Fly me to the moon. Or even Shropshire

It's worth getting out of bed at dawn to take a balloon flight. Mark Rowe enjoys a leisurely trip over the Secret Hills

Everyone was remarkably perky, given that it was 5.15am and none of us who gathered in the small Shropshire town of Craven Arms could have grabbed more than five hours' sleep the night before. With handshakes and stamping of feet, the excitement of floating up in a balloon - one of the few good reasons to get out of bed before dawn in mid-summer - was palpable both in the first-timer (me) and the enthusiasts (pretty much everyone else).

Everyone was remarkably perky, given that it was 5.15am and none of us who gathered in the small Shropshire town of Craven Arms could have grabbed more than five hours' sleep the night before. With handshakes and stamping of feet, the excitement of floating up in a balloon - one of the few good reasons to get out of bed before dawn in mid-summer - was palpable both in the first-timer (me) and the enthusiasts (pretty much everyone else).

This was due in part to a welcome "window" in the weather. Ballooning is at the mercy of the elements, with take-off all but impossible in winds above 12mph while rain, thunderstorms, hill fog and cloud can leave the balloon firmly tethered to the ground. After two thoroughly damp and miserable days, the early morning half-light revealed a little light cloud and barely a whiff of wind. Ian Bridge, our pilot and manager of Espiritu Balloons, was as bright as a button as he released a party balloon in the air, aiming his compass at it to find the wind direction. "We fly these ridiculous hours because the weather is calmer at dawn and in the evening," he explained. "Even a couple of hours from now it will be too turbulent."

The balloons were launched in Onny Meadows, a little nature reserve in Craven Arms, a town that boasts of being named after its first pub. As rabbits hopped through the tussock grass and a buzzard sailed over a line of oak trees, Ian and his crew unfurled two balloons and attached the baskets and harnesses in a matter of minutes. Huge fans blew cold air into the balloons, transforming them into marquees, then the burners were turned on and within seconds the balloons were up. After final checks, the last cable was unleashed and, surprisingly quickly, we were 200 feet above the ground and heading east along Corvedale valley.

The sensation of flying in a balloon is extraordinary. Travelling at the speed of the wind, around 10mph, the stillness is absolute, the feeling of lift and buoyancy as though we were being tugged along by Raymond Briggs's Snowman. The small size of the basket, which could take only four people, added to the thrill. Most commercial flights can take 10 or more people but bigger is not necessarily better. And the experience is immensely soothing. Balloon companies take a lot of bookings from families of people in hospices and disabled people, some of whom have likened a ride to the therapeutic effect of swimming with dolphins. It is easy to understand this.

Conversation tends to be staccato, as you must time sentences to finish before your pilot switches on the burners every 20 seconds or so. Ian, a six-times national balloon champion, has been flying for 25 years and there can scarcely be a field in Shropshire that he has not landed in. "I used to make model balloons with my brother," he explained. "I was just intrigued by the way balloons bob up and down. You get so much variety. I don't ever tire of it. The landscape and the light are different every time. You get a sense of oneness with nature. You're right in it and you don't have to peer through Perspex. You can fly really high or you can drop down and skim on a lake. It's also extremely safe. You're really not flying that fast, so your capacity to have a serious prang is pretty limited."

Below, the countryside was slowly waking up. Sheep, bleating, scattered as we dipped down to "hedge hop", a favoured activity of balloonists; cattle, lowing, were more quizzical, trotting to the hedgerows and peering up at us. Swallows swooped for mid-air midges. A tractor chugged along a lane, the farmer waving at us.

Shropshire promotes itself as the ballooning capital of the world, a claim with which several places, not least Bristol, might take issue but what is not in dispute is that the county is one of the best places to fly. The expansion of regional airports and the consequent closing of air space to balloonists has not yet extended to Shropshire and the Welsh Borders, so you can fly pretty much anywhere. More to the point, Shropshire possesses a rare variety and charm, bringing together history, geology and mythology. EM Forster, presumably not flying in a balloon at the time, wrote of "quiet mysteries [that] were in progress behind those tossing horizons".

We passed over the hill fort of Nordy Bank and from the air we clearly saw its fortifications built upon the contours of the landscape. It was GCSE geography condensed into one hour. Here the classic patchwork of English farmland divided by hedgerows and drystone walls, there the spiny tors and rolling heathlands. To the north was the dramatic moorland of Long Mynd; a little closer ran the jagged forms of Wenlock Edge, the longest escarpment in Britain.

It was striking how fluid air can be in a seemingly still sky. We were flying at 1,100ft (such trips can go up to 12,000ft) but even this modest elevation comprised several different air currents stacked up like storeys in a tower block. The only real control the balloonist has is over height, and to change direction Ian simply took the balloon higher or lower to find a current blowing the way we needed. The cloud banked up over the hills on the horizon then evaporated as the air crossed the valley only for its ghostly fingers to return when it reached Brown Clee Hill beneath us.

And then, 15 miles from Craven Arms, and as lightly as a gymnast skipping off her beam, we touched down. Ian told us to keep holding on, which proved sound advice. A minute later, as we waited for the balloon to deflate, a gust of wind tilted it, the basket and us over and we bumped a few yards along the field. As we packed the balloon away, Jeremy, who had faithfully tracked us in the car, dropped a bottle of Shropshire white wine and a discount flight voucher at the door of the farmer in whose field we had landed.

Afterwards, I popped into the Secret Hills Discovery centre, built with £2.4m of Millennium project money, which takes you on an odyssey through the pre-history of the Shropshire landscape and carries a strong environmental message. Its centrepiece is a balloon simulator, which offers diverting aerial footage, though this was taken from a helicopter and runs at 50mph across the landscape. The real thing is more vivid and gently paced.

Mark Rowe flew with Espiritu Balloon Flights (01743 790100; www.espiritu-balloonflights.co.uk) which offers flights of one hour from £139 per person. He stayed at The Firs (01588 672511; www.go2.co.uk/firs), a converted farmhouse in Norton with beautiful valley views, which offers b&b from £50 per night. The Secret Hills Discovery Centre (01588 676040, www.shropshire-cc.gov.uk/discover.nsf) is in School Road in Craven Arms and is open daily, 10am-5.30pm, admission adults £4.25 children £2.75. The Bristol International Balloon Fiesta (0117-953 5884; www.bristolfiesta.co.uk) takes place at Ashton Court Estate, Bristol, from Thursday to Sunday (7-10 August). Admission: free.

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