I needn’t have bothered with all those extra layers- beret, thick scarf, windcheater- because it was pretty warm under the dragon whoosh of the periodic tongues of gaseous flame, even at the occasional 3,000 feet above the A38.
Fifteen persons climbed into the basket, captained by Mark Shemilt, a very experienced airline pilot with 40,000 hours of flying time. There was the elaborate ritual of setting up the balloon, to which several more able bodied passengers lent a hand.
Then without any unpleasant lurching or revving up we were floating over South Oxford!
We drifted like thistledown, no sound marring the dreamlike progress except for the dragon’s breath; over fields and hills, bosky stands of trees, rich people’s houses and terraces, rivers and streams, allotments and A roads carrying their toy cars. I even forgot the man next to me in the basket who couldn’t stop sniffing.
I’ve always said the British are the luckiest people in the world- they have gardens they can cultivate, a climate that allows sweetpeas and asparagus and back yards that stretch forever.
An hour later we were approaching likely landing strips near Didcot. Mark radioed his assistant Steve instructing him on the possible fields he should drive to. Somehow we managed to land in an enormous grassy recreation ground behind a gigantic new housing development. It was a soft landing and we stayed upright.
There we were met by an irate man in a hard hat who refused to let us out of the enclosure on grounds of Health and Safety. He also confiscated Mark’s pilot’s licence.
Everyone piled in to help bundle up the deflated balloon and then had a drink of champagne.
We walked out of the fenced field, defying the man in the hard hat. “Try and stop us! We’ll call the police,” said the men emboldened by their glass of bubbly as we traversed the perfectly safe new builds. It’s a huge, horrible development, with pocket-hanky gardens and it took twenty minutes to walk to the front gates where taxis were waiting. They did things much better even thirty years ago. Alas, the era of the expansive back garden may now be over.
Two hundred years ago Oxford’s own James Sadler went up in a balloon, a much riskier project than one can imagine. But there was no one to harass him about Helath and Safety.