The Icicle has been part of balloonings’ heritage since it first started and over the years has become the national institution that reminds us that better is yet to come as the evenings draw out and the sun shines warmer. It’s a chance to meet up with friends old and new, check out the latest stuff on offer from the manufacturers and, weather permitting, go yahooing. It is one of the events we always try to get to even if the weather is less than favourable or only if its just for a day. The weather this year although not full on sunny did forecast light winds and a reasonable but challenging direction for the 2020 Icicle Re-Frozen Meet but, as mentioned, ground conditions were not great and for those free flying a landing spot would have to chosen with care. Stewpot and I trotted down on the Saturday without a balloon to see what was going on. Not a lot it transpired but it was nearly dinner o’clock. As we swept majestically up the driveway pausing to check for flying golf balls only two balloons were inflated, understandable as the ground, although quite well-drained was wet. Naturally one was a rusty BBML balloon being well clocked by spotters. We wandered over to the assorted chaps for a quick hello before heading for the good old breakfast trailer where we managed a couple of large bacon butties with onions, a traditional Berkshire delicacy we were told.
Now, in days gone by, the Icicle was always a well-attended very social affair helped by heavy frosts on occasions, even snow, but this year despite pockets of sunny it erred on grey with a slight dismal chill. The venue, on Donnington Grove’s golf course, is grand, the hotel itself, lovely with the meeting rooms snug and cosy full of balloon stuff and people chatting. There were plenty of faces some familiar, some not and some that very politely said hello but whose names I had to admit I had forgotten. We are getting that way don’t you know! The stalls had the same stall holders chatting amongst themselves and maybe turning a pound here and there. Pete Bish was on form delivering stuff ordered in advance and selling the odd tank strap but generally the Icicle is actually more social than business and this year there seemed to be fewer to be social with or buy stuff. Camerons and Ultramagic had stands, not sure if Kubicek did but Lindstrand Technologies were noticeably absent. I don’t think there were any insurance companies there nor did we have a stand. I don’t recall we ever did on account we were usually flying or tethering!
Part of the reason for my visit was a meeting with Messrs Wolstenholme, Kevin Meehan and Paul Spellward (who stoically gave a couple hours of his life explaining how little we really knew about the forthcoming Licence changes) to discuss exam questions and the approach to the CAA regarding Inspector-type nonsense for the rapidly approaching Part 66 engineer come inspector licences that will be with us very soon. It was the stuff of dreams when we were joined by the CAA’s Mark Shortman. Nice to see he does take an active interest in things ballooning even in the depths of winter. That done it was more hellos and socials which was nice. Thing is though, the Icicle has notably changed or maybe we have changed. The conditions didn’t help. No-one gets really enthused when its overcast and the remains of Christmas are sill loitering here and there. After another hour or so and not spotting Spencer Craze doing a deal and selling the old Fresh Air Balloon G-CCBB for a very fair price we said our farewells and headed back making the Black Boy at Oving in double quick time. We spent the journey discussing the Icicle and meets in general. Now Stuart hasn’t been to a balloon meet for years and because they fall in our busy period we don’t get to that many so maybe our musings were off scale but we both agreed that supping a fine pint or two of XT4 (Long Crendon Brewery) in front of a blazing fire was a good reason to go to any winter meet.
One thing that is well social though is the Dinner and this years didn’t disappoint. The speaker was well practised orator, Round the World pilot, Brian Jones who kept the guests entertained. The food was good and the event sold out so nothing wrong there then. The Icicle was saved from extinction a few years by the 3-4-40 Region after Pete Bish and the Dante Group retired from organising it, if memory serves. They flung themselves heroically into the task ensuring it wouldn’t fade into history and very successful they have been. Admittedly it would have been nigh on impossible for the Icicle to have remained just as it was because it was even back then, waning following a few years of bad weather. So why did we think it was lacking this year, and this is only the result of our short visit but just our take? Is it that it is too close to the New Year, possibly its just the weather or maybe the ground conditions. Ballooning in general is on the down in this country so maybe that is reflected. Perhaps its just that memory has become selective and in my mind it just isn’t what it was but is now what it is. “Get over it matey,” I hear you say and I have. Global warming and associated weather changes certainly mean that its probably unlikely that in the future we will get those cold frosty mornings but by jove if we did then it would be pure magic. For those that organise such events it is terribly time consuming and there is a lot to do so hats off to them.
Now, just to prove the point that we are clearly being too Old & Rusty I dropped a note to Geoff Lescott and got this lovely reply:
‘As I said in that article that I wrote for you when 3-4-40 took it over from Dante, an organiser probably isn't the most objective person to ask to review the event. That said, I think that it's fair to say that the whole committee felt that it was one of the nicest ones, not because of the flying (which was challenging) but on the social side. You quite rightly heard that the talk and dinner was well received and deep pockets provided Brian's two charities (Aerobility and Winds of Hope) with a boost of £780: with another donation going to the Donnington Grove staff for their superb and consistent help in running the place exclusively for us again. Event success to us? Total profit came to £7.13 properly reflecting our intention of running at break-even.
It's not my area, but the stalls tend to be rather static, or traditional depending on your point of view. It's unusual to get manufacturer participation in the depth that we manage, although Linstrand Technology were conspicuous by their absence this year, we don't charge them or any stall-holders for their pitches, so it's a free event for anyone with an interest in ballooning. We still have to pay for the room(s) hire, which takes a chunk of our income, as does the free tea and coffee. Apparently members of the public have now discovered this, but it might get them involved with balloonists, so that's a sort of out-reach if you like.
The hotel is consistently fully booked (only three rooms spare this year), mostly by the same people who come to the dinner and, unusually for balloonists, I never hear of any grumbles (apart from the weather, above my pay grade, sorry). So, are we catering for the ageing and well-off balloonists? The dinners and the balloon entries show participation levels are fairly evenly spread, certainly the last couple of years have seen many of the names of the younger generation appearing (these are often the same teams featuring in Aerostat articles recently). Balloonists seem to have affection for the event we run, so we're very happy that we are contributing to the UK ballooning scene alongside many other event organisers.’
So there you go. Had we turned up for the earlier flying (with a balloon!) or for the prize-giving on Sunday morning things were probably very different. That stalls are free ought to encourage more to turn up with stuff. All sorted. I’m back on course now, the Icicle is now back to being the prelude to sunny skies and gentle winds. As for all those that went this year they had a smashing time with the launchfield bacon butty van doing fantastic and the hotel lovely. Biggest thanks go to all those that ensured it didn’t just become a meet from the past. We’ll be there next year, hopefully with a Pete, balloon and with a better head on. Thankyou.
For the record over the weekend, Saturday saw seven balloons fly free namely G-CDUJ, G-CFXP, G-CHJM, G-CIRL, G-CLGB, G-JHAA, and G-STAV and 14 tether, G-AZKK, G-BBYL, G-BCAS, G-BCZI, G-BDUZ, G-BEND, G-BMKJ, G-BYNW, G-BZBJ, G-CCBB, G-CJRO, G-CLJL, G-CLKT and G-OSVO. On Sunday there were three flyers G-CETK, G-CINN and G-STAV with nine thethers to keep spirits up, G-BAXX, G-BWPP, G-BXBY, G-BXHL, G-CLGB, G-CLKT, G-GAGE, G-MUSM and HB-QAB. The piccies are; G-CIRL Mike Scholes and Debbie Day’s Ultramagic S-90 built in 2015 with Ron Griffin’s LBL 31A hopper G-CDUJ. G-OSVO Servo Connectors special shape hopper Cameron built in 1993, G-CINN Cameron Z-31 hopper Messrs Turner and G-BAXK Allan Snook’s ‘Newbury Balloon Group’ Thunder AX7/77 s/n005 first registered in May 1973 to Robin Wilson, James Woodhead and Allan Snook. Late News..The balloon being inflated by Martin Mitchell is G-BBYL a Cameron O-77 formally part of the Buckingham Balloon Club that I never knew existed!
Thanks to Sandy Mitchell for the stats and pictures. If you click on them they will go fullsize!