Hang-gliding: Thermal hermit's obsession with the superlative: 'I would be too scared to look over Beachy Head, but ask me to jump off with a hang-glider and it's no problem'

AMID all the furore about DNA, ancient bugs entombed in amber and dinosaurs frightening children, I'm just amazed that palaeoanthropologists haven't been beating a path to a small semi-detached house just outside Camberley. In the unlikely setting of Surrey's stockbroker belt, they would discover incontrovertible proof that we actually descended from birds.

I never quite had the nerve to ask Judy Leden whether I could examine her shoulder-blades. But I'm convinced that X-rays would disclose the vestiges of wing-bones. How else can you explain her obsession with doing nothing much else over the past 13 years but float through the firmament in a hang-glider or microlight, hot-air balloon or paraglider?

The funny thing is that a lot of people think she's as normal as a pigeon in Trafalgar Square. The Queen did. She bunged Leden an MBE in 1989 for services to hang-gliding. Britain's liberated women reckon she is a role model for achievement, so she collected the Cosmopolitan/Clairol Sportswoman of the Year award. Various august bodies, from the Royal Aero Club to the Federation des Pilotes Europeens, have given awards for her aerial exploits. Citroen has sponsored her for the past four years.

Leden herself admits that fantasies of flying send her to sleep every night - 'goodness knows what a psychiatrist would make of my dreams' - and although she wouldn't want to be reincarnated as a bird ('too hard a life') she goes misty-eyed at the prospect of becoming a condor or an eagle for just a couple of months. 'I would love to discover how they know just where the best part of a thermal is, and get just the right angle of bank, and toss off the turbulence the way they do.' Hmm. Maybe a cuckoo would be more appropriate.

But you can't help thinking that an eagle wouldn't mind being Judy Leden. The world's best female hang-glider has a high life in more ways than one. Over the past few years, she has donned her 30ft wings and crossed the Channel, jumped off the snow-covered peak of Cotopaxi (5,896 metres) in the Andes and flown down Kenya's Rift Valley. She does not even bother to find a job that will fit in with her sport. Since the day she discovered hang-gliding while training to be a nurse in Cardiff, Leden, now 33, has not allowed anything (except a short, sad marriage) to interfere with her sky larks. And she is as happy as a hummingbird.

'It makes me a solitary person,' she admits. 'All I want to do is fly. Even in 10 years' time I shall still be flying.'

Don't people ask when you're going to get a proper job? 'Yes, all the time. But why should I?'

Why indeed. Especially as she has just discovered a new aerial interest that has pushed even hang-gliding, the love of her life, into the background. Her very first try on a paraglider last year resulted in a world women's open distance record of 128km. She finished fourth in the first leg of the British trials, beaten only by the very best men, and looks certain to secure a place next week in the British team for the World Championships in Verbier in August.

She confesses: 'I am still a novice. But it is very similar to hang-gliding in many ways. Though things don't happen so quickly, you have to make the same decisions about thermal climb rate and so on, and there are lots of subtle things that you learn over the years. A lot of the top pilots have come from hang-gliding.

'Paragliding is much easier to learn. By the end of a day's lesson, you are doing solo flights. For me, discovering it is like having another injection of enthusiasm. It is nice to have something now which demands a steep learning curve.'

There are now 4,000 paragliding pilots in the UK and it is growing fast, but the sport is already huge in Germany and Switzerland. Unlike a hang- glider, which has a rigid wing, the paraglider is made of spinnaker material and looks like a bent surfboard in the air. The pilot sits as if in an armchair, and controls the direction and speed by brake handles on the ropes. In competitions, everyone takes off together and the hundreds of bright parachutes floating through the sky look like the sudden moulting of a giant bird of paradise.

So what of hang-gliding, the sport that made her famous? Is the affair over? 'It's certainly taken a back seat for the time being,' Leden acknowledges. 'Whenever it's possible to paraglide, that's what I shall do.' She's so serious that she will relinquish the British women's hang-gliding title she has held for the past six years, and instead spend three weeks in the Alps preparing for the world paragliding event. 'I know the thermals there,' she says as if renewing acquaintances with family friends.

But it is not yet time to turn the hang-gliders that litter her stairs ('the estate agents were really puzzled when I specified what was vital in the house I was looking for') into a communal bird-watching hide. For a start, Leden intends to regain the women's world title she lost in Japan this year. 'I don't want to sound boastful, but I know I'm the best female hang-glider in the world.' And she is planning a unique feat later this year that has attracted a National Geographic film crew.

Leden is keeping quiet about the project. But don't expect any spectacular high-level stunt unless she is wearing her trusty wings. For the woman who spends most of her life in the air is terrified of heights. 'I don't like them at all,' she confesses. 'I couldn't go to the edge of Beachy Head and look over, unless I was on all fours. I would be too scared. But ask me to jump off with a hang-glider or a paraglider, and it's no problem.'

(Photograph omitted)

News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
News
people
Sport
footballArsenal 2 Borussia Dortmund 0: And they can still top the group
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
News
Andy Murray with his girlfriend of nine years, Kim Sears who he has got engaged to
peopleWimbledon champion announces engagement to girlfriend Kim Sears
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tv
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
music
News
Albert Camus (left) and Jean-Paul Sartre fell out in 1952 and did not speak again before Camus’s death
people
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
News
Ed Miliband visiting the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. The Labour leader has spoken more openly of his heritage recently
newsAttacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But are the barbs more sinister?
Arts and Entertainment
'Felfie' (2014) by Alison Jackson
photographyNew exhibition shows how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
News
i100
Life and Style
Fright night: the board game dates back to at least 1890
life
Environment
The vaquita is being killed by fishermen trying to catch the totoaba fish, which is prized in China
environmentJust 97 of the 'world's cutest' sea mammals remain
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Data Warehouse & Business Intelligence Co-ordinator

£35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Required skills include SQL querying, SSRS, u...

Ashdown Group: C#.Net Developer - C#, ASP.Net, PHP, HTML, JavaScript, CSS

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: C#.Net Developer - C#, ASP.Net, HTML...

Argyll Scott International: Senior Business Analyst- Insurance

Negotiable: Argyll Scott International: Senior Business Analyst - Insurance ...

Recruitment Genius: Property Manager

£25000 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This independent, growing Sales...

Day In a Page

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

Staying connected: The King's School

The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

When two worlds collide

Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?