I've always loved watching hot air balloons float over Bristol so when I recently got the opportunity to go up in one myself... obviously I jumped at the chance! Here's what it was like:

The blue Visit Bristol hot air balloon

Image - Dan Whitelock, Ballooning Pictures

"This was the last passenger who went up," says a jovial member of The Bristol Balloon Company’s retrieval team, Paul Churchill, holding up a skeleton and trying not to smile. "A lady called Stella!"

If the toy skeleton weren’t wearing a bandana saying ‘Bob’, with a parrot on her shoulder and a running medal round her neck, the balloon’s mascot might make me nervous.

Man holds up Bristol balloon mascot called Stella

Image - Vivienne Kennedy 

I’ve already clocked the wicker basket with alarm – it’s much smaller than expected, with room only for the gas canisters and five passengers. I’m squeezed in between colleague Viv Kennedy and a 16-year-old lad who loves flying so much he’s already logged 12 trips.

Our experienced pilot Derek Maltby, who has done 1009 trips in the 28 years he's been flying, tells us this is the first time he or the balloon have been up since last October due to unsuitable conditions. But as we get the balloon ready this morning, the weather is glorious.

Image - Vivienne Kennedy 

Its 6am on a Saturday, but the crisp dawn air clears the fog of tiredness as we watch the apricot-coloured sun lift off from behind Ashton Court mansion. It’s an inspiring start to the day; if only I could get up this early normally.  

Ready to go…

Next to lift off, it’s us. I hold on tight to the basket as Derek gives us a safety briefing, expecting a rush of vertigo as we make our ascent. I’ve seen how high these balloons go - from the safety of my front garden!

Image - Hannah Stuart-Leach 

But, to my surprise, there’s nothing of the sort. No wobbly legs or woozy head. There’s the roar of the pilot light’s flame blasting hot air up into the big blue balloon. Then silence; and a profound sense of peace.

Floating above the fields

Before we know it we’ve travelled up to 600ft, then 1500ft – the maximum height authorised by air traffic control at Bristol Airport.

Totally relaxed now, I look over at Stella, who is attached to the balloon by a long rope. She is in her element now, flying the pirate flag for Bristol as she looks out on her home city.

Image - Hannah Stuart-Leach 

We drift past Hotwells, enjoying a fine view of the Clifton Suspension Bridge, and carry on over Bishopsworth. We soon find ourselves floating over frosty fields, with highlighted strips of florescent yellow rapeseed, and I’m instantly wowed by how much countryside there is surrounding Bristol. Viv comments, too, on how the houses look just like little Lego bricks. Up here, it’s the green space that seems so vast.

Image - Hannah Stuart-Leach 

It’s amazing how much nature we’re able to experience from such a height. We’re way above the birds, but we can still hear them singing. We can hear dogs barking too, mid-morning walk, and spot deer gallivanting in woods below. We even come across a field of llamas, who look up at us intrigued, and see a hare who chases after our shadow as we come into land.

From fly-up to fry-up

I can’t believe it when Derek informs us we’ve been flying for 40 minutes, it’s gone too fast. We need to start finding somewhere to touch down now, he explains, as it can take around half an hour to find somewhere landing is permitted.

Image - Hannah Stuart-Leach 

We eventually find the perfect spot – an empty patch of field near a road – in the pretty village of Marksbury. I’m amazed by the incredible control Derek has over the balloon as he manoeuvres us in. The basket doesn’t tip over, as he cautioned it might: it just bounces, gently, a couple of times. Then right on cue, the retrieval team appear at the gate to meet us.

All on a high (and hungry) we pack up the balloon and our pilot drives us to a nearby café. He treats us to a full English and entertains us with stories of past flights while we tuck in.

Derek’s had the BBC up in the balloon, broadcasting from the sky, he’s taken celebrities up, including Bristol presenter Professor Alice Roberts, and flown all the way to France! Incidentally, he even married his wife – here today on retrieval duties - the day after the first ever Bristol International Balloon Fiesta. A lot for a man who says he "sort of just fell into it".

Image - Vivienne Kennedy, Derek (centre right) and the retrieval team

"So what did you think of the flight then? Did you enjoy it?" he asks Viv and I. But he doesn’t need to wait for the response, he can see by our beaming faces that we’d be up again in a flash.

If you’re interested in taking your first flight in a hot air balloon over Bristol, check out our ballooning pages

By Hannah Stuart-Leach

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