Geoff Hall of the Kent Microlight Aircraft Club takes us on an aerial tour of the Garden of England on a crisp autumnal day…
19 January 2022
If, like me, you are keen on aerial photography then autumn is a much anticipated opportunity to get some very different scenic shots. The Garden of England – Kent – can be truly glorious in autumn with all the orchards, gardens and woodlands dramatically changing hue and casting their long shadows.
For as long as I can remember Paul Brooker, my trusty co-pilot for the last 20 years, and I have been taking an autumnal flight around Kent in search of the best visual displays, but first you need a fine day to take good photographs – and the right aircraft!
Our steed is a P&M Quik R flexwing microlight. It’s a beast really with a 100hp Rotax 912S engine and a topless, strutted wing complete with winglets. We can comfortably cruise at 85mph and if you are in a hurry the magic (for a flexwing) ton is achievable. With the high power to weight ratio the aircraft will climb in excess of 1500fpm solo, and with a full 65lt tank you can comfortably fly for 3.5hr or 300 miles.
But the best thing, from a photographer’s point of view is… the view! From the front cockpit you have some excellent open air shooting areas either side of the screen.
When we are on a specific photographic sortie I will get Paul to fly from the rear seat via the additional instructor’s control bars. This is also the safest method as a good lookout can be maintained. We find the best height for detailed pictures is between 500ft to 1,000ft above ground level with airspeed of around 70 to 75mph to lessen the effect of the wind-induced camera buffet.
If you are interested in camera equipment, I use a Canon EOS 2000D SLR fitted with an 18-55mm zoom lens. I like to use the viewfinder, even when wearing a helmet with full visor, and I normally use the speed priority setting with a minimum 1,000th second shutter speed, as image sharpness is everything. I compensate for brightness by under-exposing by 2/3 stop and always use auto-focus. I seldom use much zoom as this increases the chance of blurring and post-shoot I use a basic photo editing programme to manually adjust the shots. I generally don’t use any effects apart from cropping, straightening and adjusting the exposure. And of course the golden rule – take lots of shots to ensure you get at least one that is satisfactory.
And so to our autumnal photo sortie. We fly from Kent Microlight Aircraft Club’s base at Harringe Court Farm, very close to the famous old airfield of Lympne, which was operational in both wars but is probably more famous for the numerous celebrity pilots who set off from here in the 1930s at the start of their long distance flights to the furthest reaches of the British Empire.
You need fine weather and good light to get the best shots, and both of these can be in somewhat short supply during the autumn months, plus you need to time your flight to coincide with the best volume and colour of the leaves. When all the stars are in alignment we meet up earlier than usual at the airfield and get prepped – a quick coffee, put the beast together (we have to take the wing off to get it in the hangar), conduct thorough pre-flight checks using a bespoke checklist, add enough fuel for a couple of hours (the Rotax likes E5 mogas) and get ‘togged up’ in warm clothing – essential at this time of year. We use Flycom helmets with full visors – they are comfortable, have excellent soundproofing and a very clear intercom, which is vital for open cockpit flying.
“Cockpit checks complete, radio and strobes on, electric trimmer set and we are ready to go”
I am flying from the front, so the Rotax is fired up and left to chunter for a few minutes to get the oil up to a minimum 50° temperature. Cockpit checks complete, radio and strobes on, electric trimmer set and we are ready to go. We have SkyDemon loaded onto an iPad mini for longer trips, but we only pay a monthly subscription as we are far too mean to pay for the winter period! The Quik R takes a bit more runway than the average flexwing, especially when heavy (nothing to do with combined pilots weight you understand!) and it won’t get airborne until you have at least 60mph on the ASI. But once your wheels leave the ground the aircraft quickly climbs to the desired transit altitude and we trim for 80-85mph cruise.
We are flying to Sheffield Park first as it is furthest away – and in East Sussex, but don’t tell anybody… It’s around 40 miles and we deviate slightly to have a look at Bewl Water, the largest reservoir in Kent and a very prominent navigational landmark. After 30 minutes flying we arrive at our first ‘target for today’ and are rewarded with the multicoloured vista of an astonishing array of trees, originally landscaped in the 18th century by the man himself – Capability Brown. We are lucky that the sun has reappeared after being a rather dull flight up from Harringe, and it brings out the very best in the subtle leaf colouring.
The GoPro picture taken last year flying over the gardens shows the rather ‘snug’ tandem seating arrangement of the typical flexwing! Everything you are going to need for the flight – map board, pencils, GPS, cameras, glasses etc must be secured / lanyarded in place before you depart as you will struggle to get anything out in flight. More than a few mobile phones have disappeared over the side – if you are lucky it won’t go through the prop, as that would put a severe crimp on the day’s proceedings to say the least!
We now turn eastwards back to the Weald of Kent and Scotney Castle near Lamberhurst. This is a perfect little gem and probably my favourite, with the central feature being the ruins of a medieval, moated manor house, surrounded by a gorgeous selection of trees.
Nearby is Bedgebury National Pinetum & Forest which is always guaranteed to be a riot of colour if conditions are favourable and today is no exception.
Having flown extensively around Kent for the last 35 years you think you know it like the back of your hand, yet it is amazing how often you come across a feature which you have never seen before. We were heading to Sissinghurst when we flew over a stunning moated house with an exquisite garden. When I got home I matched the photo using Google Earth and it was positively identified as 16th century Glassenbury House near Cranbrook. It just shows you that no two flights are ever the same.
We also happened upon some orchards which seemed to perfectly encapsulate the Garden of England theme with a fine display of contrasting russet and green fruit trees surrounding an oast house so typical of this area. You could almost imagine Pop Larkin (Darling Buds of May fame) waving up at you from the farmyard!
Sissinghurst Castle Gardens were famously created by the novelist, poet and journalist Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicolson in 1938, and are one of the most renowned Grade I listed gardens in the country – the distinctive tower makes them easy to identify.
Heading north towards Staplehurst we came across a large vineyard divided into uniform golden-yellow blocks. This is indicative of the changing shape of fruit farming in Kent – wine production is now a serious business and some fine sparkling varieties are currently available that seriously challenge those established Champagne brands we all know and love.
Having visited most of our favourite autumnal targets in west Kent we headed back, coast bound, to enjoy some more local features. There are plenty of other famous sites we could have visited, notably the castles at Hever, Leeds and Bodiam, but the usable daylight hours are short at this time of year so you need to be selective.
Flying over another, smaller vineyard near Canterbury we pick up the M20 and fail dismally to catch a Eurostar express on the high-speed line as it races headlong towards the Channel Tunnel. Passing abeam our airfield we arrive, just a few minutes later, at the private Grade II listed Sandling Park Garden, which displays an amazing spread of trees.
Another couple of miles down the line near Saltwood is ‘The American Garden’, which takes its name from a Californian Redwood tree planted in 1854, and is considered a real hidden gem in this part of Kent.
“Battle of Britain Memorial above the White Cliffs boasts a fine view over the Channel”
Perched high on the North Downs atop Tolsford Hill is the striking circular plantation of different tree varieties known as ‘Brockman’s Bushes’ – a particular local favourite of mine. Flying towards the coast the Battle of Britain Memorial at Capel appears in view, strikingly sited above the White Cliffs it boasts a fine view over the Channel and there is no finer monument to honour ‘The Few’. See how the main building’s wings are deliberately Spitfire-shaped. This is one landmark you shouldn’t miss out on if flying around this area – I love the Spitfire and Hurricane full-size replicas, but the jury is out on the recently acquired silver Stuka sculpture in crashed pose!
Progressing along the White Cliffs we arrive overhead Dover’s bustling harbour and Eastern Docks from where the Cross Channel ferries depart. This is part of our regular ‘patrol’ beat, but I never tire of the towering cliffs and majestic castle – it is really an outstanding view. You do need to check carefully for Notam in this area – we’ve been plagued with temporary restricted airspace notifications all year, mostly due to large drones operating out of Lydd and covering the Channel area and often large portions of inland airspace – I don’t need to tell you what they are looking for.
When the cliffs eventually run out you arrive at Walmer, then Deal, which is one of the most handsome seaside towns on the Kent coast in my opinion. It comes complete with a recently refurbished pier and an iconic circular Castle (there’s an identical one at Walmer), which Henry VIII built to keep out ‘you know who’! Similar fortifications were still being built across this part of Kent up until the Napoleonic threat eventually subsided.
There are a string of Martello towers from Folkestone to the other side of Rye, East Sussex, plus the iconic Royal military canal.
Returning to the airfield and nearing the end of the day the rich, low light illuminates a large golden-brown carpet of woodland near Ashford just perfectly, and the twin line of tall trees we pass grow ever-lengthening shadows. We cross back over the M20 and railway lines before setting up our approach to our freshly mown 350 metre strip at Harringe.
The Quik R doesn’t have the shortest landing roll in the world so accurate flying is essential. Having no flaps the approach speed is quite high for a microlight – at least 70mph even when you have some trim wound on, and you don’t slow down much until you flare for landing. But once on the grass you rapidly lose the speed, especially if landing up the slight slope, and rear disc brakes only need to be used sparingly, if at all.
We have flown for over 1.5hr and must have covered well in excess of 100 miles around Kent. The body is starting to get a bit stiff and chilly, so it’s time to put the Quik to bed in its nice cosy hangar and have a well-earned warming drink – we switch from beer to coffee once the clocks go back – while reflecting upon another successful autumnal sortie. Of course, I get to relive it all again when I arrive home and download the images – another thing I enjoy about aerial photography.
So why don’t you dust off the old lens, do a bit of research and plan a route around some likely colourful targets in your local area in readiness for next autumn?
But first you’ve got to get through the winter – some snow flying perhaps? Now there’s a thought!