off towards the Lake. Then I had this somewhat misguided idea that I was spot on for the monsters so would creep over the Stadium and trees beyond, say hello and plop down on the far side. All was going splendidly as I rounded out just above the stand still heading to where I imagined the creatures to be. Observation and intention were not connected, I could, and probably should, have simply landed inside the Stadium. I didn’t and as I drifted gently across the roof of the stand and over the trees by the lake I was suddenly looking down on the dinosaurs in their full glory amongst the trees on the island and in the water. It was dreamlike, how I wished I’d had a camera. Dropping down even lower I turned right and actually ended up between the banks and trees just above them, it was brilliant. I have to say they did look convincing and truly wonderful. As I started to run out of lake I popped up a bit and tried to find a spot to land. No chance. Never mind, the winds were extremely light and somewhat variable on the deck with a bit of movement higher up. This is where some of the details get left out for legal reasons but by a bit of judicious whizzing up and down I ended up allegedly landing on a road junction near a bus stop whereupon a large red Routemaster pulled up the driver giving me a broad grin and a toot on the horn. I asked him if there was a café nearby. He laughed and pointed over my shoulder. We had a smashing breakfast during which I bored Greg to death recounting the adventurous flight and the fact that I had seen the dinosaurs like no-one else. He was, of course, most polite.
As planned the logbook shows we did tether the Budweiser Can G-BPFJ for nearly two hours prior to the game and then at half time put the hopper up on the pitch which upset some of the crowds as it blocked the view of the rather fit cheer-leaders jigging about so I took off but by this time the winds, such as they were, shoved me towards the Park and I ended up landing more or less on the spot I’d taken off from that morning, probably for the best. It had been quite a fine day especially as we’d managed to avoid having to watch any of the match and as there didn’t appear to be a hostility stand we headed off for a well-deserved pint in the pub that we had spotted over the road from the café we had visited earlier. You know the thing that stands out more than anything else in my memory wasn’t so much the incredible view of London sprawling ungainly to the north or the grand view I had of the historic site but it was the Ichthyosaurus which, when I floated over it was partially submerged. I don’t really give a tuppeny that it isn’t really a dinosaur. That sunny morning it was alive, it looked me in the eye, smiled and I swear it winked.
http://www.victorianweb.org/sculpture/misc/hawkins1.html thanks to Jacqueline Baerjee for the picture of the dinosaurs