Fogland Lighthouse – Episode 19: Surely The Sky Lies Open

“I am an Ancient Mariner of the Upper Atmosphere” Charles Green.

Presented by Jack Dean & Company, a disabled-led, artist-run non-profit telling stories about how things could be.

Content warnings: Aerial crashes.

Transcript:

This is Fogland Lighthouse. I’m Jack Dean.

The time and place of departure were clear and certain. At 1:30pm on the 1st of November 1836 they would take off. The destination and length of the journey were far less certain, far less clear. But in a way, that was the point. When the Mongolfier brothers had engineered the first untethered balloon flight fifty years ago, the public’s imagination had run wild. Designs of magnificent, behemothic airships that could carry passengers and cargo spread like hot air through the newspapers, as did nightmare visions of future aerial warfare. Since then, the phenomenon commonly referred to as Ballonomania had petered out a bit, as it became clear that the technology required to make a balloon carry much more than the sheep, duck and rooster that were the Mongolfier balloon’s first passengers, was not forthcoming. Perhaps more importantly, no-one could get one to reliably go from one fixed place to another, instead simply trusting in the vagaries of the air currents that carried them, a furtive prayer to the gods of the four winds. But this uncertainty had its own appeal. In a world slowly being carved into set schedules and fixed commutes by the rail network and the factories, to set off, with no prior knowledge of what will happen next, brought a sense of adventure that was disappearing elsewhere. And where adventure can be found, it can be monetized.

Charles Green knew a thing or two about making money. The son of a greengrocer, who entered into the family trade after leaving school, it soon became clear to him that balloon flights could draw bigger crowds paying customers than any vegetable. If a flight went well, they could witness a triumph of human ingenuity. If it went badly, as they often did, they could rubberneck a infamous disaster. His first trip was more in the second category. A royally commissioned flight from Green Park saw him stuck floating over the Thames, until a helpful nearby boat captain came along and pierced the balloon with his bowsprit. This didn’t put him off. Charles realised he could substitute the prohibitively expensive hydrogen used in other balloons with coal gas, for which the first mains network was being built at the time in London, and so could be obtained for a fraction of the price. Two hundred ascents of increasing spectacle followed, one where Charles went up on the back of what must have been a very confused pony. Along the way he developed a crude but workmanlike technology to solve the problem of aerostation, aka of keeping a balloon at a steady height in the air: the trail rope, a massive coil of rope that connected the balloon to the ground, so that if it descended, the amount of rope being held in the air would reduce, and so would the overall weight of the balloon, allowing it to bob back up to its previous height. The trail rope became a signature part of Charles’ voyages, combing through hedgerows, ploughing through fields and knocking tiles off roofs with an erratic disregard for the English cult of private property.

A partnership with the new Vauxhall pleasure gardens saw him building, then buying back, his masterwork, The Royal Vauxhall balloon, a towering construction holding seventy thousand cubic feet of gas, costing £2000 to build, painted with red and white stripes and  embroidered with an excerpt from Ovid’s metamorphosis: “Surely the Sky Lies Open, Let Us Go That Way!”. The hefty basket could carry up to eight passengers ,although for this trip, there were only three. Charles himself, the MP Robert Hollond, who had bought his place aboard as the largest backer of the trip, and Monck Mason, a flute player, but also a raconteur, and thus the one tasked with recording the events of the trip. And because this is the Victorian era, or close enough as to make no difference, there were of course heaps of ludicrous provisions: Forty pounds of beef, ham and tongue, forty five pounds of cooked game and preserves, a portable coffee brewer, two gallons each of sherry, port and brandy, and several crates of champagne. But then, what are appropriate provisions for a journey that could go anywhere?

As the crowd thronged about them they took off over Vauxhall, then floated down the Thames, this time without incident, over Rochester, across Kent and out towards the North Sea. Robert and Monck expressed their qq at the prospect of heading out over such a vast, cold expanse of ocean, which Charles met with a cool smile. He let out a bag of sand ballast sending the balloon upward, meeting a new air current that made it turn, as if tilted by a rudder, to change its course southwards over the English Channel. They crossed it at dusk, heading deeper into the night and the mainland. They saw bright lights burning below them, lights that with a bit of back-of-an-envelope calculation they thought must be the city of Liege, ablaze with the newly-stoked fires of foundries and ironworks. Charles emptied his coffee maker out over the side, then lost his grip and dropped it. Shortly after, perhaps due to other kinds of drinks holding more sway than the coffee, they lit a flare, lowered it down on the rope and used a speaking trumpet to shout down at the people below. They fancied themselves appearing as ghostly apparitions to the hapless citizens of Liege. You may decide for yourself what impression they really gave.

They headed beyond the city and climbed higher, into a night that seemed to swallow them whole. Then suddenly, a great bang sounded above them, then another, then a third. and they seemed to be hurtling downwards, tearing towards an invisible but unavoidable ground. Monck knew with certainty that he was going to die. The next moment, they stabilised, and Charles explained, perhaps as much to comfort himself as to his friends, that this was all to be expected. The cold air had caused a layer of ice to form around the folds of the balloon, which as they ascended into lower air pressure and the balloon expanded, was snapped off ,causing the explosive sounds they heard. Their rapid descent had actually been a rapid climb. We don’t know if Monck and Robert bought this explanation. But everyone had a little more brandy to soothe their nerves.

The morning came, to everyone’s relief, and they landed messily but without injury in a snow-covered forest, about thirty miles north of Germany. They bribed a few locals with some of their vast quantities of booze to lead them to the nearby town of Weilburg, where they started the slow, groundward trek home. They had travelled four hundred and eighty miles in 18 hours, smashing any previous distance records. Perhaps more astonishingly, they were all alive. Monck would publish his account to an astonished readership. Robert would see his investment pay off handsomely as a new wave of Balloonomania was ushered in by the voyage. Green would keep flying, his reputation now secured, the crowds at his flights growing even bigger. That same luck that blessed his first voyage seemed to follow him everywhere. Though ballooning would claim the lives of many of his peers, he would be one of the few early aeronauts to live to see retirement. He pitched a plan for crossing the Atlantic, but decided in the end he wouldn’t be the one to attempt it. The sky would stick around, lying open for anyone who would go there. It is a fine thing to set off with no fixed destination. It is equally fine to know when to roll up the canvas, drink up the brandy and go home.

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