It was getting to that point in the season, looking over your shoulder, knowing the last day has got to come soon. Best make the most of what's on offer. Plans discussed, lifts arranged, Golden Ball destination. There looked like a chance of something spreading from the Severn spoiling the day further the north. Let's go, fingers crossed.
A lot of the usual suspects gathered. Good to put a face to at least one name behind the UK XC league, thanks for your work on that Gary.
Everyone parked on launch, tickets please, form an orderly queue. I set up in short order, anxious to be ready for the get go. I few lobbed off and bobbed around a bit without much sign of the day switching on. I edged towards a starting slot. Something interesting came through and I chanced my arm, hooked left a few meters and gained a few meters. A few 180's took me over ridge height and space to 360, still going up. And on it went, climbed out straight off the bat.
I was quickly joined by a couple of others already in the air and many others lobbed off and started the climb out in the same thermal. An extended gaggle of 19 or so started to stretch out from Golden Ball massif towards the A4. Biggest UK gaggle I've flown with for a while, what a laugh. Kirsty led the way of course, I was trying to keep the head of the gaggle in sight but was more interested in staying high and enjoying the day than chasing the miles. Smiles not miles etc.
Swindon was quickly in sight, the gaggle was still together making the task of staying air born unusually simple. All but the odd one drifted to the ground, gravity laden. We passed west of Swindon, I was starting to think about South Cerney drop zone. Mindful of comments made on launch - no activity planned at present. But also having clipped a drop zone on route from Sharpenhoe to the Malverns, not wanting to get caught out.
The gaggle started to split over the lakes north of Swindon, the majority split east towards overflying the South Cerney drop zone without the encumbrance of my recent error, and a line over the Cotswolds. Cirencester was in view, I headed for the gap between Kemble and South Cerney, slowing a little, climbs weren't obvious, people spread out. I dawdled in air that wasn't sinking, waiting for a sign of air to climb in to reveal itself. A straggler headed in my direction and marked lifting air on their approach. I headed in their direction and got the next climb to base, leaving Steve Newcombe who didn't join for some reason. Downer, a couple of birds marked the top of one of the climbs, as I watched them circle, one of them crapped right over the top of me! Not cool.
Oli Stewart and I joined up for a while. The irony, neighbours literally streets apart in London, traveling to GB independently, not seeing each other on launch, and yet here we are 3500ft on route to Cheltenham wing tip to wing tip, watcha. Happy days.
I saw the lead gaggle off to the east and considered the path to join them. Over a green, tree lined valley, memories of being decked on a float to Stroud over similar ground came to mind. I thought better of it and focused on getting to base under a cloud stretching towards Cheltenham. Base had increased to 4000ft, we each other mark the climbs as Cheltenham approached. A prayer for the gods of Leckhampton as we passed overhead.
We tried to stay high as the higher ground dropped away, mindful of descending air form the south flushing over Cheltenham, failed. Drifting lower, concentrating hard to find lift. Settling for avoiding sink for a while, if not climbing. Down to 1800ft before I sniffed a climb, Oli too far away and aiming for clear ground having made goal.
On my own now, I climbed back up to 4000ft. Mindful of how I'd be feeling if I were on the deck below, looking up. But them's the breaks eh, plenty of times when the shoe has been on the other foot. One or two of those from Sharpenhoe this year at the expense of Oli and Nick Clarke, you know the ones.
The Severn estuary was shining like a national guitar, afternoon sun glistening off the water. The Malverns clearly in view where I'd set my goal. The feared feature from the Severn spreading out and spoiling the day hadn't materialised. Everything was looking pucker. Except my drift wasn't taking me to Great Malvern. Decision time, cross wind and make goal or enjoy the day and keep the smiles going. Smiles won out. I tracked the M5 north, using the stepping stone clouds to keep as high as possible. Enjoying the views as the Cotswolds rolled off to the east and the full length of the Malverns to the west, and the Welsh mountains off in the distance.
I'd set my sight on Worcester 20km ahead, the day didn't have that much longer in it being mid September. I thought I'd be lucky to make that. Clouds were dissipating, but just enough to be useful markers until I took a long glide into the blue, losing height to only 1000ft and starting to think of landing options on the outskirts of Worcester.
I was eyeing the glides to fields within a good walk of the train station and didn't feel comfortable with the my chances at the height I had. A nothing climb at a junction of the M5 took me back up, to 1800ft and enough to easily reach several landing options. I ended up leaving the climb early, maybe I should have stuck with it. Unknown to me, Mincek was off to the north east of me by a few km's, heading for Droitwich to win the day. Who knows if I'd have reached him. The chance of an easy retrieve and the smiles earned, rather than a few more km's and an awkward, sweaty haul to the station, won out.
Lift over Worcester ignored, sports field in the cross hairs to end the day. Magic, I'd had longer flights this year. There aren't many that left me with the glow I took to the station and back to London. Thanks to Ludek and Paula for the lift to GB, awesome, left me free as a bird.