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Behind the scenes at White Waltham fireworks manufacturer

A White Waltham-based fireworks company which combines traditional methods with modern technology to create spectacular displays will be back at Maidenhead Festival this year. Reporter Stephen Delahunty paid a visit to Shellscape Pyrotechnics with festival chairman Lisa Hunter to learn the tricks of the trade.

Fireworks have come a long way since they were accidentally discovered by a Chinese cook working in a field kitchen about 2,000 years ago.

Originally thought to scare away evil spirits, they now mark many different

occasions all over the globe.

Next to the airfield in White Waltham, amid a collection of single storey huts, containers and heaped mounds of dirt, is a company that still uses some of the more traditional methods, even today.

Shellscape Pyrotechnics was formed in 1993 by Steve Ridgley and Ray Butler.

Unlike many fireworks companies, Shellscape operates a fully-working HSE licensed explosives factory which allows it to design and build its own fireworks.

Steve and Ray both have a passion for display craft, coupled with strong technical, chemical and engineering backgrounds.

Steve is the operational director and has a background in industrial chemistry.

His enthusiasm was obvious as he led us into one of several single-storey buildings to demonstrate how some of their fireworks are assembled by hand.

“My favourite thing in school was always when stuff went wrong,” Steve laughed.

He explained how the different elements of each firework affect the height, timing and colour.

Lisa Hunter, one of the organisers of Maidenhead Festival, was with me on my tour as she took the chance to see exactly what goes into the display at the event each year.

Shellscape has been putting on the display at the festival for about the last 10 years.

“We always try to do something a bit special for the festival,” said Steve, “but we can burn through money real quick.

“It’s potentially quite a crazy thing to do for a living.”

Last year the festival burnt through nearly 2,750 shots in a display that lasted about 12 minutes.

Outside, Steve explained how the fireworks are arranged and how to set them off. It very rarely involves sparking a string fuse with a lighter these days and Steve is more likely than not to be found huddled in front of a laptop than close to anything explosive.

He described the advances in technology over the last decade as ‘almost limitless’.

He said: “Now we have the technology to create anything we can think to do.”

Steve said that one of the benefits of having their own explosives factory is that they can design and build their own prototypes.

When a prototype is ready, the company has two factories in China that manufacture all their designs.

Steve and Ray will often stay for a month at a time while the new fireworks are produced.

Steve said that it wasn’t just about making things blow up and that the advances in technology allow the company to get more ambitious and more creative with their displays every year.

“Making people smile and making them happy through our displays really is a privilege,” added Steve.

“It’s like you are painting something in the sky, then all of a sudden, it’s gone.”

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