A throwaway remark taken literally and we had tickets for a Champagne balloon flight.
Not as straightforward as conventional flying, holidays or cruises, this depends, as they say, on circumstances beyond control. First the take off site varies, second the weather must be right, and third the season and validity of tickets have to fit. One wrong, all wrong.
We went for Essex, hoping for one of the two between Colchester and Stansted. Even so this meant setting off at 4.30 am and the flight might not have been confirmed until 11 pm the night before. And it could have been called off while we were on the way or on arrival.
Fortunately all we’d hoped for was confirmed by 9 pm so after frantic preparations for a quick getaway we could – sort of – sleep for a few hours.
The roads – even A12 – were quiet and we made good time, arriving half an hour before the balloons. It was so early we, and the next arrivals, had to check round the site to be sure we weren’t mistaken.
The baskets – too big and cumbersome to be called gondolas – were soon unloaded and the balloons laid out on grass. Names checked we clambered aboard. Help is available but you still need some agility to use two footholds on a panel more than one metre high, and even more to disembark as necessary after the briefing and before the balloon is inflated.
Once full the balloon has to be heated, so the basket goes on its side and the heat jets blast the cold air inside it to ascent temperature. The flames are reason enough to discourage entry into the basket while on its side, easy though that might seem. Even the two passengers hold the envelope open were flinching from the heat.
With the balloon vertical the basket tips back on an even keel (if it had one) and would be away into the clouds but for the anchor cable clamped the Land Rover and trailer. Speed of boarding was of the essence and within seconds we were airborne: two people of moderate to generous size carried aloft with hardly any sensation of movement. With the sun just above the boundary trees we began a dreamy drift across a landscape looking even flatter than reputed.
Hills of note it may not have but Essex has abundant woodland and was always a good location for castles, country houses and pleasure parks. Some of these came into view and were our only indication of movement as we drifted in silence across them. The only sound came when the jets were turned on to maintain balloon temperature.
It was a hazy, cloudless morning and we could make out the distant Blackwater Estuary but, surprisingly, no sign of Stansted Airport. The less than beautiful developments of Braintree were clear to see but so were the villages around Gosfield and Halstead. Gardens, lakes, swimming pools and animals – ponies, deer and even hares – came into view and one of us even spotted a bird catching a fish.
Our pilot spotted arecently harvest wheat field and decided there was a good landing site. Remembering our briefing we all sat on benches along the sides of the basket and clutch the ropes in the central wall. An unsophisticated safety belt system but it works, and is necessary as the landing after a dry summer was hard. Down with a jarring bump then up and down again – worse than a childhood birthday – at least we didn’t topple over, though that would have helped at least one passenger disembark.
Once on firm ground comes the treat, or chore, according to your view: this is to help pack up the balloon, which we had done by the time the Land Rover arrived. One stowed in the basket and the whole thing winched on to the trailer it was Champagne time.
The journey back to base is a good indicator of how far the balloon travels in its 45-60 minutes of almost sensationless flight. We were home for a late breakfast to supplement the rushed earlier one while some people would only just have been preparing their first coffee.