Have you ever glided over one your favourite cities, taking in your most treasured sights from a bird’s eye view? We have! Last year we attended the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta and as it’s just around the corner once again, we’ve decided to give you a first hand account of what magical things can happen if you’re in the right place at the right time.
The Bristol International Balloon Fiesta features four days of colourful hot-air balloon displays, with half a million visitors gathering in the rolling hills of Ashton Court to watch balloons of all shapes and sizes lift off over the City of Bristol. Entertainment for all the family, throughout the day, includes aerial displays, fairground rides, delicious food stalls and bars, balloon tethering, model aircraft displays, experiential activities and a local music stage.
Visit the fiesta on Friday, Saturday and Sunday mornings at 6am for ‘Breakfast and Balloons’, watching the hot air balloons take to the sky as the sun rises with a morning coffee and bacon sandwich. For the evening ascents, visitors are encouraged to arrive early to get a good spot to watch pilots inflate the balloons and take off en masse at 6pm. Visitors looking for a sneak peek at the special shapes can watch them ascend for the first time on Thursday night at 6pm.
The four-day festival is a truly special event. When I tell people that I’ve been to a hot air balloon festival they look at me, confused yet intrigued, and that’s how I felt when I arrived at Ashton Court. I had not expected such a huge spectacle, and in such a picturesque setting. People travel from all over the world to fly their balloons out of the grounds at Ashton Court during this momentous occasion and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to see the marvel for myself as I’d only ever seen hot air balloons floating across the horizon. I’d have happily sat with a beer, a hotdog and watched the balloons take off and float by for hours; but no, my evening was to be more action packed than that.
I’ve had this weird phobia of heights since I skydived in New Zealand three years ago. I can’t describe the fear, I mean, I don’t mind flying in a plane, but perhaps the fear escalates when I’m flying without being completely enclosed. So imagine how frantic I was when I was asked to jump into an oversized picnic basket last year at the Bristol Balloon Fiesta. I’d never flown in a hot air balloon before, and to be honest, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to. But being an ‘I’ll do anything for the story’ journalist, I decided to bite the bullet and be the extra man needed to add weight to one of the hundreds of balloons that would take off that evening.
Before taking off I stood in a field, completely surrounded by deflated hot air balloons and their multi-national owners who pulled the large tent-like balloons from tiny bags and began to extend the balloon using what looked like industrial sized hairdryers. There were colourful balloons, black and white ones, big ones, little ones, square ones, round ones and even one shaped like a minion; it was undoubtedly a sight to behold. Before having time to process what was happening, the flames were lit and my Belgian pilot helped me into the basket. I had a moment of panic but it was too late, there was no time to clamber out, we were off. I’d expected to lurch forward, like when you stall a car, but instead we ascended off the ground in a bizarre, dreamlike floatation that continued as we teased away from the earth.
Silence, weightlessness and heat; I felt like I was floating through a vacuum of white noise that layered above Bristol City. The wicker feels stable (yes, I was surprised too) and I couldn’t feel or hear the wind. We were gliding, effortlessly, away from the green fields beneath and over the pastel-coloured houses of Clifton Wood and Totterdown. The sun beamed onto the balloons that took off before us as they danced through the sky, ascending and descending like feathers in a breeze.
As cheesy as this sounds, it was a dream come true. To see the world we live in from that perspective, not enclosed by plastic shutters and tiny window space, but laid beneath you in the open air, like you could fall on top of it in any second.
It was exquisite.
I felt grateful, ethereal, inspired, and like all my woes were falling from the gaps between the hand woven wicker. I thought about my life, my past, my present, and the future that I was going to have to decide on in the coming days. Floating over Bristol City in I felt pure catharsis like I’d only ever read about. Even a year on, I think about that moment regularly and how happy I felt.
Obviously I took only a few moments to reflect as the rest of the time (approximately 70 minutes of flight time) I chattered with my fellow passengers, pointing out different weird and wonderful sights beneath us, and asking our pilot about the logistics of balloon flying. Here’s a fact for you: once a balloon has one flight, it starts to ‘die’ as the fibres never recover from the heat of the fire used to fly it, and thus they deteriorate rapidly meaning you can only fly them twice or three times more.
The sun was setting behind us and it was time to prepare for landing. We were coached in the process, as it can be dangerous for the passengers and the balloon. When the balloon was about to hit the ground we had to hold either side of the basket, squat and lean to the left. Naturally, with 5 passengers on board, we all ended up on top of one another as the balloon boomed into the long grass of a rural field.
My legs felt like jelly, which gave me a good excuse to sit and watch the trailing balloons land into the field with a soft English sunset providing the most perfect backdrop.
We returned to the festival by car so that we could catch the Night Glows. The spectacle of the famous nightglows, a stunning sight with 30 teams lighting up their balloons in time to music as night falls, happens on the Thursday and Sunday nights of the festival. This year the Night Glows take place on Thursday 11th August and Saturday 13th August at approximately 9.15pm. As the balloons finish their performance, the skies light up over Ashton Court Estate to spectacular fireworks by Skyburst at 9:30 pm on both nights. The balloons stand proud and anchored in the field, lighting up in time to the music that blares across the court – we guarantee that you’ll never witness anything like it.
Each day at the Balloon Fiesta holds something entirely different for festival-goers, but if you don’t wish to brave the traffic to get our to Ashton Court, there are numerous places across the city where you view the spectacle for yourself. One of the best spots is from Clifton Down; take a picnic and lay on the meadow watching the balloons pass by. After my night dancing along the Bristol skyline with my Belgian pilots in their gorgeous black and gold balloon, I was a little tired the following morning. Luckily for me, I was staying in The Bristol Hotel, a gorgeous residence owned by the Doyle Collection and perfectly positioned in Bristol Quay. My room looked towards Ashton Court and as advised by the delightful and informative hotel manager, I set an alarm for 8am, made a coffee and got comfortable by the window. Low and behold, a rainbow of balloons started to soar from the treetops of Leigh Woods and float towards the city. To see the ascent from a different perspective made me truly appreciate the events of the previous night and it was just as magical. For this reason, and many others, we’d advise staying in The Bristol Hotel if attending this event; it offers easy access to the city as well as to the Fiesta, as well as providing unadulterated views of the morning ascent.
Bristol will play host once again to Europe’s largest ballooning event, an amazing spectacle and FREE experience for the whole family from Thursday 11th – Sunday 14th August 2016.
For visitors planning on driving the event, this year, car parking tickets will only be available to purchase in advance and the earlier tickets are booked the better the rate. Currently Early Bird car parking tickets are available for £7.50 for a standard ticket and £12.00 for a premium ticket. Those with car parking tickets must arrive at the site by 5pm on the day of entry to guarantee access to the event. Details of alternative travel and transport routes will be available from the website shortly.
To book car parking tickets please visit http://www.bristolballoonfiesta.co.uk or to find out more about this year’s event follow @BristolBalloon on Instagram and Twitter, or https://www.facebook.com/bristolinternationalballoonfiesta.