As 106 balloons rise gently into the cool skies of dawn to the soundtrack of a fiery whooshing that resembles distant thunder or waves crashing on a sandy shore, I wonder briefly what so captivates us about these flying contraptions. They are no marvel of technology, no breakers of records, of speed nor height nor distance. Their very ability to ascend depends entirely on the weather, and they can only float in the direction of the wind, making a return journey impossible.
And yet, as the 250,000 spectators who gathered in Bristol’s Ashton Court over the course of the 35th annual Bristol International Balloon Fiesta prove, there is something irresistibly magical about hot air balloons. A lone balloon in the sky evokes a feeling of serenity, but a whole fleet of hot air balloons slowly drifting together along the breeze in the quiet stillness of dawn or the languid dusk, is truly a sight to behold.
In an age where speed is everything and the most modern technology wins over tradition, ballooning is a nod to days gone by, and a chance for people to be alone, in silence, watching the spectacular scenery slide beneath them from the comfort of a suspended basket.
It’s not often that I’ll wake up at 5am, but the 6am mass ascension at Bristol Balloon Fiesta was motivation enough for an early start, and as I perched on dew-sodden lawn devouring sausage baguettes and gulping scalding coffee, I was rewarded with the spectacle of 106 balloons of various shapes, colours and sizes floating gently into the silvery morning skies. After the gentle beauty of the dawn ascension, those with a desire for action, noise and speed were treated to a schedule of adrenalin-boosting aerobatics, with the Breitling Wingwalkers pulling death-defying moves atop beautiful orange biplanes, a RAF Typhoon shattering the skies with its turbo-boosted roar, and an original Spitfire gliding overhead with the ease of a brand new machine.
Between each of these displays, I wandered through Ashton Court Estate, the venue for Bristol’s Balloon Fiesta. Entertainment was in plentiful supply, with fairground rides from the mellow through to the stomach-churning, sideshows promising giant stuffed bananas and food stands dominated by ice cream vans, wispy candy floss and an abundance of bars serving beer and Pimms. As the threatening clouds of the morning gave over to blue skies and hot sun, the crowds continued to trickle onto the grounds, anticipating the evening’s events: another mass ascension and the Nightglow.
If the ascension was stunning, the Nightglow was purely breathtaking!
24 brightly coloured balloons formed two lines, and in time to a head-boppingly good playlist, each balloon would light their burner at intervals, with the result being a spectacular, perfectly-timed light display. I was lucky enough to get up close and personal to the balloons and the heat radiating from the burners was intense. The music, the crowds and the heat pulsing through the cold night air made for an experience I’ll never forget, but rather than trying to describe the Nightglow, I’ll let this video speak for itself:
The balloon fiesta takes place every year in Bristol, which is a brilliant city to visit (more Bristol travel tips coming soon), so keep an eye on the Balloon Fiesta website and make sure you mark next year’s dates in your diary.