Bristol International Balloon Fiesta

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Bristol Balloon Fiesta 2009-17

A morning mass descent. Pictured are comedy character balloon Churchill and a handful of boring round ones.

“Bristol is ready for balloons!”

The BIBF (Bristol International Balloon Fiesta for long) is an annual FREE event held during heavy rain August in Bristol. Wind permitting, pilots from the West Country and neighbouring countries fly their balloons to Ashton Court estate. Points are awarded to pilots who successfully land their balloons on a giant target in the middle of the estate, which takes the form of the mayor of Bristol's face, currently Tony Robinson off of Time Team.

Mass descents take place twice a day at 6am and 6pm. Night glows, where tethered balloons are lit up in time to wishful thinking, take place on Thursday and Saturday evenings. Bristol was awarded the status of European Green Capital in 2015, in part because of the positive effects burning huge amounts of propane has on the environment.

edit History

The first BIBF took place in 1864. Initially a small event, it was founded by the Bard of Bristol, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, nine years before he invented the hot air balloon. Brunel had the idea for a fiesta (engineers' speak for festival) after a mate from Fishponds suggested that postcards of his new suspension bridge would look better if it was surrounded by balloons. And so it came to pass that Brunel set about trying to invent the world's first omniballoonibus. His prototype was ready in 1871 and made its maiden flight, landing at the burgeoning balloon fiesta, which up to that point had been making do with inflated hippopotamus' bladders tied to string. It made the national headlines, not least because Brunel landed on the mayor of Bristol's face, knocking out his front teeth. It was a small price to pay — they were rotten anyway — and Brunel's impact locally was such that the balloon remains to this day Bristolians' favourite means of travel.

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For those without comedic tastes, the so-called experts at Wikipedia have an article very remotely related to Bristol International Balloon Fiesta.

The fiesta itself, however, was abandoned in 1939 to allow balloonists to take to the skies to fight Nazi Germany. The limitations of the aircraft were quickly discovered when a fleet of 62 balloons got stuck in a particularly blowy thermal vortex, two miles south of the Isle of Wight. As of 2015, none of the pilots have been found and are widely presumed dead. The fiesta was forgotten.

edit The Modern Fiesta

Bristol Balloon Festival 2006 14

Night Glow: balloons groove in time to Olly Murs.

The modern fiesta's origins can be traced back to 1979. A premayoral Tony Robinson was making an early episode of Time Team, then broadcast on BBC Radio 4, when he discovered fragments of ripstop nylon in a field on Ashton Court estate. The archaeologists discovered that the fragment belonged to Brunel's original omniballoonibus, and a delighted Robinson abandoned the rest of the programme to establish the first fiesta of the modern era.

The BIBF undoubtedly reached its peak in the mid to late 1990s, when it was typical for over 10,000 balloons to land on Robinson's face during each mass descent. The period was famous for its 'special-shape' balloons, with the likes of Rupert the Bear, the Cadbury's Bunny, Bertie Bassett, a Tesco's Trolly and Judas Iscariot firm favourites with children and adults alike.

Bristolians born in the late '80s and early '90s every year return to the event in the hope it will have regained some of the wonder it had when they were kids. Every year they end up drinking to excess to block out the disappointment — the disappointment of the most special special-shape being the shape of a box, of the awful corporatism, of the insipid playlist put together by Heart FM, which blights the mass descents and night glows, and drowns out the fireworks. Every year I get home and I cry. What would Brunel have thought if he knew it would come to this? Still, it is free I suppose. Parking's a tenner, mind.

edit Trivia

  • As with his suspension bridge, Brunel never much liked the balloon fiesta and grew keen to distance himself from it. He much preferred his International Kite Festival, which attracts a more exclusive crowd.
  • It is a common misconception that hot air rises, since air can no more be hot than it can happy or misinformed.
  • The 1997 fiesta featured a record 186 special-shape balloons.
  • The 'Tony Target' landed on each year is in fact the face of Robinson's younger brother Nick.
  • Stephen Fry has never attended the event.
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