Paused for thought

Paused for thought

Monday, 10 August 2015

Bristol International Balloon Fiesta, 2015

Every year the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta attracts thousands of visitors from around the country across its four-day period. It’s not hard to understand why. The family event offers plenty of fun in the form of ground entertainment, music, food, and of course, airborne attractions too.

We first visited the fiesta in 2013 and had a super day out although unfortunately the balloons were unable to fly in the evening due to high winds. Nevertheless we were determined to make it back and see them take off, and we made the journey this year, on the Saturday. We arrived in Bristol mid-afternoon. Predictably the traffic was heavy but we were prepared and entered the festival excited to see some balloons which were scheduled to fly around 6pm.

We began by taking our boys to the fairground attractions. The helter skelter was a big hit! The carousel went down well as always and whilst we were enjoying the rides we saw two wingwalkers on bi-planes, a first for our boys!

We settled down for the main event, spreading out our picnic rug, setting up our picnic tea and snuggling in together. The pilots went in for their briefing and there was much excitement among the crowd when we heard that they would be flying. The sky was virtually clear from clouds, the sun was still shining, there was an “ooo” and an “ahhhh” then a huge cheer and applause as the first balloons took to the skies. It was enchanting, watching balloon after balloon rising for around an hour and a half. Happiness spread thoughout the crowd, perfect strangers joking and chatting as the balloons took to the skies and set off over the city of Bristol.

I would love to leave this post there. On the high note that we felt that evening. The magical atmosphere that sent a warm glow through us watching those balloons. Unfortunately though, the organisers of the event did miss a few crucial points that would perhaps have enabled the day to be seamless for those who visited, and it seems remiss of me not to mention them. The biggest one was that they were clearly in desperate need of more volunteers to help steward the event. Don’t be put off visiting by what follows! But do take note so that if you sit here reading and hoping to visit in the future, you might be better prepared than we were.

Unlike other major free events, the Bristol Balloon Fiesta is not ticketed, meaning that to an extent any number of people can turn up and there is no prior warning of a rush of people appearing at the gates. According to news reports at one stage 6,000 people arrived within 15 minutes! I later learnt that on the day that we visited people had been turned away as it was deemed that the event was full. Certainly from the inside by the evening it seemed chaotic and over-crowded. One lady lost her child and couldn’t find a marshal anywhere to assist. There were disposable barbeques being set up all round the site with no thought to the large volumes of alcohol also strewn across the grass (I lost count of the number of large empty vodka bottles that we saw). Pathways that had been clear when we arrived were packed with people on our way out and were impassable for our buggy carrying our by then sleeping baby. Toilet queues were so long that there was a mass urination relay taking place in the surrounding trees. We tried to leave at a reasonable time after the evening balloon launch and before the night glow, thinking we’d slip away at a quieter time for traffic on the site. We made it back to our car at 9pm, tired after shuffling through the throbbing crowds, but ready to get on the road and back home before the mass exodus after the night glow and fireworks. We finally left the car park at 12.30am. Yes, three and a half hours later. Again, there were simply no stewards helping the vehicles to exit the car park. Please don’t misunderstand me. Was it a good day? Absolutely! And it was free! But somewhere along the way some basic practical organisation seemed to be lacking.

I hope that the event planners will have a lessons learnt debriefing to assist with future fiestas, and in order that future visitors have a much more pleasant experience throughout the day. That said, will we be there? Yes, I hope so. With a carrier for the little one and a hotel booked to escape back to at the end of the evening.

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