If you were in parts of South London last night, you might have seen, and heard, the final performance of the Sky Orchestra – a collection of hot air balloons drifting over the city playing acoustic music to delight the people below.

And I was in one of those balloons.

The email arrived at 2:30pm, can I get to Danson Park in Bexleyheath for 6:30pm to take a ride in a balloon. After several attempts had been scuppered by the weather, there really was only one answer to give.

Finding a collection of vehicles looking suspiciously like they shouldn’t be in the middle of the park indicated the location for the balloon flight, and slowly more people arrived – some officially invited, and a fair number of bystanders built up over time as the huge balloons were unfurled on the ground.

Wicker baskets were lain out on the ground, fitted with their musical speakers and with noisy blasts, the burners warmed the skies above before the fabric bags were attached.

Test the burners

The guests were allocated to a balloon – except, erm, me. A slight problem, which I gather related to a film crew having a heavy camera which reduced by one person that balloons capacity meant a slight moment of walking between balloons as the organiser got increasingly worried about where I might fit.

I got on eventually – into the largest of the balloons which can carry five passengers. Phew!

Seven vast fabric bags were lain out on the ground, looking rather lifeless as small helium balloons were let off to check the wind direction and speed. Turned out we might end up getting a bit too close to Biggin Hill airport for their comfort, and the wind was getting a bit too gusty at ground level for our comfort.

Waiting for life to be injected into them

Eventually, a decision – yes the pilots would take off.

Now the work in earnest began, two people held the bottom open as a fan blasted cold air into the flaccid bag on the ground, and slowly it came alive and started to move on its own accord with as the ground wind caused the inflating balloon to dance around the place.

After about 10 minutes, fiery blasts from the basket lying prone on the ground beside the balloon started to heat up the air. Standing next to the balloon holding the bag open meant I got a fairly decent blast of heat from that – and it is a measure of trust by the owner to let bystanders hold the balloon up, as one mistake could presumably have sent the flames into the fabric, with catastrophic results.

Now though, the living leviathan started to rise up as the hot air did its physics and with a cry from the pilot, the five of us clambered over the edge of the basket into the crowded space within.

Dragons flame

As the six other balloons serenely drifted off into the darkening sky, we remained resolutely ground based. Actually, we were tethered to a car with six people holding on to the outside to keep us down. A problem with a gas canister was a bit worrying. Leaking gas next to hot flame and heated balloon in flammable wicker basket is not a comfortable idea.

Problem sorted, and after waiting for the wind to die down – we were off!

Drifting away

Sadly, a fair distance behind the rest meant no up-close photos of the team, but the views, even from this fairly low height are still wondrous, especially as half way through the flight, the City of London came into view from behind Shooters Hill. It had an oddly misty appearance, which was probably pollution, but it looked nice.

The London Skyline

The art was working, in the form of music playing from speakers hung over the side of the basket, and people came out to shout and point, and wave as we drifted overhead.

I’ve never been in a hot air balloon, and it is a very odd sensation.

All the physical structure is above you, so you are – obviously – in a basket, with little below your feet save an inch of woven wood, no wings or engines to the sides, nothing at all.

Catching up with the rest

Although height is managed by occasional noisy blasts of heat from the burners, as the forward momentum is purely wind based, it is a very silent way of travelling. Well, apart from the “whale music” being played to the spectators below. But even that seemed to add to the experience in a dreamy way, almost as if you are in a film with some accompanying music for the scene.

The dreamlike quality was to be rudely broken though, by the landing.

It’s not often that people see balloons flying over London, and probably even rarer for kids playing in a park to have one land in the middle of their evening games.

A small park next to Sidcup train station, where another balloonist had landed was selected, but as we came in to land over the houses and then trees, we came alarmingly close to landing on a metal fence beside the children’s play area, which would have been serious, but with a shout to the kids to scarper, and a few bumps along the ground, we’re down moderately safely on the grass.

Now the hard work began. What, hard work?

With no one to help collapse the balloon, it was up to us to do the work of slowly collapsing the air out of the balloon and rolling it up into a tight sausage. Wonderfully, a couple of local parents, and some of the kids gleefully joined in – after all, how often do you get to help flatten a giant balloon on the ground? One of the adults sported an RAF t-shirt, and wasn’t expecting this sort of aeronautical efforts when he chose to wear it that evening.

I wont deny it was exhausting work – and I ache today in places I didn’t know could ache.

It was a suitable price to pay though for the experience earlier.

I can’t say if the art worked, as we weren’t below watching it – but the reaction on the bystanders as we drifted overhead, and comments on my earlier blog post suggest most people were delighted by the combination of balloons and music.

Sadly, the weather problems killed plans to do this more often during the past week, and the whole event has now packed up bags for other venues. But it was a good start to the London Olympics art events for the year ahead.

The balloons were hired for the event by the artist, Luke Jerram, and most of them will be down in Bristol next month for a big gathering where balloons and fireworks will light the evening sky together.

Obvious thanks to the organisers, and to the ground team who chase after the balloons in cars to collect us afterwards. A quick pint in the rather nice looking gastropub in Danson Park, then home. Very tired, but in a good way for once.

Incidentally, it turns out that they still use wicker baskets to ride in, partly for tradition, but mainly despite all the advances in materials technology, woven wooden baskets are still the best as they are light, sturdy and sensibly flexible on landing.

Loads more photos in the photo gallery

A German film crew were there, with their camera that nearly lost my space, as was someone from Wired magazine, and also Matt from Londonist – his report is here.

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8 Comments

  1. JohnHB

    interesting report – those baskets always look a bit scary when they pass over – pity I wasn’t under your flightpath to get an earful. Does the “rather nice looking gastropub in Danson Park” have a name ? I am thinking of using the car park in Danson Park as base camp for a contemplated visit to the nearby Red House – and would like to check out its credentials as a possible eaterie pre or post-visit

    • IanVisits

      I think it was called the The Stables. Certainly “stables” was in the name. I’d guess it’s the only pub actually inside the park.

  2. What a fantastic opportunity to be an aeronaut! I am obscenely envious.

  3. JohnHB

    thanks for reply Ian – my search came up with two possibilities in the park – Danson Stables and the Boathouse – I thought Stables was probably your spot but nice to have it confirmed (though some of the reviews make me wonder about the label “gastropub” ! – perhaps they are out of date)

  4. Thomas Hunscher

    From a photo of this accident, clearly the basket was on fire, which raises the question why in the world haven’t they switched to a less flammable material for those baskets?

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