A sight one used to see a lot of in Sussex during the warmer months was a balloon making its way across the sky, as in my picture from 2000 above. It was often at sunset. You could usually hear the balloon's approach from some distance off, the fierce burst of gas flame to replenish the hot air making an unmistakable noise that got you out of the house, camera ready, eagerly hoping for a good shot.
They were a regular sight over the village in the 2000s. But in the last few summers I've seen much less of them. It's almost as if ballooning has faded away as a thing to do. And perhaps it has. I'm thinking that nowadays people are more aware of the potential dangers of being in a fragile open basket full of gas cylinders, with a very hot burner close to them sending a jet of flame into a flammable globe of fabric, all subject to the wind's strength and direction, with no means of steering accurately, and no guarantee of a smooth take-off or landing. I dare say a well-organised commercial outfit, with a skilful and experienced professional team, has got the whole thing down to a fine art. But it still looks risky and full of accident-potential, and I for one wouldn't dare go up in a balloon, no matter how much I yearned to take amazing shots from a thousand feet or more up in the sky. Just as I wouldn't want to be driven (or even drive myself) around Brands Hatch at 200 mph as a 'birthday treat', despite loving driving as a passtime.
I have never been happy contemplating any kind of adrenaline-boosting activity. It was in the back of my mind even in 2007 that I might be cajoled into white-water rafting or bungy-jumping when visiting New Zealand. No way! And yet it might be difficult to get out of anything like this with personal dignity and credibility left intact, if gung-ho locals were minded to insist - presumably on the basis that it was a rite of passage that every visitor must experience. An essential taste of Kiwi culture. Thankfully, it didn't happen. But I was ready to discard all dignity and credibility in order to preserve my life.
When I was very young, and living in Barry, Dad knew a lady called Mrs Jones, who lived in a big house at Calcot, at the time (the early 1960s) one of the posher parts of Barry. I think she was once the landlady of our house, before Dad bought it outright. A friendly connection was kept up. I believe Dad used to assist her with completing her annual tax return. No money passed, but Mrs Jones would try to arrange treats for my younger brother Wayne and myself. She could afford to do so. I suppose there was no Mr Jones to quibble.
She knew people over at Rhoose Airport (now Cardiff Airport), and (perhaps rashly) on hearing this I must have said, 'Oh, how thrilling it would be to go up in an aeroplane!' She seized on the notion, and wouldn't let it go, and thereafter tried hard to arrange a flight for me. I actually recall accompanying her twice out to the Airport in her car, with a flight definitely fixed up. But secretly I was terrified. What if one or her friends was actually able to take me up? Or did she fly these planes herself? A little bit of me knew it would be all right, and that I would have a wonderful time, never to be forgotten; but mostly I hoped that there would be some snag that would prevent it happening.
I hated heights. I would be dizzy, sick, out of my mind with terror, a screaming wreck. I would see nothing, for my eyes would be shut tightly. And I could all so easily envisage plunging to my death in a doomed aeroplane, spinning out of control, the belt-buckles jammed, parachuteless, the hatchway refusing to open. Such are the lurid concerns of an over-imaginative ten-year-old.
Half to my disappointment, and half to my great relief, the treat never came to be. As I said, we were twice thwarted. And then Mum and Dad moved away to Southampton, when Dad got his promotion. I never saw Mrs Jones again. But at least the fear of falling from the sky in flames, trapped in the cockpit, was no longer a possibility.
Ballooning, if it goes wrong, would presumably involve a more controlled descent than a stalled aircraft, but even so it seems obvious that hitting the ground at anything more than walking-speed might involve a very nasty jolt and probable injury. And my old bones would surely break.
And yet the adventure remains. And calls. With the additional allure of taking fantastic shots of the countryside below. Nevertheless, I don't think I will ever be able to make myself buy a place on a balloon flight. But I will remain wistful for the experience and opportunity missed.
It certainly looks worth trying, when you see the preparations and take-offs close up. Back in August 2006, M--- and I were pitched at a West Sussex farm north of Petworth. It was next to an official ballooning field. We witnessed no less than four balloons being made ready and then lifting off. Here are the pictures from my Photo Archive. This was the first taking off:
It was a warm, calm afternoon - pretty well perfect for a serene flight. Here's the second balloon. This one had a big basket underneath, containing a cheerful bunch of ticket-payers. We waved to them.
It rose over the trees at a sedate pace. We wondered how they would ever get home again, for who knows where they would come down. I suppose they crammed into the back of a pursuing Land Rover.
Next, the third and fourth balloons, taking off together:
Well, that seemed to go well. But what about the descent, and the landing? We witnessed one of these when pitched on another farm at Spithurst, to the north of Lewes, back in August 2002. First there was a loud roar, as frantic bursts of hot air were sent into the balloon, which needed to clear some trees:
Phew! Just over. Now in the 'correct' field - or the best one available - the balloon had to make a gentle landing. We watched, fascinated. The sheep were not impressed, though, and scurried round and round in fright.
But it all went well.
I admit that my pictures do not show a dangerous sequence of events, but well-handled take-offs and at least one successful landing. I should feel comforted. But it's difficult to ignore the possibility of in-flight misjudgement or accident. In this July 2006 shot over the Clayton Windmills, you can see how big the gas flame is:
What if that ever touched the fabric?
Nothing one does is ever completely risk-free, of course, and I dare say that I literally court death and injury every time I drive anywhere. But then, Fiona - being a Volvo - will deploy air bags galore to cushion me from any crash - and other things besides - and I won't be falling out of the sky in a wickerwork basket.
Still, few man-made things are as beautiful to watch - and photograph - than a balloon high in the sky in the late afternoon. I'll end with three shots from 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2009 to illustrate that.