Our balloon ride over the Garrotxa
Whilst in Spain last month we took to the air in a balloon. I also read Richard Holmes' entertaining history of nineteenth century ballooning, Falling Upwards, which included some details that reminded me of our flight over the volcanic landscape of Garrotxa. Holmes describes an ascent made by the leading Victorian balloonist Charles Green, accompanied by a wealthy MP and an Irish musician, Monck Mason, who wrote the trip up as Aeronautica (1838). They set off in the Royal Vauxhall from London on a November afternoon in 1836 and by dusk they were over the Channel and tucking into ‘a huge meal of cold meats and wine’. I smiled on reading this as it was exactly what we were given to tuck into after we landed. Whilst aloft we toasted the flight with a glass of pink cava. Champagne drinking seems to have been de riguer on most nineteenth century balloon trips, although Monck Mason claimed that the lower pressure at altitude made it too frothy, shooting from the bottle and ‘revealing what he called its "natural tendency to flying". Perhaps under the influence of these refreshments, the landscapes of northern France seen after dusk, with isolated points of candlelight "burning late" in the villages below, seemed infinitely romantic and mysterious.’
Above the Garrotxa we were flying over winding rivers, terracotta-tiled farm buildings and the densely wooded slopes of extinct volcanoes, but it was impossible not to register too the motorway network, ribbon developments and light industrial buildings on the outskirts of every sizable settlement. Holmes recounts how, when the Royal Vauxhall reached the Meuse, the crew were astonished to realise that the great industrial complex visible below them was the historic city of Liège. Its surrounding districts "appeared to blaze with innumerable fires … to the full extent of our visible horizon." At the height we were flying we could not hear the sounds of industry below - perhaps it is relatively silent these days. Holmes describes what the balloonists could hear as they passed over Liège: 'disembodied shouting, coughing, swearing, metallic banging and sometimes, weirdly, sharp echoing bursts of laughter. They were being granted a unique, nightmare vision of the new industrial future, a world of ever extending ironworks, where every street was "marked out by its particular line of fires."’
The Royal Vauxhall continued into the night. "Occasional faint flashes of lightning would for an instant illuminate the horizon ... Not a single object of terrestrial nature could anywhere be distinguished; an unfathomable abyss of 'darkness visible' seemed to encompass us on every turn."
Holmes observes that Mason's description of night's "cold and dark embrace", like "an immense block of black marble", might have come from Edgar Allan Poe, whose story 'The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall' appeared the year before this flight, and who went on to feature Green and Monck in his newspaper hoax 'The Atlantic Balloon' in 1844. Eventually the aeronauts recognised the Rhine but continued eastwards and by morning thought they might have reached "the barren and inhospitable Steppes of Russia". In fact they finally landed in some north German fir trees. Our balloon flight looked at one point like it might end in some trees too, or even on a small traffic island, but we eventually touched down smoothly on some rocky ground and once the balloon had been furled and loaded onto its trailer we set off back to enjoy our botifarra.