You know how it is: the movie’s just getting to its climax when two shouty people in an air balloon crash into the hedge at the bottom of your garden.
What to do?
Most people would have carried on watching, of course. Natural human emotions take over and eyes become even more firmly glued to the TV screen. But I’ve never been one for following the herd. So grabbing my mobile and switching it on I hot-footed it through the conservatory and down to the scene of the action.
Gardens and balloons may not seem likely bedfellows. And you might be forgiven for thinking that by September 5th, 2021 balloon technology would have moved on somewhat since the early days of Montgolfier et al. (You might also have thought that my phone would have been ready for photographic action by the time I got to the scene; but no, still loading). The only thing that had moved on was in fact the balloon itself.
By coincidence, a few days later I happened to be thumbing through our family archive compendium of 1836 editions of Bell’s Weekly Messenger, and there, in the September issue – almost exactly 185 years ago – was an account of the ballooning exploits of one Mr Charles Green (excerpt below).
Far from crashing into a garden, Mr Green chose Vauxhall Gardens as the launch pad for his ascent, which the Messenger’s reporter described as “… most magnificent: directly the word was given to cast off the last rope by which the balloon was restrained, it shot with velocity from the earth , and mounted high in mid-air, in the direction towards Tunbridge, shifting its course from east to south-east. The shouts of the multitude, and the clang of the military band which was stationed in the grounds, accompanied its flight. The aeronauts waved their hats and flags and continued rapidly to rise. A grander sight can hardly be conceived”.
The first we knew of “our” balloon was a whooshing and grinding sound, which I later put down to the basket dragging along neighbours’ hedges and the basketeers switching on the flame-thingy to try to regain height. But then the almighty sight of this huge balloon came slowly into view from stage left, just about blocking out the sky between the two birch trees completely. Shame I didn’t get a shot of that but here’s a photo of the area in question …
I gather, by the way, that the tactic of “planned collisions” with hedges is accepted by the hot air ballooning community as a routine way of reducing touchdown speed in times of trouble, albeit that, when used, it doesn’t always have a happy ending. And I’ve found no research on the opinion of hedge owners!
In the field, the balloonists seemed to be having problems taking back control …
Meanwhile, back in 1836, Charles Green hadn’t finished. He undertook more airborne adventures in the ensuing weeks and, by November, was ready for the flight that would ensure his name entered the history books. The Royal Vauxhall Balloon Ascent took place on Monday, 7th November, 1836, and set a world record for manned flight which would last until February 1914, almost eighty years.
Accompanied by fellow intrepid aeronauts Robert Hollond (who funded the enterprise) and Irish writer and musician Thomas Monck Mason, together with over a ton of supplies and ballast, Green piloted the balloon some 480 miles, eventually landing about six miles from the town of Weilburg in the Duchy of Nassau in Germany. Such was the skill, bravery and vision of Green and his colleagues that his flight has been commemorated in a host of different ways, as described in this excellent account on the Vauxhall History website.
The momentous flight didn’t escape the attention of the journos at Bell’s Weekly Messenger, either. In the November 12th edition, they published this update …
Intrepidness (intrepidity?) seemed to be in somewhat short supply in the meadow, as the balloon finally came to a bumping halt. There had been much digging-in of heels, many random bursts of flame, much yanking on guy ropes and eventually numerous calls to onlookers of the “Can you give us a hand, please?” variety. (Looking back, I take some comfort in noting that our trees weren’t set alight).
I’ll never know if the pilot and passenger felt that they had let themselves down. But I’m pretty sure Mr Green would have been less than impressed.