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B u t   T h o s e   * * * * * * * 

K e e p   C a t c h i n g   T h e m !

 In 1987 Sir Richard Branson and Per Linstrand were together in a small pressurised capsule, hanging below their massive Virgin Atlantic 'Flyer' balloon, and flying across the Atlantic from west to east. Their dangerous, eventful and record-breaking adventure entered the history books, after they had travelled 2,900 miles in 32 hours, and reached speeds in excess of 130 miles per hour, in their fragile balloon, by using the upper atmosphere jet stream.

     The conclusion of their epic journey was very dramatic with both balloonists close to meeting a calamitous end, off the east coast of Northern Ireland, touching down near to Limavady. They lifted off again and eventually crash landed in the Irish sea.

When I first saw the sight of the huge balloon and the gas cylinders surrounding the living capsule, I could tell that a dramatic painting was needed to record the amazing journey. Well, I tried and tried to get a composition to work: I struggled with the enormity of the balloon in relation to the relative small size of the Richard and Per’s control and survival 'pod'.

     Eventually, I gave up shoe-horning the whole craft on to my canvas. I decided that the best solution was to show the bottom part of balloon and the capsule. The sponsors' logos didn't look that attractive on the painting, so I shrouded the balloon in high altitude wispy stratus cloud and dramatically cut the amount of balloon envelope that could be seen. This enabled me to show the full drama of the capsule, its gas cylinders and the 'roar' of the powerful white and yellow flame from the burners. To finish the whole effect off, I curved the horizon to give the impression of how high the balloon was flying, with the base cloud looking dark and foreboding.

With the painting complete, I was wondering how to finish it off. Then it hit me – I should try and get it signed by Richard since he lived close by in Kidlington. ‘Yeh. Right!’ I said to myself, ‘How are you going to achieve that?’ I decided the only way to do this, was to put on my cheeky hat – the one that I had learnt to wear that changed me into being as cheeky as possible to enable a seemingly untenable project, to happen – to try any possible route to get a project under way.

     I searched for any Virgin addresses that might lead me to Richard, (remember, this is pre-internet/Google days!) and when I had found some likely candidates, I sent letters addressed to the Head of Virgin, including a photo of the painting, to see if the boss would be interested. After many weeks went passed, I gave up expecting a reply, when a white envelope popped through my letter box with a red Virgin logo on it. I held my breath whilst I ripped the paper apart. I read:

     ‘Dear Peter, of course I will sign your painting; please call my P.A. to arrange a meeting at my Kidlington house – perhaps this Saturday?’ I stared at the words and couldn't believe what I was reading – I could NOT believe it. I not only had my meeting okayed, but my painting was to be signed by Richard at his house, not five miles away!

The following day I called the number on the letter and I was put throught to Richard Branson himself! We agreed to meet at his house at 10ish that very Saturday morning, since he would be away from his London house for the week-end. My children, Robin, Amy and my nephew, Jon, insisted on coming in the car too, since they were dying to see Richard's house.


Saturday came, and we arrived at the open gates of his house. No one was around, so I parked the car outside a low building with a stable door, with the top part open. We got out, but still no one appeared. Clutching my painting under my arm, I decided to look through the half open stable door to see if I could find someone. I found myself peering into a kitchen... and to my right, through another open door... I saw Richard striding towards me! We exchanged greetings and he asked to see my painting. Thankfully, he was very pleased with it and he went to search for a pen. He signed his life away on the painting, and then... decided he wanted it for his house!

     Well, that wasn't expected! Having done the surprise deal, Richard invited us for a tour of his garden. I could tell he was wanting to show off his new lake, that had recently been dug out by the yellow JCBs, dotted around the grassy slopes.

     ‘I've just stocked it with trout, but those buggers keep catching them!’ he said, exasperated. He pointed across to a strange and unusual sight on his new lake - to a canoe with an outrigger, that wouldn't have looked out of place on the sea near a Caribbean island, or somewhere around Fiji. Richard then turned to a large and extremely attractive two-storey garden building near to the lake, that again, wouldn't have looked out of place in an exotic location: just imagine tree trunk columns, all beautifully carved and set out on a large rectangle, supporting two tiers of thatched roofs – there was one narrow one around the edge of the structure, and a second higher up forming the main roof.

     ‘I loved that building so much, when I saw it on holiday, that I bought it (as you do...) and had it shipped over to my garden, together with two indigenous craftsman from the island to rebuild it here. Trouble is, they brought their own canoe that you can see on my new lake, but the buggers keep catching my freshly introduced trout!’

     We toured the whole of Richard's garden, in the company of his children Holly and Sam, with the conversation bouncing around high-powered subjects, that made me feel I lived in a very genteel and protected world. 

That incredible visit was surreal and very enjoyable, with Richard being the perfect host having been extremely generous with his time, and of course, deciding to have my painting!

Sadly, that beautiful garden building was burnt down by vandals in 2011.