|… and what's the point of having dreams if you don't try to make them real?
Today, I did. I'm still so up there that I can hardly type!
Jim and G-ALIJ
My friend Jim has many extraordinary qualities. Not only does he have a technical brain the size of Canada and is a pleasure to work with (and sadly I no longer do), he's also a really splendid gentleman. In pursuit of his own dreams, he achieved his private pilot's licence a few years ago. Now, he has a share of a glorious little yellow aircraft (a Piper Vagabond) built of a canvassy material stretched over a metal frame, called G-ALIJ, with 65 horses under the bonnet in the shape of a lawnmower engine. It's pretty basic, but as he says: "there's less to go wrong."
Today, he gave me the opportunity to see a shopping list of fabulous ancient sites from the vantage point of G-ALIJ for which I am utterly at a loss for words to adequately thank him.
After essential flight checks and refuelling, we took off from the grass strip at Popham Airfield in Hampshire at 10.50am. Popham Beacons, four magnificent round barrows, are just in the next door field and look as impressive on the ground as they do in the air.
The weather was perfect; hardly a breath of wind, no cloud at the levels we were flying at (about 800 to 1000 feet above ground level) and just little haze on the horizon. We cruised at around 80 miles per hour.
Practically speechless over Oxfordshire
We swung north and flew up the line of the A34, which I had just driven down, and soon the imposing dumbbell-shaped sky fortress of Beacon Hill appeared before us. What a lump of earth!
Crossing the M4, (even this looks grand from up here!) Jim told me through the crackly headphones we were about 10 minutes from Uffington and that village was Lambourn just up ahead of us. Suddenly, I found the ability to speak: "Ooh!" quoth I excitedly, "there's a fabulous collection of barrows there, can we have a look for them?" It took a moment for us to spot the Lambourn Sevenbarrows partly because there is just SO MUCH to see from up here, but then all of a sudden out of my side of G-ALIJ – there they were! From the sky, you get a real sense of just how vast this necropolis actually is – not just the big barrows all in a row, but to see all the other barrows in neighbouring fields and the crop marks of barrows long-forgotten on the ground. WOW!
"It's over to your left" I said as I saw the distinctive shape of the Manger and the octagonal tower of Uffington church about 2 or 3 miles away. We swung round and saw the weirdness of Dragon Hill, Uffington Castle hillfort and the line of the Ridgeway before us… and then… and then… the graceful dancing figure of the Uffington White Horse was ours. Typing now, as I recall this view, I have tears streaming down my face… it is unimaginably beautiful and I feel the most extraordinary sense of privilege that me, little old insignificant me, have had the chance to view it as the stars and the clouds and the buzzards do. WOW!
We circled round once, Jim bringing G-ALIJ down as low as he safely could, banking round the left, opening his window so I could get a clear view and we saw the tiny figures up by the horse's beak, standing watching us, from a place where I have so often sat myself and wondered what it would be like if.... And now I know.
As we circled round again, I could see the white line of the Ridgeway reaching out into the horizon, rolling through the landscape westwards towards Swindon and the shape of Uffington Castle perched on the hilltop which from up here looked bigger than ever!
And there it was again, the galloping horse…. WOW! ….a feeling of lightness and speed and beauty etched right there in the roof of my county. Those Bronze Age folk must have really loved and understood horses; for everything that I love about equines is carved into that turf. "When I die, I should like my ashes scattered here" I informed Jim, and I realised it didn't matter if I died tomorrow. I had seen the Uffington White Horse from the air.
Levelling off and briefly following the line of the Ridgeway, I spotted an unmistakable clump of beech trees, isolated in a chalky field: it had to be Wayland's Smithy. It was! It was hard to see the outline of the long barrow through the thick foliage, but I glimpsed the massive portal stones and gasped that they could look so big, even from this height.
Winging it over Wiltshire
Cutting a dash south west, we left Swindon to our right and I recognised the straight line of the A346. Soon we were approaching a very familiar landscape indeed and as we approached Avebury, which was still 4 miles away, crossed the Ridgeway again and the landscape became peppered with tumuli and crop marks. We flew south west over Monkton Down and I saw the ground littered with sarsens. I tried to tell Jim about the Polisher, which was one of those stones down there, and that I was hoping to find it on Wednesday, but I don't think I was very coherent. And Silbury Hill played tricks with me. Was it? Wasn't it? Surely it's not that big? But it was!
The next bit is a bit of a jumble in my mind! There was Avebury, the stones, the ditch, the bank, the people, the car park, there was the Avenue, there was the path leading east out the village up on the downs, there was the Longstone Cove, there was Silbury again, there was West Kennett long barrow, just over there….. I was left wishing to the gods I knew this landscape as intimately as I should: where was Adam's Grave, Knap Hill, Windmill Hill, Cherhill Down?
Unable to fly very low over Avebury itself (apparently you are not allowed to fly low over houses and stuff) we circled round the edge of the village twice and headed south again down the line of the Avenue to Silbury once more, and to West Kennett Longbarrow which we also circled.
Somewhere down there was Swallowhead Springs which turns into little stream which becomes the River Kennett (from where my son and I were fishing last night with friends near Reading and witnessed the landing of a shimmering 10lb 8oz barbel.)
Oh, and there was East Kennett Longbarrow mysteriously tucked away in its thick clothing of trees. Look left, follow the line of the A4 and yes! that little dot in that field is the Devil's Den. As we flew on towards Marlborough, I was surprised to see a pair of massive buzzards effortlessly floating round on a thermal at the same altitude as us! Fantastic
Marlborough School was easy to spot with its manicured playing fields, tidy lawns and red-brick buildings but I couldn't see the Marlborough Mound. Jim was trying to spot the 18th century Marlborough White Horse and we had some trouble finding it, his GPS insisting we were there…. We finally saw it, but only very briefly before it was time to track back to Popham.
En route back, Jim let me have a bit of a fly of the plane, but frankly I was too thrilled at what I'd just seen to even think about applying myself to getting my head round the controls, though it was quite interesting to see just how little presure was needed to make it turn and dive and climb.
After 15 minutes or so, there was Whitchurch, the A34, the A303 and Popham Beacons again. A bumpy landing on grass marked the conclusion of 1 hour and 48 minutes of mind-blowing visions.
Thank you Cap'n Jim!
Today, I have run out of superlatives. You have given me a glimpse of heaven which means more to me than you can ever know. Thank you, Jim and thank you to the pretty sunflower-yellow plane called G-ALIJ!
Posted by Jane
14th September 2003ce
Edited 25th November 2005ce
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