Last year Sean Simington took it upon himself to cycle from Lands End to John O’Groats in memory of his long time lovely partner Shirley and in doing so raised an awful lot of money for the Big C Drop in Centre in Norwich. Joining him on his epic journey for a stage or two was his, and Shirley’s, good friend Richard Durrant the renowned concert guitarist who often turned up at The Eccles Hall Balloon Meets and played a set or two to everyone’s delight. Remembering this, when Richard decided to do a tour on a bike carrying all the kit to do it he phoned Sean to ask if he would be interested in joining him. “Be delighted’, said Sean not realising he was going to be away for the best part of two months and carry half a stage set on his trusty bike! As part of, or as a result of, the planned tour Richard took himself off to the South Downs and wrote Bicycle Music. He has always been passionate about bikes and now he’d written something to play at the various and plentiful gigs on the tour. Cycling Music was born and on May 1st they set off on a 1,500 mile cycling tour playing 36 venues from The Ropetackle Arts Centre in Shoreham, Richard’s home town, carrying self sufficient state-of-the art equipment which meant that the bikes, as well as Richard (and Sean), were the show. A fantastic concept and as a very kind gesture twenty percent of the proceeds of the concerts was going to go to the Big C. We thought it only right and proper to be there when they returned to The Ropetackle for a concert on 20th June. This did mean that we wouldn’t be able to make the Friday or Saturday morning at the Bedale Balloon Meet which we had been promising to attend for years. They would, we were sure, understand.
How Shoreham has changed since I last visited. Now its quietly becoming all ‘Hove actually’ but thankfully the houseboats, including a new addition, the Fische, a 1960s Schutze Class minesweeper, still line the River Adur although now they have an ‘individually village themed housing estate’ as a back drop. Shame the front gun was removed! The Ropetackle is perfectly placed at the end of the High Street by the bridge with a pub and a fine chippy opposite and the parking, we were kindly advised by the centre, was free just over the bridge. It wasn’t even raining. Perfect. As so often happens, prior to going in search of fish and chips (mandatory when visiting the seaside), whilst picking up our tickets from a lovely lady who was busy pulling plugs various in and out of sockets and bashing the computer which seemed to result in it declaring a temporary ceasefire, we bumped into Sean who did a rare double-take. The tour had gone brilliantly, he told us, although Richard was now in some discomfort but he wasn’t encouraged to go into detail. Very politely the lovely lady presented us with our tickets in an envelope proclaiming that was much easier than printing them off and anyway the computer monitor was now slowly sinking in the Adur.
The set was fantastic and the concert surpassed any expectations, which I suppose we didn’t have really so treat this sentence as mainly nonsense. Back on home turf Richard had allowed himself the luxury of additional lighting and a wonderful drum kit, which did form a small part of an upturned bike, bike wheels on stands and a fine selection of sort of Tibetan bells all created by percussionist Stephen Hiscock. There are no reserved seats, you sit where you can and somehow we ended up at the front a couple of seats down from Sean who handled the mixer, made sure the bikes didn’t fall over, sorted the lights and probably made sure there was a pint of something cold along fresh flowers in Richard’s dressing room, bless! Lark of the evening centred around the recent defeat of England by Uruguay which meant that he had to make it perfectly clear that he was playing some classical guitar pieces from Paraguay actually! Point of the concert though was to launch his new album Cycling Music. Accompanied by some rather amusing anecdotes and tales of the trip the music was so bicycle it was wonderful. Highlights had to be Gravity Bikes and Coventry Eagles which is all about bike envy. Dynamic, magical and full of humour we even bought a copy of the CD despite not having a CD player (I am told there is one in this MacThing). He also performed his very clever and very popular cover of Tubular Bells. It starts with ‘plywood guitar’, say no more, and the visuals, like all the ones throughout the evening were perfect. Gig over we bade our farewells and left Sean to cycle home to Norfolk. Unfortunately we’d come in the old persons’ car so couldn’t give him a lift, still, he needs the exercise. We eventually sailed in around quarter past midnight so an early start for Yorkshire was decidedly not going to happen.
Morning dawned all lovely. The trip up to Bedale on Saturday morning was actually quite reasonable if not as quick as it might have been the M1 being jammed somewhere near Nottingham which meant a hasty bit of cross-country to the A1. Part of map 14 in the Collins was missing so we took a couple of solar sightings through the astrodome and followed signs that said ‘(A1)’. Seemed to work. The A1 is now built to serve Bedale so it couldn’t have been easier, sadly though we had no idea where the meet was being held as I’d left the distructions on the kitchen table. No worries, we asked a hobbling local who told us to go past the church and we’d find it. Easier said than done as there now seemed to be a bit of a traffic jam which, on the face of it, appeared to be the fault of a son-of-the-soil with an outrageous tedder on a well-oversize tractor but then a cloud smoke appeared amongst the roof tops and a rather fine little, what appeared to be a very rare Wordsall 0-6-0, tank engine scurried over the level crossing. I liked this despite breaking the point on me pencil and failing to tick off its number in me old Ian Allan. We asked another bloke this time walking his Zimmer frame where the Sports Club was. Somewhat sardonically he explained that it was actually an Athletics Club and was ‘up by church ‘ont right’. So that’s where we went and there was the gathering complete with a tethering balloon. ‘It were grand’, as they say and we soon found some southerners who had already been there a couple of days and offered to translate. No need however as we were directed to the bar toutymonte suit. There was to be briefing following an auction for some rusty balloon bits and before we knew it Team Russon had thrust very welcome cups of tea into our mits. This was the life. I think we were as surprised at being there as those that were surprised we’d made it so far north. Phil Traviss was busy get his balloon knitted back together where a shroud line had become detached. Lovely job, not the neatest but it will never fall off again, and despite an interruption by Tim (‘urry up) Wilkinson we signed the nailed down tape OK.
Organisers Richard Bowater and team had the weather well sorted. The wind was lovely and the air warm. One by one the balloons got pulled out in front of an oncoming bank of stuff which kept coming which a few hummed and ‘arred at. As the first inflated, Debbie Day if I recall, and floated idyllicly into the sky the wind decided on a one eighty. Blinding. Balloons were now getting their crown-rings stuffed in and trying to roll over cars, their crews desperately trying to act usefully on the crown lines whilst the pilots got frantic and yelled, bless them. Nonetheless most got airborne in this moment of mayhem whilst others rearranged themselves and had another go. We waited and despite a still fresh breeze, not helped by not having a scoop, managed to remove a bit of ripstop here and there but finally got the Hopper airborne. Like a homesick angel Sigmund sailed upwards and away. I pulled the map from under me bum and had a bit of a gander at the path. Seemed that beyond a rather grand estate lay a castle. “That would be neat”, I thought and set to getting there. In front were sheep, lots of sheep but beyond it looked like the field had been cut. In high to get the right and fall like a brick ought to nail I thought. The flag on the castle was a bit bonkers which gave a good clue to the surface wind. Erratic and gusty. I elected to cross the road and execute a plunge. So it was that I pulled in gob-fulls of ripline and did actually plunge somewhat unceremoniously downwards now with a load of Worcester valve fully open which was just sufficient to reduce a ‘Cripes this’ll hurt’ to this ‘might be an arrival’ sort of landing. Luckily no one else was near enough to see the crunch which involved a fair drag on account of muppet me strapping up too tight and being unable to kill the pilot light until it all fell over, which I deemed quite important. Never mind it ended quite quickly and painlessly and as I lay there amidst the cut grass, swifts whizzed past and over me at an alarmingly low level taking full advantage of the myriad of insects I’d managed to kick up. Admmitedly at a jaunty angle, beyond them, I was looking at a proper castle. I indulged the moment for longer than perhaps I should, much to the consternation of the neighbouring farmer who thought the landing had been terminal. Spacy. I then wandered to the stone wall and sat on it while Jane got back from the North York Moors and had a lovely chat to the cousin of the bloke whose sister had married the nephew of the bloke that owned the field and in whose cottage a visiting balloonist called Garry or Barry was staying. Small world.
Northern hospitality is exceptional and the Bedale meet is no exception. I went off to tank to tank then realised I had taken the wrong hose. Before you could say ‘mine’s a double’ I was presented with an adaptor then on returning to the refuelling area a pint of Black Sheep was on the tailgate. Thankyou. As the evening drew on and the midsummer sun finally bade a fond farewell while the last balloon presumably landed miles away large barbies, which had been lit earlier, became the focal point. All you needed to do was stick your chosen dead stuff on it and away you went. There were even people there that knew how to cook stuff on a barbeque such that food poisoning would not be an issue. There was also loads of ‘I bought too much’ for the scavengers. Inside the Club was a superbly tended bar that served proper ale, identified quickly as the source of the Black Sheep. Poured in the proper Northern way it started out as a glass full of froth that developed tantalisingly into exceptionally well kept ale. Happy? I was well chilled almost instantly and decided to check how consistent the service was. Fortunately it was.
Now just in case you ever think about kipping in a Landcruiser here is some advice. Don’t. It may appear the seats go flat but no, not really. Of all the cars I have ever had the misfortune of trying to sleep in this plush leather monstroucity is the worst even if you try and ease the pain by drinking lots. Jane gave up getting comfy and ended up taking the duvet and a random selection of cushions and slept soundly under the stars. I adopted a more pragmatic approach ensconced in a one-thing. Sleep, as we know it, Captain T Kirk, didn’t occur. The morning however did and at quarter past stupid o’clock a couple of balloons set of in the twilight on a night flight just as I was getting to grips with the sandman. I know who you were. Luckily I wasn’t armed.
As it happened the morning dawned quite fantastical and balloons wobbled off in all directions. It was quite bizarre. I’d agreed to do a check flight but on account of hours it became an Instructor flight, of sorts, with Terry Wetter. As an aside Terry checked out with Dave Court a couple of weeks later so hopefully the flight was useful! As we climbed out the launch field it became immediately apparent that this was truly a hopper morning. Had I been flying Sigmund I would have felt inclined to land in Bedale High Street and would have got a knock on the door as the CAA were there! Steerage? You could go where you wanted. Balloons fifty foot below us were going in a completely different direction whilst at around 8,000 foot the Cameron Demonstrator flown by the intrepid Craig (Cmoon) Moore was disappearing towards the North York Moors. Bonkers. After getting halfway back to the launch site and realising that we had neither fuel or daylight to make it we eventually plopped down in a rather nice field owned by the bloke we’d landed on the night before and, after some rather welcome help from Messrs Team Sackville, chucked it over the fence. Don’t you love a Lindstrand ’56. It had been a tricky flight and had it been a check flight I have to admit that I don’t think it would have been achievable even by a top flight competition pilot!
Prizegiving was about as relaxed as the rest of the meet and to be honest I really haven’t a clue who won what. Highlight clearly was Tim Wilkinson who very nearly set fire to his (Andy Kaye’s as it transpired) caravan after he left the kettle on and went flying. Luckily the smoke curling out the windows was spotted in time. The Met looked good for the evening but sadly we had to head south again as my pass didn’t extend to two full days and my dog had already texted Jane complaining that the cat was causing grief so with regret we bade our farewells. Now… just down the road past the Castle I landed by was somewhere called Well and I had noticed, sad as I am, that a Roman Bath site was indicated on the map which I had earmarked as a secondary target. Despite trekking up a long track we failed to find it only to discover in ‘Roman Remains in Great Britain’ that there is a bit of mosaic in the church and, in fact, Well is a noted Holy Well site in its own right so best go visit next year.
Naturally we were not on the route back to the A1 but by a nifty short cut back to it all would be well (no pun intended) but it wasn’t for somehow we went right instead of left but with all things spontaneous here’s the thing. As we were bidding a fond farewell to Phil Traviss he told us that he had landed on one of the Thornborough Henges from Bedale. I hadn’t realised the henges were so close by. Truth be told, apart from the fact they were in Yorkshire I had no idea about their actual location but knew of their history, or at least some of it. When we came upon a crossroads Jane, almost as an aside mentioned there was Henge marked on the map across the field and curiously another close by. We studied the map and lo’ and behold we’d only arrived at the Thornborough Henges. These were nearly excavated into oblivion by the quarrying of Tarmac Ltd but have now been saved. They are huge and make Stonehenge look like what Hayling Island is to Disneyworld. They make up the biggest set of henges in the world and date back to probably 3500BC. There is rather more than just coincidental evidence that links the layout to the three stars of Orion’s Belt along similar lines to the Great Pyramids making them also the earliest Orion Belt alignment. Whatever the case they are truly rather inspiring and somewhat overlooked and to put not too fine a point on it, basically unheard of. As we clambered up the bank of the centre one, which is easily accessible from the road, it was immediately apparent how huge the site is. This, combined with a lecture going on with a group from, what we could make out, Newcastle University, re-inforced the fact that we would have to revisit and that we owned a vote of thanks to Mr Traviss. I won’t explain here but it is now doubly important that I have a go at bell-ringing and next year we will most certainly be Henging it.
Our treat wasn’t quite over. As it ‘appened we had inadvertantlyt strayed so far from the A1 we simply decided that the easiest thing to do was drop down through Harrogate and pick up the M1 in Leeds. Little did we realise until we got going was the route of the Entente Cordiale tour de France Thingy and we were treated to every form of yellow bike and display from bunting to bikes hanging outside almost every shop and house and roundabouts planted in yellow. We started the weekend with bikes and bikes were guiding us back. How weird. Bedale then was truly brilliant and next year, if we get invited, we will take a proper balloon and do some serious flying. If you’ve never been to, or attended, any of the other local meets ‘up north’ then you really ought to give it a go. Did we mention Stumpy the pilot was there helping with the organisation? It turns out he’d diverted his flight from Copenhagen to Prestwick into Leeds International to be there, much to the consternation of his 737 plane-load of passengers who he’d sent off to the Thwaite Mills Museum.