Finally, after six attempts, we managed to complete our long awaited balloon trip on Friday last. Another forty things to do at forty, combined with a special birthday present from the daughters to Mrs C. The setting for take off could hardly have been more picturesque. The ruins of Brougham Castle stand majestically by the River Eamont, alongside the A66 and less than a mile from Penrith. The castle dates back to the early 13th century and stands on the site of a Roman Fort which was known as Brocavum. Three ancient Roman Roads met at the fort and the area was chosen as a site for a major settlement due to its defend-ability and the fertility of the Eamont Valley.
I hadn’t fully appreciated just how big a hot air balloon could be until I had to help with the unloading of the 17 man (and woman) passenger basket and the unfurling of the balloon itself, even though it was only 6.30 am everyone pitched in preparations for the flight were got underway. The balloon has to be inflated with cold air by a couple of large fans. This air is then heated up and everyone has to be quickly loaded before “lift off” is achieved. I have to admit to having felt a tad nervous before getting in the basket but once we were in the air and rising I felt very safe and comfortable, even though there isn’t a great deal of room to move and all the passengers have to stand for the duration of the flight.
We ascended slowly, heading North East towards the Penrith Beacon and the surrounding forest. The sky was beautifully clear and we could see for miles, the mist was starting to lift over the Eamont and there was an air of tranquility about the whole thing, interrupted only by pilot firing up the burners to keep us at the height we needed to be. Low enough to appreciate the views, which can only be described as breathtakingly panoramic, but high enough to ensure we weren’t in danger from above or below. I live not far from Blencathra, the mountain sometimes called Saddleback, but we could see it clearly as we floated over Penrith. I would guess that we would have been around 20 miles from the mountain at this point.
We continued to fly northwards, almost parallel with the A6. We could just make out The Solway Firth in the distance, about 35 miles or so from Penrith, which gives some idea of how far we were able to see on this wonderfully clear day. When you’re up this high the landscape takes on a quality of its own, rugged, yet at the same time, ordered and divided. I’ve always marvelled at the skill and tenacity of the dry stone wallers of the North of England but the sheer numbers of walls that must have been erected before mechanisation of the delivery of stone to site is staggering. There isn’t a great deal of arable farming in this part of Britain, with the fields mostly given over to grazing. Lots of trees are being planted though and some rough ground, covered in bracken and gorse is being put to better use. There is still lots of wide open space in Cumbria though, something I don’t mind at all.
We maintained our flight path north, passing over several herds of deer, although I didn’t manage to get a decent photograph of any of them, so you’ll have to take my word for it. In amongst all this mixed agriculture and wilderness there are other things happening. Tucked away, often miles from anywhere, are little pockets of industry. It isn’t just sheep farming either. Lots of farmers and small land owners have diversified over the years and made the most of what the land has to offer, without taking too much of a toll on the area. This sand and gravel quarry with a long conveyor leading to a batching yard is hidden away from sight behind a screen of trees. I have no doubt that when its played out it will be allowed to return back to its original state (unless the land owner can get residential planning permission, it isn’t all altruism oop North).
We’d been in the air for about 40 minutes, (the flights usually last between 45 and 75), when we started our descent. Balloon pilots generally have no idea where they are going to land exactly, although they keep in touch with the ground crew and always try to land near a road if possible. The descent itself is smooth and controlled but passengers have to be seated and holding onto the ropes provided when the basket touches down. Its a bit of a bump, but nothing too uncomfortable. We landed in a stubble field, just north of a village called Plumpton and the ground crew were radioed to go and find the landowner and get his retrospective permission for us to be on the land. There is nothing a landowner can do if any aircraft lands on his or her property, something to do with aviation law, but the presence of the passengers and pilot could be construed as trespass so it’s best to get (belated) permission.
Once safely back on “terra firma” the whole process of making ready for flight is reversed, everything is packed up and loaded onto the trailer, ready for the next flight. Deflating the balloon takes a little while as air continually gets trapped in the folds but eventually the balloon is returned to its bag, which has something of the Tardis about it, and stowed away. The whole “experience” ends with a glass of champagne and the signing of a certificate by the pilot, who deserves special mention, before a mini bus arrives to transport passengers back to their cars, some 20 miles back down the road. A 5.15 am start meant we hadn’t eaten but that was quickly resolved by a trip to Cranstons Food Hall for a Cumberland Sausage and Black Pudding roll, a fitting end to a fantastic and much enjoyed trip.
Still to come, a walk up Dovedale, in the Rain.
© Colin Cross 2018