Well it was bound to happen sooner or later as all good things eventually come to an end so it was that on Sunday 4th January 2015 during the prize-giving at the end of this year’s 43rd Icicle Meet Pete Bish on behalf of the Dante Group called time on this much-loved meet. I have extremely fond memories of it first with Blackpool Pleasure Beach on a flight that took us along the edge of Salisbury Plain then later with Phileas Fogg and HABCO with Mr Flame. We’ve seen many a maiden fly or should that be maiden flight from Bradford’s Farm over the years. Flying a hopper one year we ended up landing outside a pub somewhere or other, the owner busy cleaning the bar. We ended up lighting the fire and got back to the Elcot or it may have been the Swindon Hilton, can’t remember, somewhat later. We even saw an airship end up in the trees. Blinding. One year I had my haircut and went in suit. Most people thought I was from the CAA. Lucuis Peart once bought this funny little handbag dog with him. The consummate yuppie he was not despite appearances. We hung it off the scaffolding outside Hungerford Town Hall the venue of the Trade Show. Actually thinking about it that was the best venue of all as Hungerford boasts some extremely fine pubs. We ended up with a trailer and pickup full of logs that year.
The reasons for the end of the Meet in its current form, are numerous and some personal but thankfully Dick Plume, on behalf of Dante Balloon Group, explained that the main factors that influenced the difficult decision were the decreasing numbers of Dante members, remembering the sad loss of Alec Jenkinson and Pete Hornfeck, and reduced mobility and availability of others along with the loss of the Savernake launch site, which made the last two meets much harder to organise. This, compounded with the probable loss of the trade show room at The Elcot Hotel through redevelopment during the course of 2015 and the huge expansion locally in sport shooting and the money it generates on the estates of the area, making landing sites without aggravation, more difficult to find. Apart from the meet itself it is also regarded by many as the social event of the year frequented with by many a retired balloonist. Following the announcement Pete started the second part of prize-giving by asking for a show of hands from anyone who had been to the 'full set'. Only John Baker, John Green and Pete himself, of those who were present, could claim that, with Mike Glue on 42 just missing out on a case of Bolly! Pete then went on to say that in Desert Island Disc style, the Icicle Meet was created by the Dante Group in 1973, probably at the suggestion of Phil Dunnington, the first Chairman. Phil is currently in Myanmar, not quite a desert island, but at least he has his luxury item - Allie!
The Icicle Meet started very much as a balloon meet with little organised socialising other than an informal prize giving held on Sunday lunchtime in the bar at The Red House. The 20-something year old Dante members and partners camped en-masse in the loft of one of the barns! Compare that with recent years where the social side has taken over, with crews staying at The Elcot, the Trade Exhibition, and the Saturday night dinner with after-dinner speaker. Where any flying did take place, whilst important for some, it is now regarded, by most, as a bonus. In between, during the heyday of private ballooning in the 1980s and 1990s over 100 balloons would attend, with 1989 being the peak year with 143 different balloons making 146 free flights. The flying sites have been Bradford's Farm, Marsh Benham, Berkshire (20 years), Warren Farm, Savernake Forest, Wiltshire (21 years), Marlborough Common, Wiltshire (2014 only) and Folly Dog Leg, Hungerford, Berkshire (2015). Most launches at the 1975 meet took place from Tottenham Park, Savernake, although the briefings and base were at Marsh Benham. Social venues have been The Elcot, Newbury College, Hungerford Town Hall, the Newbury South Hilton and the Swindon Hilton, before a return to The Elcot. The Icicle Dinners started in the late 1990s and speakers have included Alan Noble, Anthony Smith (2), Phil Dunnington (2), David Hempleman-Adams, Brian Smith, Tim Orchard, Jim & Mike Howard, Marc Pacan, Robin Batchelor (3), Alan Carter, Chris Dunkley, Colin Wolstenholme and Pete Bish.
Over the years, particular stalwarts have been David and James Liddiard for use of their farms, David Smith for a lot of farmer relations work, John Green for countless trophies and Celia Kunert for organising the social side of the meet. Pete Bish has for the most part been the front man for the meet, assisted by other members including John Crawford for the met, Ian Culley sorting NOTAMs, Roger Kunert for maintaining an up to date set of maps, Dick Plume for Safety along with setting tasks, prizes and balloon registrations, Mike Drye for stickers and signs and, of course, all the other members of The Dante Balloon Group who fulfilled all the other essential roles in the organisation and running of the meet.
As for the 43rd and final Dante Icicle Meet, we ventured down on Saturday, courtesy of Mr Attwood in his impressive Audi high performance tank in rain and clag. The Elcot was surprisingly, or rather not surprisingly, quiet but by late afternoon a strong compliment of guests started arriving ahead of the Dinner this year featuring a talk by Robin Batchelor on gas ballooning. Trade was slow but some old faces were spotted not least Ray Bailey who appeared exactly the same as he had the first time I met him, Derry Moore now probably a 100, the oldest holder of a Class2 medical, apparently, and Tom Sage who told me who he was which was a surprise. Cameron Balloons had a stand there an left their new lightweight 31 in the middle of the floor which I immediately didn’t spot and fell over it. Sunday dawned foggy which was predictable despite the Met sort of suggesting for a while that there may be a clear slot if we were lucky. We elected to stay in the fog bound Chilterns but the Folly Dog Leg field, just down the road from Pete Bish’s recently re-opened Tally Ho! local, probably the reason the Folly was chosen in truth! Despite the very inclement weather, an extremely wet launch field, along with the chill of the fog lingering all day Sunday and socking the Folly Dog Leg in an impressive number of hardy souls turned up and seven balloons ended up tethering with two balloons ‘hopping’ in a valiant bid for a prize or two. Derry Moore took the opportunity to officially hand over his venerable old Thunder G-LORY to its new owner Mike Woodcock from Grinstead. G-LORY is a Thunder AX4-31Z built in 1978 currently on 78 hours and flying well. To celebrate the occasion it was duly hopped along with G-CHEL a Thunder 77B from 2000. Enjoying its maiden inflation was G-CILO, Andrew Collett’s Cameron TR70 registered on the 4th December 2014, whilst the nearly ‘as new’ Cameron Lightweight O-31, G-CIJJ was put on a bit of string for all to marvel at and as a comparison G-CINN the Z-31 of Team Turner was stood up. Not to be outdone Tom Hilditch showed off his Airtour 31 (Annex2) lovely G-BKVY and Peter Gooch put some air into G-BHHN a rare, “They don’t make them like that anymore.” 1979 Viva 77. Also spotted was Edren Homes balloon G-EDRE a Lindstrand 90A and that old perennial operated by the gallant BT Boys, G-ZOIZ.
It was then all back to the Elcot for the prize-giving. Furthest travelled went to Ann Rich who came down from a place near Stockport. The main flying task involving six figure map reference went rather refreshingly to Mike Woodcock who managed two hops so thrilled was he with his new balloon G-LORY and as abonus he got the prize for the oldest balloon there. Peter Gooch got an honourable mention as his 1979 Viva celebrated 35 years to the day of its maiden flight, nice one. Somewhat expectantly as it was brand new the Smartest balloon Award went to Andy Collett for his first inflation of his new balloon G-CILO. Richard Parry as always got a prize for flying a very short distance without an intermediate, enough said. The Newest pilot at the Icicle Award went to Peter Gregory who checked out in September 2014and got his licence issued on his 17th birthday. Good shout. The finale which was, as is traditional, to award the Marsh Benham Trophy (for services to ballooning in the Newbury Area) which most fittingly went to David Liddiard who was ‘so receptive to the bunch of youngsters who came along to see him in 1972 and ask to fly from his farm, base their balloons there, and most importantly hold Icicle Meets there, and dramatically change the second half of his life...!’ Well that was that then we can only say a very, very sincere thankyou to all those that gave us all a great excuse to go flying in the dead of winter and even when it wasn’t flyable, a venue to meet up with old friends.
Just when they thought it was all over and it turned out that the Icicle story may not be quite over, a new chapter is in the offing. A few weeks later the 3.4.40 Region BBAC announced that they’d be delighted to take it on and have offered a successor to the Icicle Balloon Meet with promises of a very exciting venue that will provide accommodation, Saturday dinner, the venue for the Trade Show and, of course, flying. Full details are expected in the coming months. Colin Butter reported on behalf of the 3.4.40 Region that, ‘In taking on this significant slot in the ballooning calendar we would like to pay tribute the work of the Dante Balloon Group over the past 43 years and thank them for their help and support with the new event’. Will it still be called The Icicle? Who knows we will just have to wait and see.
Photos courtesy of Pete Bish and Sandy Mitchell.