Brighton to Firle

By Saturday 21st, the pubs had closed. It was obvious that a full lockdown was on the way. I still needed to make preparations for isolation, but I also wanted to get out onto the South Downs Way while I could.

I’d maintained social distance since the start of the week, and had checked that the Airbnb hosts were happy with this. I’d originally planned to take the train to Eastbourne and walk back, but with the recommendations to avoid public transport, I decided to walk to and from the Airbnb.

In fact, social distance would be easier to maintain in the countryside than in the city. As I walked through Hove Park towards Three-Cornered Copse, I was amazed at how close people were standing to one another in the queues.

It took a little walking to get to the countryside. Looking back at Brighton, I felt glad to be out of the town. Even the smell of cowshit seemed fresh and alive.

Given all the things I had to think and worry about, I’d not done a lot of planning on the route. I decided to walk towards Ditchling Beacon and follow the South Downs Way to Firle. I could see the office from the top of the Downs, and it felt sad – I promised myself that I would walk there for the first day it re-opened.

I stopped for lunch at Pyecombe Church. The kitchen was closed due to the pandemic, so I sat in one of the pews to eat my lunch. The vicar came in while I was there and we had a good chat.

Part of mis-planning the walk was realising I’d added a good 8 miles or so by walking North to start. The i360 was a gnomon for the long circle I followed. I’d been walking for six hours before I reached Balsdean, with miles left to go.  I paused again in a little stretch of forest that I’d rested in when I did that stage of the South Downs Way with Katharine. So much of the walk felt like a repeat. I had a suspicion that some of the photographs I was taking were ones I’d taken before.

The Lewes section of the South Downs Way is not the most exciting part. Crossing the Ouse means descending into the valley, with the same landscape in front of you for hours. I’d also made a mess of my planning, and felt overladen, old and tired. With every step, I was aware I had to walk back too. The Ridgeway had some boring bits, but it had nothing on this section of the South Downs Way.

By the time I reached the Yellow Brick Road I was a little fed up, the walk something of a trudge, but I knew that it was better than being cooped up indoors.

It was nice to reach Southease, although I was aware that I was racing the dusk at that point. The light was incredible, but I was tired.

Reaching Firle and turning off the trail to find my accomodation was a release. Walking down the hill I was a little surprised to see a Toynbee Tile. What was this doing in Sussex?

I walked the last stage in growing darkness, and was surprised to encounter a peacock in the dim light.

I arrived at the airbnb at 7, after ten hours, aching and exhausted. My right little toe is still blackened from this encounter. What should have been a relaxed stroll had ended up as a 60,000 step slog. But I don’t regret getting out for one last hike.

A journey to Devil’s Dyke

As we drove towards the edge of town, the Uber driver told me that the Coronavirus was man-made. I wasn’t sure what to say to her: it’s not just that she was wrong, but that there’s nothing to do with that information. It sounds like it means something, but doesn’t. It’s a secret that changes nothing about the world, while letting you pretend you’re not one of the rubes.

I took the ride to Foredown Tower to avoid the trudge from my flat to the countryside. It was obvious by this point that something was coming down the line and could no longer be avoided. I wanted to get out and walk while I still could.

The first part of the walk was dreary. The South Downs may be green, but it is an artificial environment, created by years of farming. I’d rather be striding through a landscape that is wilder or more natural.

Still, it was good to get out. Even as I’m falling out of love with the Downs, I still feel a connection to the chalk and the flint. It was early in the morning and I was the only person about.

I crossed a small section of the South Downs Way. There are a couple of places  where the route is baffling, and Devil’s Dyke is one of these. Rather than walk along the edge of the hill, with its views of the weald, the path runs further back. I followed the hill instead, thinking of other trips out here: wild camping with Vicky Mathews, or a trip with the Indelicates as we planned the October Ritual. I could see the North Downs, gloomy in the distance. It’s a good view.

I followed the bottom of the Dyke then crossed the main road to Saddlescombe Farm. I remember when this road seemed massive, the route from Henfield for shopping trips in Brighton.

The Dyke was said to have been built by the devil in an attempt to flood Sussex. But that makes no sense: why we he destroy the source of so much evil?

On the route back to Brighton, I had to cross a field of cows. I don’t trust herds of cattles – one of two times when I’ve feared for my life was due to cows. As I walked past them I sang a special song to let them know I was there and that they shouldn’t be surprised. There was only one line in the song, which was “Don’t be surprised Mr. Cow”.

On Monday, I asked for permission to work from home until the crisis was over. Tuesday was the first day of my retreat.

Retreat, Day 17

  • It was Blaise Pascal who said that all the troubles of humanity came about because of the difficulty men had in simply being happy to sit alone in their rooms.” – Nicholas Lezard
  • Back to the morning walks today. Setting out at dawn, the world is much quieter. Given the strange situation, I seem much more aware of the world. Today, I was shocked by a scent of some flowers (Google lens tells me that they were Berberis Darwinii). The sea was calm and I regretted not going out with swimming gear. Despite the ongoing horror, the world seems so beautiful right now.
  • My retreat deepens as I continue to avoid the news. I do read longform articles about the crisis when they turn up on RSS, appreciating the calmer analysis, away from liveblogs and suggested articles.
  • I’d been thinking about moving away to the country when this is over, but I guess a lot of people are thinking the same, as Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett’s says in her article Coronavirus has tainted city life. I had the option of heading to the countryside for lockdown, but I still think I made the right choice to see this out at home. I’d just rather my home was surrounded by a garden where I could walk freely.
  • CJ Stone wrote a nice piece on choosing retreat over lockdown: “I’m not, however, in lockdown. I’m meditating. I’m on retreat. I’ve become a hermit in my own home… We’re being made to look inwards. And the really interesting thing about this is that, when you look inside yourself, you find everyone else there too.
  • I’ve also appreciated the thoughtful posts and podcast interviews by Gordon White from Rune Soup. I disagree with a lot of what he writes about coronavirus, but it’s good to see other views. His recent post A Better World is No Longer Optional talked about the economic effects, as well as how Amazon is pushing out smaller, localised companies.
  • Talking with my friend Helen, we discussed the need not to touch our noses while outdoors. I have the perfect thing to help this: my clown nose!

Retreat, Days 13-16

  • I feel a little guilty at how comfortable I am at the moment. I have the routine of work, and lots of fun activities to keep me occupied. My parents seem to be safe in isolation, so I’m making the most of the solitude, while being aware of how quickly things could shift.
  • I’ve not watched or read news in the last 24 hours. There is going to be little of comfort there, and it’s not going to change my behaviour, so there’s no point.
  • One thing that shocked some people was the announcement in Monday’s daily briefing that it could be six months before life gets back to normal. This was an unhelpful statement, as it did not provide details. I’d be surprised if we were on full lockdown between now and the end of September – even Wuhan was only under strict measures for about two months. But, if it’s to be six months, then so be it.
  • The weekend was mostly good. It was nice to have a break from work, and the job provides structure during the week – although it does tire me out. I’ve not had the energy spare for volunteering yet, but will try to do something next weekend.
  • Despite not being able to go out, not needing to commute etc, I don’t know of anyone who’s feeling a time dividend right now. Life sometimes feels just as busy as it did before, which is a useful lesson.
  • My sleep is settling down now. I still wake early, but I’m managing to get back to sleep again. Life feels a lot easier with enough sleep.
  • It’s also useful to be paying so much attention to how I work. I’m finding that it’s too easy to be half-hearted and distracted with mutli-tasking. Sitting down and focussing on writing for an hour this morning was joyful and exciting. Given the choice between deep work and multi-screening, the deep work feels much richer.
  • Zoom still doesn’t function as a proper social life, but it was good to catch up with some friends at an Open House. It would be even better to see them in real life.
  • I took an evening walk today, having slept in, and it was almost oppressively busy, with the joggers paying no attention to social distancing. Still, one advantage was bumping into Emily and Sooxanne. In each case we stopped and chatted at a two meter distance. Strange times, but so lovely to see them.

Monthnotes – March 2020

Let’s pretend this month has been normal.

It’s been a stressful month in a lot of ways, but I have it relatively easy. My house is calm, work continues without interruption, and I make sure to be grateful for what I have.

My walking has been a regular 10,000 steps a day since the new routine was put in place. However some manic walking before lockdown pushed my stats up very high for the month. I walked a total of 524,200 steps, which is a daily average of 16,909. My record was 60,084 on a frantic hike the weekend before lockdown. My lowest was 10,115, just 3 more than my target. I keep walking, and long to be able to do a proper walk again.

I finished seven books this month, all but one of them in the first half of the month – my concentration is not good right now. Lavie Tidhar’s By Force Alone was entertaining, although a little longer than it needed to be. I loved the mix of Arthuriad with samples from action movies I re-read Justin Hopper’s excellent The Old Weird Albion, and an early copy of Ben Graham’s North Country Rock. Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West deserves a post of its own – many of the concerns it talks about feel more present in this new world.

Like last month I saw just three movies. The Jay and Silent Bob reboot was OK, Nightbreed a little frustrating. Netflix hit The Platform was very on-the-nose in the current situation.

I’m continuing to write, working on a new project about the South Downs Way. I’ve had my first feedback on this – it needs work, but I think it is going to be good. I should have a first zine of this out this month.

One of the good things about blogs and journals is looking back at old entries and being able to see how one has changed or not. I re-read some Seasonnotes from 2014. I was shocked to see I’d been talking about needing to get out of my rut in Brighton six years ago. I need to pay more attention to these things, and mke sure to produce actual change in my life. Once the current crisis ends, I will work towards leaving Brighton. And, more generally, if I cannot change my habits now, I never will.

Secret Knots

One of the things I’m doing on lockdown is to start consolidating the writing I’ve done over the years. I’m compiling a list of my publications and there’s a lot to add. There are also a few things that I’ve forgotten and neglected.

One of these is Secret Knots. It’s a weird zine I wrote about a business trip I made to LA in 2017. The only place it’s mentioned online is in a message I sent to my mailing list. I sent a few copies out by post and forgot all about it.

Secret Knots is about tourism, business travel and the way my life felt at that point. It’s a strange piece, and doesn’t fit comfortably in any particular genre, but I think it works as a zine and I enjoyed re-reading it.

I was reminded about this when a German academic asked me about any walking zines I’ve done. I’ve re-printed a few copies, so email me if you would like one.

First Steps in Walking Magic

I would love to find a book on magic and walking, but I don’t think anyone has written one yet. There’s ample material for it, and not just in the more occult fringes of psychogeography. Some of the things that might go in such a book:

  • My favourite example is Werner Herzog who kept someone alive by crossing Germany in Winter to visit them. He talks about this in his book Of Walking in Ice, which I wrote about last year.
  • Pilgrimage is obviously important, and a huge topic, deserving a whole set of posts of its own.
  • The second time I met Cat Vincent was at the Spirits of Place event, where he was giving a talk Where the Buddleia Grows: “as an urban magician, I’ve understood that you can’t truly grasp the magic and mythology of a place without walking it”. Cat has spoken recently about the importance of ‘knowing your patch’, which has resonance for me with the idea of beating the bounds.
  • There are links between magic and landscape, connecting to earth magic. There are also links to ways of mapping and telling landscape, such as ley lines and songlines.
  • Travelling particular patterns in cities occurs in psychogeography, with obvious examples being the letters walked in Sinclair’s Lights Out for the Territory or the pattern of the Hawksmoor churches in Alan Moore’s From Hell.
  • During his time in London, the magic-obsessed writer William Burroughs carried out a campaign to drive the Moka Café Bar into closure. He combined patrols of the area near the cafe with the use of sound magic.
  • William Seabrook tells a story about Crowley performing magic with gait (a tale I first encountered in Warren Ellis’s Hellblazer run). Crowley followed a man, synchronising his footsteps with theirs. Seabrook writes: “A.C., in taking a step forward, let both knees buckle suddenly under him, so that he dropped, caught himself on his haunches, and was immediately erect again, strolling. The man in front of us fell as if his legs had been shot out from under him.
  • Walking can be used for cursing, such as writing the name of the victim on the soles of the feet.
  • One of the most powerful aspects of walking magic is The Moving of Stones (with cairns being one obvious aspect of this).

There is a magic to walking, to travelling, and a good walk is a spell.

Retreat, Day 12

  • I slept much better last night, which was a relief. I feel so different.
  • Of course, I still woke up at five, but I treated myself to a slow, slow morning. I didn’t turn the phone on until about 11am and feel much calmer for it.
  • The Small Batch near me is still closed, but I ordered some sachets of their ‘Stay at Home’ roast to get me through the next few weeks.
  • I’m feeling more settled in this strange and fragile new world. I am surprised at how little energy I have to make use of the new free time, but that’s OK.
  • I missed the daily briefing because I was watching The Platform on Netflix Party. The film was a little on-the-nose in the current situation.
  • I had a meeting online with Rosy Carrick, who gave me some feedback on my new writing project. It needs a lot of work, but there is something exciting there.
  • Now I’ve settled into this new world a little, I am going to switch the daily posts to a more occasional rhythm. But I am probably going to post more around the new writing project.

Retreat, Day 11

  • I’m settling into a rhythm now, starting the day with my walk. I visited the Co-op where social distancing was being well-enforced, so the messages seem to be getting through. It was officially a day off, but I dropped into work’s daily stand-up to give my update anyway. It was good to see people. I do miss my colleagues – finishing work was very sudden. I wish I’d thought to take longer over saying goodbye.
  • I’ve been avoiding the news. There’s a lot of it, and much of it is stressful, so I’ve stuck to the daily briefings. I have read some good longform articles which have turned up via my RSS feeds.
  • One I liked was from a reddit post from China about cooking under lockdown. It contains some interesting speculations on food history, as well as a useful hint: “Pickled vegetables seem to scratch the same itch fresh vegetables do.” If I can find the ingredients, I’m thinking of making some kimchi.
  • As it’s been a day off I watched Clive Barker’s 1990 film Nightbreed and caught up with some reading. I’ve also emptied out some long neglected cupboards which are filled with a mix of trash and treasure. Might as well do this while I have time.
  • We had our first family zoom call, which was good. But it’s also alarming how quickly such things have stopped seeming weird.
  • Adjusting to this all-virtual world has been strange. A lot of people seem to be finding their lives as busy as they were before, with lots of programmed activities. I’m finding I need to turn whatsapp off sometimes, to allow me to focus a little.
  • Via linkmachinego: A letter to the UK from Italy: this is what we know about your future. There is a lot in here I recognise. It’s also sobering to be reminded that the curve of infections in the UK is similar to Italy. I just hope that Neil Ferguson from Imperial College London is right when he says that the UK has enough intensive care units for coronavirus
  • Sleep continues to be a problem, and I need to figure out how to avoid waking so early. For the first ten days I’d not felt the lack of sleep, but today I’ve had a flicker of a headache most of the time.
  • No worthwhile planks today, but I’ve been doing more exercise generally.

Retreat, Day 10: A beautiful day

Another morning when I couldn’t sleep, so I went for my walk at dawn when only a few people were about. One passer-by pointed out how beautiful the day was, and they were right. The sea was still and at low tide, and I wished I’d had my swimming things. Of course, this is the calm before the storm, but knowing that makes this time feel all the more strange.

Lack of sleep has left me tired today, and my diet was been more carby than it should have been. I need to be more careful – it’s not as if I can walk it off. And I’d been eating so well up till now.

I have a day off tomorrow, and really need to settle into my routine. I’m also going to spend some time focussed on my creative project and get that rolling. I should also go out and buy some supplies too, but I’m not too eager to do that yet.

Today’s plank was an appalling 73 seconds. It’s been a slow, sleepy day. It’s quite an unexciting update too. I’m getting a little more used to this.