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Up, up and away at Bristol Balloon Fiesta

With a full programme of mass balloon ascents, live music, crafts, and a great funfair atmosphere amid the rolling green English countryside, Bristol is all set for four days of family entertainment at the annual Balloon Fiesta.

Controlling the gas flare on a hot air balloon Enlarge

Bottled gas is used to heat the air and inflate the balloon / © Bristol International Balloon Fiesta Ltd 

Bristol Balloon Fiesta Enlarge

Weather conditions for balloon flights are best at dawn and dusk / © Bristol International Balloon Fiesta Ltd 

Monster special shape balloon Enlarge

Bristol Balloon Fiesta offers a monster day out for the family / © Gwyneth Box 

Back in early September 1979, when a small group of balloonists gathered together at Ashton Court, Bristol, in the south west of England, little did they realise their activities would herald the start of the biggest hot-air ballooning event in Europe, the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta.

Over the course of that first weekend, a total of 117 flights were made, including a mass ascent of all 27 balloons in attendance. Impressive though this was, it pales in comparison to the 150 balloons from all over the world which are expected to attend the 2010 event, which will draw crowds of over half a million spectators.

Sponsored by Astra, a satelite service provider, this year's Bristol Balloon Fiesta takes place as usual at Ashton Court, the UK's third busiest country park, whose 850 acres of woodland and meadows are just two miles from the city centre.

The Festival starts at lunchtime on Thursday 12th August and continues through till the evening of Sunday 15th. As well as seven mass ascents, and flights of traditional and special shape balloons, there will be a packed festival programme with trade village, craft marquee, funfair attractions, and live music. There will also be two Night Glows - spectacles held at after dusk when thirty or more tethered balloons will be lit up like giant light bulbs to provide a carefully choreographed son y lumiere display.

The man behind the first festival was Don Cameron, founder of the Bedminster-based company Cameron Balloons. The Cameron brand is the largest-selling brand of hot-air balloons in the world and, in addition to having produced thousands of multicoloured globes and bubbles, is the name behind over 400 special-shape balloons, some of which will be gracing the skies over Bristol in August. These are the people who really build castles in the air, make pigs fly, and brighten the skies with monsters and flying fruit.

You need to be an early riser to watch the morning take offs as the best flying conditions occur at dawn and dusk, when there are fewer thermals. The balloons' huge, brightly-coloured 'envelopes' are made of ripstop nylon, a lightweight, tear-resistant fabric that withstands temperatures up to 120ºC. They are unfolded on the ground and bottled gas is used to heat the air and inflate the balloon. Once the ballon is launched, steering capability is limited and balloons that set out from Bristol are likely to travel south west towards the World Heritage City of Bath as that is the direction of the prevailing wind.

The balloon festival isn't the only 'lightweight' idea associated with Bristol. Take the Clifton Suspension Bridge, for example - a grey metal filigree designed by Brunel that spans the Avon Gorge like a spider’s web. Surely it should collapse under its own weigh? Instead, nearly 150 years after opening, it continues to hang there and, although designed in an age of horse-drawn carriages, now copes with the demands of modern commuter traffic.

Then, in September, Bristol hosts its annual International Kite Festival, when thousands of people of all ages return to Ashton Court Estate to watch great fluttering monsters battle it out in the skies above them.

On a more down-to-earth note, the cobbled streets and winding alleyways of Bristol's Old City are just a few steps from the modern shopping centre and remain much the same today as they were hundreds of years ago. And the historic harbourside area offers a great day out where you can learn about Bristol's maritime past and its history of discovery, trade, slavery and piracy.

Further information:
ASTRA Bristol International Balloon Fiesta
Bristol Tourist Board

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