Flying High over Durham (AD)

Balloons in Durham returned to Durham City in North East England last weekend and we were there in the rain, wind and sunshine to see what it is that draws people to this sport as a balloonist and a spectator. And during the festival over the Spring Bank Holiday weekend, we were both!

Flying High over Durham

Balloons in Durham

At the fifth attempt at a mass launch over the festival weekend, 8 or 9 hot-air balloons soared away from Houghall College in Durham heading in a south-westerly direction over the city itself and into rural County Durham. As the official blogger for Balloons in Durham, I was lucky enough to be offered a place in a basket.

The balloon was Thunderbolt, piloted by Claire Westwood, from Huddersfield in Yorkshire and Grace Jeynes, a 20 year old student from Durham University who took her first flight just 18 months old. We were an all-female flight but ably assisted by Craig Westwood, on the ground. Claire has been flying as a pilot for 11 years, Craig for 7 and Grace had grown up knowing nothing else so I felt I was in safe hands. Balloon pilots go through a very thorough training and examination process, and hot air Balloon flying is one of the safest forms of aviation.

Preparing the balloon

I helped as much as I could holding open the mouth (bottom of the balloon) and getting the cold and then hot air get inside the envelope (that’s the name for what I would call the balloon part).

Credit @cyliestitch posted on Instagram

And I also assisted as much as I could with the retrieve - more of that later.

We were the final balloon to launch and I was really cool watching the others get up, up and away so close up - I really was directly underneath.

I watched the crew I'd spoken to on the first night leave. It just looked so calm and peaceful I couldn’t wait. Little did I know then that we'd actually land in the same field. 

After Ian and Karen took off we watched all the others leave and then it was our turn.

It was great to see the crowds who had supported the balloonists in a really encouraging way as we all waited for weather conditions to improve. The balloonists told me that at some meets they feel a real pressure to fly even though weather conditions aren’t favourable. However, at Durham, they said that’s not the case and how they really value that understanding.

Hot-Air Ballooning

The first hot air balloon was flown in 1783 in Paris. The rush of ballooning as a sport is probably up there with mountain biking or windsurfing. It's not an extreme sport or a dangerous sport but more of an adventure sport.

Hot-air ballooning needs near perfect conditions. They fly best and safely when atmospheric air conditions are dry and stable with light winds. Early in the morning and early evening tend to provide the best conditions most of the year as during the middle of the day the heat of the sun generates thermals which make the balloon very difficult to control, which is why the mass launched were scheduled to be attempted at 6.30am and 6.30pm at the festival. Safety is always paramount and although I can understand that both balloonists and spectators are disappointed when the balloons don’t get off the ground it is possible to have a good time anyway at a balloon festival even when there are no flights.

However on the Sunday night that wasn’t an issue with many balloonists and the crowds eager and excited to get into the air - me included.

Taking Flight

I remembered to put my sunglasses away, secured my cameras - yes plural - my iPhone with battery bank (thanks Anne-Marie for the lend), Lumix compact and Canon DSLR with the biggest lens (300mm) I have - not the best but better than nothing. I wasn’t going to waste this opportunity for once in a lifetime photographs.

It was a little surreal texting from the skies - but I did. I also did a Facebook Live above Durham - and took many photos. The bird's eye views were stunning over the historic city and meandering river west and I wanted to share them. There were a few obligatory balloon shadow shots. 

As we were the final balloon all the others were ahead of us so I didn’t get any World Heritage Site of Durham Castle & Cathedral pics with the balloons in the shot but I did see the WHS from an angle I will probably never get again.

And thankfully Paul Kingston an award-winning photographer from North News was in a balloon ahead of me and managed to catch Thunderbolt above the cathedral! Thanks Paul.

Pic by Paul Kingston, North News

Pic by Paul Kingston, North News

Flying Above Durham

We flew over the Durham College’s, industrial estate, fields of sheep, cows and a housing estate waving at all the people enjoying the spectacle from their back gardens - and when I scrolled through the #balloonsindurham hashtag later I saw some of the photographs that had been taken.

Next though, would be the landing. I’ve only been in a balloon once before and as that was over 15 years ago in the Masai Mara in Africa I didn’t really remember much about the landing except it was beneath a tree with the remains of a Leopards kill still there and was followed by a champagne breakfast on the plains. I've also done ParaGliding in Olu Deniz in Turkey once, and also ParaSailing in Bora Bora, so I’ve had experience of coming down from the air - not always gracefully! 

But Claire, Craig and Grace explained everything fully and clearly. Keep arms inside, hold on to the ropes, bend knees to absorb impact. It was a little bumpy, and we bounced a little but we were down on the ground in a meadow just the other side of Browney and Meadowfield.

Balloon Retrieval

Two other balloons had landed in the same field, however, had no luck finding the owner. Craig had found our location, however without permission to drive onto the land, the balloonists instead carefully carry their baskets, gas canisters and envelopes off the land. It’s also why they carried the Balloons In Durham beer to hand over to any landowners they found.

And this is where I saw how tightly knit, helpful and how much of a real community the balloonist network is. Throughout the weekend I’d seen the great camaraderie, however, faced with a heavy carry out the Durham ‘whatsapp’ group came to the fore. Those already down arrived to help, and a really useful trolley was loaned. Once we were packed up Claire went to assist another team as we loaded the van.


I had a truly magical time. Floating high in the air at such a gentle pace with spectacular views was a real privilege. I was blogging for DurhamBID over the weekend but sometimes work brings us amazing opportunities and enables us to meet and mingle with people outside of our usual networks. I met some lovely people, gate-crashed a lovely community for a couple of days, was afforded great hospitality as well as the opportunity for a birds-eye view of one of my favourite cities. Some days, well most days,  I really love my job!

Which city would you like to fly over in a balloon?

Deb x

Disclosure: I was working as the official blogger for Durham BID at Balloons in Durham 2018.

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