One week ago on Wednesday 5th June I flew the the furthest I’ve ever flown, 163 km, or 101 miles (the unit I now believe UK PG XC flights should be measured in 🙂 ), from Hambledon Hill in Dorset to the most westerly point in Devon.
I took off at 1247 and landed almost six hours later in a tiny hamlet called Mead (near Welcombe) pretty much as close to the Atlantic Ocean as I could go without getting damp! I’d flown from Dorset, through Somerset, and all the way across Devon, and if I’d carried on over the wooded valley in the screenshot below as I was originally planning to, I would have landed in Cornwall!
It was an absolutely fabulous flight, starting with 30 mins soaring the lovely hill in the middle of the beautiful Dorset countryside, followed by a tricky first 30km flown with my good friends Ben Friedland and Graham Richards, followed by some wonderful flying in and around the edges of some clouds, followed by a succession of low saves across Devon, followed by some spectacular views of the west coast of Devon and the Atlantic… Just magical!
Here’s the story of the flight…
I’ve had my eye on Hambledon Hill for a couple of years now, but it wasn’t until Ali Florence’s 90km flight on 22nd September 2012 that my ears really pricked up! Yes, this site definitely has potential…! On the day before RASP was showing that the thermal strength and winds were going to be better down in Dorset than up at the Malverns, the other obvious choice in an ENE’ly, so I spoke to Ali in the afternoon to get the low down on the site. RASP was also showing some convergence setting up from the west Dorset coast and extending across Devon as far as the west coast. If, just if, I could connect with this dare I dream of reaching the coast…?
I did more planning that evening, which mainly consisted of trying to work out how on earth I’d get home should I end up on the coast. It wasn’t looking good – as far as I could tell the last train I could catch from Barnstaple was the 1916 via Exeter St Davids. The next one at 2024 would involve an overnight stay somewhere! Oh well, no need to worry about that, I’ll never get there…! However I did suss out where the railway line went through, and set a 105km declared goal at Crediton. That’d be a pretty tidy score!
Wednesday dawned bright and sunny and after a final conflab with the small Avon team we agreed that Hambledon was still the best bet. I finished a work call at 0945 and set off at 1000 to pick up Mike Humphries from Trowbridge. On the drive down we were a bit nervous that it was too windy, but a Wessex sitephone report from Shamus Pitts saying that the wind was 10mph on the hill reassured us.
As we approached the hill we could see someone flying (always a good sign!) so we parked and walked up the hill at a good pace! There were only a very few small clouds around at this time (about midday) so there was time for lunch and a chat with the locals.
I set up on the NE tip of the hill initially, but after a while it was clear that the wind was coming from round the corner so I upped sticks and moved. However when I laid out my glider again it was clear something had gone somewhat awry with my lines… Hmmm, how on earth did that happen? Ben was at hand to help and after disconnecting the risers and doing a bit of twisting and turning inside out we soon had it sorted…
I took off at 1247 but I must admit my launch left a little bit to be desired and I ended up needing to take up Ian Hobbis’ offer of a push off to avoid being blown back over the spine-back! Please don’t let it be one of those days when everything seems to go wrong!
Once off everything was fine and I joined the three or four others exploring the ridge. Ben, Graham, Rob Kingston and Mike took off soon afterwards, and it took about half an hour before Ben, Graham and I found a decent climb and decided it was worth going with. There were some clouds around now, but we found it slow going and only once during the first 25km did I get above 3000′! In fact it wasn’t until we were passing to the south of Yeovil at the 30km mark that I finally got to base at about 4000′.
We all took turns at widening the search around weak areas of lift – sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t, but we managed to hang on in there at the 2000-2500′ level for the best part of 1.5 hours!
By the time Ben and I reached base just past the reservoir Graham had pushed on a bit but decided to come turn round and rejoin us a couple of thousand feet lower!
I pushed on a little bit after this heading towards Crewkerne and was getting lower when I spotted Shamus landing a couple of kms ahead of me near Cricket St Thomas. Shamus had left the hill a bit before Graham, Ben and me but we hadn’t seen him at all so far, and it was a shame to see him down. But there was no time for sentimentality now – I was getting lower and really needed a climb! I was down to 1800′ (1100′ agl) as I crossed the A30 close to where Shamus landed, and down to 1100′ (700′ agl) a couple of minutes later when thankfully I found a beautiful climb which took me up to 3800′ in just a few minutes.
Up at base I had a wonderful time just enjoying playing around in the clouds whilst I let Graham and Ben catch up a bit.
If you’ve never experienced the joy of flying up the side of a cloud then you must do so – it is a truly magical experience!
The time was now 1515 (2.5 hours into the flight) and I was 48km straight line from take off, and during the next hour I followed a lovely line of clouds all the way to the M5 (80km) to the east of Tiverton. I was one thermal ahead of Graham who was in turn one ahead of Ben but I didn’t need company as it was easy to stay high.
Graham had caught up with me in terms of distance as we crossed the M5 but he was 1200′ lower as we glided over a huge area of shadow under a not very lifty line of clouds stretching into the distance towards Tiverton and beyond.
But it’s funny how the tables turn so often when cross country flying – by the time I passed over Tiverton I was down to 2000′ and needing a climb, whereas Graham, who had found a nice climb, passed 1-2kms north of Tiverton and was now 1500′ above me, albeit 5 minutes behind.
The ground rises to the west of Tiverton, and as the southern edge of the cloud shadow wasn’t far away on the higher ground it seemed as though the sensible thing to do was to push on towards it. By the time I was over sunny ground 3km further on I was down to 1300′ (900′ agl approx), but it didn’t take long before I found a lovely climb which took me back up to 4000′ over the next 12 minutes.
I’d been looking at the arrow on my Flymaster which points to goal (Crediton) and it was now saying it was approx 13km south of me out in the blue so seeing as I clearly wasn’t going to go for it I deleted the task. And now, instead of displaying the distance to goal, it displayed the distance from takeoff – 96km. Yahoo!, 100km was definitely in the bag!
So at 1643 after almost four hours flying I passed the 100km mark for the sixth time in my flying career – Ye hah! What a great feeling! What’s more, I was up at 3800′ and the sun was still strong and I wasn’t going to run out of land for at least another 60kms!
Graham was only 1.5km behind me at this point and five minutes later I heard him announce he’d done 100km too – a great birthday present for him!
Neither of us had heard from Ben for a while, and it he’d landed half an hour earlier with a straight line distance of 72km. He later reposted Alex Coltman’s quote on Facebook “I now know what it’s like to bomb at 70km”!
I glided a further 10km and was down to 1100′ (600′ agl) before I found another climb which topped out at 3,300′ and gave me some much needed breathing space, but it was at this point (1707) that Graham ran out of luck and landed after 113km straight line.
This time it was only 6km before I found another climb up to 4000′ and at 1730 I passed 124km straight line distance meaning that this flight was now going to be a new PB! By now I could see the sea and just about make out the golden beaches at Westward Ho! and Saunton some 25kms away, and I allowed myself a brief thought that I might just make it all the way to the coast! (Hartland Point and the west coast of Devon was still over 40km away and out of sight).
After a lifty 11km glide I found another nice climb and 15 mins and 6km later at 1800 I was super-high again at 4600′ and enjoying playing in the clouds once more.
By now the sea was only 20km away and clearly visible glinting in the late afternoon sunshine. If ever there was an incentive to keep going that was it, despite there being a distinct lack of seaside towns round there to find an ice cream vendor 🙂
My final climb of the day topped out at almost 4100′ at 1811 as I flew over the intriguingly named village Woolfardisworthy. I had now flown 152km which ticked another milestone, but more importantly I knew that 100 miles was a distinct possibility now!
I was able to stick with the last of the convergence cloud for another few minutes before it ran out, so at that point I headed W then SW towards the coast which was now only 10km away. I had a few more blips as I crossed the A39 “Atlantic Highway” at 1817, but essentially at this stage I was just looking at maximising my flight whilst not landing completely in the middle of nowhere (I knew 100 miles was approx 160km but wanted to make sure I did it by flying an extra couple of kms if possible)! I was conscious of the fact that I was a long way from Barnstaple station and was pretty much resigned to not making it home that night! Still, that’s all part of the adventure, so I wasn’t going to waste any time worrying about it!
I didn’t know it at the time but the Devon/Cornwall border runs along the middle of the wooded valley in the left of the photo above, and at one point I was going to head to the next cluster of houses further south (in Cornwall), however the roads from there to the main road looked more twisty so I headed to the little hamlet called Mead and used my last few hundred feet checking out which houses had cars in their drives, and eventually touched down at 1833 in the field just before the furthest houses you can see in the photo, where I’d spotted a house with a three vehicles in the drive.
Wow! Wow! Wow! Almost six hours in the air and 163km on the GPS, that has to be over 100 miles – I’d done it! What an amazing feeling!
But like all good XC flights the adventure doesn’t stop when you land, there’s the small matter of getting home to think about! I was clearly not going to catch the 1916 train from Barnstable given that I was almost 30 miles away! It didn’t even look likely that I’d make the 2024 either…
So the first thing I did, before even packing up, was to phone a contact in the North Devon Club, Ant Moore, to see if he could help in any way. Unfortunately he was busy but left a message with fellow N Devon pilot Chris Blanchard to give me a call.
Having set the wheels in motion I packed up as quickly as possible and knocked on the door of the house I’d spotted from the air. “Excuse me” I said, “I’m going to come straight to the point, I’ve flown here from Dorset by paraglider and need to ask you for a big favour, can you drive me to the main road please?” An initial look of confusion/”what right have you got to disturb my Wednesday evening” was rapidly replaced with an accommodating smile once he’d given me the once over and seen that I looked vaguely respectable. So a couple of minutes later I was in his car and proceeding on leg one of the big retrieve! As with most people he had no idea that you could fly so far on a paraglider.
He dropped me off at the crossroads at about 1915, and I immediately set to work writing “BIDEFORD / BARNSTAPLE PLEASE!” in marker pen on a sheet of A4 I carry with me for just this purpose, and after only a few minutes a girl in a campervan pulled up and said jump in. Yep, my luck’s in I thought, I might just get that train after all! (Jeez, what were you thinking I meant? 🙂 ) She was a physio student and was working at Bideford Hospital and said she’d drop me off at one of the roundabouts outside Bideford. Cool…
Chris got back in touch with me now and said he could take me to the station so I sent him a Glympse to give him my position, and I’d only been waiting at my appointed drop off position for about five minutes before he rolled up. Superb! Thanks very much to Chris, campervan girl, and Mead man for the lifts – they were very much appreciated!
Fifteen minutes later at 2010 Chris dropped me off at the station and I started texting a friend in Topsham to ask if he was around, and if so whether I might be able to stay for the night…
I’d texted my wife Lisa after I landed letting her know I was ok but saying I didn’t know when I’d get home, and she evidently hit the National Rail website because once I was on the train she texted me back with times of connecting trains at Exeter St Davids and Bristol Temple Meads – yay, it looks like I might be able to get home tonight after all, albeit at midnight!
So that’s about it really, it was a lovely train journey back to Exeter, passing through places I’d flown over three hours earlier, including my original goal at Crediton!
So after three lifts, two trains, one coach ride and finally a taxi from Bath Spa station I arrived home just after midnight, tired and hungry, but totally elated! what an awesome day!
Now, you might think that’s the end of the retrieve story, but no, it has a final twist in its tail! My car. Yes, what happened to my car? As it happens Mike Humphries enjoyed a nice 30km ish flight to Yetminster (south of Yeovil), and got a train some of the way home. His sister met him and drove him back to the hill, whereupon he drove my car back to his home in Trowbridge. So the last two legs of my retrieve were a final train journey from Bath to Trowbridge on Friday afternoon after I’d got back from a meeting in London, followed by me driving back home!
Is it worth all the hassle and expense? Yes, of course it is! Although I’m not sure my family would agree about that, after all, with this epic retrieve I’ve probably about £250 I’ve spent on retrieval train fares so far this year!
If you’ve read as far as this then here’s your reward – an edited seven minute video of the flight… Enjoy!