Balloonist retraces French heroine’s daring journey to Southwold

Marie Marvingt, who was known as La Fianc�e du Danger, crash-landed her hot air balloon in Suffolk 101 years ago.

She was known as La Fianc�e du Danger and spearheaded the development of the first air ambulance.

She also fought in the first world war, cycled across France at the age of 86 and even found time to become a ski champion.

And on October 26, 1909, aviation pioneer Marie Marvingt crash-landed at Reydon, near Southwold, in her hot air balloon.

Nearly 101 years later, hotelier Benoit Pelard took on the same journey from Nancy, France, in memory of the dramatic flight.

Mademoiselle Marvingt, who died in 1961 aged 88, is one of France's most decorated women due to her astonishing number of military, artistic and sporting accolades.

When she decided to go on a gentle balloon ride in 1909, the adventurer and her companion Col Garnier ended up in a violent storm over the North Sea, where they dipped into the water 52 times. Soaked through, they eventually saw a light on the horizon.

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It was Southwold Lighthouse, and they crash landed in a field at nearby Reydon.

However, news reports at the time – including in the Eastern Daily Press – did not realise that Mademoiselle Marvingt was in fact an intrepid aviator and a famous figure in her native country.

She was even rumoured to have been the mistress of French military hero General Ferdinand Foch.

David de Kretser, president of the Southwold Museum and Historical Society, found out about the extraordinary event last year after Mr Pelard, also from the adventurer's home town of Nancy, got in touch.

Mr de Kretser said the dramatic tale was full of surprises – including Mademoiselle Marvingt herself.

'She was a champion skier, cyclist, shooter, mountaineer,' he said.

'She founded the air ambulance and she taught herself to fly as well as being a balloonist.

'She fought in the first world war in the Somme, disguised as an infantryman.'

Mr Pelard was not able to land in Reydon but managed to reach Sissinghurst, in Kent, on Friday evening after an 18-hour flight. Mr de Kretser met Mr Pelard in Southwold on Sunday morning. Mr Pelard, a keen balloonist, said the commemorative flight was five years in the making. They had planned to make the journey to England for the 100 years anniversary, but the balloon was not ready.

'Marie Marvingt fought the whole of her life to raise money for the air ambulance. In 1910, before the first world war, she was already trying to get money to have a special plane built,' said Mr Pelard, 57.

'I think she was a wonderful lady.'

STAR VOYAGE

When Mademoiselle Marvingt and Col Garnier left France in 1909, conditions were perfect for the launch of the hydrogen balloon L'Etoile Filante, the Shooting Star.

They headed north to Holland but the wind increased speed and changed direction, so landing was impossible.

Travelling over the North Sea they got caught in a snow storm and frequently dipped into the water.

Torrential rain followed the snow, but they saw Southwold Lighthouse in the distance and Mademoiselle Marvingt cried out: 'Land England!'

The basket became trapped in a tree in Reydon at about 1.30am and she tumbled out, while the lighter weight caused the balloon to take off again, with Col Garnier inside.

The grounded aviator went looking for help and a man on a bike said she should have taken the ferry.

Another man later noted that he saw 'a man with no hat on' gesticulating and talking rapidly in a foreign tongue – but shut his window and went back to bed.

Eventually four policemen were called to assist the adventurers. The next day, the balloon was packed up and, after purchasing several postcards, the pair left Southwold by train.