It’s the afternoon of Friday 27th May and my grown-up daughter and some of her friends are taking over our house in Bath for the weekend, so Lisa and I have found ourselves temporarily homeless! Well, not that homeless fortunately as Lisa’s driving down to Ringstead (near Weymouth) in our campervan, and I’m making my way to Leckhampton Hill (near Cheltenham) by foot and train with my volbiv gear. We both arrive at our respective destinations at about 1930 and post the obligatory sunset photos on our family Telegram group – my son replies dryly “spending some time apart are we?” Not too long apart if all goes according to plan, which is for me to fly the 140kms down to Weymouth to meet up with Lisa the next day… what could possibly go wrong?!
My friend Will Clive joined me later, and with the temperature dropping rapidly despite the warming effect of my essential volbiv whisky, we retired to our tents at 2315 hoping for a good night’s sleep and an epic day tomorrow!
Saturday dawned bright and quite breezy but by 1100 the wind had dropped and the hill was getting busy with at least 30-40 hopefuls laying out their kit over most of the take-off area.
I took off at 1145 with a 151km goal near Portland Bill set on Flyskyhy, and was rewarded three minutes later with a tricky slope landing! (NB. Leckhampton has no official landing field)
Half an hour later I was back on take-off again and ready for another bite of the cherry. The first seven minutes were pretty tense, flying low over the trees to the left of take-off, just about maintaining height, but then BOOM, five minutes later a dozen of us found ourselves in the wispies at 4300’ amsl after one of the fastest climbouts I’ve ever experienced in the UK.
But 20kms and 35 minutes later, and after one low save below 1000’ agl under a shaded sky a few kms back, I found myself down at 500’ agl close to Aston Down Gliding Club after detouring to avoid Kemble airspace. Ken (Wilkinson) had just landed, and Ludek (Munzar) was about to, and I didn’t want to join them and face the ignominy of catching the train of shame down to Weymouth!
I spotted some gulls climbing low over a field and in a last ditch attempt to stay airborne, I headed towards them and was rewarded with a scrappy climb that eventually consolidated over the next fifteen minutes into a slow but steady climb up to 3700’amsl where I met up with Adam (Reynolds), Zsolt (Gaspar), and Rafal (Talarek) again. Phhh-eewwww!
However one thermal later we were down to 1200’ agl over Hullavington airfield scratching around in weak lift once more…
I decided to leave the other guys and push on towards some sunshine just to the SE of M4 Jn17, and after a brief hunt found a climb that took me up to 4800’ amsl, my highest so far. The next 16kms were plain sailing, passing Chippenham, Melksham, Bradford-on-Avon and Trowbridge never getting below 3000’ amsl. I think Rafal had landed by now, but Adam and Zsolt were hot on my tail, half a thermal behind.
But all good things tend to come to an end, and approaching Beckington (near Frome) after 66kms, the ground was looking far too close once again! The loud scream of a motorbike on the bypass only served to reinforce my precarious situation!
I’ve had low saves over pig farms before, so in the absence of any other options (ie. sunshine, birds climbing etc), I headed over it, and sure enough a scrappy climb took me from 900’ agl back to a comfortable 3000’ amsl. Adam and Zsolt joined it lower down but Zsolt never really connected with it and landed shortly afterwards. I drifted towards Frome to hopefully find a stronger climb and sure enough a few minutes later I was back up at 4800’ amsl. But damn, there was a big blue hole in front of me and 10kms later as I approached Stourhead House and Gardens I was praying for low save #5!
I pinned my hopes on a sheltered sunny “collector” to the south of Stourhead and that did the trick, getting me back up to 3500’ amsl, then a climb a little bit further on over the A303 boosted me right up to 4800’ amsl again – finally things were looking easier!
It was at this point, three hours and 91kms in, and with an epic sky in front of me, that I finally allowed myself to think that my goal on Portland, still some 60kms away, might actually be possible!
After an hour of easy flying, never getting below 3000’, I passed Dorchester in a beautiful climb that topped out at 5200’ amsl. From here the views stretching from the Needles on the Isle of Wight to the east, past Weymouth and Portland ahead, to Lyme Bay and Beer Head to the west were just stunning – what a privilege to be up here!
So now I had a decision to make – whether to fly straight to Ringstead to meet Lisa there, or to push the boat out (hopefully I wouldn’t need it!) and try to fly the 20kms to Portland Bill. In the event it wasn’t actually a difficult decision to make with clouds popping up ahead of me…!
From the top of that last climb I was effectively on a 20km final glide, watching the GR to Goal drop reassuringly from the initial 10:1 to 7.5:1 as I started crossing Portland Harbour, to 5:1 as I was “feet dry” over Portland.
I’d been catching glimpses of Adam beneath me as I thermalled across Dorset, but hadn’t seen him for quite a while, so it was good to see he was still following me as I put in a couple of gentle 360s to establish the wind direction and strength lower down (still a gentle N’ly).
I made a slight detour to bag my 151km goal before carrying on to the “Bill”, and as I dropped lower the wind changed to a gentle southerly – perfect for going round the lighthouse as there would be no danger of being blown out to sea!
We landed within a minute of each other at 1710, having taken just under 5 hours to complete the 153km flight, but imagine our disappointment when we discovered that the café had closed at 5pm and we were too late for an ice cream… Fortunately disaster was averted when I realised the staff were still cleaning up and I was able to persuade them to sell us something from the freezer cabinet – phhh-eewwww!
Lisa kindly braved the Weymouth weekend traffic to come and pick us up – we dropped Adam off at Weymouth Station to try to get back home in Eastbourne before midnight (it was his wedding anniversary after all!) before we headed back to Ringstead for the evening.
Back at Ringstead, whilst sipping a G&T, I reflected on the fact that with the four or five low saves it could have so easily been Mission: Impossible rather than Mission: Possible, but low saves seem to have been a bit of a theme with my flying this year – they’re amazing once high again, but I’d rather not be in that position in the first place!
PS. Adam made it and is still married!