Bristol is synonymous with balloons, and there’s no doubt you’ll have seen them soaring over the city in the warmer months. But what’s it’s like to actually take a Bristol hot air balloon ride? I count myself monumentally lucky to have flown over the city in a balloon twice (and once in one over the Dordogne) as a very nice perk of my previous job at Visit Bristol and there’s nothing quite like it.
I thought I’d try and capture the utterly magical experience in words, so if you’re umming and arring about dropping the cash on one, take a read and see if you like the sound of it.
Here’s what I thought when I went in a hot air balloon ride over Bristol, as part of Bristol International Balloon Fiesta’s mass ascent.
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The sun hits the edge of the Planetarium’s giant mirrored orb, Bristol Harbourside glows around the edges, spires and cranes are silhouettes in the morning light. An early morning hush hangs in the air, broken by the caw of a gull, sizzling whiffs of bacon and the excited chatter of balloonists waiting expectantly for something magical to happen. And happen it does.
Suddenly, the amphitheatre is abuzz, deflated balloons that had lain withered on the floor, like long-forgotten Giant’s sleeping bags are suddenly brought to life with the hiss of flame, erupting in the silence.
Like a dragon belching fire into nylon bellies, the bulbous balloons inflate into all their puffed-up glory, dominating the Harbourside and bathing Bristol’s waterfront in spectacularly vibrant colour.
Clambering quickly into the wicker basket of my designated balloon, my stomach churns in anticipation. The pilots, calm as can be, provide running commentary, chatting familiarly with each other in lilting West Country accents, interrupted now and then by radioed instructions.
We are taught how to brace for landing and then out of nowhere we are weightless, lifted into the sky effortlessly, the heat of the flame on our necks. We are one of the first to take off, below, the buildings shrink instantly like play pieces in a child’s game.
Surveying the city from above, Bristol lies beneath us like some new magnificent land, it’s as if we have been given the keys to the Kingdom, and now able to survey all. The hot air balloon flotilla emerges from the arc of the amphitheatre, dotting the sky with a giant penguin, bright stripes, luminous chequers and Power Ranger-emblazoned neon.
Conditions like these come along once in a blue moon (weirdly there is one that night) and the views are breath-taking. As we float higher, it’s beautifully peaceful, the air is warm on this sunny August day and still enough to hear a dog bark below.
The landmarks of Bristol unravel before us, recognisable as miniature figurines in the distance, yet at the same time they feel so close, almost touchable. The flagged masts of Brunel’s ss Great Britain are easy to spot, the pointy spire of Cabot Tower, the silver Planetarium ball, the cranes of the M Shed reflect in the harbour water, casting shadows over The Matthew.
For the first time I see Spike Island as the Marlinspike shape it is named after, the diverted River Avon, the steeples and chimneys of Bristol speckle the cityscape out to the hills enveloped in morning mist.
Clifton’s coloured houses and magnificent Georgian rows wind and wend in fascinating asymmetry on their cliff top perch. As the balloons glide, a giant monopoly land reels out below with the Clifton Suspension bridge the Mayfair of the lot, the prized possession against Bristol’s photogenic backdrop.
The lush, green, wooded parkland of Ashton Court summons us, Dundry Hill, Ashton Gate Stadium sit in glorious sunshine to our left and deer roam below like tiny models, their shadows casting their true form onto the grass. Dodging trees and wildlife, we come to rest in the dewy grounds of Ashton Court Estate – the site of the annual Bristol International Balloon Fiesta. High on life, wide-eyed with wonder the journey plays over and over in my mind. I want to go up and see it all again! Absolutely mind-blowing.
Liked the sound of that? Click here to check prices of hot air balloon flights in Bristol