Having a ball on the hillside
Jonny Beardsall’s family are crazy – about rolling down slopes in a sphere
Wrapped in black gaffer tape, the plastic exercise ball in which our family hamster tears across the kitchen has seen so many repairs that it rolls in near-darkness. Well, now its two keepers are about to appreciate what their hyperactive pet is subjected to when they climb inside a giant-size, blacked-out version and roll down a steep hill at Heaton House Farm, 14 miles south of Manchester.
If you have yet to try it, this is Eclipse Sphereing. It is the latest variant of SphereMania, the company that has been rolling people of all ages, shapes and sizes down hills for a decade at 11 sites across the country, from Paignton to Perth.
Although it is less sane to go in winter, hill rolling is pretty much an all-yearround activity. Eager to try it, my all-weather children, Hebe, 15, and Ruby, 12, are here on the Staffordshire borders in the driving rain to see what they think of this faintly ridiculous wheeze, which emerged in New Zealand in the Eighties.
They are fitted with harnesses and led to where the spheres are parked at the top of a slope. They giggle as, one at a time, they dive through an impossibly tight hole in the side of a waiting 12ft diameter double-skinned PVC ball.
Inside, the girls balance opposite each other while a nimble member of the crew attaches them to the walls with karabiners and straps.
“Just hang on, enjoy yourself and scream as loud as you like,” says Sam Dailly, 20, a student at Keele University, who manages the site at weekends.
The girls are now helpless. Once secure, the assistant slips back through the hole and seals it with an inflatable bung and a few blasts from an airline. They are entombed in total darkness. As they are manoeuvred to the lip of the run, one of them rolls headover-heels while the other is going heels-over-head.
With a determined shove their ball is sent off. It begins to gather pace as it makes its own way, rolling and zigzagging down the 125m hollowed slope, which has banks either side to prevent the beast from escaping. It doesn’t seem to be moving very fast – there is a headwind today – but it can reach speeds of 30mph before, 45 seconds later, it comes to an abrupt halt in a safety net at the bottom.
“That was so much fun,” gasps Ruby. A puce-faced Hebe is laughing like a hyena. “Can’t wait to see the video,” she blurts (for an extra £10, cameras were fixed to the fronts of their harness to record their descent).
There is more. If you have ever wondered what it would feel like to be inside a giant industrial washing machine, you can try the Aqua Sphere. This, as you would guess, means getting wet – and cold – as you roll without a harness while 30 litres of water freshen you up.
The Aqua Sphere is seethrough. It takes up to three people at a time, so we squeeze through the hole and drop head-first into the sploshy, water-filled bottom of the sphere, which, on a day like today, you’d rather avoid.
With wry grins, Dailly and his minions fill more buckets from a very cold hosepipe and top up our squelch-fest with a few more litres. They give a final wave before the bung is set in place and our globe is sent off.
Immediately, a stupefying wall of water sloshes from one side of the ball to the other. Do we just sit in the freezing water, or try to stand up? We don’t have any choice. It is so slippery that we all fall into the centre of this maelstrom, and that is where we stay all the way down. Gathering momentum, wave after wave breaks over us until we crash into the nets when, for a few moments, the water continues to drown us.
Hill rolling is pretty fathomless; it is not extreme or scary or particularly adrenaline-fuelled, but it will have you laughing your socks off. In fact, as we have a hilly field at home, we might even save up to buy one and enjoy hours of good, clean, healthy fun for years to come. Now we know why our rowdy rolling rodent is so manic.
On a roll: Ruby enjoys Aqua Sphereing, above