LEONARDO da Vinci said ‘once you have tasted flight you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been and there you will long to return’.

Wise man.

Just under a year ago I made my first tentative forays into the sport of paragliding, starting with a tandem jump off White Horse Hill near Weymouth and progressing to my first solo flight off Bell Hill near Blandford.

Undeterred by some spectacular arm bruises and one undignified interface with an ash tree, I was addicted. For how can you not be, having been granted access to an environment totally removed from the one in which you usually exist?

The sight of paragliders floating around Dorset’s hills is a common one in the summer months. The gliders are free-flying and foot-launched and the pilot sits in a harness suspended by nylon lines below a fabric wing made up of inflatable cells that give lift.

Pilots steer a course using handles attached by the lines to the wing and also by shifting their weight in the harness. Although initial flights can be dogged by the feeling that you will plummet earthwards – you won’t – all fears are soon swept away by the most powerful, all-consuming, laugh-out-loud delight at being able to master, with respect, this alien element.

Apart from your instructor’s voice crackling through the radio attached to the harness, you are up there in peace and solitude, life’s troubles left behind, with just the wind and passing birds for company. It is, frankly, the best fun you can have while remaining clothed.

So when I was offered the chance of travelling to southwest France with Dorset-based flying school Flight Culture, I grabbed it.

Our destination was Dune du Pyla, a surreal sand formation towering 160metres above the Atlantic coast just south of Arcachon. It is a paraglider’s paradise – soft and safe enough for beginners and novices yet with enough challenges and scope for the experts to hone their skills and show what they can do.

When conditions permit, which between May and October is just about every day, you fly in shorts, T-shirts and bare feet between early morning and early evening.

Our instructors were Flight Culture’s founder and chief flying instructor John Welch and his co-instructor Jody Moore. Both men combine an awesome practical and theoretical knowledge of the sport with the calming patience of saints.

My group was a mixed bunch of people ranging from a young computer programmer to a Dorset grain salesman in his 70s. There were three women on board, which was good because paragliding has wrongly been given a testosterone-drenched reputation. We stayed at Pyla Camping, a very civilised site of mobile homes hidden among pine trees at the back of the dune.

Days were spent flying over the dune, learning skills, being hollered at and cajoled into improving our flights and watching the experts pacily skimming the sands inches away from the dune face, or floating hundreds of feet over our heads.

The evenings passed in convivial style over excellent food and vicious games of liar dice. It was rather like being back at university, complete with lessons and a final exam.

As with many activities, you can’t make the most of the practical side of paragliding without a thorough theoretical knowledge. And you don’t need the brains of Einstein to appreciate that if you are flying hundreds or thousands of feet above the ground, a misreading of circumstances or a wrong move could take you into a situation from which you ain’t returning home.

So in between flying, we sat through lectures on meteorology (‘landing in fog can be quite emotional’), principles of flight (the deployment of potentially life-saving techniques) and air law (rule of thumb – if you on the right, you are in the right).

We were drilled in the practicalities of flight and back on the dune had our foibles dissected and dispatched.

Apart from once being towed up the dune on my face by a lively glider, one of my many faults was forgetting to let go of the ‘risers’, the thick nylon straps attaching harnesses to the wing, on take-off. “Just imagine they are smeared with the most revolting, foetid substance known to man,” said Jody, helpfully, before every flight. I did my best, really I did.

And so we improved as the week wore on. Strapping on a harness and checking the glider before takeoff became second nature and our flights became smoother and more confident. The only downside was slogging back up the dune with your harness banging the backs of your legs, the glider held over your shoulder.

I emerged from the week as a Club, or novice, pilot – in theory at least. In practise, I feel about as confident as an 11-year-old on their first day at Big School.

But this summer, weather gods permitting, I will be back out at Bell and White Horse, increasing my hours, earning my wings, avoiding ash trees and looking forward to a return visit to the dune. I agree with Leonardo: the pull of the sky is indeed strong, and it seems rude to ignore it.

Getting there

• Flight Culture are back at the Dune for a three-week visit in September and have further trips planned for Lanzarote, Madeira and Kenya over the winter months.

• For more details visit flightculture.co.uk or visit the school’s Facebook page at facebook.com

• For details about Pyla Camping visit pyla-camping.com