Breathtaking balloons take to Norfolk’s skies

Spectacular sights will be above Norfolk as Old Buckenham Country Park hosts its third annual Balloon Festival

A majestic hot air balloon flying low over your garden on a summer’s evening is a mesmerising sight. Now imagine sitting in a tent and watching 25 balloons climbing in unison as the sun rises over a tranquil country park. This is what visitors to Old Buckenham Country Park Balloon Festival will experience this August, as the third annual festival takes place in all its splendour. 

Balloon travel was first attempted 240 years ago when brothers Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier (the sons of a prosperous paper manufacturer) discovered that collecting heated air in a lightweight paper or fabric bag caused the bag to rise.

They created a large balloon out of paper to trial the theory. Next, they sent a sheep, a duck and a rooster on an experimental flight, witnessed by King Louis XVI of France, before finally sending a human being up into the skies. King Louis XVI volunteered condemned criminals for the role, but a brave professor of chemistry and physics (Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier) took his place in history instead and flew 9 kilometres over Paris. He landed safely in the suburbs, making the experiment a soaring success.

Two and a half centuries later, flying balloons has become a popular pastime in the UK. Enthusiasts can now enjoy this enthralling pursuit at Old Buckenham Country Park, which hosted its first fabulous balloon festival in 2021. The park is a wonderful venue for the event and has a fascinating recent history of its own. Owner Ben Devlin purchased four fields from a local farmer at the end of 2017 and it has been his passion over the past five years to develop it into a unique attraction. 

Situated on the outskirts of the beautiful Norfolk village of Old Buckenham, the farmland has been lovingly transformed into a stunning 32-acre country park. Both tourists and locals can camp on the tranquil site or visit for the day to enjoy scenic walks along lakeside footpaths, before indulging in refreshments in the on-site café. Ben and his team regularly organise events such as classic car shows, craft and food fairs and music in the park.

In 2020 Ben had a conversation with experienced commercial balloon pilot Sean Simington, who has been flying hot air balloons for over 25 years. Sean was Ben’s headteacher and he succeeded in passing on his remarkable passion for ballooning to the next generation. Hearing about Ben’s business venture, Sean asked him if he could launch his balloon from the Country Park. When Ben agreed, Sean offered to take him on a flight, which ignited Ben’s passion for ballooning. Ben began to envision a new event for the park and a year later, the Balloon Festival was born.

This year, the festival will take place from Friday 11th – Sunday 13th August. The excitement will begin on the Friday morning with an abundance of activities to enjoy on the ground and spectacular balloon flights commencing later in the day. There will be live music, street food, a barbecue, a beer festival, children’s entertainment, and a fascinating opportunity to see ballooning equipment and memorabilia up close. At 5.30pm all eyes turn to the sky, as the first scheduled balloon flight lifts off, with 25 glorious giants rising from the ground in unison to float above the Norfolk countryside. “This is a huge highlight of the festival for me,” says Ben. “The sheer joy and delight on the faces of children and adults alike, as these majestic wonders climb into the sky is something quite special.”

Once the sun has set and the campsite is cloaked in darkness, another breath-taking spectacle begins. The Night Glow inspires gasps of awe from the crowd as the balloons (now tethered to the ground) are re-inflated and lit up by their burners, radiating light into the night sky. The resplendent display is set to music and takes place around one of the lakes, amplifying the captivating beauty of the glowing balloons. It is a memorable experience and a huge highlight of the festival.

Whilst festival visitors will remain firmly on the ground, Ben’s recent takeover of the company Broadland Balloons means that balloon flights will soon be available from the park. “It is important to us to pass on a love of ballooning to future generations,” Sean explains. “The new venture will provide many opportunities for young people to have a go at ballooning, whether by booking a flight for themselves or volunteering to crew for us. If anyone is interested in that experience, do get in touch with myself or Ben through the Old Buckenham Park website.”

Camping at the Balloon Festival is now fully booked, but for day tickets please visit the website to book a unique and memorable day out. 

Photos: © Paul Porter/@paulkporter/

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