Two special journeys of reflection which put ordinary things in a different perspective…
Two days ago I had the very pleasant experience of looking down on people who live quite near my house.
No, I do not mean that I was taking a high and mighty view of them, nor do I mean that I was arrogantly trying to put them in their place – a place defining them as well beneath me in value. The experience was in fact purely physical; I was fulfilling a long held ambition to take a hot air balloon flight. It was a birthday present from some of my family (several months after the birthday, because Virgin Balloon Flights do not organise them during the winter).
I was not quite sure what to expect, but the reality exceeded even my most optimistic expectations. Except for occasional bursts of flame, necessary to keep the balloon inflated, or to take it to a slightly greater height, we travelled in wonderful silence. There were 16 passengers, packed quite tightly into what looked very much like an outsize laundry basket, and we all seemed to be influenced by the surrounding silence, speaking only quietly as we looked down and commented on what we could see.
The captain explained to us that the only way of steering the balloon was by changing height, in order to catch the wind blowing in slightly varied directions. I had been aware of this – intellectually – but the reality was nevertheless a pleasant surprise. Human control over the direction of flight was limited; nature was in charge.
Our flight began a few miles to the north of Cambridge, and the prevailing wind on this particular day was southerly. This meant that many of the landmarks below us were familiar: Girton College and King's College chapel, for example. It is a wonderful experience to see familiar landmarks from a totally unfamiliar vantage point.
The duration of the flight was quite short – about two hours – and the speed steady and stately. We moved at about 20 kilometres an hour, and the captain's skill in using varying heights enabled him to land at Duxford aerodrome, the aviation museum to the south of Cambridge. (Landing was itself an interesting experience, because the basket ended – as we were told it would – on its side, with the passengers therefore lying on our backs. Getting out was a minor challenge for the older among us.)
A most interesting feature of the experience was that it showed how great is the green area, mainly agricultural land, close to Cambridge. We often think of this region as being highly developed, with a large population and many high-tech firms located around the university hub. It is a valid perception, but it is good to be reminded that the population density does not at all resemble what some would like us to believe.
Special travel turned out to be the main feature of my week. On the day after my balloon flight, my wife and I spent a long, and pleasant, day on a special train tour, organised by Nenta Train Tours, who have been arranging them for about 30 years. The total distance that we covered was about 1,000 kilometres. We travelled through York (where some passengers left the train to spend the day, before rejoining it for the return journey), and on into county Durham along the Weardale Railway, which used to be part of the main railway system but is now run mainly by a charitable trust.
These train tours appeal, not surprisingly, to the many people who are passionately interested in everything to do with railways. One of the attractions for those who, like us, do not fall into that category, is to see, at many places along the route, railway buffs taking photographs of our special train (and, of course, many passengers taking photographs from the train).
Like the balloon flight, this journey provided me with a vivid reminder of the vast area of green land that exists in what we tend to think of as our over-crowded island. It served also as a reminder of some important aspects of British history: the growth of the railways from the early 19th century, obviously, and, as we travelled through former mining areas, the importance of mining to the country's economy until the middle of the 20th.
To travel hopefully, it is said, is better than to arrive. Looking at my experiences during the past week, I would put it rather differently: to travel reflectively is a good way to put things in perspective.
Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge, UK. Email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org