Nervous laughter was made for moments like this: waiting for a hot air balloon basket to be unloaded from the back of a 4×4.
I was in a field two miles north of Usk, watching the sun break the clouds apart. I was to share the giant picnic basket with seven passengers – all trying ballooning for the first time. Steve Fensome was our pilot. He’d been doing it for 25 years and has never bored of his high-flying job. “Every day of ballooning is different as you don’t know where the wind is going to take you. The wind is in charge, not me,” he said, untying the colossal sack that was keeping the balloon under wraps.
After a safety briefing, Steve had us all working as a team, unravelling the balloon across the grass. It was time to inflate it. Two of the passengers blew cold air from a fan, while another passenger and I donned leather gloves and held the neck of the balloon open. Steve took the role of fire starter, directing the raging flame from the burner into the balloon to warm the air inside. We all watched the balloon slowly rise from the ground like a huge living, breathing creature.
We boarded the basket, two or three to a compartment, while Steve tugged on ropes like a masterful bell ringer. Before we knew it, we were inches off the ground, the wicker creaking beneath our feet. The blasts from the burner warmed our cheeks as we rose higher and higher, watching trees shrink to broccoli florets, and sheep shrivel to little white cotton buds.
I felt like Gulliver. I could see garden ponds, birds flocking on church steeples, impeccably straight rows of cornfields and combine harvesters in full throttle – all from a bird’s eye view. And of course, I could see the rust-coloured River Usk snaking its way south towards Newport, and the peaks of the Sugar Loaf and Blorenge to the hazy north.
People always remark on the silence of being up in a hot air balloon, and it is certainly remarkable. In fact it’s so quiet, it’s almost loud. Or perhaps it was just my ears adjusting to the scaling heights.
Now, you can’t be a hot air balloon pilot without a bit of daredevil showing off, and Steve wasn’t going to disappoint us. With some skilful adjusting of ropes and vents, Steve sank us back towards Earth and had us hovering an inch above the blades of grass in a field. We were so close, I swore I saw a ladybird crawling across a weed. Then, to a cacophony of oohs and aahs, he launched us into the sky again.
It was time to crack open the champagne, or orange juice for the designated drivers. We sipped on our bubbly, taking photos of each other, and pointing out historic landmarks we recognised, such as Raglan Castle.
My ears were popping, and it was getting chilly. Suddenly, we were surrounded by white stuff, and I couldn’t see the green valley anymore. Surely we weren’t in the clouds? The mist cleared and we were sailing above a sea of white, the sun blinding against a backdrop of bluest blue. It was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.
We were 5,000ft in the air – a mile high. I could have drifted above the clouds all day, but we began our descent and searched for a place to land. Steve spotted a field next to a farm, devoid of animals and crops, and we made a beeline for it, while communicating our exact location with the ground team so they could meet us.
A fair swap
Steve always arms himself with a bottle of whisky to curry favour with whoever owns the field he lands in. Luckily, the farmer who owned our drop zone was friendly and didn’t mind our surprise intrusion. He looked baffled, but pleased.
We unpacked the darn thing, so we had to pack it away again – another team effort of hauling the nylon balloon back into its sack, and heaving it on to the 4×4. I looked around the sparkly eyed passengers – all rosy cheeked and joyful at what they had just experienced. One said: “Ballooning has to be the best way of seeing the countryside.” I couldn’t agree more.
How to get there
Usk is located halfway between Abergavenny and Newport on the A472. The nearest train station is Newport, 11 miles away.
Find out more
Bristol Balloons is the oldest established balloon flight company in Britain – and it offers flights all year round over the Usk Valley, Wye Valley, Bath, Bristol, Westonbirt Arboretum and Gloucestershire. Flights are weather dependent, but vouchers are valid for up to a year in case of cancellations. Prices from £90.
Usk Traditional Fish and Chips
11a Castle Parade, Usk NP15 1AA
An award-winning takeaway and restaurant.
Llancayo, Near Usk
This beautifully restored windmill sleeps up to 12.
Usk NP15 1SD
Romantic ruin of a medieval castle.