Hot air balloons are an iconic sight in Bristol and a ‘must-do’ treat – even if you’re scared of heights.
They loom high and silent above the Chocolate Path on clear spring mornings and hover close to Bedminster rooftops on summer evenings.
In the warmer months I see them hanging silently in the air until a sudden butane blast sends them floating towards Ashton Court.
Hot air balloons are an iconic feature of our Bristol sky. I wanted to be up there living out a Phileas Fogg fantasy, carefree and adventurous, and quaffing Champagne.
Like bungee jumping in Queenstown, it felt the right thing to do to raid my savings for a ‘you only live once’ experience.
After buying two champagne ride vouchers with Bristol Balloons, my better half and I had to wait for Mother Nature to impose the right weather conditions before we could take flight.
As summer drew on and we waited for a gap in the calendar we had plenty of time to remember our fear of heights.
But a calm, early September evening beckoned its finger and we found ourselves at Ashton Court Estate watching two vehicles trundling across the fields, wicker basket in tow.
Along with our fellow passengers we’d walked towards the balloon team like extras in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and now waited while they consulted paperwork and enigmatically let off a black balloon into the sky to test the wind… Our safety was in their hands.
After an agonisingly slow rush-hour drive to a better take-off point in Keynsham, we re-grouped in a large playing field and the balloon material was unfurled like a giant streamer.
While more helpful people assisted in inflating the star of the show, I skulked at the back eyeing the basket.
It lay on its side, four low-set cushioned bench compartments within; no harnesses, no emergency oxygen masks, no inflatable slide with a stiletto shoe warning. What was this madness?!
But the staff, led by pilot Steve (over 20 years’ experience I overheard) had the thorough and relaxed air of experts who did this in their sleep.
Once the awesome size of the balloon was fully revealed it seemed to be straining at its leashes. Sunset was looming and our pilot was in the basket doing mysterious things with gas canisters. All aboard!
We sat down tight on the benches as instructed and felt the earth drop away. My nervous system lurched into panic mode as lift off became a reality, but it quickly dissolved as the balloon’s gentle power became apparent.
We entered a relaxed realm where the air was feather soft and all that could be heard were tinkles of noise from the city below.
After the ‘OK’ we all carefully stood up. Instead of feeling dangerously exposed and about to crash over the side, I felt surreally relaxed and happy – nonchalantly peering over the basket to survey this new kingdom.
Rotating and gliding at around eight miles per hour, we saw the circular outlines of Bristol, Bath, and north Somerset’s rise and fall, flanked by the Channel aglow from the lowering sun.
We drifted over a living map: cul-de-sacs snaking around allotments, waving children in suburban streets, dogs barking in back gardens, a deer leaping across a golf course, and fellow hot ballooners on the horizon.
Then the Champagne was cracked open. It felt like we were part of an exclusive club, where inscrutable messages were passed between an aerial society using Walkie-Talkies.
Eventually our airborne saunter drew to a close, with the Tobacco Factory signposting our descent towards Ashton Court.
Touch down happened in a farmer’s field – known to the crew – after some exciting brushes with treetops. The vehicles were waiting and we all worked together to tame and deflate the multi-coloured beast that had taken us on a dream ride.
Maybe it was being enveloped in the ripe summer air, maybe it was the fizz, but we floated back to our own suburban street on a natural high.