Home - Contents - Catalogs - Falconers section
On a shortcut to our flat off Kensington Church Street, heading down through Hyde Park from Queensway Underground Station, I saw a large brown bird kite climbing up over the trees in the near distance. At the time I naïvely thought it only vaguely bird-like, the product of a simple mind and artless hand. Arrogant and stupid as I was, I was unable to appreciate its flying qualities, assuming that all kites flew automatically, of their own accord. I had yet to be humbled by a kite I made myself.
It had been years since I had flown a kite. Based in Islington on the other side of London, I'd found L.L. Hunt's little book 25 Kites that Fly, which inspired me to make one. It was a seven sided, vented, bamboo and tissue paper kite, and off we went with it, Bev and I, along the canal to Regents Park for an old-fashioned picnic. Well, I soon discovered why not to bridle flat kites only from the extremes of the framework - anyway, there wasn't enough wind. Or so I thought. As we ate a guy turned up to our left, put a red kite down on the ground, walked some distance until he reached trees, turned, reeled, and made that kite jump up and climb into the wild blue yonder, until it almost disappeared from sight. Chastened and fascinated, I later would recognize it as a Round Pond Split Malay.
Then, after moving to Kensington, while recuperating from an inflamed sprained ankle, I received a belated birthday gift from my sister. It was Kite Craft by the Newmans. In it were aerodynamically interesting kites I'd never seen before, and I was soon searching for materials with which to make primarily sleds and deltas. This led me to Kite Tales newsletter and some articles on deltas and how to make them right. My first three deltas were made from shower curtain material (there were no kite shops - no ripstop nylon). I sewed them up on an ancient hand-crank sewing machine. I rigged up a fly fishing reel on a stubby rod end, like one I remembered a neighbour using when I was eight years old. Since it was right around the corner, about 8 minutes' walk, Bev and I headed for Kensington Gardens.
I didn't know then anything about the history of the Round Pond regulars; I just figured it must be a good place to fly kites.
Unfortunately, on our arrival there wasn't any wind. The regulars were neither unfriendly nor unhelpful; they were sitting about, relaxing, ignoring me for the most part. Someone helpfully reported there wasn't enough wind no matter how high one went. The book said deltas were the right kite for this, though, so I went ahead and gave it a try. My light delta seemed to almost catch something, so I tried a long launch, and then went for a walk, following fickle summer zephyrs. I managed quite a good flight - it was exhilarating! Shower curtain was disintegrating in small pieces from the trailing edge as I reeled in for a smooth landing, and though by this time we were on the far side of the pond, when I turned around the whole crowd of Round Pond flyers was there congratulating me. After that, Bev and I got to sit on a bench in the hut.
With a great deal to learn, and nobody giving away any secrets, I watched, studied, deduced, and experimented. I got construction tips and even plans, but generally each person preferred to do things in his own particular way with respect to dimensions and construction details. For instance, while the roller of Clapham Common was still Dick Godden's 1942 version of a standard Steiff Roloplan, the rollers of Kensington Gardens evolved over time, with individual makers developing their own versions. This was also true of Split Malays, and especially true of the Round Pond birds. Experimentation was limited to the perfecting of personal variations of a few basic kites all using similar construction. The aim was to fly, to fly well, and to fly high. Fancy stuff like appliqué was regarded as irrelevant and a waste of time - fine if the kite flew, but since it wouldn't be visible over 100 feet, why bother? If a kite didn't fly, then it wasn't worth a toot anyway, no matter how it looked on the ground. The material used was usually finely woven rayon lining material or light industrial nylon, cut around a cellophane tape outline to prevent stretch on the bias. Seam binding sewn around the edges replaced framing strings, and bow strings had been supplanted by bent dural ferrules, called colloquially dihedrals. Finished Round Pond kites were usually tightly stretched, and they all, with but one exception, rolled up for portability. (The exceptions were the big West Indian fighting kites made by Lucky Gordon.)
Beginners were not only tolerated but given help, advice, and encouragement. The flyers were generally helpful to anyone who showed a true interest in kites. Some inate kite flying aptitude helped, but in general, if someone needed help or advice, they could count on getting it. If you liked a design, you would look at it and go home and make your own version of it, or buy one ready-made there. Bev and I learned by picking things up in drips and drabs. And we learned by doing. If you showed you were on the right track you got answers to your questions. Designs were shared, but nobody gave away any secrets willy-nilly. Bill, for instance, adopted Alan as a sort of apprentice, and after a short while Alan could make a perfect Bill bird kite indistinguishable from one of Bill's.
We knew each other mostly by first names. No one ever pried into someone's private life. It was classless; purely kites: a shared hobby. By and large, everyone used reels based on bicycle hub/drain pipe/plywood construction with (usually) 80lb. twisted nylon line - strong enough to get kites out of trees.
At least one good deep-sky reel was, as it still is, essential. Most kites were flown high, often to steep flying angles. In those days at Kensington Gardens we were given a 30 minute advance warning (by the Park Police) of the take-off or landing of a royal helicopter, and even with a good deep-sky reel, it wasn't always easy to get a kite in - especially if it was already pulling too hard.
If a kite was lost in the pond or a tree - it was, after all, "just a kite". There were two alternative reactions to a loss. If it was the flyer's fault, or the wind, or a bad design, it was viewed philosophically, but woe betide the unfortunate newcomer who caused it by incompetence, or stubbornness, or ignorance of one or another of the most basic, common sense rules for flying kites, such as: if your kite becomes unstable and your line goes around someone else's, you don't just stand there like a bump-on-a-log yanking on it (that could just cut one of the lines, or bring both kites down). You do what I call "the kite flyer's shuffle" (both flyers move toward each other, flying their kites as well as possible, shake down the tangle to where they can see it, and promptly unwind themselves from each other before losing control of the kites).
When a flyer has a kite with a fault that causes it to fly off to one side, it should be obvious that what he should do is go over to that side and fly from there, so his line tilts away from, not across, the other lines - it's obvious to the rest of the flyers. That's not unfair. It isn't asking too much. It's not unreasonable. Anyone who behaved was welcome at the Round Pond, regardless of the design, materials, quality, or standard of workmanship of his or her kites. It helped if their kites eventually flew, of course. (Some kites, bird kites for example, could take six months or more to perfect.) Nobody was impressed, however, by a show of fancy-looking appliquéd kites on the ground - just because of the appliqué. We looked to the kite beneath the veneer of eye-candy, which didn't show up anyway when kites were flown out so far all you could see was a speck. At The Round Pond kites were judged in the air, not on the ground.
So, although it wasn't a club, there were some unwritten rules - mainly a shared instinctive, intuitive, kite flying common sense and courtesy that enabled us to fly all day long in close proximity. If we suspected our kite might go down to side, we would stay clear, and if our kite did pull to one side, we'd move to that side so our line wouldn't cross anyone else's. It's mostly just common sense. Someone who'd just stand there on the wrong side with a kite leaning or, heaven forbid, diving across everybody's lines, who'd not move to undo a crossed line would not be welcome. What kind of a plonker would do that? We dealt with crossed lines smoothly and efficiently. Line, after all, was costly and abrasion was to be avoided. Fighter kites with glassed line (Indian) or razor blades in the tail (West Indian) were not very welcome, no matter how much virtuosity the flyers displayed. The affable Lucky Gordon (remember the Profumo affair?) would breeze through once in a blue moon with one of his big, colorful, beautifully-made 6-sided West Indian fighting kites and an altogether wilder kite flying style. His kites were painted paper over lashed and braced bamboo with tails made from a single long strand from a rope. He was rumored to have put razor blades in the tails of his kites after one dissolved in the pond after a tangle with one of the regulars, who, if the story is true, was wrong in this instance not to have done more to rescue the Lucky's stricken kite. For the record, Lucky was always happy to answer questions about his kites, which at the time were unlike anything I'd ever seen before. He even let me have go at flying one.
However, not being welcoming is not the same as being actively unfriendly.
Some flyers from a south London park thought the Round Pond flyers were snobs. The way I heard it, those rumours could probably be traced back to a man named Vic and his wife, who were said to have been particularly nasty and abrasive to everyone, other kite flyers included. Of course, there were some more than mildly eccentric characters there, myself included, representing a wide variety of walks of life, with kites as the only common thread between us. One or two grudges caused by someone - a beginner, perhaps - causing an old hand to lose a kite (in the pond, for instance) were known to last indefinitely, long after the offender developed into a skilled kite flyer, but most of us knew that even without that instinctive kite flyer's common sense, people can learn. Flying kites is not that hard, after all; it just takes a bit of practice. Anyone was welcome to fly at The Round Pond as long as they flew with the proper courtesy and had kite flying common sense.
Flyers would test the pull on each other's lines, check out the winds at different levels, compare flying angles, discuss the pros and cons of different designs, and generally show appreciation. Any good-flying kite was appreciated. It didn't matter if it was big or small, crude or exquisite. We would recognize and acknowledge each other's good flights as well as sympathize with the odd turkey. (I've not experienced camaraderie like it since.)
As for me, I liked all sorts of kites; sleds, boxes, hexagons, rollers - my future wife Bev and I broke from the local tradition by concentrating on kites for light wind: ripstop nylon deltas, from around 2 feet to over 18 feet in span, sometimes flying fanatically from before sunrise to after sunset and through the night. I became hooked on the delta's light wind capabilities. The way they moved in thermals reminded me of the Turkey Vultures I used to watch soaring for hours on end when I was a kid growing up in Arizona.
Of all the different types of kite, I just liked the way deltas looked in the sky; they looked like they belonged up there, wandering among the clouds. I liked the way they moved; I also liked the fact that the design wasn't restricted to a tight set of parameters, and that they could be freely scaled up and down (scaling down proving to be more challenging than scaling up). A delta could be made as a full-size drawing, with one wing half on top of the other, and with both halves cut at once, ensuring symmetry.
The design proved to be ideal for experimentation. The basic geometric simplicity meant that one thing at a time could be altered experimentally, so there was no problem in pinpointing the effect of any changes, and development could progress step-by-step. Eventually I found out how to design them entirely using fairly simple geometry and trigonometry, and this clinched their appeal for me.
Alick Pearson first showed me ripstop nylon a couple of years before it was generally available. He got off-cuts from Isle of Wight sailmakers Ratsay & Lapthorne at a time when most kites were being made from lining material (rayon) or cotton.
Alick regarded our kites as good flyers, and we came to know him quite well. (We've heard his amazing life story, beginning with how he escaped Ireland at age 16 with nothing but a single candle after going to the outhouse at the bottom of the garden.)
When Alick's knees got bad, Bev helped him by doing his weekly shopping, and we spent quite a lot of time visiting his flat in North End Road. We watched him work and talked kites, while he cooked tripe and onions. His cutting layouts were literally vertical - his hallway wall was lined with cork bulletin boards on which he hung lengths of ripstop, drew around card patterns, cellophane-taped the outlines, and cut the parts out quickly with scissors. His sewing machine was terrible; it wouldn't stop when you let up on the foot pedal; still he could knock out 20 rollers a week. He gave me a very old experimental one that didn't fly, which I fixed by simply shortening the bridle (that surprised him). It was different from Alick's usual rollers, having a proportionally shorter rear sail. That led me into collecting old Alick Pearson rollers representing various stages of development. I traded kites for them.
In London the name "roller" applied to home-made versions of the German Roloplans, whether modified and simplified or exact copies. Regarding his development of the roller, Alick would tell how he started with the Roloplan, didn't care for its 7-legged bridle nor all the connecting strings between the sails, and used a small triangular piece of fabric at the top instead of the original strings.
Alick Pearson did not actually invent the roller. The person responsible for conceiving the original Round Pond-style roller, as well as the Split Malay and the first Round Pond bird kite, was (I am told) one John Shaw, who, though he died before I came on to the scene, was revered as the real master. His genius inspired the Round Pond fraternity; his spirit nurtured and sustained it. All the flyers developed these concepts and Alick Pearson perfected wonderful rollers and Split Malays, plus a fair number of bird designs, all of which became Round Pond icons. He also made variations on the roller theme, including the Diamond Roller, Triplane Roller, and the Concorde Roller. He favored square (X feet by X feet) dimensions for his rollers.
I'd been told the elongated roller with a nose fin called a "Pearson Roller" in books is not one of Alick's designs. The story went that in the early '70s "a woman from Parliament Hill" came down and said she wanted "a roller" - and was duly made the possessor of one, which later appeared in The Penguin Book of Kites. Whether it was one of Alick's experimental ones or someone else's (it closely resembled a Nigel or Bill roller), luckily it flew (and they do indeed fly well) in ripstop; many of those older porous designs did not.
John Shaw was said to have been the originator of the designs now associated with the Round Pond: the Round Pond bird kite (originally a modified Malay), the roller and split Malay. He and a man I only knew as Peter, and John Petty were the original Round Pond flyers, as it's been related to me. Henry was there, too. Alick Pearson simplified John Shaw's original designs; for instance, he was the only one to replace the string rigging at the wingtips of birds by simply filling in the space with wing fabric. Eventually he left the nose fins off his birds, simplified the bridling on rollers, and greatly simplified the roller design, which was originally a copy of a Stief Roloplan. John Petty made exquisite, well-braced early-type bird kites and flew them very high, usually from deep within the trees. Bill's bird kites were his own wide spanned bamboo-sparred design, and they flew extremely well. As mentioned above, his accumulated knowledge was passed on to Alan.
A good 4 foot roller was one of the sweetest kites one could fly, capable of taking out line without dropping, and climbing to prodigious angles and heights, but bird kites were the ultimate Round Pond speciality. Birds were made and flown by most of the Round Pond "regulars." Cyril made his from silk, all sewn by hand. John Petty made his own bird design, evolved back in the days of John Shaw, and Peter made high angle flyers of plastic with elaborately painted designs on them. They may have been deltas. Peter flew from the anonymity of the trees, but I never saw one of his kites myself.
John Petty was still coming to the Round Pond when Bev and I started. He also flew from the cover of the trees, and to watch him drop one of his superb bird kites, stably spinning, snap it to, and make it climb like a rocket to a great height would force one to step up one's standards by at least a full order of magnitude. Bill and Allen flew Bill's dignified bamboo sparred design - they never used ripstop. Nigel ("The Butcher"), who normally flew his own split Malay or roller designs, spent 6 months getting his black bird flying properly. "Deaf-aid" John (Robeson) made the fanciest birds, with individually battened wing tip feathers. Lovely to look at, they suffered from overweight, and there is at least one on the bottom of the pond. Alf made his own kites, but sometimes flew ones made by other kite makers. I can't remember what Morris flew, or Percy, or "The Admiral" Nelson, and there was a guy in an electric cripple car with a reel mounted on the side. Albert began making beautifully detailed experimental ripstop birds, and crafted fine reels. Greek Cypriot Gabriel mostly made cotton Hexagons (a traditional design all around the eastern Mediterranean) of a unique construction that would last a lifetime, and also supplied others with his reliable, ergonomic deep-sky reels. Gabriel's hexagons were the kites for breezy weather. Gabriel himself rarely flew anything else. Henry made "storm kites," small 18 inch squares (often handkerchiefs) with 1/4 inch sticks and 45 foot tails. I once saw 8,000 feet of line out on one of these. These men often invested a great deal of time in making their kites - with emphasis on quality, not quantity, and most of them owned and flew only one or two kites.
Alick, the prolific experimenter, and Gabriel might have brought a few extra kites to sell, and Henry always had an enormous bag which was visible long before he was, but generally the regulars flew their own version of whatever kite was popular at the time. (We were there during the bird/roller era. Before we arrived on the scene there was a pilot era, with everyone flying some sort of personal Conyne derivative or winged box.)
Besides the staunch coterie of weekenders upholding the local kite making tradition, there were a few other familiar faces who weren't necessarily designer/builders but were nevertheless regulars. "Big Bob" Trender repaired antique musical boxes (and was accidentally responsible for one Robeson bird being on the bottom of the pond); "Young Nigel" made gem studded silver palm trees and two foot silver dragonflies; "Jock" was an optical fitter and concert pianist. Robert Weil is a musician, teacher of electronic music, composer and bon vivant who practically grew up at the Round Pond. They were content to fly kites bought from the others. Henry made but a few of his many kites - he could be spotted coming a half a mile away because of the enormous kite bag and rucksack he always carried.
When the Kite Store opened in London and the new ripstop era began, new faces (and new kites) appeared at the Round Pond. Jo Wiffen, who moved on to hot air balloons. Ray Merry and Andrew Jones turned up on occasion to test fly new single line kites, Mike Pawlow brought along his huge cellular kites and introduced us to his two-line clipped wing delta-based stunt kite - the forefather of the new breed of sport kites. Mark Cottrell came over once in a while with new experimental designs, one favorite of mine being a little 6 foot span delta, white with a black fin, that used my wing spar proportions and a fin based on his new geometric design template. I ended up in the new-fangled ripstop camp, preferring "modern" kites, but using ripstop nylon for some of the more traditional Round Pond designs as well. It was a time of passionate, rather than scientific, experimentation.
|Vertical Visuals designer Mike Pawlow (at right) with one of his big box kites - the first Cyclops.||Mike setting up a Gemini - a combination of winged boxes by the hut. He was later to convince the head of the Chinese company that is now New Tech Kites to start manufacturing kites, and then spent several years designing their first range of modern kites.|
From an anonymous Round Pond flyer of the 60s and 70s:
"People I remember at the round pond:
Peter flew from the trees and never spoke to anyone... most authentic looking bird kites ever... only flew in almost no wind since the kites had a large wingspan and were made of plastic. The birds were hand painted on, I think. Nobody ever got close to one as far as I know, and few knew him well. John Shaw; John Petty and his long suffering wife; Nelson ('The Captain') and his controversial half-his-age wife; Lucky Gordon made and occasionally flew large paper-and-bamboo West Indian kites in summer and often with razor blades in their tails, or so it appeared; Alick; Gabriel, who made reels (and hexagons with crimped alloy sockets sewn on to the corners - I once saw one of these with 8,000 feet of line out); Bill; Alan; Vic and his wife; Nigel ('The Butcher' - really was a butcher and used butchers' twine for flying line) and his son Mark; Morris and his son; Henry; young Nigel the silversmith; Cyril; Percy; Dan and his gorgeous wife Bev; myself; Bob Trender, restorer of antique music boxes; and one more: I can't think of his name but to describe him: a guy who used to be a 'gentleman's gentleman' whatever that meant, made bird kites that flew only occasionally and spent ages testing, smoked a pipe, disappeared for a few years and re-emerged looking much older. I'm sure you remember him." (That was Albert.)
Incidentally, no Round Pond roller or split Malay would have ever used sliding adjusters on the two sail connecting strings. That would have defeated the object, which was to fine tune a new kite permanently to fly exactly straight. Sliding adjusters would always slip out of position during flight, and by the time the kite was landed its sail would be slack and floppy, the spine without its curve. Those sliders were Nick Morse's idea, applied to our Kite Workshop roller as a production short cut. They weren't shown on my original roller plan in "Kite Lines" (Spring 1984), but were added by others in at least three copies published in later books.
Meanwhile, we continued to meet others with similar interests in different parts of London. Parliament Hill in Hampstead was another spot famous for excellent kite flying, home field for David and Jilly Pelham, Nick Morse, Mark Cottrell, Len Preager (a London cabbie who developed the ubiquitous seagull kite, the multi-faceted box kite, and the first scalloped delta I ever saw); Ray Merry and Andrew "Wilf" Jones test flew early Flexifoils and single line kites there; Chris Compton, the rocket scientist with his light deltas and airplane kites, was sometimes there, along with a number of regulars.
It is a wonderful location with a magnificent view of London. One could see other kites sometimes, flown from Primrose Hill Park or perhaps even Regents Park. I still remember one mystery delta in particular, visible in the distance. It looked like a very stable delta-pilot, except instead of v-cells it appeared to have just two rectangular panels. There are pictures of Brookites from the 1920s and '30s in the Pelham Book of Kites with this type of arrangement; but I couldn't see it well enough to tell for sure. I saw this kite more than once, and have always meant to try one like it (but haven't gotten around to it). I wish I could have met it's maker.
London's first modern kite festival was staged there, sponsored by the then new Kite Store. The Kite Store opened in Neal Street, and a group calling themselves "The Kite Workshop" started producing new ripstop kites, with Jilly Pelham more or less at the helm, and Nick Morse, Ray merry and Wilf Jones. I'd hang around sometimes soaking up the atmosphere (I made the pattern for the Kite Workshop roller, later the Vertical Visuals roller, and my first small pre-fiberglass delta). But my own experiments went on at the Round Pond in Kensington Gardens, which was close to our flat.
There were also groups of kiters at Blackheath and Clapham Common, with long histories of continual kite flying. Bev and I also occasionally flew in Regents Park and at Primrose Hill. Each location had its own regular flyers with their own characteristic kite designs and methods of making them, but London kites were generally of cloth, well reinforced, and flown high in the lovely steady light winds.
We moved away in 1981, and I have returned but twice since. Nigel was there, with the same old linen butchers twine he's always used as flying line, flying a reframed Brookite Malay in a horrendous wind, but the old-timers were gone, for the most part, or at least didn't turn up very often, and I have heard recently that kite flying has been banned from Kensington Gardens altogether.
A couple of years before we left Kensington, we were approached by someone who wanted to start manufacturing kites as a business, and I began designing a range of small to medium sized kites to be sewn by outworker machinists. This was The Wycombe Kite Company (pronounced wick'-um). The first Wycombe kite was a smallish scalloped delta, which I tested for six months. There were many prototypes, mostly with wood wing spars. The final version was meant to be both efficient in light winds yet able to withstand a certain amount of abuse; the first (and only) major change to the design was a decrease in the depth of scallop. The next Wycombe kite was the little Fringed Delta, a 90° kite with a fringed trailing edge.
In 1979 or -80 I had made a special kite for Greg Locke for an officially sanctioned endurance record attempt. The day before the highly publicized event, the kite line was inadvertently cut by a fisherman on the pier where Greg was practicing, and the kite was lost. With no time to spare, the only thing he could think to do was get hold of another delta quickly - and the only one available happened to be a Wycombe Fringed Delta from a Brighton shop. The rest, as they say, is history. Greg managed 108 hours before the tidal shifts of wind got the better of him. He was, after all, flying from the confinement of a pier. A few years later a Fringed Delta flew for two weeks non-stop unofficially tied to a farm fence for the purpose of scaring birds away from a newly-sown field, which proves, if nothing else, that, given the right conditions, deltas are so easy to fly that a fence post could do it.
The Fringed Delta was followed by the Widespan, a 100 inch span, 100 degree delta, the biggest design I could do with one-piece wings using the width of fabric available then (1980).
Next came the Super Tube, based on a non-flying stickless sled concept kite left at The Kite Workshop by a London East End shoe manufacturer. He asked if any of us could get this thing to fly. My simplified, re-designed version flew very well (if well-sewn). I believe someone is still making commercial versions of this kite today.
After moving to Wales, I did the Wycombe Wasp, based on the proportions of a Nagasaki Hata, but unlike a fighting kite, it was solidly stable. I know fighter kite enthusiasts cringe at the very thought of taking away the borderline instability of a refined fighting kite design, but the Wasp had to be readily flyable by western kids and their dads. The bridles came attached and ready-set, and there was almost nothing that could be assembled wrong on one. You could only put the bowed cross-spar in one way - the right way. This was a good little kite. The Wycombe Wasp had the three tail streamers (as shown here) sewn together into one 18 foot long tail (both work equally well).
Later on, I did a five-sided star box thing with no bridles (the Sputnik), and a tiny tailed diamond - the Charlie Brown - for the Wycombe Kite Company (long since extinct).
With all the development that went into the Wycombe designs, it won't come as a surprise to learn that the Wycombe deltas live on today, as Drifter (only if parts are available) and the new Whirlwind (with carbon parts), no longer sewn by outworker machinists, but made exclusively by Bev and me as one-offs.
Home - Contents - Catalogs - Falconers section
Top of page