Crickley Hill is about one mile to the north of Birdlip. It is an area of outstanding natural beauty and superb views of Gloucester and the Severn Vale can be seen from the escarpment. There has been a pub on the site for at least 230 years. The landlord in 1856, Richard Tuffley, was brewing home brewed ale on the premises. The inn was owned as part of the Cowley Manor estate until the twentieth century.

On November 16th 2022 it was announced at a multi-million pound road scheme to replace the ‘missing link’ between the Brockworth Bypass and Cowley Roundabout had been given government approval, which will involve the demolition of the Air Balloon pub.

Above: The Air Balloon in 1905.

Wilts and Glos Standard, 3rd June 1954: Cicester Spotlight – ‘Curious Inn Names’

“Regarding the Air Balloon, one would expect to find that a famous ascent or descent had been made at the site, but there is no local tradition or knowledge of that sort.

“There is a local tradition that Henry VIII stopped there on his visit with his queen (Ann Boleyn) to Gloucester in 1535. I believe that in July of that year he made a month’s progress through Gloucestershire, beginning at Sudeley and including Miserden and Painswick.

“However, in honour of this great occasion, this inn was called the Ann Boleyn; but, after her fall from grace, the owner, strong to the belief that the King could do no wrong, changed the name while preserving as much of its former sound as possible, to which extent Air Balloon is a corruption of Ann Boleyn.”

April 1988

Gloucestershire Echo, Wednesday 9th April 1997 – ‘Give us a car park’: The Air Balloon pub is fighting to expand its car park. Whitbread Severn Inns wants to convert a field off the A417 at the busy inn at Birdlip into a 40-space overflow car park. But last September, members of Cotswold District Council’s south area planning sub-committee refused to grant planning permission. They feared a rise in the number of people using the premises would increase traffic dangers.

Now Whitbread has lodged an appeal with the Department of the Environment. A company spokesman said: “We made the application in the interests of public safety. Many people park on the busy roads when the pub’s car area is full. But Councillor Shaun Parsons (Ind, Ermin) said: “There have been accidents at the Air Balloon roundabout and fatal ones at the Birdlip interchange. Until it’s sorted out so you can enter and leave the pub safely, it would be totally irresponsible of us to give permission.”

The Citizen, 23rd January 1999, “Pubwatch” – The Air Balloon.

‘Pub with a niche in the history of flight’

The sight of hot air balloons hissing and spluttering over Crickley Hill is nothing new. In fact, ballooning at Crickley Hill is just about as old as the sport itself. As far back as 1784, superstitious villages crossed themselves in terror as one of the first air balloons in history soared high above the escarpment. This was only a year after the Montgolfier brothers had stunned the world by sending their first unmanned balloon 1,000 feet above Paris on a waft of burning straw. When the ballooning craze arrived in Britain, Crickley Hill was a logical place to start. With its vantage point high above the Vale and the prevailing south-west wind deflected steeply upwards by the Cotswold escarpment, it is an almost tailor made spot for the sport.

In those early days, it was common for balloonists to fortify themselves with a stiff drink at the small ale house in two knocked-together cottages at the foot of the hill. By 1796 the pub was known as the Balloon and by 1802 it had blossomed into the Air Balloon, a distinctive title it holds to the present day. The Cotswold escarpment is still a favourite hunting ground for balloonists, gliders and hang gliders.

But the Air Balloon pub is just as well known to drivers coming up or down Birdlip Hill on the A419 trunk road.

Inside it is still a wooden-beamed, traditional English watering hole with the accent firmly on refreshments with meals.

Gloucestershire Echo, 8th May 2001 – Nude ride ripped in the bud: Music lovers called off a naked motorbike ride down Crickley Hill when police got wind of the stunt. Members of the Peter Warlock Society were warned they could be arrested if they carried out the midnight jaunt. They had planned to re-enact the English composer’s naked escapade in 1915 but were forced to cancel.

Gloucestershire Constabulary Chief Inspector Mike Barton pointed out in a letter to the society that Mr Warlock could have committed an offence under Section 4 of the Vagrancy Act 1824 for “wilfully, openly, lewdly and obscenely exposing his person with intent to insult any female” and if caught could have faced “imprisonment for any time not exceeding three calendar months”.

Inspector Barton added that the naked motorcyclists could break the law under the Vagrancy Act, which is still in force, but that they also might conduct themselves in a “manner likely to provoke a breach of the peace which could attract arrest. He was also concerned that if the volunteers stated true to the original event they would break the law by not waring crash helmets.

Members of the society, set up as tribute to the composer who died in 1930, celebrated the event with drinks at the Air Balloon pub instead. Secretary Malcom Rudland, who studied at Cheltenham in the 1960’s and was a music critic for the Echo said: “It’s a shame because it would have been a fitting end to a good day. There are restrictions on everything nowadays. In 1915 people wouldn’t have batted an eyelid at this kind of activity”.

Gloucestershire Echo, 27th July 2001 – Time called on right turns out of pub: Customers at the Air Balloon pub are now permanently banned from turning right when leaving the car park. Earlier this year, the Highways Agency imposed a temporary ban on right turns while work was carried out at the accident blackspot on the A417 at Birdlip Hill. Now the order has been made permanent. It will mean that drivers must go 200m north and use the roundabout before they can head towards Cirencester.

Gloucestershire Echo, Wednesday October 9th, 2002 – Burnt pub will reopen sooner: Rapid repair work to the Air Balloon means that the landmark pub will be up and running by the end of October. The Crickley Hill pub suffered from a fire in its kitchens on October 5th, which was believed to be caused by gas leaking from a faulty cooker. It was feared the building would not be operational for a long period but speedy repair work has led to a reopening date of October 26th.

Builders have been working round the clock to repair and refurbish a side gable of the building. A Laurel Pub Company spokesperson said: “We are very glad that business will be back as it was before the fire. we now have lots of bookings and things are looking fantastic for Christmas. When the pub is reopened the regulars will see the pub looks no different to how it did before the fire.”

Firefighters with three engines from Gloucester and one from Cirencester battled for about three hours to put out the flames. They were able to save the rest of the pub but not the kitchens. All the staff were evacuated and no one was hurt.

Wilts & Glos Standard, 3rd April 2003 – Pub could be flattened in the path of new road: The landlord of a historic Cotswold pub could find himself without a job if plans for a £60 million road safety project get the go-ahead. Trevor Walter, manager of The Air Balloon, Birdlip, believes the Highways Agency might use Government power to force the sale of the pub if plans for a controversial dual carriageway and two slip roads are approved. He said: “At a meeting 12 months ago the agency said the pub could be taken over using a Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO). This could still happen.

A CPO authorises the Government to buy land or buildings from unwilling owners to enable it to carry out a project, but this must be approved by the relevant minister. The plans focus on a three mile stretch of the A417 dual carriageway between the Cowley roundabout near Nettleton Bottom and the eastern end of the Brockworth bypass. It is the only single lane stretch of the carriageway and is known as an accident blackspot. But the plans mean the pub, which is owned by the Laurel Pub chain, and several cottages opposite might have to be knocked down.

Gloucestershire Echo, Friday 25th July 2003 – Landlord says no to £1.5 million: Landlord Trevor Walter has been offered up to £1.5 million compensation if the Air Balloon pub is demolished. But he says the 230-year-old alehouse near Birdlip is worth many times the figure he has been quoted. He will have to wait until September to hear the fate of his business.

The Highways Agency wants to turn the A417 outside the pub into a five-lane super-highway with a flyover. Mr Walter has seen one set of plans for the site which would include demolition of the pub. A separate carriageway would be built alongside the existing route up Crickley Hill.

Mr Walter launched a campaign back in March to save the Air Balloon. He said: “I’ve seen several options for the road and one includes the demolition of the pub. They have offered me between £1 million and £1.5 million for the site. This is ridiculous as it’s worth six times that amount considering its a thriving business. It’s been a frustrating experience as the Highways Agency has never come to us with updates. At one point they told us that the construction would be finished by 2008 but now they say 2007.

The Citizen, Monday March 29th, 2004 – total ban on smoke after pub refurb: The Air Balloon pub at Birdlip has reopened its doors after a £35,000 refurbishment, but one old regular will not be coming back. Smoking has been banned at the pub after its owners decided to attempt to improve the atmosphere for customers eating on the premises. The decision comes at the same time as the Irish government has introduced a blanket ban on smoking in all pubs.

The pub reopened at 11am on Saturday, and the landlord, Trevor Walter, who runs it with his wife Helen, said reactions to the change had been positive. He said: “We have had no problem with people smoking so far. There might be a lot of people who do not want to go and eat in a smoke-filled room, and they will now have that choice.”

The Laurel Pub Company which owns the Air Balloon, insists the move is not part of a plan to make all of their 625 pubs non-smoking. Maureen Hefferman, communications director for the company, said: “It’s all about giving people a choice. We believe most pubs should allow smoking, and this is certainly not the end of smoking in pubs – but there ought to be the option to enjoy a completely smoke-free atmosphere.”

The Citizen, 19th July 2004 – Landmark pub in £654m sale deal: Eleven thriving county pubs, including the landmark Air Balloon at Birdlip, have been sold as part of a £654 million deal with Greene King. The pub and brewing giant, has bought the pubs which are in Gloucester, Cheltenham and Tewkesbury from the Luton-based Laurel Pub Company.

Trevor Walter, manager of the Air Balloon for three years, said the deal was very reassuring for his 25-plus staff. He said: “If you have a company that is going to spend so much money on that many pubs they are looking to invest in the future and not short-term gain.”

The Citizen, 14th January 2008 – Pubs help stranded motorists: The Air Balloon pub and the Golden Heart Inn at Nettleton Bottom were open all night as staff welcomed stranded drivers. The Air Balloon welcomed motorists who had nowhere to go while the roads remained impassable. Assistant manager Jamie Russell said staff worked until 7 am on Sunday, when the last driver left.

“People were coming through the door who had abandoned their cars and walked for miles. We just kept the tea and coffee flowing and gave people what they wanted.,” he said. “As the conditions worsened the flow of people increased. They were just leaving their cars on the road. Eventually at about 10pm, the police came in to ask people to go back to their cars. It meant two or three mile walks for some people. We ended up with about 10 people huddled by the fire waiting for lifts. Our chef stayed here all night making sure people were happy.”

Gloucestershire Echo, Tuesday March 11th 2014 – New pub boss ‘not worried’ by threat from road scheme: New landlord at the Air Balloon Joe Venton is not worried about the future of the pub – despite a road scheme which could see it demolished. Joe, 27, took over the pub, which is just yards away from the notoriously dangerous roundabout, in January.

Joe said: “I’m not too concerned about it and I am here to do a job and it is what I shall do as long as this place is open.”

Businesses and councils across Gloucestershire have united to call for a new dual carriageway bypass running between the Cowley roundabout and Brockworth. Known as the Brown Route, the £255 million scheme would divert motorists away from Nettleton Bottom and away from the roundabout. If successful, the proposal could see the Air Balloon demolished to make way.

The Air Balloon is part of the Old English Inns portfolio owned by Suffolk-based brewer and pub owner Greene King.

The Citizen, Thursday April 4th 2019 – Road scheme may mean pub’s days are numbered: It’s a landmark in Gloucestershire that has its own roundabout named after it. The Air Balloon pub, near Birdlip, sits on a hairpin bend on a notorious part of the A417. But the pub’s days could be numbered as part of a plan to tackle a traffic bottleneck. A new dual carriageway on the so called ‘Missing Link’ part of the A417 is due to open around 2024.

The new route, which would run from the top of Crickley Hill to the Cowley roundabout, means the pub would have to be demolished if the project gets planning permission and all the necessary funding.

The Citizen, Thursday November 17th 2022 – Green Light. Work on A417 Missing Link gets go-ahead: National Highways has welcomed the go-ahead for a major road upgrade to the A417 between Gloucester and Swindon. Transport Minister Huw Merriman has given the long-awaited decision for this landscape-led highways scheme that will deliver a safe and resilient free flowing road while conserving and enhancing the Cotswold Area of Natural Beauty.

National Highways’ chief Executive Nick Harris said: “This is a significant investment of £460 million in our road network that will improve road safety, reduce traffic congestion and improve connectivity for road users and local communities.”

The granting of the DCO means preparatory work can begin early next year with construction due to begin later in 2023.

The Air Balloon was demolished on Friday 1st December 2023.

The Citizen, Thursday 7th December 2023 – Drivers mourn loss of Air Balloon pub at crash hotspot: Drivers everywhere are mourning the loss of the Air Balloon pub, which was demolished to make way for a major road redevelopment. The pub, which stood at the roundabout where the A417 and A436 meet, was flattened over the weekend to much sadness from both locals and travellers alike. To many, the historic pub signified the return home to Gloucestershire, while others say it marked the start of their holidays as they arrived in the county to visit.

Courtesy Phil Sampson
Image: Gloucestershire Live

Map Reference: SO 934161

Licensing Details:

Rateable Value in 1891: £18.0s.0d.

Type of licence in 1891: Alehouse

Owner in 1891: Richard Tuffly (free from brewery tie)

Rateable Value in 1903: £18.0s.0d.

Type of licence in 1903: Alehouse

Owner in 1903: Annie Stallard (free from brewery tie)

Closing time in 1903: 10pm

Owner in 1997: Whitbread Severn Inns

Owners in 2002: Laurel Pub Company

Owner in July 2004: Greene King

Owners in 2022: Chef & Brewer

Landlords at the Air Balloon include:

1856,1891 Richard Tuffly (listed as brewer at the Air Balloon in 1856)

1902,1903,1906,1927 William Price (1905 ‘Bill’ and Julia Price)

1979-1993 John Brant – see House in the Tree

2002,2003 Trevor Walter (manager)

2006, 2007  Phil and Paula Hewitt

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