After their three children grew up and left home, Margaret Thompson and her husband, Kenneth, stretched their legs together on walking holidays in Switzerland. In Interlaken, year after year, they would head up the mountain and watch the paragliders launch themselves into the sky. Back in town, in a large park, they watched them return to earth. “Some day I’d love to do that,” Thompson told Kenneth.
But there was always so much to do in Interlaken. Besides, Thompson didn’t know if Kenneth would have enjoyed it. “He was not so keen on heights as I was,” she says. So she continued to watch the gliders take flight and land.
Kenneth died in 2005. Eleven years later, and three decades after those walking holidays, Thompson finally took to the skies herself, in a paraglider with an instructor; her daughter Joanne in another. Thompson was 80.
Her instructor was seated behind her. “You’re on the side of a hill. And you have to run down the hill,” she says. “He’ll say: ‘Three … two … one …’ And then you run. He was that bit taller than me. He was running, but my feet weren’t touching the ground. I was running in midair.”
Recently, Thompson heard from an instructor that grown men, when airborne, sometimes cry and plead to be brought down. But what she remembers is “feeling free. You feel weightless. It’s quite windy. It blows you around. You sail along and look around you, and see all the toy houses down below. You feel like you are up in heaven somewhere there, watching everyone down below.”
Did she think of Kenneth? “You wonder: ‘Are they looking down and you don’t know?’”
Thirty years seems a long time to hold on to a dream. “It was,” she says. Why did it take so long? “I wanted to do it, but I felt somebody should benefit from it.” She did not think of just enjoying the experience? “I don’t think so. There had to be a cause at the end of it all,” she says. With her first paraglide, she raised £1,500 for Moorfields eye hospital in London.
Thompson did her second paraglide when she turned 85, and raised nearly £2,000 for a hospice in Belfast, where she lives, much of it with the aid of social clubs run by the Presbyterian church she regularly attends.
Before she left Interlaken after her second flight, she asked the organisers what age you can paraglide up to. “And they said: ‘Any age, as long as you’re fit.’”
Thompson, now 86, plans her third flight for when she is 90. “If I deteriorated quicker, I’d maybe bring it forward a bit.” When the children were young, she says: “You didn’t want to risk too much. You kept your feet on the ground.”
Thompson grew up in Belfast. Her parents ran a grocers on Cavehill Road; the family lived above the shop. “It was the time of the Troubles.” One night the bar opposite was set alight. “We had a glass door. I went downstairs and the glass was running down like a waterfall after the blast.”
At 18, she helped in the shop while studying for her music diplomas in Stranmillis, south Belfast. She started to teach piano to local children, and at the height of her teaching gave 70 lessons a week. She still has 15 pupils on her books.
“Over the years I’ve had so many that I’m teaching their children now.” One is an organist. “I have him booked for my funeral,” she says. “He said: ‘Give me a bit of warning!’”
Is she scared of getting older? “Fear? No. People say: ‘Isn’t getting old awful?’ I say: ‘No. You are free to do more things that you want to do.’”
Thompson felt no fear paragliding. “I mean, you sort of say to yourself: ‘Well, if anything happens to me now, I’m OK. People might worry about falling, it being the end of them. But that didn’t bother me at all. When it’s your time, it’s your time. No matter where you are.”