Up, up and away

October marks the end of the hot air balloon season - but an early autumn morning is an ideal time to see the county at its best. Guy Hanson was thrilled to take to a balloon over Basingstoke...

If anybody suggested that you stand in a wicker basket suspended 2,000ft above the ground by nothing but a large balloon filled with hot air, you'd likely think them crazy and refuse. But to analyse hot air ballooning in such a way is to take away the sheer joy of the experience.

Ballooning festivals have sprung up around the county including Southampton and Basingstoke - where the Balloons over Basingstoke event was started 12 years ago and has become a stunning annual spectacle with night glows as well as early morning and evening flights.

Invited to join balloonists very early one morning, I was soon, following a thorough safety briefing, rising majestically out of Basingstoke's Memorial Park in a balloon piloted by Richard Penney. Richard fell in love with the unique form of transport at an early age, "I can remember thinking how marvellous they looked... and I was hooked."

Today Richard, who lives in Sherborne St John with his wife Lisa and their two sons, regularly takes part at balloon events - not only around Hampshire and the UK, but around the world.

Bird's eye view

In the skies over Basingstoke the world is a very different place. To the north of the town the Hannington TV mast was clearly visible (most household TV aerials in the county point to either here or the Isle of Wight ), Festival Place dominates the town centre, but the spreading patchwork of fields looked beautiful in the crisp morning light.

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As we drifted at 2,000ft Richard told me that in order to gain a licence a minimum of 16 hours flying is all that is needed. But to become proficient the norm is nearer to 40 hours.

This is not a cheap hobby with a typical set-up costing in excess of £25,000. Richard's family business, based in Basingstoke, sponsors him and the balloon is regularly used by corporate guests for pleasure flights.

"It's an excellent marketing tool, too," adds Richard, "as we are often contacted by clients who see us in the skies over Hampshire."

Gazing down on the town and surrounding countryside for mile after mile was extremely peaceful. Finally though we slowly started our descent back down to the daily rat race and away from the stillness and beauty above. With people waving to us from back gardens, Richard executed a perfect landing in a rapeseed oil field to the west of the town and due to the stillness of the air, it was only a five minute journey back to the park, despite having been in the air for over an hour.

"Sometimes you can drift for miles or simply hang in the air on a morning like today," explains Richard as we gathered in the balloon and thanked him for a truly unforgettable experience. Hanging peacefully in the air, hot air ballooning really enables you to see just how beautiful the Hampshire countryside is with its rolling fields, parkland, forest and coastline.

If you are interested in taking a flight, there are a number of commercial operators who fly in the county, but do keep an eye out for Richard and his yellow and black KEW TECHNICK balloon and give him a wave from me.

Essential information...

Season: March to October.

Timings: Usual time is around 6am or 6pm. Distance covered: It could be two to 20 miles. Preparation of the balloon for flight takes an hour with a similar time after landing to pack the balloon away and return to the launch site.

Clothing required: Dress as if going for a walk. Sensible footwear is recommended and a hat as the burners give out a lot of heat.

Take-off: There is no sensation of rising, rather one of the ground dropping away.

Landing: These are usually smooth, but the basket can occasionally tip over in a strong breeze. Pilot will advise of procedure to follow.

How do you get back: A balloon crew follows the hot air balloon in a retrieve vehicle.

Benefits: A peaceful and serene experience with a chance to look at the scenery and lots of amazing photographic opportunities - especially as the balloon basket is so steady. There's an opportunity to view wildlife.

Who does it suit: Just about everyone from eight to 90 years of age as long as you're comfortable with climbing in and out of the basket and are able to stand for around an hour. Prices: Flights from £99 per person. Learning to fly from £150 per lesson.

For flights: Commercial balloon companies operate from sites throughout Hampshire including Alton, Hartley Wintney, Farnborough, Selborne, West Meon and Winchester.

Learn to fly: Contact the BBAC (British Balloon and Airship Club), tel: 0117 953 1231 or visit: www.bbac.co.uk

Balloon club: The Mid Hants Balloon Club assists anyone who wants to be part of a crew, learn to fly or just wants to be around balloons. Annual subscription is £15 for new members.

For more information contact Lawrence Gray,

tel: 01252 512289 or visit: www.midhantsballoonclub.org.uk

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