Lets go fly a kite!

Basingstoke Kite Festival 2008


With tuppence for paper and strings
You can have your own set of wings
With your feet on the ground
You’re a bird in a flight
With your fist holding tight
To the string of your kite
Oh, oh, oh!
Let’s go fly a kite
Up to the highest height!
Let’s go fly a kite and send it soaring
Up through the atmosphere
Up where the air is clear
Oh, let’s go fly a kite!

Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins (1964)

Yesterday (7th June) I spent a very enjoyable day over at the Down Grange Sports Complex where the 16th Basingstoke Kite Festival took place. It was almost a spur-of-the-moment decision as I hadn’t even been aware that it was on until a local newspaper that arrived through the letterbox shortly beforehand had a front cover feature on it. And strangely enough for all the years that it had been on I have never actually been along to see it, so curiosity finally won over and on Saturday morning with the sun beating down from a sky filled with cotton wool clouds and a gentle breeze blowing, I set off on foot armed only with a camera dangling from my neck.

The kite festival is just about one of the only events that is in walking distance of my house and over the years it has built up a reputation for itself as being a great day out for families. It has become an international event attracting kite-flying teams from France, Switzerland, Germany & Holland and typically draws large crowds.

My own kite-flying days are long gone but like most children I went through a phase where we used to fly a kite on a nearby field. In fact I can remember even making kites out of polystyrene ceiling tiles (showing my age here) and taping streamers to the tail end made from strips of newspaper. They flew surprisingly well but didn’t fare too well with crash landings. I think I got through quite a lot of ceiling tiles that summer :-).

Twenty minutes after I had set off I arrived at Down Grange where I was greeted by a green octopus, a red caterpillar and a yellow duck! 🙂 Yup, I’ve arrived at the Kite Festival! These large scale eye-catching exhibits immediately caught the imagination with their extravagant designs and bold colours. Unfortunately the unpredictable wind patterns did not appear sufficient to enable the octopus and caterpillar to gain much lift but they did look impressive hovering slightly above the ground.

Overhead and high above were some of the altitude seekers, much smaller kites but able to reach up high into the sky. Not sure how high they actually were but I knew from the article I had read that the organisers had obtained clearance from the Civil Aviation Authority for kites to be flown up to 2,000 feet. In fact I believe they have an altitude competition.

The glorious weather had brought out a large gathering but Down Grange is spacious so it never felt packed. As I walked around the field I saw happy families who had brought their own kites along to join in the fun, giggling children running along trailing micro-kites only a few inches across, and other children not so happy and frustrated at why their kites refused to leave the grass! Music and announcements from the PA system permeated the air. Off to one side a row of ice cream and food & drink vendors catered to the crowds needs whilst the smell of burgers filed the air and made me feel hungry. A couple of specialist vendors were selling all sorts of kites in the hope of capturing some impulse purchases. Bouncy castles and inflatable slides kept children amused and I watched smiling as fearless children came hurtling down steep slides only to run laughing and giggling back for more. Its funny isn’t it that when you are very young you react without any fear of the consequences but as we grow up we start to think before we act.

A central cordoned off arena was the main focal point for the aerobatic displays, some of which bore an uncanny resemblance to the sort of thing you would expect from an air show. For example there was a team of blue kites that flew in tight formation and then exploded in all directions like a starburst – very impressive and reminiscent of something that the Red Arrows might put on. There were equally impressive stunt displays and a Rokkaku fighter competition in which the event’s various sponsors tried to knock each others kites out of the sky.

The kites themselves have come a long way from the elongated diamond or box shapes that I grew up with and much like hot air balloons they appear to come in all shapes and sizes quite often in configurations that appear to defy the laws of aerodynamics. Animals and insects were popular subjects at the show. There were kites that resembled butterflies, beetles, alligators, bats and a very impressive and colourful manta ray which was also one of the larger exhibits. There were kites in truly strange shapes such as a hoop with multi-coloured ribbons attached and another that was literally just a deep-walled ring. And yet amazingly they flew.

Photographically the day was a bit of a disaster. My weakening shoulders and unpredictable arms meant that trying to just lift a camera to my eye and hold it there for long enough to compose a shot was extremely difficult, and on several occasions my arms just collapsed and the camera fell away – although fortunately not far as I was wearing a camera strap. So because I was only able to hold the camera for a few brief moments the pictures really were ‘grab shots’. I think my days of hand-held photography are drawing to a close and I’ll have to start looking at camera supports but I’ve been reluctant to do so because of the extra bulk and weight of carrying it around all day as well as limiting my ability to respond quickly to a situation which changes rapidly like this kite festival for instance.

The other problem is I can no longer hold a long heavy lens which to be honest was what I really needed today. And constantly bending back (as opposed to raising my arms up high) to photograph objects in the sky left me with lower spine ache for the rest of the day. On the plus side the image stabilisation system built into my new camera’s standard short-range zoom lens is proving to be very useful and I’m not sure if I could take hand-held pictures now without it. The 12 mega-pixel sensor has allowed me in some small way to make up for the lack of a longer lens by providing sufficient pixels to allow for selective cropping and thus give me that extra ‘reach’ I need. It’s not the ideal solution but it will have to do for now. I believe that Canon do make a very compact and light weight telephoto zoom lens for this camera (with image stabilisation) so Ill take a look at that soon.

Apart from the physical and technical difficulties experienced taking pictures I was also battling with the sheer frustration of loosing so many shots. The kite festival was a wonderful opportunity to capture so many good pictures and yet so often I would loose them because I just couldn’t react quickly enough as I fumbled to lift the camera or my arms were still ‘recharging’ from a previous shot. All I could do was watch with envy as I saw other keen photographers walk by with their super-zooms and point them skywards with such apparent ease. I saw some wonderful acrobatic displays of multiple kite formations but just couldn’t find the energy to hold the camera and track the subjects long enough to get the shots I wanted. It is so frustrating when you have good equipment, great weather, an interesting subject and still not be able to make the most of the situation because your own body is letting you down. But ultimately that’s life and all any of us can do is to make the best of what we have. At least I can take some consolation in the fact that my current level of disability is not so great that it prevented me from going to the festival or taking any photos. My legs still seem sound too because I never noticed any tiredness throughout the day and I must have covered a few miles.

But photography aside it was still an enjoyable day and I came away feeling quite happy – and a little sunburnt. The whole experience was like returning to the care-free days of childhood; a low tech pleasure for simpler times. And that kind of appeals to me in this age of ever-increasing complexity where almost everything we buy has built in-obsolescence. I must admit that if it wasn’t for my disability I would have been quite tempted to buy a big colourful kite myself. Maybe get a whole group of us together and have the kites painted with motor neurones emblazoned on their wings. Then next year put on a display and fly them in the world famous ‘missing muscle’ formation! 😀

I’ll upload a small gallery of companion pictures soon. Just need to run them through Photoshop first to clean them up and make them half presentable.


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