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Trying paragliding at Beddingham Hill with Fly Sussex

PUBLISHED: 11:55 01 April 2019

Taking off at Fly Sussex, near Beddingham © Bex Cullingford

Taking off at Fly Sussex, near Beddingham © Bex Cullingford

© Bex Cullingford

Sussex Life’s action man Pete Woodward throws himself off Beddingham Hill under the guidance of Fly Sussex

Sprinting off the side of the South Downs is not something that has previously struck me as a great idea.

With a height difference of several hundred feet from the ridge to the surrounding fields, it is not something likely to end well. Fly Sussex was determined to show me otherwise. A paragliding school and club based in Beddingham, just east of Lewes, Fly Sussex flies from the surrounding hills all year round.

The National Park certainly looked stunning as I headed down to Fly Sussex HQ, with clear blue skies and a very light wind stirring a thin layer of mist that hung over the fields. The team was laid-back and after an introduction to Rob and Louisa, fellow trainee pilots for the day, we chatted through plans for the day over a cup of tea. It wasn’t long before we were bouncing up a farm track in a Land Rover to the top of the South Downs. Rob and Louisa had both been given the experience by their partners who had come along for the day to watch their loved ones fling themselves off the ridge.

Beddingham Hill is the ideal location, with a very steep drop of around 400ft and a wide, flat, empty field below. Shadow crept towards us up the valley as the low winter sun inched higher over the Channel behind us. The hill is one of several in the area used by the club, others including Mount Caburn and also Beachy Head.

With a wry smile spreading across his face, instructor Tim explained that we would begin our flying training by learning how to crash. A wide tarpaulin lay spread out on the grass between the lip of the ridge and a herd of indifferent cows. Rob, Louisa and I hurled ourselves onto it with ever increasing enthusiasm to learn how to hit the ground and roll off the speed if we got a landing wrong. Landing dealt with, we switched attention to getting off the ground. Tim helped us to pick up the surprisingly frantic few seconds of activity required to get airborne with a few practice runs and eventually take-offs aborted just before the lip of the ridge. With the ground-based essentials covered, we were next strapped onto the instructors for a demonstration of how to handle the glider in the air on a tandem flight. With instructions to run as hard as I could and keep going even when we first got airborne, we set off on the first run that took us off the ground. After a frantic effort to get the glider up, the ground suddenly dropped away and we were suspended in graceful flight. Steering was straightforward on a still day and we swooped in long turns through the cool air, high above the Downs below. I can’t imagine feeling closer to being a bird swooping off the ridge and it was absolutely breathtaking. After a few turns, Tim lined us up with the landing field and suddenly the ground was rushing towards us quickly. As we perched on the edge of the harness, ready to literally hit the ground running, Tim heaved on the brakes and we dropped smoothly into a run before the glider floated down behind us. Wow!

“Want to have a go on your own?” Tim asked. There was only one answer to that and we got on with it quickly before I had too much time to think about it. With a radio strapped to the shoulder strap of my harness, I was soon sprinting off the ridge solo. The glider was up and off the hill I swooped, out over the shadowed valley head.

The flight was surprising smooth, requiring only gentle tweaks to adjust direction and with the reassuring voices of the team crackling over the radio with instructions, I swooped around the valley taking in the bird’s eye view of the Downs before gently landing in the field below.

The team beamed with satisfaction that we were clearly loving it and as we bounced back up the farm track in the trailer for another go, the lore of the club started to flow; instructor Tiger who has a falcon that will fly with him when he glides; international trips to the Alps and Turkey that Fly Sussex runs for members who have completed the ten days’ pilot training course; the club member who recently flew from Devil’s Dyke to Margate in one flight, swooping along the South Downs and searching out thermals.

“Work less. Fly more” is the motto that adorns the wall at Fly Sussex HQ. Sounds like a good philosophy to me.

Fly Sussex offer a range of experiences for complete beginners like myself looking for a one-off thrill or the more ambitious wanting to learn how to become a club pilot: flysussex.com

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