Finally, after two and a half years of failed attempts, the skies cleared, the winds calmed, and Mr Branson adjudged it safe to fly over the fields of Cambridgeshire.
It had been a Christmas present back in 2012. We had tried five times and been thwarted by mild weather conditions – such as “breezes” and “mist” – deemed too hazardous to risk a launch.
At 11pm the night before, we made the call to find out if the flight would go ahead. When it was confirmed, we finished our game of Scrabble – in a haze of excitement and disbelief – and went to bed; we’d have to be at the airfield by 5.30am in the morning.
We met 12 other bleary-eyed passengers at an empty airfield a few miles from Cambridge, and set about helping the pilot inflate the balloon. It took about an hour to get it all set up, inflated, heated and upright.
Take-off was gentle; one moment we were rocking back and forth in the basket, the next we were airborne and floating effortlessly away.
It’s a fascinating way to view the countryside. Aside from the intermittent 13-foot burner flames roaring above, it’s silent. You sweep over farmers’ fields at around 12 knots, hovering above the khaki-coloured wheatgrass at between 10 and 3,000 feet, tractor trails winding through the crops below like OCD Adders.
What I hadn’t expected was the abundance of wildlife. Hares sprinted from bush to bush, deer pranced between trails and a handsome fox skipped along an unkempt dike. Not to mention the gaggle of geese that took off in unison, honking noisily into the distance.
A pair of magnificent black horses watched us with suspicion, while a herd of cows at first lined up to observe the big red bird in the sky, before freaking out and charging away, only to return, wide-eyed and curious once more.
It seemed the perfect way to go on an African safari, until I realised at some point you’d have to land, and an angry farmer would be the least of your worries.
Speaking of which, that appears to be the art of ballooning: not pissing off landowners.
It takes two men to manage the balloon’s flight: the pilot, Cary, and a technician on the ground, Andy. They kept in radio contact, as Andy tracked us from his 4×4 on the ground. As Cary identified potential landing sites, Andy drove below, stopping dog walkers and ramblers to ask information about who owns which fields.
It’s Andy’s job to smooth-talk the farmers into allowing access to the field in which you land. They try their best to land in harvested fields, and avoid anywhere with animals roaming about; but presumably sometimes there’s no choice, or they land in a field that has been sowed immediately after being harvested.
After the flight, Andy told us a good indication of how the landowner will react is to study their animals. If they are tetchy and nervous, the likelihood is the owner is a scumbag and will reject access until their blue in the face.
Similarly, the kinds of locks on gates and gruesome barbed fencing is a good way to anticipate their reaction.
(Writer’s note: That’s an interesting lesson to learn regarding character development: you can describe someone’s character not just by actions and appearance, but with reactions and even inanimate objects.)
As it happened, we landed in a harvested wheat field, and the landowner couldn’t be found, so we packed the balloon up and got out of there sharpish before we could get told off.
We rounded the trip off with a glass of champagne on the nearby village green, before heading into Cambridge for what has become a staple of our trips here: a hotdog from The Hot Sausage Company, dripping in one of their many varieties of Encona hot sauce.
So, two and a half years in the making, Christmas finally came. Job done. Happy fiancée.