The biggest multi-coloured birthday balloon in the world: yellow, red, white, blue . . . It's flat and deflated at the moment but it is, I'm assured, a genuine air balloon, capable of carrying myself and my family high into the clouds. It's meant to be my birthday treat.
Everyone gathers round to hear the introductory spiel from Tim Revel, the director of the alarmingly titled Humbug Balloon Group. He explains that family and friends should follow the 'retrieving vehicle' (a Range Rover with a trailer attached) which will trace the progress of the balloon via two-way radio. 'Better a follower than a hanger on]' says a voice behind me. Our pilot, Richard Mold, has heard all the jokes before but reacts to each one with a patience bred by the unpredictability of the British weather. Wind, we're told, is the greatest impediment to flying, followed by rain, poor visibility and unstable conditions.
The safety advice is brief: the landing position (crouch inside the basket); do not jump out when airborne; enjoy yourself. Simplicity itself.
The envelope unravelled, the wicker basket and propane burner assembled, it is time for the balloon to take its more recognisable form - a full 120,000 cubic feet. Not surprisingly its scale is far more impressive from 20 feet away than the usual neck-craning perspective of 2,000 feet below. We clamber in - the pilot and six passengers. A final roar from the burners. The basket, ever so gently, leaves the ground.
The sensation is rather anticlimactic. There is none of the stomach-turning of the first descent of a roller coaster or the G-force of a plane becoming airborne. Just a gentle parting from the terrestrial.
The most interesting part of an aircraft flight is the five minutes of taking-off and landing, but it all happens so quickly. A balloon flight, on the other hand, is like an hour's approach to the runway. Apart from intermittent bursts from the burners, it is eerily quiet in the skies; barking dogs and passing cars can be heard very faintly far below. You feel motionless, yet you are moving. The countryside drifts below you rather than you passing above it. The inferno just a few feet above your head makes the trip surprisingly warm and sometimes uncomfortably hot. In fact, bald men are advised to wear hats to protect their scalps.
The highest we reach is 2,200 feet above sea-level, partly because of the demands of our flight path. Some obstacles are geographic, such as the odd hill or two. Chequers, which we saunter past, requires a berth of 1,000 feet. RAF Halton requires 2,000 feet so that the gliders swooping below can approach the landing field in safety.
The descent is as calm and controlled as the ascent. Well, maybe not quite so calm; Richard Mold has a map marked with the land of hostile farmers. Those aside, any field, park or golf course will do as a landing pad. We passengers assume our rehearsed landing positions. I brace myself for a hitherto unexperienced impact. No need. Apart from a bush which we catch on the way down, we come to rest after a couple of bounces in the middle of a stubble field.
The retrieving vehicle goes to get the permission of the farmer to drive on to his land and soon the balloon is withering and the equipment back in the trailer. A bottle of champagne
is cracked open and first-flight certificates handed out.
The liquid refreshment is welcome but the certificate seems slightly fraudulent; for, our participation, like the flight of the balloon, was effortless. And the panoramic views somehow seem to be souvenir enough.
Adventure Balloons 3 Queens Terrace Hanwell W7 (081-840 0108) pounds 95 for all flights. Surrey, Hampshire, Berkshire and Hertfordshire. First flight certificate. Corporate parties catered for up to 16 passengers.
Ballooning World Ltd 18 Linhope Street NW1 (071-706 1021) pounds 99-pounds 15O
25 locations around the Home Counties. All flights have champagne on landing. pounds 99 mid-week flights. pounds 125 weekend flights. pounds 150 City skyline flights take off from Blackheath and Alexandra Palace. Corporate entertainment.
Balloon Safaris 27 Rosefield Road Staines Middlesex (0784 451007) pounds 99 selected Home Counties, champagne and flight certificate.
The Balloon Experience Company 13 Birch Tree Walk Watford Herts WD1 (0923 223477) Nine launch sites in Hemel Hempstead, St Albans and Watford. Maximum of four passengers per flight. pounds 125 champagne on landing and first flight certificate.
Humbug Balloon Group Willowbrook, Clarendon Road Prestwood Gt Missenden Bucks HP16 (0494 864027) pounds 115 per person. pounds 110 per person group of two passengers. pounds 100 for three passengers or more.
Out of this World 26 High Street Sevenoaks Kent TN13 (0732 743322) pounds 125 per flight. 7 days a week, twice a day. pounds 117.50 per person for a group of 2-3 passengers. pounds 110 per person(four to nine passengers). pounds 99 per person (10-12 passengers). All flights come with champagne and nibbles on landing and flight certificate. Corporate entertainment.