Daniel Pountney


Daniel Pountney

AS I peered out of the wicker basket separating me from 2,500ft of fresh air and the ground, the pilot of the big blue balloon announced that he was going to look for somewhere to land.

We had been in the air for around 40 minutes after taking off from Pittville Park, Cheltenham, shortly after 7am.

The Abercrombie & Kent flying machine had shot up over the park and the views across the town were breathtaking.

The ten of us immediately starting picking out landmarks sticking up from the centre of the town – St Gregory’s Church, the Queens Hotel, the Promenade.

Immediately below us was Prestbury and it was surprising to see how orderly the roads and housing were laid out.

But of course the dominant feature on the landscape rolling below us was the racecourse looking lush and green.

From above we really got a sense of the size of it and what a comparatively small area the tens of thousands of people who watch the racing are confined to.

Soon we were passing over the new Ellenborough Park Hotel and picking out the luxury car models on the forecourt.

Andrew Gregory, a freelance balloon pilot who has been working for Ballooning In The Cotswolds taking passengers on trips above Cheltenham and the Cotwolds for ten years, then gave the balloon a blast of fire and we began to climb above Cleeve Hill.

Passing over the golf course I was surprised at just how safe it felt.

I was expecting the basket to rock in the wind and to experience an occasional drop or bump like you get in an aeroplane.

But the ride was smooth and, in between blasts of fire, it was extremely peaceful too.

Occasionally this peace was pierced by dogs barking at us from below. 

Andrew explained that they could hear a high-pitched sound whenever he released the flames.

The dog barking became more frequent as we passed over Winchcombe, virtually following the path of the high street.

Children waved from the streets below as we picked out the properties with the largest pools.

And here came the latest in a series of surprises for me – landing is not an exact science.

I had, perhaps naively, assumed that ballooning involved looking at a map, judging wind direction and plotting a course for a safe field to land in.

Actually you get up there, let the wind carry you wherever it likes and find a landing ground by simply assessing the countryside when you gas starts to get low.

Andrew wanted to avoid fields with young sheep in them to avoid causing the animals any distress.

He also discounted fields full of crops as he didn’t want to upset the farmers.

Once you rule those out though, you realise that the options are much fewer.

We passed over Toddington and spotted Thomas the Tank Engine on the GWSR track.

Then we were in to open countryside travelling at ten knots away from Cheltenham.

We were in Stanway before the wind found us a nice fallow field, free from power cables.

As we bent our knees and held on tight, Andrew dropped up in to the field for a relatively comfortable landing a full 30 minutes after he had started looking for somewhere to put down.

The extra time had been a great bonus for us but was hard work for the Land Rover crew who had been tracking us for the whole ten miles.