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Taking off over Suffolk 

April 17, 20209:23 amApril 17, 2020 10:41 amLeave a Comment

We don’t often think of the Victorians as being the type of people who would prioritise fun and enjoyment. They are, however, the people who created many of the parks and recreation grounds we still enjoy in our towns today. 

One such park is Alderman Road Recreation Ground in Ipswich, close to Portman Road Stadium, home of Ipswich Town Football Club. 

The opening of the park in 1888 was cause for celebration, as the new park provided much needed outdoor space for the town’s rapidly growing population. 

Work on the new 15-acre park began in 1885. The boggy site had been drained and levelled, and landscaped with planting and pathways. On the day of the opening the grass was rather parched in places, and the trees were young and small, but it held much promise for future enjoyment. Trees and shrubs had been donated, and the Mayor, Robert  Maplestone Miller, himself had gifted 20 lawn seats ‘on which adults may recline while the juveniles are bounding and frolicking on the extensive grass plot’. 

Saturday 2nd June was chosen as the day for the official opening, to mark Queen Victoria’s 69th birthday. The day dawned bright and sunny, and a large crowd turned up for a first look at their new park. The celebrations were led by the Mayor, who was determined to make the day ‘thoroughly enjoyable to young and old, to the wealthier classes and to the humbler sections of the community’. 

After a reception at the Town Hall, the Mayor led a procession, accompanied by the band of the 1st Volunteer Battalion on the Suffolk Regiment, via Princes Street and the Cattle Market, to Portman Road: 

‘the sun shone forth brilliantly as it probably not done before this year; the bells of the neighbouring churches were ringing merrily; the numberless flags of school children were floating before the gentle southerly breeze; the bands were playing their most inspiring airs; and the joyous huzzas of hundreds upon hundreds of juveniles rent the air as the Mayor and his guests entered the main gateway and continued their procession’. 

After a series of speeches it was time for the main event – the ascent of a hot air balloon. 

The scarlet and yellow balloon, the ‘Eclipse’, was under the command of a Captain Dale, described by the Ipswich Journal as ‘an aeronaut of great practical experience’. He had made many ascents, although they had not all gone smoothly; in 1884 he had been in the balloon with his wife when their balloon descended into the North Sea. Fortunately they were picked up by a passing boat. 

An enclosure around the balloon kept the crowd at a safe distance as preparations were made for take-off. Dale was not making the ascent solo; two passengers went with him. One of these was a reporter from the Ipswich Journal, who was very excited to have been offered a place on the flight, despite misgivings from some of his friends: 

‘Some of my friends appeared to think there was a good deal of danger in going up; and more looked upon it as certain destruction to come down. The prospects of an explosion suggested themselves to some minds. I think there was also a fourth vague suspicion, that we might get up in the air and not be able to come down again, and that… for some generations to come a balloon would be seen hovering about in mid-air with three skeletons inside it.’ 

Armed with powerful binoculars, a map of Suffolk, and a railway timetable, the daring journalist prepared for the ascent. Above him, the red and yellow balloon expanded and shimmered: 

‘Her silken coat, inflated with gas and played upon by the light breeze from outside, gently swells and undulates.’ 

Captain Dale and his passengers climbed into the basket, and the assembled crowd cheered as the balloon floated up into the sunny sky, while the band played ‘Up in a balloon, boys’. 

As it rose, the balloon headed north east, towards Tuddenham, becoming smaller and smaller to the crowd in the park. For the journalist experiencing his first ever flight, it was mesmerising: 

‘In an indescribably short space of time a broad panoramic view presented itselfThe whole county – for we could see almost, if not quite, to its extreme limits – lay below us like a coloured map. Westward was an unlimited acreage of ploughed and cultivated lands. To the south and south-east were the two rivers, Orwell and Stour, joining together at Harwich and looking quite close to us. Further away was Walton-on-the-Naze… One of the most conspicuous objects was Orford Spit, the white sand of which glistened beautifully in the sunshine. Another very conspicuous feature of the landscape, to which my fellow passenger called my attention, was the long straight road leading to Hollesley, which showed up with remarkable clearness… At our highest point the nearest town was Woodbridge. The tall tower of St Mary’s Church was one of the most prominent architectural objects that we came across. Wickham Market spire… also showed up well, but perhaps the stateliest of them all was Framlingham Church.’ 

The travellers reached an altitude of 4,700 feet. The journalist was struck by the silence he experienced in the sky: 

‘There was nothing which produced such an effect upon the feelings as the absolute stillness which prevailed. The silence is inconceivable to anyone who has not experienced it. One was awestruck at it, and almost feared the sound of his own voice.’ 

What goes up must, of course, come down, and landing the balloon was more of an art then a science. It now becomes clear why the journalist had taken a railway timetable with him, as the balloons Dale aimed to land in a place with a station, to facilitate their return journey to Ipswich. Dale attempted to steer the balloon towards Framlingham, but being blown a little off course the trio eventually came to ground (after being dragged through a hedge) in a wheatfield at Redlingfield, three miles from Eye. 

The journalist left Dale to pack up the balloon, and was fortunate to meet an acquaintance on the road who gave him a lift to Framlingham, where he was able to send a telegram to Ipswich, before catching a train, and being back in the town in time for a trip to the pub to tell everyone what he had seen. 

Alderman Recreation Ground is much the same shape and size today; some of the trees may well be the young saplings that our Victorian ancestors saw on that first day in the park back in 1888, as the red and yellow balloon drifted off into the sky.

Screenshot from the National Library of Scotland’s website, showing a late 19th C map of the recreation ground alongside a modern satellite view of the same area

All quotes are taken from ‘The celebration at Ipswich’, Ipswich Journal, 4th June 1888, p.5

Written by Hannah Salisbury

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