Travel Adventure: Waft the skies in wicker

You drift in perfect peace above tiny trees and cows - and when you want to land you simply hang on tight and crash. Annie Caulfield goes hot-air ballooning
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The Independent Culture
FOR YEARS my mother had dropped heavy hints about her wish to waft about the skies in wicker. So, as a birthday present, I took her on a mystery tour to the Hereford countryside, to fulfil her lifelong desire to go ballooning.

Balloon-dreaming mothers seem to be many in number. There were two more being treated in our group. A husband and wife, celebrating an anniversary, completed the passengers in the extremely large basket to which we were assigned. Then we had "the captain", a sporty middle-aged man dressed exactly like an airline pilot. He warned us in masterful tones: "I need you to do everything I say, as soon as I tell you to do it. This is for your own safety and enjoyment."

We all nodded obediently, and my mother volunteered me to help the captain and his female assistants prepare the balloon. The captain and his acolytes had arrived at the large Hereford playing-field in a Range Rover, towing a trailer. The trailer disgorged yards of brightly coloured material that had to be spread flat on the grass. We held one end of the material and high-firing gas burners heated the air inside until a flat, shapeless stretch of cloth swelled and became recognisable as a gaudily striped balloon.

We climbed into the wicker basket and were instructed to hold tight to the sides as we drifted into the sky with our gallant captain. Once we'd reached a height where trees and cows seemed like toys, the burner was turned off and the balloon drifted in perfect peace. We crossed rivers and fields, and waved to tiny figures below us.

The captain grew adventurous. He brought the balloon right down, so the basket scraped the top of a hedge, then he fired the burner and we shot upwards. We "buzzed" a few more hedges and trees, with all of us grabbing fistfuls of leaves as souvenirs to take home.

The balloon's height was easy to control, the captain informed us, but direction was a less precise science. "How do you know where you'll land?" someone asked.

"I don't." The captain chortled gleefully. This was obviously his favourite question. "The only way to land a balloon is to crash it."

We passengers were quiet for a while as the balloon began to descend towards a field of cows. I imagined being trampled in a stampede of hysterical Friesians and took a firmer grip on the sides of the basket. But we passed that field and headed down into grassland free of alarmable livestock.

"Hold tight!" The captain bellowed. "Bend your knees and relax." Tense as rhinos on a tightrope, we gritted our teeth in desperate smiles at each other. The basket hit the ground and we tumbled out as it tipped over on to one side - we were all unscathed, but considerably more physically entangled than would be normal after a short exchange of small talk.

The captain spoke our co-ordinates into his mobile phone; the rescue team would be on its way. Meanwhile he'd have to make his apologies to the owner of the field. He'd once been confronted by a shotgun-toting farmer, so politeness, and an elaborate pretence that the landing was a complete accident, were essential.

An elderly woman was already climbing a stile into the field, shaking her fists. The captain must have applied immense charm, because by the time the woman joined our group she was all smiles, which were enhanced by the arrival of the Range Rover and several bottles of champagne.

In a stunning red sunset we lolled in the field with our glasses and drank a toast of thanks to the captain, then one to the lady who owned the field. We made our farewells, and as we drove off I emitted a squeak of alarm as my mother, who is 65, told me that she had another wild ambition for her next birthday - to make a parachute jump. She clearly has some gene of recklessness that I've failed to inherit. I wonder what she'd say to a nice box of chocolates?

To find your nearest ballooning site, contact The British Balloon and Airship Club on 01604 870025