Why Trafalgar Day plus one? Well we missed celebrating it this year on account that we were too busy. As luck would have it though, it was Tessa Tennant’s birthday on 22nd October, the next day, and, as it turned out, a bit of a victory against the odds. Obvious then. Who is Tessa Tennant? Well she was instrumental in the success of the Hot Air Balloon Company, originally set up by Colin Prescott, which became the all encompassing Flying Pictures. Call me old fashioned. I really don’t mind but when someone plops something in front of you that is beyond discussion and you really understand who your friends are you take it to heart. So it was that when the phone’s red light flashed indicating that the secret emergency only number that only a few know had been activated and Mr Rawson was on the other end, we had to act. It transpired that Tessa had not only got sort of secretly married but was a tad poorly and as her birthday was coming up should in line for a bit of a surprise. What could we do? Would I help arrange something for Tessa? No need to ask it would be an honour. The heart duly stirred. How about a bit of a tether sort of thing? We needed someone to co-ordinate all of this so we enlisted a bit of a latter day PR guru in Lucius Peart, a bit of a mouthful of a luvvy name I grant you but, he was the one who got an awful lot of business for FP after he retired from being Robin Bachelor’s long suffering, ear-bent skivvy. He could be chief in charge sorting the site and letting the collective know. It was in the days of HABCo that I first met Lush, as he was fondly known. It was at the Surrey Show and he was crewing for Robin Batchelor. We invited him to join us for drinks with Derek Ricketts, a well known International Show Jumper, in his plush lorry. This phased him somewhat as balloons and horses do not get on and probably, we like to think, made him abandon crewing and move to somewhere a little more sane like the office!
We decided a grand tether would be the answer. How about we dig out the Heller shapes and a few surviving HABCo envelopes, but its not that easy to decide quite what would be appropriate for someone that has really spent her life mulling over, approving and sorting out the ramifications, permutations and combinations of the mixed egos that seem to fill ballooning. Appeasing the skygods (both male and female) along with clients, press events and attention grabbing stunts whilst balancing the books and maintaining the status-quo but that is exactly what Tessa did and she did it very well indeed. We all owed her an awful lot whichever way you looked at it. The first job I ever did for HABCo was overseen by Sean Byrne, sent by Tess to crew for me and check to ascertain if I was suitable. It was a tether at a weird new town called Thamesmead in London. Actually it was very windy but the locals and the food, predominately Caribbean, was great. We did thrash a balloon about, can’t remember which one and it isn’t written down. Somewhere in the afternoon we unknowingly got poisoned by a passing chemical cloud which had escaped from a nearby refinery which made the National News. Everyone there had a sore throat for a week. Still, it got the balloon on the telly. This was how it would continue, much to my delight. I had been ballooning for a very short time when I accepted the HABCo challenge and immediately found myself amongst the most brilliant and extrovert bunch of kindred souls I had ever met. I had to learn an awful lot awfully quickly but I needn’t have feared. We did fly well outside the box (or whatever the balloony term is) and we did indeed learn an awful lot but what we certainly did was never stop learning. To say it was an experience would be a bit of an understatement. Before I knew it I was flying to countries various and mixing with true professionals, pandering to the press, learning about sound bites, entertaining the rich and famous along with lovely normal people who could not believe they had ‘won’ a flight in a balloon. If I needed help or support I got it. Getting the press was the key to success and we certainly tried our hardest to do that! We had a few problems along the way but surprisingly few mishaps. In Birmingham. “Hi Tess, we’ve got the balloon up in Victoria Square but the mayor isn’t opening the Soviet Exhibition until tomorrow”. In Leicester, “Tess. Where’s the balloon? It isn’t in the trailer.” Somewhere up north with Shell Unleaded. “This filling station we are supposed to tether at. Its an Esso garage.” Somehow though it all turned out alright in the end. It was always a challenge and the best thing was that everyone always helped everyone else. We all knew what we were doing even if it didn’t always seem that was the case! On top of all this we we were paid, got expenses and drank copious amounts of champagne before nine o’clock in the morning. Unbelievable. All this was thanks to Tessa Tennant.
It had to be kept top secret. What we had to do was get a site. Normally we blagged our way into anywhere. “Let’s just turn up.” I suggested. Lou, her better and wiser half, was concerned that it would cause problems. Sadly times have changed and the first choice, immediately in front of Lou and Tess’s house, which could have taken half a dozen balloons at least ended up being off limits as glowing balloons would, we were told, confuse approaching liners to Southampton. Stuff of bonkers but Lou knew a bloke who had a cottage-let by the seaside with a pub two minutes walk from it that would be perfect. Well it would be if it wasn’t by the old salt pans, half a mile from the Solent and surrounded by flat land. Lush sent me a mail with some pictures. “Will this be OK?” We satellited it on Google. We laughed. We replied that as usual it was orientated all wrong for the prevailing wind and far too small so of course it would be fine. Three balloons would fill it twice over. Which balloons would we use was the next question? Well, Mercier (G-BUBL) was the obvious first selection as it was champagne and was the first contract filched by HABCo and it was always the pilots’ preferred balloon as you got to drink champagne and as Ashers had done the French Connection and Bubbles stunts in it (amongst others) he could tether it. Smirnoff (G-BIDV) came in second as Colin Prescott had managed to get a whole lot of mileage from the contract and really put their slogan ‘anything could happen’ on the map. My choice was ‘Elle’ (G-BKOW) or ‘Fleur de Lys’, whatever. It was really the first house balloon, the first commercial one I crewed with and Robin Batchelor had crashed it into the Matterhorn. That was the balloons and pilots sorted. All we needed to do now was find them! The calls and mails went out. It turned out that Smirnoff and Mercier were in the British Balloon Museum & Library Collection and stored at David Hopkins Pidley Golf Centre. Those lovely BBM&L folk said that would be fine so Polly and headed off to collect them. Sandy Mitchell found Elle resting with Richard Gahan and Trevor Gibbs. Trevor told us it was a tad smelly but we’d be welcome to use it and Richard very kindly arranged to get it down somewhere nearer to Mr Rawson. Sweet. We sorted a couple of bottom ends and a hopper bottom end that Colin would understand. Andy lent us a big trailer and Paul and I got everything loaded. Andy would bring Elle. We were sorted. Now we needed to sort the sky.
Where was I? Ah yes. I have always been a realist but with underlying traits of fatalism but in a good way. Means nothing I’m sure but if you want something to happen you’d better jolly well realise that if don’t make an effort nothing will indeed be what happens. The weather would be just fine because whatever the outcome we would pull something off but it would be better if it was conducive to ballooning. I pass a tree full of hobbits, goblins and fairies most nights. You greet them with a fond hello but don’t make too much noise if its daylight. I had a word. “Shouldn’t be a problem,” they said. “But don’t bank on it.” said a short fat fellow smoking a clay pipe. I did though and left them a shiny lucky marble. The due day, 22nd October, was now but a week away. Her birthday was on the Saturday but the Friday was shaping up to be better. Another word was had, another marble left. We decided to go for the Saturday evening regardless. The troops were rallied and told to meet at the Chequers Inn just outside Lymington about fourish. Paul, Greg, Jane and I got there just after. First person we saw, or rather her grinning face, was Trish Watkins who had parked and stepped into a ditch. Nothing had changed and we were soon in the bar all merry and jolly and formulating a plan. Lush, Pauly and I wandered down to inspect the field, Mr Rawson chose to drive. Disappointingly I couldn’t see the sea only the tops of the sails of yachts. The paddock was quite small but the word ‘pretty’ didn’t do it justice. The grass was freshly mown and the small trees surrounding it the most autumnal you could image. Add to this a clear blue sky and things were looking very good but there was a breeze. As we stood there and decided what might go where the wind went to zero. Just like that, Straight up zero. Absolute flat calm. What tiny drift there remained ran down its length. It was uncanny. Lush called Lou. He would bring Tess down for seven by which time we would have all the balloons inflated. They would stay inflated until all the champagne was drunk, we ran out of fuel or everyone had had enough and gone home. We returned for a swiftly and try and get things moving.
It is quite few years since the days of the circuit but for everyone (apart from Robin of course) it went like clockwork. Balloons were unpacked, baskets rigged, tether lines laid, fans started and burners ignited. No one told anyone what to do (apart from Robin who was ignored). Everyone helped everyone. Mike Moore tried to get a tenner off of each pilot for the ‘Follow the Bear’ challenge whilst Powelly, formally from the office, asked if anyone needed anything. Stevie Maynard, complete with enchanting family, Blev, Thomas Wilson, Hev Philp, Jane, Andy Marten, Malcolm Campbell, Sue Carden, Trish, Dave Eager, Whizz and Jenny, Rawson, Paul and Greggy, the Dangerous Brothers and Lush, amongst others, were busy being efficient crew and blow me down as the balloons went up there was Medlock who’d flown in from Africa. We’d had some laughs. He once took out the electric to the Newbury Show and the Chieveley Services on the M4 (which had to close) when the bottom of his basket clipped power wires. I’d thought the flash was the pressman’s camera so got everyone to wave at him. In the background were friends and family aplenty along with Mr and Mrs Muir Moffatt from Bristol, obviously impressed with the pure professionalism. Clicking away on the camera was Sandy Mitchell and her other half, Martin. We sorted out Robin’s basket, explained that he had the vapour hose connected to the wrong fitting, where the igniter was and told him that too much talking and not enough burning would mean that Elle would probably fall over. Colin was concerned there was no seat for Smirnoff but we’d thought that would be a good idea and left him happily holding onto his old friend by the tank rim. Captain Ashpole was as ever already tethering away like a good one with Mercier looking well up for a flight before anyone realised it. The wind? Well even the drift had gone. Conditions were better than perfect. Lou swept through the gate with Tessa and within a minute or two she was out the car in a Joe Philp sort of way and amongst the throng who spontaneously broke into ‘Happy Birthday to you’. Corks popped and everyone was chatting and smiling and generally beaming. Tess did the rounds. Clearly she hadn’t expected this at all. The secret had been well-kept, the surprise total. Andy Rawson took over from Ashers who found some more champagne. Dave Eager took over from Rawson. Neither Robin nor Colin were leaving their charges until all the gas had gone. Tessa was taking it all in her stride. Nothing to this commercial ballooning stuff. I have to say it was really very lovely not least the colours of the trees as the glowing balloons lit them up. Smirnoff understandably was the first to deflate but Elle marched through its fuel like a champion and was down shortly after. Last standing was Mercier which kept the show going and provided light to pack away the other two. Eventually, as the evening chill settled in, Lou and Tess bade their fond farewells to everyone and, like royalty, she waved goodbye from the car window her face beaming and headed for home. Job done.
A short time later everything was packed away, loaded up and strapped down and farewells said. It had, we all agreed, been a resounding success. Some headed off to Colin’s for a knees-up but as it was always customary that following a Show we would all congregate at a pub, usually chosen by Mike Moore, most of the rest of us including Mr and Mrs Muir headed for The Mayflower in Lymington. Initially we succeeded by not finding it but a kindly local escorted us there. Nice place Lymington. By the time we arrived the car park was full but Pauly managed to get the large trailer into a disabled bay or two and across the ‘Do Not Block the Gate’ sign. Inside the beer was flowing. Very expensive beer at that, but this was, we were told, Lymington. The food was very good. Honestly we had only planned to have the one but it was great to meet up properly now and soon the stories were flowing and we were catching up on the gossip. Nothing much had changed really not even John Medlock who was flying back in a couple of days. He really had just decided he ought to turn up. Mike Moore was still Mike Moore, him Malcy the Bear and Blev joyously winding each other up to the merriment of all. One of these days we’ll have to try and write it down but may well have to leave quite a bit out lest we get sued. Eventually we bade our farewells and headed back. Paul drove and Greg chatted away in the passenger seat. I sat in the back as usual with Jane. Apart from Jane being there it was like yesterday. On the road I’d sit in the back and read guidebooks and point out famous landmarks or places we ought to visit. Pauly and Greg took turns in driving, looking after Spike and in the main ignored me. We’d had a marvellous time both then and now. The weather? Coincidence? I’d like to think so but to be honest, and as an insurance, tomorrow I would go and say thankyou to the elves, imps and goblins. Happy Birthday Tess.
I have to say that it was a lot harder and took a lot longer to write this than I thought and as a result getting it posted got delayed. Sadly Tessa passed peacefully away on the 23rd December with Lou by her side. We would like to think she enjoyed her birthday present. She certainly had a very huge smile on her face and we certainly all enjoyed creating it! It was a huge pleasure to give her something back. Dave Eager sent a note a couple of days later that really did sum it all up. Thankyou. Driving back on Saturday night I came to the conclusion that I had just been lucky enough to play a small part in the most important event ever staged by the world’s best balloon company for its most important client. It was just very very …….. (I’m struggling think of the right word to describe it because it’s a word that should describe a myriad of emotion from tears and laughter at the same time ) to see everyone again and witness the way it all came together with the same humour and natural teamwork – despite dodgy knees, failing eyesight etc. Special thanks should go to you all without whom we’d have sung happy Birthday in an empty field. I owe a more general but equally special thank you to everyone on this distribution list and beyond it for helping an amateur pilot out of various scrapes over the years. The feeling of inflating Jaguar on a ludicrously windy Bristol Fiesta site and finding so many extremely competent people quietly step alongside me helping make sure the whole thing was professionally under control so that I didn’t cock it up was always very reassuring. Thank you! Best Regards David.