People have been flying across the South Downs for over a century. On the 27 June 1909, 16 year old Gordon England took off in a Weiss glider from Amberley Mount and rose 100ft in the air in the first recorded soaring flight. At that moment the sport of gliding was born.
As young England understood then, and as countless gliders and paragliders know today, the shape and location of the Downs create ideal conditions for catching an updraft high into the sky above the hills. Known as ‘Ridge Soaring’, the technique relies on a northerly wind. Catch the right conditions, and it is possible to glide the full length of the Downs before coming to land.
On a clear weekend in summer, enthusiasts of all ages and levels of experience take to the skies around hills such as Devil’s Dyke and Mount Caburn. They are supported by several clubs and schools around the park, which teach gliding, hang gliding and paragliding. Some also offer tandem flights, for those who’d rather let an expert do the hard work.
Such windswept hills are a mecca for kite fliers too. The highlight of the year is the Brighton Kite Festival – probably the longest running kite festival in the UK. Each year crowds gather to watch team and individual displays, attend children’s workshops, and see who wins the dramatic aerial battles for supremacy of the sky.
If all this seems too energetic, there is a more leisurely alternative. Each summer hot air balloon flights drift slowly over the park, looking down on country estates, iron Age forts and Roman roads below. With a skipper in full control, and the basket keeping you safe inside, you’ve one hand free to hold binoculars, the other for a glass of Sussex sparkling wine to toast the view.