Gentle Readers: I welcome today Ron Dunning, author of the Jane Austen’s Family Website. Ron had written here before on Horsmonden in “Jane Austen and the Huguenots” – but today he tells of a hot air balloon ride he and his wife Helena took in 2008 where he took these wonderful pictures of Kent and the surrounding countryside – enjoy the ride!
Horsmonden from on High
by Ron Dunning
For my birthday in the spring of 2008 Helena, my wife, bought me a ticket for a hot-air balloon flight. I preferred to share the pleasure, so I waited till her birthday a few months later, and bought one for her. The weather that summer was very wet, and it wasn’t possible to book a flight until early October. We chose a launch site in Wadhurst, on the Sussex border with Kent, an area that we know and love, on what turned out to be a golden Indian summer’s afternoon.
The direction of a balloon’s flight is entirely dependent on the wind. I had given no prior thought to the fact that the Austens’ ancestral heartland of Goudhurst and Horsmonden lay only some ten miles away, but the wind took us, at 12 mph, precisely in that direction. I only realised that this was our on our route as we passed over St Margaret of Antioch in Pisidia – Horsmonden’s parish church, with its collection of Austen graves and memorial brasses.
Till then I had simply been enjoying the wonderfully calm experience. (Even though a balloon flies a few thousand feet above ground level its passengers aren’t troubled by wind, since it is blown along at the same speed as the air.) Now I began to scan the horizon for Broadford, and possibly even Grovehurst, the Austen houses. I couldn’t find Broadford. It may have been possible to see it, but I wouldn’t have recognised it from the south, the direction from which we were travelling, since I’d only ever seen the front, which faces north.
Grovehurst lies at least a mile further beyond the village, in wooded country. The wind, and our so ground speed, had dropped. I spent the next fifteen minutes straining my eyes for a glimpse of the house, to no avail. Then, just as we were descending in search of a landing site in a friendly farmer’s field, and as the pilot was announcing a Gypsy site to the left, and as I had quite given up on spotting it, there was Grovehurst on the right. The pilot turned the balloon through 360 degrees (I don’t know how he managed that!) for everyone to see, and marked the Austen’s ancestral home on his map to show future passengers.
I don’t believe that there is any record of Jane Austen’s visiting Horsmonden, where her grandfather William Austen was born. His heroic mother, Elizabeth Weller, had to take a housekeeping job at Sevenoaks School in 1708 to keep her family together, and that broke the Austens’ relationship with the village. It would not be an anachronism to imagine Jane, if she had visited, seeing her ancestral home by air – on 19 September 1783 Pilatre De Rozier, a scientist, launched the first hot air balloon called ‘Aerostat Reveillon.’ The first manned flight came two months later on November 21, with a balloon made by two French brothers, Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier.
At that time, when the fastest land transport proceeded at the rate of a trotting horse, ascending in a balloon and flying with the wind would have struck most people as terrifying and mad. As it happens my wife, who is normally fearless, asked me if I too had been worried. I confess that my imagination is generally vividly aware of consequences – and there we were at 2000 feet, with no parachutes, in a wicker laundry basket! But I was so absorbed in reconnaissance that I had forgotten to give the danger any thought.
Thank you Ron for this beautiful travelogue of Kent from the air!
I have to add that I have won a raffle only one time in my life, and that was for a hot-air balloon ride – it was quite the adventure, a totally unique experience of floating above the world without the usual noisy airplane sounds, so quiet and peaceful that I never wanted it to end – but we had a sudden wind pick-up and took off away from the tracer car [and my family who were following – my son, 7 years old at the time thought I had disappeared into the ether, never to be seen again; my nearly teenaged daughter was hoping beyond hope that was true!] and had a quite dramatic crash landing at a reservoir, all diving out of the basket to keep the balloon from falling into the water – but alas! my pictures, though quite lovely of the Connecticut countryside, are all on slides and do not, believe it or not, have anything to do with Jane Austen…
Anyone want to comment on Ron’s journey and photographs? or add any of your own ballooning adventures [whether Jane Austen-related or not!]?
Text and images copyright by Ronald Dunning, with thanks!
I love the photos. It seems to me enormously brave to go up in a hot balloon. They did have the technology and someone went up in one in Paris (1784?) so we can wonder what Jane Austen would have thought. Johnson said he couldn’t think of anything more delightful than to be a fast coach riding along with a friend. Imagine being up in the air looking down. Ellen
Thanks for stopping by Ellen – Marie mentions the balloon in 1784 too – nice to think of young Jane possibly seeing it!
I remember St. Margaret’s, Horsmonden, and Grovehurst very well from the 2009 JASNA tour of England, “Homes of Jane Austen.” What fun to see them from this unique perspective–although I am also glad that it was Ron and not I who went up in the balloon!
And, yes, hot-air ballooning was the startling new technology of the 1780s–and came closer to Jane Austen than one might think. The Rev. Gilbert White, author of “The Natural History of Selborne” (Selborne is very close to Chawton and not all that far from Steventon), reported a sighting from Selborne on 16 October 1784: “Mr. Blanchard passed us by in full sight at about a quarter before three P:M: in an air balloon!!!” So it’s not too great a stretch of the imagination to think of an almost 9-year-old JA seeing the balloon as well. (In fact, I’ve heard much sillier speculations about the young JA’s possible activities than this one!)
Wonderful anecdote Marie! I like to think she saw that balloon as well…
Thanks for stopping by,
Deb, I always say this, but – as always, you’ve done me proud. Your landing sounds pretty scarey! I hope that your daughter realises, on mature reflection, that it’s fortunate that her fervent wishes weren’t fulfilled.
A question just occurred to me about the fabric used to make the earliest balloon envelopes. Even the finest oiled or waxed canvas would have been far too heavy, but the Montgolfiers apparently used silk, lined with paper. Later, in partnership with Jean-Baptiste Réveillion, they tried taffeta, coated with a special fire-proof resin, which was at least marginally safer than silk. On doing a quick search, I couldn’t find their source of hot air, but they certainly didn’t have propane jets. I suspect that on early flights they injected the hot air before taking off, the flights ending shortly after as the air cooled.
Marie, your speculation isn’t at all silly, in fact it is absolutely fascinating!
Oh, that was a treat, thank you! I have added ‘hot air ballooning over Kent’ to my list of things I want to do. The beautiful photographs really makes you feel you’re there! It seems so peaceful…except perhaps for the landing and deflating…?