The image of hot air balloons in Bristol, drifting over the Clifton Suspension Bridge, seems to have become one of those iconic postcard shots. Bristol’s ballooning heritage started in the 1960s, when Don Cameron and a group of ballooning pioneers made Bristol’s first hot air balloon. Cameron Balloons is now one of the few manufacturers of hot air balloons in the world, providing the inspiration for other Bristol balloonists who fill the skies of the West Country with hot air balloons throughout the summer and the Balloon Fiesta each August.
It was a thrill to have my very first balloon flight over Bristol during this year’s Bristol Balloon Fiesta. I was introduced to balloon pilot Alex, who flies his balloon Jonah as a hobby, and was looking for extra crew that morning. Jonah’s basket could comfortably fit 2-3 people, unlike the commercial balloons which are much larger, but the flight experience is much the same. We drove the trailer onto the field and unloaded the wicker basket and balloon envelope, using the hot air blower to start the inflation. After ten minutes the balloon was billowing outwards, filling with hot air and Alex started the burners which completed the inflation. There didn’t seem to be any risk of things catching fire, as the cables attaching the envelope to the basket were made of metal and the balloon is made of fireproof material.
During inflation, the balloon remained tethered to the car, to prevent us taking off before we were ready. Once Alex had prepared everything inside the basket I climbed in, using the square openings in the side of the basket as footholds, although it wasn’t the most dignified manoeuvre! With burners flaring, we were ready for takeoff and once released from the car, we rose quickly above the arena. I must admit that I was full of trepidation since this was my first balloon flight ever.
Perhaps my nervousness was because the basket only came up to my waist, or because there was no safety strap or harness, so I spent the first half of the flight clinging on tightly to the frame around the basket. I was also very careful with my camera and phone, holding them securely to make sure nothing dropped out of the basket. I probably need not have worried as pilots need to have at least 21 hours of flying time and have completed both written tests and tasks with an instructor, so it’s a bit like learning to drive a car and pass your test.
More about Bristol: 25 fun things to see in Bristol with your friends
As the balloon ascended, the field became a toytown below us. We rose high above Bristol, with a great view of the Avon Gorge, Clifton Suspension Bridge and the harbourside below us. The wind was taking us in a south-easterly direction across the city and every so often Alex would flare the burners to allow us to maintain our height. As the balloon drifted with the wind, I learned that the pilots need to maintain a flight of at least 1000 ft when flying over the city, but are allowed to come down lower once they are looking for a place to land.
The wind direction would take us beyond the city where there would be plenty of open fields to land, but if the balloon was to drift in another direction they pilot might need to land on a playing field or common. Alex had a map on his ipad which showed him any places where he was not allowed to land, due to livestock, crops or unsympathetic farmers. Another consideration was to find a landing spot with a road or lane nearby, so that the recovery vehicle could get in to pick up the balloon and basket.
More about Bristol: Bristol Street Art – so much more than Banksy
As the houses thinned out, we were flying over farmland near Pucklechurch, and could see a number of balloons coming down to land below us. Not too much further and Alex stopped flaring the burner and allowed the balloon to descend, checking the map to make sure that we were not heading for a farm that was blocked off on the map.
While most farmers are friendly and are given a bottle of wine as a thank you, others don’t like the balloons landing on their fields, especially if they have horses or crops that are ready to harvest. Once we had landed, Alex radioed his support vehicle our location and they went off to find the farmer, since one of the access gates was locked. In the meantime we let the balloon deflate and packed up everything, so that we were ready once the car arrived.
Even though it was a bit of a wait for gates to be opened and everything loaded, it was still only mid-morning as we headed back to our start point at Ashton Court. The balloon flights are always around 6am or 6pm, since at this time the winds are at their lowest and there are less thermal currents rising from the warm ground which make it difficult to control the balloon.
If you’re looking for a place to stay, check out these hotels in Bristol
Tips for your balloon flight
- Wear flat shoes, trainers or boots, that will be suitable for clambering into the balloon and keep your feet dry when tramping around on wet grass. You should also wear clothes such as trousers that will be suitable for climbing in and out of the balloon.
- It can be chilly on early morning flights, so you need to have layers of clothing that you can put on or take off required. The temperature drops a couple of degrees for each 1000ft you rise, however the heat of the burners counteracted this so I found I was comfortable in a light jacket.
- It should be obvious that there’s no bathroom in a balloon, so bear in mind that you won’t have access to the loo for a couple of hours and may want to avoid that second cup of coffee before you fly.
- It’s worth having a few snacks with you on morning flights, as you may have missed breakfast and find yourself feeling hungry once you land.
- Make sure that everything you’re using in the balloon such as a camera or camera-phone you’re using is on a strap and be very careful to avoid anything dropping out of the balloon.
- You need to be flexible in your timings, since balloon flights may be cancelled or rescheduled due to the weather and also once you go up you can’t be sure of the exact length of the flight or when you’ll be dropped back to the start point.
- Your pilot will give you instructions as to what you can and cannot do during the flight, which you need to follow for your own safety. For instance you need to keep clear of the burner and fuel canisters.
I was really pleased that I was able to take my balloon flight at the beginning of the Bristol Balloon Fiesta, which meant that I could spend the other days watching all the different balloon activities around Ashton Court.
More about Bristol: 10 things to do in Bristol Harbourside
The Special Shapes at Bristol Balloon Fiesta
During the Bristol Balloon Fiesta everyone looks forward to spotting the special shape balloons that take the theme of their sponsor, such as the Simbaloo lion from Longleat, the Minions #SpotStuart balloon or the “little drop of lovely” from Belvoir fruit cordials. The special shape balloons are often inflated at certain times during the fiesta and tethered to the ground, so that they don’t actually take off, but make great photo opportunities.
The mass ascent at Bristol Balloon Fiesta
The mass balloon ascents take place at 6am and 6pm each day, but are subject to the weather. If it’s raining or the winds are too strong, the balloons won’t fly. Everyone involved with the balloons will be carefully watching the weather forecast, so that they have a good idea in advance when they will be able to fly over the fiesta weekend. If you’re a spectator, either at Ashton Court where the fiesta is held, or watching from other locations such as the Clifton Suspension Bridge, it’s worth keeping an eye on the weather forecast so you’ll have the best idea of when the balloons are likely to fly.
Once the pilots have had their morning briefing and the Fiesta’s safety officer has given the all clear to fly, the balloons start to inflate and take off. When the weather’s good and the sun’s coming up into a blue sky, it’s a truly magical sight to see all the balloons taking off together and gradually spreading out and drifting away across the city. You may think twice about being up so early for the 6am mass ascent, but if the skies are clear it’s well worth it to get some amazing photos.
More about Bristol: 20 free things to do in Bristol
The Night Glow at the Bristol Balloon Fiesta
On the Thursday and Saturday of the Balloon Fiesta, the Night Glow is held in the arena at 9pm. The balloons inflate on the field but are tethered by ropes on all sides, so they don’t take off but gently sway in the breeze and are lit up by their burners in time to the music. It’s a real spectacle to see the balloons light up in turn, like a Mexican wave, or flare alight all at once in time to the music.
This popular event in Bristol is always packed, with people arriving throughout the afternoon to reserve their spot on the grass in front of the arena. At the end of the night glow display, there are fireworks to light up the sky. There are always large crowds at the Night Glow, so you need to take care when leaving, and be aware that it may take longer than normal to get home, whether by car or public transport.
If you’re looking for a place to stay, check out these hotels in Bristol
Book a Balloon Flight in Bristol
There are several companies in Bristol who run regular balloon flights through the spring, summer and autumn – we recommend Bailey Balloons and Bristol Balloons who have information about dates and packages on their websites. Gift vouchers are also available, which is a lovely present for someone who you know would love to fly in a balloon. You need to bear in mind that the balloon flight is very weather dependent so you may need to be flexible in your plans, since flights can be cancelled or rescheduled due to the weather.
About the Bristol Balloon Fiesta
The Bristol Balloon Fiesta is held in August each year at Ashton Court Estate and so far has been a free event. There is pre-bookable car parking available on the fields around Ashton Court and shuttle buses (Adults £3 single £5 return) also run to and from the centre of Bristol and Temple Mead station. In addition to the balloon flights and inflation, there are special displays in the arena and plenty of food stalls and funfair attractions. The Balloon Fiesta gets most crowded on the Saturday and Sunday, especially the Saturday night glow, so you should be prepared for large crowds if you come at this time. For those coming to the fiesta from outside Bristol, there is pre-bookable camping just outside the Ashton Court estate. Otherwise check out a range of hotels in Bristol.
Thanks to the Bristol Balloon Fiesta for providing me media access to the fiesta and to Alex for my balloon flight over Bristol. Some of the links in this article are affiliate links.