In the summer of 2014, my family bought me a very special birthday present.
They always struggle to think of what I would like as a present, be it for Father’s Day, Christmas, or whatever, but, instead of the expected Bottle of Nectar or another pair of slippers, this time they excelled themselves.
A Virgin (7 Day Any) Hot Air Balloon Flight.
My wife had bought me a balloon flight over North Yorkshire for my 50th back in 1994, and I have never stopped talking about it since then.
Mind you I have to admit to dropping the odd hint about how good it would be to fly in the Virgin Balloon that crosses our house on a regular basis every summer.
So now it was going to happen, providing of course the wind is in the right direction!
Virgin have over 100 launch sites in England, Scotland and Wales. They generally fly early morning or early evening in the flying season, between March and October.
Voucher types are either Weekday Morning, Weekday Anytime, 7 Day Anytime, 7 Day Anytime Plus or Gift Experience Packages.
The launch site in County Durham is less than a mile from my house at a popular caravan site in the grounds of Witton Castle near Bishop Auckland, so it was the obvious choice for me as this was where the balloons which pass over my house are launched.
Ballooning is a very weather dependent activity and sometimes, more often than not, flights have to be cancelled. High wind speeds, poor visibility, unusually wet ground conditions, low cloud, rain and even snow are a no no for balloon flights, and pilots have to base their decisions based on the latest forecasts from the MET Office. It is this careful consideration of weather conditions that makes ballooning such a safe activity.
Booking on to a flight is very easy either through the website or by telephoning the customer service team.
Apparently some people fly on their first booking attempt but unfortunately for me, every time I booked a flight from Witton Castle from September 2014 to July 2016 it was cancelled.
This can be very frustrating, especially when your my age with two dodgy knees, and I was a bit worried about my ability to climb into the basket. After 8 failed attempts I asked Virgin for a refund, but they told me that Weekday and 7 Day Anytime Vouchers were non refundable! So I had no choice but to persevere.
After my July 4th date was cancelled, I managed to secure the last place in the basket 20 days later. The evening before I duly followed the procedure to establish if the balloon would be flying the following morning.
At last. Success. Conditions were looking good for Sunday. All passengers to report at 06.30am.
I arrived at the correct time and as expected our friendly pilot called on the fittest among us to assist with the inflation process, and at the same time explaining how the huge piece of cloth turns into a hot air balloon with the help of air, heat, ropes and Velcro……….yes
We were each allocated a compartment, three to each. Access is via two footholds into each compartment. One passenger was a 90 year old grandmother who took the option of laying into the basket while it was still on its side. An option I thought of taking myself, but didn’t!
Within 45 minutes of arriving we lifted gently off the grass and as the saying goes………Up, Up and away.
For the next hour or so I was in awe of the beautiful scenery and colours below me. I already knew that the Durham countryside had changed significantly from when I moved here 50 years ago. The scene in front of me then would have been completely different to what lay before me today. The predominant colour then would have been black from the coal industry which covered so much of the County. Immediately below me were the villages of West Auckland, Evenwood, Etherley and Witton Park. This was the true birthplace of the Stockton & Darlington Railway where coal was hauled up Etherley Incline from different collieries and sent on to the coast.
It is incredible how time and nature can transform a landscape.
There was very little wind to push us on towards the City of Durham (what a site that must be from a hight) but this allowed me to pick out familiar roads and buildings on the ground and take loads of photographs to share.
People have often said to me “ I wouldn’t dare go up in a balloon” or “You must be very brave” but there just isn’t anything to scare you.
You can only go as fast as a breath of wind, but there is no sensation of wind because you are travelling at the same speed. There are no sudden jolts or movements. There are no rocking sensations and the only noise you here is the burner which determines the hight of the balloon.
There is very little noise from the ground either apart from the occasional dog, sheep or cow expressing some surprise at what is passing over them.
After about an hour, it was time for our pilot to seek out a suitable field to gently descend into, and as we got closer to the ground we were instructed to take our landing positions, which entail sitting down on a soft seat with your knees close to your chin and holding on to two rope handles in front of you. If the wind is stronger the basket can sometimes tip onto its side, but on this occasion the landing was as soft as the take off.
Once the balloon was packed away, out came the champagne to jointly celebrate our safe return to earth. Just one glass of course. Then we all jumped into a mini bus to return us back to base.
Can’t wait to do it again!