Today, Bristol has become synonymous with hot air ballooning, from its celebrated balloon manufacturers to its world-renowned fiesta event, but every legend has a story behind it. For Bristol, the celebrated relationship with balloon travel began over half a century ago, although its first recorded flight actually took place even further back, in the 18th century. In the following passages, we’ll take a trip of our own to explore just why this well-known port city has become so famous for hot air balloons, and why still today these lighter-than-air aircraft capture the hearts and minds of Bristolians and those visiting the city.
Bristol’s first balloon ascension was oddly not outside, but indoors. Rather than riding the skies around the city, the aircraft took off inside what is now the foyer of the Bristol Old Vic theatre on King Street, but was at that time known as Cooper’s Hall. Part of an exhibition run by an artificial flower maker named Michael Biaggini, the hot air balloon, which had a circumference of 30 feet, made ascensions for three days from January 4, 1784, and entrants were charged two shillings and a sixpence to witness the spectacle of the balloon’s envelope being filled with hot air.
While there was much astonishment at the three-day event, and several more demonstrations followed around the city, the brief excitement for balloons had deflated by 1786.
The first ever modern-style hot air balloon in Britain was named the Bristol Belle. Almost 200 years after those early exhibitions, members of the Bristol Gliding Club started a project to construct a hot air balloon. The club was founded by former members of a Cambridge University club for aviation enthusiasts who had seen their pursuits grounded due to wartime restrictions in the 1940s. In the 1960s, several of the new club’s members, including Don Cameron, Giles Bulmer and Bill Malpas, became fascinated with developing a hot air balloon.
After visiting local UK air shows to witness other teams’ attempts, along with many tests of its own, the team completed its balloon in 1967. It was instructed on how to fly the aircraft by RAF Westin-on-Green’s Wing Commander Gerry Turnbull, an experienced aeronaut with knowledge of the craft. The balloon was christened the Bristol Belle, but the initial attempts at inflation failed, with her envelope tearing.
The team returned to the drawing board and corrected its design with assistance from Woking manufacturer GQ Parachutes, and on July 9, 1967, the Bristol Belle took her first flight, rising from the RAF base at Weston.
Since that day, Britain’s most celebrated balloon has made many journeys, including delivering mail to Malta after ascending from the deck of the HMS Ark Royal in 1970. While no longer safe for airborne travel on account of the many holes in her envelope, in 2017, the Bristol Belle was inflated within the city to mark the 50-year anniversary of her maiden voyage.
Following on from his successes with co-designing the Bristol Belle, Don Cameron formed his own hot air balloon manufacturing business in 1971. While originally making hot air balloons in his property’s basement on Cotham Bristol, his firm is now the world’s leading manufacturer of hot air balloons. From attempting Atlantic crossings to building balloons for American filmmakers, Cameron has spread the Bristolian love for hot air ballooning around the globe. He is also known as the first man to cross the Alps and the Sahara in a hot air balloon, and he made the first ever flight between the United Kingdom and what was then known as the USSR, back in 1990.
Since 1979, an annual event known as the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta has been held. The first fiesta was attended by only a handful of balloonists, who ascended from the verdant grounds of Ashton Court country estate in 27 different hot air balloons.
Today, it is Europe’s largest annual festival for hot air balloons, with up to 100 aircraft taking to the skies simultaneously. Attended by hundreds of thousands of visitors each year from all over the world, the festival takes place over four days at the same site in Bristol. The event proved so popular with onlookers gathering on the nearby Clifton Suspension Bridge that it was necessary from 2004 to close the crossing, as the weight of the watchers was putting excessive strain on it.
Balloons are fashioned in all manner of fantastical shapes and sizes for the event, from UFOs and cartoon characters to national birds and beasts. Hundreds of balloons take off in mass ascents at the Bristol event, while other aerobatic displays are performed by flying aces like the Red Arrows. The festival begins and closes with spectacular fireworks displays and it has become well-known for its unique night-glow event. The night glow sees balloon pilots ignite their burners, illuminating their inflated envelopes in time to music to wow the crowds, and it’s a favourite of visiting fiesta fans.
The Bristol fiesta has also achieved world records. In 2014, 90 hot air balloons all touched down in a single field on the site of what was once a factory belonging to the famous chocolate maker Cadbury.
Recent years have been tough on the Bristol International Balloon Festival, from challenging weather conditions that made many ascensions unattainable to government restrictions due to the coronavirus outbreak. However, in true Bristolian fashion, the balloonists always give their best. When weather gets in the way, night glows are performed on the ground or televised on air when social distancing is required. Last year, amidst the virus outbreak, several balloonists still launched and made a flyby across the city, an effort well-received by many, who posted pictures on social media of the incredible sight.
If you’d like to experience this impressive city and its stunning surrounds in a hot air balloon over Bristol, book a flight today with Bailey Balloons.