Travelling via hot air balloon is an unmissable, once-in-a-lifetime experience, albeit one that is slightly terrifying, writes Alison Sneyd
It was 6.30am on a Sunday morning and instead of being fast asleep in bed, I was in the middle of a park in Bath, England, watching a hot air balloon being assembled.
This was my second attempt at going hot air ballooning over Bath with Bailey Balloons. The first try was called off at the last second because sudden gusts of wind made flying unsafe. Ballooning is very dependent on the weather. That is why I was up so early on this morning; the air is usually still just after dawn. This attempt, I seemed to have gotten lucky with the weather. The wind was calm and the sky was clear. I really hoped it would stay that way.
The other 14 passengers and I helped to unroll the enormous balloon skin and stretch it out flat on the grass. The balloon was slowly inflated, first with fans and then with the burner. When the balloon was ready and floating above us, we clambered into the basket and assumed our take-off and landing positions – sitting down with our backs braced against the basket behind us and holding tightly onto the rope grips.
Our pilot Clive fired the burner, aiming to lift us off the ground. At this point, my nerves set in. Unable to see out over the top of the basket, I felt like I was on an amusement park ride about to be yanked into the air, only without a seat belt. Clive fired the burner again and I felt a slight rocking sensation.
Turning around and peeking out through the footholds used to climb into the balloon, I saw we were already off the ground, hovering about a foot above the grass – so much for my fears of hurtling into the air. It turned out that was all there was to our take off and Clive said we could stand up. With a few more blasts of the burner we were off, floating gently upwards and out of the park.
My nervousness had completely vanished. The flight was so peaceful; it barely like felt like we were moving at all. It also didn’t hurt that the basket came half way up my chest so there was absolutely no way I could fall out. Fears forgotten, I stuck my head out over the side of the basket and took in the spectacular views.
We floated south over Bath’s beautiful, honey-coloured Georgian terraces. We passed the famous Royal Crescent, a stunning semicircle of thirty terraced townhouses. As impressive as I had found the architecture from the ground, it was far more so in the air where I could fully appreciate its enormous scale. Before long, we left the city behind and drifted out over the still and quiet countryside. A landscape of green fields and rolling hills spread out beneath us. Clive offered a drink to anyone who could spot a deer, but no one did.
After about 50 minutes in the air, Clive brought us slowly down over an empty field. I got a little nervous again as we had been warned that it was normal for the basket to tip over onto its side on landing. Despite assurances that this was perfectly safe, the prospect of winding up squashed beneath the other passengers as the basket was dragged through a field just didn’t sound very enjoyable.
We eased down over the field and hit the ground with a gentle bump. We then bounced and skidded sideways before stopping fully. To my relief, we didn’t tip over. In fact, the experience was smoother than a number of airplane landings I’ve been in.
The adventure wasn’t over yet, as we spent the better part of the next hour dismantling the balloon. After the balloon skin deflated onto the ground, we painstakingly rolled it up into a long, tight tube and carried it into its storage bag. The work done, it was celebration time. We had a champagne toast and were presented with a flight certificate. Then a taxi was ordered for us. As we headed back to Bath, I was very, very glad the weather had worked out.
My balloon ride was an exhilarating and unique experience. Clive and the other Bailey Balloons staff I met were friendly and professional. I felt perfectly safe flying with them. The main downside was, as I had discovered the hard way, you are at the mercy of the weather and so there are no guarantees your flight will go ahead. The flight tickets are not cheap either, mine cost £145 Sterling. But then again, this is not the kind of thing you get to do every day.