"It's a great way of looking for a new house," Paul remarked as we peered down at the rustic residences of the Midlands, a surpassing number of which were endowed with swimming pools. He explained that the rigidity of the helium envelope is maintained by an air-filled balloon known as a ballonet, which can be filled or emptied. "If I allow the pressure to drop, the balloon will bend like a banana. If I allow pressure to get too high, I will burst the balloon." With this cheery thought in mind, we meandered for two hours over the showground. At 1,500 feet, Britain's largest country show looked minuscule. The rows of agricultural equipment in bright, primary colours might have come from a toy farm. Lilliputian horses cantered round an arena. A bright-red postage stamp edging across the ground turned out to be a military band marching in formation. A flock of sheep wiggled like white maggots. Fringed by bonsai trees, a mirror- like sliver of water passed over a weir and was transformed into a straggly white beard.
I discovered that the airship was part of an 11-strong fleet owned by the Virgin Group (the rest are in the US and continental Europe). Apparently, Virgin's buccaneering boss occasionally uses them for water-skiing. "I know he's done it in the Mediterranean, off Los Angeles and somewhere near Rickmansworth," my pilot mused. He then turned off the propellers located behind the gondola. For a minute or two, we hung silently in the air, like a giant purple sausage. "Now you can't do that with many aircraft," Paul pointed out.
One surprising thing about hovering in the ether is just how busy it is up there. Every few seconds, the radio crackled into life with air traffic control messages. Overhead, there were jumbos heading for Brum, while, far below us, helicopters whirled over the showground like sycamore seeds. At one point, a platoon of parachutists zig-zagged earthwards, a tangle of scarlet smoke uncoiling from their heels. There followed a display of falconry (though the air traffic controllers omitted to mention this). Finally, intermittent licks of flame, as if from recalcitrant cigarette lighters, became visible at the heart of the showground. A dozen hot-air balloons - 11 billiard balls and a strawberry - began to drift in the direction of Coventry.
Tutting at their lack of control, Paul opened the throttle of the airship and we soared over a sinuous necklace of nose-to-tail cars queuing to leave the show. Just moments later, he nudged the craft towards our landing field. I remarked on the stately nature of our approach. "We're coming in at 32 knots," Paul replied. "That's flat-out for us." The landing crew snatched the craft's landing tethers and we were hoicked from the heavens.
At ground level, of course, the Royal Show was stupendously vast. The arenas, pavilions, surging crowds and endless parades of animals put one in mind of ancient Rome. But where to start amid this multiplicity of attractions? A bowler-hatted official pointed me in the right direction. "Country shows are funny things," he observed. "Lots of farmers dressed like city gents and acting as lavatory attendants to cattle." The truth of this statement was impressed on me as soon as I entered the cattle sheds. A delicate-featured blonde, dressed for a classy dinner party, was applying a length of paper towel to a cow's behind. Belying their reputation for gloominess, knots of snaggle-toothed agriculturists stood around, laughing fit to bust. On every side, bovine rumps stretched to infinity: the well-polished mahogany of Pedigree Sussex; the delicate dappling of British Whites; the dun and white of Ayrshires, like the map of a mysterious coastline; the dull, metallic gleam of Murray Greys; the supermodel boniness of Jerseys. Every so often, an ox-tail delicately cantilevered in the air and a "plap, plap, plap" noise would punctuate the farmers' chortles. In this salon de beaute for ungulates, the steaming output was instantly picked up by a tweed-clad figure.
Of all the breeds at the Royal Show, I lost my heart to the Dexters, even to the extent of investing 50p in a raffle to win one of the diminutive beasts. Should we be successful, the Weasel family can look forward to 20 years of excellent milk, or (we farmers can't afford to be sentimental) "old-fashioned, quality meat". Noted for docility and good nature, Dexters are Britain's smallest domestic breed, standing about three feet at the shoulder. But I did wonder how well my prize would fare in a south London terraced house.
Outside the cattle sheds, somewhere between a stand devoted to "Uncompromising Canadian Genetics" and a display by a company which manufactures "Water Beds for Quadrupeds", I was unaccountably drawn into the marquee of the "British Blonde Society". Unfortunately, there was no sign of Mesdames Fostrup, Rice and Kensit, or royal patron Diana, Princess of Wales. Instead, I was given a wealth of information (possibly, even a slight excess) about a handsome, golden beast called Blonde d'Aquitaine, which is noted for speed of growth and generosity of rump (where the high-priced joints are located). "Until last year, we were known as the `Blonde Aquitaine Breeders Society of Great Britain Ltd'," said breed secretary Rex Difford. "But the new name is sexier and easier to write on cheques. Mind you, it does cause a bit of confusion when we book hotel rooms. Receptionists often ask: `What exactly is the nature of your business?'"
Which is worse, old money or the nouveau riche? In Vanity Fair, the estimable Fran Lebowitz notes: "Mostly, people who earn their own money have done more damage to society than people who inherit." Conversely, my fellow columnist, Harry Enfield, notes in the Sunday Telegraph Magazine that: "Most of the happiest people I know were self-made, and most of the toffs I know are round the bend." Personally, I can't come down one way or the other, because no one I know has any money at all. This is not to say they don't earn reasonable amounts, just that they have a remarkable ability for getting rid of the stuff. One pal distributes his largesse to the needy car dealers of the Home Countries, constantly swapping his BMW for a Jag, his Jag for a Golf, all at ruinous costs. Another crony has pauperised himself with complex alterations to houses which he then instantly moves out of. He has now had the builders in for most of this year, adding an extension which will enlarge his home by exactly three feetReuse content