First Flight
Review by Tom Doherty

Over the course of the final weekend in August, thousands of people gathered in Strathaven’s superb John Hastie Park to experience Scotland's premier hot air balloon festival – and I was one of them!

For me, it was a “first”, since this was my rookie year as a new member of the Strathaven Balloon Festival Committee. The festival itself is organised by a group of local volunteers to help Strathaven’s economy and the festival programme is bolstered with top class entertainment to suit all ages. There is an amusement fair for kids, a variety of craft stalls for parents and food outlets to top up energy reserves. How would all those meetings throughout the dark days of last winter and on through Spring and Summer come to fruition?

On Friday evening, the SBF’s committee’s hard work paid off right away, to the delight of the crowd who had come to the Park and, within a short time, to the excitement of the hundreds more throughout the town and the surrounding countryside, when we were rewarded with the wonderful spectacle of five successful hot air balloon launches. I gladly helped the ‘Vital’-sponsored balloon to inflate ready for launch. Thanks to the other committee members, it was pre-arranged that I would, to my surprise, be taking off on my first balloon flight. Before I knew it, I was aloft and waving goodbye to my wife and to the excited crowd in the park.

Our balloon pilot, Martin, decided to take us on a low path over the centre of Strathaven. To my left, below, I had a unique view of the East Kirk, where I was married nearly a year to the day. We were in fact flying so low that we could gauge the surprise and animation of those who unexpectedly caught a glimpse of us from their gardens and windows. We continued our low path across Strathaven towards the castle and managed to grab some cones from adjacent tree tops as mementos! We waved to the more organized observers who had already congregated at the War Memorial on Kirkhill, overlooking the town. Then, in an easterly direction, we left Strathaven behind us.

As we floated towards Stonehouse the vista of the other balloons with their magnificent and colourful envelopes illuminated by the glow of a wonderful sunset, coupled with the beautiful countryside beneath provided a truly memorable and almost-mesmerising experience, such is the gentleness, smoothness and serenity of hot air balloon flight. We landed just West of Stonehouse – a good landing, although I learned a bit too late how to brace properly!

Unfortunately, the breezy weather conditions did not allow for further launches (we had hoped for the chance at dawn and dusk, target times for hot air balloons) on Saturday and Sunday, but we had fun in the Park – Oh yes, we did!

The Bellshill concert band kicked off the stage entertainment on the Saturday and Sunday afternoons, their music the perfect advertisement as it floated through the Strathaven air to announce that something quite special had begun in the John Hastie park. The action-packed programme during these Family Fun Days is a showcase of up-and-coming young local talent such as Bhangra Beats, Impact and Static Acts. Also in the arena a bird of prey display, a Ki Aikido demonstration and classic car parade kept the audience captivated. A demonstration of inflating tethered balloons compensated for the lack of early morning and evening launches on the Saturday and Sunday, enabling the huge crowd of spectators to see how these aircraft are assembled and prepared for flight – and to appreciate the sheer size of their envelopes.

On Saturday, as darkness started to fall, Joan Piacentini increased audience participation with her on stage charisma - so much so, that a young talented dancer, a lad of tender years, spontaneously performed beside her as she continued with her set. This entertainment was followed by a masterly display by the Taiko Dojo Drummers, who greatly impressed the crowds.

Saturday’s varied programme was topped off with what is always a popular feature at any major ballooning event - the "Evening Glow". The balloons are tethered and inflated and the burners illuminate them like giant lanterns, the balloons swaying to music. The most spectacular sight of any year in Strathaven! And for many, a festival highlight, as the atmosphere in the thrilled crowd of several thousand is tangible.

The Sunday highlight was of course KODA, a superb ceilidh band from Biggar, and I must say my favourite of all the stage acts. As they played old ballads and up to the minute arrangements of popular Scottish songs, it felt like a great way to see out the 2010 Strathaven Balloon Festival and we could reminisce on what a wonderful weekend it had been.

I now have a better understanding of the format of the festival and I have massive respect for the rest of the committee members who put in a substantial amount of preparation and fundraising throughout the year - all as volunteer work - to make it possible. It is a fitting celebration for our town. Those who attended the festival came from near and far to experience what this special market town has to offer and in doing so make it
a very worthwhile and successful event in the yearly calendar.


Photographs by Tom Doherty      © Tom Doherty