'It's the nearest thing to a flying dream,' one enthusiast proclaimed. Rupert Isaacson on learning to paraglide over the Marlborough Downs
Imagine yourself hang-gliding, but above you is an elliptical expanse of nylon or silk, rather than the usual a kite. You sit in a kind of chair, similar to baby seats in cars, which is moulded to your lower body and allows full movement of your legs, which is necessary for your running take-off from the edge of the cliff. After that, as a friend describes it: "It's the nearest thing to a flying dream you can get; that feeling of floating effortlessly into the air and then soaring over the landscape.

Yes, there are a lot of things to think about but I do it for the euphoria.'

Paragliding has been around since the early 1980s, developing from specialised beginnings into a mass-appeal sport. It is more accessible than hang- gliding because both the training courses and equipment are cheaper and the gear is lighter. It folds up to about 20lbs.

Most beginners find the first steps of paragliding frustrating as there's a definite knack to getting the thing airborne. But having flown once, almost everyone who tries it comes back for more. There is no need for great physical strength, yet you can cover great distances. The Wiltshire Hang-gliding and Paragliding School is a small, friendly affair, which offers flights over the Marlborough Downs. There are three full-time BHPA qualified instructors. The only drawback is that the school has no on-site accommodation. It will, however arrange accommodation in Marlborough whether in a hotel, B&B or camping, and will pick you up in the mornings to take you out to the flying sites. You start with tethered flights, that is being held in one place in the air by ropes with the instructors explaining the equipment and how to use it from below. This is a novel experience, but not half so novel as your first flight, usually of just a few yards, but enough to both scare and excite you into wanting more. Weekend "taster" courses can give you flying hours towards your Elementary Pilot certificate (awarded by the British Hang-gliding and Paragliding Association - the sport's governing body). These are usually held over four or five days, but you could go back over another weekend to make up the hours if you don't have time to do it in one. The Elementary certificate qualifies you to buy your own equipment and learn more advanced flying (Club Pilot, Pilot and Advanced Pilot certificates), the necessary precursors to making solo flights. As with all airsports, you must expect to be grounded if the weather is unfavourable, but do not despair as the centre will allow you to come again free of charge if you can't make a flight during your particular weekend.

Unfortunately, this is not a sport for children, but it can be just the thing for a sullen adolescent: an elementary pilot's licence can be obtained at 16. Remember to wear boots with ankle support and to pack your own lunch for each day.

FACT FILE

Wiltshire Hang-gliding and Paragliding Centre, The Old Barn, Ryhls Lane, Lockeridge, Marlborough, Wiltshire, SN8 4EE (tel: 01672 861555)

Accommodation

Centre will book local accommodation.

Children

Minimum age 16; anyone under 18 must have consent of parent or guardian.

Insurance

Third-party insurance from BHPA (British Hang-gliding and Paragliding Association).

Safety

All instructors are St John certified.

Tariffs

One-day introductory course, pounds 50 (pounds 45 weekday); weekend introductory course, pounds 98 (pounds 90 weekday); four-day student pilot course, pounds 190 (pounds 175 on weekdays); club pilot courses, pounds 40 per day.

Booking

Deposit of pounds 10 per day. Balance must be paid seven days in advance if paying by cheque, and on first day of instruction if paying by cash, Cancellation charges: 90 per cent of deposit if more than two weeks in advance. If flights cancelled due to bad weather, no refunds given but credit applied to later booking. Bookings are normally made in advance, but late bookings are sometimes accepted if space available.

Access

Nearest town is Marlborough, off the A4. Trains can be taken to Pewsey or buses to Marlborough, and pick-ups can be arranged by centre.

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