Flying in the UK: Cake and Ale and Cumbrian Pie

Wednesday 2 August, 2006

A hangover cure, Lake District style. Video: Gordieoliver

Accidental anglophile Jerome Maupoint discovers the paraglider pilot’s mighty pleasuredome offered by the UK’s Lake District

A flying trip to England! Don’t be daft! Wouldn’t that be like going skiing in Iran? Or even fishing in the Sahara? How could there be any sense in leaving my home in Annecy, one of the best XC sites in the world, for the rainswept British Isles?

Yet, I had to admit, the seemingly endless assault of depressions sweeping across the French Alps for the last five weeks was starting to get more than just depressing; I was getting desperate to fly. Moreover, for some strange meteorological reason, the UK was bathing in sunshine and light winds – proving good weather can get as far as England; it just doesn’t last as long as elsewhere.

Despite my initial reservation I found myself booking a seat on EasyJet flight 913 bound for Liverpool; the infamous home of the Beatles and Liverpool FC. Afterall, the most improbable flights have a different flavour; they leave imperishable memories.

May 31 I arrive in Keswick, a little town nestling between rounded grassy mountains, in the heart of the Lake District. Here lie the highest summits in England, although only 3,000 feet, (1,000 metres) there’s nothing ridiculous about these mountains, even for an Alpinist. Skiddaw, Hellvellyn, Scarfell Pike, are big eroded footballs, residues of volcanic activity, openly inviting you to free fly.

It’s a paradise for beginners and a fascinating playground for the experienced. Each hill, each mountain, shelters great learning slopes and huge take-offs in lush grass and heather. There are no abrupt peaks, no cliffs; it’s all smooth and welcoming. You fly over sheep grazing pastures, bordered by thick stone walls that have stood up to endless storms and the sands of time. Gorse and heather colour the south facing slopes, a foretaste of the heights of Scotland.

The valleys are wide and protect the long lakes that the area derives its name from. During the day their dark silver voids sparkle in the sunshine as though sprinkled with gold dust, then as the evening closes in they turn deep orange and red with the setting sun; colours that slice magnificently through the deep browns and greens of the countryside. Even at night, the reflection of the orange street lamps wink enticingly from the murky depths and scatter colourful traces into the otherwise dark night.

The Irish Sea surrounds the western flanks of the Lake District and consequently the weather changes quickly here; clouds disappear as quickly as they arrive, the sea air channels in the valleys like the Alpine breezes and the higher peaks stick deep into the often strong prevailing westerly winds.

To be a pilot here means having a good internet connection, an understanding partner, or one who’s as much bitten by the same bug, and above all, an acceptance of the changing moods of the natural elements. The local pilots know and anticipate the influence of the sea on the local air movements. The sea breeze engulfs the valleys like a wave and filters the thermals with its heavy dense air. In Buttermere the sea breeze rolls into mountains from three different sides. Flurries of wind on the lakes are the only way of spotting these sudden low level phenomena.

“When the sea breezes converge you can use it to jump from one mountain range to another,” explained Mark Stuart, a local pilot, thoroughbred Lakeland lad and my guide for the trip.

“It makes the Lakes great for triangle and circuit flights. Sometimes you can connect with the true convergence line just inland and fly along the curtain of thermals it releases, if you can hook in to it, you can go a long way.”

But it’s not big distance flying that is the attraction of the Lakes. Short flights are often technically difficult and immensely rewarding here. You fly for the beauty of the place and the views.

“But it’s not just the views that make the Lakes,” Mark told me,  “wherever you land there’s always a good pub close by too.”

A big merci from me to the team at UK AIRSPORTS, Mark Stuart, Patrick Holmes and all the pilots present at the top of Skiddaw on the night of June 5 2006.

Read more: Mark Stuart’s diary of the trip with more stunning photography by Jerome Maupoint features was published in issue 106

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