On the way back from Australia I flew over the green Lego trees of Thailand followed by the splayed, rumpled brown duvet of the Hindu Kush, but as incredible as these views were they lacked a sense of intimacy. Encased in a silver bird thousands of feet above the Earth, there is no connection with the ground below, as opposed to hanging in a wicker basket in the open air, with a floor of warped wood ready to snap and an invisible dragon bellowing fire overhead. Such was my balloon flight over the city of Bath.
Bath is particularly special to me because it led me both to my husband and towards a career I can enjoy. In addition it’s relaxing, beautiful and bright, thanks to the stone used to construct the façades. No better place for an anniversary balloon flight then, except by the time the weather decided to behave, another five months had passed and we had already endured two false starts. So here’s a tip if you’re waiting to fling yourself into the sky; on no account whatsoever plan it for a specific date, and splash out on the smaller balloon rather than the giant picnic basket with the rest of the rabble. I’ll explain why in a bit.
Our successful flight was a glorious day in September 2012 that took off from Royal Victoria Park. There were several other balloons being inflated while we were there, and I admit I felt a little put out to start with when we were expected to unroll and beef up the balloon with the pilot and driver; I’d paid for champagne, dammit, I wasn’t here to do any work!
This was soon forgotten when our gas giant roared into the sky in the shy bloom of the late afternoon sun. An entire fleet had taken wing before us but was soon scattered to the winds; steering a balloon is a laughable folly and the only real control you have is moving up and down. I’m not afraid of heights, but there were moments when adrenaline made my eyes roll back in my head when I realised the basket edge was only just above my waist and that my upper body felt extremely heavy if I leaned over too far.
Naturally, the views were spectacular. The surrounding hills shrank as we rose in altitude and the Royal Crescent brought to mind a row of pale dominoes frozen in mid-fall. There was a slight frown of dark clouds on the horizon and in the fields below us the exquisite calligraphy of the harvesters. The air was amazingly still and quiet, enough to make you feel invisible, which perhaps wouldn’t have been the case if we had booked a larger balloon with the bigger group.
Despite the tranquility, holding a conversation took getting used to. One moment the pilot or my husband was speaking to me, the next I was only aware of their mouth moving as a nearby monster exhaled harshly and heavily and utterly swallowed their words. This was of course due to the flame above us that took the balloon ever higher. We peaked at 4,000 feet at one point and were able to see the oily band of the Bristol Channel.
When we dipped lower to take in some of the sights, local villagers stopped to wave as if we were royalty. The odd dog would also bound outside to give us a bark, while the more ostracised cows in the herd kept a wary vigil. Landing in certain fields was a definite no-no according to our pilot, who had a map of black crosses with the occasional “safe” zone scribbled in between lest we feel the wrath of a farmer. She herself was no stranger to risky landings; on a previous trip she had touched down mere metres from the edge of the North Sea and was also the first balloonist to land in the Soviet Union. If anyone could inspire a career in ballooning it would be her, interestingly one of the few jobs where age and gender barely matter.
An hour and a half later our journey came to an end and we gently bumped to earth as the basket dragged over the tips of tall corn. You would usually have champagne on landing, but as this was our wedding anniversary, our pilot kindly let us walk off with the booze and distribute it as we saw fit. Since we’re both lightweights, we dropped as gracefully as the balloon after just one glass.
After seeing the beauty of the ground from the sky we decided to do a swap and admire the soundless fireworks that are the northern lights. Well, as much as could be seen behind a week’s worth of cloud.