It had started well enough the evening before. Richard Simpson had finally got to a stage where he needed a check flight to re-validate his licence. You’ve got it, he’d been out of ballooning for years, his kit languishing in the trailer. This was in no part thanks to a bit of a medical problem but he decided early on that once that was sorted he would get his kit back into an airworthy state and ask for his licence back. He’d been part of the Steve Humphries and Clive Perceval group. Steve hung up his quick release some years ago but still makes a guest appearance from time to time and Clive is about to get back into the air also after a long absence keeping his hand in by going out and about crewing and flying with for Richard. We’d agreed to meet up at Missenden. The weather was perfect the direction well good. It was a family affair, dog and all. Ken Lowry had called over to pick some kit up and was looking to fly but the direction from his turf was naff so he opted to join us at the Black. Choosing not to bother with a retrieve but attempt a Horse and Hound on us and get a lift back we wobbled into the most pleasant of evening skies. The flight although most pleasurable was, like Richard’s flying, unremarkable. Eventually he realised that he could climb to altitude and descend again and in-between keep straight and level. We sailed over daughter’s boyfriend’s family home their garden on fire from what appeared to have once been a barbeque. They waved and shouted strange things. Right in front of us was Bovingdon Airfield and off to our left Ken busy taking selfies. Now, we’ve often landed there and it was in fact where Robin Batchelor landed the first time I retrieved for him so clearly has historic overtones. It was also very big so down we came in for a fine landing on the old runway by the equally famous VOR Bovingdon Beacon still in use by stacking Heathrow aircraft . Apart from Robin Batchelor landing there it also famous as the location for the film 633 Squadron and Battle of Britain and when I was a small child Ansons would fly over to RAF Halton to give the apprentices air experience flights and, of course, Freddie Laker set up his company Aviation Traders there in 1947. I remember going there with my dad in 1960 to the one and only air display they held there. It was brilliant. These days it is largely derelict although there is now a very large prison built in one corner and markets are held there from time to time. We used to look after the horseboxes of the local farmer that owned most of it so landing there ought to be simple. Although oblivious of the history this was clearly the conclusion Ken had also come to although he was a way away on the far side of the place. We were but a hefty stone’s throw from the Market Gates but understandably they were locked. We then sent Richard’s lads off to recce the far end gates, that would keep them quiet, and meanwhile his missus nipped round smartish like to the prison just in case they had a key. I set about phoning Alice as I was pretty sure the farm behind her boyfriend’s family home was owned by the same chap whose mum’s trailer we used to do. Eventually Alice looked up the booking number for the Sunday market and it was the son of the woman whose husband farmed the airfield and he was on his way with a key. With this so far? We were out but Ken wasn’t having much luck apart from finding the White Hart, Whelpley Hill’s fine village pub, having seemingly walked several miles. Where he was, it turned out, was totally fenced in and locked up. The bloke that owned it owned the pub as well but he couldn’t be contacted. After much debate over a nice pint or two and as no one in the pub thought there would be a problem we decided to return in the morning and fly it out.
So that is just what we did. Bless, Clive and Richard plus families various joined us in the pub carpark at early doors and helped trolley a spare cylinder of fuel and a fan in. He was a good half a mile in but it was a calm still morning so there weren’t going to be any problems. Half an hour later Ken was drifting, solo, towards Berkhamsted and freedom. After trekking back out we eventually got loaded up and followed. Now the surrounding area is well wooded and we were a fair way behind him so not surprisingly we learnt he was down by phone. “I’m in Ashridge College,” he gallantly informed us. “Which Ashridge?” we asked. Eventually a map reference was forthcoming and off we went arriving outside the extremely splendid Ashridge House home of the Business School and the largest neo-Gothic style mansion in Britain. Ken was at a small side gate to greet us. “Its all closed up and I can’t find anyone.” He pronounced. Sounded familiar. He led us to his point of impact. He was indeed in the College. He was on the most beautifully manicured lawns you can imagine, the heart of their renowned garden designed by no less than Humphrey Repton in the early 19th century. We looked at each other and tutted and winced. This was not looking very promising and he was probably now in another dilemma. “Bugger.” muttered Ken. Small is good so we made the balloon look less imposing by packing it away and putting it all neatly in one place. Then while the team searched for signs of life round the back of the huge house I elected to follow the sign that said ‘Reception’ and met a charming lady to whom I explained our dilemma. “That’s not a problem,’ she smilingly said and off we went to effect a rescue. Now, not only did she show our Richard the way but invited him to drive his Landrover with Ken’s trailer in close formation onto the lawn to pick up the balloon. “The gardeners drive tractors on it,” she explained so you won’t do much harm. We thought a mere modicum of harm would send the gardeners bonkers but as she was insistent, with care and trepidation, Richard crossed the perfection that was the lawn. We explained how it was that Ken had ended up there and she explained that she was the General Manager of the site and had been up most of the night as a water main had burst and despite a repair being made it had gone pop again. It was now a Sunday so things were not looking good as the Water Board, or whatever they are called these days, couldn’t do anything until Monday at best. She had a rather different option in mind which I rather thought the Water Board, if they wished to remain unharmed, ought to heed.The diversion had clearly worked in our favour. Big thankyous were made, group photos were taken and phone-numbers exchanged (this would be a perfect launchsite) and we bade our farewells and headed off to return the extremely grateful, relieved and very fortunate Ken back to Whelpley and breakfast. It had certainly been an adventure but a couple of days later things were to change dramatically and a whole new spin put on the matter. Mark the-very-unlikely-estate-agent Whitewood, called by to pick up a refuelling hose. He’d flown that evening but after us and put down shy of Bovingdon as the wind dropped out. The events of our and Ken’s flights were recalled. “I fly from Bovingdon,” he happily explained, ”Yes, I’ve just bought a house a few doors down from the White Hart and have a key to the land behind. The bloke that owns it keeps it all locked up you know? Nice chap but not around that much.” We did and had a jolly good chuckle and at the time decided it was best not to tell Ken. So Ken, if you ever want to fly from Bovingdon we know a bloke that has a key and will happily let you. (o: