Watch: Take a flight over beautiful Shropshire by balloon
[gallery] Up, up and away . . . it was an on-top-of-the-world feeling for 16 people who saw the county from an entirely different perspective when they took to the skies by hot-air balloon.
The passengers were aboard Virgin Balloon Flights' newest craft as it took off from its launch site at Battlefield, Shrewsbury.
The £80,000 craft, manufactured by Bristol-based Cameron Balloons, is the latest addition to the fleet of Virgin Balloon Flights, which has its UK headquarters in Stafford Park, Telford.
The company claims to be the biggest balloon-ride operator in the world, carrying around 30,000 passengers every year from around 100 sites across the Britain.
Many of these passengers are gift packages to mark special occasions such as landmark birthdays or anniversaries, although weather conditions mean it can be hit and miss as to when they are actually able to take to the air.
Lauren Wright, 22, who was aboard the flight from Battlefield Farm, Shrewsbury, on Monday, had been bought the treat as a present for her 21st birthday last year.
"It took me a year to get up there, but it was worth it," said Lauren, who lives in Shrewsbury.
"My cousin bought it for me. She thought it would be something different. She knew I was scared of heights, but she came up with me so it was not too bad, and once we were up, it was great.
"We could see the River Severn. The lovely thing is that it is so peaceful up there, all you can hear are the animals in the fields. I would like to go up again with all my family. You can get 16 people up there, and I would love to take all my family up there."
For Chris Jones, a 63-year-old engineer from Pontesbury, near Shrewsbury, the wait was even longer, after he was treated by his wife Margaret for his 60th birthday, three-and-a-half years ago. However, work commitments and weather delays meant he was not able to finally take to the skies until this week. He too said it was well worth the wait.
"It was very good, very well organised, it wasn't particularly frightening as I thought it may be," said Chris.
"We picked out various landmarks, before heading out to the Shropshire countryside. Being up 1,000ft in the air and looking down on the countryside is a wonderful experience."
He said he had mentioned it to Margaret, who is rector at Pontesbury's St George's Church, a few years ago, giving her the idea of the present.
"I would definitely do it again," he added. "I think I would like to do one in Italy or somewhere like that."
Commanding the flight on Monday was 57-year-old Lindsay Muir from Bishop's Castle, who can justifiably claim to be one of the world's top balloonists.
Lindsay, who has been flying balloons for 32 years, rose above the competition in 2012 to win the Women's European Hot Air Championship. Prior to that, she held the British title and has won the Women's World Cup three times.
She said: "Competition flying and doing balloon flights for passengers are miles apart.
"In competitions, the balloon is smaller and much more responsive to change in height and wind direction and there is the pressure to hit the targets. When I'm flying my passengers the balloon is much, much bigger and I concentrate on entertaining them and making sure they enjoy the flight."
Virgin Balloon Flights was formed in 1994, capturing the mood set by Sir Richard Branson's 1987 flight across the Atlantic with co-pilot Per Lindstrand. Eight years later it was taken over by its chief pilot Kenneth Karlstrom, who the same year took the eminent physicist Stephen Hawking and his wife in a specially adapted disabled basket.
Another notable flight came in 2011, when Wolverhampton soul singer Beverley Knight performed from a hot air balloon during the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta.
The new balloon, a Cameron Model-400A, weighs more than 1,100 lbs, with its basket weighing the same amount, and carrying 660lbs of gas. Each balloon has a lifespan of five to six years, and will use around 66 gallons of gas during a typical flight – although it tends to need more in the warmer months than the colder days of the year.
Sadly, though, the balloons will no longer be made in Shropshire, following last week's closure of Oswestry-based Lindstrand Hot Air Balloons. The company, founded by Sir Richard's 1980s co-adventurer Per Lindstrand, had been in Oswestry since 1978, but was taken over by Bristol-based Cameron Balloons in the 1990s. Lindstrand sold his stake in the company in 2003, and it closed last week with the strong pound and the perceived threat of terrorism in the Middle East being said to have caused a decline in sales.
Sir Richard spoke of his sadness at the news. "My adventures travelling in Lindstrand hot air balloons across the globe have given me some of my happiest memories," he said. "I'm saddened to see the company close its doors."
The separate Lindstrand Technologies business, which manufactures inflatable products, is unaffected.
Back on the balloon over Shrewsbury, crew chief Andy Thelwell is responsible for making sure all the passengers have a good time – and maintaining good relations when the craft lands in the fields. "We are unable to control where we land," he said. "Most farmers are lovely, but there are one or two who don't understand."
The 44-year-old who, ran a pub company before changing careers 10 years ago, looks after flights across Shropshire.
"We usually book 300 slots a year and up to 100 of them go ahead. This country does not enjoy the best of weather."
Also on the flight were Anne-Marie Morris, aged 36, and her mother Kath Morris, 73, both from Shrewsbury.
Fellow passenger, Paul Bannister, from Sutton Coldfield, had been treated to the flight for his 40th birthday.
He said: "It's amazing that you can be that high up and that you can still hear the sheep and cows below. It's very serene, I thought it would be a bit more gusty up there, but it was pretty much the same as it was on the ground, there was none of the buffeting about. It is something I would certainly recommend."
After 45 minutes in the air, the balloon finally reaches Bicton Heath, around five miles west of the starting point, and it is time to call the journey to an end. Lindsay brings the craft to a gentle descent, taking great care not to mark the gleaming new balloon.
"I think it might have just touched a tree slightly on the way down," said Chris.
It was time to pack the balloon up on the trailer and head back to base in the Toyota Land Cruiser, a task Paul was particularly keen to help out with.
"You have got to do it, it is part of the experience," said the IT consultant. "It was a brand new balloon and quite a piece of kit, quite a beast to pack away. It was very interesting seeing how it was done."
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