Summer in the UK is one of those glorious, topsy-turvy seasons that mean you’re either going to be bathed in adoring, warm summer sunshine, or drowned in a clammy, grey cloud of misery. Ok, so that might b a bit dramatic, but it’s the nature of summer in England that meant it has taken over 18 months for me to redeem a wonderful raffle prize: my first ever hot air balloon flight!
Back in December 2014 I was one of many who entered the Father Bristmas charity competition run by my ex-colleague Jake Johnson. He runs a highly successful Twitter project called Bristol52 where a different person/organistaion from Bristol tweets each week, with the idea that followers see a little bit of Bristol that they usually may not find out about. As part of Bristol52, Jake organises a charity raffle where local, sometimes national, businesses donate prizes to the draw. The followers of Bristol52 then nominate local charities and ultimately pick the winning charity who keep all of the donations us hopeful raffle participants provide.
In a huge stroke of luck, I managed to score the main prize! One hot air balloon flight for two people with Phil’s Balloons! To say I was excited would be an understatement. One of the highlights of living in Bristol is sitting in a pub garden and watching handfuls of balloons traversing the summer evenings’ skies. It’s incredibly awe-inspiring and relaxing, and I’ve always wanted the chance to go up in one. The childhood wonder with which I enjoy the Bristol Balloon Fiesta every year is palpable, so I of course couldn’t wait to get my flight booked in with Phil.
Of course, the British summer (and my stacked social calendar) meant that all dates Phil and I organised in 2015 came and went with the persistent rainy clouds. 2016 was heading the same way, after I turned down Phil’s offer of starting the flight in Castle Combe as I really wanted to fly over Bristol. Damn the wind for being so unpredictable!
Luckily, last Monday Phil messaged to say we were looking good for a flight over Bristol on Friday. Now I’ve been left wanting when the winds suddenly pick up unexpectedly, but on Friday the second, gilt-edged message came through: we’re on!
I left the office early, determined to enjoy the sunny walk over to Ashton Court and read my book in the grounds of the mansion before I met Phil at 6pm. I waited for my housemate Amie to arrive as she would be my partner in crime for this flight. She turned up with a bottle of prosecco to mark the occasion, with no glasses of course as we’re those type of classy girls!
I’d seen loads of vans driving up the winding road to the launch site. There were huge commercial balloons from Virgin and Red Letter days that apparently carry 12-16 people at a time. We were so privileged to be in Phil’s balloon with just him as the pilot, and us as his overly-excited, babbling guests. So VIP.
We arrived and helped Phil and his ground team set up the balloon. They set up the balloon and basket so that they were safely connected, and tethered to the front of his car so that the balloon wouldn’t float away as we inflated it! Inflation started with a giant fan pushing cool air inside the balloon. Amie and I had key roles in holding the bottom of the balloon open so the fan could inflate it, whilst Phil and his team went to the head of the balloon to fix the velcro ‘lid’ which keeps the air inside the balloon rather than floating off the top.
Once the balloon was largely inflated we were asked to step away as Phil turned the burners on to start filling the balloon with hot air. They made an incredible noise and made Amie jump every time. She has such an acute startle reflex!
Shortly before 6.30pm we clambered into the basket, after a full safety briefing from Phil on what is safe to hold and how we may need to get out of his way as the balloon rotates in the sky.
Then we were off! The initial moments when you feel the basket lift off of the ground are amazing. It feels so strange; so a big bag of hot air is currently lifting this big basket with all of it’s paraphernalia and 3 adults into the sky? Cool. As we ascended we waves to the people who had come to Ashton Court to watch the ascents. There were at least 10 balloons going up last Friday and it made for a wonderful sight.
The flight itself went so quickly. We had an hour in the air although it felt like barely more than twenty minutes. Phil is an excellent pilot and a lovely man, who did not object to answering any of mine and Amie’s inane questions. “What made you just buy a hot air balloon?”, “Does it cost a lot to run?”, “How do you steer?”, “Have you ever landed where you shouldn’t?” “Wow, the dogs really don’t like the sound of your burners” and “Amie, look! There’s our house!”
The views, oh my, the views. It was panorama after panorama of rolling countryside, urban sprawl and blue skies painted with the smallest of brilliant white clouds. I really don’t have the words to describe how beautiful it is seeing the world you live each day in from a new perspective. The child-like wonder as I pointed out places I know, places we go to all the time, and trying to navigate the roads of south Bristol from above. And then the GPS-triggered notification on my phone to let me know a nearby restaurant, 500 feet below us, had 20% off that evening!
The wind that Phil was searching for to take us slightly East had disappeared, so we didn’t make our targeted landing spot of the chocolate factory. Instead we kept on drifting as Phil used our location and maps on his iPad to identify where we could and couldn’t land. Apparently black spaces on the map are “Hell no, no chance, fly on buddy”. I interpreted this as MOD land. Red is a little less serious, maybe “No, you cannot land in my field”, and weirdly green spaces are still no land zones. So Phil had to navigate all of these, and there were a lot! Apparently because Bristol is the hot air balloon capital of the UK so some landowners have taking umbrage with a frequent stream of balloons landing on their property. This time we landed in a school field in Keynsham, and one of the staff there was more than enthusiastic about chatting to us and helping pack the balloon away into the trailer that the ground crew had followed us with.
As we headed back to Ashton Court to Amie’s car, I continued to be full of wonder. Riding in a hot air balloon is absolutely fantastic. When the burners were off and we were just coasting it was so peaceful, so tranquil just floating over this fine city. We waved to people below who’s grins mirrored our own, we even wished some good evening as we descended so low over their gardens. It really is a wonderful thing to experience and one that I definitely wish to repeat. Although having had the VIP experience with Phil, I’m not sure I’d want to do one of those commercial flights!