Taking flight in North Devon

Take to the skies for Ilfracombe's South West Birdman 2015

Take to the skies for Ilfracombe's South West Birdman 2015 - Credit: Archant

Flying penguins, Vikings, rafts… it promises to be a bit bonkers in North Devon this summer. Chrissy Harris finds out more about the madcap antics that attract thousands of people to this region every year

Ilfracombe Birdman 2012.

Ilfracombe Birdman 2012. - Credit: Archant

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s a man dressed as a penguin hurling himself off a pier into the icy cold water below.

Bruce Isaac and his fellow Lundy Penguins are part of a steady stream of daredevil competitors who – albeit very briefly – have taken to the skies as part of the South West Birdman contest.

This hugely popular event sees crazy aviators take a running jump off Ilfracombe Pier in the hope that they will fly the farthest and be crowned champion in front of thousands of spectators.

It’s certainly not for the faint-hearted but seasoned birdman Bruce says there is no room for last minute wobbles when you’re standing there, 20 feet up, ready to fly.

“We had a slightly reluctant penguin last year but we tied a barrel of water to him and tied his legs together and he soon slipped in,” he says, explaining how the moment of departure can affect some competitors more than others.

“It doesn’t bother me but some people do get funny about it. The trick is to wait until the tide is high, then you haven’t got so far to jump!” says Bruce. “There’s a great atmosphere because so many people come to watch and support you.”

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South West Birdman is a big deal for Ilfracombe and has steadily grown since its launch more than 20 years ago.

The free-to-watch event, organised by Ilfracombe Round Table, raises funds for local charities, and regularly attracts national attention.

Take to the skies for Ilfracombe's South West Birdman 2015

Take to the skies for Ilfracombe's South West Birdman 2015 - Credit: Archant

In 2014, Leo Cooper made the headlines when he proposed to girlfriend Chani Turner in front of delighted crowds.

The pair then literally took the plunge and leapt off the pier, dressed in their bride and groom outfits. They married last year.

“We like to do things a bit differently,” says Leo, a long-serving member of Ilfracombe Round Table.

“It was pretty nerve wracking to do something like that in front of 3,000 people. I just had to hope she said yes. Luckily she did. I don’t know what I would have done otherwise – just jumped in and started swimming to Wales, I guess!”

Other crowd-pleasing birdmen (and women) have included a team of Peppa Pigs, a ballerina, Buzz Lightyear and a parachuting soldier.

Event organiser Paul Wright says it’s all about having fun for a good cause.

“Birdman started off as a jumping competition but has grown year on year,” he says. “Last year, about 14,000 came through the gates. It’s a cracking day that’s great for the town.”

The jumping or ‘flying’ usually lasts about an hour and half, depending on the enthusiasm and speed of the competitors, and then there is be live music, a barbecue and children’s entertainment. This year’s Birdman takes place on 5 August.

Meanwhile, along the North Devon coast at Lynmouth, the town is preparing for its own slightly crazy summer event: the Raft Race on 22 July.

Here, teams of volunteers construct a vessel made from any junk they can salvage (no canoes, boats or surfboards allowed) and take to the water.

As if that wasn’t tricky enough, the teams then have to make it past the spectators who are armed with bags of flour and buckets of water to pelt the participants as they try to make it to the open sea.

“We have had some extremely good entries over the years,” says Brian Wood, of the Lyn Lions Club, which organises the race.

“Every year there’ll be something that’s quite memorable. I can remember one where four men dressed as Vikings – I thought that was good. We’ve also had Thunderbirds, all sorts of themes.”

Before the race, there is a procession, where spectators can view the raft designs up close before they take to the water.

Some capsize along the way and don’t make it to the finish line, but it’s the taking part that counts here.

Awards are dished out after the race for a range of categories, including “best dressed raft and crew” and “fastest crew home”. The first raft to sink is awarded a booby prize.

“It’s just a good, fun afternoon and it’s very popular,” says Brian. “We get crowds of people lining the harbour. It’s our main fund-raiser for the Lions.”

See eventbrite.co.uk; lyntonandlynmouth.org.uk

Five things you should know about North Devon

A special island: Lundy is a 400ft granite outcrop, which lies 12 miles off the coast of North Devon. The rugged cliffs of the west coast are carpeted with maritime grass species and are home to important seabird colonies, including puffins. See landmarktrust.org.uk

Natural beauty: Areas such as the Hartland Peninsula are globally recognised as having outstanding natural beauty. The iconic South West Coast Path encircles the whole Peninsula. The Hartland Quay to Bude section is generally regarded as the toughest part of the whole route.

Great Torrington: Known locally as the Cavalier town, Great Torrington played a hugely significant role in the English Civil War (Battle of Torrington, 1646) and is recognised as an important heritage centre.

Head for heights: Little Hangman near Combe Martin is said to be the tallest sea cliff in mainland Britain, measuring around 750ft.

Great exclamations: Westward Ho! is a picturesque coastal village whose name derives from the Victorian novel by Charles Kingsley. It is the only place in Britain with an exclamation mark in its name!

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