Monday, 20 June 2011

Up, Up and Away!

Ever since I was very young, I have always dreamt of going up in a hot air balloon. Thanks to a generous birthday present from my family, I finally realised that dream a few weeks ago, as I took to the skies over Oxfordshire.

Oxford holds a special place in my heart as I spent a wonderful year there as a student many moons ago, and still revel in happy nostalgia when watching episodes of 'Inspector Morse' and 'Lewis'. So when I booked my Virgin hot air balloon flight, I didn't hesitate to choose Oxford as my launch destination.

As hot air ballooning is totally weather-dependent, I was very fortunate to have chosen a perfect, balmy summer's evening in early June. I made my way to Oxford and joined the Virgin Crew and other passengers on the meadow by the ice rink. The Virgin crew encouraged everyone to get involved with assembling the balloon which was no mean feat as this balloon was absolutely enormous and resembled a huge marquee. It was quite a sight watching it morph from a scrunched up ball of fabric into an impressive, fully-inflated giant red bubble.

Once we got the nod from the Pilot, my fellow passengers and I hastily hurled ourselves into the wicker basket and took our seats. I didn't even notice the balloon 'take off' as it was so gentle and felt as if the land had left the basket rather than vice versa. Within moments we were way off the ground and riding high. Up, up and away!

It was breathtaking.

It felt so magnificent and liberating to be floating majestically above the dreaming spires, rolling landscapes, miniature cows and trees made of broccoli. We spent an hour in the air and travelled for over 20 miles across the beautiful countryside, waving goodbye to the city disappearing into the distance. Apart from the occasional loud roar from the burner as it replenished the balloon with hot air, I was surprised at just how silent, peaceful and tranquil it all was. I could have quite happily stayed up there and floated off to Timbuktu.

As the sun started to set, we began our descent as Mark the Pilot kept a look out for a suitable place to land. We had to be careful not to end up in a crop field, or anywhere inaccessible so the trailer and minibus who were following from the ground, could easily find us. Having heard a few scary tales about hot air balloon landings, I was slightly nervous about coming down to earth with a large bump, but it was absolutely fine and actually quite fun! Mark navigated us expertly onto a grass field and we took our seating positions as the basket scraped the ground, dragged a bit, lifted up again slightly and then gently bumped back down to a final halt. As it fell onto its side, I found myself sitting upside down enjoying the sense of exhilaration and relief that it had landed safely.

By now it was almost 10pm, so after helping deflate the balloon and squash it back into the giant sack, the team toasted one another with a glass of chilled Moet & Chandon, before taking the minibus back to Oxford. I headed back to London, and as I drifted off to sleep that night (into a land where trees are made of broccoli), it was hard to believe that only a few hours earlier, I had been flying high, like Phileas Fogg. I can't wait to do it again!

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