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
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Sport
Lewis Hamilton will start the Singapore Grand Prix from pole, with Nico Rosberg second and Daniel Ricciardo third
F1... for floodlit Singapore Grand Prix
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvHe is only remaining member of original cast
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
Fans hold up a scarf at West Ham vs Liverpool
footballAfter Arsenal's clear victory, focus turns to West Ham vs Liverpool
New Articles
i100... she's just started school
News
news
New Articles
i100
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
life
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
New Articles
i100... despite rising prices
Voices
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media
voices
Caption competition
Caption competition
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

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

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Cover Supervisor

£75 - £90 per day + negotiable: Randstad Education Group: Are you a cover supe...

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam