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Floating on Air: the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta

Every August Bristol welcomes one of the biggest balloon festivals in Europe, and this year, feeling brave, we signed up for a flight…

This weekend one special city plays host to a unique international event – no, it’s not the Rio Olympics, this is the spectacular Bristol International Balloon Fiesta. An entire four-day festival dedicated to the madcap, nostalgia-inducing art of hot air ballooning.

The Fiesta brings together hundreds of balloonists from all over the world, in a celebration of the cloth, fire and wicker that carries them 5,000 feet above our heads. Founded in 1979, the festival has gone from strength-to-strength, now attracting around 100,000 visitors on each day of the event. 150 balloons take part every year, including an eclectic array of novelty balloons in wacky shapes: past events have featured Stuart the Minion, an upside down balloon from Holland, a UFO and even a Tesco Trolley.

In preparation for our early morning trip with Virgin Balloon Flights we headed over to see the nightglow: one of the most popular and iconic parts of the fiesta, this features around two dozen balloons tethered to the ground spurting fire in time to music from Coldplay, Stevie Wonder and even the rugby fans’ favourites of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot and Jerusalem. A sort of synchronised four-foot-flamethrower disco if you will, the nightglow kicks off at 9pm on the Thursday and Saturday nights of the Fiesta, topped off by a spectacular firework display.

Culture Calling's Charlie visits the nightglow at Bristol International Balloon Fiesta | image credit: Charlie Kenber

Getting up before dawn in anticipation of our basket-bound voyage we headed out to the site in Ashton Court, the launch area already pumping to an epic, movie-style soundtrack provided courtesy of Classic FM, building anticipation for the take-off.

But it was not to be. Whilst even now we might be proclaiming the sense of freedom as we took flight, or the camaraderie between balloonists participating in the mass launch, the Great British weather put paid to all our dreams. Hot air balloons are brilliant at a number of things: but landing in strong winds is not one of them.

At this point the morning could have been a write-off, but in ballooning take-off is never a certainty, and so the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta is well rehearsed in rolling out a slap-up Plan B. With military precision a number of smaller balloons are laid out, tethered to vehicles and inflated, spurting fire into their canopies and sailing to the heady height of eight feet. Without even mentioning the stunning setting of Ashton Court Estate, the Fiesta has plenty to offer in the way of food and drink stalls, bouncy castles and slides, fairground rides and even a vast pick-and-mix tent. It turns out a cancelled balloon flight is nothing that a quick stint on an archery stall can’t fix.

There are still plenty of chances to see the balloons in the air, with a total of seven launch slots in the mornings and evenings, so keep an eye open throughout the weekend, and especially don’t miss the nightglow on Saturday night.

And who knows, maybe you’ll even see them fly.

The Bristol International Balloon Fiesta continues until Sunday 14th August and is completely free. Find out more details and directions to the site on their website.

Culture Calling has teamed up with Virgin Balloon Flights to offer our readers a hot air balloon experience for just £99, click here for more information