This morning, at the ungodly hour of 6am, I finally embarked on my first hot air balloon trip, flying directly over Historic Oxfordâ„¢, and landing in a field next to an army dump 10 miles west, just over the M40 near Brill.
The trip was a pressie for my birthday (12 August) last year. But last year, the weather was poor from early August on, so I intended to wait until summer this year to go. And then of course I got caught up with the book and work and had a last-minute panic when my birthday arrived this year because the voucher is only valid for a year.
Anyway, the balloons go up on the ground just on the other side of the river from my house, so I strolled over there this morning at 6am. The weather looked half-and-half: slightly cloudy but promising. The pilot said we’d be fine for rain and that there was only a slight breeze so it should be a smooth ride and landing.
I don’t have any snaps of putting the balloon up as I was grasping the side of its mouth as cold air was blasted into it to inflate it, and then hot air from the basket burner, which, I can confirm, is bloody hot.
And then take off – which was gloriously smooth. On reflection this was the most exciting part – just rising up from the ground while standing in a wicker basket. Fortunately the wind was blowing in just the right direction so we went directly over Oxford – over the colleges, Bodleian Library, Sheldonian Theatre and so on.
And then out west, almost following Headington Road – over the JR Hospital and catching a glimpse of Headington roundabout which, incredibly, wasn’t absolutely heaving. So you need to get there at 7am if you want to avoid the queues.
And then into Oxfordshire countryside. Over farms – and there are a lot of them, as well as pig, poultry and game bird farms. Past the huge aerial whose name I can’t remember, dipping down, rising up for the M40 and then coming down shortly after in a field with a big bang because we were rapidly creeping up on an oak tree.
The pilot – who had taken to talking to himself in the plural which was a bit odd but who’s to argue when he’s pulling on ropes and firing off jet engines to move us from 2,500 feet to 0 feet in a basket – put us in the ground which sadly we didn’t see as you have to crouch down in the basket and grab hold of ropes – for obvious reasons.
And then deflate the balloon, fold it up, cram it into a huge bag. Winch the basket onto the back of the following truck, add the balloon-in-a-bag, a glass of champagne and then a minibus right back to the start point. We arrived about 9am and I was back at home with a cup of tea by 9.15am.
Cracking trip. Highly recommend it. The take-off and strange calm as you ride the wind, gently drifting over towns and field is exactly as lovely as you imagine. The burners are nowhere near as hot or annoying as I thought they would be. And when they’re not firing there is a serene pleasure in floating above everything, getting a fresh perspective on things down there.
You go faster the higher you go, and tend to “turn right with height”. As you descend you tend to turn left. Pigs hate balloons. And the sheep bunch up and run away from it. We all also live far too close to one another. We must be nuts. Oh, and Oxford is beautiful.
You can book the trips through Virgin Balloon Flights, online at www.virginballoonflights.co.uk.