What's it like to fly in a hot air balloon above Bristol?

Friday 12 August 2016
HStuart-Leach

Have you always wanted to take a hot air balloon flight? Dreamt of floating gently up into the sky, like in the film Up?

Well Bristol, a city in Southwest England also known for its street art, is the place for you! As well as having a long history of ballooning and balloon making, it's also home to the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta every August. The free 4-day festival is the largest ballooning spectacular in Europe. People come from far and wide to see mass ascents of balloons in a kaleidoscope of shapes and colours. 

You can enjoy a balloon flight in Bristol whatever time of year you visit though, as long as the weather's right. So what are you waiting for? Local travel writer Hannah Stuart-Leach clears up any last minute questions you might have before you set off... happy flying! 

Is it strange floating into the sky in a wicker basket?

Different coloured balloons at Bristol International Balloon Fiesta
 Bristol International Balloon Fiesta © Paul Box

I must admit, the wicker basket made me nervous when I first saw it - it was much smaller than I'd imagined. I wondered how something comparable to a picnic basket would be able to carry me - let alone the pilot and 4 other passengers - up, up, up towards the clouds. But the crew assured me: this natural material has been used since the first balloon took off in 1783, because it’s durable and it works. Once we’d all squeezed in, I felt safe. Balloons and their baskets come in all shapes and sizes though… some are double decker.

How does it feel taking off?

There’s a big roar, as the pilot fires gas into the balloon, followed by silence as the earth falls quietly away from you and then… total, utter peace. Honestly, it’s one of the most relaxing things you can do.

Does it give you vertigo?

Woman smiling on a hot air balloon flight over Bristol
 © Hannah Stuart-Leach

Much to my surprise, no… not even a little leg wobble. I was too busy taking in the beautiful scenery below to worry about how high up we were.

Can you see much from up there?

Yes, but not what I expected. Living in Bristol, I’m used to its urban buzz. The Banksy graffiti, the Harbourside hubbub, the street-food markets and nightlife. But 1,500ft up I got a more tranquil view.

First we drifted past the iconic Clifton Suspension Bridge, and then the colourful painted houses of Hotwells. And after that, it was quintessential English countryside. Miles and miles of rolling green fields and farmland. It was amazing how much nature we were able to experience on high: deer frolicking in the woods, llamas eating breakfast and an excited hare which tried to race us into landing. We could even hear pet dogs barking on their morning walks, and birds singing far below.

If you fly during the Bristol Balloon Fiesta, of course, you’ll also see lots of other beautiful balloons.

Ashton Court Estate from the sky
Ashton Court Estate  © Vivienne Kennedy 

Does the weather matter?

Definitely - balloons can’t go up when the weather’s bad, particularly if the wind’s either too strong or not strong enough. So although you can book to fly in a hot air balloon last minute, it’s best to allow time either side of your Bristol visit in case conditions change and you need to reschedule.

Do you have to get up early?

Setting up for a morning balloon flight at Ashton Court Estate
Setting up for an early morning balloon flight © Bristol Balloon Fiesta 

It depends on the season. March to October is peak flying season, but you can’t fly in the daytime due to the thermal activity in these months. So at the Bristol Balloon Fiesta, flights take off first thing in the morning and again in the early evening.

My pilot - Derek Maltby - arranged to meet me at 6am, which meant waking up at 5am! But once I’d downed a strong coffee, and got myself to Ashton Court - the home of Bristol Balloon Fiesta and where lots of local flights take-off - the early start actually added to the experience. The air was fresh and the sprawling estate was quiet except for a couple of keen joggers. The best bit was watching the sun just starting to lift, ever so serenely into the sky.

How long does a balloon flight last?

That depends on the wind. Mine was about 40 minutes, with another 30 minutes spent looking for a landing spot, which I’m told is about average. Experienced crews can go much further though: my adventurous pilot Derek once flew all the way to France!

How do you get back to Bristol if the balloon lands outside the city?

Balloon retrieval team in a field in Bristol
Balloon retrieval team with pilot Derek (centre) © Vivienne Kennedy 

Balloons come with expert retrieval teams to come and pick you up. On my flight we could spot the trailer following our path on the road below. As soon as we landed, in a field around 10m from where we took off, the team were at the gate ready to collect us - perfect timing.

When can I have a go?

Balloons flying over Bristol on a sunny day at the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta
Bristol International Balloon Fiesta © Rod Edwards

As Britain’s home of ballooning, lots of companies offer balloon flights above Bristol year-round. Visit Bristol has more information about ballooning in Bristol as well as ideas for other things to see and do whilst you're in town. For more on flying during the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta, see here.

Getting there:

Get a BritRail Pass and you can take in the idyllic scenery of the Southwest from the comfort of a train. 

 

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