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How Bristol became the ballooning capital of the country

17th April 2020 Mark Features

To say that hot air ballooning in Bristol is a big deal would be an understatement. From its history as the birthplace of modern ballooning, to its present as at the home of one of the largest and most vibrant annual ballooning festivals, there is no doubt about it: Bristol and ballooning go hand in hand. If you have ever wondered where this affinity came from, then read on.

The setting: perfect for superb vistas

It is not just because of its advantageous setting on the limestone banks of the River Avon that ballooning is so popular here. Yes, a hot air balloon flight in Bristol will afford passengers superlative views over rolling English countryside, over the south of the Cotswolds and (on a clear day) South Wales to the north, the Mendips to the south, the striking Bristol Channel to the west and the standing stones of Avebury to the east, but it also boasts some of the most iconic architectural and engineering sites in the region.

The Clifton Suspension Bridge is a Grade I listed structure that stretches across the Avon Gorge. Opened to the public in 1864, it has delighted visitors for over a century. Likewise, the SS Brunel, the thriving hub of the rejuvenated dock around Spike Island and the Clifton Observatory are all sites that even people familiar with the city delight in seeing from a different, more aerial perspective.

The unlikely beginnings: at the gliding club

One thing that is remarkable about the relationship between hot air ballooning and the city is that developments in hot air balloon engineering were forged in the beginning entirely by knowledgeable amateurs. In the 1960s, inspired by aeronautical developments in the USA, the Bristol Gliding Club decided to try to create a UK-born hot air balloon. Known as the Bristol Belle, the balloon was developed by an international team of enthusiasts, and, after a lot of trial and error, took its first flight on July 9th, 1967. Since then, ballooning engineering coming out of Bristol has gone from strength to strength. Nowadays, the expertise of these balloonists is showcased at Bristol’s very own ballooning extravaganza.

The lasting legacy: An annual celebration of balloons

The Bristol Ballooning Fiesta started life in 1979. It takes place every year in the summer in Ashton Court – a 11th century manor park – and sees visitors from all over the world come to see the spectacular balloon show.

Usually, the Fiesta comprises a melange of events. For starts, tethered flights are on offer for visitors who are keen to get their feet (a little bit) off the ground. Each day of the four-day festival finishes with a serene night glow and stunning fireworks display, as is the tradition of balloon festivals.

A popular highlight of this Fiesta is the special shaped balloons. In previous years, balloons shaped like a yellow Minions character, Bertie Bassett, a shopping trolley, and animals including a lion, a beaver, an owl – even a UFO – have graced the Fiesta.

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