It was the 27th Edition of the International Kite Festival at the little seaside resort of Berck-sur-Mer on the Opal Coast in northern France.
The wind was blowing up a gale – some of the bigger kites had had to be pulled down and anchored for health and safety reasons – after all, a 40m long lobster bearing down on one is a bit of a scary prospect.
Temporarily the surreal sight of 20,000 kites that float in the skies above the golden sandy beaches for the duration of the festival was halted until the wind dropped and it gave me a chance to catch up with World Champion kite flier David Morley.
David Morley is one of the Scratch Bunnies, the UK kite team who are the current world champions (2014) – they won this coveted title at the International Kite Festival in the same town, Berck-sur-Mer, in 2010 and 2012 (the competition is held every two years). 2013 was not a competition year and the team couldn’t make the event as they all have day jobs – kite flying is not a lucrative sport. David however, has come to the festival for the since he was a teenager and it has become a tradition for him and a chance to catch up with kite buddies from around the world.
“It’s the biggest festival of its type in the world” he tells me as we watch a giant witch on a broomstick writhing in the windy skies outside the window. “That’s big” he says, “but there is one much bigger kite here – the Kuwaiti Flag kite – it’s the second largest kite in the world” – coming in a whopping 1250 square metres he isn’t kidding. “It used to be the largest kite in the world, but the same Kuwaiti family have an even bigger kite now in the shape of a giant manta ray”.
Meantime a team of kitefliers in the big arena on the beach are being watched by tens of thousands of spectators – it is estimated that 600,000 people descend on Berck during the week of festivities. The fliers struggle as the wind cruelly pulls the kites this way and that trying to destroy the aerial ballet routine that they will have spent many moons practicing to achieve perfection.
David tells me that flying a kite at this level is technical, you need to work out where the wind is coming from and what speed, you don’t just stand still and hold the kite string, you have to move around, pull and tug and control the kite. It’s surprisingly physical and kitefliers train hard to get to the top of their game.
The Scratch Bunnies World Champion Kite Team have been together for eleven years and David is one of the original members. He tells me that the team came together by accident – literally. Another kiteflier broke his arm a week before the UK National Championships and his team dropped out. The organisers of the event persuaded David, a keen kiteflier since a child, and some of his friends to compete to fill the gap, they “scratched” a team together and the Scratch Bunnies were born.
They are like “the Harlem Globetrotters” of the kite flying world and in Berck which takes this festival very seriously – they are a legend.
For the duration of the International Kite Festival, the whole town, population 15,000, gets behind the event, restaurants promote special menus for just €10 per head, local companies and the tourist agency go out of their way to make sure visitors have a great time.
It is though, the kites who take centre stage – as you drive into the town from whatever angle, you simply can’t miss those thousands of floating shapes – in all colours, all sizes, it’s a truly magical sight.