I have always been fascinated by ballooning; it is remarkable that man took to the skies for the first time in 1783, even before the first locomotive ran on rails. So when I was offered the chance of a flight I didn’t hesitate.
Balloons can only fly when the weather conditions are right, so I had to wait for a phonecall and the OK to make my early start for a field in Goring.
When I arrived, the balloon was spread out on the ground and the slow process of inflation began. The mouth of the envelope was held open as a burner blew hot air into it. Gradually it swelled, and then slowly began to rise from the ground. As it filled it had to be held down to stop it escaping without us. Finally, the basket was fastened underneath and the pilot and I climbed in.
I was expecting a gentle drift up, but as soon as the ground crew let go, we shot up like a cork from a shaken bottle of champagne.
Once in the air, the pilot has two methods of control. He can open a valve in the gas bottle to produce a bigger flame, which sends us up, or he can open a flap in the balloon to let some hot air escape, to slow the ascent or drop us down. What he can’t control is the direction. You are at the mercy of the wind and you go where it takes you.
One of the joys of ballooning is that you literally enjoy a bird’s-eye view of the world. It is not like a commercial plane where you peer through a little window: you have an unobstructed 360º panorama to enjoy.
At first I was looking down over the twin villages of Goring and Streatley, and the great weir and lock on the river between them. Then we slowly drifted south-west over a landscape of downland, dotted with patches of woodland. It is all blissfully quiet, except for the occasional roar when the burner’s lit – though the pilot light emits a high-pitched noise, too high for the human ear, which sends dogs under the flight path into a fury of barking.
We continued our progress, passing over the M4 before crossing the Kennet and Avon Canal, a shiny ribbon glinting in the sun. Everything seemed to be going so well when the pilot asked me to keep a look for a likely landing spot. Not because we were running out of fuel, but because of a ring of bright lights visible straight ahead: we were heading straight for the missile silos at Greenham Common.
We opted for a likely empty field. The descent was dramatic. As we landed, the basket tipped and dragged along the ground, leaving us to crawl out into the muddy field. That’s when you realise why you were advised to wear old clothes. All we had to do now was wait for the retrieval vehicle to collect the balloon and us. The adventure was over. I’ve flown in all kinds of planes, but none was as enjoyable as that first flight in a balloon.
FIND OUT MORE
Oxford Balloon Company
97 Whitecross, Wootton, Abingdon OX13 6BS
Offers flights for up to four passengers, with prices ranging between £125 and £145 per person. Flights take off from a range of sites in Oxfordshire, depending on the forecast wind conditions.
High Street, Goring-on-Thames RG8 9AB
Popular village café.
The John Barleycorn
Manor Road, Goring-on-Thames RG8 9DP
This charming pub/B&B has a friendly atmosphere and serves hearty food.