Last week Tom and I finally took off on an adventure in the skies! Last Christmas we were gifted a ride in a balloon by my parents and through the course of this year we have had several aborted attempts to fly due to poor weather. It seemed as though each time we booked a flight, that day turned out to be the only wet and windy day for weeks!
But not last Thursday. In a last ditch attempt to fly before the end of the season we booked the last available flight at the end of October and the gamble paid off! We arrived early at Royal Victoria Park where the flight was due to depart and waited for Bath Balloons to arrive. My parents and sister walked up to the park with us (two pooches included!) and we met my Nan there. Quite a party to cheer us on. Bath Balloons arrived and began spreading out the ‘envelope’ of the balloon as I panicked and had to run down to the children’s park for a quick toilet stop! We were encouraged to join in with setting up the balloon so after we had all grabbed a handful of canvas and tugged it out into a balloon shape I volunteered the man the huge noisy fan which shot cool air into the mouth of the balloon to fill it out as it lay on the ground. In reality I wasn’t doing anything other than feeling involved, as there was a well-seasoned chap stood next to me who started the fan, clocked the packet of jelly babies in my coat pocket, gave me a wink and told me he’d been doing this for twenty years!
After the balloon was filled with cool air and the pilot had wandered around the inflated envelope checking this and that, the gas burners were turned on and within minutes the balloon went from horizontal to vertical, tipping the basket with it, and we heard the all important shouts of ‘All Aboard!’. Our basket held 16 passengers and was split into four sections with an additional section for the pilot. We had been briefed beforehand on which of the four sections to climb into so Tom and I ran forward and I was the first to stick my foot through the hole in the side of wicker basket which functions as a kind of step and swung myself up and in! My greatest fear beforehand, being an extraordinarily clumsy person, was that I would either fall flat on my face in front of a park full of onlookers or that I wouldn’t be able to master the climb before the balloon parted company with the ground. Given that one of the other passengers was 90 and managed to enter the basket with little difficulty I don’t think I needed to have worried!
Inside the basket was a kind of cushioned bench and we had been instructed to sit down on this until the balloon had taken off, heads pressed firmly backwards into the cushioned wall behind us. I waved to my family looking on and we sat, as the gas burners blasted away and my new jelly-baby friend offered some last-minute words of encouragement – and then the balloon imperceptibly parted company with the earth. We stood up and watched the ground slowly fall away, waving wildly at my family down below!
The balloon rose and travelled south east, passing slowly over the historic city of Bath. We saw the golden Georgian architecture laid out below us, the honey-coloured oolitic limestone Bath is so famous for wrought into Neoclassical shapes, crescents and circuses, squares and parks. We passed over the house I used to live in, the school where Tom and I met, over Claverton and the American museum and out over Sally in the Woods (so called after a woman who lived in a hut in the woods there and had a fearsome reputation as a white witch. As she lived to over 100 I think she must have had a good knowledge of herbal remedies at least!).
The flight itself was peaceful and magical. The only noise was the intermittent roar of the gas burners and the uncorking of the bottle of champagne we enjoyed mid flight. The balloon varied in height from just scraping over the tops of the trees below to soaring almost 3000ft in the air. I was informed afterwards by my chuckling father that there was a moment shortly after take off, when my family were sensibly retreating to the nearest pub, that the balloon appeared to drop suddenly and my nan, mum and sister all panicked that the balloon was coming down. In reality the pilot was steering us round so that he could take a picture of us all in the basket over the Royal Crescent, predictably to sell at a great price when the flight was over!!
We continued travelling south east for over an hour, spotting a ‘v’ of birds flying as tiny specks far below us, entering an ethereal misty patch and hearing the panicked cries of dogs and horses as the pilot dropped us down low looking for a place to land. We overshot the golf course which was the first choice landing area and came down in a farmer’s field close to Great Chalfield. The farmer gave us a thumbs up as we passed over. I can only presume the field had recently been used for keeping sheep as the ground was absolutely littered with what the pilot later tactfully called ‘gunge’, when he was cleaning it off the huge bag the balloon had been bundled into. Our landing was actually extremely smooth and we avoided the common occurrence of the basket tipping over! After the flight was done my fellow passengers and I ‘assisted’ with deflating the balloon and rolling it up into a long sausage shape, before each grabbing a handful and bundling it into the aforementioned bag. We then got a ride in a landrover all the way back to Bath, almost as exciting for me as the balloon ride itself!
Tom and I got dropped back at the park and walked through the October darkness to my parents house, where I was pleased to find the Skye had behaved herself (apart from wolfing down several of her smaller cousin’s chews!) and was being thoroughly spoiled by everyone. My dad ordered pizza and we all enjoyed it, including Skye as nan gave her every piece of chicken on her pizza! We suspect she only orders chicken on her pizza in the first place so she can share it with a furry friend. Eventually, when it was long past our bedtime, Tom, Skye and I tumbled out into the cold and started on our drive home.
Overall it’s an experience I would definitely repeat, although a balloon ride was never something I’d have thought of doing myself! I don’t enjoy flying, detest being in a plane and there’s no way you’d – EVER – get me in a helicopter. But somehow balloon flight is different. You’re not flying, more like floating – harnessing the power of air and the pioneering spirit which led humanity to take its feet off the ground a few hundred years ago. Definitely an activity to add to the Bucket List and one I have now ticked off mine!
Written with thanks to my parents for the tickets!
Photo credit (all photos taken from the ground): Maisy Willis